Tuesday, January 5th, 2010


050. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)
The Roaring Twenties is one of the most amazing gangster dramas of the classic era, but it’s probably the least recognized among the “big” ones. Few gangster films have a leading character as likable as James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett. And because he’s so likable, his downfall is absolutely heartbreaking. This probably is the most emotional of all the major gangster films of the era. The film is about more than just Eddie’s downfall, though. It’s about the downfall of the country, how is went from the fun Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression. And it has one of the most fantastic closing lines of all time. “He used to be a big shot.”

049. Men In White (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
As with Life Begins, Men In White is a fascinating look at how things were so much different in the medical world in the 1930s. But it’s also one of the most daring films to come out of the pre-code era. It’s not just about sex and violence. It tackles some really important social issues of the time. The topic of abortion was so taboo they had to tip toe around it in the dialogue, even during the pre-code era. It was a bold move, and the films handles it delicately but honestly. It’s an emotionally powerful film in more ways than one.

048. Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937)
Few actresses could do screwball comedy as well as Carole Lombard (Fort Wayne native, thank you very much). There were many gifted comic actresses in the 1930s, but I think Lombard was at the top of the list, and I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Hazel Flagg in Nothing Sacred. She really carries the movie, being sweet, funny, and likable despite the fact that we know she’s lying the whole time. Fredric March was no screwball slouch either, and the pairing of these two is absolutely perfect. I enjoy the way it often buck romcom norm, as with their first kiss, which we don’t even see. It’s amazing how director William Wellman was able to make a kiss we didn’t even get to see so incredibly romantic.

047. Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)
Believe it or not, it took me awhile to warm up to Mannequin. I know, right? A Frank Borzage movie I didn’t love instantly. It took a few viewings for me to appreciate and really see the beauty in the love story between Joan Crawford’s Jesse and Spencer Tracy’s Hennessey. It’s a very slow build. Jesse starts the relationship married to another man, and Hennessey loves her from afar. But it turns out her husband is a pretty big loser, so she divorces him. Hennessey pursues her, she resists, but then they marry. Jesse doesn’t really love Hennessey at this point, and they both know it, but they figure that love will grow. And it does.

046. The Man In Possession (Sam Wood, 1931)
The Man In Possession might be the sexiest pre-code film I’ve ever seen. Of course, like most pre-code films, it uses sly innuendos and the like, but even then it’s a lot more blatant and in-your-face about its sexuality than most films from the era. There’s a moment where Irene Purcell’s Crystal wakes up in the morning, obviously sated and worn out from a night of lovemaking with Robert Montgomery’s Raymond, and the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. And it’s pretty much ripped in half. That’s probably the most blatantly sexual moment in all of pre-code film. Thankfully, though, there’s more than just that to the film. It’s a clever, very funny comedy. And it has Robert Montgomery. Which is always good.

055. Bad Girl (Borzage, 1930)
Frank Borzage won his second Academy Award for Best Director for the Depression romance Bad Girl. The brilliance of his work in this film is the simplicity. It’s a very small, private love story that probably was probably more than a little like a lot of love stories happening in real life at the time, so he knew not to be too over the top and flashy. The movie is very down to earth and it feels stunningly authentic. Not only is it an excellent love story, it’s also an incredible depiction of life during the Depression, from the tenements to the slang.

054. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)
Baby Face is, without a doubt, essential pre-code viewing. It’s hard to find a leading female character more pre-code than Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily (seriously, what is up with the worst of the pre-code dames being named Lily or Lil? That was also Jean Harlow’s name in Red Headed Woman, and she might actually have Stanwyck beat for the most pre-code). Even during the era, that weren’t a lot of films that celebrated a woman’s ability to get to the top by getting on her back, and Baby Face was one of them. Lily sleeps her way to the top, and she’s completely unapologetic about it.

053. It’s Love I’m After (Archie Mayo, 1937)

It’s Love I’m After is another nutty love-square romantic comedy, only it’s not quite as totally frakking insane as Four’s a Crowd. Nevertheless, it’s a flat out awesome romcom, with stellar performances from the whole cast. Unlike Four’s a Crowd, you can be pretty certain from the beginning who’s going to end up with who, despite the couple swapping (and at one point it almost becomes a love pentagon when Davis’ character starts to cozy up to DeHavilland’s dad), but it’s fun to watch them get there. It also has one of the best lines ever in a comedy. After being particularly mean to DeHavilland, only to have her delight in his criticisms, Leslie Howard says, “You don’t suppose I’ve awakened her ‘slap me again, I love it’ complex?”
052. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
No doubt I’ll get a few “What the hell? WAY TOO LOW!” comments because City Lights isn’t in my top 50. But I still love it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list at all. Chaplin continued to make silent films into the sound era, and proved that true emotion and love could still be expressed without words. It’s a film about true selflessness. The Tramp works to earn money for the Flower Girl’s operation even though he knows there’s a huge chance she won’t want him once she sees he’s not the millionaire she thinks he is. It’s a simple story, but a moving one, and it proves that you don’t need a lot of frills to make an effective romantic comedy.

051. Camille (George Cukor, 1936)
Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite in Camille my be the  most famous of her career. While I don’t think it’s her best performance, it’s certainly the ultimate Garbo role, the sacrificial bad girl, and she even gets to slowly die in this one. Yeah, sounds like a downer, but it is an incredibly romantic and ever moving film. And Garbo’s performance is really fantastic. She’s charming, she’s sexy, she’s sad. And Robert Taylor makes for a wonderful younger leading man. They’re a good pair, with strong chemistry. If you like Moulin Rouge, you’ll like this. Because it’s basically the exact same story.

074. City Girl (Murnau, 1930)
FW Murnau was a really interesting director. It’s kind of fascinating to compare his other films, like Nosferatu, Faust, and even Sunrise with his 1930 silent film City Girl. On the surface, it’s a very different kind of film. It’s visual style is much simpler than most of his previous efforts (but no less stunning), and it doesn’t have the massive dramatic punch. It’s a much smaller, more intimately set story about love and family and finding your place. Mary Duncan and Charles Farrell (who were fantastic together the year before in Frank Borzage’s The River) play the young lovers who come from two different worlds, and their chemistry manages to carry much of the film.