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Oh, and in 1933 prohibition was repealed!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.'
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 !
3. SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount)
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).
4. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount)
"..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)
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...
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."
8. INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (Paramount)
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.
11. DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM)
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 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.
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.
18. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (Paramount)
"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)
19. OUR BETTERS (RKO)
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.
22. BOMBSHELL (MGM)
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.
ALSO: FOOTLIGHT PARADE, 42ND STREET, FEMALE, HEROES FOR SALE, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, NIGHT FLIGHT, CHRISTOPHER STRONG