Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #13-16)


Previous 1930 posts:
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4): Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, Anybody’s Woman
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-8): Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, Paid
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12): Follow Thru, Fast and Loose, Romance, The Big Trail 
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 

Monte Carlo 4

Monte Carlo (US / Paramount / Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch is accurately credited as a pioneer of what we’ve come to recognize as the movie musical. 1929’s The Love Parade is often credited as the first narrative musical, and his follow-up, Monte Carlo, continues building on the accomplishments of the former. The first Hollywood musicals were an infamously rushed and immediate fad within the larger game-changing development of sound. For each Sunny Side Up or Rio Rita, there were countless embarrassingly slipshod spawns that quickly grew tedious, not to mention laughable, to the average filmgoer. The motto was More More More of the Same, and Quickly Too, which meant song as performance or non-sequitur, film as empty imitator or lazily transparent retread. The Love Parade and Monte Carlo were anomalous and groundbreaking for helping to establish what we take for granted as vital traits of the musical film; weaving narrative and music together, establishing character and story through song, seamless transitions, creative musical interplay, and sound as omnipresent asset.

Monte Carlo is a fabulous film–if only star Jack Buchanan could be erased from it. The necessity of coping with the early 1930’s Dull-As-Fuck Leading Man give-in is something I’ve rambled about a few times during the 1930 watchlist write-ups thus far. So this might look like a cue-my-hypocrisy moment, but I beg to differ. The DAFLM syndrome applies mainly to films about women, films where the boor is the male romantic lead, but not seen as, critically, a co-lead (examples: Romance, The Divorcee, etc). Thus, these snafus are easy to overlook. But Jack Buchanan is playing what would normally be the Maurice Chevalier part, a part that deems much of the story to him. You expect Chevalier’s sly visage, somehow fumbling and smooth, to be the one masquerading as Jeanette MacDonald’s hairdresser. Instead we get Buchanan, whose presence is one of reedy anti-charm. A light touch is needed for this part, and unfortunately his skeevy lingering suggests that he is, in fact, a serial trench coat flasher in his spare time.

I ran cold on Jeanette MacDonald for years. Her soprano, which isn’t exactly aided by the technology of the time, had long been my initial association with her. But over the past couple of years I’ve come around, big time (at least her Pre-Code work; the latter part of the 30’s seems to wash out her more tangible traits). She has such a glow, such a natural sensuality that you don’t expect (I’m also obsessed with her hair). It’s also impossible to ignore that Lubitsch seems intent on making sure the audience sees and knows her body. I’d thought her inaccessible to audiences, and to me. She frequently plays royalty, and her characters lean towards the unapologetically spoiled. I associate her Pre-Code work with being surrounded by servants doing every conceivable thing for her. Her characters live in an unreality even within the unreality of the movies. Yet somehow actresses like MacDonald and Miriam Hopkins get away with playing the kinds of shallow characters they so often did. Their careers took off during a precise moment in film history that relished the bratty princess type, and the Lubitsch touch provides the perfect frivolous environment for a MacDonald heroine to thrive. Selfishness has no weight or recourse here; it just adds to the fun.

Monte Carlo is cheeky right from the get-go. We see a wedding. Everyone sings of happiness and sunshine, but the reality is miserable rain and a missing bride. An early song’s lyrics lampoon its singer without him even realizing. Music is put to gestures. Another song, “Trimmin’ the Women” is so sketchy, but so delightful. I’ve only heard it once but it’s in my head as I type this. The songs are short and spiffy, mirroring the film’s overall snappy pacing. Then there’s the meta-finale where Buchanan and MacDonald watch, in suspense, as an uncannily familiar opera unfolds below them. They await their cues, anxious to learn how their own melodrama will conclude. “It’s a silly story, only possible with music”; art wittily interacting with art. Monte Carlo is packed with what we expect of Lubitsch; sophistication, loaded innuendos, Jeanette MacDonald in lingerie, and the temperament of the most divine cream puff ever baked.

“Beyond the Blue Horizon” number showcases innovation (not to mention that the song itself was a huge hit). There’s an introductory segue; shots of trains, blowing whistles, chug chug chug. The sights and sounds of trains are incorporated into the song’s identity. Then we see Jeanette MacDonald’s Countess Helene on the train; singing, daydreaming, and looking out into her unknown future, when suddenly the song expands its reach. The camera looks out into the fields where dots of village people take part in a unison chorus. In Monte Carlo, music reaches farther than a stage and a room. Music goes beyond performance and its immediate characters. This is a new and boundless filmic world, where anyone can be brought into its musicality.

three good friends 13

Die drei von der Tankstelle (aka The Three from the Filling Station or Three Good Friends (Germany / UFA / Thiele)
Though I liked it considerably less (the three men really grated on me), Die drei von der Tankstelle, even more than Monte Carlo, is the truly innovative musical of 1930 (this puts aside the groundbreaking Under the Roofs of Paris, which I’m not re-watching for this project). This film was huge in Germany. The biggest film of the year. Bigger than The Blue Angel even, Germany’s first talking picture. It was also banned by the Nazis in 1937. The self-assured expertise shown by director William Thiele is startling. Rhythms and songs repeat throughout in cyclical fashion. The first minute features montage editing, a declaration that this will not fall in line with the often static storytelling of its time. Another song links two separate spaces together, a feat that 1932’s sublime Love Me Tonight is often credited with. Lilian Harvey’s character has a signature sound, her car horn, announcing her entrances and exits. And at the end it even breaks the fourth wall, with a “Why are they still here?” (the audience) inquiry prompting a last-minute finale.

I’ll focus on the Bailiff’s song to close out this write-up. The film starts with the introduction of the three happy-go-lucky friends (Willy Fritsch, Heinz Rühmann, Oskar Karlweis) returning home after a trip abroad. Immediately upon their return, the Bailiff (Felix Bressart) arrives with some movers to inform the friends of their bankruptcy and to confiscate their belongings. The song takes place in the midst of this. The Bailiff sings, the friends react, the movers take their stuff away; all through music. As I’ve said in other capsule reviews for 1930, this all sounds simple, but for the state of musicals in 1930, this is insightful and forward-thinking stuff. Its got a rare multi-dimensional quality. During the song, the camera is not presentational, but at an angle that focuses inward, not outward. The song is not shot like a performance; it doesn’t feel projected out into the audience, existing for our benefit. How can I explain it? During the song, everybody and everything is interacting with someone or something else onscreen. There’s even miniature flying furniture!

ooooStreet of Chance and For the Defense (US / Paramount / Cromwell)
William Powell and Kay Francis appeared onscreen together six times (I’m not counting Paramount on Parade, since they don’t appear in it together) from 1930-1932. Films #3 & 4, Street of Chance and For the Defense, establish their first complete iteration as co-stars. What I mean is that these are two William Powell films with Kay Francis in important supporting parts (she plays a long-suffering wife and a long-hopeful girlfriend). Their last two films together, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage, reflect Francis’s 1932 stardom by putting Powell and Francis on equal footing. 1930 was a huge year for Kay Francis. Starting in film just the year before, she was all over screens in 1930, appearing in ten films total. Within these films she moved from second fiddle vamp to flexible female lead. New Movie Magazine’s “1930 Screen Review” singled out Francis as one of the two “Most Promising Feminine Personalities”.

I’m reviewing these together because they are two of a kind, 65-minute films directed by John Cromwell. Both take a while to get going. First, the films environment is too-thoroughly established. Then we’re introduced to Powell’s seemingly all-powerful place within said environment. In Street of Chance he’s a gambler on top. Everyone respects him, trusts him; what he says goes. Without question. His Achilles heel? He desperately wants to keep his brother (Regis Toomey) from falling into the gambling racket. In For the Defense he’s a defense lawyer on top. Not respected by his peers, he uses outlandish means to win cases in the courtroom. His Achilles heel? Kay Francis. In both films, he does something bad to do something good. He makes a sacrifice that leads to his downfall. One ends in death, the other in jail.

