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Favorites and Other Lists & Musings

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#2 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

M - Fritz Lang's uncompromising portrait of a city in the grip of fear as an unknown child murderer is on the loose. The killer has already struck many times, but the police are no closer to finding his identity. They decide to clamp down on the city's criminal underworld, making things so uncomfortable for them that even the criminal networks set out to find the killer. Featuring Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens, Friedrich Knab, Inge Landgut, Ellen Widmann, Theo Lingen, and Fritz Odemar.

 

One thing that strikes the viewer is that there is really no singular protagonist in this film; the city's population is an aggregate protagonist after the killer/antagonist played by Lorre. Police Inspector Lohmann (Wernicke) and crime boss Schranker (Grundgens) are the closest the story comes to main characters, but really the procedures, the tactics, used to track and capture the killer are the star, so that in many ways this presages the later procedurals saturating TV schedules. But don't let that chase off potential viewers, as Lang imbues this with haunting style, from the moody lighting and cinematography to the off-kilter sets and shot framing, to the intermittent use of sound. The script by Lang and his then-wife Thea von Harbou is fantastic, with sharp dialogue that translates well from the German.   10/10

 

Source: Criterion Blu Ray, with extras including commentary by film historians Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, the rare English-language version of the film, a 50-minute interview of director Lang conducted by William Friedkin, a short film by Claude Chabrol, audio excerpts of lectures from editor Paul Falkenberg, and a making of documentary, with a lengthy booklet included as well. An outstanding edition of this essential film.

 

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#1 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

Frankenstein - James Whale directed this all-time horror classic from Universal, based on Mary Shelley's novel. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life from death. With the help of hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), he surgically assembles a humanoid being using the bodies of the recently deceased. However, when his efforts are successful, the Monster (Boris Karloff) that results is an abomination. Before Frankenstein can destroy him, the pitiful creature escapes into the countryside to cause mayhem. Also featuring Mae Clarke, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, John Boles, Lionel Belmore, and Marilyn Harris.

 

Here is a case when the terms "favorite" and "best" are somewhat at odds. Critically, I can look at this film and see many shortcomings: a scarcity of plot, some weak supporting performances (Boles is dreadful), some goofs and flubs that are left uncorrected. But despite all of that, I still love this movie more than most from this era. Karloff is sensational as the brutish, child-like monster, delivering a compelling performance from beneath heavy costuming and Jack Pierce's top-notch makeup work. Clive is also very believable as the doctor on the wrong side of a nervous collapse. Other moments/details I love: the great machinery used in Frankenstein's lab; the first glimpses of the Monster's horrid visage; the scene with the little girl by the lake; the father carrying the body of his child through the celebrating throngs of townsfolk, her lifeless arm swaying with every step; the pitiful screams of the Monster during the fiery finale. This made a star out of 41-year-old Karloff, who had been in pictures for over 12 years by this point.  10/10

 

Source: Universal Blu Ray, part of the Frankenstein Complete Legacy Collection, which includes several other Frankenstein films, a making of documentary, and assorted commentary tracks and vintage trailers. The HD picture is so sharp you can see the ripples in the studio backdrops.

 

 

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#10 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

The Most Dangerous Game - Influential thriller from RKO and filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and co-directed by Schoedsack and Irving Pichel. Famous big-game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is shipwrecked on a small tropical island. He discovers a large fortress in the jungle belonging to Russian nobleman Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who welcomes Rainsford in and lets him join two other stranded people, brother and sister Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray). The guests soon learn that their being stranded here was no accident, and that Zaroff intends to hunt them in the surrounding jungle like wild game...the most dangerous game! Also featuring Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, and William B. Davidson.

 

Man hunting man for sport has become one of the more over-used plots in genre filmmaking, but it started here. Coming in at a lean 63 minutes, there's no time for dawdling as the action moves faster and faster as the film progresses. The relentless pace is helped immeasurably by Max Steiner's terrific score. Film scores were just coming into play again as the sound technology improved and allowed dialogue and music within the same scene. McCrea and Wray make for attractive protagonists, and Banks, better known in the UK, has the role of his career as the scarred, demented Zaroff. I also like Johnson as Zaroff's mute Cossack manservant.   8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD.

