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.

fast and loose
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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.31.30 PM

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.


Potential Double Feature #4: The Old Maid (1939) & Old Acquaintance (1943)

Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins starred in two films together for Warner Brothers in 1939 and 1943 respectively. Their combative rapport (the origin of which can be attributed to several things) is the stuff of legend now; a lesser known kind of the Davis/Crawford feuding. Competitive and sneaky spotlight hogging, Hopkins’s propensity for flighty dramatics, threw Davis for a bit of a loop with both attempting to micromanage at every turn. For this Potential Double Feature post, I suggest watching their onscreen pairings back-to-back. They represent some of the best that ‘women’s pictures’, a derivative label that I use in efforts for reclamation, of the studio era have to offer. The former is the more respected and better remembered of the two, but the latter is underappreciated, cleverly taking some of the same interpersonal components of The Old Maid while telling an entirely different story about fraught female friendship.

The Old Maid

The Old Maid (1939, Goulding)
IMDB Summary: The arrival of an ex-lover on a young woman’s wedding day sets in motion a chain of events which will alter her and her cousin’s lives forever.

Where Old Acquaintance is related to The Old Maid, The Old Maid is related to Jezebel in setting and the similarities in cast and crew. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, in turn based on Edith Wharton’s novella (which I’m reading now), The Old Maid traces the mistakes and regrets of two women (also cousins) during the Civil War era and how those follies inextricably bond them for better and worse. These follies come in the form of Charlotte (Davis) giving herself over to spinsterhood and rigid aunt-dom while her illegitimate child is raised by Delia (Hopkins) as her own. Support and deceit go hand-in-hand as Charlotte and Delia mark the years together with loss. Their friendship is complicated. I see many who note the two characters as being purely antagonistic, with Delia’s actions clearly marked by selfishness and old world loyalty. Delia’s traditional beliefs and unforgivable decision are certainly present, but her insistence on helping Charlotte as well as her regrets and genuine care for her, are what prevent The Old Maid from being cut-and-dry, making it an especially engaging feature of grey shades of mutual jealousy. Then add Clem (George Brent), the man killed-in-combat that both loved, and the father of Charlotte’s child, and you’ve got Delia’s major regret, a thorn in her side that she won’t fully admit to herself, subconsciously resenting Charlotte for doing what she could not bring herself to no matter the consequences.

Regret turns murky, because to call Tina a ‘mistake’ discredits that she becomes the epicenter of Charlotte and Delia’s collective life together. They form a good-mother bad-aunt team; rambunctious Tina grows to have a warm bond with “Mummy”, while Charlotte, because “she must never suspect”, transforms herself into a constantly chastising bitter old maid. It’s one of Davis’s best performances, going from pining third wheel beauty to icy and faded with sacrificial verve. It’s a showy role that goes beyond the physical feat. There’s a scene towards the end where she is by herself, pretending to talk to Tina. Her words are kind-hearted and cautionary, full of soft concern and advice. We then see her saying those same words, but now they sound completely different. As filtered through “Aunt Charlotte”, they become a harsh and brittle critique. She literally has to purge every motherly instinct by acting through these moments with herself. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

Edmund Goulding, who I’m learning more about, orgies and all, is an underappreciated director. He favors longer takes, and is able to connect with the emotional center of a film, and with the characters operating within that, and have it spring out at you.

Old Acquaintance
Old Acquaintance (1943, Sherman)

IMDB Summary: Old friends Kit Marlowe and Millie Drake adopt contrasting lifestyles: Kit is a single, critically acclaimed author while married Millie writes popular pulp novels.

Four years after the success of The Old Maid, Davis and Hopkins teamed up again, this time under Vincent Sherman for a much more clear-cut kind of friendship uncomplicated by familial bonds, but instead sustained through a freakish strand of loyalty on the part of Davis’s Kit.  Though it, of course for 1943, suggests that women can’t have both love and a career, its study of lifelong friendship somewhat eclipses its more dated cautionary elements. It asks why oh why would someone, in this case Bette Davis, stay friends with someone, in this case Miriam Hopkins, so ceaselessly toxic? Kit deserves to be treated so much better. Her best friend happens to be insufferable, dismissive, competitive, insulting and shrill. Kit’s accommodations don’t come from meekness or weakness; her voluntary loyalty borders on martyrdom. She knows Millie’s more questionable traits come from a deep seeded jealousy and insecurity. It’s an extreme case of accepting someone for who they are, for having empathy and understanding when others, justifiably, don’t.

