Saturday, November 21st, 2009


080. The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)
It’s kind of strange to see Miriam Hopkins, the actress who I think is the true Queen of Pre-Code film, playing such a sweet, timid character. No actress during the era enjoyed her sexuality more than Hopkins, but she’s able to play the inexperienced slightly prudish wife of Maurice Chevalier so well and so convincingly that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman. Until the end, that is, when she becomes the sexual being that Hopkins was known for. It’s almost like watching the birth of the Pre-Code queen. The “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number with Hopkins and Claudette Colbert is easily the high point of the movie. One wouldn’t think that these women would get along (since they’re rivals for the same man) but they have so much chemistry, almost more than either woman has with Chevalier. This is a Lubitsch movie, so it’s just as sophisticated as it is sexy, and it’s a joy to watch.

079. Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937)
It’s refreshing when a movie that’s based on fact comes right out and says, before the movie even starts, that the story has been seriously embellished and that it’s a more romanticized version of the events that actually happened. Conquest, a movie about the love story between Napoleon and his mistress, the Polish Countess Marie Walewska, does this. It starts with the disclaimer. It’s nice to see a movie not hide that it’s not 100% fact. Because when the movie is good, that doesn’t really matter, and Conquest is good. It’s very good. It’s kind of amazing that this was made during the strict era of code enforcement considering the entire story is about a romantic relationship between the Countess, who has left her husband, and Napoleon, who eventually becomes married to someone else, even though they never marry. The love story really is beautifully told. It starts out with Marie mostly taking on the role of the Emperor’s mistress to help her country, but she comes to truly love this man. Conquest is also somewhat unique in that Garbo really doesn’t take on the dominant role in the relationship. Usually she’s playing the alpha to a weaker man, but this time that’s not so. It’s a heartbreaking love story that’ s brilliantly performed by the Garbo and Charles Boyer.

078. The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu) (Jean Renoir, 1939)
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is one of my favorite films of the 2000s, and it probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Jean Renoir’s amazing examination of the upper class The Rules of the Game. There were a lot of American films in the 1930s about wealthy people, but the most critical Hollywood was of the upper class was usually just depiction them as screwy and kind of lovably out of their minds (see My Man Godfrey and Merrily We Live). But the French filmmaker’s work looks at the real faults of the upper class in the 1930s and just how they were quite different from the common man, not just in their income, but in their attitudes. The most impressive part of the film is how it’s not particularly intimate. The viewer is not treated as part of the experience. We’re merely observers of the action, kept at a distance that almost (almost) makes the film cold. We’re seeing the way these people would act if we weren’t around watching them, which gives the film a voyeuristic feeling.

077. Today We Live (Howard Hawks, 1933)
I really love World War I movies, and I think that there aren’t enough of them. Today We Live doesn’t follow the tradition war movie formula. It focuses¬† mostly on Joan Crawford’s character and how she deals with the war, with her brother and her best friend (and later husband) serving. We see a little bit of action, but it’s mostly about the effects that the war has on the people on the periphery. Sure, it has it’s faults, like the whole things in the 1930s where, as long as it was set in the 20th century, everyone wore the latest 1930s fashions. But in the end, that really has no effect on ho this story just works on an emotional level. Crawford’s character has a lot of big choices to make, and sometimes she makes the wrong ones, but that perfectly reflects the confusion that comes from being indirectly involved in a war. Franchot Tone plays her brother and Robert Young their best friend, and they both deliver incredibly supporting performances.

076. Fugitive Lovers (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
Road Romances were a neat little subgenre of Romantic Comedy in the 1930s. The most notable is probably Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, but perhaps the most overlooked is Richard Boleslawski’s Fugitive Lovers. It’s another pairing of the endlessly adorable and enchanting Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. This time Montgomery is an escaped convict who grabs a ride on the bus that Madge Evans is traveling on, trying to get away from the mobster who’s infatuated with her, who follows her anyway. It’s a pretty simple movie, but it’s incredibly sweet and has a surprising amount of character development for such a short comedy. The relationship between Evans and Montgomery has a very natural feel to it. Montgomery is great as always, but I think it’s Evans who’s particularly impressive here. She’s playing a character who’s a little bit sharper and snippier than her usual characters, and there are moments where she’s flat out hilarious. Nat Pendleton is the main supporting player, as Evans’ mobster stalker. He’s always a joy to watch, and this time is no different. He also has one of the most surprising and satisfying character moments in the whole film.

