Top Ten By Year: 1930


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From In the Picture: Production Stills from the TCM Archives

Previous Top Ten By Year Entries: 
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 2005

1930 Coverage:
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results 
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 
100 Images from the Films of 1930 
Favorite Fashion in 1930 Film

Sources:
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film – Richard Barrios
The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution: 1926-1930 – Scott Eyman
From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies – Molly Haskell

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’.

Reel talk: 1930, seminal touchstones notwithstanding, is seen as one of the weaker years in cinema. At the very least nobody really talks about it. I like to get feedback on what my followers are interested in seeing, so while debating my next year for this project I presented Twitter with a choice between 1930 and 1934. Only a handful chose 1930. The further 1934 pulled away with the win, the less interested I was in choosing it. And there are no regrets; I’ve learned more about film from 1930 than any other year within the Top Ten By Year Project.

Before settling into what turned out to be six months of 1930 film hibernation, I’d never truly grasped why the resistance to talkies at the time was so staunchly uniform, seen and experienced by the industry as a cultural apocalypse. I’d never fully grasped why so many couldn’t see the possibilities of a revolutionary technology in its infancy. Well, of course the transition would be rough, with many new adjustments, restrictions, and considerations in the mix. But didn’t they see it’d be worth it? Didn’t they see it was the obvious next step in the evolution of cinema?

Richard Barrios writes in his book A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film that “the face of hindsight can, quite often, wear an unpleasant sneer”(59). As I sank deeper into hibernation, the patronizing remnants afforded by that cocky over-the-shoulder perspective from the future slipped away. Now I’m quite amazed anyone had the foresight (I’m looking at you Sam Warner) to see sound’s potential and the positive ways it could and would transform product and industry.

This foresight/hindsight angle relates to books that I read about the dawn of sound period (1926-1930), legitimately rocky years that qualify as “one of the most chaotic times in American culture…a time of immense upheaval, enormous change, and a quite singular mix of uncertainty and confidence”(Eyman, 4). Uncertainty because the studios didn’t really consider what sound meant for artistic parameters regarding the technology’s initial suffocating limitations. After Warner Brothers opened the gates to a new frontier, everything was turned upside down as studios rat raced through a “brutal crude transplantation”(Eyman). The process of filmmaking was now made up of “physical claustrophobia, narrative obfuscation, and an unimaginably confusing technical nightmare of crossed cables and purposes”(Eyman). The name of the game became Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue. It doesn’t matter what they say, just make the stars say it!

While sound men enjoyed their short reign as set Kings, actors braced themselves for make-it-or-break-it performance reviews in the form of sound tests. It didn’t matter who you were, veteran star or bit player; your entire career was uncertain until pass/fail tested for sound by your studio. Suffice it to say, fear ran rampant. William Haines described this period as “the night of the Titanic all over again” (Barrios, 75). And this from an MGM star! MGM was the most apprehensive studio when it came to sound, and that extra time presumably provided them with a slightly less chaotic stretch than most. Star personas had to be reconfigured and reestablished. Many couldn’t successfully make the leap, most famously John Gilbert, whose catastrophic fall from grace came from being unceremoniously hung out to dry by hackneyed dialogue and poor direction (I’m looking at you Lionel Barrymore). The ever-savvy MGM may have botched Gilbert, but they also made genius publicity out of the ‘what do the stars sound like’ craze, making “Garbo Talks!” the movie event of 1930. While the star machine had a great fall, and tried to put itself back together again, countless young Broadway performers were flown out and audience tested via shorts and features, largely primed for failed movie stardom.

The Movie Musical, the only genre made entirely possible by sound technology, is the industry’s key microcosm from this time. Skipping ahead to 1929, the success of The Broadway Melody spawned a riot (we’re talking endless, folks) of imitators, with little to no creative expansion, quality control, or narrative variety. Stage musicals were adapted left and right with most of the hit songs inexplicably dumped and replaced with forgettable warblings. Song and/or dance scenes remained stuffy and square. There was no frame of reference for putting song and dance on film. Within twelve months, save for a few smash successes like The Love Parade and Rio Rita, musicals went from being the genre du jour to enough already! Now, this sort of thing happens all the time. The rush for product and for more of the successful same. But with a new technology, with musicals that were “obviously conceived in panic and manufactured in ignorance”, this cash sprint re: musicals can be more broadly applied to this brief unsure era (Barrios).