Split into three time periods, Davis is something divine in the first act which sees the characters at their youngest. She is breezily boyish and slack. She even goes to bed pantsless! Davis also plays a character who, in the last half, has to come to terms with dating a significantly younger man, and this seven years before All About Eve. This final half is a bit unfocused with its added youthful players and an newly introduced love triangle that Davis seems altogether too above being involved in. Although the same thing could be said for the love triangle of the first half, as Millie’s husband is a complacent sad sack too cowardly to do something about his own unhappiness.

I’m so fond of the end and its lack of sturdy conclusion in the traditional studio sense; two women, finding solace in forgiveness and each other even with the icky twinge of successful women = sacrificial element. But it’s more. That sense is there, but it circles back to the affirmation of loyalty. And if it puts forth that the two are mutually exclusive, at the very least it doesn’t suggest Kit and Millie made the wrong choice.

Watching Them Together:
Each write-up marks some clear similarities in content and theme between the two films (and also the titles). Female friendship, sacrifice, loyalty, jealousy, the passage of time, hostility, competitiveness, etc. The male characters are all dolts or dead. A simmering tension between Davis and Hopkins is always capitalized on, much more openly in Old Acquaintance since their dislike for one another would have been well known to the public at that point. There’s even a memorable moment in “Acquaintance” where things get physical, as Kit wrings Millie’s neck (!), shaking her like a rag doll (she had it coming, trust me). Structurally the latter takes from the former as well. Our protagonists start as young brides, brides-to-be, or brides-not-to-be, and ends with the younger generation becoming part of the story before eclipsing the elder. Each has a clear three-act passage of time, with two significant time jumps apiece. And finally, the end of each film sees Davis and Hopkins together, toasting to their friendship or resignedly walking arm-in-arm.

Despite all of these similarities in structure and theme, the content and central friendship of the two are so different. Just look at the IMDB summaries! From the perspective of a basic synopsis, these are two stories with virtually nothing in common. The Old Maid‘s interactions with youth are based in the familial, in Old Acquaintance the romantic. The love triangles of each show a preoccupation with the past in the former and the contrast between middle age and youth in the latter. The loyalty of Delia and Charlotte comes from a place of sacrifice and regret. In Old Acquaintance it comes from a place of acceptance and accommodation. Old Acquaintance is about the ‘modern woman’, a woman who attempts a career and a family. The Old Maid is about a woman who is denied both. Most importantly, you get a sense of the trajectory with a second film that is self-aware in what it has with the Davis/Hopkins face-off. Thus, while Old Acquaintance may not not be as consistently engaging or tensely tethered as The Old Maid, the simplicity of the antagonism makes it lighter fare with clear-cut hatred aimed from the audience at Millie at all times. Charlotte and Kit each play second fiddle, though not Bette Davis The Actress, to Delia and Millie. The different is in the first it’s by all-in necessity, and in the second it’s by choice.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #57-61

Hangmen Also Die!

#57. Hangmen Also Die! (1943, Lang)
I already have more appreciation for Hangmen Also Die! since watching it, especially in comparison to my largely indifferent gut in media res reaction. The lead actors are unable to make a connection with the audience, there are some moderately significant pacing problems and an unappealing stiltedness to its visual flow. Of Fritz Lang’s WWII quartet, the only other one I’ve seen is Man Hunt, which I felt similarly cold towards. Said quartet has been pretty uniformly overlooked in Lang’s filmography, but there have thankfully been recent surges in exploration and newfound adoration. I’m of two minds with Hangmen Also Die! because it (and Man Hunt), unsurprisingly given Lang’s (and other collaborators here) background and even his somewhat murky politics, engages with WWII in more complex ways that many other films of the time.