These films helped confirm William Powell’s newfound fame in the era of talkies. His delicious quick-rhythmed baritone is exactly the kind of voice that succeeded during sound’s key early days. While many actors fell from grace during 1929-1932, William Powell’s career reached maturation. His voice exudes confidence and ultra-competence. His roles moved from dastardly villainy to men who are a step ahead. Men whose occupations require keen smarts and persuasion. Men who, whether detective, attorney, or gambler, are unmistakably great at what they do. It’s a voice that pulls off the tough combination of seedy altruism needed for both these films.

Of the two I prefer Street of Chance. For one thing it features a young Jean Arthur. It also pulls no punches by the end. The stacking of cards against Powell is delicate and filled with a far more palpable and investing doom. And there’s an unseen level of implied violence that looks ahead to the ending of a much more famous film that would be released just a year later; The Public Enemy.

 

Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results


Previous Top Ten By Year Polls: 1925, 1958, 1978, 1992

Poll Rule Reminders: Participants could vote for up to 10 films; no more, but certainly less. Order was not required since it had no bearing on the results.)

I’m doing the Poll a bit earlier than I normally do. This is because I’m trying to spread out the Top Ten By Year posts a bit – and the only ones I can do that with without having seen all the films on my watchlist are Poster Highlights and the Poll. Plus, seeing everyone’s votes is also an opportunity for me to make any final additions to my watchlist (I made two based on people’s votes; Outward Bound and Raffles).

First off, thank you so much to everyone who voted! 1930 is such an absorbing year in cinema, and such an overlooked one to boot, so I wasn’t sure how many people would participate. Many of you gave a full top ten, and many others were kind enough to contribute a handful of passionate picks. All in all, 69 people voted for 79 different films!

Taking into account the Internet oversaturation of lists/listicles, I hope it’s clear that this project is anything but tossed off. The Top Ten By Year Project is an effort to reclaim what I love about lists in the first place. Seeing what makes the collective top ten is a lot of fun, but may I direct your attention to the full breakdown of votes and the individual ballots? My hope with these polls is that, in addition to planting seeds of anticipation for the related posts to come (What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter, Favorite Shots, and the Top Ten. Poster Highlights for 1930 can be found here), they mainly serve as a resource for anyone looking for new films to watch whether it’s from seeing:

a. what ‘Film Twitter’ collectively loves
b. more importantly, the films towards the bottom of the list, the ones you’ve never heard of that are begging for (re)discovery.
c. the individual ballots from people whose taste and knowledge you value (“I don’t know what this is, but if Labuza likes it, surely it’s worth a look!”)

So exciting to have first-time voters I’ve long admired such as Farran Nehme, The Nitrate Diva, and author Megan Abbott. Even filmmaker Anna Biller voted! Was also honored to have Miriam Bale, Richard Brody, and so many others whose contributions and tastes are so valued. Actually, all of you who voted!

Surprises? Disappointments? General thoughts? Leave your thoughts on the poll in the comments section!

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POLL RESULTS – Top Ten By Year: 1930
1.
L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age) (France / Buñuel) – 37 votes
2.
Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (Germany / UFA / von Sternberg) – 36 votes
3.
All Quiet on the Western Front (US / Universal / Milestone) – 31 votes
4. Morocco
(US / Paramount / von Sternberg) – 27 votes
5
. Animal Crackers (US / Paramount / Heerman) – 25 votes
6. City Girl
(US / Fox / Murnau) – 24 votes
7. Zemlya (Earth) (Soviet Union / VUFKU / Dovzhenko) – 21 votes
8. Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Germany / Filmstudio Berlin / Siodmak, Siodmak, Ulmer, Zinneman & Gleise) – 18 votes
(8.) Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) (France / Films Sonores Tobis / Clair) – 18 votes
10. Monte Carlo
(US / Paramount / Lubitsch) 13 votes

The Rest:
12 votes:
Le Sang d’un Poète (Blood of a Poet), The Dawn Patrol
11 votes: The Divorcee, The Big Trail
9 votes: Murder!, À propos de Nice (short)
8 votes: Borderline
7 votes: Madam Satan, Anna Christie (Brown version)
6 votes: Abraham Lincoln, Hell’s Angels, Sono yo no tsuma (That Night’s Wife)
5 votes: Prix de Beauté (Miss Europe), Ladies of Leisure, Our Blushing Brides, Laughter, The Big House 
4 votes: Westfront 1918, The Doorway to Hell
3 votes: Min & Bill, Liliom, Swing You Sinners! (short), Die drei von der Tankstelle (The Three from the Filling Station), Salt for Svanetia, The Bat Whispers, Outward Bound, The Unholy Three, Follow Thru
2 votes: Anna Christie (Feyder version), The Gorilla Mystery (short), Journey’s End, Paid, La Petite Lise (Little Lise), Fujiwara Yoshie no furusato (Home Town), The Golf Specialist (short), Let’s Go Native
1 vote: Das Lied ist aus (The Song is Over), Up the River, Whoopee!, Aimless Walk (short), The Sea of Ravens (short), Ein Lichtspiel schwarz weiss grau (Lightplay: Black/White/Gray) (short), Romance sentimentale (Sentimental Romance) (short), War Nurse, Studie Nr. 6 (short)
Barnacle Bill (short), The Royal Family of Broadway , Rakudai wa shitakeredo (I Flunked, But…), The Fire Fighters (short), Billy the Kid, Free and Easy , Au Bonheur des dames, Not So Dumb, Sins of the Children, The Flirting Widow, Hogaraka ni ayume (Walk Cheerfully), Another Fine Mess (short), The Devil’s Cabaret (short), Hell’s Heroes, Montana Moon, Fast and Loose, The Office Wife, Raffles, Her Man , Loose Ankles , King of Jazz, Sunny Skies , Let Us Be Gay , The Devil to Pay!

THE BALLOTS:

@fantasmascope (Emily of Femina Ridens):
Madam Satan, City Girl, Prix de Beauté, Borderline, People on Sunday, Das Lied ist aus, Girl with a Hatbox (I keep seeing this last one as 1927 so I won’t be counting it)

@alexkittle (Alex Kittle of alexkittle.com and 366 Weird Movies):
Min & Bill, Madame Satan, Anna Christie, The Blue Angel, The Divorcee

@tnyfrontrow (Richard Brody of The New Yorker):
The Dawn Patrol, People on Sunday, City Girl, Abraham Lincoln, The Big Trail, The Blue Angel, Whoopee, Morocco, Under the Roofs of Paris

@EricNBarroso:
L’Age d’Or, The Blue Angel, Blood of a Poet

@PaulBoyne: (Paul Boyne of Infinite Crescendo):
1. The Blood of a Poet 2. Animal Crackers 3. All Quiet on the Western Front 4. L’Age d’Or 5. City Girl

@MrDude_o_o:
Der Blaue Angel, People On Sunday, Zemlya (Earth)

@ateliertovar:
Prix de Beauté, Madam Satan, City Girl, Liliom, Ladies of Leisure, L’Age d’Or

@Cinedaze (Paul Anthony Johnson of Film-Philosophy, Popmatters):
The Blue Angel, Morocco, Animal Crackers, Swing You Sinners, L’age D’or, All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell’s Angels, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, Earth

@fishingwithnate (Nate Fisher):
Morocco

@redroomrantings (Justine A. Smith of Vague Visages, Vice Canada, and Globe Arts):
1. City Girl 2. Morocco 3. Swing You Sinners! 4. All Quiet on the Western Front 5.Animal Crackers 6. The Divorcee 7. Anna Christie 8. The Blue Angel 9. Monte Carlo 10. Madam Satan

@railoftomorrow (Scott Nye, writer and podcast co-host at CriterionCast, etc.):
Blue Angel, Morocco, Blood of a Poet, Three From the Filling Station, City Girl, People on Sunday, Hell’s Angels, L’Age d’Or, All Quiet on the Western Front