All of this context is to say that 1930 is the year Hollywood shook itself off and regained its footing. By this time, film rhythm and consistency was illustrating that, for all their troubles, Hollywood was on the other side of the sound barrier. The year saw a record film attendance of 110 million (compare that to 65 million in 1928 and 60 million in 1932) (Barrios). Blimps had been developed that allowed cameras to be more mobile, free of their initial soundproof booths. The studios were well on their way towards working with sound-on-film technology as opposed to the cumbersome sync-sound. New film stocks made the monochrome spectrum wider. Formal freedom was still coming around but there was a wild sense of trial-and-error experimentation. In 1930, nearly every musical incorporated Two-color Technicolor to some degree. Some studios were trying out inventions that would live and die within 1930, such as 65-70 mm formats like Magnafilm and Grandeur. Sound films began to step out on the streets and into the wilderness. Genre was like a stacked buffet plate, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Sci-fi, horror, mystery, and gangster films (The Doorway to Hell really established this one, though the films of 1931 get the credit) were just around the corner, but they crop up in the unlikeliest of places in 1930. Pre-Code hit the salacious stride it continued until the Code’s enforcement four years later. Directors in the US and overseas, such as Hitchcock, Hawks, Grémillon were already experimenting with sound in ways covert and overt. International film industries were catching up, beginning to make their transitions from silent to sound.

Sure, some films from 1930 come across as quaint and static in their awkwardness, but far less than you’d think. Editing rhythms and camera set-ups had loosened up considerably by this time, and it’s easy to see sound film finding its own groove thanks to filmmakers committed to making improvements and trying things out. I’ve learned that stilted is the misguided adjective of choice when it comes to present-day reviews of 1930 films. When films like The Bat Whispers and The Divorcee are described as such, it’s unfortunate and downright perplexing, not just for its falsehood, but because there’s a world of difference between what ‘stilted’ means to modern day cinephiles and what it actually means within the scope of 1930 releases. Watch Let Us Be Gay and then get back to me (whether you’re a fan of this one or not, it’s an excellent encapsulation of what 1930 ‘stilted’ actually looks and feels like).

Time and time again I was beside myself by visual flourishes and caution-to-the-wind spiritedness. Cinematographers were finding ways to navigate and convey exterior worlds. Directors were finding ways to communicate interior worlds. Screenwriters were figuring out how to inject nuance and quality over quantity. Actors were adjusting to the modern and getting at core truths. On their own, many of these films stand tall and proud, but collectively, they lift each other up.

With the advent of sound, many thought something had been irretrievably lost. Perhaps rightly so. Sensuality, fantasy, and the translucent magic of silent cinema needed to be redefined from the ground up. And the films of 1930 begin to show what that would look and sound like for the decades to come.

Nitrate Diva wrote a great piece on 1930, which, I’m honored to say, was inspired by this project! She also includes her 10 picks! It’s a beautifully written portrait of the undiscovered riches of the year. Her prose capabilities are far beyond mine, so please do yourself a favor and check it out!

Biggest Disappointments:
Anybody’s Woman
Her Man
Just Imagine
A Notorious Affair
Not So Dumb
Paid

The Five Worst 1930 Films I Watched:
1. Golden Dawn
2. Feet First
3. Romance
4. Free and Easy
5. A Notorious Affair

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1930
(bold = first-time viewing, italic =  re-watch)
10 Minuten Mozart (short) Aimless Walk (short),
All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, A Notorious Affair, Anybody’s Woman, Au bonheur des dames, The Bat Whispers, The Big House, The Big Trail, Blood of a Poet, The Blue Angel, Borderline, City Girl, Dance of Her Hands (short), The Dawn Patrol, The Divorcee, Die drei von der Tankstelle, The Doorway to Hell, Fast and Loose, Feet First, Follow Thru, For the Defense, Free and Easy, Golden Dawn, Hell’s Angels, Her Man, Just Imagine, King of Jazz, L’age d’Or, Ladies of Leisure, Laughter, Let Us Be Gay, Light Rhythms (short), Liliom, Madam Satan, Mechanical Principles (short), Min and Bill, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Murder!, Mysterious Mose (short), Not So Dumb, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound, Paid, La petite Lise, People on Sunday, Prix de beaute, Romance, Street of Chance, Swing You Sinners! (short), The Tale of the Fox, Tomatoes Another Day (short), Under the Roofs of Paris, Way for a Sailor

Honorable Mentions: The Big House, Blood of a Poet, Animal Crackers, Monte Carlo, The Divorcee, Follow Thru, The Dawn Patrol, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides (I have such a fondness for each of these films, it must be said)

KEY:
RW = Rewatch
FTV = First-time Viewing

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10. Au bonheur des dames (France/Le Film d’Art/Duvivier) (FTV)
With its go-for-broke commitment to evoking the rhythms of modern Paris, watching Au bonheur des dames feels a little like skydiving without a parachute. Silent film is nearly extinct, the bottom has dropped out, and Julien Duvivier is using everything in his arsenal to send it off in style. I watched this after consuming nearly three dozen 1930 talkies. Though sound films of the year are far less collectively creaky than history gives them credit for, it was still a considerable jolt to be unclipped from the technological constraints of fuzzy sounds and rational worlds.

