090. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930)
MGM kept Greta Garbo in silent films longer than any other star in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 1930 that she made her talkie debut in the title role in Anna Christie.  It was really the perfect role for Garbo – the world weary prostitute of Swedish descent. The film is based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, who wasn’t the sunniest of playwrights. It’s a grim and gloomy story that could have easily been bogged down by its own sadness and despair had director Clarence Brown not put such importance on the family dynamic between Anna and her father, played by George F. Marion. Anna hides her past from her father, with whom she’s recently been reunited, for fear of disappointing him. While there is a love story in the film, the movie is really about the relationship between a father and daughter and the difficulties they have relating to one another after being separated for 15 years.

089. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)
Bette Davis had been working steadily in mostly unremarkable pictures until 1934 when she appeared in her breakout role in Of Human Bondage. Davis was a brave actress. Not many would take on a character as vile and horrible as Mildred, and even fewer would work so hard to make the character as horrible as possible. As a result, Davis created one of the biggest film bitches of all time, and cemented her place in Hollywood history as one of the all time greats. W. Somerset Maugham’s story of obsession and abuse is a dark one, filled with characters you can never quite feel sorry for. Nevertheless, watching the power Mildred holds over Leslie Howard’s Carey and the inexplicable pull he feels toward her is fascinating to watch. We’re basically watching a series of events that leads to a train crashing. We recognize that these things are going to lead to a disaster, we’re powerless to stop it, but it’s impossible not to be entranced by it.

088. Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)
Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were close friends for most of their lives, and they shared a really amazing chemistry on screen. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were both the “every man” (or woman) stars. Unlike much of Hollywood, which seemed glamorous and untouchable, Stewart and Roger seemed like they belonged with us. Like they were regular Joes. And pairing the two worked so well on film. Which is why it’s surprising that the only made one movie together, the delightful romantic comedy Vivacious Lady. The basic story is a little hackneyed – Stewart comes from a wealthy and respectable family, so he’s afraid to tell them that he’s married a showgirl – but the fact that director George Stevens can take that story and make something so funny and heartfelt is what’s beautiful about the whole thing. The romance between Stewart and Rogers feels incredibly genuine, and the family dynamic, while screwball and therefor a little daffy, actually feels real and honest. Despite the screwball elements, this is a movie that feels true.

087. Living on Velvet (Frank Borzage, 1935)
Living on Velvet is one of Borzage’s less recognized films. On the surface is seems to be a typical romantic melodrama, but it’s actually one of Borzage’s darkest stories. George Brent’s character, Terry, has lost his family in a plane crash while he was piloting, so he spends much of his life basically courting death, even after he marries Kay Francis’ Amy. He’s so much more damaged than any of Borzage’s other heroes. So damage that not even his love for Amy can save his soul.  Rather, much of the film seems to be about how their love for each other isn’t enough. For once in a Borzage film, it’s the outside forces that his heroes and heroines are usually so isolated from which are needed to save their lives. It’s an interesting departure for Borzage, less spiritual and certainly darker.

086. Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936)
Hollywood romances, in both classic and modern film, are usually about young people. While it’s becoming a bit more common in current film to give older people the spotlight, that was a rarity in classic film, which makes Dodsworth a breath of fresh air. The leads are Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, 52 and 44 years of age, respectively. Chatterton was lucky enough to have an ageless face, and was able to play the leading ladies in roles that might have gone to younger actresses for much of the 1930s. But in Dodsworth she embraced her age to play an older woman, the mother of an adult child, and the wife of a man who’s just retired. The film continues to be unconventional, telling the story of a long time romance unraveling. It’s sometimes heartbreaking to watch, but it’s such a well done film that you can’t tear your eyes away. It’s also brilliantly performed by its entire cast, especially Chatterton, who isn’t afraid to reveal the incredibly unlikable traits of her character.

Stay tuned for 85-81.

By Katie Richardson

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

Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, Lewis Stone, May Robson, Louise Closser Hale

Joan Crawford plays the title character, a woman of questionable morals who’s taken up with  Emile (Asther), who is manipulative and controlling. She finally leaves him, and on the boat meets Jerry Darrow (Montgomery) and she falls in love. But she fears if he knows about her part with Emile that he will leave her, so she attempts to keep it a secret. Which becomes difficult when Emile meets them at the docks. Emile refuses to leave her alone, so Letty resorts to drastic measures.