@dsl89 (Daniel S Levine of Movie Mania Madness):
Animal Crackers, City Girl, The Dawn Patrol, Anna Christie (German!), Westfront 1918, The Big Trail, All Quiet on the Western Front

@TheEndofCinema (Sean Gilman of The End of Cinema; The George Sanders Show, and They Shot Pictures podcasts):
1. Morocco 2. The Dawn Patrol 3. People on Sunday 4. City Girl 5. Under the Roofs of Paris 6. The Blue Angel 7. Earth 8. All Quiet on the Western Front 9. The Big Trail 10. Animal Crackers

@48ONIRAM (Brian!):
L’Age D’or, Animal Crackers, The Blue Angel

@bmrow (Brent Morrow):
1. City Girl 2. Morocco 3. The Big Trail 4. Laughter 5. Murder! 6. L’âge d’or 7. Monte Carlo 8. The Dawn Patrol 9. Under the Roofs of Paris 10. Earth

@eyeshakingking (Keefe Murphy):
1. Earth 2. People on Sunday 3. L’Age d’Or 4. Borderline 5. Salt for Svanetia 6. Aimless Walk 7. À propos de Nice 8. City Girl 9. The Sea of Ravens 10. A Light Play Black White Gray

@Huntress62:
Min & Bill, Hell’s Angels

@glazomaniac (Sally Jane Black):
Romance sentimentale

@womensrites:
People on Sunday, The Divorcee, L’Age d’Or

@willow_catelyn (of Curtsies and Hand Grenades):
Blood of a Poet, Monte Carlo, L’Age d’Or

@cinebeats (Kimberly Lindbergs of TCM and Cinebeats):
All Quiet on the Western Front, Anna Christie, The Bat Whispers, The Blue Angel, The Gorilla Mystery, L’Age d’Or, Madam Satan, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound, The Unholy Three

@marshlands:
All Quiet, L’Age d’Or, Borderline, Dawn Patrol, Earth, Morocco, Blue Angel, Westfront 1918, Blood of a Poet, Murder!

@jasondashbailey (Jason Bailey of Flavorwire):
Animal Crackers ten times (note: I did not count Animal Crackers ten times)

@jodamico1:
Dawn Patrol, All Quiet on the Western Front, People on Sunday, City Girl, Blood of a Poet, Borderline, Earth, Journey’s End, Mickey Mouse’s Gorilla Mystery, aaaaannnd probaaaably Westfront 1918

@HellOnFriscoBay (Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay):
Morocco, That Night’s Wife, City Girl, Big Trail, Blue Angel, Salt For Svanetia, Swing You Sinners, Studie n. 6, Earth, Liliom

@astoehr (Alice Stoehr of Pussy Goes Grrr, Movie Mezzanine, etc.):
L’Age d’Or, Barnacle Bill, Borderline, The Divorcee, Morocco

@FCardamenis (Forrest Cardamenis of Spectrum Culture, The Film Stage & Movie Mezzanine):
The Blue Angel, Morocco, That Night’s Wife, All Quiet on the Western Front, L’Age d’Or, Earth, and Salt for Svanetia

@jchristley (Jamie N. Christley):
1. L’Age d’Or 2. City Girl 3. Under the Roofs of Paris 4. The Royal Family of Broadway 5. I Flunked, But… 6. Morocco 7. Abraham Lincoln 8. Liliom 9. The Fire Fighters 10. That Night’s Wife

@afterglow2046:
City Girl, Blood of a Poet, Age d’Or, Murder! Under the roofs of Paris, Billy the Kid, Morocco, Earth, Divorcée, Miss Europe (Prix de beaute)

@derek_g (Derek Godin):
Animal Crackers, L’Age d’Or

@rgodfrey (Ryan Godfrey):
The Blue Angel, Animal Crackers, Under the Roofs of Paris, All Quiet on the Western Front, L’Age d’Or, Free and Easy

@SchmanthonyP (Brian Schmid):
All Quiet on the Western Front, People on Sunday, Earth, L’Age d’Or, City Girl, Under the Roofs of Paris, The Blue Angel

@dvanhouw (Dave Van Houwelingen):
All Quiet on the Western Front, The Blue Angel, L’Age d’Or, Animal Crackers, Blood of a Poet, Under the Roofs of Paris

@oldfilmsflicker (Marya E. Gates of #AYearwithWomen, #Noirvember, Cinema Fanatic, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.):
À propos de Nice, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big House, Der blaue Engel, The Divorcee, The Doorway to Hell, Hell’s Angels, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides, Paid

@CineFile:
Animal Crackers, All Quiet on the Western Front

@DavidBlakslee (David Blakslee of Criterion Reflections, Criterion Cast) :
L’Age d’Or, All Quiet on the Western Front, Blood of a Poet, The Blue Angel, Borderline, Monte Carlo, Under the Roofs of Paris, People on Sunday

@labuzamovies (Peter Labuza, Author of Approaching the End, host of The Cinephiliacs. Critic for Variety, The AV Club, Little White Lies, etc):
La Petite Lise, The Dawn Patrol, Version, Walk Cheerfully, Home Town, A propos de nice, The Golf Specialist, Abraham Lincoln, Another Fine Case, Dizzy Dishes, The Devil’s Cabaret

@juvie_cinephile:
L’Age d’Or, The Big Trail, The Blue Angel, Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front, Monte Carlo, Under the Roofs of Paris

@bybowes (Danny Bowes of Salt Lake City Weekly, RogerEbert.com and Indiewire):
All Quiet of the Western Front, Anna Christie, The Blue Angel, City Girl, The Divorcee, Earth, Hell’s Heroes, L’Age d’Or, Let’s Go Native, Madam Satan, Prix de beaute

@leggoet (Marvel Presents Salo):
1. L’Age d’Or 2. The Blue Angel 3. People on Sunday 4. A propos de nice 5. City Girl 6. Animal Crackers 7. The Big Trail 8. Under the Roofs of Paris 9. All Quiet on the Western Front 10. Borderline

@sarahnwondrland (my Aunt!):
1. The Divorcee 2. The Blue Angel 3. Animal Crackers 4. Morocco 5. Anna Christie

@mimbale (Miriam Bale, programmer and contributor to various publications including Film Comment and the New York Times):
Let’s Go Native, Outward Bound, The Dawn Patrol, The Blue Angel, Montana Moon, People on Sunday, Our Blushing Brides, Paid, Fast & Loose, Morocco

@missannabiller (Anna Biller, filmmaker; The Love Witch, Viva):
The Blue Angel, Murder!, Madam Satan, Under the Roofs of Paris, Monte Carlo, Follow Thru, The Unholy Three, Raffles, Our Blushing Brides, Morocco

Janiejoness (tumblr):
L’Age d’Or, Blood of a Poet, Under the Roofs of Paris, Murder!