A minute into ‘Au bonheur’, Denise (Dita Parlo), an orphan arriving in Paris to work for her uncle, is immediately swallowed up by Capital-C Capitalism. A train rushes into the station while feet scurry in all directions, a symphony of urban life’s hurried routine. Denise’s eyes dart everywhere, trying to take it all in as she’s shuffled to and fro, smothered by the crowd of people and superimposed images. The second she exits the station, she notices a plane flying overhead. Flyers are dropped like confetti. She grabs one out of the sky, reads it, and smiles as if she’s just found one of Wonka’s Golden Tickets. It says “Everything You Want at ‘Au bonheur des dames'”. It’s an advertisement for the behemoth department store across the street from her uncle’s failing dilapidated shop. Capitalism is relentless, and giving in makes you feel good.

Lively Soviet montage and overt expressionism coincide with blinking electric lights and aggressive razzmatazz to show “progress” as pervasive. Duvivier utilizes the accumulation of silent cinema stylings for an inadvertent send-off to the now obsolete era. ‘Au bonheur’ is alive and immediate, building to an impossible-to-shake feverish crescendo that thankfully obscures the cop-out ending to follow.

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9. Liliom (US/Fox/Borzage) (FTV)
Available on youtube

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. 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.

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.

Full review here

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8. Laughter (US/Paramount/d’Arrast) (FTV)
Very poor quality version available on youtube

Halfway through Laughter, pals Paul (Fredric March) and Peggy (Nancy Carroll) (the newly married ‘one-that-got-away’) are out and about on a daytime drive (in this scene, Paul impulsively kisses the back of Peggy’s neck while driving and it’s one of the sexiest gestures ever committed to film). Their car suddenly breaks down and, of course, an impromptu rainstorm follows. They seek shelter by breaking and entering, where they promptly begin to roleplay marriage as the ‘Smiths’ (Why? Because why not?). They trade traditional gender roles, with ‘Mr. Smith’ dutifully offering ‘Mrs. Smith’ her slippers and pipe, adding that he baked a strawberry pie for dinner. The pair is oh-so-pleased with their flirtation-as-evasion repartee, but somehow it’s not cloying. Instead, it’s goddamn charming. Eventually, the sequence takes a turn for the weird as Peggy puts on a black bearskin rug from the living room floor (Why? Because why not?), crawling and growling around in circles. Paul, highly amused, quickly joins in by putting on the other bearskin rug (this one white) across the room. Our romantic leads have gone from one kind of pretend to another. This is all part of what is perhaps Laughter‘s most memorable sequence, and it’s indicative of how the film operates as a whole.

Laughter is made up of characters vibing off each other, transforming and controlling (or failing to control) the interior spaces around them. The sequence described above illustrates this. Paul and Peggy take over a foreign space and use it for their make-believes, becoming spouses and wild animals. They drape their wet clothes all over the furniture, and drink coffee in the kitchen while they lounge in their bearskins.

Long-shot dependence tends to indicate stagnancy by 1930 film standards, but in Laughter they are critical, used to establish the importance of spaces in relation to character. Towering Art Deco rooms threaten to isolate characters with lonely wonder until Paul comes in and livens up the joint. Sterile business offices echo with the dependable sound of typewriters. A spacious apartment above a club is overrun with clutter, accompanied by the far-off boozy drawl of horn instruments.

There is an uncommonly natural touch to everything in Laughter. Plot shows its face when summoned, but the characters refuse to be tethered to it. They lead the way, sometimes with spunk, sometimes with somber resignation.

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7. Prix de Beauté (France/Sofar-Film/Genina) (RW)
I simply cannot deny Louise. Prix de Beauté is the last European hurrah for my all-time favorite screen presence. After this she’d return to Hollywood, land of bit parts and bankruptcy. She led a long life post-Prix de Beauté, but this is the film that siphons off her celluloid legend. If Louise fills the frame, if the film knows how to showcase her effortless and unaffected mythic energy, down-to-earth and beyond us all with that irrepressible glow, does the film itself matter?

