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.


Top Ten By Year: 1925 – Poll Results

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

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

First off, thank you so much to everyone who voted, from those impressively well-versed enough in silent cinema for a full top ten, to those kind enough to contribute a handful of passionate picks. I knew it was going to be a much lower turnout than usual due to the year in question, and I wasn’t wrong. 47 people voted for 50 different films.

Taking into account the internet’s oversaturation with lists/listicles, I hope it’s clear that this project is anything but tossed off. Seeing what makes the collective top ten is a lot of fun, but may I direct your attention to the full breakdown of votes and the individual ballots? My hope with these polls is that in addition to promoting scraps of anticipation for the related posts to come (What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1925: A Love Letter, Favorite Shots, and the Top Ten. Poster Highlights can be found here), that they mainly serve as a reference point for anyone looking for new films to watch whether it’s from seeing:

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

Keep a look out next month for the final two posts for Top Ten By Year: 1925.

I’m also so happy and honored to announce my participation in the upcoming installment of The Film Experience’s Smackdown Panel, where we’ll be dissecting the Best Supporting Actress performances from 1948. I’m a huge fan of this column, so to be on it is both exciting and intimidating. You can find what 1948 in film means to me here, and expect the write-ups and podcast companion up at the end of the month!

Leave your thoughts on the poll in the comments section!


POLL RESULTS – Top Ten By Year: 1925
1. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, US) – 41 votes 
2. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union) – 39 votes
3. Seven Chances (Keaton, US) – 26 votes
4. The Freshman (Newmeyer/Taylor, US) – 25 votes
5. The Big Parade (Vidor, US) – 21 votes
6. Strike (Eisenstein, Soviet Union) – 19 votes
(6). Phantom of the Opera (Julien, US)– 19 votes
8. Go West (Keaton, US) – 11 votes
(8). Master of the House (Dreyer, Denmark) – 11 votes
10. Chess Fever (Pudovkin/Shpikovsky, Soviet Union) – 10 votes 

The Rest:
7 votes: Varieté, Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Merry Widow
5 votes: Tartuffe
4 votes: The Unholy Three, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
3 votes: Joyless Street, Orochi, Lazybones, The Monster, Body and Soul
2 votes: The Salvation Hunters, The Lost World, The Eagle, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life
1 vote: Cyrano de Bergerac, A Woman of the World, Saint-Bernard, Les Aventures de Robert Macaire, Poil de Carrotte , Paris qui Dort, Whirlpool of Fate, In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea, Don Q Son of Zorro, Super Hooper Dyne Lizzies, The Pleasure Garden, Proud Flesh, Sally of the Sawdust, Le Double Amour, Furasato no uta (Song of Home), Gus Visser and his Singing Duck , Stella Dallas, Dark Angel , Zandar the Great, His People, Beyond the Border, Stage Struck , Kentucky Pride, The Rat’s Knuckles, Faces of Children 

Individual Ballots: 

The Big Parade, The Unholy Three, The Merry Widow, The Freshmanm, Seven Chances, The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Joyless Street

Strike, The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, The Big Parade, Phantom of the Opera, Strike, The Merry Widow, Go West, Master of the House, The Freshman

@salesonfilm (Kristen Sales of salesonfilm, Movie Mezzanine, FilmFracture, etc):
Chess Fever, The Freshman, The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, Go West, the final chase sequence in Seven Chances

@SchmanthonyP (Brian Schmid):

@ProphetKotto (Alex Megaro):
Le Double Amour (Jean Epstein), Seven Chances, Grass, The Gold Rush, Tartuffe, Phantom of the Opera, Battleship Potemkin

@whynotanna (of Start Focus End):
Battleship Potemkin, Phantom of the Opera

@cinemasights (James Blake Ewing of Cinema Sights):

@Cinedaze (Paul Anthony Johnson of Film-Philosophy, Popmatters):

@pogform (Hannah):
Ben Hur, Seven Chances, Go West, The Gold Rush

@ch_williamson (Chuck Williamson of The Missing Slate):

@dallasshaldune (TJ Duane):
Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The Freshman

Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, Strike

@railoftomorrow (Scott Nye, writer and podcast co-host at CriterionCast, etc.):
Big Parade, Seven Chances, Gold Rush, Potemkin, Go West, Strike, Merry Widow, Master of the House

