Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, May 07, 2012

22 Films that prove 1933 was the greatest year for classic movies.

Everyone cites 1939, year of Oz, Wind, and Grapes, as the best year in the history of movies, but not Acidemic. Here we know the best year was 1933, wherein we had more genuinely subversive, insightful, free-wheeling, gutsy, stunning, transgressive and revolutionary movies than ever before or since. How is it true, even, that 1933 was hipper and more socially progressive, more downright dangerous, than 1939, or 1968 for that matter? The code, of course, and the Depression, and a savvy new breed of American, the modern era WW1 'forgotten man,' still struggling to find his niche. There were no hand rails like welfare (started in '36 with FDR's New Deal) or Social Security ('35). People were starving in the street as a matter of course, so no one was going to bow to some goddamned moral minority sermonizing. Nothing like hunger and despair to open one's eyes to the hypocritical racist and sexist undertows of the old-fashioned 'small town' picture. Add the bevy of Broadway wits lured to Hollywood by big bucks and the new era of sound, all able to circumvent the production code of the time (barely enforced) by their mastery of double entendres and there you were, the peak of Hollywood's luminous gutsy depth.

Oh, and in 1933 prohibition was repealed! The first joyously fulfilled promise from the newly-elected FDR, who, America could feel with a giddy rush, was going to deliver the New Deal he promised.

Filmmaking itself had also reached new heights: sound recording issues that plagued films in 1930-31 were all solved and cameras were fluent and free. Actors didn't have to stand very still and leave space between... each... word; the letters they were reading from were no longer soaking wet so as not deafen with their crinkling.  It was this magical year that was so great it aroused the ire of the Joseph Breens and Catholic Legions, who in 1934 would insist on enforcing their provincial, sexist, racist, classist 'moral' 'ethics.'

And of all the studios, Paramount OWNED 1933: Cary Grant, Frederic March, and Gary Cooper at their most luminous, young, and gorgeous; Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, WC Fields, The Marx Brothers, Franklin Pangborn, Miriam Hopkins, Maurice Chevalier, directors like Mamoulian, Lubitsch, Cukor, Von Sternberg, to name but a few... to see that old mountain with the clouds and stars as a 1931-4 film is starting is automatically to relax into that special cinematic zone wherein you know nothing bad can possibly happen to you...

The 22 awesome films assembled here range from the delightful and cheery to the hard-hitting. There are some from Warners /Vitaphone, RKO, MGM and UA... but the studio who really nailed the formula for delicious surrealist comedy of 1933 was, and shall always remain, the mighty mountain. Salut!

1. DESIGN FOR LIVING (Paramount)
Design for Living (1933) centers around a "gentleman's agreement" that there will be no sex between sketch artist Miriam Hopkins and playwright Frederic March and painter Gary Cooper. There's a very good reason for this: they like each other so much, they don't want to fuck it up. American ex-pats in 1930s Paris, they all meet on a train, so neither March nor Cooper can claim to have seen her first and have any 'finder's rights' and Hopkins refuses to choose one over the other. She is 'very fond' of both, so the agreement is she will be a 'mother of the arts' and spur their work while spurning their advances. But once March is off to London to shepherd his play's West End opening, Hopkins takes Cooper into her boudoir to console him over their mutual loss, and beds him for, after all, she is "no gentleman." From there, it only gets wilder and funnier, especially once Hopkins runs off to marry Edward Everett Horton who proceeds to try and bore her to death.

This movie is still ahead of its time as far as cool-headed artistic approaches to trans-pair bond love affairs. The next closest thing to it would be 34 years away and a song, David Crosby's "Triad." After that the closest thing to it is probably the unspoken relationship fluidity between Meryl, Christopher and Bobby De Niro in The Deer Hunter. Know too that this film was so 'hot' it was banned from being revived and wasn't seen until pre-code festivals began to make the rounds of select, cool theaters like NYC's Film Forum in 2000. In 2000, finally, the public was ready for what only 1933 hitherto could handle.