I happen to enjoy the by-turns awkward and arresting Prix de Beauté very much. One of the first sound films made in France (it also has a 1929 silent version), it resembles a rough cut in that, though there’s vision in its organic images, nothing, except Brooks, is completely locked into place. It’s a talkie with an entirely silent sensibility, made possible by the fact that the sound, including dialogue, took place during post-production. This frees up the camera for rambunctious mobility at every turn, and it’s supported by the zeal that drives Lucienne toward her dreams. She wants to participate in a beauty contest, but her boyfriend won’t allow it. With a choice of being owned by her beau or worshiped by the public, she deserves more than both but achieves neither. The famous final sequence, dizzying in its flickering destruction, strikes Lucienne down just as her (screen) life begins. As sound ushers in, Louise Brooks is ushered out, her physical body left behind for something incorporeal, an eerily fitting finale to her immortal image.

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6. Ladies of Leisure (US/Columbia/Capra) (FTV)
Available on youtube

Ladies of Leisure features Barbara Stanwyck in her star-making role, the first of several collaborations with Frank Capra. It also happens to be 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.

Despite being based on a play, Frank Capra already shows an adept hand at visual storytelling in addition to fluid pacing. 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.

citygirl

5. City Girl (US/Fox/Murnau) (FTV)
Available on youtube 

I’m going to let a couple of paragraphs from Daniel Kasman’s MUBI piece speak for my love of City Girl. Suffice it to say that it is every bit as great as Sunrise, and may just be my personal preference:

“Murnau is realism + poetry, and slimming down his materials to such a leanness as inCity Girl lets his hand water, flower, and blossom every element at his disposal.  You have never seen a city diner in American film, felt its heat, its hubbub, its routine, its turnover, its charm, its tedium and its spunk until you have seen City Girl and you see how Farrel casually meets and unconsciously courts Duncan at the diner counter.  You have never seen the loneliness of life in the city until you see the light of a passing elevated train sputter across Duncan’s face and her tiny potted plant in her cramped apartment. The enchantment of a farm has never been put on film—and perhaps has never been found again—until Ernest Palmer’s camera follows with expressionist joy the gleeful run of the young married couple across the family’s wheatfield upon their arrival.”

king of jazz 84. King of Jazz (US/Universal/Anderson) (FTV)
Since seeing King of Jazz four months ago, it has been restored and has screened at MOMA for their series Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries: 1928-1937. There even a book coming out!

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. 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. 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).

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3. Dance of Her Hands (short) (US/Nutshell Pictures/Bel Geddes) (FTV)
Available on youtube

Dance of Her Hands features dancer/choreographer/actress Tilly Losch at the height of her lithe powers. This short stages “The Hand Dance”, a collaborative conception between Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr. At the start, Tilly’s head is behind netting while the titular hands take center frame. Her hands lilt and quiver, they scurry and contort. But most of all there’s a palpable yearning to her movements. We soon meet the rest of her, a witchy puppetmaster that casts spells with her digits. Her performance is further abstracted by the pitch black negative space, a presentation that emphasizes the sensual and dislodges Losch from any kind of concrete reality. The hands lead and her body follows. Self-expression manifests as a delicate ache that can only be resolved through movement.

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2. Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Germany/FilmStudio Berlin/Siodmak, Siodmak, Ulmer, Zinneman) (RW)
Available on youtube 

Menschen am Sonntag looks far ahead to the French New Wave and Italian neorealism. It also looks ahead to the substantial careers of Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, and Fred Zinneman. It incorporates a humanistic and carefree take on the city symphony film while keeping with the signatures of New Objectivity. Menschen am Sonntag is notable for near-countless reasons. These distinctions matter, enormously so, but while watching it, you’re too busy basking in the impermanence of its direct sunlight to intellectualize its images.

There’s a special twinkle to films that capture an immaculate specificity of time and place. In Menschen am Sonntag, 1930 Berlin radiates loud and clear, from roaming streetcars and chaotic intersections to now-immortalized store window displays and sparse graffiti. Individual Berliners get snapshots taken, a moment from their random Sunday saved for posterity as they self-consciously stare into the camera. Berlin hustles and bustles with an energy that carries over into the scenic Nikolassee, suggesting that weekend reprieves must be seized upon with a joie de vivre that suggests not a recreational moment should be wasted. The forcefulness of the sunlight matches the youthful characters scene for scene.

There’s a shrewd perceptiveness to how Menschen am Sonntag hones in on the unspoken that goes on between young men and women. The participants may or may not be aware, but a game made of almost imperceptible moments is always in motion. Anything seems possible. These connections are both monumental and fleeting, a coexistence only possible in youth. Glances are had, love is made, betrayal is imminent. All in the same day, all under the surface. Both extraordinary and just another Sunday.

