What I do when I do these, is I watch all the Oscar nominees available to me, then watch a handful of other filsm released in the United States and qualifying for Oscar contention in the year we're covering. For the films of 1935, these were the first twelve to fit the bill:
The Wandering Jew
Initially released in England in 1933 to huge box office, no doubt helped by its source material being "the late E. Temple Thurston's famous play." Epic in scale and score, it follows the mythical figure of the title, a man cursed by Jesus to live for eternity because he refused to help carry the cross. In contrast to the Nazi propaganda film of the same title, this film explores world history's suspicion and scapegoating of the Jews throughout the centuries, culminating in the Spanish Inquisition. Put in this light, there is perhaps the slight suggestion that Jesus and his followers were increasingly petty, yet there is the matter of the finale, which also hints that our Wandering Jew did finally convert. Conrad Veidt (the great German film star and his Jewish wife arrived in England as Hitler rose to power in their homeland) is the star - he is moving in the part, excellent, gets away with a variety of wigs, and costumes. It all looks great, I think its heart is in the right place, I just don't know that it's entirely successful - the slow pacing of most of the scenes doesn't help.
Amateur father-daughter con artists pretend to be father and son, get mixed up with another con, start a theater troupe, each finds someone to fall for, tears of laughter and tragedy are shed. Not a great success at the time - so much so, director George Cukor and star Katharine Hepburn offered to make another film for the studio free of charge - but gosh, what were people missing? Hepburn screams most of her lines, but the way she does works for her character, who goes from pretending to be a boy to really embracing a life in pants. Women kiss her thinking she's a boy, men kiss her once learning she's a woman, other men are confused by their feelings, one chick in particular kisses her because she's a woman pretending to be a man. Exciting stuff! Cheeky, silly, quite a delight.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Hitchcock's original (which he would later remake with Doris Day and James Stewart) follows English holidayers in the Alps who wind up in the midst of international intrigue. Highlights: our hero finds himself having to combat a wicked dentist while lying prone in the drill; an assassination attempt set at the Royal Albert Hall; a fight in the chapel of a sun-worshipping cult; and a climactic shootout between cops and conspirators, each firing blindly into the night. They don't call him the Master of Suspense for nothing!
A general's daughter is sent to Mexico to get her away from her Communist agitator boyfriend; she roadtrips her way back to D.C. with an American soldier who can't stand her politics. A riff on It Happened One Night, the political shading is eh, but we're here for wit and chemistry between Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Young. On that, it delivers.
A Night at the Opera
The Marx Brothers create havoc while trying to unite two lovers and infiltrate the New York Opera. This unbiased reviewer has seen this movie regularly since before he could shave, although it had been a while since my last viewing. Not only holds up, but I've a new appreciation for the speed of the jokes, the cleverness of the editing, the complexity of that finale juggling opera and hijinks on-, off- and backstage, the timing of Margaret Dumont.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
An English nobleman pretends to be a frivolous dandy to hide the fact that he is the titular leader of a gang that rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine - ah, his French wife is actively being recruited by Robespierre's men to ferret out the Scarlet Pimpernel! Leslie Howard is a hoot when he's "playing" the dandy, dashing in hero mode, I don't think this movie would work without him, though Merle Oberon is, of course, a treat to watch. But I've never really clicked with this story beyond the music of the Frank Wildhorn adaptation. I don't know, it just always seemed silly, and despite the fact that, yes, the Grand Terror is a black mark on history, I get the impression that Sir Percival Blakeney's motivations are less of the "power should not be abused and justice should be genuinely just" variety, and more of the "WHAT we're gonna let the POORS kill their BETTERS?" school of thought.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
People keep trying to adapt Charles Dickens' unfinished murder mystery, even though he left behind no notes or outlines to answer the narrative's riddles. Some contemporaries of his claim that he told them the culprit, at least, and since they all agree on who it is, this perhaps has some truth in it. Nevertheless, it does mean an adaptation like this one - handsomely mounted and photographed though it may be - feels front-loaded. A lot of setup before the titular mystery begins, a rushed second and third act as people try to write Dickens.
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo
Impoverished Russian aristocrat breaks the bank at a Monte Carlo casino; the casino sends a beautiful woman to try to lure him back so he can lose his winnings. OK, overall, not something that really sticks with you, but not poorly made or performed. Decent distraction.
The 39 Steps
A man is caught in a web of intrigue when a stranger dies in his apartment. Another Hitchcock, also great, this one with some great Scottish Highland chase sequences, an interlude where Peggy Ashcroft steals the show, and a funny conceit involving a memory act. Quite fun, even if I'm not at all positive that the finale really works with regards to Mr. Memory and how or why he does his thing.
Man on the Flying Trapeze
W.C. Fields just kind of wanders about as a man with perfect recall who just wants to go to the fights and be left alone, but is constantly harrassed by his second wife's awful family, irate policemen, and a jealous co-worker. Virtually plotless, a series of scenes just barely linked together, but it's rather funny and an effective tribute to the hard-worker that just wants to take a break.
A genius surgeon is in love with a woman who reenacts torture scenes for the grand guignol, so he takes advantage of an accident and grafts the hands of a recently-executed serial killer on to the body of her pianist husband. The hands' muscle memory gives the pianist a desire to kill. Real dream logic plotting and execution, perfect in the hands of Karl Freund in his final go as a director (he is, of course, better known as the innovative cinematographer who first took the camera off the tripod, then innovated the multi-cam sitcom format for I Love Lucy). The madman is played by Peter Lorre in a bald cap, having the kind of wicked good time we expect from him. Highlight of the film is a scene where Lorre pretends to be the dead serial killer with his head reattached - pictured above, the nightmare image is made all the more so by Lorre's performance. Frances Drake is also terrific, it must be said, as the heroine - the scene where she must pretend to be a wax figure of herself in Lorre's room, shock and horror registering in her eyes, is particularly unforgettable.
Mark of the Vampire
Tod Browning's remake of his now-lost silent London After Midnight, with elements of his Dracula tossed in for good measure, is a creaky mystery for the most part, and seems mainly to serve as a way for the director to experiment with creepy visuals. The ruined castle is even dustier and more cobwebbed than the count's in 1931, the makeup is paler and eerier, a bat actually becomes a vampire on screen. But all of that comes between Lionel Barrymore old-manning his way through a lot of talk, talk, talk.
More to come tomorrow!