Like so many of us hardcore film fans, I was lucky enough to catch this alone with my dad on afternoon TV once upon a time in the late 1970s. He made a big to-do over it, like the film might be too intense for my little 10 year old brain, but he'd be here to guide me. I loved weird old black and white monster movies of course, and so did my dad, but King Kong was in a class by itself. I remember being bored and anxious at first, because the film takes it's sweet time getting to Skull Island, but once Kong shows up, forget it, my lust for dinosaurs and good monster fights was gratified a thousandfold. It was like entering a super intense waking dream. That afternoon stands as a pinnacle moment of my film-watching life, and surely my dad's sharing of this film with me is part of the reason for this blog today.

Of course since then I've seen it so often it's practically part of my subconscious. I can tell you about miserable summers as a 16 year-old, watching it over and over with the fan blowing right in my face, and taking a long uphill bike ride to shake out my depressive angst every hour or so, and my brother walking through the room with his buddies and seeing me watching it, coming back a few hours later and I'm still watching it, again, and him thinking damn, what happened to my cool older brother and me being like, shut up Fred...rama rama! Kong !

What better place to ride from Peking to Shangai than in a first class train compartment with two high-rent courtesans like Lilly and Anna May Wong?  Dietrich is at her most luminous and morally ambivalent, and incredibly cool; her crazy black feather outfit fulfills the promise of all the slinky black snake and feathered collar femme fatale costumes that Edith Head and her ilk had been stitching since the silent era.  There's great business with Dietrich turning the tables on the old Professor Henry Davidson type and counter-snubbing an old lady with a dog, but even better is her teasing treatment of brooding British military doctor C. When he tells her he tried to forget her she replies, eyes wide like a child's, "Did you try, very hard?" I wouldn't be able to forget her either, but I don't really try... very hard. And Anna May Wong was never lovelier. (Note: This film is now listed as being from 1932, but I swear used to be listed as '33, and has always been so in my heart).

"..The big highlight is the climactic showdown between the two biggest hams of the 30s: Bela Lugosi as the keeper of the law going against the whip-snapping Charles Laughton as Moreau. Lugosi-- beaten down, hunted, despised, forced to endure untold hours of daily make-up application, brought to heel by bad negotiations with Universal--brings several lifetimes worth of rage to bear and Laughton's hamming. Laughton, matching Lugoisi's floridity with a gradually eroding bed of fearlessness. (click on link above for the whole, rambling essay)

4.5 ALICE IN WONDERLAND -- (Paramount)
Unscreened since 1933, until very recently, this Joseph Mankiewicz scripted bizarro world all-star cast film is too dark and strange for young children but just perfect for tripping adults, and as funny and disturbing as a 10 year-old's fever dream after eating too much before bed. Cary Grant takes full advantage of being unseen under a mock turtle shell to deliver a truly unusual crying-singing rap reminding us he was once belting out jokes and pratfalls in Vaudeville, Gary Cooper is laconic and hilarious as a woozy knight, W.C. Fields a wise 'crackin' Humpty Dumpty, and on and on until the final insane party sequence that's about the most accurate depiction of a bad trip or K-hole I've ever seen. Bear with its slow start and let its gradual dream reflection (Alice's journey begins with stepping through the parlor mirror) suck you in...

5. DUCK SOUP (Paramount)
So many great bits--the popcorn stand war; the real war; the mirror scene; the buxom Ms. Marquel; Chico and Harpo as spies against Freedonia ("Tuesday we a go to the baseball game, but he fool us, he no show up"); the amazing opening song; the barking dog tattoo--that it's the crown on the peak surrealist champagne and reefer heights that was 1933 Paramount.

6. I'M NO ANGEL - (Paramount)
7. SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount)
1933 saw both of Mae West's greatest movies appear, as if the icing on the pinnacle of 'getting away with murder' cake. Both films are witty, solidly made (much like the babe herself), and written with the saucy double entendre and warm wit of the premiere lady of the game. And who doesn't love the tales of West and Dietrich swapping their young proteges like Cary Grant and Gary Cooper back and forth between their  neighboring dressing rooms whilst engaging in 3-ways and lesbian trysts during lunch breaks? Paramount RULED!