 

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#9 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Freaks - One-of-a-kind pseudo-horror film and backstage circus melodrama from MGM and director Tod Browning. Amoral aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) amuses herself by toying with the emotions of dwarf star Hans (Harry Earles), much to the annoyance of Hans's fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles). Cleopatra is actually seeing strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), while his former lover Venus (Leila Hyams) starts a romance with clown Phroso (Wallace Ford). When Cleopatra's machinations start to truly hurt Hans and Daisy, the other circus performers band together for revenge. Also featuring Roscoe Ates, Matt McHugh, and Edward Brophy, as well as many real-life sideshow performers, like Angelo Rossitto, Johnny Eck, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Prince Randian, and Josephine Joseph, among others.

 

Controversial even upon its initial release, this movie has only gotten more un-PC as the years have gone by. Browning treads a very thin line between humanizing an ostracized segment of society and exploiting them just as much as any sideshow did. Personally I think he does both well, and while the justly-famous rain-soaked finale makes the characters into horror figures, the rest of the film displays a warmth toward them unseen before on film, or for many years after. "One of us!"   8/10

 

Source: Warner Brothers DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror.

 

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#8 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

The Mummy (1932) - Supernatural horror romance from Universal Pictures and director Karl Freund. After being unearthed in the 1920's, undead Egyptian mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff) makes himself look as normal as possible and adopts the new identity of Ardath Bey, an Egyptian historian. Ten years later, he assists English archaeologist Frank Whemple (David Manners) in discovering another buried tomb, that of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Bey tracks down the Princess's descendant and spiritual reincarnation Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Bey plans to have the Princess's ancient consciousness inhabit the living body of Helen, after which he will "mummify" her like himself, so that they can live together forever. However, Frank, who's fallen for the modern Helen, won't allow this happen. Also featuring Edward Van Sloan, Arthur Byron, Leonard Mudie, Kathryn Byron, Noble Johnson, and Bramwell Fletcher.

 

Although this aspect isn't remembered as well today, this film brought a sense of dark, doomed romance to the horror genre that would later be a regular component. This, added to the themes of history and reincarnation, give this version much depth and nuance. The makeup for Karloff is among the absolute best ever done by Jack Pierce, and I actually prefer the later look of Karloff, with the dry and shriveled skin, as opposed to the traditional mummy-wrap look most people think of, and which only appears briefly at the film's beginning. Director Freund, a noted cinematographer, shoots things in a very atmospheric manner, using a lot of well-placed shadowing on the terrific sets. This is one of the Universal horror films that I seem to like more each time that I see it.   8/10

 

Source: Universal Blu Ray, part of The Mummy Complete Legacy Collection.

 

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#7 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) - Arguably the greatest of the old jungle adventure movies, from MGM and director W.S. Van Dyke, based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Johnny Weissmuller stars as Tarzan, a white man raised in the African jungle by apes. His first encounter with non-native people occurs when James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), his daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), and business partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) lead a party into Tarzan's domain in search of a fabled reservoir of ivory. Tarzan's interactions with his fellow white people are up and down, sometimes leading to violence, other times with affection between he and Jane. In the end, Tarzan must protect them all from the perils of Darkest Africa. Also featuring Doris Lloyd, Forrester Harvey, Ray Corrigan in a monster-gorilla suit, and Ivory Williams.

 

All of the pros and cons of this genre are on exhibit here: on the plus side you have lots of wild animals, including elephants, hippos, crocodiles, lions, leopards, and of course Cheetah the chimpanzee. On the negative side, there's the usual low-grade racism, as well as casual animal cruelty. Also, most jungle adventure movies follow the same structural formula: lots of travelogue footage, some animal peril, and the eventual, usually ludicrous, major source of danger (think of cannibals sticking explorers in giant pots). In this film, the last comes in the form of homicidal pygmies (played by white dwarfs in blackface). 

 

Weissmuller is very good as Tarzan, and became the beefcake poster child for athlete-turned-actor (Weissmuller had been a world champion swimmer). He went on to star in 11 more Tarzan movies, followed by the Jungle Jim series in the 1950s. O'Sullivan gives the other half of the audience something to ogle as she wears an increasingly tattered outfit, and often ends up in the water. Burroughs himself, while reportedly pleased with Weissmuller's physical presence, resented this film version so much that he personally funded a rival film starring Herman "Bruce Bennett" Brix. I must admit to liking this much less this time around, and I don't think it will remain among my top ten of this year any longer.   7/10

 

Source: Warner Brothers DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Tarzan.

 

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#6 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Horse Feathers - Fourth Marx Brothers comedy, from Paramount Pictures and director Norman McLeod. Groucho plays Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the newly appointed president of Huxley University, where his son Frank (Zeppo) happens to be a student. The bit of a plot concerns Prof. Wagstaff trying to recruit a couple of ringers for an upcoming football match, but he mistakenly hires goofballs Baravelli (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo). Also featuring Thelma Todd, David Landau, Nat Pendleton, and Theresa Harris.

