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Tag Archives: The Roaring Twenties

My Favorite Moment in The Roaring Twenties

I recently finished teaching the gangster movie genre as part of my “World of Cinema” class at Harold Washington College. This included screening one of my all time favorite American films, the 1939 Warner Brothers production of The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (an acting match made in tough-guy heaven if there ever was one). The way director Raoul Walsh continually opens up the narrative of this gangster epic to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29 to the end of Prohibition and beyond) gives it a dazzling breadth and scope. There are also many iconic moments, especially Cagney’s death on the outdoor steps of a church, which prompts his flame (a sad-eyed bootlegger played by Gladys George) to remark: “He used to be a big shot.”

Watching it again with a class reminded me that my personal favorite moment in the film is also one of its quietest and most subtle: after Prohibition has been repealed and Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett has lost his bootlegging empire, we see him in a dive bar, a slave to the booze that he never touched when he was on top. Bartlett exits the bar to go visit his nemesis George (Bogart), knowing full well that it may be his last night on earth. On his way out the door, Bartlett pauses in front of a piano, on top of which someone has set down a mug of beer. Bartlett looks down at the mostly-empty glass and smiles a sad, wistful smile. I’ve always wondered if this moment was indicated in the script or if it was something that Walsh and Cagney worked out together on the set. Whatever the case, this, my friends, is movie magic:

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Eating (and Drinking and Sleeping) Raoul

“Your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse.”
– Jack Pickford to Raoul Walsh

Does any major director from Hollywood’s studio system era remain as unjustly neglected as Raoul Walsh? In spite of the fact that I’ve loved a few of his movies forever (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat), the lack of critical writing about Walsh in comparison to some of his contemporaries, as well as the difficulty of seeing a lot of his best work, has tended to make him something of an admirable but shadowy figure for me. Until recently. Following a rare 35mm screening of Walsh’s excellent pre-Code comedy Sailor’s Luck in Chicago last year, I have made it a priority to see as many of his films as possible. The journey I have undertaken to get a fuller picture of Walsh’s career has led me to rent VHS tapes, purchase DVD-Rs from Warner Archives’ “burn on demand” program, watch entire movies on YouTube and even do a little illegal downloading. The result of my findings is that I have no qualms about calling Walsh one of the all-time great Hollywood directors — right up there with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Like all American directors who started in the silent era and whose careers lasted into the latter half of the twentieth century, Walsh was a prolific director who worked for many different studios (though his best loved work was done for Warner Brothers). He also had to adapt to many technological changes in the industry including the coming of sound, widescreen, color and even 3-D. Nonetheless, there are many stylistic and thematic consistencies across his vast body of work. Some of these I will attempt to outline here.

1. His movies are filled with a singularly wild energy.

Raoul Walsh is most often described as a “master of action,” yet precious few critics and scholars have taken the time to elaborate on exactly what this means. Perhaps Andrew Sarris came the closest when he wrote in The American Cinema: “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging ahead into the unknown and he is never too sure what he will find there.” This is a concise description of the propulsive, action-oriented heroes of Walsh’s best known work, many of whom have dangerous jobs: John Wayne’s western explorer in The Big Trail, Douglas Fairbanks’ title character in The Thief of Bagdad, Cagney’s gangsters in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, the long-haul truck drivers played by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft in They Drive By Night. What most impresses about Walsh though is his untamed sense of control in capturing the action: the violent movements of his heroes, which tend to occur in spasmodic, occasionally explosive bursts, are perfectly complemented by Walsh’s crisp editing and swift camera movements. This is true not only of action-based genres like the aforementioned gangster and western movies but of Walsh’s comedies and melodramas as well. In a savagely funny scene from Sailor’s Luck, James Dunn tears apart lingerie, newly purchased for his girlfriend, with his bare hands. In the anarchic comedy The Bowery, a bunch of old women destroy a bar with umbrellas. In the serio-comic The Strawberry Blonde, James Cagney resembles a pit bull in his attempts to launch himself over a fence to engage his college-student neighbors in a brawl. In the musical melodrama The Man I Love, Ida Lupino repeatedly slaps a male character in the face in a desperate attempt to talk him out of committing murder. The kineticism to be found in these and many other scenes, the feeling that anything could happen at any given moment, arises primarily from the intersection between the choreography of Walsh’s performers and the choreography of his camera, and renders his films 100% purely cinematic.

