The Academy offered a Top Twelve, and while I toyed with doing so as well, I found that I was having a harder time deciding #11 and #12 than I did #'s 1-10. So let us keep it simple, keep it to a Top Ten, and apologize to the titles I considered for those extra two spots: Call of the Wild, The Crusades, The Devil is a Woman, Gold Diggers of 1935, The Last Days of Pompeii, and Les Misérables.
dir: George Stevens
pr: Pandro S. Berman
scr: Dorothy Yost & Mortimer Offner & Jane Murfin
cin: Robert De Grasse
There are several aspects of this film I find not just moving and honest, but rare to find depicted so truthfully, so bluntly. There's Alice herself, not cutthroat but intentional in her attempts at finding a beau and being accepted into better society, or at least accepted as being worthy of simple politeness. She's socially awkward, and no matter the airs she puts on, the unpolished Adamsness of her always comes out. But she's also very herself, whether she likes it or not: a little weird, a bit nakedly desperate, but she is who she is - no meanness in her, nothing, indeed, that's so different from in her desires and designs from those of her peers, just that it's been decided she's not worthy of it. Running parallel is the story of her father, chronically ill, whose devotion to his boss is not valued - he is a pushover, a laughingstock, considered by his wife not to be a real provider because he never branched off on his own, never demanded raises and promotions, but was content to do his job, provide a simple life for his family, and hope that his steady loyalty would be rewarded. No one sees what he does as a virtue. And so, really, it becomes a film about the lie of society, the difference between what are nominally our values, and the disdain we have for people who nakedly embody them - and getting used to disappointment.
dir: Michael Curtiz
pr: Hal B. Wallis / Jack L. Warner
scr: Abem Finkel & Carl Erickson
cin: Byron Haskin
A mining community, chiefly Slavic immigrants, finds itself embroiled in unrest stoked by a newcomer who demands a new union with a new leader and a new contract with new terms; once the strike starts, of course, the newcomer disappears, and the mining company brings in a third-party security team of strike-breakers...employees of the same corrupt firm that sent the newcomer in in the first place. The villains here are exploiters of labor tensions sowing seeds of discord, with the bosses and the government willing patsies of a scheme that takes advantage of their own rules - and the laborers the unhappy victims. Neither the sop to mainstream idealism nor a truly wild central performance can take away from the film's merits: its principles, first of all, advocating for equal opportunity while believing that employer and employee share mutual interests that should be strengthened; the production values, secondly, with a set that looks like a working, living mine and its town, photographed in glorious black and white; and an incredible final act that sees our hero and his girl taking the mine hostage to demand less policing and more rights for workers. Urgent, rousing stuff.
The Bride of Frankenstein
dir: James Whale
pr: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
scr: William Hurlbut, story by William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston
cin: John J. Mescall
Of all the Universal Monsters films, maybe the most untouchable, the most magical of all of them. Just from a craft perspective, it's a marvel: the immortal score by Franz Waxman, the cheeky editing and shot designs, the unexpectedly modern special effects. It's a tale of self-assurance becoming megalomania, about men who want to reshape the world into an image they approve of (say, what was happening in the world at this time?), about science's place in the world and the lines it should not cross - and, too, about society's need to destroy what it does not understand. It is not difficult to see why many critics over the years see a queer reading: there's Pretorius, eccentric and cast out but refusing to hide himself, who convinces a younger colleague to leave his bride's bedside so that the men may create life together; there's the Monster, an outsider looking for someone who is willing to accept him, who will not label him a monster for being different. The two threads come together in a mausoleum, a room of death the birthplace of a new world of gods and monsters. A certain camp mentality, a true grasp of tragedy, a spooky story movingly told.
dir: Maurice Elvey
pr: Michael Balcon
scr: Charles Bennett & Bryan Edgar Wallace
cin: Glen MacWilliams
Like the cooler adults say - it didn't have to go this hard, but... Its story of a music hall mentalist whose performance suddenly becomes the real thing explores the fleeting nature of celebrity (from unknown to infamous to footnote and then back to the most famous man in Britain), the power of reputation (the music hall background isn't just used to discredit his abilities, but to make him out to be an underhanded swindler responsible for the world's ills), the complexity of platonic relationships (his relationship with his female benefactor never goes beyond business - on his side, anyway - but you explaint hat to a wife who is suddenly iced out of her husband's life), the mechanics of show business (the little tricks of "mentalism" are demonstrated in detail), and the spiritual crises that come with supernatural ability (what is one's responsibility to the world when one can see its future?). Spectacular performances from the entire cast, led by Claude Rains and Fay Wray; an exciting third act complete with explosions, disaster, and a courtroom drama; spooky eyelight worthy of Morticia Addams - it's got it all!
dir: Harry Lachman
pr: Sol M. Wurtzel
scr: Philip Klein and Robert Yost
cin: Rudolph Maté
It is not wrong that Jim Carter wants to build a better life for himself, and it is honestly exciting to see his creativity flourish. It is the unceasing appetite for wealth and power, the "stay hungry" mentality that he uses to excuse taking advantage of friends and family, the lack of concern for the lives destroyed in his wake - that's what's bad! A tale of excess - Carter takes his uncle-in-law's modest, literate, faith-based tent show and turns it into an amusement park full of dancing devils and actual caverns for lost souls to wander through; by the third act, his empire has expanded to the greatest floating casino the world has ever seen. A tale of hypicristy - all it takes for people's values to slowly erode is some money, so long as they're allowed a plausible deniability to protect themselves with: safety inspectors, moral watchdogs, even the pious uncle, all are convinced to look the other way when the money comes rolling in. A tale, too, of redemption - if there is any hope for Carter, it's in the true love he has for his family, the authenticity of those relationships triumphing over his greed and his need to prove that he is more than the stoker from the film's beginning.