Its focus is on a more aggressive and far-reaching brand of anti-Fascist solidarity, going so much further than standard calls of resistance. The Czech underground movement in the film is not alone in defiance. The entire population is, without fail, as openly defiant as they are capable of being. This allows for a conspiratorial final act with such a satisfying and elaborate pay-off. The Nazi characters are portrayed with some degree of specificity; they are full-blooded bullies with subtle shadings as opposed to generically über-efficient. It’ll be hard to forget the eccentric cruelty of an elderly woman being forced to pick up part of a broken chair over and over. But it is Czaka, the traitor, who is seen as the worst offender, and that final act pay-off I mentioned is the film and characters going payback mode on his sorry ass. Hangmen Also Die! is a morale builder, like so many, but a pricklier and moodier kind. I get the sense my appreciation for it will grow as I revisit it years from now.


#58. Air Force (1943, Hawks)
Surely one of the more objectively successful combat WWII-era films with its progressively concise team-as-singular-entity function. It’s also a perfect example of what the WWII combat film is meant to do in theory; turn the vague and often withheld details of the war into a specific entertainment-based narrative for the civilian audience. It gives a sense of context, something to grasp onto, however inaccurate, in the face of uncertainty. The B-17 is depicted as a sacred weapon and carrier of dutiful familial male bonding. It’s a perfect fit for Hawks. James Wong Howe shoots interiors with multiple men almost always in frame. Instead of reading as claustrophobic, it’s made to feel like a comfortable connective space. Less guided by plot points, more pushed forward by acts of teamwork that show the supportive and determined morale of the crew.

But here’s the rub; combat films couldn’t be of less personal interest to me. It says something that with so many 1943 combat films to choose from, and reading a handful of books on WWII films, that Air Force was the only one of its kind I put on my 1943 watchlist. Air Force is important for the time for successfully offering a scenario of idealized collaborative nobility, but it doesn’t transfer to either today (it’s part of the wartime package but racism abounds), or to my own personal taste, as something I could connect with despite the nice ensemble work and genuine feeling of camaraderie.

Old Acquaintance

#59. Old Acquaintance (1943, Sherman)
Exactly the kind of ‘women’s picture’ I instantly flock to. Though it, of course, suggests that women can’t have both love and a career, its central female-driven study of lifelong friendships somewhat eclipses its more dated cautionary elements. It asks why oh why would someone, in this case Bette Davis, stay friends with someone, in this case Miriam Hopkins, so ceaselessly toxic? Davis’s Kit deserves to be treated so much better. Her best friend happens to be insufferable, dismissive, competitive, insulting and shrill. Kit’s accommodations don’t come from meekness or weakness; it’s voluntary loyalty bordering on martyrdom. She knows Millie’s more questionable traits come from a deep seeded jealousy and insecurity. It’s an extreme case of accepting someone for who they are, for having empathy and understanding when others, justifiably, don’t.

Split into three time periods, Davis is something divine in the first act which sees the characters at their youngest. She is breezily boyish and slack. She even goes to bed pantsless! Kit stays awesome pretty much throughout, but those first thirty minutes are to die for. Davis also plays a character who, in the last half, has to come to terms with dating a significantly younger man, and this seven years before All About Eve. This final half is a bit unfocused with its added youthful players and an newly introduced love triangle that Davis seems altogether too above being involved in. Although the same thing could be said for the love triangle of the first half, as Millie’s husband is a complacent sad sack too cowardly to do something about his own unhappiness.

I’m so fond of the end and its lack of sturdy conclusion in the traditional studio sense; two women, finding solace in forgiveness and each other even with the icky twinge of successful women = sacrificial element. But it’s more. That sense is there, but it circles back to the affirmation of loyalty. And if it puts forth that the two are mutually exclusive, at the very least it doesn’t suggest Kit and Millie made the wrong choice.


#60. Nymphomaniac Volume II (2014, von Trier)
This second volume makes way for Joe and Seligman to openly discuss the structure of her storytelling and his literalizations. This allows their dialogue to freely move into much touchier, sometimes revelatory, sometimes squicky kinds of talk about such topics as sexual reactions to pain, pedophilia, and the use of the word ‘negro’. Joe reveals herself to be uncompromisingly direct to a fault, that directness stemming from her overreaching tendency to label herself (‘calling a spade a spade’), ushering in a more extreme variant of sexuality to the forefront in content and dialogue. Von Trier’s willingness to engage in a self-dialogue of sorts is rewarding in its matter-of-factness. Joe’s comments about pedophilia in particular are pretty much word-for-word in line with my own thoughts, well, outside of that ‘bloody medal’ bit.