2. His characters tended to be beautiful losers.

The Walshian hero, “the lost child in the big world” in Sarris’ indelible phrase, tends to be a sympathetic loser. His most memorable characters are ordinary men and women — the blue collar, the downtrodden, the quietly desperate, the past-their-prime and the habitually passed-over: Cagney’s low-rent dentist Biff Grimes, always playing second fiddle to his best friend in The Strawberry Blonde, the ex-prisoners played by Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, trying to make one last score, in Colorado Territory and High Sierra respectively, Gladys George’s aging, sad-eyed bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties, Robert Mitchum as a rancher who is the target of assassination attempts and he doesn’t know why in Pursued, and the hard-luck dames ferociously incarnated by Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night, High Sierra and The Man I Love. Manny Farber sensed Walsh’s identification with his characters when he called the director someone “whose feel for small-time, scrappy wage earners possibly came from his own cooperative, energetic function in the movie industry . . . Walsh, who wrote some scripts as bald copies of hit films he directed, and probably entered each new project with ‘Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie,’ never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere.”

3. His use of depth-staging was unparalleled.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh directed the cowboy epic The Big Trail in 70mm. In doing so, he achieved the landmarks of having cast John Wayne in his first leading role and, as Dave Kehr has noted, effectively inventing “the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself.” The film’s commercial failure meant that it would be another 20+ years before audiences would be able to enjoy widescreen movies again but The Big Trail, as Fox’s new blu-ray attests, remains breathtaking for its incredible panoramic compositions of the American West. Perhaps more importantly, he took the lessons that he learned from staging in deep focus and then immediately applied them to the Fox comedies he soon made after in the standard “academy ratio” (Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery, Me and My Gal). In particular, check out the swimming pool scene and the climactic dance hall fight in Sailor’s Luck to see how Walsh always has something interesting happening in the background as well as the foreground of the frame. Kehr has said that Walsh gives the impression that if he had moved his camera closer to the background extras, there would be a whole new and just as interesting movie going on. The use of depth-staging continued throughout Walsh’s career and is perhaps most brilliantly realized in the cosmic long shots of the title location that serve as the climax of his masterpiece Colorado Territory.

4. He had a terrific understanding of women.

It is well known that Walsh directed many iconic male movie stars in some of their most memorable, star-making or persona-defining roles (especially Fairbanks, Cagney, Bogart and Wayne for the performances already cited above). What’s too-little commented on is that Walsh “the man’s man” likewise directed many of the best Hollywood actresses in important roles. My god, just look at this list: Anna Q. Nilsson in Regeneration, Theda Bara in Carmen, Mary Pickford in Rosita, Anna Mae Wong in The Thief of Bagdad, Pola Negri in East of Suez, Dolores del Rio in What Price Glory?, Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, Janet Gaynor in The Man Who Came Back, Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal, Fay Wray in The Bowery, Mae West in Klondike Annie, Claire Trevor in Dark Command, Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, Olivia de Havilland in They Died with Their Boots On, Dorothy Malone in Colorado Territory, Virginia Mayo in White Heat and Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. And Ida Lupino? Raoul Walsh was Ida Lupino. This is a far more impressive roster of female talent than what Howard Hawks or John Ford worked with in careers spanning roughly the same time frame. I once read a quote by Ford where he said he thought Walsh was a bit like him, only “more appealing to women.” At first I thought he meant that Walsh’s movies were more appealing to women because they focused more on romance (which is typically marketed more towards women). But I’ve come to realize that what Ford meant was that Walsh was more interested in exploring the feelings of his female characters. Unlike the Hawksian woman, who proves her worth by acting just like a man (only with breasts — but not too big) and the women of Ford, who tend to be desexualized mother-figures, Walsh was interested in women as women. See again the remarkable The Roaring Twenties, which is a Cagney vehicle that achieves its genuinely tragic quality primarily because of the poignant performances of Priscilla Lane and Gladys George – as the women who are too good for Cagney and not good enough for him, respectively. As is often the case with Walsh, the women make the film.

And now, for my edification as well as yours, dear reader, here is a countdown of my top 20 personal favorite Raoul Walsh movies in order of preference:

20. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
19. Regeneration (1915)
18. The Enforcer (1951)
17. What Price Glory? (1926)
16. Sadie Thompson (1928)
15. The Big Trail (Grandeur Version, 1930)
14. They Drive By Night (1940)
13. The Bowery (1933)
12. The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
11. Me and My Gal (1932)
10. Pursued (1947)
9. Sailor’s Luck (1933)
8. The Man I Love (1947)
7. The Thief of Bagdad (1925)
6. High Sierra (1941)
5. Gentleman Jim (1942)
4. The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
3. White Heat (1949)
2. Colorado Territory (1949)
1. The Roaring Twenties (1939)


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 1

Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.

The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:

Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)

Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.

Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)

Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.

Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)

The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)

Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.

The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)

You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.

The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)

Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)

The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)

Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

To be continued . . .


Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

awfultruth

8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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