 

The unhinged, manic energy associated with the Marx Brothers is on fine display here, with many famous gags and one-liners. I enjoyed the film's use of the song "Everyone Says I Love You", which gets sung at different points by Groucho, Zeppo, and Chico, while Harpo plays it on the harp. Todd makes for a game straightface foil for many jokes and physical bits. The end section football game is among the Brothers' most celebrated film sequences. I will say that, after watching them in relative proximity, this is certainly lesser than the previous three films. Part of that may be due to the film's later censoring, with the trimmed sections now lost, leading to some bad edits and a very brief, 67 minute running time.   8/10

 

Source: Universal DVD, part of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.

 

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#5 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Vampyr - Ethereal phantasmagoria from director Carl Theodor Dreyer. Traveling occult enthusiast Allan Gray (Julian West*) checks into an inn for the evening where he has an encounter with a concerned older man (Maurice Schutz) that leaves Gray uncertain whether it was in a dream. Gray eventually finds his way to a large manor, the home of his guest, where Gray learns that the old man has died and that his daughter (Sybille Schmitz) appears to be the lingering victim of a vampire. Perhaps the eccentric village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) can help? Also featuring Rena Mandel, Henriette Gerard, Albert Bras, and Jane Mora.

 

*Julian West was the screen name for producer and star Nicolas de Gunzburg. He and most of the remaining cast were non-professionals, which only adds to the disconcerting ambiance of the movie. This was Dreyer's first sound film, but his uncertainty about the process results in a strange halfway production, with little dialogue (all of which was dubbed in later), and copious amounts of subtitles. In fact, quite a bit of screentime is spent on passages from a book on vampires. Dreyer filmed with a deliberate raw lighting style that often leaves things murky and hazy, compounding the dream-state nature of the narrative.

 

This was reportedly a flop upon initial release, and was long considered Dreyer's cinematic low point. That often seems to happen when esteemed filmmakers "sink" to making a horror film. And like in most of those cases, critical acceptance and praise have only grown in the decades since. This has had an obvious influence on avant-garde and experimental films, as well as within the dark fantasy and horror genres. The Universal horror films of this same period are fun and stylish, but this has moments that are genuinely unnerving, truly the stuff of nightmares.   8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, a 2-disc edition loaded with extras, including commentary track, visual essays, a radio piece featuring Dreyer from 1958, and a feature-length documentary on the director.

 

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#4 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Fanny - Second installment in writer-producer Marcel Pagnol's Marseille Trilogy, this time directed by Marc Allegret. [spoilerS for anyone who hasn't seen Marius] Marius (Pierre Fresnay) has left Marseille, having joined a ship's crew on a 5-year journey to Australia. His father, cafe owner Cesar (Raimu), is upset but begrudgingly accepting. However, Marius's love Fanny (Orane Demazis), who pushed Marius to leave by rejecting him, knowing that if he didn't go to sea that he would grow resentful, is secretly pregnant, a result of her last night with Marius. To avoid the shame of unwed motherhood, Fanny considers marrying the older, wealthy Panisse (Fernand Charpin). Also featuring Auguste Mouries, Robert Vattier, and Alida Rouffe.

 

This is more polished than the first film, but it hasn't sacrificed any of the honesty or charm of the characters. Raimu and Demazis are both terrific, but the big revelation here is Charpin as Panisse, a character grown much more sympathetic this time out. Also like the first film, this was based on Pagnol's stage play, and there is a subsequent reliance on dialogue and characterization over cinematic bravura. Delightful, moving, and universal.   8/10

 

Source: Criterion Blu Ray.

 

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#3 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Scarface - The best of the early 30's gangster cycle, from The Caddo Company (Howard Hughes) and director Howard Hawks. Paul Muni is phenomenal as Tony Camonte, an Italian-American brute and aspiring gang boss. He and his best pal Rinaldo (George Raft) make their way through ranks, using their skill and willingness to commit murder to make names for themselves. Eventually, Tony rises to underboss working for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), but naturally even that isn't enough, and Tony sets his sights on Lovo's job and his woman (Karen Morley). Meanwhile, Tony's young sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) wants to go out and live her life, but her overprotective brother won't let her. Also featuring Boris Karloff, C. Henry Gordon, Vince Barnett, Purnell Pratt, Tully Marshall, and Inez Palange.