@FernandoFCroce (Fernando F. Croce of CinePassion):
Earth, L’Age d’Or, Abraham Lincoln, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Dawn Patrol, Murder, City Girl, Big Trail, Up the River

@faithx5 (Jandy of The Frame):
1. All Quiet on the Western Front, 2. The Big Trail, 3. Animal Crackers, 4. People on Sunday, 5. The Blue Angel, 6. The Office Wife

@tenkmovies (of TenKMovies):
1) Blood of a Poet 2) All Quiet on the Western Front 3) Animal Crackers 4) Morocco 5) The Big House 6) The Divorcee 7) Anna Christie 8) Laughter 9) L’age d’Or 10) Abraham Lincoln

@meganeabbott (Megan Abbott, only my favorite current author! Author of Dare Me, The Fever, etc.):
The Blue Angel

@selfstyledsiren (Farran Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren of Film Comment, NY Post, author of Missing Reels):
All Quiet on the Western Front, Her Man, La Petite Lise, City Girl, Min and Bill, The Big House, Morocco, Animal Crackers, Dawn Patrol, The Doorway to Hell

@inessentials
Ladies of Leisure, Monte Carlo, Animal Crackers, The Blue Angel, Sunny Skies

@r_emmet (R. Emmet Sweeney of Movie Morlocks):
Abraham Lincoln, L’Age d’Or, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Trail, The Dawn Patrol, Follow Thru, Home Town, Morocco, People on Sunday, The Three from the Filling Station

@HouseOfSparrows (David Robson of House of Sparrows):
The Bat Whispers, A Propos de Nice, Animal Crackers, L’Age d’Or, That Night’s Wife, The Dawn Patrol

@opalfilms:
Blood of a Poet, Blue Angel, All Quiet on the Western Front, L’Age d’Or, Earth, Animal Crackers, Golf Specialist

@UUUUAHHH:
L’Age d’Or, The Blue Angel, Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front, City Girl, Borderline (need to see more)

@bunnifluezl:
People on Sunday, The Big Trail, A propos de Nice

@BBandmoviegal:
MURDER! (Because Herbert Marshall & Hitchcock), CITY GIRL, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, HELLS ANGELS, ANIMAL CRACKERS

@NitrateDiva (The Nitrate Diva):
The Devil to Pay!, The Doorway to Hell, Follow Thru, Journey’s End, Ladies of Leisure, Laughter, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound

@Onceatenor:
The Blue Angel, Animal Crackers, King of Jazz, All Quiet on the Western Front

@PreCodeDotCom (Pre-Code.com):
All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, The Big House, The Divorcee, L’Age d’Or, Let Us Be Gay, Loose Ankles, Monte Carlo, The Unholy Three, War Nurse

@SeithTristan (Tristan Seith):
The Three from the Filling Station, The Blue Angel, People on Sunday, Earth, Westfront 1918, Under the Roofs of Paris, The Big House, L’Age d’Or, Murder!, Doorway to Hell

Amanda (BFF):
Morocco, Anna Christie

Adam K. (friend):
Earth, All Quiet on the Western Front

WordPress and/or Facebook replies:


Duane Porter:
The Blue Angel, Morocco, Monte Carlo, Prix de beauté, L’Âge d’Or, People on Sunday, Under the Roofs of Paris, Laughter, Earth, Au bonheur des dames

Randommyriad:

Animal Crackers, L’Age d’Or

FleurRinna Guta:
1.All Quiet on the Western Front 2. The Blue Angel 3.City Girl 4.Under the Roofs of Paris 5. People on Sunday 6.Anna Christie (German) 7.Monte Carlo 8.That Night’s Wife 9.The Divorcee 10.Not So Dumb

Jerry Bryant Jr.:
Laughter, The Blue Angel, Morocco, City Girl, All Quiet on the Western Front, Ladies of Leisure, À propos de Nice, The Bat Whispers, Sins of the Children, The Flirting Widow

EV:
L’âge d’or, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, Der blaue Engel
Hell’s Angels, Morocco, À propos de Nice, Sous les toits de Paris, Zemlya (Earth)

Steve Elworth:
1. The Blue Angel, 2. That Night’s Wife, 3. Morocco 4. Earth 5. Murder! 6. Under the Roofs of Paris 7. City Girl 8. l’Age D’Or 9. A propos De Nice 10. Monte Carlo 

Steve Ruskin:
Animal Crackers

 

 

 

Vote in the Top Ten By Year: 1930 Poll!


morocco_3_dietrich

It’s that time again! I’m in the second half of my research for Top Ten By Year: 1930 so I thought it would be a good time to do this. I’ve conducted polls with all of you fellow film lovers for some previous years of the Top Ten By Year Project; 1925, 1992, 1958, and 1978. It has been such a success, and is now an integral part of the project’s traditions.

So tell me (leave your ballots in the comments); what are your top films of 1930?

Order doesn’t factor in for results, but you are more than welcome submit them that way. If you’ve only seen a handful of films from 1930, don’t just list off what you’ve seen. I only want ballots with films you consider favorites. If that means it’s only 1 or 2, that’s perfectly fine!

I repeat: I don’t want 10 for the sake of 10 or even 5 for the sake of 5. Only the ones you love.

You have a week to vote. Results will go up next week. The post will contain, as always, a breakdown of all votes by numbers and individuals. The top ten is always the least interesting part of the poll. Seeing what’s below, discovering films that have there of four votes, seeing what everyone voted for as an individual, that is where the worth of the poll comes in. The poll breakdowns are excellent resources for learning about new-to-you films.

Movie Poster Highlights: 1930


Previous Movie Poster Highlights posts: 1925, 1978

It’s that time again! I’m not sure there’s any Top Ten By Year related post I look forward to more than Movie Poster Highlights. It gives me a chance to really cull through works of all kinds, to try my best to track down artists, and to share my findings.

First, I’m going to put the spotlight on a couple of artists who have works represented. ERIC ROHMAN turned up in my 1925 post with a few posters. I really love his use of frames within frames, and the juxtaposition of harsh lines with soft sketches.

From PosterGuide: “Eric Rohman was a Swedish illustrator and film actor. He began designing posters around 1915-16, while based in Copenhagen. Around 1920, he had his own studio with several employees. By the 1940s, he believed that he had produced approximately 7000 movie posters.”

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Swedish poster for A Lady to Love. Artist: Eric Rohman. I am a sucker for pops of color.
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Swedish poster for Undertow. Artist: Erik Rohman. Love the drama of the waves and the actors profiles.
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Swedish poster for Let Us Be Gay. Artist: Eric Rohman. It’s really funny that this poster contrasts partying with Shearer’s kids because the film doesn’t care about those kids one lick.
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Swedish poster for Czar of Broadway. Artist: Eric Rohman.
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Swedish poster for Va Banque. Artist: Eric Rohman. This one is difference than the rest in font and design. It’s also for a German film whereas his others here are for US films. I’m so drawn to the color scheme and blocking as well as the off placement of arms and hands.

DOLLY RUDEMAN:
The only female Dutch poster designer of the 1920’s, Rudeman’s work through the 20’s the 30’s is incredible. Her posters utilize reds, oranges, and yellows, and are full of sweeping shadows. Here is her poster for Morocco.

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Dutch poster for Morocco. Artist: Dolly Rudeman

SWEDISH POSTERS:
Sweden has by far the highest number of posters here. So here are a bunch. I did the best I could with tracking down artist info. It’s largely impossible. The only info I could find was ‘J. Olsens’ at the bottom of some, which I was hoping was an artist stamp, but seems to be a printing company.

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Swedish poster for Trollbruden (The Troll Bride), a film I can’t find any evidence evidence of existing. Artist unknown. Printed by: J. Olsens. I love this so much. It looks so much more like an illustration you’d find in a children’s book, and there isn’t another poster I saw like this one in all of my research,
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Swedish poster for The Divorcee. Artist unknown. Printed by J. Olsens. Very similar color scheme as Va Banque.
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Swedish poster for The Cat Creeps. Artist unknown. Printed by J. Olsens. Clock. Haunted house. Lady’s frightened face. Bats. Great combination.
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Swedish poster for Du Barry, Woman of Passion. Artist unknown. If you can’t tell, if you put an illustration of a pretty lady on your poster, I will love your poster.
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Swedish poster for Midnight Mystery. Artist: Unknown. The illustration here is so atypical and I’m fascinated by it.

Yellow is a very popular color, especially in some of these Swedish posters:

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Swedish poster for The Girl of the Golden West. Artist unknown. (Cannot find any indication as to what ‘Palm’ might mean)
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Swedish poster for Hit the Deck. Artist: Russell Patterson. Love the repetition of the svelte figures.
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Swedish poster for Man Trouble. Artist: Unknown
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Swedish poster for The Girl Said No. Artist: John Held Jr. Love the detail of the dirty rolled-down stockings.
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Swedish poster for Ladies of Leisure. Artist: Unknown
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Swedish poster for Die drei von der Tankstelle. Attributed to Otto G. Carlsund. This is a special one. So flat and square and perfect.

