Top Ten By Year: 1930

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

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

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

(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)

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.


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.


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.


List: Film Characters I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards Part 1: The 1930’s

Have you ever watched a film and found yourself thinking “My God, but that character is getting on my nerves”, when said character is not necessarily meant to? There are plenty of onscreen characters throughout the years who are meant to be vexing or obnoxious. But at what point does that frustration transform into something a little more intense?

What do I mean by intense? Here are two possible definitions. First is that the hatred extends far past what is meant to be felt, becoming a somewhat preposterous fixation. The second is that the ‘irrational hatred’ for the character overflows to the point where you begin feeling adverse effects to the entire film itself.

Of course, these are more extreme side effects of the topic in question. For one thing, there are plenty of characters on this list that get on my nerves, but have never jeopardized my willingness to rewatch the film they are part of. For another thing, some of the characters on this list are supposed to get on your nerves; to a point. When you cannot move past it, when it grates on you beyond normalized reason, then it counts for this list, whether one is supposed to be annoyed by the character or not.

Something else to note; it does not have to be the character. In fact, many of the lists inclusions irritate me because of the performances attached to the character.

This is not the type of list I see around too much and so I thought it would be a fun and harmless road down which to venture. I like these kinds of lists that really have nothing to do with being the end-all be-all of anything, and focus more on ones personalized relationship with a variety of films. And anyone that reads this blog with any regularity knows I favor embracing the subjectivity of lists and somewhat resent (at least for myself) any attempts for a list to speak for anyone but myself.

The idea for this list came about from reminiscing about Apollo 13. In a management class for my graduate school classes for Library Science, we watched a few clips from the film. We had to discuss the various methods of group collaboration taking place and insert all the terminology we had been discussing about teams and groups into examples from the scenes (most featuring Ed Harris). I had been thinking about how much I truly like Apollo 13, and was lamenting about how long it had been since I watched it.

I then started to think about the one glaring downside to that film; Kathleen Quinlan. I flat-out do not like Kathleen Quinlan in this film. I realize that she was stuck with the obligatory ‘wife’ role and that it’s a pretty thankless part (although not thankless enough; she was nominated for an Oscar). There are a lot of similar thankless roles that actresses get saddled with, but none really got on my nerves the way she did. My memory recalls one worried facial expression throughout, and distractingly garish late 60’s/early 70’s wardrobe and makeup. At a certain point the negative feelings I have become inexplicable.

And thus the idea for this list was born.

There are some questionable choices here; I realize this. Some of the irrationality can be argued. I have a few characters on here where my reactions could be argued as being completely rational.

There were many that came to my head and I decided not to put them on. I felt either that my feelings were entirely too justified or that too many people hate the character for it to really feel ‘irrational’. How can it feel ‘irrational’ if so many others hate them as well? So no Jar-Jar Binks will be found here.

I am breaking them up into unordered chronological installments. I happened to have a lot from the 1930’s, but the next installment will cover at least two decades.

Examples of characters that did not make this first portion are Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Margaret Lockwood as Jenny in The Stars Look Down, Walter Huston as ‘Deadlegs’ Flint in Kongo and Norma Shearer as Mary Haines in The Women.

What characters do you have an irrational hatred towards from this or any decade?

Virginia Cherrill – A Blind Girl – City Lights (1931)

A sweet innocent blind girl just trying to make ends meet; what’s not to like? It should be the easiest grab for audience sympathy ever. The Tramp is head over heels for her, and if he is, we must be; right?

City Lights is one of my absolute favorite films. It is near perfect. The only thing that has never worked for me was Cherrill as ‘A Blind Girl’. My investment stems from my emotional stake in The Tramp’s happiness. I care because he cares. I never care for her predicament at face value. Does this make me a heartless bitch? I think not.

To be unashamedly shallow, she looks like a snot; am I wrong? Her supposed innocence feels transparent. It looks like she constantly smells some indistinguishable stink in the air. I would not have been surprised if the film had ended with the shocking twist that she had been playing him for a fool the entire time. When it comes down to it, I just never bought the act she was selling.

