It is dicey business suggesting potentially great films from any age or genre as tastes vary so much. And to move back toward cinematic beginnings also means that many younger readers will have no idea what is being discussed – it is ancient history.
I make this attempt in hopes of enticing some to discover new and wonderful cinematic experiences--enjoyment and value that you might not otherwise have encountered.
I break this article up into two parts: First, a few silent movie gems, and then films from the 1930’s after the advent of dialog. Perhaps in a future column I can suggest some great, more recent movies also unlikely to be familiar.
I find that silent films have difficulty holding the interest of modern viewers. Perhaps die-hard film buffs can appreciate them but the need to carry a plot via gesture, costume and cue-cards is quite an obstacle. So classics like D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation, Intolerance or Way Down East, while wowing the movie-goers of the day, just cannot hold their own any more.
Early blockbusters like Ben Hur, Thief of Baghdad, Greed or Von Stroheim’s egotistical (and never finished) Queen Kelly seem stilted and anachronistic on re-viewing.
But comedies do better. Often carried by physical antics, which don’t demand dialog, these films still can and should find an appreciative audience. So let me suggest three noteworthies by the top comedic craftsmen of their era.
First, and likely least known, it is Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Safety Last. It is best remembered for the daring risks Lloyd took while shooting it, but beyond this is the genuine hilarity Lloyd achieved. Here is a clip to illustrate his inventive genius.
My second choice is Buster Keaton’s 1928 Steamboat Bill Jr. Most critics prefer his film The General and it is very good, but for my taste Steamboat Bill Jr. is superior. Watch especially for the scene where a house falls on Keaton during a storm. He had no stunt man and marked the spot were he had to stand to be under an open window. Had he missed this mark by a foot it would have killed him when the side of the house fell!
My third and favorite silent is Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights. This film usually competes with Modern Times and The Gold Rush as Chaplin’s best work. But the plot brilliance of a blind flower girl falling for the ‘Little Tramp’ mistaking him for a rich benefactor is pure genius. And the prize fight scene is not to be missed.
When sound arrived, Hollywood panicked. Stars like John Gilbert who had mediocre voices had their careers ruined almost overnight. And the moguls searched the Broadway stage for actors who had decent voices.. This brought in new talent such as William Powell (who played Nick Charles in The Thin Man series).
The following decade churned out mediocrity when the Hay’s Commission shut down risqué plot elements. Loose women and bloody violence left the screen, and married couples were suddenly relegated to separate beds. But among the piles of schlock were a few fine films. My choices will necessarily be highly selective.
My first choice is the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front. This is an anti-war movie about WWI as told from the German perspective and is a faithful adaptation of the novel by Eric Remarque. The book was banned in Nazi Germany. It holds up remarkably well after all these years and I’d label is as a real must-see. Honorable mention this year might also go to the Francis Marion scripted film The Big House starring Wallace Beery.
In 1931 I recommend Frankenstein. There is much more going on here than just a scary monster film. The scene between Boris Karloff and the small child is masterful. It is a far better movie than Dracula, also produced the same year. Honorable mentioned might also go to the Wallace Beery film The Champ, although there’s a few too many gratuitous hankies needed for this flick. Warner also started its string of gangster movies with Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar, but this plot doesn’t hold up that well over time.
1932 brought us Farwell to Arms with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, and I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with Paul Muni. The film Grand Hotel has much to recommend it – with an all-star cast, but I wouldn’t put them in my top-rated list.
1933 was a strong year and here I would pick my favorite Marx Brothers film – Duck Soup. It was the last picture they did for Paramount before moving to MGM. Some prefer their later, Irving Thalberg-produced top two MGM efforts, A Night at The Opera and A Day at the Races (not quite finished when Thalberg died). Thalberg introduced two new elements into their pictures – musical numbers (e.g. Kitty Carlyle singing with Alan Jones in Night at the Opera) and having the boys try to help would-be lovers have their romances succeed. The second addition is usually helpful to the plot, but listening to the singing is just a drag. Duck Soup predates these additions and provides maximum quality with ample amounts of insanity.
1933 is also the year when many Busby Berkeley musicals were produced at Warner Brothers, beginning with the most well-known, Forty-Second Street. My favorite of the bunch is Footlight Parade with Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell and three dynamite musical numbers: "Honeymoon Hotel", "By a Waterfall", and "Shanghi Lil." What Berkeley does with the choreography of these numbers is truly the highlight of his career. No one should miss the geometric patterns and the creative camera angles he employs!
Honorable mention in 1934 also goes to the first of the Thin Man films staring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Their repartee is great and it introduces a new idea – a married couple that actually love each other and enjoy being together. The downside is that they both drink like fish (with minimal deleterious effects) and there is a murder plot that is so convoluted and uninteresting that by the end you hardly care ‘who done it’.
Let me skip now to 1936 with two films that I think are treasures. One is the superb ‘screwball comedy,’ "My Man Godfrey." While I love Bill Powell it is Carol Lombard who steals this picture with her portrayal of a ditzy heiress who is part of one of the world’s most dysfunctional rich families ever on screen. All this against the social backdrop of the Hooverville-studded Great Depression, exemplified by Powell who is actually a refined person down on his luck. The ‘30’s are famous for these so-called screwballs, but this film tops the list.
1936 also brought a wonderful and radically different film, The Petrified Forest, staring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in a breakout role as Duke Mantee. Howard plays a despairing, near-suicidal intellectual bumming across America who meets the young and promising Betty Davis stuck in a ramshackle diner in Arizona. They begin to fall in love when Bogart and his gang enter – one step ahead of the law. What Bogart does with his character is transformative and the picture, adapted faithfully from a play by Sherwood Anderson, is fantastic.
My second favorite screwball comedy is the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby. The chemistry between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn is wonderful, but the picture would be only so-so without the insanely inventive plot involving a lost leopard, and featuring a tremendous supporting cast including Charles Ruggles. Non-stop hilarity.
Finally 1939, the year where with so many Oscar-worthy films it is difficult to narrow the recommendations. The year's two most famous are Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Of the former I will say simply that Gone With the Wind is more of a big-budget pot-boiler which, while likable enough, would not make my top list. In contrast, The Wizard of Oz is my all-time favorite film. While its backdrops are obviously fake and the special effects cannot match today’s artistry, it holds unsurpassed charm for children and adults alike.
How many lines from that movie have passed into our collective consciousness?
“Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” (Duh)
“Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!”
“Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain”.
And the music, topped by the Harold Arlen classic ‘Over the Rainbow’, is pure magic.
This brings me to the end of the ‘30s.
I hope I might have tempted you to consider expanding your cinematic horizons to an era too easily forgotten, but also a time featuring many movies well worth watching!
Rich Hannon is a software engineer living in Salt Lake City Utah who provides technical support for Spectrum.