Here’s are a pair of profiles from Gosta Aberg:

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Swedish poster for Feet First. Artist: Gosta Aberg.
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Swedish poster for Playboy of Paris. Artist: Gosta Aberg.


It’s only fitting that the greatest movie ever has the greatest posters. Ladies and gents, Madam Satan!

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Multiple posters from one film: Here’s The Blue Angel. 

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US poster for The Blue Angel. Artist unknown. Iconic.
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German poster for Der blaue Engel. Artist: Dorothea Fischer-Nosbich. Such a striking anomaly. Every inch of space is used, the forms squeezed in in unexpected ways.
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German poster for Der blaue Engel. Artist: Paul Rosié. I came across this after I had gathered all of my posters. It’s so strange to see an ad for this film without Dietrich. But weirdly enough, it’s my favorite poster for the film. The presentation is so deceptively charming; it knowingly hides the very dark content of the film, giving this a sinister edge.

Here are two posters by Roger Vacher for Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room).

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French poster for Le mystère de la chambre jaune. Artist: Roger Vacher
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French poster for Le mystère de la chambre jaune. Artist: Roger Vacher

 

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French poster for The Flame of Love. Artist unknown
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Swedish poster for The Flame of Love. Artist unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These next two posters remind me of each other. Maybe it’s the colors or the stare of the faces. The poster on the left, for Captain of the Guard, is INSANE.

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US poster for Captain of the Guard. Made by the Morgan Litho Company
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US poster for The Green Goddess. Artist unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pair of William Powell posters.

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US poster for Street of Chance. Artist unknown. Obsessed with this use of red. This artist understands not to take away from Powell’s eyes.
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US poster for The Benson Murder Case. Artist unknown. So in love with the placement of every element here. Perfect balance, and again, understanding that William Powell’s eyes are guaranteed to sell any film.

And here are the rest. Hope you enjoy!

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Italian poster for City Girl. Artist unknown
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French poster for Tonka of the Gallows. Artist unknown. Enticed by the mirroring effect.
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US poster for Murder! Artist unknown. One of my favorite posters for any Hitchcock film.
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US poster for The Big House. Artist unknown. Another anomaly. Bars and faint sketches make for a dynamic poster.
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French poster for La petite Lise. Artist unknown. Satan and Pearls. That’s all you need.
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Dutch poster for Brand in der Oper. Artist unknown. That man does not have a good grip on that woman.
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Spanish poster for Viennese Nights. Artist unknown
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French poster for animated film Le roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). Artist unknown
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US poster for Seven Days’ Leave. Artist unknown. Gary Cooper’s beautiful face surrounded by pillars. Sold.
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US poster for Fast and Loose. Artist unknown. Love how bubbly and pink this is, and the sloppy and chic depiction of Miriam. 
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US poster for Show Girl in Hollywood. Made by the Continental Litho Company
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US poster for King of Jazz. Artist unknown

If I had to pick a favorite from 1930 it would be Joseph Koutachy’s French poster for Madam Satan. It helps that the film has special significance for me, but this stands out regardless. It’s like an ad for Catwoman decades before the fact. There isn’t another poster from 1930 like it:

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French poster for Madam Satan. Artist: Joseph Koutachy

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman.
In my second capsule review post for 1930, I covered Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, and Paid.

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Follow Thru (US, Schwab) 
I just finished reading Richard Barrios’s A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, and am steadily working through the musical subseries of my 1930 watchlist. The majority of the book details the initial explosive–>burnout wave of the movie musical, from 1928-1930. The ubiquitous popularity of musicals in 1928-1929 quickly gave way to oversaturation. By 1930, audiences and critics were outright disdainful of any musicals coming their way, their success and subsequent failure so instantaneous it left all studios in the lurch. Countless productions, both meager and grand, were destined to collect dust, be reworked, or suffer forgettable fates. There are a myriad of reasons for the early sound musical-as-poison revolt, both obvious and delicate. The clash of the national mood, severe oversaturation, lack of rural appeal, block-booking fatigue, copycat tactics of backstage tropes (the same movie was being made ad infinitum), quantity over quality, etc.

This drop-off also left swaths of performers (not to mention songwriters), whose careers were being built and cultivated within the once surefire cushion of the musical, hopelessly adrift (I’ll list some of those folks in my What I’ll Remember post). Often hailing from vaudeville and theater, their Hollywood fame came and fell in the spurt of a year or so. Baritone Lawrence Tibbett is a major example from 1930. Marilyn Miller is another. Follow Thru’s stars, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Nancy Carroll, don’t quite fall into that category. These were major stars of their time (Carroll was arguably the most-loved star of the early 1930’s); stars who weren’t defined by appearing in musicals (Rogers’s most famous role was in 1927’s Wings), but both were invariably hurt by the sudden expiration date of film musical’s first wave.

All of this preamble is to say that Paramount released Follow Thru, like so many others, at the wrong time (in September 1930). It fared better than some others of its kind; reviews were fine, box office was fine; fine, fine, fine. It certainly had the well-established pull of its stars going for it. There was no revival of interest over the decades, and it was long believed to be a lost film. But a print was found in the 1990’s and restored by UCLA.

I’m going to try to explain the particulars of my immense like for Follow Thru. There’s that overused phrase ‘pure cinema’, and Follow Thru made me think of an entirely different and less dramatically applied use of the term. Follow Thru presents a bygone gateway into the early musicals potentiality for simple delights. There’s no sobriety here, but there’s also no extravagance. In Two-strip Technicolor, this is bright, effervescent, aggressively young stuff. Tons of films epitomize Hollywood’s specialization in escapism, but there’s something a little different about Follow Thru. It hits a hard-to-describe sweet spot. It’s the particular success of its commonplace nature. Here is a musical about girl golfers, a film of modest scale with gentle charms, filled with lots of striped sweaters and dimples. Its core strength is that it operates under the guise of crushing sweetness, while underneath its got all the naughtiness of a sex comedy.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers has All-American boyishness to spare. Nancy Carroll has a Kewpie doll face, all rosy cheeks and headbands. These aren’t great actors, but they are exactly what this film needs, and it’s easy to see why they were so major in their time.

Zelma O’Neal and Jack Haley are the sidekicks, reprising their roles from the Broadway show. O’Neal belongs to the aforementioned group of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hollywood stints. She had a very successful Broadway career before and after her time in Hollywood. She’s such fun. Zippy with a no-bullshit hunch. And she gets the only major production number of the film, “I Want to Be Bad”. Jack Haley on the other hand, is death itself. When’s the last time I’ve hated someone onscreen this much? His defining character trait is that his eyebrows go nuts when he’s around girls. So basically, he gets a boner on his face. It’s Woody Woodpecker’s laugh as a facial tick. And it’s horrifying. He is horrifying.

The out-of-place nature of the wonderful “I Want to Be Bad” number aside, the songs are integrated quite smoothly throughout. They don’t advance plot or character, but most musicals didn’t at this time, and they’re more directly woven into the story than you’re likely to see in 1930. It’s all kept very simple, starting with a two shot and widening out at the end for some broad movements or dance step.

It’s the Little Things:
That naughtiness! Characters talk of going “where the bushes are thickest”. Carroll says to Rogers “Talk rough to me Jerry. I love it”. There is a whole sequence with Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneaking into the girls locker room to steal back a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are all in various stages of undress. It reaches a perfect note of anarchy so inspired I had to pause so I could work through my laughter.
– So, Thelma Todd’s rival character who happens to be a widow. How did her husband die? I want her backstory!
– This is the second film from 1930 that has featured a Vibrating Belt Machine. The first was Ladies of Leisure.