 

The tough script from Ben Hecht is full of great lines ("Watch out boys, I'm gonna spit!"), while Hawks and DP Lee Garmes use shadow to great effect. Muni is fantastic as Tony, a monstrous thug barely operating above the level of a animal. Raft became a star here, although he doesn't do much but look cool and collected. I thought Dvorak was also outstanding as Tony's sister, believable, vulnerable, and sexy.   9/10

 

Source: Universal DVD.

 

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#2 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

Island of Lost Souls - Gloriously Pre-Code science fiction horror from Paramount Pictures and director Erle C. Kenton, based on a story by H.G. Wells. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is adrift at sea after a shipwreck when he is rescued by a passing boat carrying Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and a cargo load of wild animals. Parker is forced ashore with Montgomery and the animals on a tiny island belonging to Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist conducting secret experiments surgically altering animals into humanoids. Moreau hopes to have Parker mate with Lota (Kathleen Burke), who is secretly a humanoid panther. Meanwhile, Parker's fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) searches desperately for her lost beloved. Also featuring Bela Lugosi, Stanley Fields, Paul Hurst, Hans Steinke, Tetsu Komai, and George Irving.

 

Laughton is great in one of his best roles, sporting devilish facial hair and a twinkle in his eye. I also like Paul Hurst as the boat captain that brings Ruth to the island. The makeup work runs the gamut from good to silly, with some, like Lugosi, seeming to just have hair randomly glued to their faces. The set work and camera set-ups are very good, with a lot of evocative shadows. The lurid sexual connotations got the film banned in the UK for a long time. I also like the giant asparagus.   8/10

 

Source: Criterion Blu Ray.

 

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#1 Favorite Movie of 1932

 

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang - True-story prison drama from Warner Brothers and director Mervyn LeRoy. James Allen (Paul Muni) is a decorated WW1 vet who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, accused of armed robbery. He gets sent to a prison work farm, forced to work on the chain gang under harsh, brutal conditions. He eventually escapes and creates a new life for himself, but no matter how much of a model citizen he becomes, he's still a fugitive. Also featuring Glenda Farrell, Edward Ellis, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins, David Landau, Berton Churchill, Hale Hamilton, Louise Carter, Robert Warwick, Douglas Dumbrille, Charles Middleton, and Sally Blane.

 

Hard-hitting social justices dramas were one of the hallmarks of 1930s Warner Brothers films, and perhaps none more so than this, which led to real prison reforms. Muni is terrific as the everyman swept up by events largely out of his control and set on a path of little hope. Every subsequent prison film, particularly those dealing with chain gangs (from Cool Hand Luke to Take the Money and Run), are descended from this. Farrell and Ellis both give notable supporting performances. The haunting ending is justly famous. This earned 3 Oscar nominations, for Best Sound, Best Actor (Muni), and Best Picture.   9/10

 

Source: Warner Brothers DVD.

 

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#10 Favorite Movie of 1933

Cavalcade - Oscar-winning drama from Fox and director Frank Lloyd, based on Noel Coward's play, that follows 33 years (1899-1932) in the lives of two English families: the upper-crust Marryots, headed by husband and father Robert (Clive Brook) and wife and mother Jane (Diana Wynyard); and the lower-class Bridges, headed by husband and father Alfred (Herbert Mundin) and wife and mother Ellen (Una O'Connor), both of whom work as servants in the Marryot household. We follow the two families through the Boer War, the passing of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War One, and more, watching as the children from both families grow up and have their own dramas. Also featuring Irene Browne, Beryl Mercer, Margaret Lindsay, Frank Lawton, Ursula Jeans, John Warburton, and Bonita Granville.

Of all of the Best Picture Oscar winners, this film is the perhaps the least talked about. It was the last Best Picture winner to be released on disc, and it has one of the lowest IMDb ratings of any of the winners, too (it currently sits at a 6.0 out of 10). It was also the last Best Picture winner that I caught up with (outside of the newer ones that come each year), as it's rarely shown. That first viewing left me underwhelmed, but a subsequent viewing greatly raised my estimation of the material. I appreciate the look at families struggling to overcome the vagaries of forces larger than they are and outside of their control. It's also a symbolic examination of the deterioration of the British Empire. The WW1 montage sequence, supervised by William Cameron Menzies, is a visual highlight. Besides winning best picture, the film was also nominated for Best Actress (Wynyard), and it won for Best Art Direction (William S. Darling) and Best Director (Frank Lloyd). An interesting anecdote about that last win...Will Rogers was announcing the winners that year, and when he opened the Best Director envelope, he shouted out, "Come and get it, Frank!", which caused Frank Capra to leap up from his seat and head for the stage. He had been nominated for directing Lady for a Day. As Capra got closer to the stage and Rogers saw what was going on, he awkwardly corrected himself and clarified that it was Frank Lloyd that won. Capra was forced to walk back to his table in humiliation before everyone, an event that helped inspire the later film The Oscar.  (7/10)

