70. 5th Avenue Girl (Gregory LaCava, 1939)
Another great film to come of the Golden Year of cinema, 5th Avenue Girl is something of a somber romantic comedy. It’s a funny movie about poverty and being ignored by your family! Sounds like a howler, right? But really, it manages to be very funny and very touching at the same time. Mary, played with a healthy does of world weary cynicism by Ginger Rogers, is a poor girl hired by Mr. Borden, the always wonderful Walter Connolly, to come live in his home as pose as his new ladyfriend to help him in his attempts to get his family to notice him again. His wife, his son, and his daughter all ignore him while paying attention to his money. The scheme definitely works, but complications arise when the attentions of his son (played by a pretty darn dreamy Tim Holt) toward Mary turn from suspicious to romantic. 5th Avenue Girl joins movies like My Man Godfrey in the category of socially conscious screwballs of the Depression era, but it definitely has a darker tone overall than most of the film of this type. The film is also notable for Verree Teasdale’s performance as Mr. Borden’s wife.
069. Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)
There are some movies that have such a strong atmosphere you can actually feel it physically, on your skin and in your bones. Kongo is one of those movies. It’s a film with such deplorable characters and horrible goings-on that it really could only come out of the pre-code era. And it has an atmosphere of so much wrongness, dirtiness, and sexuality that it almost oozes off the screen. Walter Huston is incredible as the depraved Flint, a cripple who reigns over a cult of natives in Africa. He’s a twisted individual who’s completely self obsessed and bent on revenge. In the film, most of his wrath is brought down upon Dr. Kingsland (Conrad Nagel), a doctor who he kidnaps in hopes that he’ll be able to heal him, and Ann (Virginia Bruce), the main pawn in his revenge scheme. The brutalizes the two of them, getting them addicted to drugs and forcing Ann into prostitution. It isn’t a pleasant movie to watch, but it is an incredible look at the darkest side of human nature you could possibly find. Along with Huston’s masterful performance, Nagel and Bruce are incredible. Their characters become so broken and hopeless. They’re really the only sympathetic characters in the film, and watching them be just so utterly destroyed is pretty heartwrenching.
068. Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935)
It’s kind of amazing that a studio would even attempt an adaptation of Anna Karenina, a story that’s all about adultery, after the pre-code era. Despite the restrictions of the era, of the many adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, Clarence Brown’s 1935 version is probably the best. This was actually the second time Garbo had played Anna Karenina. She’d made a silent, modernized version in the 1920s opposite her then paramour John Gilbert, entitled Love. The role is one that suits Garbo and her talents so amazingly well, and it’s hard for any other actress in the role to measure up to her. Particularly impressive are the moments between Anna and her son. Garbo loved children, though she never had any of her own, and the few scenes she shared with children throughout her career are some of the most purely emotional and open moments Garbo ever had onscreen.
067. Five and Ten (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931)
While Marion Davies was always at her best in comedies, she did have some seriously dramatic acting chops. Where so many films during the Depression were about the poor, Five and Ten told the story of a family who acquires new wealth, and the negative effects that has. So I guess it sort of said to the Depression audiences, “Don’t feel bad about being poor. Look at how awful and miserable the people who have money are.” The film looks at the Rarick family as they become members of the new rich. Instead of being blissfully happy with their new money, each family member faces their own problems. Jennifer (Davies), tries to become a member of society, but is generally shunned because she doesn’t come from old money. Her mother (Irene Rich) is bored with her life since her husband works so much, and she takes up with gigolo. Avery, Jennifer’s brother, played by Douglass Montgomery, spends all his time worrying about the problems of his family and it starts to drive him a little crazy. Where the wealthy families in films like Merrily We Live are endearingly nutty, the Raricks are an incredibly sad family to watch.
066. Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936)
There are so many ways in which this is not your typical Astaire/Rogers musical. First, fter Flying Down to Rio, Fred and Ginger were almost always cast as the leads. This time they share pretty equal screentime with a less interesting, but still charming, couple comprised of Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard. Second, the pair usually played characters of considerable wealth, or were, at the very least, comfortable. In Follow the Fleet, he’s a sailor and she’s working hard at a dance hall just to make ends meet. Finally, this is the only film in which one of their dances breaks character and they’re actually performing the dance as other characters. These differences make for a breath of fresh air in the Astaire/Rogers canon. For once they’re a completely ordinary couple, trying hard to raise some money. The films features two of their best dances, the beautiful “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket”, a lighter number which shows off Ginger’s incredibly gift for physical comedy.