7.5: SNOW WHITE (Paramount - Fleischer studios)

In true pre-code, reefer-smoking, laudanum-quaffing glory, everything in SNOW WHITE is alive and wriggling and swathed in the groovy music of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra.Considered to be the best and most surreal of all Max Fleischers's pre-code Boops, SNOW WHITE's highlight is when Cab sings "Saint James Infirmary," with plenty of dynamite "Hi de Ho" and his lanky white tuxedo-ed frame rotoscoped into the figure of a twirling dancing ghost with improbably long legs, accompanied by swirling phantasm chorus in the hell/underground/uptown jazz joint, "The Mystery Cave."

The love story began when I was a 15-year old monster junkie, scouring the TV Guide for things to tape and watch obsessively to fill the hours of a lonesome adolescence. Out of desperation I taped INTERNATIONAL HOUSE because it had Bela Lugosi in the credits... and of course I fell instantly in love with W.C. Fields, Cab Calloway, and the whole pre-code saucy comedy genre in one collective cupid arrow burst. A few years later, I brought my VHS tape of it to college and my drummer Max and I watched it nightly while pounding bourbon and playing Blind Blake songs on our gee-tars. Decades later and we still have long conversations set to the Vaudeville rhythm of Burns and Allen ("You had a raffle for poor old woman!?"  / "And he won/" / "And he won, oh I see, you people live like fools.") And of course there's W.C. Fields at his most insane; to drink along with him in this movie is to know a rare anarchic joy, and then to pass out... and scabby-kneed street urchin "Baby" Rose Marie sneaks up to steal the rest of your bottle and sing "My bluebird is singing the blues." A little girl belting the down and dirty blues with the voice of a 50-year old smoker, Baby Rose is undoubtedly the inspiration for the dancing moppet singing the "Reefer Song" in Day of the Locust. (Interestingly a variation on the "Reefer Song" is sung right before her appearance in the film - hell yeah Nathaniel West loved this movie!)

9. BABY FACE (Warner Bros.)

Abused and pimped out by her beer hustling father since the age of 14, Stanwyck's 1933 pre-code heroine could be forgiven for having a bad attitude, but a German cobbler drops by the speak to drink some beer and read her some Nietzsche so at least she has a goal in life, 'USE MEN!" Since she's hot, ruthless, and canny, she slowly climbs the building like an inside job King Kong until finally a guy young enough and rich enough expects her to give up her bling when he's caught with his hand in the cookie jar... say what!? 

The censors didn't want young women finding out about the cobbler's prescribed kind of power so they edited out the scene with that book and inserted a letter instead saying she'd misunderstood his teachings and was a big disappointment for being so ambitious and super slutty. HarumpH! Zey lie! The point is, the Superman is triumphant! The 'real' version has been recently found and restored!   (Photos courtesy Matthew Gallaway)

10. WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Warner Bros.)
One of the most absorbing, clear-eyed, unsentimental pieces of social realism ever made, and it pre-dates Grapes of Wrath (1939). It's the Over the Edge (1979) of the Depression, telling the tale of the "children of the forgotten men" — boys (and some well-concealed girls) who leave their starving families behind (so as not to be a burden )--- who ride the rails in packs, hurling rocks and eggs at the railroad bulls who try to stop them, beat them, and in one case rape them (a very intense pre-Code moment). Frankie Darro begins the film with a slogan-covered jalopy, supportive high school chums, and loving middle-class family. Believably and painfully he loses all that to the Depression, and eventually becomes the rogue leader of  100+ wild-eyed children living and starving on the rails, in shanty towns and on the streets. He's one little Piggy short of being Lord of the Flies, but buoyed by an innate sense of group support and the dim remnants of middle-class decency. And you care every second of the way because Darro is neither a simpering Freddie Bartholomew type, a blubbering Jackie Cooper type, nor a snickering Dead End Kids type. He's just a smart kid trying to do the right thing, looking after his own and leaving any sensitive viewer completely devastated.