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Fast and Loose
(US, Newmeyer)

Fast and Loose is an early practice run for what would soon become the screwball comedy (thank you Miriam Bale for bringing this film to my attention!) (also note that Preston Sturges is given credit for dialogue). Its got spoiled characters, flirtatious spats and clashing courtship, a ruse, and class consciousness. In fact, it’s got a class-as-obstacle reversal. By the end it’s the working class romantic partners (Charles Starrett and Carole Lombard respectively) of the wealthy Lenox siblings Marion and Bertie (Miriam Hopkins and Henry Wadsworth) that can’t imagine lowering themselves to a lifetime with their spoiled mates. They are the ones with the objection, and furthermore, Rich Father Lenox (Frank Morgan) completely agrees that his children don’t deserve spouses this decent! This situation only comes up in the final ten minutes, but it’s a fun spin on the normal ‘my family doesn’t approve’ conflict (a la Ladies of Leisure).

Though we get the luxury of seeing Marion’s love interest in a bathing suit on multiple occasions (so much thigh), 75% of Henry Morgan’s (Starrett) dialogue is about how women are the absolute worst. Marion says she hates him, many times, many ways, but of course she’s falling hard for his misogynistic charms. Miriam Hopkins, and the film’s moderate pizzazz, makes this courtship undeniably fun. Fast and Loose is, among other things, the feature film debut of Miriam Hopkins. She already has an impressive handle on her particular screen persona. The best I can do to describe it is a clipped flightiness combined with a spoiled and fiery capricious nature. She sells her reluctant but overboard infatuation with Henry with a handful of amazing line deliveries. “I’m sorry”. Two simple words, but the distinct hilarity she wrings out of them represents the epitome of Vintage Hopkins.

Carole Lombard shows up in an early role but she’s suffocated by the propriety of the part. The first half, in which Marion and Henry flirt over stuck cars and nighttime swims, is considerably more enjoyable than the second half. All major players eventually merge at a nightclub under a potentially anarchic set of circumstances, but Fast and Loose doesn’t have the panache, or really the ambition, to make much of it.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paramount made Fast and Loose. Paramount also made Follow Thru. YOu can hear the latter film’s “We’d Make a Peach of a Pear” in the background of one scene.

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Romance (US, Brown) 
My least favorite of the 1930 films I’ve written about so far. In it, a bishop (Gavin Gordon) looks back on an early experience with love that goes nowhere. It isn’t tragic (though it’s treated as such), and it doesn’t even have the weight of feeling individually formative for the character. Gavin Gordon is downright laughable as a romantic co-lead for a woman as inscrutable as Garbo. Romance is the doldrums, folks. It’s a quintessential example of an early sound film that is all posturing, all talk. Oh, the talk. Its melodrama plays out through proclamations made with creaky archaic dialogue. Greta Garbo (who, with nothing to work with, is actually quite wooden here) spends all her time philosophizing about love. If you’re wondering what watching this movie feels like, take this piece of exchange and stretch it over ninety minutes:
“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”

big trail

The Big Trail (US, Walsh)
This is going to sound really hyperbolic and dramatic, but I’ve honestly never seen a film that looks quite like this. There’s a reason for this; it was the first major on-location outdoor sound film (the first sound film shot outside a studio was Walsh’s previous In Old Arizona) and was shot on a short-lived 70mm format developed by the Fox Film Corporation called Grandeur (aka Fox Grandeur). Films would have to wait over two decades for the promise of widescreen to come to fruition. The world wasn’t yet ready for Fox Grandeur. Theaters had just been converted for sound, and yet another conversion investment was nowhere near feasible nor desirable. So you see, the reason I’ve never seen anything quite like this is because, from this era of filmmaking, there is nothing else quite like this.

Nothing that survives anyways. The Big Trail stands alone. The Grandeur prints of Song O’ My Heart and Happy Days are lost. Other competing widescreen formats like MAGNAFILM and VITASCOPE existed for the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period of 1929-1930, but, again, almost all widescreen prints for these few films are gone (The Bat Whispers is the rare example of a 1929-1930 widescreen film that survives in both its 35mm and 65mm versions). Not only is The Big Trail an outlier in its format and survival, but it’s easily the most ambitious widescreen project of the time. The production was a costly behemoth; shot all over the American west (primarily Montana, California, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah), with countless extras and animals, and for an inordinate length of time.

The overwhelming scale is constantly present. For one thing, the extras are everywhere at all times. Extras in the foreground. Extras in the background. In support of the film’s core, they are everywhere, in every scene. The Big Trail may be populated by stories of revenge, romance, and comedy, but none of them matter. They’re just the needle. But the thread, the thing that does matter, is the collective journey. The building of community doesn’t start when the settlers reach their destination; it starts en route. The omnipresence of the extras never lets you forget that. everyone you see walking in and out of the frame, everyone onscreen, character or not, has put everything on the line with this endeavor. They are traversing the Oregon Trail’s all-too-real hardships, and they are doing it together.

The photography by Arthur Edeson is decades ahead of its time. I sat and watched in a constant state of awe. The scope of the image is all-encompassing. You get a rare sense of the West’s staggering vastness. Most impressive is the painterly quality of the thoughtful framing, groundbreaking early use of deep focus, and the complex compositions which so often incorporate multiple planes of staging and movement.  The Big Trail looks far into the future with its frontier tale of the past.

On a final note, I remember Karina Longworth mentioning how drop-dead gorgeous John Wayne is in The Big Trail during an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast. I even googled it after listening and thought “damn“. But actually watching him in this? It was his first starring role, and he isn’t exactly good, but that wooden charm makes him rather endearing. And good or not, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Give it a try. You’ll fail.

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-9)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman. That post can be found here.

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Liliom (US, Borzage)
There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. Think Peter Ibbetson mixed with more overt expressionism. But this is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

Rose Hobart is perfect for the part of Julie, though the film swallows her whole by the second half (standout deathbed scene not withstanding). Her eyes have a sharp directness as she communicates her undying love for Liliom through that tunnel vision stare. Her unshakable need to stay by this whiny asshole is seen with a kind of nobility. At the very least it’s seen without judgment. As for Charles Farrell, well… From what I’ve read, audiences apparently adjusted fine to hearing his voice, but let me be the first to tell you it is rough. He sounds like one of the kids on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Close your eyes and you’re back in the schoolyard with the head bully. His Liliom also walks like Popeye, though that bluster is a pronounced character trademark.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself. (I’ve been, and will keep, mentioning camera mobility in these 1930 films. I don’t mean to suggest that camera movement equals higher quality filmmaking, but in 1930 it is a clear and easy sign of formal ambition as studios, technicians, and creative personalities attempt to establish a visual language for talking pictures)

Notes:
– So this is where “Carousel” comes from! I’d eventually like to see that and other adaptations of this Hungarian play (most notably the 1934 Fritz Lang version), not least because it will be sure to illuminate this one.

– Liliom is so quick to kill himself. It’s kind of absurd. Equally absurd? The notion that Liliom is the first person to be given a second chance. Really? This moron?

– The “Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail” song is now something I sing to myself.

– Of course this movie was a financial (and somewhat critical) failure. How could it not be? How do you even market something like this? It doesn’t fit into any box.

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King of Jazz (1930, Anderson)
King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. And it’s kind of a must-see. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. I loved this movie. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor). King of Jazz also reminds me that I have a substantial hard-on for Two-Strip Technicolor.

Notes:
– Bing Crosby’s first screen appearance! He shows up as one of the Rhythm Boys. He was originally slated for a solo number but an arrest after drunkenly crashing his car prevented that from happening.

– There are really lame 30 second skits by Universal contract players sprinkled throughout (some of which feature explicitly sexual punchlines). Though I loved the one set at an all-ladies newspaper.