Frederic March – Marcus Superbus – The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Is there a more salacious Pre-Code film than the giant hypocrisy that is Cecil B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross? A film that wants to have its torture orgy-ridden cake and eat it too; this is a must-watch train-wreck oddity of its time. The sheer unabashed indulgence of splendor (it’s well worth seeing if only for the spectacle and the luscious performances of Charles Laughton and Claudette Colbert) and the gall it has to drown itself in false piety is unbelievable.

This false piety is embodied by the Marcuc Superbus character. Fredric March is sorely miscast and forced into tight curls and a constant display of upper thigh. He is also weighted down with unbearably corny dialogue. But it is his ‘arc’ that is intolerable. He immediately falls for Elissa Landi’s Mercia (a devout Christian in the age of Nero) and becomes insistent on seducing her. He pretends to give a shit about the Christian cause, but really thinks it is all a joke. He unsuccessfully humiliates her as he attempts to subject her to an orgy as everyone laughs at her purity. Then in the final minutes, he joins her in death because he loves her? Huh?

I repeat; huh? It is unbelievably soapy, unearned and outright dull. But somehow through it all, March’s character frustrated me more than the bad writing, dry religious goings-on and hypocrisy. Never for one second does it make sense that he would fall for Mercia when he had Claudette Colbert (and her milk-bath soaked breasts) lusting after him. He is a douchebag cad throughout and March’s performance is just plain bad; as in, one of the worst I have ever seen.

Charles Ruggles – Peter Yates – Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Does anybody really like Charles Ruggles? Has anyone ever uttered the words “I am a Charles Ruggles fan?” I can guarantee you will never hear those words from my lips. Ruggles was a go-to character actor of the time. His general persona was that of a befuddled stuttering man  who would often get tangled-up in his own words while transparently putting on airs. He happens to have a supporting role in my favorite film Bringing Up Baby. I can usually tolerate him. Not in Murders in the Zoo, which I watched last year while covering all my bases for my Pre-Code Horror list.

From my write-up on “Pre-Code Horror: The 9 Films that Didn’t Make the Cut”: “Murders in the Zoo is brought down by none other than…Charles Ruggles….lots of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles gets the confounding honor of top-billing instead of Lionel Atwill. He plays a public relations type who gets to do his stuttering imbecilic fool act for what feels like eternity and what is actually a significant chunk of a film with a runtime of just over an hour.”

That pretty much sums it up. It is a performance that an active chore to sit through. While a lot of these performances and characters grate on me in ways far beyond what they should, there are few that reach this level of aggravation.

Katharine Hepburn – Jo March – Little Women (1933)

Don’t get me wrong; I love Katharine Hepburn. Part of me can admit that most of this entry is personal bias. I was born in 1987. In 1994, Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women was released and I distinctly remember seeing it in theaters at age seven. It had a deep and indescribable effect on me and continues to today; it would rank in my top five favorite films of all time. You see, to me, Winona Ryder is Jo March. Her portrayal remains one of my most cherished performances and characters. So to see Hepburn in this role was something that put me immediately on the defensive.

Clearly I realize this is unreasonable behavior. Normally I have no problem accepting the basic fact of life that beloved novels will have multiple adaptations. Different character depictions and interpretations deserve to be taken as separate entities even if (and when) comparisons inevitably come into play. Normally I can realize basic rationalities such as this; but not with Jo March. Winona Ryder is Jo March. I become a petulant child when it comes to my feelings on this.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo March can be a tad grating at times to say the least. It feels too easy, despite being a great idea in theory. They share spunk and drive and an everlasting search for the deeper meanings of life. In practice though, Katharine Hepburn as Jo March feels a bit like Katharine Hepburn as Katharine Hepburn. I said it twice and I will say it one last time; Winona Ryder is and will always be my Jo March.

Margaret Dumont – Various Characters – Any and all Marx Brothers films

Blasphemy you say? Well, I cannot help it. But she is like the fifth Marx Brother! Essential to the ensemble! She had an undervalued and difficult job! All true.

The simple truth of it is that I cannot stand her. Yet my eyes always helplessly drift towards her as the jokes land. Not because I am in Dumont-loving denial; it is merely the masochist in me.  Her reactions never fail to have the same effect; I take a deep breath so as to not lose my cool over performances given over 70 years ago.