Letty Lynton is something of a legend among classic film fans. It’s rights have been tied up in legal issues since the late 1930s. A federal court ruled that the story was too close to the play Dishonored Lady, making the film an unauthorized adaptation, thus keeping it completely out of circulation. For decades, it was simply impossible to find, and for years it’s been quite the accomplishment to find a bootleg of it. Recently, though, it’s become a little more available through various rare film dealers. And now, it’s available on YouTube.

Made during the pre-code era, Letty Lynton certainly takes advantage of the things women were allowed to get away with in film at the time. Not only does Letty get away with living the wild life, she also gets away with murder, and in the end still gets the man she loves and the life she wants. These are definitely the makings of pre-code melodrama, and Letty Lynton is one of the best, mainly because of Crawford’s performance. It’s all in her eyes, the fear of being discovered as a “wild” woman, and the fear of losing Jerry. The scene in which she kills Emile has some of Crawford’s best acting, and watching her unravel is certainly entertaining.

Crawford is paired yet again with Robert Montgomery. While he doesn’t have quite as much to do here as he does in his other films with Crawford, he’s still endlessly charming and watchable. He’s definitely not the caddish character he played in so many films. He’s a good man, and his love for Letty is admirable. Crawford and Montgomery were always a really good pair, and this film definitely benefits from that.

It’s legend of this as a lost film might make one a little disappointed in what they end up seeing, but if you just go into it expecting a quality pre-code melodrama, you’ll be pleased.

Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1936

Director: Clarence Brown

Cast: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy and James Stewart

Wife Versus Secretary actually ends up being quite a suspenseful movie as we follow devoted husband and successful businessman Van through one of the biggest business deals of his life assisted by his secretary named Whitey. It just so happens that Whitey is not only a invaluable part of the business team but a very attractive woman and while Van is able to keep the relationship strictly professional people start to talk and those around Van, including his wife, become more and more suspicious that there might be a little more to their relationship then just business. The suspense comes in the form of a question. Will Van cross that line?

This film is a very satisfactory drama with well defined and well portrayed characters. Clark Gable’s character is a charming blend of business savy and child-like exuberance. You can’t help but root for his character who is on top of the world and has so much to lose if things were to go too far with his secretary.

Jean Harlow is able to break out of her regular typecasting and play a very successful career oriented woman with a good head on her shoulders. Yet she still ends up subtly playing the role of a temptress.

Myrna Loy plays Van’s wife who lets her mother in law’s warnings about the dangers of an attractive secretary get to her. She tragically ignores her instincts and begins to question the man she should trust and love.

Keep your eyes peeled for Jimmy Stewart in one of his early roles as a young man trying to settle down with career woman Whitey.

Wife Versus Secretary has its flaws. For one thing, aspects of it are some what predictable. However, the third act doesn’t disappoint. A key scene and perhaps one of my favorites for its symbolism takes place in a car with Van’s wife and mother discussing his secretary. Just as Van’s mother places doubt in his wife’s mind concerning the possibilities of his relationship with his secretary they drive through a dark tunnel foreshadowing the possible dark times ahead that could result from doubting her faithful husband. Wife Versus Secretary is definitely a film worth watching. This is a film that thematically comes across as modern despite being released over 70 years ago.

Year: 1932

Cast: Marie Dressler, Jean Hersholt, Myrna Loy, Richard Cromwell

Director: Clarence Brown

When their mother dies in childbirth, the Smith children turn to their nanny Emma (Dressler). As they grow up, Dressler loves them as though they were her own. She has a special bond with Ronnie (Cromwell), who never knew his mother, though Isabelle (Loy) is stuck up and insists on treating Emma as little more than a servant. As the children grow older, their father Frederick (Hersholt) and Emma being to feel lonely and end up marrying each other. On their honeymoon, Frederick dies, and leaves everything in his will to Emma so she can properly provide for the children. Isabelle refuses to believe her father would leave her nothing, and tries to prove that Emma killed her father.

Marie Dressler was definitely one of the more interesting stars of the 1930s. While she’d had some success in silent film, she had pretty much disappeared from the radar until Anna Christie in 1930. She won the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill, and was nominated again for Emma. While not at all the type of beautiful star so many people adored, Dressler was one of the top box office stars of her time. She was certainly one of the most talented and dynamic actresses. In Emma, she’s extremely sympathetic, and gives one hell of a performance. It’s hard to believe a woman would be able to love “her” children after the way Isabelle treats her, but there’s never a doubt that Dressler means every word she says when she refuses to allow the lawyers to talk about the kids the way the do, even if it means she’ll be found guilty of murder.

