Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1930s

At first glance, the 1930s appear to be a decade that is as hard to love as any in the history of American film. The revolution of sound set the development of the art of film back at least a decade, confining the camera to an immobile box and flooding the screen with mediocre, unimaginative “pictures of people talking.” The Production Code went into full effect in 1934, locking filmmakers inside a strait-jacket of petty, and even offensive, restrictions that lasted for decades. And Depression-Era upheavals drove artistic considerations far behind commercial ones.

Nevertheless, this was the beginning of what is now thought of as “Hollywood’s Golden Age,” and by the end of the decade, it’s clear where that label comes from. 1939 is often referred to as the Annus Mirabilis of cinema because so many timeless classics were released. It was a decade of new personalities, big-name stars (Marlene Dietrich, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn), famous producers and directors (Frank Capra, Leo McCarey). New genres, like the musical and the screwball comedy, developed naturally out of the introduction of sound, and older genres, like horror movies and gangster films, adapted.

In a nutshell, I’ve just described the cross-section of films I experienced as I glided through the ’30s. I witnessed the famous escapism that brought audiences in, and the edgy themes that threatened to drive them away. I saw glamour, and I saw idealism, but I didn’t see a whole lot of social commentary or realism (but they were out there). I saw sentimentality, and even cynicism, but also a kind of open sincerity that has slowly drained out of the movies, replaced by a need to wink slyly at the audience lest they think you manipulative or preachy.

The Blue Angel (1930)

A pedantic, middle-aged professor falls pathetically in love with Lola Lola, a cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role), and throws his dignity completely aside to be with her. Tragically, he soon feels the loss of his self-respect more keenly than the dubious pleasures of a seedy romance. This movie catapulted Dietrich to international stardom and bought her a ticket to Hollywood, launching a lengthy American career of sultry screen roles. Like a number of early talkies, this was filmed simultaneously in both English and German. The international world of silent film died out, but it did not go quietly. I watched the German version which might have made the poor quality of early sound less distracting, and highlighted the considerable poignancy of the story. Good movie, or at least as good as early talkies get.

Svengali (1931)

This film is about as moribund as the term “Svengali” is as a cultural reference. John Barrymore plays the titular creeper in classic stage drama mode. His performance is hypnotic, but the movie is, too. I found myself getting very sleepy at several points as the story dragged weirdly onward toward its conclusion. Aside from Barrymore’s dream-haunting stare, this one is rather forgettable.

Scarface (1932)

One of the early notable gangster talkies, renowned for its grittiness before the Production Code cracked down a few years later. Discussions of film noir rarely involve films this old, but the roots of noir’s hard-boiled, no-holds-barred examinations of crime and the people who enter its world are certainly visible, if primitive. This film is probably best-remembered today as the inspiration for the 1983 film starring Al Pacino. I’m not sure I’d call myself a fan of either, but this is certainly worth checking out.

Duck Soup (1933)

I had never seen a Marx Brothers movie all the way through before I sat down for this one, and I was totally unprepared for the total anarchy transpiring on the screen. I literally had no idea what any character might do or say next, except that, whatever it was, it would almost assuredly be zany, funny, completely nuts, or some demented combination of all three. I paid attention, and I laughed, but I felt like I was just skimming the surface, bereft of contemporary context, knowledge of other films, and a true understanding of the depth of their comedy. Must see again. Must see more.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Astaire and Rogers are the brightest fixture in the firmament of ’30s musicals, cranking out 9 classic films together during the decade. This one is pretty funny and has a cute plot: Astaire is looking for love, and falls for Rogers, who is looking to extricate herself from an undesirable marriage by feigning infidelity. She is initially attracted to Astaire, but mixes him up with the man she has hired as her pretend lover, an occupation she (somewhat hypocritically) has nothing but disdain for, briefly complicating the plot. The movie is pure fluff, but the music is great, the dance numbers are spectacular, and Rogers is out-of-this-world.

Werewolf of London (1935)

Hollywood’s rather abortive first attempt at establishing werewolf lore in a film is more than a little dull, and lacks the hallmarks of the genre that are so iconic today. Those emerged some years later in the vastly superior The Wolf Man, featuring a far more interesting character in the title role, and a much better backstory than “lycanthropy-inducing flower.” Chalk this up as another failure by early sound horror to generate the same level of thrills as their silent predecessors. Without the benefits of novelty and some decent pacing, the whole experience becomes a bit pedestrian.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

I don’t think it would be overstepping to suggest that Frank Capra was the defining director of the ’30s. His snappy blend of impassioned idealism and pure sentimentality produced classic after classic, popular with audiences and critics of his time and ours. I think I saw all or part of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town many years ago. Certainly I was quite familiar with the plot, which deviates very little from Capra’s established formulas. What I didn’t remember or expect was the mean streak running through heroic Longfellow Deeds, who always seems to be on the verge of taking a swing at somebody if he finds them rude or unlikable. It’s a weird quality for an idealized protagonist, and the film seemed to regard it as a virtue. The discomfort of that along with the fairly humdrum retread of tired Capra themes put me off of this one. I’d prefer almost any of his other films.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

The inimitable Orson Welles once said that this film would “make a stone cry.” I’m not a stone, so I can’t attest to that, but having seen this masterpiece, I can hardly imagine anyone who wouldn’t be similarly affected by it. The film is a totally heartbreaking and totally magnificent tragedy of old age, displaying more subtlety and more maturity, perhaps, then I’ve seen in any film from the 1930s. Its story is inherently melodramatic, and yet the performances are remarkably human and restrained. I would not hesitate to see this film again, or to recommend it to anyone else.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

I like to think of this as the Star Wars of its day. It must have just knocked every kids’ socks off when it came out, in glorious, swashbuckling technicolor, back in 1938. The costume and set design are truly spectacular, and Basil Rathbone is such a great villain. Errol Flynn “Fairbanks” it up quite well, jumping around and throwing his head back whenever he laughs, but he’s nothing like a match for the acrobatic silent star in his prime. This grand old Hollywood-style adventure, and it shows its age, but its status is well-deserved.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

There is very little worth saying about The Wizard of Oz that can be said briefly. It is one of those few films that has transcended movie status and joined an elite pantheon of cultural touchstones. As such, whether one enjoys it or not is somewhat irrelevant before its awesome presence in the popular imagination. Watching it again, now, many years after I last saw it as a child, I was struck by the extent to which it still felt completely familiar, as though I had just seen it the day before. Every moment has some famous quote or song, and I could imagine a viewer who had never seen it still feeling as though they had practically memorized it in advance.

Now we soar into the Flying Forties!


~ by Jared on October 15, 2012.

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