I realize that there is only so much variety to be had when your job is to be the butt of jokes across several films and to be the reacting party over and over and over again. Here is my problem with Dumont; not only are her reactions all exactly the same, but I have never and will never be able to get past the antiquated theatricality to her. Her acting is unbearably stagey and try though I might, I cannot get past it.

I realize all of the ‘buts’ that could be thrown in here. Though, this is an ‘irrational hatred’ list after all. And that is exactly what I have for Mrs. Margaret Dumont.

Mickey Rooney – Puck – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

I first saw the 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s play (my favorite of his besides Hamlet) about eight years ago on Turner Classic Movies. Generally, I enjoyed it. In particular, James Cagney as Bottom was inspired and unforgettable. But I am unsure whether I could sit through this again. Why? Two words: Mickey Rooney.

That he is playing Puck, marvelous mischievous Puck, only makes his performance all the more depressing to think about. As far as purely obnoxious performances go, this one takes the cake. I mean really. I do not know if there is a more obnoxious performance in the whole of cinema. In his earlier decades, Mickey Rooney had an energy level one could equate with pure adrenaline. As a young teenager here, this is raised to a maximum.

Just thinking about him is giving me a headache. It is all a blur. All I remember are these horrible guffawing noises he would make. A barrage of screeches, snorts, squeals, bulging eyes and manic energy. Is this an accurate description of his performance? I have no idea; it has been eight years and I sure as hell never intend to watch his performance again to confirm or deny my fuzzy remembrances.

Ruth Chatteron – Fran Dodsworth – Dodsworth (1936)

This is a tricky one; a really truly tricky one. Technically Chatterton should not even count. Her repulsive unappreciative character is an entirely purposeful creation (adapted from the play). Everything I felt towards her is meant. Nobody who has seen the film would ever question why I might feel this way. I can still recall what I felt while watching it in a heartbeat. There was a strong urge, rarely matched, to reach in and shake her, slap her and even shove her off a tall building. I recall heaving and puffing, even yelling at the television set despite being all by me while watching. My frustration with her nearly brought me to tears.  It has been too long for me to remember whether we were supposed to feel any sympathy for her at any point, but I never did.

Her placement on this list is due to my uncertainty whether or not I ever want to see Dodsworth again despite liking it very much. I think of all of the heavy and/or disturbing films I have seen multiple times (or films I’ve seen once but would see again eventually) and compare it with my possible unwillingness to sit through Chatterton’s despicable character. I am positive that at some point in my life I will rewatch Inside with no qualms whatsoever. But Dodsworth? I do not know. Because of this, her placement here felt necessary. Even if I would never in a million years call my hatred for her irrational.

Adriana Caselotti (voice) Snow White – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

There was a time in my life where I had an obsession with Disney films. My love for them has not lessened, but there was a particular time of concentrated obsession. I constantly had all of my Disney DVD’s in rotation, keeping them on while I did homework after school every day all through high school. I made tons of ambitious Disney lists. I got to know all of these films very well through sheer repetition.

When is the last time you sat and watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  Maybe you have forgotten or never noticed, but Snow White is the worst. The film is generally a joy, unarguably important and fantastically creative in its animation. Our first Disney princess however, leaves much to be desired.

She is a concoction of uselessness. This goes beyond the expected levels of non-agency that the Disney princesses (at least in earlier decades), tended not to possess. Snow White is just plain stupid. She really is quite the moron. Sadly, this and helplessness are her only characteristics. Oh, and a natural inclination towards domesticity. None of this is even remotely surprising and it is only part of the reason why I have allowed an animated character to wring my hands up in impatience.

When it comes down to it, the clincher is Adriana Caselotti’s voice work. It sounds like someone took the affected iconic voice of Marilyn Monroe, distilled it to its purest form and turned the dial to eleven. Let us ignore the fact that Monroe was eleven when this was released. The voice is unbearable. It has the potential to evoke involuntary eye twitching.