I watched this film a lot when I was really, really, really beginning to descend into the round-the-clock drinking abyss, and I'm glad it was there to sink into the mire with me. If you drink along with the Depression era-sorrow and small triumphs and wallow in your own self-pity like the swine you are the film glows like a lamp in a flop house doorway, especially if the girl you're pining for happens to be named Paula and look a lot like Madge Evans (above), who plays a Paula pining for John Barrymore, near end... a swell funhouse mirror reversal! I watched this every night, drinking and retching along in sympathy as Barrymore's shakes continually threatened to rear up and destroy him... until finally he beats them to the punch.

First though, you can nod out during the long, drawn-out conversations with ill shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore asking former siren of the stage Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) to not sell her stocks to a corporate raider (bullish Wallace Beery). The raider's wife meanwhile is a hot-to-trot bimbo (Jean Harlow in some truly shiny sleepwear), with a yen for her doctor (Edmund Lowe), who'd rather not but likes the promptness of payment. And, oblivious to all the suffering and real time issues going on around her, Lionel's chirpy wife Billie Burke freaks out because she "got the Ferncliffs" and the aspic isn't just right and all the other stuff that bourgeois pretension-suffering perennial dinner guest scribes like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion wrote for her to say until you just want to punch her and shout "your shrill pettiness is killing your husband and your daughter Paula's chasing after a drunk former rock star named Erich, I mean actor named John, I mean character named Larry Renault!" And then grabbing the sherry or port or whatever she has out and draining it in a single swill.

In this list of best films of 1933 we've got big gutsy strides in depicting race issues, child endangerment, drug use, alcoholism, sexual misconduct, and homosexuality, so why not a drag king... of Sweden? When I spent many nights circa 1993 drinking heavily and watching this over and over and sobbing to Garbo's big speeches about war ("I will have no more of it!") and abdicating in the name of love, and riding through the snow dressed as a young noble, and possibly dallying with a young female ward (above) and then falling in love with a dude who for awhile thinks she's a dude. Now I wonder now how many girls I showed that movie to thought I was using it to tell them I was gay, or maybe I was closeted even to myself and this was my way of trying to tell myself to come out? Who knows what our movie choices say about us? All who have fully developed souls generally exhibit characteristics outside of their specific gender's own narrow conscription. To not embrace a side of you just because it's not part of your persuasion or gender's toy box is, how you say, to pussy out? That said, I've never been able to get back into this movie now that I'm sober, and heterosexually laid past the point of exhaustion.

13 GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (Warner Brothers)
 (from Film Experience - on Gold Diggers: here)
Opening with hot chicks (including Ginger Rogers) naked behind gold coins singing "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin, GOLD DIGGERS is as savvy and hip a denouncement of the status quo as hard times can produce. Robert Dudley (the Weenie King!) plays a producer who wants to put on a show about "men, walking, walking, hungry, jobs! jobs! jobs!" (but he's yet to be 'cheezy with money'). Heart-of-gold-digger Joan Blondell, comic beanpole Aline McMahon, and normie Ruby Keeler (as always, assigned to sing and smooch with 'juvenile' songwriter Dick Powell), get in on the ground floor. Of course it turns out Powell's a rich kid pretending to struggle in the Village rather than bust open his trust fund and live a little, but he's got no problem bank-rolling the show, leading to--hilariously!--the entrance of beloved rogues Warren Willian and Guy Kibbee as his concerned wards. All they need is some emotional blackmail to get them swinging on a star....and soon they, the girls, and us are all heaven-sent, and ready to give it all back up for that Busby Berkeley-choreographed poor forgotten man walking, walking, hungry, jobs! Jobs!

Jean Harlow finds out she's pregnant via hood Clark Gable, but she's in jail by then and a martyr so doesn't tell him. Stu Erwin wants to marry her and move her to some bo-hunk town when she gets out of stir but no way. See, there's only one guy for her - and he can't visit her in the clink as he's wanted himself, see, for a crime he did commit! See? George Reed (THE GREEN PASTURES) is the black preacher father of fellow inmate Theresa Harris (Alma in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) who sings "Saint Louis Blues" while the girls relax after a hard day steam-pressing shirts.

