Lists


095. The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich, 1934)
After their show stealing supporting performances in Flying Down to Rio, RKO paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first starring vehicle in 1934, The Gay Divorcee. The set up of mistaken identity definitely established a standard story point for many of their films in the following years, but Fred and Ginger are always so charming that nobody really cares that the plots all look kind of the same. The Gay Divorcee is definitely noticeable as an early entry in the pair’s canon. The dancing isn’t quite as awe inspiring as it would be a few years later. But what they may lack in technical proficiency, they make up for with chemistry. Fred and Ginger are one of the all time greatest screen teams because of all the ways they clicked together on screen, with or without the dancing. As always, they’re surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast including the delightfully daffy Alice Brady and the dependably befuddled Edward Everett Horton.

094. Inspiration (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Inspiration, Greta Garbo’s third talkie, is often dismissed as lifeless, and it’s leading couple (Garbo and Robert Montgomery) as being without passion. It’s easy to see how some might think that, seeing as how it’s surrounded by pre-code melodramas being made at the same time. But this film is anything but lifeless and passionless. It’s simply a lower-key melodrama than most films that were being made at the time. For addressing such a typically pre-code topic, it remains a remarkably gentle and patient movie. Garbo played a lot of these long suffering, self-sacrificing women, who loved their men enough to know when to leave. She played the character so many times because she was good at it, and it worked, as it does here. The relationship between Montgomery and Garbo is a lot less in your face than so many of her other pairings, because in this case we’re dealing with a man of extreme repression. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface with Montgomery, and their relationship, in this movie. Inspiration is all about the thing going on just outside of our line of vision. That’s why it usually needs to be seen more than once. You have to realize where you’re supposed to be looking.

093. Romance (Clarence Brown, 1930)
This vaguely titled melodrama is the ultimate forbidden love story. Greta Garbo, at her absolute most beautiful, is an opera singer with quite a past who falls in love with a man of God played by Gavin Gorden. Director Clarence Brown isn’t particularly creative with the camera (save for one particularly tense and steamy scene between the lovers toward the end), but he makes up for it with lush and glamorous costume and set design. Garbo’s gowns in this movie are exquisite. The fact that the story is so simple is what makes the film special. There are no crazy twists and turns. We know the way it’s going to end the second the story starts. It’s the knowledge of the inevitable which makes watching the love story unfold so heartbreaking. This is the love story from which so many modern love stories derive.

092. What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)
Five years before William Wellman’s A Star Is Born became the cautionary tale for young stars exceeding their mentors, George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood told the same basic story, with an even more heartbreaking twist of unrequited love. Constance Bennett is the young starlet here, every bit as charming as the naive Hollywood newbie as she is as the seasoned Hollywood vet. The criminally underrated Lowell Sherman is her mentor, a gifted producer who teaches her how to be a star. Unfortunately he’s a drunk, and the more her star rises, the more his falls, and his unrequited love for her doesn’t help, especially when she married another guy. In the early 1930s, the film industry was still relatively young, and it wasn’t an entirely usual thing for people on the inside to take a cynical look at the inner workings of their bread and butter. It had been done before, of course, but not quite as brutally and heartbreakingly as it was in What Price Hollywood. It showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that even the ones who seem like they have it all don’t have it all.

091. Lovers Courageous (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932)
The set up and story for Lovers Courageous, Robert Z. Leonard’s stunningly visual ode to the complications of love, is rather simple. Rich girl meets poor boy. In any other movie, this set up might lead to some pretty humdrum boring stuff. But when the girl is the endlessly charming Madge Evans and the boy is sexy and suave Robert Montgomery, you’re well on your way to an entertaining movie experience. Add to that the fact that Robert Z. Leonard managed to express the beauty of love on front of the camera with some surprisingly gorgeous settings and camera work, and you’re got a pretty nice little love story to kill less than an hour and a half with. Montgomery and Evans are one of the unsung duos of classic film. They made some of the best romances of the 1930s together, and had the perfect spark and chemistry for each other. Montgomery, who is often known for playing snarky men of considerable means, is quite low-key here, a humble and romantic minded playwright who enjoys the simpler things in life, specifically the beauty of one Miss Evans. It’s a charming, visually pleasing love story with a satisfying conclusion and a couple that’s impossible not to root for.