dir/pr: John Ford
scr: Dudley Nichols
cin: Joseph H. August
What is the price of a man's soul? Who is worthy of forgiveness? My goodness, questions that are at least as old as Judas Iscariot. Gypo is the Judas in this scenario, and it turns out the price of his soul isn't so much the £20 promised to anyone who'll inform on McPhillip, but the companionship of and opportunity for a new life with the woman he loves. But once he collects, the guilt of his actions and fear of the repercussions drive him to drink, while his new fortunes attract new friends to his side, friends who before would never have helped the dumb ox, this disgraced Republican who couldn't even kill a Black and Tan on command. Has there ever been such a raw but watchable depiction of loneliness and sadness and disgrace in cinema? Does his desperation excuse his lack of forethought? And is not forgiveness, after all, not a question of "deserving," but of freeing your own soul of burdens that are best left for God to handle? An exciting film to watch, a hell of a one to reflect on later, in the middle of the night.
dir: Grigoriy Aleksandrov
scr: Grigoriy Aleksandrov / Nikolay Erdman / Vladimir Mass
cin: Vladimir Nilsen
You think you understand what anarchic film comedy looks like, then you see something like this. It opens with a beautiful song sung against a pastoral setting, villagers and animals together in harmony - ah, you think, this is gonna be some kind of operetta, yes, a Soviet paean to the noble farmer. There is the screwball comedy aspect of our hero being mistaken for a world-famous conductor by a class of swells - yes, yes, typical enough. And then chaos ensues: animals run riot through a hotel dinner party, with cows dragging men off into the night; a battle among musicians using instruments as weapons; rehearsals staged in the middle of funeral processions, going from solemn to jazz without ever leaving the path of the the hearse. Yes, it does wind up being about the greatness of the common man, with farmer and maid putting one over on the snobs and swells and celebrated for their natural gifts, but in the meantime, it offers beautifully-shot madness on a breathtaking scale. So many live animals! So many live musicians! Such large sets (a sequence where our hero "conducts" from a grand staircase is particularly stupid-funny just for how ostentatious the set is, taking the joke from amusing to stupid to sublime). A marvel.
dir: Karl Freund
pr: John W. Considine, Jr.
scr: P.J. Wilfson and John L. Balderston, adaptation by Guy Endore
cin: Chester A. Lyons / Gregg Toland
A second horror entry! In its best moments, it reminded me of 1934's The Black Cat, another dream logic psychological horror that feels like we're getting a look at unspoken adult desires. There is the nightmare plotting, in this case, a man losing his hands, gaining new ones, and being unable to control their terrible impulses. Plot is complemented by demented imagery, like the contraption supposedly keeping a man's severed head attached to his body. A marvelous subversion of expectations: our heroine is an actress whose job consists of being tortured in a museum of horrors clearly meant to inspire equal parts horror and arousal, but such shady work is treated as, well, work, and most everyone is there to do a job and doesn't take it seriously and operates like an odd family. The villain, meanwhile, is a genius surgeon known throughout the world for his charity children's hospital, from which he works miracles without accepting any payment, genuinely sincere about the work, but whose obsessions curdle his genius: he is a miracle worker, dammit, he deserves to take what he desires! I haven't even gotten into the frequent gallows humor, the skepticism with which the various "estates" are regarded, and the shots of Keye Luke in an undershirt. Frightening, remarkable movie.
dir: Robert Z. Leonard / W.S. Van Dyke
pr: Hunt Stromberg / W.S. Van Dyke
scr: John Lee Mahin & Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
cin: William H. Daniels
The characters are French, but this is an American story, or at least a story about the possibilities and attraction of America. It's a story of reinvention: Princess Marie, born into wealth, assumes the identity of her maid Marietta to board a ship bound for colonial New Orleans, but that's not the reinvention; the reinvention comes when this courtier embraces a life where she works for a marionette theater, rejects marriage, falls in love with a mercenary, and eventually finds solace in the American wilderness, living beyond the colonies and finding true freedom in a world she defines. It's radical, it's feminist, it's beautifully scored and magnificently acted! It's a great movie!
A Night at the Opera
dir: Sam Wood
pr: Irving Thalberg
scr: George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, story by James Kevin McGuinness
cin: Merritt B. Gerstad
Do I understand whether the plotting - Otis B. Driftwood's flim-flam opera patronage, an opera performance continuing despite literal chaos on and offstage - actually makes sense? No, and neither does anyone else, and frankly, you should be ashamed of even asking the question. This is about Groucho and Chico tearing up a contract while standing on the unconscious body of a star singer. This is about stowaways in steerage leading everyone in a song and dance. This is about moving beds around a hotel room to drive the immigration officials insane. "How would you like to feel the way she looks?" "You can't fool me, there ain't no Sanity Claus!" "He's got insomnia and he's trying to sleep it off." "Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlors. Play, Don." The jokes are nonstop, the music is beautiful...this is the zenith of the three Marx Brothers.
Tomorrow, the nominees for the 1935 Retro Hollmann Awards!