The best movies by decade, part 1: The 1930s

14 Jun

Over the past few years, I’ve cataloged the best 20 films of each decade, starting with the 1930s, and followed with other movies of note. I’ve made it all the way up to the 2000s, so please enjoy.

Oh so brief historical background: The advent of talking technology shook up the film industry, and set visual artistry back ten years. The cameras grew static. The first actors were broad comics in the vaudeville tradition, often hamming it up. Many of the 1930s films have dated badly, but I’ve attempted to list the best I’ve come across. Disagree? Please write and let me know where you think I’ve gone wrong. Finally, the 1930s wasn’t a cool decade for movies, except perhaps for Charlie Chaplin and the Thin Man films, so I’ll probably save these for Simone’s teenage years, when I think she needs to be punished.

1. The Rules of the Game/ Grand Illusion—The grandson of the great French painter, Jean Renoir made just as important art. The Rules of the Game follows the nobles, servants, and staff at a chalet over the course of a hunting weekend. Seduction, betrayal, and hi-jinks follow. Grand Illusion is a prison break movie, perhaps the best prison break movie. An officer and an enlisted man are shot down over German lines, and become prisoners of war. As they scheme to make their escape, they notice that perhaps they have more in common with their captors, than with each other. An astonishing movie, fresh and vibrant and the template for all other prison movies to come.

2. My Man Godfrey—I love this movie, a screwball comedy that is still funny, and an unsentimental film with a heart. William Powell stars as a rakish, quipping hobo who is taken in as a butler by a rich heiress, played by Carole Lombard. But the heiress isn’t as rich as she thinks, and the hobo just might be a former millionaire. An excellent example of the classic Hollywood comedy, where the lines zing at you a mile a minute.

3. You Can’t Take it with you / It Happened One Night / Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—The Frank Capra trifecta. You Can’t Take it With You is the story of an arms dealer who needs to push out one holdout of his house to build the munitions factory he needs, the holdout who adheres to a strict principle of magnanimity, and their children who have fallen in love. Nearly flawless. It Happened One Night remains as one of the most romantic movies ever made, with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable as an unlikely pairing who are on the run. And, the original Mr. Deeds, a feel-good, slap-happy comedy with a rail thin Gary Cooper always doing the right thing. Capra had an incredible career, and his body of work is a bit misunderstood.

4. M—Still terrifying, still moving, still icky and disturbing. During the Weimar Republic, there were dozens of serial killers stalking Berlin and other German towns. Peter Lorre plays a disturbed murderer of little girls, who is on the run from both the police and organized crime. Fritz Lang, who would in a few years flee Germany to make movies in the U.S., directed this nail-biter with brio. Lorre’s breakdown at the end is still unparalleled.

5. The 39 Steps—This early Hitchcock film follows a pattern that he would utilize in many of this later films: the wrong man pursued for reasons he doesn’t understand. A very arched British style of acting is undercut by hilarious scenes, and as an action thriller this can’t be beat.

6. The Wizard of Oz—It had to happen: a mixture of black and white and color, musical and drama, a spectacle of light and magic that beguiled young and old alike. Still a perennial favorite, Wizard sparkles with a garish artsiness; the off-kilter sets and strange costumes seem avante garde.

7. Gone with the Wind—great movie, bad history and social message. This epic saga of a handful of characters before, during, and after the Civil War is still one of Hollywood’s finest hours. The sets, costumes and filmmaking are all top notch. (It says something about David Selnick that he could employ two directors with such seamlessness.)

8. Destry Rides Again—A likeable, well made and very funny movie that possesses that intangible quality that results in being able to watch and enjoy it again and again. Jimmy Stewart plays the son of a famous gunslinger, who is hired to clean up a dirty, rotten town. But, he’s a pacifist who refuses to use a gun. Marlene Dietrich sings and dances.

9. Freaks / Dracula—Ouch. Freaks is an old horror movie that still manages to shock modern audiences. The usage of real circus sideshow performers, and the terrifying ending with lightning and rain and mud—Freaks is half documentary and half hair raising chopfest. Dracula, also directed by Tod Browning, follows Count Dracula from his Transylvanian lair to the shores of England. Bela Lugosi’s acting style is parodied, but he’s convincing as an ageless killer who’s developed a sardonic distance to it all.

