Here 'tis, my Top Ten for the films released between August 1, 1931 and July 31st, 1932. Apologies to the almost-made-its: À nous la liberté, Broken Lullaby, Grand Hotel, Mata Hari, Million Dollar Legs, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Waterloo Bridge.
Now, the list proper, in alphabetical order:
The Dark Horse's title character a dimwitted delegate for The Party (never mind which one!) who unexpectedly gets the nomination. His views on current issues? As his manager instructs, "Yes, but then again, no." He's a supporting player, not just in his own campaign, but in his own film. The protagonist is his talented, velvet-voiced campaign manager, frequently jailed for non-payment of alimony - he's in the clink at the movie's opening, but already has his fellow cellmates singing the praises of the dark horse and guaranteeing him their votes. The ultimate con artists, the film posits, are the men who work behind the scenes to sway our votes, the men who don't want to save their country or fight for what they believe, but just want to win, get paid, and move on. Are the politics vague? Yes, but that's the point, that's part of the film's sharp bite: principles don't mean squat to these people, and they're the ones really running our democracy.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Paramount's answer to Universal's horror output. Here, the filmmakers take Robert Louis Stevenson's fantastic story about a scientist physically exploring the duality of man by transforming into a monstrous alter-ego, and focus in on the hypocrisy of the era and toxicity of the "mad genius." The dueling love interests - respectable Muriel for Jekyll, East End music hall girl Ivy for Hyde - are not new additions to the mythos, but emphasized in this version is how Jekyll's entitlement is manifested in Hyde's violence. As a respected but controversial scientist, Jekyll must deal with society's conservative ideals, ideals which go against his liberality in both work and romance, yet which he must adhere to. But Hyde gives him the opportunity to finally hit back at his lessers, to rape and beat and kill anyone who tells him "no," because who are they, these weaklings, these small-minded morons, to deny him his pleasures? Many versions of Jekyll depict him as frustrated, but ultimately good, a sharp contrast to the out-of-control monster that is Hyde; this film sees that Hyde always had to be within Jekyll, and the line between good and evil is much thinner than we like to think.
Frankenstein is a movie I grew up with, ever since getting into Universal Classic Monsters in...third grade, maybe second? I've got the action figure, two shirts, a shot glass, a board game, and of course I've read the book twice. And yet, I don't think I truly appreciated this movie 'til this year. It's a feat of adaptation, taking the seed of Mary Shelley's novel, condensing its themes and raw emotions in 71 minutes while keeping, like, none of the events, save the creation of the Monster? Boris Karloff, makeup designer Jack Pierce, and the wardrobe department (I can only see assistant Mae Bruce, uncredited, on IMDb) made a monster for the ages, its impact on popular culture undeniable. But gee, damn, I never truly appreciated until now the tragedy in Colin Clive's performance, nor the stability in Mae Clarke's. Yeah, man shouldn't play God, there are consequences, yada-yada, but this film's emphasis on the Monster's childlike innocence and Frankenstein's overwhelming guilt really bring home the full tragedy of the story in a way few takes on the myth have. It's timeless.
Freaks is another movie I grew up with, having rented it based on the cover back in...2000, 2001? Billed as horror, to me it's a pre-Altman (pre-Hailey, even!) ensemble drama, about sideshow entertainers and their circus co-workers navigating their daily lives, with tensions rising as one of the little people falls deeper into a trap set by a golddigging aerialist and her strongman lover. There's many a drama, as we all know, about prejudice, about people manipulated and abused because they're "different", about the noble struggle of it all. Freaks upends expectations in two ways. Number one: the "freaks" of the title are not quite suffering; unless someone is directly messing with them, they're just living out their lives. Every time you think to yourself, "Oh, how do they live like that?" the movie promptly answers: Prince Randian has no arms or legs, but lights a cigarette with a match all the same; the Armless Girls have full meals, with champagne, and neither of them has arms; the conjoined Hilton twins wed different people; and so on. Number two: there's no noble suffering here, something which, I'm sure, made/makes a lot of first-time viewers uncomfortable. When they are wronged, they do not hope for a better tomorrow, they take action. And while our protagonist, Hans (Harry Earles) tries to pull them back, the brutal punishment they mete out, plus the lack of consequences for it, feels...just.
The Guardsman is one of the funniest takedowns of male ego I have ever seen. Real-life showbiz couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne play a showbiz couple who've had it up to here with each other. The preening egomaniac husband disguises himself as a Russian guardsman to tempt his wife away, thus proving that his jealousy and suspicions are well-founded; in return, the flattered and confident wife leaves the audience guessing as to how much she knows, and when, all the while treating her "lover" with passion and her undisguised spouse with hilarious condescension. There are three supporting roles - the actress's dresser/housekeeper who hates the actor, a maid who seems lost throughout she does some business with a hat that is just - dare I say? - sublime), and a gossipy critic who was in love with the actress and now finds himself the actor's confidante. There's not a dull moment, and the makeup and costumes are exquisite and impressive. As far as stage-to-screen adaptations, you very much feel its proscenium origins, but I like a movie that also knows how to get out of the way of the material.