HOLD YOUR MAN gets me deep in the gut because everyone is redeemed at the end--even the romantic rivals and prison warden--and not in a humorlessness Loretta Young kind of way, but in a genuine caring, cliche-defying way.  When Gable cries to Reed in the chapel, I feel redeemed --every time - and mister, I'm a hell of a sinner. That HOLD YOUR MAN was written by a girl (Anita Loos) doesn't fully explain the incredible compassion this film offers, but it's a part of it. How often do you come away from a tough, never once maudlin, pre-code women's prison picture feeling truly optimistic about humanity? Just this once, baby.

15. THE EMPEROR JONES (United Artists)
Robeson's big 'signature' film (and his last, at least in the US), written for the stage by Eugene O'Neill. A dark mirror to Robeson's quest for dignity and justice for all, Brutus Jones was how we assume white conservatives imagined Robeson, i.e. a strapping 'buck'-wild monster who can't be stopped except with a silver bullet or a passport revocation. In real life Robeson was far more political, sober, and idealistic, and a Communist, while his Jones is the dark Col. Kurz-style heart of amok capitalism. Slang for withdrawal cravings, "Emperor Jones" was where, among other things, the first time we saw a black man strike a white man and get away with it. Awesome! Of course the nervous distributors ended up cutting those moments (partially restored since) but it's still an impressive 1933 pinnacle of (then) gutsy taboo-busting we wouldn't see again til 'the slap hear round the world' in Heat of the Night.

16. THE NARROW CORNER (Warner Bros.)
You never know which classic authors are going to age like wine, and which to vinegar, but the South Seas commonwealth parables of W. Somerset Maugham have become particularly potent wine and THE NARROW CORNER is the good stuff you keep for yourself. Why is it so forgotten compared to, say, the self-absorbed forgotten man badgering of THE PETRIFIED FOREST? Where Leslie's maudlin rambling smacked of self-pity, Maugham's dead-eyed stare into the riptide (where life is wrest from us as a berry from a branch by a half asleep Mexican gardener) is heroic to the max. The role of the wan Brit boytoy who has to take it on the lam out of Australia when he kills... ahem... the lady's husband, is perfect for this very young man of Hollywood royalty, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. We can see in him the natural actor who's absorbed everything he saw and heard from his upstairs bedroom air vent as a spoiled child in the thick of his dad's silent era decadence and brought it to bear on this peevish dork of a character who hates the women who fight over him, because then he has to kill their jealous husbands and fiancees. And the best character is a debauched doctor (Dudley Digges) who tells his trusting Chinese servant how many (opium) 'pipes' he'll have that night, "Seven pipes tonight, no more no less."

For a good 70 years or so there were two Warner Brothers attempts at sophisticated horror, this and 1932's DR. X --both were pretty hard to watch, thanks to poorly preserved (and very early) two-strip technicolor since run to muddy red. With DVD and digital restoration however we can dig the films' ghostly colors in their true glory and enjoy the art deco expressionist high strangeness on display. Both films star Lionel Atwill as a possibly evil mastermind, and a nubile young Fay Wray and both are nearly sabotaged by dated cornball snappy wisecracking journalist comic relief / investigators. But age has again been kind, and it's especially interesting to see Glenda Farrell as the reporter in WAX, outsmarting the men, stealing bootleg liquor from coffins, and following leads with tenacity, until, alas, she decides to marry Frank McHugh's repulsively chauvinist senior editor and start darning socks. Even worse is Lee Tracy in DR. X, though that's technically from 1932; but again, the moody atmosphere makes up for the dated humor, especially now that the colors are back, and so eerie (all turquoises and ghost pinks) you can nearly faint from pre-code ecstasy.