@joshbrunsting (Josh Brunsting of CriterionCast):
The Freshman, Battleship Potemkin, Strike, The Gold Rush, Master Of The House, Chess Fever

@astoehr (Andreas Stoehr of Pussy Goes Grrr, Movie Mezzanine, etc.):
The Big Parade, The Gold Rush, Seven Chances, Battleship Potemkin, & Orochi

1. The Gold Rush 2. Potemkin 3. Phantom of the Opera

@DavidBlakslee (David Blakslee of Criterion Reflections):
B’ship Potemkin, Body & Soul, Freshman, Go West, Gold Rush, Master of the House, Paris Qui Dort, Whirlpool of Fate

@CinemaGadfly (
1. The Gold Rush 2. The Freshman 3. Master of the House

@willow_catelyn (of Curtsies and Hand Grenades):

@bmrow (Brent Morrow):
1. Lady Windermere’s Fan 2. Chess Fever 3. Lazybones 4. Strike 5. Battleship Potemkin 6. The Merry Widow 7. Varieté 8. The Freshman 9. Master of the House 10. The Monster

@TaybackX (Ken Adams):

@erikgregersen (Erik M. Gregersen):
Seven Chances, The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, In Youth, Beside the Lonely Sea, The Freshman, Strike, Don Q, Son of Zorro

@redroomrantings (Justine A. Smith, Chief Film Editor and podcaster at Sound on Sight):
1. The Big Parade 2. Lazybones 3. Battleship Potemkin 4. The Gold Rush 5. The Phantom of the Opera


@TheEndofCinema (Sean Gilman of The End of Cinema; The George Sanders Show, and They Shot Pictures podcasts):
The Gold Rush, Battleship Potemkin, The Big Parade, Seven Chances, Strike!, The Freshman, Phantom of the Opera

1. The Gold Rush 2. The Phantom of the Opera 3. The Big Parade 4. Varieté 5. Seven Chances

@MoviesSilently (of Movies Silently)

@Cinematic_Life (of This Cinematic Life):
Potemkin, Phantom of the Opera, The Gold Rush, The Freshman, The Unholy 3

@oblongpictures (Chris Salt):
Potemkin, Tartuffe, Freshman, Phantom of the Opera, 7 Chances, Gold Rush, Big Parade, Go West, Gus Visser and his Singing Duck

@jchristley (Jamie N. Christley):
1. The Big Parade, 2. Seven Chances, 3. Go West, 4. The Rat’s Knuckles 5. Lady Windermere’s Fan 6. Lazybones 7. The Gold Rush 8. Sally of the Sawdust 9. Chess Fever 10. Master of the House

@jaimegrijalba (Jamie Grijalba):
1. The Gold Rush 2. Battleship Potemkin 3. Orochi 4. The Phantom of the Opera 5. Furasato no uta

@pierrefilmon (Pierre Filmon):
Lady Windermere’s Fan, Potemkine, Gold Rush, Saint-Bernard

@rgodfrey (Ryan Godfrey):
1. Phantom of the Opera 2. Seven Chances 3. The Gold Rush 4. Battleship Potemkin 5. Body and Soul

@realcbeckett (Christopher Beckett):
The Gold Rush, The Big Parade, Seven Chances, Potemkin, Strike, Ben Hur, Master of the House

1. Strike 2. The Big Parade 3. The Gold Rush 4. Battleship Potemkin 5. Seven Chances 6. Master of the House 7. Ben-Hur 8. The Phantom of the Opera 9. The Merry Widow 10. Go West

@48ONIRAM (Brian!):
Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The Freshman

@sarahnwondrland (my Aunt!):
1. Seven Chances 2. The Freshman 3. Battleship Potemkin 4. The Gold Rush

Battleship Potemkin. The Gold Rush. The Freshman. Big Parade. The Monster. Proud Flesh, Stella Dallas.

@adamhopelies (Adam Batty, Lecturer and founder of Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second):
Les Aventures de Robert Macaire, Tartuffe, Battleship Potemkin, The Big Parade, The Gold Rush, The Freshman, Strike, P Garden, The Salvation Hunters



1. The Big Parade 2. Strike 3. The Gold Rush 4. Body and Soul 5. Seven Chances 6. Master of the House

1. Variety 2. The Gold Rush 3. The Phantom of the Opera 4. Seven Chances 5. Battleship Potemkin 6. The Big Parade 7. Go West 8. Strike 9. The Freshman 10. Grass: A Nations Battle for Life


Peter Labuza (Author of Approaching the End, host of The Cinephiliacs, contributor to Variety, etc.):
The Big Parade (Vidor, USA), Faces of Children (Feyder, France), Seven Chances (Keaton, USA), Stage Struck (Dwan, USA), Kentucky Pride (Ford, USA), Master of the House (Dreyer, Netherlands), Orochi (Futagawa, Japan), Chess Fever (Pudovkin, USSR), The Freshman (Lloyd, USA), Battleship Potekmin (Eisenstein, USSR)

Travis Clark:
The Gold Rush, Seven Chances, The Phantom of the Opera, The Big Parade, The Freshman, Variety, Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Chess Fever

Steven Venn:
Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, Phantom of the Opera, Seven Chances, Tartuffe, Unholy Three, The Merry Widow, Dark Angel, The Freshman, Lady Windermere’s Fan

Adam K. (rl friend):
The Big Parade, Phantom of the Opera, Battleship Potemkin

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #164-174

164. Museum Hours (2013, Cohen)
A must-see of 2013. Forces us to consider snapshots of life the way we would a painting. It focuses on the neglected details of the everyday as well as the way we look at and consider art. The scarcity/non-existence of narrative allows Cohen to mold a free-form structure that becomes invigorating to watch. It also depicts a lived-in and cloudy portrait of Vienna with the kind of familiarity that dispels any touristy perspective. It gets far too pointed in its final scene but this was an absolute delight and one of my favorites of the year so far.


#165. Stories We Tell (2013, Polley)
I really admire Sarah Polley and how she uses exposure to investigate truths and tales. It was great to get to know her family and hear about their stories and experiences. But the film runs out of steam and Polley and her family spend far too much time talking and pontificating about the purpose of the documentary. Once was enough. Twice is pushing it. Twenty minutes of this? No. Just no! But perhaps most disappointing is the fact that this is Polley’s story and she refuses to incorporate her own perspective. That self-distancing kills so much of the impact.


166. The People Under the Stairs (1991, Craven)
I’ve never been too big on Wes Craven as a whole despite liking several of his films, particularly New Nightmare. The People Under the Stairs, a bizarre eccentricity within his filmography, is all over the map but damn if that isn’t what makes it a good time. Some misguided but well-meaning attempts at race commentary soon gives way to a cartoonishly horrific free-for-all where earnestness slips into comedy; it’s an ineffective yet devilishly fun concoction. Its main problem is that it does not take the story in enough directions. ‘Fool’ goes back into the house voluntarily; instead of this signaling an act that switches things up a bit, it redundantly puts both he and the audience back in the same situation.

90’s go-to kid Brandon Adams gains our sympathies but the real breadwinner of the endeavor is Wendy Robie who gives the drag performance of a lifetime (Owen Glieberman actually thought Robie was a female impersonator, something he wrongly included as fact in his 1991 pan). It’s also a joy to see Nadine and Big Ed Hurley onscreen together even if McGill’s similarly outlandish performance misses the mark. It feels like he’s auditioning to be a third crook in Home Alone, channeling Artie, the Strongest Man in the World two years before the fact.

#167. She (1935, Holden & Pichel)
At their worst, the earliest adventure films get trapped in the tropes they simultaneously establish. Merian C. Cooper, hot off of King Kong, tries to top himself with She. Working off an H. Rider Haggard novel, he moves the story to the Arctic and plays around with fusing the ancient and futuristic in its sense of spectacle and theme. While the spectacle of the piece is indeed accomplished, the overwhelming grandiosity of it locks in a static non-movement and lack of energy that appears right from the beginning. When the characters get to where they’re headed, the film shuts down right when it should be getting started. The acting, Nigel Bruce aside, is by-the-book to a fault (begone Randolph Scott (!) and Helen Mack who is basically a low-rent Lillian Roth). The story itself has potential but everything about the execution stultifies movement or entertainment in almost every way.