Source: Fox Blu Ray, featuring commentary by Richard Schickel, and a short Fox Movietone News segment on the film's Oscar wins. I have to comment that this movie is in perhaps the worst shape of any Best Picture winner, rivaled only by Cimarron (1931). This may explain why it was withheld from disc release for so long. Don't get me wrong, it still looks miles better than anything you'll see on YouTube, but when compared to other Best Picture winners from both before and after, there's a lot more that could be cleaned up here (lines and creases and other visual flaws).

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#9 Favorite Movie of 1933

Dinner at Eight - Excellent adaptation of the play by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber, with a screenplay by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Donald Ogden Stewart, and John Meehan, from MGM and director George Cukor. The film charts a variety of characters as they prepare to attend a dinner party at the ritzy home of the Jordans (Lionel Barrymore & Billie Burke). The guests include aging actress Marie Dressler, alcoholic has-been John Barrymore, battling married couple Wallace Beery and Jean Harlow, and philandering doctor Edmund Lowe. Also featuring Lee Tracy, Madge Evans, Karen Morley, Jean Hersholt, Louise Closser Hale, Phillips Holmes, Grant Mitchell, Herman Bing, and May Robson.

Part light comedy, part soap opera, this is dialogue driven in the best way. It's also an interesting narrative conceit to have the entire 110 minutes act as a build up to a dinner party that's never actually shown, with the story ending as they all head in to be seated. Some scenes work better than others, and some performances work while others don't: Dressler and Harlow easily walk away with the film, while Lowe and Morley share a dreadfully acted scene that should have been re-shot. John Barrymore's work as an alcoholic actor on the skids is so close to home as to be uncomfortable. This is a prime example of Depression-era Hollywood somehow making a hit centered on the troubles of the sophisticated rich.   (7/10)

Source: Warners DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Classic Legends: Jean Harlow set. Disc bonus features include a 50-minute documentary on Harlow hosted by Sharon Stone, as well as a comedy short.

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#8 Favorite Movie of 1933

Lady Killer - Scattershot Hollywood/gangster comedy from Warner Brothers and director Roy Del Ruth. James Cagney stars as Dan Quigley, a movie theater usher who falls in with a band of petty crooks led by Douglas Dumbrille and moll Mae Clarke. After their scams bring down the heat from local cops, the gang heads out across the country, ending up in Los Angeles, where Dan improbably becomes a big movie star. But his success, and his romance of fellow film star Margaret Lindsay, is jeopardized when the gang shows up on his doorstep. Also featuring Leslie Fenton, Russell Hopton, Raymond Hatton, Henry O'Neill, Robert Elliott, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, and Harry Holman.

The script is all over the place, lurching from gangster picture to romantic farce to Hollywood satire. Cagney manages to anchor the whole thing and keep it from falling apart, and he's never less than entertaining throughout. Clarke and Lindsay, too, both acquit themselves well as the romantic interests.   (7/10)

Source: Warners DVD, with the usual assortment of vintage newsreel, comedy and animated shorts as bonus features.

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#7 Favorite Movie of 1933

Queen Christina - Historical romance from MGM and director Rouben Mamoulian. Greta Garbo stars as the title monarch, ascendant to the Swedish throne as a six year old and ruling during the tumultuous, 17th century 30 Years War. Christina has given herself to her duties and has never developed a love life, as she must be available for betrothal options with neighboring regents. However, when a Spanish delegation arrives to bring their king's offer of marriage, Christina falls for envoy Antonio (John Gilbert). This relationship, and Antonio's Catholic status, causes unrest among her people. Also featuring Lewis Stone, Ian Keith, C. Aubrey Smith, Elizabeth Young, Reginald Owen, David Torrence, Bodil Rosing, Akim Tamiroff, Paul Hurst, and Gustav von Seyffertitz.