"Hopkins is Temple Drake, the pleasure-seeking debutante granddaughter of a respected southern Judge (her dad was killed in "the World War"). Her date for a country club party gets drunk and crashes their car in the rain near the drippy farmhouse of bootlegger Irving Pichel and his wife, Ruby (Florence Eldridge), who live there with the requisite (for Faulkner) idiot manchild, Tommy (James Eagles), and their baby (Ruby keeps it in a box so "the rats don't get it"). Staying at the house, playing cards til the rain stops are some creepy gangsters from the city, including the greasy and virile Trigger (Jack La Rue). The moment Drake's eyes lock with Trigger's, it's on... " (read full review here)

One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping betwixt American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett), her voracious duchess pal Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper), and their shared gigolo, Pepi (Gilbert Roland). A weekend in the country is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston hopes to get it on in the poolside bathhouse with Pepi and placate Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest (the hardest-to-get house guest in the whole of upper crust London!) Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, askance.

George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its Sunday afternoon and as you think about the drive ahead and struggle through a cup of coffee and a grapefruit you can barely remember how and when you may have made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him or her like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as he or she just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful and even gets the priceless closing line: "There's no finer sight in the world than.. two women of title, kissing each other!"(more)

20. HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM (United Artists)
A pre-code salute to vagrancy, anarchism, and the days when Central Park was a refuge for depression-era homelessness, Lewis Milestone's delightful film is crammed with half-spoken Rogers and Hart songs lamenting the amount of work it takes to remain unemployed ("You own the world / when you don't own a thing"). There's enough economic savvy and cool Central Park set design here to make it both Brechtian and bucolic, an AS YOU LIKE IT with Central Park as Arden and Jolson the swaggering Mack the Knife from THE THREE PENNY OPERA if he was played by a balding, gap-toothed Marx brother; with the evil duke a thousand dollar bill Jolson finds in the trash --the very rumor of which sends the park's unwashed denizens into a near riot. Hard boiled softie newspaper man-turned-Broadway scribe Ben Hecht wrote the shit out of it-- imagine the Lubitsch touch on a SCARFACE spittoon. One of the many awesome little joys is hearing Frank "The Wonderful Wizard" Morgan saying "there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home" six years early! Truth is, Oz or no, there's no place like 1933!

21. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (London Film Productions, Ltd.)
Let's not forget, at the last moment, dear old England! Charles Laughton's hammy royalty finds a perfect framework via director Alexander Korda's painterly direction. Born to play the portly voluptuary king, Laugton is full of schoolboy-on-a-bender gusto, and wears the crazy costumes with the comfort of, say, Jeremy Renner wearing a bomb-proof jacket and helmet in THE HURT LOCKER. For this kind of film, characters need to stand very still, like tarot cards, while lighting technicians fuss over them as grooms of old. It takes a certain imperiousness to pull off and Laughton nails the royal spirit down to the last nuance while still being “real” and alive with wit and sauce, though heavy and laden with furs he all but floats off the ground he's so spry in his step.


Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan, partying like it's 1899!), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy, as usual, an unscrupulous publicity agent.

There's something inherently unlikable (to me) about Tracy, but he sure can talk fast and believably think on his feet. Even when he apologetically comes to tell Harlow he's been fired on account of her complaints you don't notice his emotions, you just stare at the ferocious meta-amphetamine insect anger in his sharply slicked-back hair. It forms--in the excellent TCM transfer--a weird bi-level triple side wave-part. Too much information!

In order to appease Harlow and get his job back, Tracy must pledge to cease sleazing her up in the tabloids and instead put her onto the 'Home and Garden' page, dressing her up in frilly aprons, with forked potato in hand, longing wistfully for the patter of little feet. In a hilarious interview with a matronly journalist, Harlow holds her hands clasped together and gazes into the heavens, imagining the baby to come, then sets off to adopt one, ala Angelina Jolie, picking them out by the bushel like puppies.



  1. The whole 1939 worship never sat with me. Just look at Lubitsch: the mildly amusing, politically limp Russkie-baiting of NINOTCHKA compared to the sophisticated sexual mind games and gin-dry wit of DESIGN FOR LIVING? No contest. Sticking just to Hollywood features, I would add:

    THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, Frank Capra's moodiest film and one of the most sexually complex Hollywood love stories of the '30s (it reminds me of THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK and Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). People seem to skip over it because of the embarrassing yellowface, but if it doesn't keep BROKEN BLOSSOMS from still being revered, I don't see why this should be skipped over, especially considering how uptight and square all of Capra's subsequent films were.