Virginia Walker – Alice Swallow – Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The anger I carry towards this character does not compare to the other entries in this first set. Yet Alice Swallow still bothers me beyond what is meant. This is a character whom we immediately recognize as being the wrong match for Cary Grant’s David Huxley. She is stuffy, prim and curt. She is a party pooper of the first degree. We are not supposed to like her.

If we are not supposed to like her then why put her on? Because she is a caricature who barely gets any screen time. Alice is not for one moment in danger of keeping David away from what he wants. She is a physical representation of what needs to change in his life. She never feels like a real human being. And she appears in the very beginning and end of the film.

She is on this list because I spend far too much time hating a character that not even the film itself takes with a modicum of seriousness.

List: Top 10 Pre-Code Horror Films

For anyone who doesn’t know, ‘Pre-Code’ refers to a period in American film starting in 1930 and ending in 1934. While ‘Pre-Code’ suggests a time in film before the Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines created by advocate for morality Will Hays, the title is misleading. The Production Code was created in 1930 but was not enforced until 1934. Once it was, it became nearly impossible to get your film seen without being passed by the Code. But between 1930 and 1934, studios found they could get away with quite a bit, making for an entirely idiosyncratic batch of films that carried an incomparable attitude and swagger that was heavily diluted once the Code kicked in.

A number of different genres found their claim to fame within the studio system. These include but are not limited to the gangster film, female-dominated films (usually focusing in part on women’s freedom to casually sleep around without being criticized or punished for it; something entirely lost come Code enforcement), the musical and of course the horror film. Universal may be the primary studio known for their output in horror during this time, but almost all of the major studios dabbled in the genre. Pre-Code horror has a number of recurring traits; tendency towards novelistic adaptation, spill-over influence of German Expressionism, dependence on showcasing breakout stars by building films around them, streamlined run times, throwaway filler characters, prioritization of visualized atmosphere and most fun of all, a running streak of morbid sadism that prods at Pre-Code boundaries.

Note: I used a very broad use of the horror genre for this list. There are several films on this list that do not fit comfortably in the horror genre, but do contain horror in some fashion. Also, I do not like claiming ‘best’; I can only account for what I personally find to be good or bad, interesting or uninteresting.

All summaries taken from Internet Movie Database.

10. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Curtiz)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: In London, sculptor Ivan Igor struggles in vain to prevent his partner Worth from burning his wax museum…and his ‘children.’ Years later, Igor starts a new museum in New York, but his maimed hands confine him to directing lesser artists. People begin disappearing (including a corpse from the morgue); Igor takes a sinister interest in Charlotte Duncan, fiancée of his assistant Ralph, but arouses the suspicions of Charlotte’s roommate, wisecracking reporter Florence.

When it came down to picking between this and Svengali, I realized either film could have been in this number 10 spot. What made me choose ‘Mystery’, the second Curtiz-directed two-toned Technicolor (Doctor X being the first), is that it’s a surprisingly fun ride…so much so that it sets itself apart from the other films on this list (except for number 5 but they are both such different beasts). It retains just enough for it to pass the horror test, but more importantly, it plays out like a light female-fronted detective film. Front and center is Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a firecracker of a reporter who presents herself as a hardworking ace and a casual party-goer with zingers to spare (and she can run circles around her male coworkers to boot). She may get a tad annoying from time to time, but I was impressed by how refreshing her character is even now, in that her agency drives the entire picture.

The highlights of ‘Mystery’ come from the non-horror elements; the audience is tricked into buying into one love interest, before it throws an entirely different and successful match at us in its final 30 seconds! A scene between Farrell and roommate (and catalyst for Lionel Atwill’s nefarious deeds) Fay Wray shows a casual air between two female friends that, even in its touch-and-go sparring, feels like it captures something authentic about two young women rooming together in a big city.  Between all this, there’s Lionel Atwill, who gets a much better chance to shine here than he did in Doctor X or Murders in the Zoo.

Pacing issues prevail throughout mainly because the scenes with Farrell are jarring in their rapidity when placed against anything else. But this took me by surprise; it’s underrated and more than deserves a look, and not just because this is where the origins of House of Wax lay.