The one true highlight (besides the impressive effects work) is the costume for Helen Gahagan in the picture above, an outfit that clearly was taken and used in two years later for The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

168. American Mary (2013, Soska Sisters)
Even though American Mary doesn’t know what to do with itself it entices and prods in equal measure. The tenuous story is held together by a non-judgmental fascination with the body modification community (reminding me of the way freeganism is depicted in The East), the dissociative emotionless aftermath of trauma, and an inquiring detective. Writing this in just two weeks to get it to Eli Roth might have something to do with its hodgepodge feel. But what holds this together is Katharine Isabelle, reminding me that she needs to be in everything; stat. It’s a dry and ambiguous performance which becomes more stunningly remote as the finale approaches.

#169. Blancanieves (2013, Berger)
A startling and evocative silent retelling of Snow White where the magic of the fairy tale is replaced with the magic of form. Berger wisely doesn’t restrict himself to loyally aligning with an authenticity to conventional silent filmmaking. Instead he uses it as an opportunity to blend the old (most notably a European silent sensibility) with the newly creative. The form also fits really nicely with the big broad strokes of fairy tales, allowing us to feel the heightened melodrama and emotion. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score is perfect as is the entire cast. Maribel Verdu is gloriously over-the-top without ever losing the creepiness she brings to the role. Simple heroines tend to be difficult roles to fill. How to make us genuinely care? Macarena Garcia brings such a naturally radiant presence that you immediately root for her. That it struggles to be anything more than pleasantly diverting is a mite disappointing but it’s hard to complain when everything onscreen is wondrous even though it stops just short of dazzling.

#170. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, Ford)
An underrated slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin’s (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”

171. Alice Adams (1935, Stevens)
Katharine Hepburn is radiant here, a determined force of nature to be reckoned with. But her character is so exhausting, so misguided and overeager that we never break through her defense mechanisms. And when we do, all we see is that she’s in desperate need of re-prioritizing. The first act where Alice relentlessly tries to fit in with the upper class is heartbreaking and a tour-de-force. It’s painful to watch Hepburn as a ticking time bomb, smiling to keep the tears in. But when that gives way to the main plot, it’s an empty shell of a story. Alice talks so breathlessly and with such energy and lies that the film sidesteps conversational dialogue. This results in nearly everyone else reading as inert, none more than Fred MacMurray, a non-entity here, unable to make us feel or understand his infatuation with her. When dealing with flawed characters who eventually change you have to be invested in the character. I was not invested in Alice and therefore was not invested in the film.

#172. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971, Hancock)
A low-key psychological horror that is impressively less concerned about what’s actually happening and more concerned about getting inside Jessica’s (a wonderfully unhinged Zohra Lambert) head. Its use of sound is what stays with me, an in-the-moment use of voice-over as well as a sonic landscape where focus is left-of-center with drowned out elements. This fleshes out how Jessica gets lost in herself and forces us to experience it as well. They also shot the film 15 minutes from where I work in Connecticut which was crazy to see, particularly the Chester ferry at the beginning!

173. Christine (1983, Carpenter)
Forgive me, but I’m still on such a giddy high from this film. Christine is not a film I ever had much of an interest in seeing outside of the fact that John Carpenter was at the helm. A killer car movie? No thanks. Color me shocked; I fucking love Christine. It isn’t one of John Carpenter’s most acclaimed works and yet I actually prefer it over most if not all of his other films. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on anything else he’s done (although I’ll never understand the love for They Live; sue me). It just goes to show how taken in by this I was to the point where, as you can see, I’m a rambling mess about it.

Christine accomplishes the seemingly impossible in that it plays its ridiculous concept relatively straight when anyone else would have smartly taken a different tonal route. Apparently in the book, the spirit of the car’s previous owner is attached to it, explaining its power. Screenwriter Bill Phillips audaciously gets rid of that entire notion, suggesting in the first scene that the car was born evil. This abstraction is not only far more interesting, but it allows for Carpenter and Keith Gordon to push  the presence of a sexual connection between Artie and the car, an idea that is pushed just enough and is anything but laughable; it’s goddamn entrancing and completely fucked up. That moment (and music cue) when Artie says “Show me” sort of left me speechless.

