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Laurence Station's Best Films of the 1930s

Top 10:

1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, France, 1939)
Renoir's self-described frivolous examination of the love games of the upper crust French bourgeoisie and their faithful servants proved too harsh a mirror for his homeland, especially in light of its capitulation with Nazi Germany's expansionist policies. Those that could have made a difference instead chose to spend their time hunting and throwing costume parties at their secluded chateaus, where even a meddlesome thing such as murder could be blithely swept aside. Saving face and adhering to the polite rules of society, even as the dark cloud of impending war settled over Europe, is the unforgivable sin Renoir so keenly exposes in this multilayered, complex tragic farce.
 
2. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, France, 1937)
Renoir's love of humanity and resounding dismissal of nationalities, borders and class distinctions as artificial, outmoded, or illusory constructs resonates beyond this film's prison camp setting and speaks to those who believe one world and a lasting peace are not a mere fool's ideal. Grand Illusion is the great humanist tour de force of world cinema, a stirring translation of hope that commented on the "War to End All Wars" while conceding a future that had learned little from the futility and madness of but a generation past.
3. M (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1931)
How society deals with one of its worst elements (child murderers) is the big question Lang asks here. From the procedural legwork of the police to the Berlin underworld taking matters into its own hands in an effort to capture Peter Lorre's disturbed serial predator, M examines the thin divide between justice and vigilantism and what, if anything, keeps civilization from slipping into total chaos.
 
4. The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)
Emil Jannings' performance as a mirthless professor who falls hard for Marlene Dietrich's alluring cabaret entertainer is an absorbing window into the nature of obsessive desire. Josef Von Sternberg does a masterful job paralleling the rigid, self-righteously upstanding world of the professor with the uninhibited, invitingly tawdry environment of the traveling performers. The climactic scene, where Jannings has his jealous meltdown, is a superior example of expressive emotion executed without a trace of habituated melodrama.
5. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1931)
This delightful "Comedy Romance in Pantomime" exhaustively illustrates its opening inter-title declaration, "Peace and Prosperity," in the good-natured actions and hilarious reactions of Chaplin's endearing Little Tramp. The gags are perfectly timed (the boxing sequence alone is a classic example of nimble choreography), the acting across-the-board superior, and the tender relationship between Chaplin and blind flower girl Virginia Cherrill beautifully handled. City Lights shines brightly on the better angels of our nature, and is one Chaplin's most unapologetically sentimental and big-hearted films.
 
6. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA, 1935)
Outrageous reworking of the Faust legend with Ernst Thesiger's zanily named Septimus Pretorius tempting Colin Clive's wishy-washy Hank Frankenstein back into the monster-creation business. Karloff's tormented monster still elicits sympathy, and his scene with the lonely blind hermit is genuinely touching, but Whale pulls out all the stops with a sequel that is deliciously wicked, self-parodying, and just plain fun. Betters the more somber original because the rulebook was incinerated in the fire of Whale's imagination and the careening sense of narrative freedom (though hurtling off the track at points) that courses through every carefully sculpted frame.
7. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1932)
Truly one of the great romantic comedies, Trouble in Paradise hits nary a false note as it follows two thieves whose relationship is strained when a rich perfume heiress comes between them. Clever dialogue, expert direction and sly sexual innuendo are seamlessly interwoven into a feather-light narrative that nonetheless resonates, thanks to a sophisticated wit and sparkling style.
 
8. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, USA, 1935)
From its delightful celebration of artistic expression (perfectly illustrated when Chico and Harpo Marx perform before an enlivened steerage crowd) to its Depression-era send-up of snooty society wannabes and self-absorbed entertainers, Opera is the Marx Brothers' pinnacle achievement. The anarchic climax is a textbook example of orchestrated bedlam in service of the plot, not the other way around (as was often the case in prior Marx Brothers films).
9. Stagecoach (John Ford, USA, 1939)
Not only one of the finest Westerns ever made, but also the paradigmatic model for all subsequent Westerns. Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols turn the characters inhabiting an imperiled stagecoach into a microcosm of society, from the fallen woman looking to make a clean break with her past to the noble gunslinger (John Wayne, in a star-making performance) who's been wrongly convicted of a crime. The pacing, action sequences and bold cinematography are expertly staged, and the conclusion smartly handled.
 
10. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, USA, 1939)
One of the great American fables, in which the Everyman stands up to (and most certainly outtalks) the corrupt forces pulling the strings in Washington. James Stewart does a career-making turn as Jefferson Smith, a decent, principled man with few lofty ambitions, who's thrown to the Beltway wolves and, in true Capra-esque fashion, takes his licks and finds his nerve (even at the risk of losing his voice during a record-breaking filibuster on the Senate floor). Gripping populist fare at its finest.
 
Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
 
  • 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, USA, 1933) The young starlet getting her big break (which unfortunately happens to belong to the ankle of the leading lady) is clichéd and cornball, but Busby Berkeley's trademark geometrically-inspired choreography is stupendous, and the songs are marvelously risqué. Warner Baxter's beleaguered director provides just enough depth (especially in the end shot, as he reacts to patrons' derogatory comments as they leave the show) to elevate 42nd Street to the upper tier of first-class movie musicals.
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, USA, 1938) Immensely entertaining adventure fantasy, skillfully interweaving English history with heroic derring-do. Errol Flynn gives his finest performance as the cheeky archer protecting the lowly Saxons from the rapacious Normans, and Curtiz's renowned narrative economy and uniformly consistent attention to detail help make this Merry Olde England That Never Was a believable, enchanted world where atrocity is held accountable and nobility has little to do with title or rank.
  • L'Age D'Or (Age of Gold) (Luis Buñuel, France, 1930) There's an underlying contempt to every comedic frame that drives home this film's anti-clerical, anti-privileged class themes, where public displays of affection are discouraged, but lewd conduct in secreted hideaways is perfectly acceptable.
  • Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1938) Need a savior? Call a fisherman. Thirteenth-century hero Alexander Nevsky is just the one to repulse German invaders and unite the fractured Russian people. Eisenstein's acute sense of compositional balance and direct, no-frills narrative flow, especially during the epic Battle of the Ice sequence, are in top form. As propaganda to bolster Russian spirits against Nazi aggression, Alexander Nevsky more than does its job, but its greater message is communal unity in the face of adversity.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, USA, 1930) The dialogue is too rigid and preachy, and the young actors overly mannered and raw (though this adds an undeniable degree of verisimilitude, as they are playing teenage recruits thrust into the meat grinder that was trench warfare). All Quiet's true power comes from its remarkable and disturbing battle sequences. The sweeping battlefield pans and in-your-face, hand-to-hand combat encounters are stunning. Words are not required to reveal the true horror of warfare, and in that respect All Quiet remains the great anti-war film.
  • La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast) (Jean Renoir, France, 1938) Triangles, triangles, everywhere, intersecting and deadly. Renoir's railway-driven proto-noir may not gaze as deeply into the human psyche as his greatest works, but it's still an effective examination of one man's self-loathing and the brazen acts of his lover and her husband that compel him to commit murder and, ultimately, suicide.
  • Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, USA, 1938) Take Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and a leopard. Mix them together and you've got one humdinger of a screwball comedy. Bringing Up Baby operates within its own loony universe of bored rich girls, daft paleontologists and prudish fiancés. Hawks' pacing and the cast's uniformly precise timing (verbal as well as physical) are the gold standard of the genre. Want a little subtext, too? How about Grant carrying around a bone and having nowhere to put it? But don't overthink this gem. Simply enjoy the madcap rollercoaster ride. it's worth every minute.
  • Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939) Producer David O. Selznick's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's epic romance set against the waning days of the decidedly un-Roots-like Old South is Hollywood excess at its most gloriously extravagant. Boasting sky-high production values and remarkably agile pacing (especially impressive considering its near four-hour running time), Gone With the Wind works primarily due to its two leads. Vivien Leigh's self-centered, irrepressibly resourceful Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable's pragmatic, devil-may-care Rhett Butler deserve each other. That two thoroughly unlikable characters hold our rapt attention throughout is a true testament to the magic Leigh and Gable bring to their respective roles.
  • I Am a Fugitive from A Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, USA, 1932) Paul Muni excels as an everyman World War I vet who's unjustly convicted of a robbery and sentenced to ten years hard labor. Director LeRoy and his trio of screenwriters do an outstanding job with a plot that could have easily wallowed in cheap melodrama. Instead they carefully deconstruct Muni's fugitive, stripping away his dignity and limiting his options until he's reduced to little more than a wild animal, scurrying about in the dark and shunning meaningful human contact.
  • It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, USA, 1934) The chemistry between Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable is the wellspring from which all good things derive in this whimsical Capra road picture. The narrative meanders a tad, but the tried-and-true formula of spoiled rich girl and worn-soles reporter falling in love still sparkles, thanks to incomparable performances from its talented stars.
  • Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But...) (Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1932) Two brothers learn a harsh lesson about the adult world when they witness their seemingly proud father obsequiously become the butt of his superior's jokes. Ozu masterfully anchors the film from a child's perspective, never letting false sentiment or contrived plot devices detract from the emotional impact of the father's actions on the young boys.
  • King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, USA, 1933) Stop-motion animation whiz Willis O'Brien and his team deserve enormous credit for imbuing a 50-foot gorilla with an impressive array of emotions. You care for Kong in this movie, and that's why it works. Co-directors Cooper and Schoedsack also manage to tell a rousing adventure tale, complete with remote island, testy natives and a Land of the Lost-like jungle that's mysterious and thrilling. More than a mere B-picture given an A-list treatment, King Kong is a popcorn classic with its heart in the right place.
  • Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, France, 1937) From its obvious influence on Casablanca to Jean Gabin's commanding performance as a doomed gangster held prisoner within the safe confines of Algier's Casbah district, Pépé le Moko is a significant and compelling film. Though the ending is quintessentially downbeat French fatalism, the enduring impression imparted by Pépé is of the jumbled, labyrinthine Casbah, with its foreign blend of cutthroats, gangsters and refugee renegades.
  • The Scarlet Empress (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1934) Josef Von Sternberg rarely skimped in the visual banquet department, and The Scarlet Empress is no exception. The opulent, if garish, set designs stand out. And this highly fictionalized but wickedly fun take on the ascendancy of Catherine the Great to the throne of Russia is an economically told, thoroughly involving joyride. Marlene Dietrich is luminously sensual, and her transformation from innocent ingénue to crafty seductress is expertly conveyed.
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Various Walt Disney animators, USA, 1937) A landmark feature-length animated classic. Disney's innovative mixture of realistic human characters and more cartoonish, rounded creatures meshes seamlessly in this exemplary, "happily ever after" fairy tale world. More importantly, Disney understood the psychology of fear and how it could add gravity to a simple narrative.
  • The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939) The third screen version of L. Frank Baum's beloved tale proved a charm -- albeit not in the financial sense until years later, when repeated showings on television helped cement its status as a classic. From the sepia-toned, King Vidor-lensed framing Kansas sequences (highlighted by Judy Garland's endearing performance of "Over the Rainbow") to the eye-popping visual splendor of Oz in all its Technicolor glory, this is one of the most enjoyable and creatively expressive films a major studio ever bankrolled.
  • Zéro de Conduite (Zero for Conduct) (Jean Vigo, France, 1933) Absurdist fantasy meets youthful rebellion. Vigo's free-flowing narrative approach is ideally suited to this autobiographical look at boarding school resistance, as filtered through the whimsy of a few rebellious students.
 
