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.

While I didn’t have a lot of time to work on the site over the summer, I did find time to fall completely and totally in love with a sexy little show called True Blood. I’ve always enjoyed vampires, but I am a little bit picky when it comes to the subject. (I find Twilight offensive in so very many ways). But True Blood is just all kinds of awesome. And it made me think about all the great vampire movies that came out of the classic era. Of course there are the well known ones, like Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and the silent masterpiece Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. But there are some pretty good vampire movies that aren’t too well known.  So, in honor of my True Blood love, and the fact that the second season will be over in less than two weeks, I’ve decided to write about two of my favorite obscure classic vampire films. One lost silent, and its remake.

London After Midnight (Todd Browning, 1927)
Sadly, the only print of London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire in the 1960s. The only material that exists are several publicity shots and a shooting script. This was enough to create a very thorough reconstruction, however.

The film stars Lon Chaney, easily one of the finest actors of the silent era. Really, one of the finest actors in film history. His makeup is, as usual, wonderful, and even through stills you can tell that his character is quite chilling.

The leading man in this movie is Conrad Nagel. Regular readers of this site will know that I’m a huge fan of his. I think that’s one of the saddest things about the loss of this film. Nagel was a wonderful actor, but he’s so little known today, and a lot of his films are lost. It’s just a huge shame that this is yet another of his performances that’s forever gone.

So, even though the film is lost, a very good reconstruction exists. From the shooting script we can see that it has a pretty good story. From its publicity stills, we can tell that it was probably quite creepy. And the presence of Chaney and Nagel assure that the acting was good.

Mark of the Vampire (Todd Browning, 1935)
Mark of the Vampire is a remake of London After Midnight. Being made by the same director, it is apparently an extremely faithful remake, almost shot for shot.

It isn’t a brilliant movie, but I think it’s a lot better than its IMDb rating would have you believe. It’s a little bit hammy, but at the end of the day Todd Browning really knew horror, and despite the ham, the most has a wonderful atmosphere.

It also has an incredible cast. Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi are they big names in this one, and both give good performances. That’s to be expected from them, though, especially Barrymore, who was really never anything but good. The rest of the cast is filled with wonderful character actors. Elizabeth Allan is the female lead, and Lionel Atwill and Jean Hersholt play support.

By Katie Richardson

Let’s not kid ourselves. John Gilbert is, without a doubt, Greta Garbo’s greatest co-star. The two had a sizzling onscreen chemistry that’s difficult to match. It’s that chemistry that makes their films, Flesh and the Devil, one of the sexiest movies ever made, even after over 80 years. That onscreen chemistry leaked into the stars’ offscreen lives, and the couple carried on an affair that both delighted and disturbed Louis B. Mayer.

But Garbo had a longer career, with a lot of different costars. She starred with Melvyn Douglas three times, twice in comedies and once in a psychological drama. Her pairing with Robert Taylor in Camille is much loved (they were feature in TCM’s recent book “Leading Couples”). She adored John Barrymore, her costar in Grand Hotel.

I’m particularly fond of her pairings with Conrad Nagel, a costar who doesn’t get enough attention in Garbo’s canon (really, he’s an actor who doesn’t get enough attention in general). Nagel, like Garbo, had a unique look and a smoldering screen presense. He wasn’t of any strange or exotic nationality like Garbo was. He was born and bred American. But the silent screen helped to give him an interesting and sensual presense.

Garbo and Nagel starred in two films together, The Mysterious Lady and The Kiss. Strangely enough, despite the fact that both stars went on to have successful sound careers throughout the 1930s, and remained on MGM contract, they never made a talkie together. (In fact, the only silent leading man of Garbo’s that she made a talkie with was Gilbert, when she tried to help revive his career with 1934’s Queen Christina). Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. As wonderful as they both were in sound films, they both underwent an inevitable change in image with the transition to sound. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been as wonderful actually talking to each other.

The Mysterious Lady is often overshadowed by the similar Garbo film Mata Hari from five years later. The Mysterious Lady, though, is a much, MUCH better film. Garbo plays a sexy spy lady who seduces secrets out of soldier Conrad Nagel, only to fall in love with him while doing so. It features an incredible introduction scene for Garbo, where Nagel walks into a box at the theater to see Garbo sitting there, beautiful and completely enraptured in the opera being performed in front of her. In fact, I don’t think Garbo was ever filmed or lit more carefully and lovingly as she was in this movie.

Overall, it’s just an incredible looking movie. There’s such a mysterious and romantic atmosphere established with the lighting and cinematography. The way light and shadow is used works brilliantly for both a spy thriller and a romantic tale. There’s one particular romantic sequence, in which Garbo is seducing Nagel, where she is lit only by candlelight. She never looked so luminous.

With their smoldering chemistry, Nagel and Garbo give their characters so much tension and sensuality. They love and hate each other all at the same time, and both actors are able to perfectly sell the intensity of both emotions. Without a single word, they pass feelings between themselves and the viewers using just their eyes. Anger, desire, lust, longing, hatred. Just subtle facial ticks that speak volumes, and creates a much sexier film than any other kind of physicality ever could.

Nagel and Garbo’s second pairing was in 1929’s The Kiss. It was the last silent film Garbo made before making her transition into talkies the next year, as well as being the last major film of the silent era. Garbo plays a woman married to a wealthy man. She begins a flirtation with a very young Lew Ayres. When her husband catches them kissing, a struggle occurs and her husband is shot. Nagel must then defend Garbo, who he’s loved for some time, in court.

While it’s not nearly as intense or romantic as The Mysterious Lady, The Kiss is an exceptionally good looking movie. It was directed by Jacques Feyder, who was a visual master. The domestic scenes with restless housewife Garbo are intentionally cold and lifeless. It’s beautiful, of course, but it’s a cold beauty. Even her moments with Ayres have an empty feeling to them. Though his friendship does bring her joy, the infatuation is very much one-sided, so there isn’t much feeling on Garbo’s part, and that’s reflected by her surroundings. The courtroom scenes are remarkable, empty space and large objects making the room unbelievably intimidating.

Garbo and Nagel aren’t quite as smoldering here as they are in The Mysterious Lady, but then they’re not supposed to be. There’s a lot of restraint going on between them, and they’re able to express a great deal of feeling going on beneath the surface. He brings out the life in her which is missing with her husband, and Garbo glows in Nagels presense.

These two were a great silent team, and if you ever get the chance to see these movies, take it.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1932

Director: William J. Cowen

Starring: Walter Huston, Lupe Valez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce, C. Henry Gordon, Mitchell Lewis, Forrester Harvey, Curtis Nero

Though more forgiving of films that are reductionist and stereotypically bigoted towards different cultures from the 20s through 50s, I still have a difficult time dropping all my own biases and beliefs to appreciate films made in an era where it was acceptable. This gets in my way of my appreciation of Kongo, an otherwise creepy and sweaty horror tragedy that bleeds atmosphere. Though it does not aim for shocks or scares, it aims to disgust and repel the viewer with it’s degradation of the human body and spirit. It twists and contorts our perception of humanity through the mangled body of the twisted protagonist, Flint , a man so driven by the desire to revenge he degrades not only his own existence, but that of a young woman who he believes is his enemy’s daughter.

Set in the depths of Africa, Flint has convinced the natives that he is a voodoo God through the use of a few simple magic tricks. It’s all part of his master plan to avenge the man who crippled and stole his wife 20 years ago, though he attests it’s not for these actions, but rather his “sneer”. Brought to life by Walter Huston, reprising his Broadway role, it’s clear that the horror comes as much from the man’s paralyzed body as his disturbed mind. Horror has always been deeply rooted in “perversions” of the human body, from Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s The Fly, there is little more that is upsetting than a body that isn’t as it should be. Though Flint is only paralyzed, the film emphasizes the grotesque nature of his disability, by having him crawl around and have Huston constantly fussing and bringing attention to his legs. This reminds me very much of Freaks, where entire conversations seemed entirely superfluous to the audience watching one of the “freaks” perform some sort of task like in a slideshow. Though, this film never aims to sympathise with Flint’s condition, it’s just a display of his frightening body.

The film’s greatest horror is the treatment of Ann. When she was born, Flint had sent her to a convent in order for her to be brought up “pure” and right, only to rip her away at 18, to destroy her spirit and take away her purity. Though mentioned only in passing or hinted at, his degradation seemed to have included rape and sending her to a madhouse in Zanzibar. There are also implications that she worked as a prostitute and now, dying of some disease, he medicates her with alcohol only to worsen her condition.

The film’s saviour, is quite ironically, a junkie who just happens to stumble by. He’s also a doctor, and on that virtue alone, is kept to eventually treat Flint for the pain in his legs. The man comes to love Ann and vows to save her, though ironically, is first saved from his addiction by Flint himself.

Though most of the horror comes from degradation and humiliation, the film also has a very strong atmosphere that actually is very reminiscent of Val Lewton’s work in the 1940s. Darkness and fragmented lighting is used, particularly Venetian blinds. Though the treatment of Voodoo and African culture is extremely problematic, the use of obscure traditions (some of which are still alive today unfortunately, notably the practise of Sati in Hinduism), and strong music adds to the creeping atmosphere.

By Justine Smith