Christine is only a horror film in name only. There is surprisingly little gore and it doesn’t try very hard to scare. A reason I love it so much is that it’s a horror film based in its characters. It’s about friendship, feeling out of place, change, the more frightening aspects of adolescence, the wedges that can be driven between friends. And the performances are spot-on. Keith Gordon plays up his initial nerdiness making his transformation that much more jarring. I immediately became enamored of John Stockwell’s endearing Dennis. Their friendship grounds the film, a pair cemented in a loyalty and unlikeliness that it smartly never comments on. Of course Alexandra Paul is barely a character but this isn’t exactly surprising. Nearly everyone from Roberts Blossoms to Robert Prosky to the high school bullies who must be at least 40; all spot-on.

Carpenter’s use of Panavision is full of expert touches (that shot above caused my jaw to drop) and his music cues are consistently effective. His camera is touchingly lyrical, roaming at the perfect moments. Dennis seeing Artie and Leigh at the football game is a favorite. And the use of 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll is creepily otherwordly. You guys; I love pretty much everything about this to the point of unbridled gushing.

#174. The Dead Zone (1983, Cronenberg)
I always forget how much I love Christopher Walken and then performances like this remind me that he’s pretty much the greatest. And it’s a good thing Walken is here to hold down the fort because The Dead Zone personally disappointed. Definitely an important work within Cronenberg’s filmography re: working within a more traditional narrative/mainstream cinema but that doesn’t equate good. After watching this it’s clear why it as made into a TV show because the film itself feels like 4 or 5 potential episodes piled up next to each other. It has an episodic structure, using Walken’s character arc as the consistent throughline. Problem is that none of the separate stories are remotely fetching from the serial killer to the boy he tutors to Senator, etc. It’s all just sort of there and the film as a whole ended up feeling that way as a result.



Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #67-73

i'm a cyborg

#67. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006, Park)
A major departure for Park in subject matter, but his form and execution remain astutely his. Favoring the subjective, Park Chan-wook’s romantic asylum film works because he stays loyal to his deluded characters. One of the quirkiest films I’ve ever seen, it sometimes becomes overloaded with eccentricities and whimsy, but always bounces back to remind us that cutesy is not the name of the game. Each patient lives in their own universe, and Park unites them under his roof of his and Chung Chung-hoon’s camera, delighting in what makes them unique.

I love when the film goes off on tangents with the various residents, seamlessly moving between different perspectives, bringing their delusions to life. The central pair (one of whom is adorably played by Rain), are connected through their troubles, but the romance thankfully never tips into the straight-forward. Not even once. Park’s camera glides around, attentive as ever, always impeccably placing people within the frame, playing around with distance and relation. His hospital is filled with pop colors, a vibrant playground for the troubled where even the nurses and doctors barely register. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK lets the characters keep their elaborate inner worlds, using reality only add the necessary dose of underlying sadness.


#68. Samaritan Girl (2004, Kim)
Samaritan Girl reminds me that I need to see all of Kim Ki-duk’s films even though this is probably my least favorite of the three I’ve seen. A triptych telling of a story, Kim, himself a Buddhist, weighs this film down in Catholic imagery and symbolism. It starts out about one character, shifts to another and then beings the two together for the final third which shows a breakdown in communication. A father and daughter who have dealt with grief and betrayal in equally misguided ways and can’t even come together to console each other. Kim retains the innocence of the girls involved in prostitution. He allows them to be schoolgirls, one possibly in love with the other. He veers into male fantasy territory in the way he retains this innocence and the at times oversimplification of the two girls. A lot of this is made up for by the fact that the oversimplification is part of the girls varying coping mechanisms.

Kim is a divisive provocateur, known for his challenging material and the way he marries peaceful stoic imagery with extremes in content. Samaritan Girl continues this fascination. Stunning lead performance by Kwak Ji-min.


#69. Victim (1961, Dearden)
An important film that addresses the Sexual Offences Act in England and Wales, which lasted through to 1967, making homosexuality illegal. Humanizing homosexuality, being the first film where the word is spoken, and being told from the perspective of homosexual characters being tormented with blackmail and driven to suicide…all of this is pretty groundbreaking stuff. Yes, it often treats homosexuality as an it-can’t-be-helped-abnormality but it’s a product of the time, and there’s a ton of progressive rationalization going on in support of all the horrible LGBT social injustices still running rampant today.