Every once in a while we check back in with Berlin. Annie sleeps all day, surrounded by pictures of movie stars. People sit on benches and look out their windows. Life being lived, or not, all at the same time. Films didn’t convey this in 1930. They don’t even convey it now, though a handful sure as hell try. Recent attempts to examine the scope of everyday life can be found in the ham-fistedness of the hyperlink film. When these work it’s through the scope. The ‘everyday’ part is substituted with melodrama or a deliberate larger-than-life feel. That doesn’t take away from those films; they just have a different prerogative. Conversely, plenty of films capture the everyday of transitory youth but aren’t aiming for that scope. This rare combination demands flexibility in the nonexistence of story, and by floating back and forth from our frolicking quartet in order to incorporate the character of Berlin, Menschen am Sonntag creates magic in reality.

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1. Madam Satan (US/MGM/DeMille) (RW)
As often happens, I’m at a loss when the time comes to describe my love for #1. The following write-up will probably operate as groundwork for something I wish to eventually expand on.

Cecil B. DeMille also had a film on Top Ten By Year: 1925, the outrageously fun time-travel romance The Road to Yesterday. When DeMille isn’t overtaken by his preachy paradoxes, when he finds his brand of balance within the at-times absurd imbalance of his films, you get something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. In 1928, DeMille signed a three-picture deal with MGM. Madam Satan was the second of these films, with Dynamite and The Squaw Man coming before and after respectively. Unsurprisingly, Madam Satan was a major flop, with MGM posting a 390,000 loss. Even then, audiences had no idea what to make of this thing. What was it? What is it? It’s everything, but is it anything?

Madam Satan tends to be regarded as a cuckoo collectible. Oddity, trainwreck, loony, bonkers, bizarre; you get the gist of attributed adjectives. And, yeah, it’s all of those things. My love for this film often defies logic. Hell, outside of “Low Down” the songs aren’t even good (!), and they certainly aren’t helped by the poor sound quality of the era which renders sopranos incomprehensibly shrill. At times it seems like the film is about to indulge itself into oblivion, so caught up it is in exhausting every aesthetic or tonal thread.

(Sidenote: even fans of Madam Satan tend to universally disregard the supposedly “lethal first hour”, a bedroom farce involving the central four characters. I will never understand this (Barrios)! It’s a zany concoction of shade throwing, false niceties, and lots of physical scrambling. It’s actually my favorite section of the film. It also stands as a perfect example of DeMille’s whim for hitting the reset button halfway through one of his pictures.)

Madam Satan could only exist in 1930;  “in its very derangement, it embodies a distinctive trait of original musicals: they tended to treat the medium as a collage of found objects, jamming the most ordinary conventions alongside some truly lunatic notions” (Barrios, 252). This first wave of movie musicals would soon be extinct. The second wave, which came a couple of years later, emerged with already clear-cut delineations between the real (backstage romance) and the unreal (the insular world of a Berkeley number).

A boudoir sex comedy, a disaster film, a remarriage romance, a momentary tribute to electricity, an Art Deco orgy, a misshapen musical. Madam Satan is all of these (like I said, it’s everything, but is it anything? I say yes). Some of these designations will suddenly disappear, the aforementioned boudoir sex comedy for example, but DeMille goes all-in on each one for the duration of its stay. Madam Satan is a case against cohesion. If DeMille wants the zeppelin to crash, doggone it, that zeppelin is going to crash. If he wants to spend twenty minutes on the grand entrances of Adrian-draped costume-ball attendees with names like “Fish Girl” and “Spider Girl”, he’ll do it. The story will catch up when, or if, there’s a moment to breathe. .

The Art Deco sets and costumes, by Cedric Gibbons and Adrian respectively, are used to unite fantasy and glamour. The iconic look created for Kay Johnson’s alter-ego is a sequined nude-illusion for the gods. As archaic as a lot of Madam Satan‘s sexual politics are, this is the image people remember, this presentation of defiant transformation and reclamation. That entrance, with its unintelligible trilling and costume-reveal-as-magic-act, drips with a hard-earned heroic self-regard. It’s easy to forget that Angela has turned herself into a sex goddess superhero to seduce her philandering and entirely unworthy husband back into the fold. But DeMille, in a radical act for the time, strove to make marriage sexy by “daring to suggest that the married woman was as desirable and exciting as the pubescent party girl” (Haskell, 76). So Madam Satan can also add “domestic fantasy” to its resume.