Stay tuned for 90-86

By Katie Richardson

100. Liliom (Frank Borzage, 1930)
It’s not exactly the easiest love story for a modern generation to swallow, despite the fact that in its musical form (the wonderful Carousel) it’s one of the most beloved romances of all time. Nevertheless, with its endlessly flawed hero, his doormat wife, and their unconventional version of love, this is one romance that modern feminists aren’t going to be fans of. And it’s true, in its final moments, trying to sell physical abuse as some kind of sign of affection doesn’t really work as well as it wants to. But before that point, director Frank Borzage still managed to do what he always did best: he took an immensely flawed couple with an even more flawed relationship and made it beautiful. Liliom and Julie’s marriage isn’t near perfect. He’s lazy with a bad temper, she allows him to walk all over her. But underneath it all, there is a deep love there and an understanding that the pair has for one another that is unparalleled.  And even in the end, while (perhaps ill-advisedly) sugar coating Liliom’s domestic abuse, Borzage never let’s Liliom off the hook, which leaves us with a heartbreaking conclusion. Despite what seems to be an uplifting ending, we really know that even with the best of intentions, even in death some men can’t change.

099. Made For Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939)
Carole Lombard is one of the greatest comedic talents to ever appear on the screen. Because she’s so famous for her comedic efforts, her dramatic performances are, at best, often forgotten, and, at worst, ridiculed as being “a waste of her talent”.  But her talent really did shine through in her dramatic roles, and Made for Each Other is proof of that. The film is a unique love story. In most romances we get to see the falling in love part, with “happily ever after” being the end of the story”.  Here, it’s the beginning, and it’s not so much “happily ever after” as it is “with a whole lot of bumps along the way.” Marriage is hard work, and this movie shows it, complete with disapproving mothers-in-law, terrible bosses, and sick children. It still hold up particularly well today as proof that, no matter the decade, marriage comes with the same problems and the same responsibilities. Made For Each Other is a dose of reality, maybe not one that everyone wants to see, especially from the classic era, but one that’s honest and, because of that, rewarding.

098. History Is Made At Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)
It’s not secret that director Frank Borzage was all about the transcendent power of love and all the spirituality that entails. It’s a hallmark of his films, and it figures quite prominently in History Is Made At Night. But what’s most prominent in this little romantic oddity is an element that’s only a latent theme in his other films: the battle between good and evil. Underneath the surface of a lush romance is a very primal tug of war between two forces. The evil is personified in the quite substantive form of Colin Clive’s downright deranged and insanely jealous ex-husband, while the good is represented less by the lovers (Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur), and more by the undying love that they share. With shifts between romantic comedy, psychological drama, and disaster film, History Is Made At Night may seem downright schizophrenic at times, but no matter what genre it’s veering into, it always maintains Borzage’s warmth, romance, and optimism.

097. Heroes For Sale (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Unflinching yet still somehow optimistic, Wild Bill Wellman’s Depression-era saga Heroes For Sale is one of the decade’s best glimpses into the way times really were for millions of Americans. It’s not just one problem for leading man Richard Barthelmess. It starts with one thing and then just starts to snowball from there. It’s pre-code in the best possible way, dealing with issues like drug addiction head on, and never pulling its punches (there’s a character death which leads to one shot that is one of the most startling in all of classic film). Wellman wasn’t afraid to make things as dark as possible for his characters, because that’s the way things were in the world around him, and somehow, like no other director really could, he balanced this crushing sadness with a certain amount of hope. Even though they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was there, somewhere, and eventually they would see it, if they just kept looking.

096. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938)
Despite all the fawning that goes on over the overblown My Fair Lady, the gloriously simple 1938 version of Pygmalion is still the best version to ever appear on the big screen. Everything about this movie is perfect, from its head to its toes. Wendy Hiller is the best Eliza Doolittle there possible could be, beautiful enough to be convincing as the lady she becomes, but with just enough grit and uniqueness to keep her believable as the lovable street urchin. Leslie Howard’s refined gruffness is inimitable, and the chemistry they share is one of a kind. The story of Pygmalion is special in that it’s a love story without being a romance. It’s not about falling in love, and the big dramatic feelings that come with it. It’s about companionship, finding where you fit. What a novel idea, to sell that as such a quiet, unassuming thing as this.

Stay tuned for 95-91.

By Katie Richardson

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