By Katie Richardson

I just want to alert you all to a very well done and thorough blog, Where Danger Lives.¬† It’s all about film noir and dark cinema, and it has some of the best reviews I’ve seen online. So definitely check it out. It will be added to the list of links on this site.

085. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
Following up The 39 Steps, considered today to be his first “major” film, Hitchcock made yet another “traveling” thriller. Hitch had a big thing for trains. From The Lady Vanishes to North by Northwest to Strangers on the Train, it was one of his favorite settings for mischief and mayhem. In this film, nearly all of the story unfolds on a train. The film is also notable for having a female leading the way in the plot. Margaret Lockwood is charming, lovely, and all around watchable. Her eagerness to uncover the truth is totally believable, and at her side is the equally charming and sometimes endearingly irritating Michael Redgrave. The pair try to discover what’s happened to a woman who Lockwood swears she talked to on the train who seems to have vanished without a trace. The plot has been copied in various ways many times since (most notable in Flightplan, perhaps most successfully in Bunny Lake Is Missing.) Knowing someone who has vanished, and then being led to believe that maybe they didn’t exist at all, is the stuff psychological thrillers are made of.

084. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
The Pre-Code era was the golden age of the mobster film. Not only were filmmakers much more free to make their films violent and their villains sympathetic, but America was also in the midst of the Depression, and people were looking to unconventional movie characters to idolize. So filmmakers were able to make their gangsters into not just sympathetic hoodlums, but even into tragic anti-heroes. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the bunch is Edward G. Robinson’s Rico. In 1931, his rise to power could be seen as almost inspiration, despite the illegal and quite violent way he did it, and despite the fact that the character is something of a monster, loyalty and friendship aside. There’s also some of that wonderful pre-code homosexual subtext, and an amazing final line from Robinson.

083. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
1939 is considered Hollywood’s Golden Year because so many amazing movies were released, but the only two that really get any attention these days are Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, while other films, like Wuthering Heights, which I think is better than both of those other movies, are hardly ever discussed. Wuthering Heights is kind of the grand-daddy of messed up love stories. It’s the story of how a strong and passionate love can sometimes destroy two people rather than save them. It’s dark, it’s not happy, but it’s has its own dark beauty, and this film captures it so well. It’s true, it only tells part of the story, but if you’re going to make a feature length film version of the story, I’d personally rather have a part of the story cut out to allow what’s there to fully develop as it should, rather than trying to cram it all into a two hour running time and rushing things, like that mess that was the 1992 version.

082. Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Kept woman films were popular in the romantic melodrama genre during the pre-code era. Naturally the idea of a kept woman was something that would have to be done away with completely when enforcement of the code began. But while it was allowed, the subgenre allowed for some very interesting romances. One of them paired Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, one of the all time great pairings (on and off screen) as the kept woman and the man who keeps her. A lot of these stories are about the woman falling in love with a poor man, a man who isn’t the one keeping her. This one is different because it’s about the love between the two characters. It’s not about them falling in love, it’s about their love changing and their acceptance of it.

081. Employees’ Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
One of the sexiest movies of the decade, Employees’ Entrance is about all manner of workplace indiscretions, and it crams just about all the pre-code you can get into one movie. Loretta Young is charming as always as the sweet girl who sleeps her way into a job at a department store by way of sleazy yet oh-so-sexy Warren William, but then falls in love with good guy Wallace Ford.¬† Watching it now with 70+ years of history, it’s an interesting look back at the way life was back in the 1930s. But even without the historical context, it works remarkably well as a romantic drama, with an entertaining supporting ensemble. But the show belongs to the often forgotten but always awesome Warren William. He completely owns this movie in every way. It takes quite an actor to play such a horrible character with so much commitment.

By Katie Richardson