9. The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Pichel)
Studio: RKO
Summary: An insane hunter arranges for a ship to be wrecked on an island where he can indulge in some sort of hunting and killing of the passengers.

A precursor to King Kong if you will, with RKO, Fay Wray and an island setting all in test-drive mode. The earliest filmed incarnation of a Battle Royale-esque concept I can think of, this is based on a 1924 short story where the humans become the hunted. As its placement here indicates, I prefer this to King Kong. Seeing the cast of characters slowly realize their predicament is well-executed. The existence of a 1932 film with this plot makes for an automatic treat. The dialogue is solid and Fay Wray is, again, divine. My big problem is that Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff does not work. He is far too artificial and hammy in his performance (even by early talkies standard) to register and this hinders the entire film.

8. Frankenstein (1931, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: Horror classic in which an obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.

It could definitely be said that Frankenstein is a better film than a few of my higher choices. I used to place this in the same overrated pile as Dracula, but over the years I have come around on it. The source material is one of my favorite books and while the themes are truncated to the point of near evaporation (outside of the critical element of Karloff’s yearning which allows the film to ultimately work), the poor script is overcome by Whale’s glorious direction and Karloff’s magnificent performance. It says a lot that Karloff’s work makes up for the disappointing removal of his character’s ability to speak (my favorite aspect and section of the novel). How great would that have been to see with his glorious voice?

In a Gothic Literature class I wrote a response paper on the decision to change his character’s name from ‘The Creature’ as it is in the book, to ‘The Monster’ as he is represented in the film, and what it says about the thematic prioritization in each. That essential element of yearning on the part of Karloff is retained, allowing the entire film to pay-off beautifully. The famous scene in which Karloff murders the young girl is a milestone scene in Pre-Code cinema. Truncated as the film may be, it keeps the all-too important question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and, taken as on its own terms, the film works even today.

7. The Black Cat (1934, Ulmer)
Studio: Universal
Summary: American honeymooners in Hungary are trapped in the home of a Satan- worshiping priest when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident.

If you need any further incentive to see this, just know that Karloff and Lugosi’s characters are named Hjalmar Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast, which serves as a hint for what you are in for. The Black Cat is a thoroughly bizarre and nonsensical trip featuring the first Karloff/Lugosi onscreen pairing and boy oh boy do they get to face-off. Their dialogue exchanges drip like a poison-tipped pen as they out-act each other. There is even a chess game with sky-high stakes. Classical music plays over almost every scene, an unheard of gesture at this point. The setting is an art director’s wet dream; an art-deco haven complete with digital clocks! And the title? The Black Cat has nothing to do with Poe; Lugosi’s character just happens to be deathly afraid of cats! Seriously; this film makes next to no sense, which is why a bit of surrender to it is necessary to appreciate it. For every bit of confusion and/or scene with the dull as doornails central couple, we are given highlights like the memorable trip into Karloff’s mausoleum containing the suspended body of Lugosi’s long-dead wife. This is one of the more twisted titles on either list.

Pre-Code Goodies: Lots. Karloff shown sleeping in the same bed as another woman (breaking the absolutely forbidden one-bed rule) and who can forget that flaying?

6. The Mummy (1932, Freund)
Studio: Universal
Summary: In 1921 a field expedition in Egypt discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep, who was condemned and buried alive for sacrilege. Also found in the tomb is the Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life. One night a young member of the expedition reads the Scroll out loud, and then goes insane, realizing that he has brought Im-Ho-Tep back to life. Ten years later, disguised as a modern Egyptian, the mummy attempts to reunite with his lost love, an ancient princess who has been reincarnated into a beautiful young woman.

If it isn’t clear by this point; I am a *huge* Boris Karloff fan. He was a master at his craft and one of the few actors who I would gladly watch in absolutely anything and everything he has done. He instantly elevates anything he appears in. My favorite performance of his is in 1945’s The Body Snatcher, a vastly underrated film (one that I rank up there with Cat People and The Leopard Man as far as Val Lewton produced fare goes). Just like Lon Chaney, his work goes so far beyond the makeup. That voice alone.

