Monday, August 22, 2022

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My Top Ten of 1936

Yes, a day late, but I needed time to consider everything! It was difficult to narrow it down, and I had to sacrifice such treasures as Ah, Wilderness!The Green Pastures, and Rose Marie. But I think I ended with a satisfying Top Ten of 1936.

In alphabetical order:

The Charge of the Light Brigade
dir: Michael Curtiz
pr: Hal B. Wallis / Harry M. Warner / Jack L. Warner
scr: Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh, story by Michael Jacoby
cin: Sol Polito

Maybe it's just that Errol Flynn is a more dynamic performer than the triple "threat" at the center of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, maybe it's the historical basis and double the spectacle with both a horrific massacre and an inspiring bit of martyrdom in that titular charge. Maybe it's that the tensions between the British Empire and the Arab States are spelled out in a way that doesn't make the latter seem completely unreasonable - C. Henry Gordon's exquisite performance adds to that. Maybe it's that every part of the story, from the politics to the love story, is given the complexity that history and human nature require. Yes, maybe it is all these elements that make this film one of the best of the year. Thoughtfulness and great performances - who knew?

dir: William Wyler
pr: Samuel Goldwyn
scr: Sidney Howard
cin: Rudolph Maté

Every opportunity this film has to villainize Samuel Dodsworth's bored wife Fran, it makes sure to follow with a scene or segment that gets us to see her POV. Her disappointments, her new shot at a life she wanted, her desires thwarted by the Way We Do Things. Every opportunity it has to make Fran Dodsworth's husband Sam into a martyr, it makes sure to follow with a scene showing how he doesn't listen to her desires, how stuck in his ways he is, how he expects things to follow a pattern that he wants - and, oh, the bluster that comes when they don't. It's a just depiction of long-marrieds who have stayed so because, uh, they just have. Surprises with its empathy and its tough love.

dir: Fritz Lang
pr: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
scr: Bartlett Cormack and Fritz Lang, story by Norman Krasna
cin: Joseph Ruttenberg

Oh, there's fury in this film all right. Fritz Lang's American debut is an indictment of mob mentality, that poison that disguises itself as a Sense of Community but actually serves as a fulfillment of our darkest fantasies. Somewhere between Dogville and The Visit in its noose-tightening, especially once it becomes a highly original revenge drama. Is it a perfectly-conceived story? No, but that doesn't really register during the viewing, nor does it effect the impact it leaves. A shudder runs through me when I think of it.
The Garden of Allah
dir: Richard Boleslawski
pr: David O. Selznick
scr: W.P. Lipscomb and Lynn Riggs
cin: Virgil Miller

I think the story is fascinating, the love between a woman who grew up in a convent and a man who (unbeknownst to most) just broke his monastic vows to experience the world. Surely this is meant to be - but the woman's faith keeps him from telling her the truth. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, and wow! WOW! Instead of competing against the other (majority black-and-white) films in Cinematography, it received an Honorary Oscar for its achievements, because achievements they certainly are: the glow of Marlene Dietrich, the gold of the desert, the light of Heaven streaming through the convent windows. The look really makes this film sing, though that's not to undersell the performances (Basil Rathbone and John Carradine are excellent) or the thought-provoking tale of redemption and responsibility.

Modern Times
dir/pr/scr: Charlie Chaplin
cin: Ira H. Morgan / Roland Totheroh

What can I say about this film that I didn't say already? We love a labor-conscious romcom! We adore roller-skate cinema! We absolutely lose our minds over Paulette Goddard!

Moonlight Murder
dir: Edwin L. Marin
pr: Lucien Hubbard / Ned Marin
scr: Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, story by Albert J. Cohen and Robert T. Shannon
cin: Charles G. Clarke

A lesson in economic story-telling without sacrificing character complexity - or, indeed, plot complexity! The team-up of an overly eager detective and his scientist girlfriend who's friends with the members of an opera company performing at the Hollywood Bowl makes for one of the smartest, sexiest, funniest he-and-she sleuths since...well, obviously, Nick and Nora. That the mystery can have such a nonsense howdunnit yet still get away with a shocking and moving and satisfying whodunnit? That's writing! Fine performances from an ensemble of character actors.

dir/pr: Alexander Korda
scr: Carl Zuckmayer, scenario by June Head
cin: Georges Périnal

A moving tribute to a true maverick, not one firing boisterously from all cylinders, but a genuine free-thinker who can be uncautiously drunk or meditative and sad. So casual, its depiction of his friendships within and respect for the Jewish community and how that informs his interpretation of the Bible in his paintings. So frank, the relationships between Rembrandt and his partners and the heartbreak he suffers in all of them - and also frank, the level to which he uses them, you might say parasitically, without a care for their wants and needs. Did I say before that I would not be surprised if Mr. Turner's Mike Leigh was a fan of this film?

San Francisco
dir: W.S. Van Dyke
pr: John Emerson / Bernard H. Hyman
scr: Anita Loos, story by Robert E. Hopkins
cin: Oliver T. Marsh

Not until New York New York could another film claim to have written a city's anthem! By the time Jeanette MacDonald gets the whole bar singing "San Francisco, open your golden gate, you'll let nobody wait outside your door..." we've grown to love her and the song and the city and its people. We love Jessie Ralph telling of its opportunities for rags-to-riches reinvention. We love Clark Gable's rough-and-tumble saloonkeeper also being socially conscious enough to try to affect change in the community's safety standards. We love Spencer Tracy's street-smart priest. And we love MacDonald - just in general, we love her. The movie already has us under its power before the earthquake hits, and oh, what a spectacle that is, what a timeless achievement in effects, sound work, editing, everything!

Theodora Goes Wild
dir: Richard Boleslawski
scr: Sidney Buchman, story by Mary Eunice McCarthy
cin: Joseph Walker

Anyone who's ever entertained the fantasy of a secret life where they can be fully rebellious and successful at it should surely love this movie. Beyond Irene Dunne's performance, there are surprising narrative turns that take it beyond its woman-with-a-secret premise and into full Screw Your Judgments, Women Shouldn't Have To Have Secrets! Pew-pew to the government, to men who want romance on their terms, to small-town small-mindedness (double feature with Fury?). All hail the new woman: Theodora!

These Three
dir: William Wyler
pr: Samuel Goldwyn
scr: Lillian Hellman
cin: Gregg Toland

The first adaptation of The Children's Hour "sanitizes" the lesbian favor of a throuple one? OK, why not, there's no movie without the patina of salaciousness (isn't that the point?). Playwright Lillian Hellman adapts her own work, and it's still just as funny, just as infuriating, just as shocking as the source material. One of the finest ensembles of the year led by Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, and Bonita Granville.

Tomorrow, the nominees for the 1936 Retro Hollmann Awards!
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