How Could You Have Overlooked...
 
  • L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, France, 1934) Jean Vigo deserves enormous credit for taking a hackneyed tale of two quarrelsome newlyweds living on a barge and imbuing it with a poetically surreal insight into the nature of longing and temptation. Vigo captures some indelibly striking images (the bride's arrival on the barge; the montage of the separated couple's lustful thoughts in bed; the husband glimpsing his wife's image beneath the water), but the story, which did not originate with the director, is pedestrian and predictable. Had we spent more time with first mate Michel Simon's eccentric but pragmatic career sailor, exploring the deeper origins of the bizarre bric-a-brac littering his cabin, perhaps L'Atalante would add up to more than a meandering voyage whose conclusion treads too familiar "will the lovers ultimately reunite?" waters.
  • Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, USA, 1936) The "in the end, we have each other" message, which echoes René Clair's earlier, superior À Nous la Liberté (Freedom For Us), is hopeful but pat. Modern Times contains some of Chaplin's most memorable sight gags (the assembly line auto-feeder; lost in machinery gears; roller-skating at edge of a department store drop-off). But the narrative is too disjointed, and there's no overriding sense of momentum. The individual parts are wonderful, but the connective bolts simply don't fit.
 
Outstanding Actors:
 
Charles Laughton - Key films: Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Les Miserables (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)   Katharine Hepburn - Key films: Little Women (1933), Morning Glory (1933), Alice Adams (1935), Stage Door (1937), Holiday (1938), Bringing Up Baby (1938)
 
Outstanding Director:
 
Jean Renoir - Key films: La Chienne (Bitch) (1931), Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), A Day in the Country (1936), La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) (1937), La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) (1938), La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) (1939)

Much thanks to Filmsite.org for having scans of many of these posters online: http://www.filmsite.org/posters.html

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