But despite being a well-shot social problem film with a simmering lead performance by Dirk Bogarde, I wasn’t grabbed by the story or the characters. It interested me more for what it stood for but sadly it didn’t engage me.

cat and the canary 2

#70. The Cat and the Canary (1927, Leni)
You guys, Paul Leni is seriously underrated. I don’t think cinephiles give him his imagine-what-he-could-have-done due. The man died at 29 but was one of the key figures in German Expressionist filmmaking of the silent era. He brought his experimental distorted spook-fest techniques to Hollywood where he made a handful of films before dying in 1929 via blood poisoning. He also made one of my favorite films of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs. If you haven’t seen it, DO SO.

The Cat and the Canary doesn’t quite live up to the high standard of The Man Who Laughs, entirely because the film focuses too much on comedy instead of being pure haunted house horror, which I would have preferred. It being adapted from a horror-comedy play, it looks like Leni was kind of trapped as a result (whether he liked the material or not), mostly in the latter half. But Paul Leni’s magic bag of visual bedazzle is more than up to par. He does everything you can imagine, fooling and tinkering with the possibilities of the moving image to unsettle and splay the unconscious. Experimenting with point-of-view, distorted imagery, superimposed images, angles and set design, intertitles, tracking shots, etc; all of it and more. The result is that you feel the characters are caught in a haunted house illustration. The first half juggles comedy and horror really well, but the second half peters out in favor of comedy. Sad sack Paul Jones is our ‘hero; but he’s such a low-down dweeb that I was unrealistically hoping the film would pull a twist and make him the ‘Cat’. No such luck. And our ‘heroine’, Annabelle West literally has nothing to do. The entire duration has her insisting upon her sanity whilst becoming increasingly unstable. Surprise, surprise. She’s inactive from start to finish. And I lost track at just how many envelopes come into play at a certain point. So many envelopes.

But this is still enjoyably kooky and worth watching multiple times for Paul Leni’s unnerving expressionist playground.


#71. The Crowd Roars (1932, Hawks)


#72. You Can Count On Me (2000, Lonergan)
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s film debut takes a middle-of-the-road indie set-up and propels it to restrained insightful heights. I love sibling films, particularly films that explore brother/sister or sister/sister dynamics. There aren’t as many of them as there should be and they often fall through the cracks of mediocrity. But this one is deftly handled, looking at a brother and sister who lead disparate lives, depending on each other in a multitude of ways even as they push back. Their infinite grief over their parents death when they were children forever-defines and binds them as they navigate through what they may or may not want in life.

Laura Linney is prime cut for her role and Matthew “I like paperwork” Broderick is perfect casting but its Mark Ruffalo who really knocked my socks off. He’s played the irresponsible drifter before, but this is his bursting-on-the-scene role, and he plays on his ability to emit the kind of sympathy you’d have for a child. He makes you understand why Linney, besides the familial bond, constantly babies him and gives him chances. Almost as dramatically rewarding as the Linney/Ruffalo interactions are those between Mark Ruffalo and Rory Culkin. Longegan very smartly has Culkin underplay, so he’s never pulling at heartstrings and always quiet and observant, trusting the audience to understand the impact this is all having on him.

Lonergan mixes the humorous and the reflective together with well-timed perception. The scene between Ruffalo, Linney and Lonergan himself as a useless priest perfectly toes the line. Another stand-out scene, more on the serious side, is when Ruffalo and Linney meet up in the café. It’s their first scene together. She is ecstatic to see him, gleaming, and he’s happy to see her. It’s been two years. What starts as hesitant how-do-ya-dos quickly gives way to the ‘I’ve been in some trouble’ speech on guess-who’s part. A confession we see coming and even worse, deep down so does she. We realize this is a sort of cyclical conversation, raised from the grave every so often, rehashed but never resolved. Her giddiness to see him was authentic but also a front of self-denial. Maybe this time it will be different.

Also; yep, I cried during this one. Didn’t expect to, but the bench scene got me going.