Madam Satan also stars Lillian Roth, one of my silver screen obsessions. A gifted comedienne with a crinkly nose, dimples for days, and a practiced yet untouched vivacity, her Trixie is a pure delight. Weaponed with a “fleshy impertinence”, she brings a humanity to the “other girl”, but not by hiding her vindictiveness (Barrios). Her unapologetic immaturity becomes attributable to age. She’s as spunky as Angela is supposedly dowdy; in fact, it’s hard not to root for her. The rest of the cast is legitimately great. Kay Johnson conveys her piety with sophistication. Reginald Denny is, against all odds, lovable as a womanizing cad. And Roland Young is an idealized Charles Ruggles; a stammering spacey drunk that doesn’t over-chew the scenery or outstay his welcome, and lands genuine laughs to boot.

Madam Satan is one of the first ‘sincere trash’ movies. I wrote about this a little, and hope to expand on it, in regards to my undying love of Valley of the Dolls. There’s an awful misconception that everything has to work in a movie you love, and if it doesn’t, your love derives from the compartmentalization of what works from what doesn’t. That, if you profess your love of something, you have to answer for all the reasons it may or may not fall short (whether that comes from others, yourself, or both). Statements like “the plot’s ridiculous and the ending is shite, but I don’t care, I love it!” or people asking “well how do you account for this?” in response to hearing that you love something.

Sure, OK, sometimes this is how it works. But just as often, it doesn’t. “I don’t care, I love it”? But I do care! I care about all of it! Madam Satan‘s very identity is dependent on its messiness, good or bad, strong or weak, entertaining or dull. Its very existence excites me, lights me up inside. Its camp qualities and, to quote the great Latrice Royale, its romper-room fuckery, is singular, and I crave films that are singular. But make no mistake. Singular alone doesn’t make for the more interesting products of greatness. Just Imagine, also from this year, is singular, and it also sucks. But this, this is an excessive extravaganza of the best kind; an unironically pleasurable proto-spectacle rendering of Kate Bush’s “Babooshka”. Madam Satan is one of the key ways in which the oft-spoken-of magic-of-the-movies registers for me.

This only scratches the surface of why Madam Satan has become one of my favorite films. These scattered thoughts are meant to work through the basics, so I left the details of its lunacy out, for now. I’ll leave the last words to Richard Barrios, who says that “in one clean sweep, it seems to embody the end of the Jazz Age, the collapse of American prosperity, the death throes of early musicals, and, most literally, the flop of this last baroque grasp of twenties frivolity.”(252). Mic drop.

100 Images from the Films of 1930


Full disclosure: there are more than 100 images here. But 100 Images from the Films of 1930 sounds better than 105 images from the Films of 1930, doesn’t it? Well, I’ve finally come to the end of the 1930 Watchlist. It feels good, but it also right on time. Momentum plummeted towards the end, so it was a snail’s pace cross over the finish line.

Over the next two weeks I will be rounding out my 1930 coverage. Posts will consist of, in addition to this, the What I’ll Remember post and the Top Ten which will include write-ups on the films and the year in general. Previous 1930 coverage can be found here:
Top Ten By Year: 1930 Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 

What follows is a visual celebration of 1930. While viewing over fifty 1930 films in the past six months, I gradually collected screenshots of images that jumped out as something I wanted to capture and cherish for the future. For this post I chose personal favorites from that sizable collection. The images are arrange purposefully. I tried to group together shots that had something visually in common, whether it be content or blocking. I hope you enjoy them. I started doing this with 1978. You can find a sampling of my favorite shots from that year in my What I’ll Remember post. But it was 1925 where this aspect of the Top Ten By Year Project really took off. You can find that here. I promise you won’t regret it; there are so many incredible images from 1925. The same goes for 1930, or at least, I hope you agree.

What are some of your favorite shots or images from 1930 film? 

Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis NéePrix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

liliom 7Liliom (director: Frank Borzage/cinematographer: Chester Lyons)

The Doorway to Hell (director: Archie Mayo/cinematographer: Barney McGill) The Doorway to Hell (director: Archie Mayo/cinematographer: Barney McGill)

The Blue Angel (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Günther Rittau)The Blue Angel (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Günther Rittau)

For the Defense (director: John Cromwell/cinematographer: Charles Lang) For the Defense (director: John Cromwell/cinematographer: Charles Lang)

City Girl 13City Girl (director: F.W. Murnau/cinematographer: Ernest Palmer)

The Dawn Patrol (director: Howard Hawks/cinematographer: Ernest Haller) The Dawn Patrol (director: Howard Hawks/cinematographer: Ernest Haller)

City Girl 2City Girl (director: F.W. Murnau/cinematographer: Ernest Palmer)