Loy is also interesting in this film. Before her breakout year of 1934, she was often cast as villainous characters, and that’s pretty much what she is here. She’s stuck up, self centered, selfish, and vindictive. And so completely easy to hate. She really does give a very good performance that’s completely against the type she would soon come to play.

The film does lose a bit of steam in the middle. While the murder trial is indeed interesting, I was much more enthralled by the relationship/romance between Emma and Frederick. There was a lot of genuine emotion and affection in this love story between two older people, and that made the first half of the films a lot more interesting than the second half. A romance like this is so rare to find in film, especially classic film. I really would have loved an entire film just about Emma and Frederick’s marriage.

Year: 1931

Director: Clarence Brown

Cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Wallace Ford

The 1931 movie Possessed has nothing to do with the 1947 version except for the fact that Joan Crawford starred in both. I do not believe you will find another star that made two entirely different movies bearing the same title. The earlier Possessed is the story of a young woman from a small town who works in a paper factory but has ambitious dreams and the determination to make a better life for herself. One day after work waiting by the train tracks for the train to pass by she starts watching what is going on in the various compartments. This is done in a slow imaginative way so that Crawford’s character, Marion, can see inside each train compartment window. She sees a fancy dinner being prepared in one; a young beautiful woman getting dressed in another; a young couple elegantly dressed are dancing in still another. At the end of the train on the outside platform of the last car an inebriated rich man is sitting there nursing a bottom of champagne. He listens to Marion’s story and tells her she should come to New York.

Marion quickly decides this is what she should do. She breaks ups with her boyfriend Al Manning (Wallace Ford) from the factory and heads for New York where she meets millionaire lawyer Mark Whitney (Clark Gable). Whitney falls head over heels for the unsophisticated Marion.

Marion is a fast learner and soon is Whitney’s sophisticated mistress and lover capable of holding posh dinner parties, speaking fluent French, conversing, and charming Whitney’s high brow friends. Marion seems to have everything she ever wanted. The young factory girl is in the past or so it seems.

One time honored truism is that you cannot escape your past. Marion’s past is about to catch up with her. It happens first at a party where one of Whitney business associates comes to the party with a low rent floozy on his arm. When Whitney complains to him about bringing a cheap low class dame to his apartment the guest angrily responds that he doesn’t see any difference between her and Marion. Hearing this conversation Marion feels the humiliation caused by Whitney’s reluctance to marry her. The situation continues to deteriorate when she over hears Whitney and some business associates discuss the possibility of him running for Mayor of New York. However, there is one problem they point out. His opponents will dig into his private life and discover that he has been living “in sin” with a woman for four years and they will exploit this (some things do not change) and ruin him. Whitney refuses to get rid of Marion. He responds that he will marry her but they say that’s too little too late. Marion, not wanting to hold Whitney back decides to break up with him saying she’s going to marry Al Manning her former small town boyfriend who recently came to New York to try and win her back. This will make him free of her and he can run for political office. Whitney runs for office but ultimately, and I don’t think I’m ruining anything here by saying in the end the couple gets back together.

The film is the kind of melodramatic soap opera that Crawford specialized in and the audience of the day loved her for. The lower class woman who is determined to get ahead. In this particular pre-code film the way get ahead was by becoming the mistress of rich lawyer Clark Gable. Crawford’s performance is good and she looks beautiful, every inch the movie star. That is a minor problem when she is still the young factory girl. Even in the housedress she wears Joan looks the star! Gable does well also and every inch the fast rising star that he was, however, it is Crawford who dominates the film. She is particularly effective is a scene where she hears Gable speak about his reluctance to marriage.

Director Clarence Brown keeps the story moving at a nice pace using many long takes such as in the opening sequence where Brown tracks the workers exiting the factory eventually focusing on Crawford and her boyfriend co-worker. There is also some nice imaginative camera work, previously described, in the train sequence early in the film that soon follows. Atypical also is Brown’s lack of cross cutting between characters in many scenes. This can be seen when Marion and Whitney dine at a French restaurant and Brown focuses his camera on Marion as she attempts to read the menu. This focus enforces her embarrassing and isolated position of being unable to read French. The penthouse scenes are lavish and very typical of MGM’s style. Possessed was a big hit when released in 1931.

It has been written that Crawford and Gable had a steamy affair during the making of Possessed (she was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time) and that MGM head Louis B. Mayer threatened Gable (he may have threaten Crawford too but at the time Gable star was still rising) forcing him to choose between his career and Crawford. The career won and the affair officially ended. Unofficially, the two continued an on and off affair for years to come.

By John Greco