The 1930’s were the period in which sound consolidated its status as the only game in town movie-wise. The period from '27 to '32 was full of sound-centric experimentation. Early talkies tended to be static, clumsy affairs – stiff and claustrophobic when compared to the fluidity of the great silents, where cameras were free to wander and soar and directors didn’t have to limit their ambitions to suit the needs of a mic. Some visionary moviemakers did manage to combine sound with visual flair (Rouben Mamoulian in “Applause”, King Vidor in “Hallelujah!”,both 1929). But they were the exceptions. Movie screens of the day tended to be full of Lina Lamonts desperately trying to remember which flower pot the mic was in. And – like Lamont – some of the great silent stars simply didn’t have voices to match the romantic images they’d created. Legend used to have it that glamorous Norma Talmadge and livewire Clara Bow, silent superstars both, were undone in talkies by low-brow Brooklyn accents. Not true. Talmadge’s voice (as evidenced in 1929’s “New York Nights”) was perfectly fine. It was only when Hollywood tried to pass off the stubbornly modern sounding Norma as a bewigged milady in the turgid “Dubarry, Woman of Passion” that fans started jumping ship. She retired immediately. Bow also quickly developed into a fine talkie performer ; it was shoddy scripts and personal tumult that did her in, career-wise. By ’33, she too called it quits. Silent diva Mae Murray really did turn out to be terrible in sound films. Watch her jaw-dropping antics in 1931’s “Bachelor Apartment” and you’ll know why talkies catapulted her into immediate bee-stung oblivion. Emil Jannings, Vilma Banky and Pola Negri were among those whose thick foreign accents proved unintelligible to English speaking audiences. They soon decamped – back to Europe or into early retirement. But others (William Powell,Loretta Young,Jean Arthur,Joan Crawford) made the transition smoothly. Even – in some cases – triumphantly (Ronald Colman,Greta Garbo, W.C. Fields - all of whose voices spectacularly enhanced the stellar appeal they’d already achieved in the 20’s).
Most famous historical event of the early and mid-thirties was the world-wide depression. And movies of the period definitely did their part to pull audiences through it. For many who found little to smile about or even hope for, movies provided an eagerly sought escape into dreams, excitement and laughter. A temporary outlet in one sense. But permanent in another - because movie theaters were open almost every day and night, with programs changing twice weekly. And the presence and development of a constellation of stars and supporting players supplied a comforting sense of continuity. These were the days before television – when movies were the national pastime. Radio and the press were on the scene, of course. But even they expended a great deal of energy enticing people to go the movies.
The genre that really blossomed with the coming of sound was – of course – the musical. The one type of film that silents couldn’t – by definition – provide. Early musicals tended to be heavy-footed affairs, little more than crudely filmed stage shows. With limited camera movement and clumsy, uncoordinated flailing masquerading as choreography. Still, the public was initially so enamored of the idea of song on film that even these sorry spectacles were often box-office biggies. A plethora of all star revues (essentially just onscreen traffic jams) and lumberingly rendered operettas (built to try the patience of even the staunchest Romberg & Frimlite) eventually led to a collapse in the genre’s popularity. Help started emerging in Germany where directors like Wilhem Thiele and Erik Charell found wonderful new ways to integrate song and film into a lively, witty, visually alive whole. “Die Drei von der Tankstelle”(Three from the Filling Station,1930) and "Der Kongress Tanzt"(Congress Dances) were groundbreaking harbingers of what movie musicals might achieve. Both starred Lillian Harvey and Willy Fritsch, two silent stars whose popularity skyrocketed when sound revealed their full musical abilities, not to mention their witty, romantic way with dialogue. Though American audiences were largely denied the Harvey-Fritsch magic, these two were the true precursors of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, lighting up a series of operetta style vehicles that enchanted the German speaking world. “Die Drei” had a modern setting – and was as up to date as the latest art deco skyscraper. "Der Kongress" was set in 19th century Vienna and - under Erik Charell’s guidance - the whole thing danced in ¾ time. Lubitsch’s much praised American hit “Love Me Tonight”(1932) owes much to the innovations of these German films. Lillian Harvey’s “Congress Dances” carriage ride through city and countryside, carrying the song ‘Das gibt’s nur einmal” from location to location and from singer to singer is virtually recreated in the Lubitsch film's “Isn’t It Romantic” number . Two further events in the development of movie musicals and their popularity both occurred in 1933. First, the rise of Busby Berkeley’s surreal, hallucinogenic choreographic style, as cameras swooped and darted to capture battalions of dancers arranged in swirling, ever-changing geometric patterns. He’d already shown signs of what he could do in films like Eddie Cantor’s “Palmy Days”(1931). But “42nd Street” really sent Berkeley’s stock soaring, Of course, it didn’t hurt that the film offered a perfect example of the wise-cracking, streetwise style Warner Brothers was already developing. “42nd Street” was quickly followed by gems like “Footlight Parade”, “Dames” and “Gold-Diggers of 1935”, each outdoing the last in choreographic splendor and fast-talking fun. In their wake, affable crooner Dick Powell became one of the era’s biggest names. The non-Berkeley development that created movie musical history in 1933 was the first teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Flying Down to Rio”. The film’s excitingly photographed fun. Its nominal stars are Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond. But Astaire and Rogers (as comic relief sideliners) take charge even before they dance. Their non-stop banter and instantly obvious chemistry are a joy. But when they take to the floor for “The Carioca”, all bets are off. The teaming had been almost accidental. But when audiences saw them dance together they went wild. From then on – for many seasons to come – RKO supplied fans with a steady stream of joyous treats, propelling the pair through a series of art deco ballrooms. For sheer poetry in motion they’ve never really been matched. Filmed during the Great American Song Book’s palmiest years, 30’s and 40’s musicals tend to be full of wonderful songs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the magnificent scores for the Astaire-Rogers movies. Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Berlin all gave of their best. And – interpreted by the fleet-footed duo - those songs took on a whole new level of shimmer. “Swing Time” is probably their most sublime but “Top Hat” “Follow the Fleet” – even the direly scripted “Shall We Dance” – all reach rapturous levels of achievement whenever the starring pair hit the dance floor. Less celebrated now, but at the time equally popular, were MGM’s Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Their string of lavishly appointed MGM vehicles brought operetta back with a vengeance. Most critics prefer the Jeanette of the brittle Lubitsch period in the early part of the decade. I concur with the 30’s public who didn’t fully embrace her till she teamed with Eddy. Modern commentators – those who even acknowledge the pair – generally refuse to see anything beyond lace doilies and valentines. But I find the duo’s chemistry – in most of their films, but especially in “Rose-Marie” - irresistible. She may have been the team’s main light source – but she always brought out the best in Eddy. They shared a kind of mutually teasing merriment that was contagious. Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple and ice skating movie queen Sonja Henie were all major attractions in 30’s musicals – and all are represented in my list. Britain and Germany also had thriving movie musical scenes during the period. Wonderful Jessie Matthews was Britain’s leading cinematic light for a while in the 30’s. She was hailed – justifiably - as the Dancing Divinity, the female Astaire. Even beyond the swing era grace of her dancing, Matthews was a beguiling presence. With charm, comic flair and charisma to spare. Check her out in this magical sequence from “Head Over Heels”. Time and again, Hollywood tried to orchestrate a teaming with Astaire. And both stars were eager. One can only dream of how wonderful they’d have been together. How much better, say, “A Damsel in Distress” would have been with her in the role eventually defaulted to that most unequal of Astaire’s dancing partners, Joan Fontaine. Unfortunately a series of illnesses, personal problems and bad business decisions kept Matthews from the Hollywood stardom she deserved. Her not so slow fade from movie screens seemed to signal the end of British attempts at making musicals that rivalled Hollywood’s.
|Beguiling Jessie Matthews|
Germany had a thriving movie musical scene throughout the era – full of wonderful songs and captivating stars (like Zarah Leander and Marta Eggerth). But the language barrier kept these from any kind of American success. And – of course – once WW2 broke out, German musicals were – like all things German - strictly verboten.
Horror films were the special province of Universal Pictures in the 30’s, with Karloff and Lugosi jointly installed on terror’s throne. The studio’s gifted art directors, heavily influenced by German expressionism, created splendidly spooky visual settings – fog swirling, castles looming while psyches crumbled within them. The effect of Jack Pierce’s stunning makeup for Karloff’s Frankenstein monster can hardly be overstated. That face stands as one of the twentieth century’s most enduring images. To my mind, the look Pierce created for Karloff in “The Mummy” is every bit as brilliant. The way the actor inhabits both, of course, is transcendent. My favorite Universal chillers from the era are “The Mummy”, “ Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Ray”. Karloff’s in all three, with Lugosi joining him for the third. Increased censorship in the mid-30’s and complaints that the subject matter was too strong for the juvenile audiences that had been devouring it, led Universal to halt its horror schedule for a couple of seasons. But the public’s appetite apparently would not be denied. When the studio dipped its toe back into the pool for “Son of Frankenstein” in ’39, box-office results were so massive that a whole new horror cycle was unleashed, one that lasted through the war years and beyond.
For me, the king of 30’s comedy has got to be W.C. Fields. “You’re Telling Me” and “Man on the Flying Trapeze” are both terrific. But “It’s a Gift” remains his crown jewel. I wish he could have reteamed a dozen more times with Kathleen Howard, his perfect female foil – the Sarah Bernhardt of imperiously exasperated wives. Comedy icons Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel & Hardy each get one nod in my 30’s list. I came close to including Wheeler and Woolsey’s “Silly Billies” and the Ritz Brothers’ “The Gorilla”. Though that would be not for the brothers but rather for the haunted mansion atmospherics of the piece and the deadpan comic timing of Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi, both masterful at putting noisy Patsy Kelly in her place. The Marx Brothers have never been my thing. Certainly, Groucho’s a unique and highly effective dispenser of zingers. But - for me - the other brothers are just annoying distractions.