Blood of a PoietBlood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

way 2Way for a Sailor (director: Sam Wood/cinematographer: Percy Hilburn)

People on Sunday 14Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)
The Dawn pateolThe Dawn Patrol (director: Howard Hawks/cinematographer: Ernest Haller)

liliom 5Liliom (director: Frank Borzage/cinematographer: Chester Lyons)

CeWCkXrUIAEnNZCBorderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

citygirlCity Girl (director: F.W. Murnau/cinematographer: Ernest Palmer)

Morocco 10Morocco (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Lee Garmes/Lucien Ballard)

Aimless WalkAimless Walk (short) (director: Alexander Hammid)

big trail 9The Big Trail (director: Raoul Walsh/cinematographer: Arthur Edeson)

the big trail 7The Big Trail (director: Raoul Walsh/cinematographer: Arthur Edeson)

the big trail 6The Big Trail (director: Raoul Walsh/cinematographer: Arthur Edeson)

Just Imagine 10Just Imagine (director: David Butler/cinematographer: Ernest Palmer)

clocksMadam Satan (director: Cecil B. DeMille/cinematographer: Harold Rosson)

madamsatan3Madam Satan (director: Cecil B. DeMille/cinematographer: Harold Rosson)

follow thru 9Follow Thru (directors: Lloyd Corrigan, Laurence Schwab/cinematographer: Charles P. Boyle)

bridal veilKing of Jazz (director: John Murray Anderson/cinematographer: Jerome Ash, Hal Mohr, Ray Rennahan)

au bonheur 3Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

king of jazz 4King of Jazz (director: John Murray Anderson/cinematographer: Jerome Ash, Hal Mohr, Ray Rennahan)

king of jazz 8King of Jazz (director: John Murray Anderson/cinematographer: Jerome Ash, Hal Mohr, Ray Rennahan)

Au Bonheur 9Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

three good friends 9Die Drei von der Tankstelle (director: Wilhelm Theile/cinematographer: Franz Planer)

au bonheur 8Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

CeV8dS6UMAA5oYcBorderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

doorway to hell 9The Doorway to Hell (director: Archie Mayo/cinematographer: Barney McGill)

CeWB_62UEAAHaAwBorderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

People on Sunday 17Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)

min and bill 2Min and Bill (director: George W. Hill/cinematographer: Harold Wenstrom)

joanPaid (director: Sam Wood/cinematographer: Charles Rosher)

CeWB-3OUkAAvMxpBorderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

CeWC80ZVAAETn5xBorderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

chesterThe Bat Whispers (director: Roland West/cinematographer: Robert H. Planck)

murder 8Murder! (director: Alfred Hitchcock/cinematographer: Jack E. Cox)

au bonheur 12Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

A Notorious Affair 2A Notorious Affair (director: Lloyd Bacon/cinematographer: Ernest Haller)

Ladies of Leisure 7Ladies of Leisure (director: Frank Capra/cinematographer: Joseph Walker)

la petite lise tLa Petite Lise (director: Jean Grémillon/cinematographer: Jean Bachelet, Rene Colas)

The Dawn Ptrol 2The Dawn Patrol (director: Howard Hawks/cinematographer: Ernest Haller)

morocco 8Morocco (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Lee Garmes/Lucien Ballard)

tumblr_n1yclhICk71qjs1omo1_540L’Age d’Or (director: Luis Buñuel/cinematographer: Albert Duverger)

People on Sunday 7Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)

the big house 6The Big House (director: George W. Hill/cinematographer: Harold Wenstrom)

bloof pwBlood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

The Big House 3The Big House (director: George W. Hill/cinematographer: Harold Wenstrom)

Au bonheur5 55Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

blood of a poet 7Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

Hell's Angels 4Hell’s Angels (director: Howard Hughes/cinematographer: Elmer Dyer, etc, etc)

HellsAngels11Hell’s Angels (director: Howard Hughes/cinematographer: Elmer Dyer, etc, etc)

the big trail 3The Big Trail (director: Raoul Walsh/cinematographer: Arthur Edeson)

liliom 2Liliom (director: Frank Borzage/cinematographer: Chester Lyons)

People on Sunday 6Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)

tumblr_ny80z5zTyp1ufel7co1_540Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)

tilly losch 3Dance of the Hands (short) (director: Norman Bel Geddes)

Blood of a Poet 6Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

blood 3Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

Blood of a Poet 4Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

tumblr_ls1w43jioY1qzzxybo1_500Dance of the Hands (short) (director: Norman Bel Geddes)

street of chance 2Street of Chance (director: John Cromwell/cinematographer: Charles Lang)

morocco vMorocco (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Lee Garmes/Lucien Ballard)