I wish the second half felt consistently successful, but instead it’s anchored and labored. By far what I liked most was the Jamie Bell chapter. Although I think S&M is too often depicted in film with a desperate air, the way it is handled here completely fit within the circumstances of Joe’s predicament and mined engaging thematic territory. Jamie Bell, along with Stellan Skargaard and Uma Thurman are co-MVPs within the opus. His downcast routine-operating sadist blends a peculiar mix of directness and indirectness. The last chapter, Joe’s search and upbringing of a protegee, feels of a different realm and disengagement sets in never to be reclaimed. A final reel recasting of Shia Labeouf to reflect the passing of time is the final step to said realm. Nothing onscreen at that point feels connected to what came before, especially since Gainsbourg and LaBeouf are allowed to share scenes together earlier on. Joe’s rock-bottom moment proves indecipherable and grotesquely over-the-top from all angles (P pees on her? Fucking seriously?).

The final minute is meant to be confrontational but feels like a lazy fuck-you cop-out, von Trier carelessly shooting his own film in the face. Taken as a whole, Nymphomaniac is wildly inconsistent (I’d like to see the eventual 5-hour cut). Joe has high highs and low lows and so does the film; sometimes they match, sometimes not. While it isn’t one of my favorites from von Trier, I loved its structure, its enthusiasm for conversational discourse, and the ways it unsexily portrays sex as something at once explainable and inexplicable, and as relating to all things existential.


#61. The American Friend (1977, Wenders)
I really need to make sure to consider and write down thoughts on a film soon after seeing it because I tend to get backed up quickly and now it’s been over a week since seeing this and I have no insights! And that’s with me jotting down thoughts in a notebook before even typing stuff up. But anyways, this is my first Wim Wenders film, which I realize is somewhat ridiculous. I’m in love with this. It’s a Ripley adaptation really in name only. The story is presented in a deceptively straight-forward way only to gradually reveal itself as existing on a different and slightly parallel plane from A to B, between traditional narrative and something hovering just above it, reality and concreteness just barely out of reach. There’s an eventual  prioritization of atmosphere and an unspoken mystique to everything. The two main characters and their motivations seem endlessly available for mining. Bruno Ganz is stellar, internally clinging to life, unwilling and skeptical, then all at once in too deep. Ganz singing “Baby you can drive my car” to himself is a perfect thing. And this might be the most hypnotic I’ve seen Dennis Hopper; quietly indecipherable and genuinely haunting. The visual component is a thing of green-and-yellow-hued beauty. The subway and train sequences are old-fashioned suspense in the best sense. Wenders’s regular cinematographer Robby Müller creates some of the best photography to come out of the 70’s.

List: Top 30 Favorite Classic Actresses

To recap from the Classic Actors post, I’ve been doing lists like this nearly my whole life or at least as far back as I can remember. I redo my ‘Classic’ and ‘Modern’ Actors and Actresses lists every couple of years and I felt like posting my latest versions of them. They vary a lot throughout the years; I found the Actors in this case to be more difficult. While there were certainly actresses who regrettably did not make the list because there wasn’t room (Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman and Olivia De Havilland to name a few) or because there were actresses who gave one single performance I cannot get enough of but could not justify picking them over others (Anna Massey, Kathleen Byron, Sue Lyon). Like I said in the ‘Classic Actors’ post, I will not be posting reasons; simply a picture and a list of films I have seen with them. This list is a lot less varied than the previous one; it is almost entirely focused on the studio era in Hollywood.