Director Mamoulian brings his usual meticulous attention to production design and cinematography. The costumes are very nice, and the settings, while often blatantly artificial in that studio-era way, are impressive. Garbo is a star that I am often cool on, but this remains my favorite of her films. This time I paid more attention to John Gilbert, a star who I did not know the first time around. I've since watched many of his movies and have grown to appreciate him, and this remains a final triumph in his career (he would die after making one more, minor film). This naturally bears little resemblance to actual history, and should be approached more as historical fiction and a wonderful studio period-piece confection.   (8/10)

Source: Warners DVD.

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#6 Favorite Movie of 1933

Footlight Parade - Third Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical of 1933, from Warner Brothers and director Lloyd Bacon. James Cagney stars as fast-talking showman Chester Kent. When his career as a theater producer flops, he joins producers Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl in a new racket: putting on "prologues", live music and dancing numbers to be performed at movie houses before the features play. Kent is assisted by his loyal secretary Nan (Joan Blondell), who is naturally carrying a torch for her boss. When it looks like the new business may go belly up, it comes down to a trio of performances to secure the money to continue on. Also featuring Dick Powell as a young singer who gets a job through nepotism, Ruby Keeler as a dowdy secretary who is secretly a song-and-dance ace, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Ruth Donnelly, Claire Dodd, Gordon Westcott, Renee Whitney, Paul Porcasi, Herman Bing, and Billy Barty.

This plays like two movies jammed together. The first half is a fairly typical, though well done, backstage romance. Cagney, in a change of pace role for the time, is very good, and Blondell is cute and funny. I also appreciated Powell and Keeler more this time around. The second half, featuring the three lengthy musical numbers, are prime Busby Berkeley, a cinematic fantasy of Pre-Code oddity. The first number, "Honeymoon Hotel", is a racy number about young couples checking into a hotel to have sex, and it features Billy Barty as a weird looking kid running around putting a damper on things. The second number is "By a Waterfall", and it's an incredibly elaborate water-based number with overhead choreography and lots of barely-there outfits. The final number, featuring Cagney in the lead, is "Shanghai Lil", a story-musical about an American sailor falling for Asian prostitute Keeler (who sings her lyrics in "Engrish"), set in a dive bar and opium den. All three numbers are purely cinematic pieces: they make no logical sense, as they use huge sets and are choreographed and filmed from positions that no live theater audience could possibly see. However, I find them fascinating and uniquely bizarre.   (8/10)

Source: Warner DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Busby Berkeley Musicals. Bonus features a featurette on the film's songwriters, as well as a handful of vintage musical and cartoon shorts.

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#5 Favorite Movie of 1933

42nd Street - Influential and prototypical backstage musical from Warner Brothers, director Lloyd Bacon and choreographer Busby Berkeley. Warner Baxter stars as theater director Julian Marsh, respected and admired, but nearly broke thanks to the stock market crash. He's overworked and exhausted, but he agrees to put on a new show for producer Guy Kibbee, against doctor's orders. Kibbee demands that his girlfriend (Bebe Daniels) get the lead role, while newcomer Ruby Keeler is the understudy. Also featuring George Brent, Dick Powell, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, George E. Stone, Ned Sparks, Allen Jenkins, Edward J. Nugent, Louise Beavers, Charles Lane, and Henry B. Walthall.

Baxter plays manic and loud, and Keeler is appealing in her small town girl kind of way. Merkel and Rogers, as a pair of chorus girls, get many of the best one-liners and nearly steal the movie. Berkeley doesn't have as many numbers in this one, but the "42nd Street" big finale number is among one of his all-time best. After watching this and Footlight Parade again back-to-back, I have to say that I like the other movie more, and will most likely flip their places in my revised list. This was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Sound and Best Picture.  (8/10)

Source: Warner DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Busby Berkeley Musicals. Bonus features include a featurette on a song writer, and vintage newsreel and musical shorts.

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#4 Favorite Movie of 1933

The Invisible Man - Science fiction thriller from Universal and director James Whale, based on H.G. Wells' novel. Claude Rains makes his sound movie debut (sort of) as the title character, scientist Jack Griffin who has developed a drug called monocane that renders the user completely invisible. However, Griffin learns that he can't turn visible again, and the drug drives him insane, and he sets out on a deranged, murderous quest to terrorize the English countryside. Also featuring Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers, William Harrigan, Una O'Connor, Forrester Harvey, Holmes Herbert, E.E. Clive, Dudley Digges, John Carradine, Dwight Frye, and Walter Brennan.