    THE INVISIBLE MAN, James Whale's second best Universal monster movie. If BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is a frenetic celebration of bisexuality, sugar daddies, and failed marriages, then THE INVISIBLE MAN is a tragicomedy about the Proper Englishman's social castration. Poor Claude Rains is so emasculated by turning invisible that he can barely stand at times, much less muster the libido to become a peeping Tom like any red-blooded American hooligan would.

    MIDNIGHT MARY, one of William Wellman's lesser known crime dramas that feels like a rough-and-tumble, proto-feminist CITIZEN KANE.

    SONS OF THE DESERT, the funniest Laurel and Hardy film of the sound era. Modern audiences don't find it as hip as W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers, but these "just friends" who share a bed have a real cloud of melancholy social-outcast vibes around them that got totally buried in their later, lamer, Code-era films.

  2. On top of what Lee mentions -- and Midnight Mary is extraordinary just for having Loretta Young play her character at the age of nine -- I want to add Wellman's Heroes For Sale, another look into the abyss of the Depression ("It's the end of America!") from the viewpoint of someone who'd had it bad for years beforehand; the W.R. Hearst production Gabriel Over the White House, the period's ultimate authoritarian fantasy, at least from Hollywood; the year's other Berkeley vehicles, 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, and the year's other Cagney vehicles, particularly Lady Killer and Picture Snatcher. Not in their league but worthy of mention is M-G-M's Men Must Fight for its imagining of a 1940 aerial bombing of New York.

    For me Warner Bros. is the Kong of Pre-Code studios, but I just prefer their barbaric yawping to the glamorous decadence of Paramount -- though one from the mountain you might have mentioned from this year is Torch Singer, a terrific Claudette Colbert vehicle. And the film I most want to see from 33 is another Paramount, C.B. DeMille's youth-vigilante outburst This Day and Age.

    For me WB and Paramount are one and two in Pre-Code. RKO seems less light on its feet -- I've recently sat through several lesser emanations from the radio tower -- while M-G-M seemed to know no middle ground between refined and screaming mad (Freaks, Kongo etc.) Universal beyond the horror flicks and Columbia especially remain unknown quantities, though TCM is working on digging them out and I've liked a lot of the Pre-Code Columbias I've seen so far, from the Capra stuff to Black Moon. We really still don't know yet just how good 1933 really was -- and yet you can make a credible case already.

  3. Haven't you got a couple of 32s lurking in here? But whatever, any of the pre-Code years kick 1939's ass. I've always had a preference for '31.

  4. Thanks for the additions Lee. That's a good desc. of Sons of the Desert and fits why L&H give me the melancholy creeps. I could never really explain it before. i find them very disturbing, like a sad nightmare that haunts the dreamer all the rest of the week.

    Samuel - I love your description of MGM's extremes of frills and insanity...I'd say you nailed the pros and cons of the pre-code studios.

    Matthew - some of my 33s are listed as 32 depending on the source, but in my mind they're 33s. Island of Lost Souls was released in January of 33 for example, so it's right on the cusp. 1931 is a favorite year for sure - but then again I love a little static.

  5. And I forgot MURDERS IN THE ZOO!

  6. As far as I'm concerned, movies lost something special after 1933. The code killed that great, adventurous spirit for good. I'm sure you could add many more titles to this list, but I can't think of even one right now!

  7. Erich, I just want to point out that The Grapes of Wrath is a 1940 release. It was released March 15, 1940, with a NY premiere date Juanuary 24. Even if it was produced late in 1939, it has to count as a 1940 film. I find that the AFI Catalog (double-checked with imdb) is the best source.

  8. I think I should point out that, after getting some sleep, I realized my comments on THE INVISIBLE MAN are wildly inaccurate. I was getting it mixed up in my head with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940), which is the one with the trembling, castrated hero (Vincent Price). The Whale film was still a pseudo-sexual tragicomedy, but Claude Rains played the invisible man as a fabulous sadist, a precursor to Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Pretorius in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

  9. You're right KC, and thanks Marcos for the clarification

    Lee-- I love James Whale and his wind sound effects but I can never get into the Invisible Man - for one thing, come one, you can't catch a naked man running around a room crammed with cops who have their arms out? And second -- eww! Naked running around in the snow? It kind of makes me shrivel up to imagine. Even the Hulk gets to keep his purple shorts.