30. Joan Fontaine
Seen in 5 Films: The Women, Gunga Din, Rebecca, Suspicion, Letter from an Unknown Woman

29. Celeste Holm
Seen in 4 films: Gentleman’s Agreement, A Letter to Three Wives (narrator), All About Eve, Three Men and a Baby

28. Tippi Hedren
Seen in 3 films: The Birds, Marnie, I Heart Huckabees

27. Jean Harlow
Seen in 8 Films: The Public Enemy, Platinum Blonde, Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Bombshell, Wife vs. Secretary, Libeled Lady

26. Olga Baclanova
Seen in 4 films: The Docks of New York, The Man Who Laughs, Freaks, Downstairs

25. Lauren Bacall
Seen in 12 films: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Dark Passage, How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, Misery, All I Want for Christmas, Dogville, Howl’s Moving Castle (voice), Birth

24. Judy Garland
Seen in 11 films: Love Finds Andy Hardy, The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Ziegfeld Girl, Girl Crazy, Meet Me in St. Louis, Ziegfeld Follies, The Pirate, A Star is Born, Judgment at Nuremberg, I Could Go On Singing

23. Audrey Hepburn
Seen in 8 films: Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Children’s Hour, My Fair Lady, Wait Until Dark

22. Miriam Hopkins
Seen in 7 films: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, The Story of Temple Drake, Design for Living, The Heiress, The Children’s Hour

21. Greer Garson
Seen in 3 films: Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest

20. Norma Shearer
Seen in 4 films: He Who Gets Slapped, The Divorcee, A Free Soul, The Women

19. Lillian Gish
Seen in 10 Films: The Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, La Boheme, The Wind, Portrait of Jennie, The Night of the Hunter

18. Greta Garbo
Seen in 8 films: Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie, Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Camille, Ninotchka, Two-Faced Woman

17. Joan Crawford
Seen in 10 films: The Unknown, Grand Hotel, Dancing Lady, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, The Women, Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Johnny Guitar, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, I Saw What You Did

16. Simone Simon
Seen in 4 films: La Bete Humaine, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Cat People, La Ronde

15. Shelley Winters
Seen in 10 films: A Place in the Sun, The Big Knife, The Night of the Hunter, The Diary of Anne Frank, Lolita, A Patch of Blue, Alfie, The Poseidon Adventure, The Tenant, Pete’s Dragon

14. Ginger Rogers
Seen in 9 Films: 42nd Street, The Gold Diggers of 1933, Finishing School, The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time, Stage Door, Kitty Foyle, Tales of Manhattan

13. Joan Blondell
Seen in 8 Films: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Nightmare Alley, Opening Night, Grease

12. Marilyn Monroe
Seen in 9 films: The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve, Clash by Night, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, Let’s Make Love, The Misfits

11. Vivian Vance
Seen in: “I Love Lucy”, 180 episodes and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”

10. Jeanne Moreau
Seen in 7 films: La Notte, Jules and Jim, The Fire Within, Diary of a Chambermaid, Mademoiselle, The Bride Wore Black, Ever After

9. Anna Karina
Seen in 5 films: A Woman is a Woman, Cleo from 5 to 7, Vivre se vie, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville

8. Marlene Dietrich
Seen in 10 films: The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, Destry Rides Again, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, Judgment at Nuremberg

7. Katherine Hepburn
Seen in 13 films: Little Women, Mary of Scotland, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Without Love, Adam’s Rib, The African Queen, Suddenly Last Summer, The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

6. Barbara Stanwyck
Seen in 12 films: Night Nurse, Baby Face, Ladies They Talk About, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity,  The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Sorry, Wrong Number, Clash by Night

5. Monica Vitti
Seen in 3 films: L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse

4. Ann Dvorak
Seen in 4 films: Scarface, Three on a Match, ‘G’ Men, Girls of the Road

3. Bette Davis
Seen in 14 films: Three on a Match, The Petrified Forest, Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, A Stolen Life, Deception, All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Return to Witch Mountain

2. Lucille Ball
Seen in 9 films, 2 TV shows: Stage Door, Five Came Back, Dance, Girl, Dance, Du Barry was a Lady, Without Love, The Dark Corner, The Long Long Trailer, “I Love Lucy”, 180 episodes, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”, Yours, Mine and Ours, Forever Darling

1. Louise Brooks
Seen in 7 films: The Show Off, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, Beggars of Life, A Girl in Every Port, Prix de Beaute, Windy Riley Goes Hollywood

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.