Getting back on track, The Mummy satisfies on every level. It has shivery moments, such as that prologue with the man-gone-mad pay-off. Karloff is all over this film barely concealing his character’s ulterior motives with a transparent soft kindliness. Then we have director Karl Freund who, in all honesty, is one of my favorite people ever to exist in the film industry. You know how some people have their favorite historical figures? Well, in the world of film history, Karl Freund is one of mine. The film moves along at a click and is consistent throughout (not something I can say for a lot of the films seen for this list, even some of the ones I really like). The leading lady here often gets overlooked but Zita Johann is a strong in both performance and character. Considering the number of other films with insufferable female leads (Mask of Fu Manchu, The Black Cat, White Zombie, Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue), this is a major plus. Finally, we get a short silent film within a film as a special treat.

Pre-Code Goodies: Zita Johann’s wardrobe for the climax is quite revealing.

5. The Old Dark House (1932, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travelers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family.

The Old Dark House is Karloff’s follow-up role to Frankenstein with both films directed by James Whale. Funnily enough, Karloff does not get much to do here. Despite top billing, he is a mute butler who I recall mainly lumbering in and out of the frame. Yet the film starts out with this little ditty written onscreen:

Producer’s Note: Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in Frankenstein. We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.

Despite the hubbub surrounding Karloff here, and given how much of a fan of his I am, he does not factor into why this shows up on this list. What does account for its placement is that it stands out from the pack as a witty little oddity that crackles with personality and humor, while still being eerie. Whale’s atmospheric ‘old dark house’ uses creaking windows, barren hallways and dimly lit surroundings and allows it to work in tandem with the comedic elements. Our ‘ordinary’ characters find themselves at the house and are surrounded by a peculiar smorgasbord of a family. This collision between ordinary and peculiar characters makes for interactions throughout the film that are consistently weird, and that is where the humor comes into play. It’s almost like a warped sitcom at times and it’s a lot of fun. And that cast; while Karloff skulks in the background just enjoy seeing Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey onscreen together. For a Pre-Code Horror film to have a cast filled to the brim with legitimately talented people is a one-time thing. Savor it.

4. The Invisible Man (1933, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

I will not have much to say about The Invisible Man because it has been about seven years since I’ve seen it. That I remember my reaction to the film, proclaiming it to be one of my favorites immediately upon finishing is a strong indicator for its high spot. It is the film that made me fall in love with Claude Rains, an actor who I rank among Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton, Conrad Veidt and Boris Karloff on a list of favorite classic actors. He only has his voice to get characterization across (and what a voice it is).

The effects are still impressive today as they harken back to a time where effects inspired less reactions like ‘how did they do that?’ and more reactions like ‘oh my Lord, Claude Rains is invisible!’. Rains gets himself into pretty muddy waters as he slips further and further from sanity; the joy comes from getting the progressive sense of characterization through only voice and dialogue and not sight. Just writing about what I can recall is making me realize just how badly I need to see this again.

3. Freaks (1932, Browning)
Studio: MGM
Summary: A circus’ beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.

What hasn’t been said about Freaks, the film that ruined director Tod Browning’s career and is now hailed by many as a masterpiece. This is a one-of-a-kind to be sure and thankfully, due to a rampant following that began many decades ago, no longer an unfairly maligned diamond in the rough. The message here is that monstrosity exists on the inside, not the outside. And in this case, the ‘freaks’ in question are kind-hearted and well-meaning souls, who have learned to take their outcast status and transform it into communal pride. The real ‘freak’ in question is the outwardly beautiful Cleopatra, played by the awesome Olga Baclanova, who manipulates, cheats and attempts murder in order to get rich from Hans (Harry Earles), a sideshow dwarf. Her fate is legendary in film history, a reveal that remains unsurpassed in its effect.

The use of people with various extreme deformities seems exploitative, and on some level of course it is. But on another more important level, Browning treats his characters with empathy and care, making their appearance something that serves as shock value only when it needs to.

2. Island of Lost Souls (1932, Kenton)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: An obsessed scientist conducts profane experiments in evolution, eventually establishing himself as the self-styled demigod to a race of mutated, half-human abominations.