Lovers on the Bridge Lavant

#73. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Lovers on the Bridge) (1991, Carax)
An exuberant burst of swirly fuzzy lights, as if we are seeing life through the eyes of Binoche’s going-blind street artist, taking life in in one last hurrah. Leos Carax makes a preposterously expensive (it’s well-known for its notorious production history as anything) ambitious love letter to Paris, that shouldn’t be oversimplified at least in his at-first glance adoration with the city. As far as content goes, this is a simple tale, one where a plot synopsis makes it sound limp and trite. But its simplicity, which favors broad and often startling poeticism, sends Carax careening with the kind of cinematic indulgence that sends me off to the stars. Starting in a pit of real-life gutter-poverty and slowly rising until the worlds of Alex and Michele feel strangely comfortable to us, misery and self-destructive tendencies included. Jean-Yves Escoffier’s camerawork is something majestic, always getting the grime and fantasy to mesh together in the same shot. He keeps up with the physical bursts of movement from Binoche and Denis Lavant, including their stunt work (Binoche’s waterskiing looked seriously life-threatening). Lights streak into each other, a semi-blind haze.

The freedom afforded by any rigid structure and the way Carax matter-of-factly handles events with no build-up, means we can never quite tell where the film is going, making it all the more engrossing. The tone is constantly shifting in subtleties and the relative enigma of the characters positions them in their own lore. The film even somehow rises above the problematic actions on Alex’s part, which in another film would destroy any semblance of attachment we have to the idea of them as ‘lovers’. What I love is that for most of the film is appears resolutely one-sided, more a dependent convenience for her than anything else. I can never take my eyes off Lavant, his acrobatic chimera grotesquery is something elemental. I could willfully digest any number of scenes again and again, and the famous fireworks sequence is bananas, the height of extravagance. I know I’m far from the first to point this out, but there are a lot of parallels to L’Atalante. It’s a force of questionably romantic, squalid, indulgent, joyous, raucous, unapologetic nature.

Screening Log: April 1st-14th, 2012 – Films #83-104

Note: The letter grades are entirely arbitrary, and merely reflect my own subjective interest and response to the film on a first viewing.

83. Land without Bread (1933, Bunuel): B-

84. A Day in the Country (1936, Renoir): B

85. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Capra): B+

86. The Raid: Redemption (2012, Evans): B+/B

87. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012, Hertzfeldt): A-

88. Sadie Thompson (1928, Walsh): B+/B

89. Monkey Business (1931, McLeod): B-

90. Madam Satan (1930, Demille): A-

91. October (1927, Eisenstein): C-

92. Street Angel (1937, Yuan): C

93. Beggars of Life (1928, Wellman): B+/B

94. Earth (1930, Dovzhenko): B-

95. The Passion of the Christ (2004, Gibson): C-/D+

96. Désiré (1937, Guitry): A

97. Quadrille (1938, Guitry): A-

98. Miss Bala (2012, Naranjo): B

99. Carnosaur (1993, Simon): F

100. The Rape of Europa (2006, Berge, Cohen and Newnham): B

101. Project A (1983, Chan): B+/B

102. Vicious Lips (1986, Pyun): C/C-

103. The Heroic Trio (1993, To): A-/B+

104. Cabin in the Woods (2012, Goddard): A-/B+

Screening Log: March 15th-31st, 2012 – Films #61-82

Heading into April I thought I would be done with my goal for watching some films from the 1920’s and 1930’s. But as I look at what I roughly have planned for the 1940’s, I realize I do not want to move on from these decades until I finish up what I had planned to watch. The films I have planned before moving on are A Woman in Paris, Beggars for Life, October, Joyless Street, Spies and Sadie Thompson for the 1920’s and Earth, Desire, Quadrille, A Day in the Country, Street Angel, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, City Streets, The Four Feathers, Madam Satan, Land without Bread, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Monkey Business and The Crime of Monsieur Lange for the 1930’s. These will likely comprise the majority of the films I see in April.

Once again, the letter grades are entirely arbitrary, and merely reflect my own subjective interest and response to the film on a first viewing.

62. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927, Hitchcock): C

63. Love Me Tonight (1932, Mamoulian)
: A-

64. 21 Jump Street (2012, Lord & Miller): B+

65. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Lang): B

66. Basket Case (1982, Henenlotter): B-

67. Holiday (1938, Cukor): A/A-

68. Ladies They Talk About (1933, Bretherton and Knighley): B-

69. Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011, Rapaport): B-

70. Alexander Nevsky (1938, Eisenstein): C/C-

71. The Threepenny Opera (1931, Pabst): C

72. A Day at the Races (1937, Wood): B+

73. Sabotage (1936, Hitchcock): B/B-

74. Tabu (1931, Murnau): B+

76. The Pearls of the Crown (1937, Guitry): A-

77. The Hunger Games (2012, Ross): B

78. Sisters of the Gion (1936, Mizoguchi): B

79. Destiny (1921, Lang): B-/C+

80. Osaka Elegy (1936, Mizoguchi): B+

81. King of Devil’s Island (2011, Holst): B

82. The Story of a Cheat (1936, Guitry): A/A-

Screening Log: March 1st-14th, 2012 – Films #43-60

All grades are completely subjective and ultimately arbitrary merely reflecting my own personal interest and engagement with each film. They are more of a record for me than anything else and not a simplified stamp.

43. Dead End (1937, Wyler): C+

44. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Lubitsch): A-

35. Shanghai Express (1932, von Sternberg): A-

46. Everything is Terrible! The Movie (2009): A-/B+

47. Fury (1937, Lang): B+

48. Gunga Din (1939, Stevens): A-

49. Port of Shadows (1938, Carne): B-

50. The Devil is a Woman (1935, von Sternberg): B/B-

51. Faust (1926, Murnau): A-/B+

52. Destry Rides Again (1939, Marshall): A/A-

53. The Gay Divorcee (1934, Sandrich): A/A-

54. Love Affair (1939, McCarey): B

55. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Hawks): A/A-

56. People on Sunday (1930, Siodmak, Ulmer): A

57. You Only Live Once (1937, Lang): A

58. The Stars Look Down (1939, Reed): B

59. Rembrandt (1936, Korda): A

60. A Page of Madness (1926, Kinugasa): A

61. Pygmalion (1938, Asquith & Howard): A/A-

Screening Log: February 15th-29th, 2012 – Films 35-42

35. Doggie Woggiez! Poochie Woochiez! (2012, Ghoul Skool and Commodore Gilgamesh): B+

36. Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, Clair): C

37. Le Jour Se Leve (1939, Carne): A-

38. The Secret World of Arrietty (2012, Yonebayashi): A-

39. Found Memories (2012, Murat): B/B-

40. Animal Crackers (1930, Heerman): C+

41. Underworld (1927, von Sternberg): A-

42. The Docks of New York (1928, von Sternberg): B/B-

Screening Log: February 1st-15th, 2012 – Films #28-34

28. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Powell & Pressburger): A-

29. The Big Combo (1955, Lewis): B/B-

30. Caught (1949, Ophuls): A-

31. The Woman in Black (2012, Watkins): B-/C+

32. The Last Command (1928, von Sternberg): B+

33. Les Dames du Bois du Bologne (1945, Bresson): A/A-

34. Gerhard Richter Painting (2012, Belz): B+

Screening Log: January 16th-31st, 2012 – Films #14-27

My first review of the year will be Haywire. I will get it submitted to Criterion Cast by Friday. Hopefully it will be up here early next week at the latest. As far as current interests go, I have just begun “Deadwood” (finally). I am two episodes in and I am already completely hooked. The writing is superb; it just has its own rhythm to it and it becomes very easy to be hypnotized by its brand of speaking. Otherwise, I am just having fun catching up on older films that were gaping holes in my viewing. Catching films in the theater is not a priority right now, mainly because it just was for the past several months.

14. A Separation (2011, Farhadi): A

15. Freddy Got Fingered (2011, Green): D+

16. Mademoiselle (1966, Richardson): B+

17. Sabrina (1954, Wilder): A-

18. The Circus (1928, Chaplin): B+

19. The Leopard (1963, Visconti): A-/B+

20. Atlantic City (1980, Malle): B+

21. Pepe le Moko (1937, Duvivier): A-

22. The Big Knife (1955, Aldrich): C+ (I really enjoyed this overall, but there was one major weakness that makes the entire over-the-top grandiose film difficult to become invested in)

23. 12 Monkeys (1995, Gilliam): B+ (The giant red herring that is this film is not something I can ultimately get past.)

24. The Reckless Moment (1949, Ophuls): B+/B

25. Haywire (2012, Soderbergh): B-/C+

26. Kiss of Death (1947, Hathaway): B-

27. Panic in the Streets (1950, Kazan): A-