I’m generally not a fan of screwball comedy, a genre that’s practically synonymous with the 30's. Hate all the foot-stamping temper tantrums from spoiled heroines who hold their breath to get their way. Carole Lombard’s a prime offender. Oh, how I hate “Twentieth Century” and “Nothing Sacred”! Don’t like her in “My Man Godfrey” either, though William Powell and Gail Patrick both work superbly around her. The thing is I think Lombard’s really wonderful in drama. And I Iove how she uses instinctive, understated comic touches to enrich her work in melodramas like “Made for Each Other, “In Name Only” and “No Man of Her Own”. I’m not much for the celebrated Lubitsch touch. But I love William Dieterle’s wonderful “Jewel Robbery” with Kay Francis and William Powell. Saucy, sophisticated and creative –fully deserving the kind of praise people still heap on Lubitsch’s “Design for Living” and “Trouble in Paradise”, both flat cocktails in my estimation. “Jewel Robbery” ’s script dynamics are so sturdy that a budget conscious British remake in 1942 (retitled “The Peterville Diamond”) was itself a delight.
The eternally chirping Billie Burke, definitive exponent of the dithering she accused Roland Young of in “Topper”, refined her dizzy technique to heavenly heights in that famous film and in the barely remembered “Remember?” from 1939. I find myself chuckling whenever lovably addled Hugh Herbert comes on the screen, whatever the film. Same goes for Etienne Girardot, that frail little person who always looks like the merest gust of wind would blow him right off the set. Between the two of them, he and Donald Meek pile up a mountain of laughs in the John Ford comedy “The Whole Town’s Talking”.
|"What about the McIntire account?" Etienne Girardot's mantra in "The Whole Town's Talking"|
Other 30’s standouts include fast-talking Warner Brothers fillies Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. Blondell’s sunny, but wised up persona almost defined Warner Brothers’ house style in the early 30’s. And Farrell, who frequently did duty as Blondell’s sidekick, was perfection in her own right, The dire “Torchy Blane” series wasted her shamelessly. But she’s priceless in titles like “Gold-Diggers of 1935”, “Girl Missing” and – of all unexpected places for her to turn up – “Mystery of the Wax Museum”. It’s always a treat listening to her land dialogue with that unique brand of verbal side-eye she more or less patented
Anyone who’s read this blog probably knows I’m partial to B westerns. Especially ones starring Bob Steele, scrappy, heart-on-his-sleeve star of scores of westerns from the soup-kitchen end of the Hollywood spectrum. His best were pretty much all made in the 30's. And lots of those titles grace my list. I just can’t quit him. Also multi-represented are sagebrush names like George O’Brien, Smith Ballew and Dick Foran. Their films were economy class too – but with the backing of major studios (RKO, Fox and Warner Brothers respectively), usually boasted more polished production values
There are lots of classics missing from my list. Don’t exactly know why I can’t quite bring myself to love “Stagecoach” and “The Wizard of Oz”. They’re both admirable accomplishments. But somehow stop just short of moving me the way they do so many others. And I’m certainly impressed with France’s “La Grande Illusion”. Yet I never seem to be in the mood to watch it again. Maybe one more viewing will turn it into a genuine favorite. That will never happen for another Renoir film, “Les Regles du Jeu” from 1939. I’ve always found this picture so annoyingly proud of itself it, smugly shooting fish in a barrel with its elitist attack on easy social targets. Of all the 30’s films that perennially turn up on Sight and Sound’s Best List, this sour apple's probably the one I like least.
I’m not much of an animation fan. But I love, love, love Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. The whole thing’s edited with lightning precision, overflowing with glowing images, music and sentiments; I’d still rank it as my favorite animated film. I remember my first exposure to it, as a small child in the 50’s. Hiding my face in the sleeve of my grandmother’s fur coat every time the Wicked Queen (in her scary/beautiful incarnation) appeared. Now, of course, I think she’s awesome. And I’ve long ago come to terms with Adriana Caselotti’s bleating nursery-school vibrato – though why couldn’t Disney have sprung to hire Deanna Durbin for the dubbing? I read somewhere that was briefly an option). Snow White herself remains my favorite Disney heroine. Haven’t really loved any of the post-50’s animated Disney’s. And that certainly includes everything from the supposed artistic/commercial rebirth that began, I believe, with “The Little Mermaid”. Right up to the latest, these have all been slickly pandering animated spins on the bombastically uninteresting Webber and rock opera Broadway musicals. A universe I can do without. I suppose Disney’s pre-60’s animated films are just as sentimental and idealogically unchallenging. But they’re riffs on the old-style musicals of the Jerome Kern/Richard Rodgers era. And since I tend to love those, I guess I’m inclined to be fond of their animated counterparts.
Anyway, long preamble over. On with the list: