080. The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)
It’s kind of strange to see Miriam Hopkins, the actress who I think is the true Queen of Pre-Code film, playing such a sweet, timid character. No actress during the era enjoyed her sexuality more than Hopkins, but she’s able to play the inexperienced slightly prudish wife of Maurice Chevalier so well and so convincingly that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman. Until the end, that is, when she becomes the sexual being that Hopkins was known for. It’s almost like watching the birth of the Pre-Code queen. The “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number with Hopkins and Claudette Colbert is easily the high point of the movie. One wouldn’t think that these women would get along (since they’re rivals for the same man) but they have so much chemistry, almost more than either woman has with Chevalier. This is a Lubitsch movie, so it’s just as sophisticated as it is sexy, and it’s a joy to watch.
079. Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937)
It’s refreshing when a movie that’s based on fact comes right out and says, before the movie even starts, that the story has been seriously embellished and that it’s a more romanticized version of the events that actually happened. Conquest, a movie about the love story between Napoleon and his mistress, the Polish Countess Marie Walewska, does this. It starts with the disclaimer. It’s nice to see a movie not hide that it’s not 100% fact. Because when the movie is good, that doesn’t really matter, and Conquest is good. It’s very good. It’s kind of amazing that this was made during the strict era of code enforcement considering the entire story is about a romantic relationship between the Countess, who has left her husband, and Napoleon, who eventually becomes married to someone else, even though they never marry. The love story really is beautifully told. It starts out with Marie mostly taking on the role of the Emperor’s mistress to help her country, but she comes to truly love this man. Conquest is also somewhat unique in that Garbo really doesn’t take on the dominant role in the relationship. Usually she’s playing the alpha to a weaker man, but this time that’s not so. It’s a heartbreaking love story that’ s brilliantly performed by the Garbo and Charles Boyer.
078. The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu) (Jean Renoir, 1939)
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is one of my favorite films of the 2000s, and it probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Jean Renoir’s amazing examination of the upper class The Rules of the Game. There were a lot of American films in the 1930s about wealthy people, but the most critical Hollywood was of the upper class was usually just depiction them as screwy and kind of lovably out of their minds (see My Man Godfrey and Merrily We Live). But the French filmmaker’s work looks at the real faults of the upper class in the 1930s and just how they were quite different from the common man, not just in their income, but in their attitudes. The most impressive part of the film is how it’s not particularly intimate. The viewer is not treated as part of the experience. We’re merely observers of the action, kept at a distance that almost (almost) makes the film cold. We’re seeing the way these people would act if we weren’t around watching them, which gives the film a voyeuristic feeling.
077. Today We Live (Howard Hawks, 1933)
I really love World War I movies, and I think that there aren’t enough of them. Today We Live doesn’t follow the tradition war movie formula. It focuses mostly on Joan Crawford’s character and how she deals with the war, with her brother and her best friend (and later husband) serving. We see a little bit of action, but it’s mostly about the effects that the war has on the people on the periphery. Sure, it has it’s faults, like the whole things in the 1930s where, as long as it was set in the 20th century, everyone wore the latest 1930s fashions. But in the end, that really has no effect on ho this story just works on an emotional level. Crawford’s character has a lot of big choices to make, and sometimes she makes the wrong ones, but that perfectly reflects the confusion that comes from being indirectly involved in a war. Franchot Tone plays her brother and Robert Young their best friend, and they both deliver incredibly supporting performances.
076. Fugitive Lovers (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
Road Romances were a neat little subgenre of Romantic Comedy in the 1930s. The most notable is probably Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, but perhaps the most overlooked is Richard Boleslawski’s Fugitive Lovers. It’s another pairing of the endlessly adorable and enchanting Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. This time Montgomery is an escaped convict who grabs a ride on the bus that Madge Evans is traveling on, trying to get away from the mobster who’s infatuated with her, who follows her anyway. It’s a pretty simple movie, but it’s incredibly sweet and has a surprising amount of character development for such a short comedy. The relationship between Evans and Montgomery has a very natural feel to it. Montgomery is great as always, but I think it’s Evans who’s particularly impressive here. She’s playing a character who’s a little bit sharper and snippier than her usual characters, and there are moments where she’s flat out hilarious. Nat Pendleton is the main supporting player, as Evans’ mobster stalker. He’s always a joy to watch, and this time is no different. He also has one of the most surprising and satisfying character moments in the whole film.
By Katie Richardson