– “Rhapsody in Blue”: First of all, according to author Richard Barrios, Universal may have paid upwards of $50,000 for the use of this piece. Also, the number is an all-blue one, though I’m not sure how it got like this because Two-Strip can’t pick up blue.

– Universal was also on the cusp of another colossal, and much more successful, effort; All Quiet on the Western Front. It even gets a shout-out here!

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The Bat Whispers (US, West)
What an exceptional experience seeing a 1930 film in 65mm (The Big Trail, which I haven’t watched yet, also falls under this category). The Bat Whispers is a mystery, yes, but the air here is ripe with two other genres; horror and comedy. Something that struck me about this is the way it successfully balances some tricky tones. There is a slight threatening undercurrent coursing through the film. It mostly takes place in one location, but the house is cast in shadows, and there’s a nice depth of setting that hints at what’s hidden. A masked intruder named The Bat, an entity that famously served as one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for Batman, is known to be lurking around the house for most of the film. Disguising his voice, he omits a wholly unnerving shadowy scrawl. A late scene featuring Una Merkel stuck in a hidden room with the Bat quite honestly gave me the willies.

And then the comedy of the thing! As characters tiptoe around in the dark, carefully treading with their different agendas, The Bat Whispers also proves to be light on its feet. It has a gentle comedic air, often aiming for soft laughs (can’t win them all though; a perpetually frightened character named Lizzie grates very quickly). All the tropes you can imagine are here and then some, contained by surprising energy and foreboding.

The Bat Whispers stays put once we get to Cornelia’s estate. So it uses the largely silent first ten minutes for striking formal ambition, particularly in the creative ways it introduces key locations. It also features a very early twist ending! After the film ends, Chester Morris comes out and pleads that the audience not spoil the ending for others. And in such a tongue-and-cheek way too. An eccentric note on which to end an eccentric film.

Notes:
– I really enjoyed Chester Morris doing a weird mix of dapper and dastardly. I so prefer this Chester Morris over the Chester Morris of The Divorcee.

– Features the Laganja Estranga of movie detectives.

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Paid (US, Wood)
Paid is a touchstone in Joan Crawford’s career. This was a part for Queen of MGM Norma Shearer but Joan, the ultimate self-promoter, rallied hard for this once Norma discovered she was pregnant before filming began. She long ached to move beyond lighter fare of the Our Dancing Daughters variety and establish herself as a heavy dramatic actress. Starting with Paid, Crawford gradually moved away from her flapper persona and into more refined and challenging work. And it’s a good thing she started a career evolution when she did. Between changing times and the enforcement of the Production Code, the flapper persona would soon be outdated, and actresses primarily known for those kinds of roles would have nowhere to go.

Paid has a promising premise. It’s got a prison film crammed into its first ten minutes. It then sets itself up as 80 minutes of Joan Crawford slapping everyone in the face with the law and getting sweet sweet revenge on her former boss by wooing his son. And all that happens. But the second half insists itself into empty melodrama by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly crime, imploding its premise instead of exploring it.

Notes:
– Marie Prevost!!! I’ve noticed that both of the 1930 films I’ve seen featuring her contain scenes where her body jiggles for the camera. I wonder if War Nurse will also have something of the sort.

Paid has lots of zingers:
“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
My favorite is “Four years ago you took my name and replaced with with a number. Now I’ve taken that number and replaced it with your name”.

– There are moments in Paid where Joan looks eerily like Sigourney Weaver. I never noticed it before but the proto Sigourney vibes here are off-the-charts.

 

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4)


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Let Us Be Gay (US, Leonard)
“I know how men feel about these things now”

It’s par for the course that if you’re watching Pre-Code Norma Shearer, at some point she’ll say something explicit about her newly transgressive way of life. I love Norma. I really do. But not for her depth of presence. Her Pre-Code persona brings a very specific brand to the table, and it’s made up of two parts. The first is permanent coy. She talks as if putting on a show; the woman’s got a secret and she’s the only one in the room who knows it. The second is prideful speechifying, daring proclamations that temporarily air out the collective frustrations of many women, calling out double standards and announcing sexual freedom (eventually of course, the film will hit the reset button in its last 30 seconds).

Shearer’s transformation from devoted wife to the ultimate sampler of sex is never more extreme than it is here, and that’s all due to how her character (Kitty) is introduced. For the first act of Let Us Be Gay, Norma Shearer goes full-dowdy. I’m not talking about movie dowdy. I’m talking about actually dowdy. It’s as plain and homely and normal as I’ve ever seen a golden age star allow themselves to look onscreen. The sheer jolt of this easily makes for the film’s high point, because let’s face it; despite the promise of an ensemble cast crossing paths during a weekend in Long Island,  Let Us Be Gay never picks up anything resembling momentum, a critical trait for a film at that one point suggests it is nearing French farce.

Some Notes:
– This was shot in 26 days because Norma Shearer was pregnant. It’s an adaptation of a play. The Shearer role was originated by Tallulah Bankhead.

– Between my previous experiences with 1930 films and the ones I’ve watched for this project so far, I know that many of the films will have moved passed the potential and often found awkwardness of early talkies. But this one does not. But there were admittedly times during this where the strange pacing, pausing, lingering were hypnotic to me. There is a shot of Norma Shearer on a couch. She moves, and the camera lingers for several second on said  couch as the scene continues. I really loved this unintentional moment.

Something else I fully expect to run into with 1930 are dull-as-fuck leading men. For every one of them I’m sure there will be a leading man I love and cherish (Robert Montgomery owns part of my heart, didn’t you know that?) But Holy Mother of God: Rod La Rocque. Worst actor ever? I mean ever? As in, of all-time? See, he’s not just bad in the sense that he’s stilted and lacks charisma. He goes the extra mile by being that special brand of bad: the silent actor who has no idea how to adjust his acting in the advent of talkies. He makes Chester Morris look like Gary Cooper.

– Shout-out to Marie Dressler for being Marie Dressler and playing to the back row and to Sally Eilers for playing a great sloppy drunk.

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Ladies of Leisure (US, Capra)
There’s a lot about Ladies of Leisure I shouldn’t like. Let’s face it, who wants to see Barbara Stanwyck as a brassy ‘party girl’ who gradually disintegrates into desperate martyr-driven love with a rich and oblivious painter who treats her like nothing? This is not why we watch Barbara Stanwyck!

But this star-making role, the first of several collaborations with Frank Capra, is some of her best work and in one of her best films. I’m not used to seeing her this vulnerable, yet this is how the country at large became acquainted with her. Barbara Stanwyck is down-to-earth glamour. Relatable glamour. Even at this very early stage it’s impossible to miss that she is in stark contrast with other actors from her time. This is a woman performing in the ‘now’. Her body language isn’t practiced. She breaks through the conventional with seeming spontaneity. She’s the perfect person for Frank Capra to direct, because in Ladies of Leisure he not only gives her plenty of backlit close-ups defying audiences not to fall in love with her, but devotes an uncommon (for 1930) length of time lingering on confidential and intimate moments that map out Kay’s internal longing.

Frank Capra doesn’t trip into that oft-fallen pit known as the Early Talkie Trap. That assumed pull of talk-talk-talk, aimlessly throwing more dialogue at the screen. Why? Because they can! Despite being based on a play, Frank Capra already shows an adept hand at visual storytelling in addition to fluid pacing, foundational building blocks everybody had to learn and relearn  to some degree when sound came along. Bypassing sluggishness, even as the film nosedives into the saccharine, there is a clarity and distinct visual perspective supporting Kay’s story.