Possessed starts with a factory girl rejecting a proposal because she's dreaming bigger than wedding the boy next door in her hometown. Everyone tells her she's being foolish, to settle for what's certain, but she ignores them, runs off to New York, meets a wealthy, well-connected attorney, and for the next decade (?) is seen by all New York society as his partner, telling folks she's a divorcee who won't yet remarry but is happy to play the hostess and, in all other ways, take on the role of wife. And so we have a film about two people who love each other, sleep with each other, build a life together without getting married; the only thing that gets in the way is everyone else. An intelligent, non-judgmental movie, Possessed doesn't seem to mind that different couples have different ways of being together. when our attorney lover tells friends he wants to marry her, it is not under pressure from anyone, nor to save face for his gubernatorial campaign; no, it's a decision made by a man who knows who he wants to spend his life with. And on her part, any rejection or acceptance done by her throughout the film is on her terms. She may be "possessed," a kept woman, but she's undeniably independent, her own person.
Scarface - this is the original, the shame of the nation, the Italian gangster whose propensity for violence, rabid fearlessness, and lust for more makes him the most dangerous hood in Chicago - oddly enough, he's severely underestimated by his own guys, guys who think they're the only ones with enough brains to coup their way to the top, manipulating the muscle and negotiating with rivals. Tony Camonte has the brains, is the muscle, and doesn't negotiate. My god, what kind of a man reacts to getting shot at by asking the make of the assassin's weapon? You never doubt for a second the very real danger hitting the streets, threatening the populace, and yet, while the film is unquestionably on the side of the police, there is something relatable in Camonte. This is a Depression-era film about a hard-scrabble man who sees business opportunities and takes them, pulling himself up from tenement living to become one of the most powerful man in the city. This how you build wealth: with greased palms, cut corners, ruined lives, one step ahead of the law, willing to destroy whoever gets in your way. Scarface is not the shame, but the face of the nation, man.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Shanghai Express - its very title promises intrigue and danger and glamour. This is 1932, for God's sake, post-Xinhai, pre-Long March, and China is embroiled in civil war between the Nationalist government and Communist revolutionaries. Shanghai, with its multiple concessions independently governed by foreign powers, is the city of glamor, of escape, where expatriates can comfortably live abroad without sacrificing the haughtiness of their heritage. It's where our disparate group of travelers is headed, when suddenly one of them reveals himself to be the warlord leading the revolution, taking everyone hostage until the government releases one of his top agents. Amidst all this is Shanghai Lily, a courtesan whose former lover, a British officer, is on the train; can they forgive each other, forget moral prejudices and past mistakes, to be able to love and trust each other on faith? It doesn't completely sidestep problematics, but its multifaceted characters, superb performances, and overall stylishness - the costumes, the sets, the cinematography - give it a dimension far above something like, say, Chinatown After Dark or even Daughter of the Dragon. Gorgeous, seductive movie.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
The Smiling Lieutenant is silly fun. The screwball happenstance that forces an Austrian soldier in a committed relationship into marriage with a visiting princess - he winks at his girlfriend, the princess thinks it was for her, her father demands her honor be protected lest relations between the two countries become irrevocably destroyed - though based on a 1907 operetta, you can see how a post-WWI world gets the joke. Appease this angry little man in the small things, maybe Austria will be spared bigger problems ahead. Anyway, those are merely the machinations to get our titular lieutenant away from the common-law bliss he shares with the leader of an all-female band, and into a big-ass palace with a neurotic woman who is just not ready for certain aspects of married life. And yet she loves the man! It's an Ernst Lubitsch-Maurice Chevalier sex comedy, though, so songs will be sung and, eventually, sheets will be hit. Chevalier later claimed that he was going through the motions, as his mother passed away just before filming, but some actors' motions really are so effective, so dynamite, you can't tell the difference.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Tarzan the Ape Man, my God, isn't this why we make movies? To entertain - action provided by attacking hippopotami and a violent tribe, romance provided by beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan and a barely-clothed Johnny Weismuller, comedy provided by fish-out-of-water hijinks, and a menagerie of beasts roaring and wrassling. To learn - OK, yeah, it's through a white man living among apes, but Jane goes from ivory poacher's daughter to believing that the jungle and its inhabitants should be left to their own devices. To enchant - the swimming scene between Jane and Tarzan is hypnotically lovely. It leaves you excited and emotional. And best of all, the long sought-after elephant graveyard sequence is quickly done, so that we know that's not what really counts in this story.
Tomorrow, the nominees for the 1931-32 Retro Hollmann Awards.
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