Our Blushing Brides 17Our Blushing Brides (director: Harry Beaumont/cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad)

the-divorcee
The Divorcee (director; Robert Z. Leonard/cinematographer: Norbert Brodine)

tumblr_nkqvfjrN7q1rgxncdo5_1280The Blue Angel (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Günther Rittau)

au bonhhh
Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

three good friends 5Die Drei von der Tankstelle (director: Wilhelm Theile/cinematographer: Franz Planer)

king of jazz 6King of Jazz (director: John Murray Anderson/cinematographer: Jerome Ash, Hal Mohr, Ray Rennahan)

king of jazz 10
King of Jazz (director: John Murray Anderson/cinematographer: Jerome Ash, Hal Mohr, Ray Rennahan)

Blood of a pioet 6Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

blood 9Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

CeWC57EVAAA81Cl
Borderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

Laughter 17Laughter (director: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/cinematographer: George J. Folsey)

feet first 2
Feet First (director: Clyde Bruckman, Harold Lloyd/cinematographer: Henry N. Kohler, Walter Lundin)

tumblr_mzxdv0cjxI1raq0fho1_540
L’Age d’Or (director: Luis Buñuel/cinematographer: Albert Duverger)

tumblr_mh3510SpEi1qzxrh2o1_540
L’Age d’Or (director: Luis Buñuel/cinematographer: Albert Duverger)

Blood of a Poet 2Blood of a Poet (director: Jean Cocteau/cinematographer: Georges Périnal)

CeV8fQXVAAEVEWc
Borderline (director/cinematographer: Kenneth MacPherson)

tumblr_nnoz56h31a1sdhfypo2_1280The Blue Angel (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Günther Rittau)

morocco 6Morocco (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Lee Garmes/Lucien Ballard)

Ladies of LeisureLadies of Leisure (director: Frank Capra/cinematographer: Joseph Walker)

HellsAngels2-700x410Hell’s Angels (director: Howard Hughes/cinematographer: Elmer Dyer, etc, etc)

tumblr_nkqvfjrN7q1rgxncdo7_1280The Blue Angel (director: Josef von Sternberg/cinematographer: Günther Rittau)

swing you sinners 3Swing You Sinners! (short) (director: Dave Fleischer)

tale of the fox 4
Le roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox) (director: Irene Starewicz, Wladyslaw Starewicz/cinematographer: W. Starerwicz)

tale of the fox 3Le roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox) (director: Irene Starewicz, Wladyslaw Starewicz/cinematographer: W. Starerwicz)

bonheur 22Au bonheur des dames (director: Julien Duvivier/cinematographers: Andre Dantan, Rene Guichard, Emile Pierre, Armand Thirard)

Hell's Angels 3
Hell’s Angels (director: Howard Hughes/cinematographer: Elmer Dyer, etc, etc)

all quietAll Quiet on the Western Front (director: Lewis Milestone/cinematographer: Arthur Edeson, Karl Freund)

tumblr_mq3ikbRCSR1rjtufgo1_540
Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

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Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

Prix de beaute 2
Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

CGVbMxYWwAA7qQC
Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

tumblr_n3fm6eQYlz1r9ujrco1_540
Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

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Prix de beauté (director: A. Genina/cinematographer: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née)

tumblr_m7fifsoV3V1qea3n2o1_540
Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)

madam satan 25Madam Satan (director: Cecil B. DeMille/cinematographer: Harold Rosson)

tumblr_mufj3dWotB1rsc0mvo4_540
Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (directors: Siodmak, Ulmer, etc/cinematographer: Eugen Schüfftan)

Ladies of Leisure 5Ladies of Leisure (director: Frank Capra/cinematographer: Joseph Walker)

Our Blushing Brides 16
Our Blushing Brides (director: Harry Beaumont/cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad)

Ca4AntsW8AA0P9q
Just Imagine (director: David Butler/cinematographer: Ernest Palmer)

madam satan 222Madam Satan (director: Cecil B. DeMille/cinematographer: Harold Rosson)

follow thru cocktailsFollow Thru (directors: Lloyd Corrigan, Laurence Schwab/cinematographer: Charles P. Boyle)

follow thru 10Follow Thru (directors: Lloyd Corrigan, Laurence Schwab/cinematographer: Charles P. Boyle)

the big trail 2The Big Trail (director: Raoul Walsh/cinematographer: Arthur Edeson)

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.

 

Vote in the Top Ten By Year: 1930 Poll!


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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.
DER BLAUE ENGEL - German Poster by Paul Rosié
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.

follow thru

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.