If you haven’t seen Island of Lost Souls, this is the perfect time as the film was just released on Criterion Collection. I have sadly been unable to purchase it due to monetary constraints, but believe it is at the top of my to-buy list.

An adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, ‘Lost Souls’ is drenched in sadistic perversity and who better to headline such a sentiment than Charles Laughton? There are so many reasons why this film is brilliant; not least that it balances questions of deeper meaning with schlocky goodness. On the one hand there are questions about the line between men and animal, does that line even exist and should we even be so bold as to test it? On the other hand there’s Kathleen Burke as ‘The Panther Woman’, a role cast in a publicized nation-wide search and man-animal amalgams on display as Moreau’s slaves are revealed to our hero Ed Parker (Richard Arlen).

The entire film is unsettling and this is exuded through Charles Laughton whose performance cannot be praised enough. He transcends the early talkie stigma and is transfixing in every shot and with every line of dialogue. Take his cruel plan to get the ‘Panther Woman’ to mate with Ed, in the hopes of breeding between one of his creations and a human. He tells her to go speak with him and as she does he watches, his eyes intent with sick voracity. It is sublimely troubling, even as a viewer, to see Laughton so desperate for control that he must be onsite at every possible moment, subtlety be damned.

Moreau’s desperate thirst for god-like control straddles his very real genius and his equally real sadistic nature. Whip-in-hand. his creations become his slaves where he rules his own world, king of his own self-built island of ‘lost souls’. Bela Lugosi has a small but pivotal role as the Sayer of the Law, leader of the animal-men. He asks the others, and the audience “Are we not men?” Devo’s answer to that is “We are Devo”. What’s yours?

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932, Mamoulian)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde.

It is necessary to appreciate how much Rouban Mamoulian was doing to experiment with the visual language of narrative film in a time where a primary concern was just getting the sound to come out right. Mamoulian, lucky enough to find a studio that encouraged his inventiveness (instead of requiring that he blend in as was done in the studio era), throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. We open with a 5 minute point-of-view shot that must have been hell to get right and stuns in technical achievement alone. Throughout, we also get innovative use of sound, following up on what he accomplished with 1929’s Applause. This goes so far beyond the limits of what could be considered stylized in a 1932 Hollywood film. But I’ll let you discover that on your own.

A really insightful scene-by-scene write-up of the film exists on a blog called And You Call Yourself a Scientist! I suggest you check it out; I read it immediately after seeing the film. I have never read the book, but there is so much that can be discussed from the adaptation choices (that I’ve read about without having read the source material), to how the visuals support the film’s deeper meanings and what those deeper meanings are. The seedy underground of London provides the backdrop as well as a contrast to decadent upper-class London. Hyde is a brute who gives into his violent urges at the expense of poor poor Miriam Hopkins who really kills it as prostitute Ivy Pearson. Her downfall is not easy to watch, especially by Pre-Code standards, because we actually feel like she has been through something severely traumatic. It may not be seen, but everything that is implied suggests humiliation, torture and rape, and it’s tragic once those implications hit the audience in the face.

The film is ambiguous as to just how much Jekyll remembers of his time as Hyde and it makes for a really active viewing from the audience. Our feelings towards him are being yanked in every direction.

What’s more is that the film uses the Pre-Code freedom in a way that revolves everything around sexual urges. In fact, its message implies that letting oneself go sexually is important. Hyde’s emergence is a result of his repression from Muriel (Rose Hobart), both of whom want to push their wedding date up assumedly so they can get at it (let’s also applaud the film’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of female sexual urges through Muriel). The film’s ‘sexual repression isn’t good’ streak combats with the other side of the extreme; Hyde’s maniacal which clearly isn’t good either. The villains in most of these other films have other motivations of some kind, but Hyde is just pure cruelty. And what makes him so troubling is that he isn’t unhinged to the point of animal. He is calculating and brutal, and giddy about it. He is a creature operating on sadism; that this is his primary function is what makes him stand out from the crowd.

I chose this as my number one because it knocked me on my feet visually and thematically. It is filled with riches that will undoubtedly continue to reward upon repeat viewings and fantastic work from Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.