The story is a rather heavy-handed allegory for drug addiction, but the groundbreaking special effects and compelling performances make this a classic of the genre. Rains is never shown without bandages obscuring his appearance (with one brief exception), but his terrific voice sells the role like no other. O'Connor's role as an innkeeper's wife is funny or irritating, depending on your mood.   (8/10)

Source: Universal DVD. I only have the earliest DVD release, and not the Legacy multi-movie set. This disc still features a featurette on the film's making and commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer.

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#3 Favorite Movie of 1933

Duck Soup - Fifth and final Marx Brothers comedy made for Paramount Pictures, and the last featuring Zeppo, directed by Leo McCarey. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the newly installed leader of the nation of Freedonia. In between making wisecracks to Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), the nation's financial benefactor, Rufus has to deal with the devious Trentino (Louis Calhern) from the neighboring country of Sylvania. Trentino utilizes a few agents in quest to sow unrest in Freedonia, including femme fatale Vera (Raquel Torres), and spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo). Zeppo appears sporadically as Rufus' assistant. Also featuring Charles Middleton, Edmund Breese, Leonid Kinskey, and Edgar Kennedy.

This is one of my favorite of the Marx brothers films, as it was the first one I saw. Watching them all in close together, I see how this one may have eased back on Harpo a bit, leaving Groucho front and center through most of the film. I also liked seeing the return of Dumont, the best Groucho straight-face co-star. Torres makes for an alluring vamp in a series of slinky gowns. The end section of the movie, dealing with war and its absurdities, would be unthinkable coming out of Hollywood a few years later during the WW2 era.  (9/10)

Source: Universal DVD, part of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.

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#2 Favorite Movie of 1933

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse - German sequel to 1922's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, from director Fritz Lang. Police Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) learns of a criminal gang involved in all sorts of nefarious activities around Berlin. But when a source claims that the mastermind behind the gang is none other than Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), Lohmann is highly skeptical. Mabuse has been in a nearly catatonic state for the past decade since the events of the last film, so Lohmann thinks someone may be committing these crimes in Mabuse's name. Also featuring Gustav Diessl, Rudolf Schundler, Oskar Hocker, Theo Lingen, Oscar Beregi Sr., and Camilla Spira.

Lang exhibits his usual eye for masterful compositions and disconcerting imagery and sound effects. He also adds quite a bit of thinly-veiled criticism for the newly emerged Nazi party, which would result in the movie being banned in Germany, and Lang fleeing the country. The cast are all very good, and the bizarre ending is one of the most memorable from the era. I have to admit, though, that the movie lost just a little something for me with this viewing, and I dropped it a grade.  (9/10)

Source: Criterion DVD, a 2-disc set loaded with features, including the entire French-language version of the movie with a different cast, a TV interview with Lang circa 1964, a short interview with actor Schundler from 1984, a profile of the author of the original Mabuse novel, production stills, feature commentary from historian David Kalat, and a written essay in the insert.

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#1 Favorite Movie of 1933

King Kong - Hugely influential fantasy/adventure/monster movie from RKO and filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), known for his exotic shot-on-location movies, charters a ship to take him to Skull Island. He brings along Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to star in his film, and she makes a romantic connection with the ship's first mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). When the ship arrives at its destination, they find a primitive tribe that lives in fear of the mighty Kong, a gigantic ape that lives beyond a high wall and to whom they make sacrifices. When they try to use Ann as an offering, Denham, Driscoll and the ship's crew head into the primordial jungle beyond the wall, where they encounter all sorts of fearsome monstrosities. Also featuring Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson, Sam Hardy, Steve Clemente, James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Jim Thorpe, and Paul Porcasi.

There's not much I can add to the volumes of material related to this movie, which has arguably proven to be one of the most influential of all time, a special effects extravaganza before such a thing really existed. The pioneering stop-motion work, led by Willis O'Brien, is archaic but endearing. It had been quite a while since I watched this last, and while the last third of the movie is justly famous, I had forgotten how enjoyable the earlier Skull Island stuff is, too. I can also say that this is one of the very few films where I thought Robert Armstrong did a good job. Wray became an immortal film icon based on just this role (to the general public; cinephiles know her from many fine movies), and Cabot gets to be a nice leading man before decades as heavies.  (10/10)

Source: Warner DVD, featuring a commentary track with FX men Ken Ralston and Ray Harryhausen, as well as Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray.

