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.

Ginger Rogers is my favorite actress. She’s mostly remembered today for being Fred Astaire’s dance partner throughout the 1930s. But Rogers had an acting talent that went beyond that. She was a fantastic and graceful dancer, but she should be remembered as so much more. Her range was unbelievable. She could make a fantastic screwball comedy, and then turn around and make a melodrama, giving great performances in both. Rogers stopped dancing with Astaire in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (they’d re-team just once more, ten years later, for The Barkleys of Broadway) to focus on a career in non-musical films. Almost immediately her talent was recognized and she won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle. Unfortunately, though, so many of her sans-Fred films aren’t remembered today. Here are some of the best.

Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940)

The same year she gave her award winning performance in Kitty Foyle, she gave an even better performance in Primrose Path, as the daughter of a prostitute who tries to escape her life by marrying Joel McCrea. This is one of the most beautiful love stories put out by the studio system. It’s about the importance of honesty in a marriage. It’s surprising that this film got past the Production Code, not just because it featured characters who were clearly prostitutes, but because these characters were sympathetic. Marjorie Rambeau (who received an Oscar nomination for the role) played Rogers’ mother and a basically good woman simply doing what she was taught in order to support her family. Her relationship with Rogers is gentle. She only wants the best for her children. Primrose Path is a really brave film for the time it was made, and it’s just one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.

Rafter Romance (William A. Seiter, 1933)

Rafter Romance is actually a pre-Fred film. It’s a simple but incredible sweet and pretty funny romance. Rogers and Norman Foster play two people who share an apartment – he lives there during the day, she lives there at night. They never meet, but they still can’t stand each other. Of course, they meet outside of the apartment, not realizing the other is the person they believe they can’t stand, and they fall in love. This is definitely one of the most original romantic comedies of the early 1930s. Rogers is completely charming, and Norman Foster is a good match for her. They’re both just so endlessly cute.

Romance In Manhattan (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

It’s amazing that such a simple romantic dramady can be so moving. Francis Lederer plays an immigrant who is in the country illegally. He’s taken in by Rogers and her kid brother. It’s really as simple as that. The three just try to make a living and stay afloat while Lederer and Rogers fall in love. But it’s such a sincere and genuine romance. It’s made with so much heart from all involved. And it has one of the funniest finales ever.

Star of Midnight (Stephen Roberts, 1935)

Star of Midnight is my favorite Thin Man knockoff. It’s central mystery is really very interesting, and it has a certain “strange” feeling that I think sets it apart from other screwball mysteries. Powell stars in this (and he’s great, as always) with Rogers as his much younger and very eager love interest. She goes after everything with determination and vigor, whether it’s trying to solve the case or trying to get Powell to marry her. I really wish these two had made more movies together. They were a perfect fit.

Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)

Vivacious Lady is a sweet romantic comedy made great by the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. They both had an “everyman” feel to them, which made them an incredibly relatable couple. You want so badly for them to be happy together because they’re so normal and remind you of yourself. I also like that it’s not really a movie about two people falling in love. They get married early on in the film. The movie is about them trying to break the news to his family, and staying together while they do it. It’s just an adorable movie.

Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939)

This is one of Rogers’ very best performances. She plays a woman who has to raise an orphaned baby she finds on her own because nobody believes it’s not hers. In the meantime, she begins to fall in love with David Niven, her boss’s son who takes an interest in caring for the baby as well. This movie is so great because, in addition to the great romance between Rogers and Niven, it’s wonderful to watch Rogers’ love for the baby, that’s not even hers, grow. It’s one of the most interesting and beautiful relationships in film.

5th Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)

5th Avenue Girl is such a good movie because it has so much going for it. First would be the relationship between Rogers and Walter Connolly. Connolly plays a wealthy man who is ignored by his family, she when he meets Rogers on a park bench he takes her in and the two pretend they’re having an affair in the hopes that the family will finally pay attention to what he’s doing. Rogers and Connolly bond and form a really nice father/daughter relationship that’s the heart of the movie. But the movie has three love stories going on. Throughout the film, Connolly and his wife eventually find their way back to each other. Connolly’s daughter is in love with the chauffer, who seems to be something of a communist. The best love story, though, you don’t realize is there until about halfway through the movie. Rogers and Connolly’s son, Tim Holt, fall in love. It’s a strangely done romance, I’m not even sure I can really describe it, but it’s a really strong film all together.

Tom, Dick, and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)

Rogers played a character in Tom, Dick, and Harry who was a little… simpler than most of her other characters. She dreams of romance and love, but can’t choose between three different guys: the regular guy who’s working his way up to management at a local store, the millionaire, and the poor guy. The best part about this movie is that each of the guys has their pros and their cons, and you really have no idea who she’ll choose in the end. She gives a really adorable performance, and this movie is just cute.

Tales of Manhattan (Julian Duvivier, 1942)

In this series of loosely connected vignettes, Ginger Rogers has one of the best stories. It’s a little, short, self contained story about Rogers finding out her fiancee is a cad and realizing his pal, Henry Fonda, is perfect for her. It’s short, sweet, and funny. And Rogers and Fonda are SO good together. Watching this, it’s hard to believe they never made any other films together. They were such a good pairing.

I’ll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944)

This movie is SO amazing. While there were a lot of movies being made to show how awesome soldiers were and to spread patriotic propaganda during the war, I’ll Be Seeing You was one of the first films to really take a look at the negative effects the war was having on the soldiers. This movie gives us two incredibly flawed, complicated, and damaged characters and allows them to fall in love. It’s just such a beautiful movie. You really didn’t see movies and characters like this too much in classic film.

By Katie Richardson