  10. Those are the tail feathers of Mexican fighting cocks coddling Marlene in 'Shanghai Express'. Chosen by La Dietrich herself, I believe, and it wouldn't surprise me if she swam across the Rio Grande and hand-plucked them herself. Lovely Marlene.

  11. Erich, I would like to underline WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD as one of the most touching films ever made. Filmed with grit and sincerity during the depths of the depression, it never flinches from the truth. It could only have been filmed in those days, when the problems were yet unsolved, when the breakup of families for economic reasons was epidemic, and when the stupid code had yet to interfere with the visions of filmmakers.

  12. Mike, you're damned right about the Wild Boys, why that film isn't more highly praised in the popular film crit lit (as opposed to the similar Grapes of Wrath) is I think as you say, cuz of the code, and also William Wellman's never drawn the fawning like Ford. It's up to us to usher in the new deal of Wild Boys appreciation!

    And thanks for the info, Mark. I can't imagine Marlene plucked them herself, certainly she'd wait for them to be killed first, and then take the feathers home as trophies!

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  14. I'm right along side you on the notion of pre-code films smothering the later ones with their raw ferocity, but to defend 1939 as capable of producing a decent film, I suggest a look at OVER THE MOON. The reason it's good is, though, is that it has the same sort of social subversion that made films before the big crack-down so good; the central notion is that a young woman without close relatives and with unlimited funding doesn't need some chap to help keep her on the straight and narrow; she can enjoy herself without become dissolute. Of course, it's also British, which probably helps.

  15. This is cool. I really like this selection of films. Not going to defend 1939. I love it because it's what I know and grew up loving, but these all look so good. I've seen maybe four of them-- that's not enough! Thank you for compiling such a great list.

  16. While the pre-codes are the best, all of the films of the 30s were unrestrained compared to the 40s, when things really got tight.

  17. Other than "Duck Soup,," you've missed the 4 best of the year:
    Man's Castle
    Today We Live
    Employees' entrance

  18. My top 3 of 1933 are DUCK SOUP, THE KENNEL MURDER CASE and COUNSELLOR AT LAW. I can agree that '33 MIGHT be the best of all film years, but I really think that (by a close call) Warners really owned the year, with FOOTLIGHT PARADE, THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, LADY KILLER, MIDNIGHT MARY, BABY FACE, EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, HEROES FOR SALE, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, THE NARROW CORNER, 42ND STREET, PICTURE SNATCHER, LITTLE GIANT, and more.


    Either way, I think Paramount and Warners led the pack both years, but I think Paramount had the edge in '32 and Warners in '33.

    1. You know, I think you might be right. When I started this post I was SURE Shanghai Express was 1933. I could swear it was listed as such in the TV Guide back in the 80s when I taped it off PBS. They were playing all the JVS/Dietrich movies and I thought I'd stumbled onto some glamorous version of Mars.. 1932 is so great and close they kind of can't be separated.

  19. other 33s that are better than some you listed:
    The Fatal Glass of Beer (Clyde Bruckman) {W.C. Fields}
    Deserter (Pudovkin)
    Don Quichotte (Pabst)
    Ekstase (Machaty)
    The Great Consoler (Kuleshov)
    Hard to Handle (Mervyn LeRoy)
    Liebelei (Ophüls)
    Passing Fancy (Ozu)
    The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang)
    Topaze (d'Arrast)
    The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon (Rudolf Ising)
    Marie, légende hongroise (Fejos)
    Only Yesterday (John M. Stahl)

  20. Mon dieu! The Glass Fatale! How could I forget - thanks for these, most of which I have not seen.

  21. Hey.. you have really done an amazing job with your site -- lots of cool stuff. I liked a a lot. best movies to watch


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