Take the erotically charged rainy night sleepover that comes mid-film. It’s erotically charged in the silences, in what isn’t happening, in what Kay wants to happen, in what could happen. The pace of this sequence is different than the rest. The situation slowly develops, as Kay gradually allows herself to believe in the possible. It builds to a simple act of kindness that produces the film’s most telling and heartfelt moment. A lone doorknob turns. Footsteps reveal that Jerry the painter (Ralph Graves) has left his room in the middle of the night. He slowly approaches Kay’s bed. In another film the scene would be eerie, bad intentions assumed. Kay is sleeping. Jerry lays a blanket over her and heads back to bed. Close-up on Kay. She wasn’t asleep at all. The camera lingers on her face and closes in further, tears glistening. She pulls the blanket to her mouth. Everything we need to know about Kay occurs in this moment. This simple act of kindness means the world to her, and it has left her shaking and crying with joy.

Critically, Capra foregrounds Kay’s (Stanwyck) love as a character-driven arc rooted in class, lifelong struggle, and hope. You don’t have to buy into Kay and Jerry (and you won’t) to buy into the film. Forget the lame egg basket in whom Kay places said hopes and dreams. Just focus on witnessing a downtrodden woman who, for the first time in her life, experiences what happiness is, what it can mean, and its potential in her own life. The fortuitous union of Barbara Stanwyck’s startling modernism (I still can’t imagine how jarring her vivid physicality must have played for 1930 audiences) and Frank Capra’s intuitive prioritization of the inner life.

Some Notes:
– We’re back to the Dull As Fuck Leading Man syndrome. I’ve seen quite a few reviews of the film that cite Ralph Graves as a deal-breaker. But I’ve made a vow to myself to put the quality of the leading man aside as best I can while watching these films. Would I like the leading man to have chemistry with his leading lady in a film that qualifies as a romance? Well, of course. Will there be films I watch where the leading man really is a deal-breaker? Probably. But this whole leading man snag is an unavoidable evil from this period. I’d like to be surprised; I’d like the chemistry between leads to elevate whatever 1930 film I’m watching, but I also won’t let the common failures on this front decide whether or not a film works for me. Part of what I love in writing about older films (I’m talking as recent as, say, ten years old) is that time allows the mode of assessment to be so different. New films are often reviewed as A + B + C = great film but it’s missing D so merely good. Time allows us to connect or not connect in ways that feel more organic, less scientific. If the lead in a rom-com from 2015 was bland it’d likely feel impossible to ignore. But in Ladies of Leisure, who cares, this movie is great with or without Ralph Graves. More critically, as I’ve stated earlier, Kay’s love for him is grounded in individual longing. Our investment doesn’t hinge on Jerry as a character.

– Capra already taking on the disparity between the classes. But it’s surprisingly complicated. Ralph’s mother is supportive of her son and empathetic. Her actions are driven by love and a knowing selfishness for the sacrifice she asks of Kay that she cannot ask of herself. Even Jerry’s father isn’t a terrible guy. Just very set in his ways.

– Some other incredible moments of Stanwyck’s spontaneity: “Goody goody goody let’s fight”; Kay throwing food in the air and trying to catch it as an impromptu effort to distract from her tears.

– Such a bizarre party at the beginning! Capra immediately visually distinguishes that class disparity with a shot of a street getting plummeted with smashed bottles as innocent bystanders dodge the wreckage as best they can. We are brought, with an impressive crane shot using models, to the top of a building where upper class debauchery is taking place. Two women carelessly drop the liquor from above. Elsewhere, a man paints a lady’s back. Elsewhere still, ladies pray water at a painting. A woman weaves through the crowd saying “Call for Jerry Strong! Call for Jerry Strong!”

– Marie Prevost = new hero? She was relegated to best friend parts by this time in her troubled life and career. She gets the best lines of the movie and her delivery is hysterical:

“Listen Eleanor Glynn. You can’t–weigh–sex appeal.”

Prevost: “Oh, and a cup of coffee”
Waiter: “Large or small?”
Prevost: “Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”

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Murder! (UK, Hitchcock)
While the result may be weirdly effective and ineffective in equal measure, this is Alfred Hitchcock experimenting perhaps more essentially than ever before or since. Hitchcock, that savior of UK cinema, takes sound and uses it to make every scene its own playful gambit. Murder! is so well known for its use of sound that it’s easy to overlook the essential application of image. Every step of the way Hitchcock shows a critical understanding of how sound can be applied in new ways when married to the image. Seems obvious, but at the time it wasn’t. He brings image and sound together by constantly separating them.

For the first time in film (at least it’s credited as such), we hear a character’s thoughts in voice-over, bridging the internal (sound) and external (image). Stage manager Ted (Edward Chapman) and his wife (Phyllis Constam) frantically ready themselves to see Sir John (Herbert Marshall in his first speaking role), their preparations shown in a succession of rapid close-ups coupled with far-off dialogue; sound and image used to compress time. Sir John wakes up for a comic scene of loud chaos with Una O’Connor (in her 2nd screen appearance!) involving a wailing baby, a clingy child, overflowing coffee, and a cute kitten. There’s more too; Hitchcock plays with the rhythm of dialogue in a sequence that plays like a one-act 12 Angry Men. The jury members start as separate entities only to evolve into some sort of theatrical sing-song chorus, like something out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Hitchcock also finds ways to keep things moving in his typically droll fashion. An early scene in which two women talk about the murders is turned into a three-minute uncut visual running joke that completely eclipses whatever is being said. Throughout the scene, the older woman moves between two rooms to make tea. Every time the younger woman sits down, the older woman needs to move the other room. The camera dutifully follows back and forth from Room A to Room B. The punchline? Turns out that the policeman doesn’t even want tea.

The fun of Murder! is discovering the tricks that stick versus the ones that turn out just plain awkward. That this consummately strange film is made up of pieces means it never comes together as a unified whole. Scenes don’t unfold in any kind of conventional way, and never has Hitchcock’s indifference towards plot been more apparent. And since this is a whodunit, a genre he spent his career purposely avoiding, plot is the name of the game. The experimentation often has a slightly surreal and dislodged effect, both intentional and unintentional. All the parts line up but they don’t lock in. And for all its inventions, not even Hitchcock can outwit Herbert Marshall’s Sir John. The longer he takes over the film, the more stilted the film becomes. He drones on and on and on in long shot, so oblivious to his incessant talking that it takes another character interrupting him for things to move forward.

Sir John’s actor status and the role of the theater in Murder! show the makings of another major Hitchcock trademark; his use of the theater as self-reflexive function and metaphor for artificiality. “This isn’t a play. It’s real life!”, Sir John exclaims. An early scene shows cops interviewing actors backstage in the middle of a production and they hurriedly rush on-and-off stage, answering questions in the midst of costume changes. Never mind that the bit doesn’t quite come off. An old woman is fooled (quite easily it turns out, because if we’re supposed to be Sir John’s ruse as impressive then that’s just sad) by a man feigning an old woman’s voice. Hell, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play is used as a strategic tactic to suss the killer out! There’s even a climactic suicide through performance. And the end, a final shot pulls back to reveal that Sir John and Dinah are onstage acting in a play together.

Notes:
– Herbert Marshall is a straight-laced British Jack Lemmon in this movie.
– Esme Percy’s ‘half-caste’ homosexual drag performer killer is disquieting to say the least. Both for how he plays it and how the film sees him. But for all its lesser-than view of him, it’s really surprising to see a film this early depict a ‘perverted’ killer this explicitly.

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Anybody’s Woman (US, Arzner)
I was really hoping for more being that this is from the great Dorothy Arzner. Alas, this was a disappointment, although there are a few significant takeaways to appreciate. The protagonist is a down-on-her-luck woman with the awesome name of Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton). She spends the film defying expectations, being unapologetically herself, and trying to do right with the odds against her in an odd situation. She’s got a keep pushin’ through the mud outlook on life. In short, she’s a survivor. And played by Ruth Chatterton with a drawled out conviction, she’s great. Sadly, the film isn’t. It starts strong, with adjacent apartments, eavesdropping, insane drunken logic, electric fans, and Ruth Chatterton casually sprawled out on a couch while singing and playing a ukulele. But it has no inkling where to go from there. I’m not even quite sure how it manages to fill out its runtime.