10. Adventures of Robin Hood—The classic swashbuckler that set the standard for all the adventure movies to follow. Errol Flynn plays Robin Hood as a smirking, fast-talking street man, brave and honest but also randy and mischievous, dancing on the thin line between hero and anarchist. Dashing sword play and a killer sense of pacing from Michael Curtiz, the most professional of great journeyman directors, Robin Hood rounds out the top ten.

11. Top Hat—Frank Sinatra and Ginger Rogers were fabulous dance partners, and many of their films could be justified in making the top ten of any list, including Shall We Dance?. The story here is just okay, the acting is at times hokey, but the dancing! Frank Sinatra said in That’s Entertainment, “You can live a long time and never see anything this beautiful again.”

12. After the Thin Man—A rare sequel that is better than the original. William Powell and Myrna Loy return as the hard-drinking, hard-partying, happily married detective duo in this fast-paced whodunit that is funny, scary, scathing, and strange. The party scene in Nick and Nora’s house, after they have completed an exhausting cross country trip, is one of the great moments in 1930s cinema.

13. The Roaring Twenties / Angels with Dirty Faces—Raoul Walsh directed one, Michael Curtiz the other, and the difference between these two directors shows. The Roaring Twenties is unsentimental, spare, and rough. Cagney, Bogart, and Lynn play three veterans of the Great War as they return to prohibition-era U.S. Cagney—one of the great actors and a fiery physical presence onscreen—anchors this gritty crime film while Bogart, still in cheap hoodlum mode, delivers a ferocious emptiness. Angels is another thing altogether: a great gangster movie but light-hearted at times, even funny, and concerned with moralizing to young audiences.

14. Duck soup / Horse Feathers / Night at the Opera—Love or hate em, they are the Marx brothers, the vaudeville supremes. The infamous puns have aged a little, and the singing numbers aren’t grand, but the slapstick, the sight gags, and my god, the otherworldly genius of Chico on piano, these haven’t aged a day.

15. Mutiny on the Bounty—A very good movie about a very distorted, contentious story. This film portrays Captain Bligh as sadistic, cruel, and unhuman (played with a real sickening blubber by Charles Laughton), and Fletcher Christian as likeable, friendly, and motivated by innate goodness. I’m not sure history bears this point of view out, but the movie is a good one, with strong writing and exciting nautical visuals. The other two film versions are good, too, but this is probably the best.

16. All Quiet on the Western Front—The greatest (anti) war movie ever made? I’m not sure. I do know that one of my dad’s cousins plays a bit part in this very good film about men at war and life in the trenches.

17. Wuthering Heights—A lush, eerie adaptation of an atmospheric, gloomy novel. Director William Wyler painstakingly created a tense, controlled environment for this much lauded film. Greg Toland, the cinematographer, made many great films, including one of the top picks for the 1940s.

18. High, Wide and Handsome—A strange pick, a silly movie, but loads of fun. A young Randolph Scott and an endearing Irene Dunne prance through this western cum musical about unscrupulous land barons, water shortage, and a traveling circus.

19. Frankenstein—Perhaps I’ve rated this horror classic too low, or too high? It’s hard to know and even harder to watch, as the images and storyline from this James Whale classic have been so assimilated by popular culture that it is impossible to see with fresh eyes. Boris Karloff is great. The sets are fantastic. But is it still scary? I don’t know.

20. Stagecoach—The western finds its feet. Stagecoach is one of John Ford’s first talking pictures, if I’m correct, that also starred John Wayne. They needed each other, as their best work—with a few exceptions, such as The Grapes of Wrath—involved collaborating with each other. Here the passengers of a stagecoach have to rely on each other to survive a deadly Apache attack.

Other 1930s movies of note: Grand Hotel; 42nd Street; The Blue Angel (which I really don’t like but I’m in the minority); Gunga Din; Goodbye Mr. Chips; and Little Caesar.


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