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#10 Favorite Movie of 1934

Judge Priest - John Ford directed this homey comedy from Fox, based on stories by Irvin S. Cobb. Will Rogers stars as William Priest, a small-town Kentucky judge circa 1890. When he isn't presiding over the infrequent case, he's out fishing or playing croquet. He's also mentoring his nephew Jerome (Tom Brown) who is newly graduated from law school and passed the bar. Jerome is in love with next door neighbor Ellie May (Anita Louise), but his mother wants him to marry the more sociably acceptable Virginia (Rochelle Hudson). Life is generally quiet and pleasant, but as in most small towns, it only takes a minor fracas to send the whole town into an uproar, one which Judge Priest may have to sit out. Also featuring Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Berton Churchill, David Landau, Charley Grapewin, Henry B. Walthall, Francis Ford, Roger Imhof, Frank Melton, Brenda Fowler, and Winter Hall.

Despite being a born-and-raised Southerner, I've never been a fan of "Old South" nostalgia. This movie is the rare exception. It wears its reverence for the Confederate veterans in plain view. However, it's never presented in a bitter or vengeful way, and this makes it more palatable for me. There are also the stereotypical black character depictions, chiefly by Fetchit and McDaniel, and these are deal-breakers for many viewers. I look at them a bit differently, as these characters are treated with respect by the other characters in the film, and Fetchit's comedy timing is impeccable, while McDaniel exudes a good-natured screen presence and a terrific singing voice. In other words, they make the absolute best out of a bad cultural situation. Rogers' career arguably peaked with this movie, his biggest hit from the year that he was the biggest box-office draw. He would be killed in a plane crash less than a year later. Director Ford doesn't do much showing off in this one, letting the story and the characters do the work for him, although there is one Civil War battle flashback sequence that is noteworthy.  (7/10)

Source: Fox DVD, part of the Ford at Fox box set.

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#9 Favorite Movie of 1934

Twentieth Century - Early screwball comedy from Columbia Pictures and director Howard Hawks. John Barrymore is Oscar Jaffe, a tempestuous Broadway theatrical impresario who takes former model Mildred Plotka and turns her into star sensation Lily Garland (Carole Lombard). They have a string of hit plays together, and are lovers offstage as well, but their two clashing personalities eventually lead Lily to abandon Broadway and head to Hollywood where she becomes a major film star. Meanwhile, every new play Oscar puts on flops without Mildred, so when he learns that both he and Lily happen to be on the same train (the Twentieth Century, Ltd.), he's determined to get her to sign a contract for a new play to save his career. Also featuring Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly, Ralph Forbes, Charles Lane, Etienne Girardot, Dale Fuller, Edgar Kennedy, Billie Seward, Herman Bing, Gigi Parrish, and Fred "Snowflake" Toones.

Hawks has his performers go big and loud, and while oftentimes that can lead to audience headaches, here it works. This may be my favorite performance from John Barrymore, hammy but with purpose, and very, very funny. Lombard holds her own, as well, and does an excellent job balancing emotional truth and humorous exasperation. The supporting cast is an added bonus, with Karns and Connolly, as Barrymore's beleaguered employees/accomplices, both in fine form.    (8/10)

Source: TCM. 

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#8 Favorite Movie of 1934

The Gay Divorcee - Winning musical comedy from RKO and director Mark Sandrich. Fred Astaire is Guy Holden, a famous dancer and singer who meets Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers), with whom he promptly falls in love. There's one problem: Mimi is married, unhappily, but she's determined to get a divorce, so her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) secures the services of divorce attorney Pinky Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), who just happens to be best friends with Guy. They all head to Brighton where secrets, mistaken identities, and other mix-ups lead to laughter and love. Also featuring Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Betty Grable, William Austin, and Paul Porcasi.

Astaire and Rogers have tons of chemistry and make for terrific complimentary dance partners. My favorite numbers include "Let's Knock Knees" featuring a young Betty Grable coming on strong to Horton; "Night and Day", a very romantic piece, so much so that Fred offers Ginger a cigarette afterward; and the big closer "The Continental" which goes on for quite a while and which has a few sections, from synchronized dancers to Rhodes warbling through a verse with his Italian accent. Speaking of which, the supporting performers are all tremendous, including Rhodes, Horton, Brady and Blore, and they make the movie as enjoyable as the song and dance numbers do. Classy, witty. and charming, they don't make them like this anymore. This won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Song ("The Continental"), and it was nominated for Best Music, Score (Max Steiner), Best Sound Recording, Best Art Direction (Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark), and Best Picture. (8/10)

Source: Warners DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Astaire & Rogers. The bonus features include a few vintage shorts and a radio promo.

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