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LawrenceA

Top Ten Favorites Review

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I'm starting this thread to discuss the movies that I have previously picked as my top ten favorites from each year. After I rewatch them, I'll post a short review and make any comments or observations about my enjoyment of the films as well as any anecdotes or associated trivia bits. Feel free to comment on my choices, my reviews, or post your own reviews or comments about any of your favorite films that you've rewatched recently.

 

I've already posted my thoughts on my picks for the Silent Era (any movies made up to 1928) in the Silent section in the Genre Message Boards. I'll be starting this thread with my picks for 1929. A couple of comments beforehand, though: I was not able to find copies of all of my choices for my ten favorites of the year, so I'll only be rewatching six titles. Also, I've recently more than doubled the number of movies that I've seen from 1929, and a few of those titles would appear on my list were I to rewrite it. I'll list those titles here first, but since I just watched them, I won't review them again, as there are reviews of them elsewhere on the site, down in the Genre sections.

 

These are the titles that I could not secure a copy of to rewatch:

 

The Trespasser

The Letter

The Love Parade

Pandora's Box

 

These are the titles that I watched recently that would likely appear on an updated list:

 

The Mysterious Island

The Last Warning

The Great Gabbo

The Old and the New

A Cottage on Dartmoor

 

As for the rest of my original list of my top ten favorite films of 1929, the next would be...

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#6 Favorite Movie of 1929

 

Bulldog Drummond - Adaptation of H.C. "Sapper" McNeile's gentleman adventurer, from producer Samuel Goldwyn and director F. Richard Jones. Ronald Colman stars as Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, an English veteran of WW1 and man of leisure who grows bored and sets out, along with his friend Algy (Claude Allister) and valet Danny (Wilson Benge) to find adventure. And he finds it in the person of Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett), a desperate young woman who wants to help her Uncle John (Charles Sellon), who Phyllis believes is being mistreated at a hospital by a trio of shady characters. Also featuring Lilyan Tashman, Montagu Love, Lawrence Grant, and Gertrude Short.

 

Drummond had been brought to the screen 5 times before, but this was the biggest hit yet, as it marked the first sound version and Colman's first talkie. Few, if any, silent films stars transitioned as well to talkies as did Colman, with his fantastic, cultured voice. Here, he's witty, sharp, dashing, charming and charismatic. Joan Bennett, all of 19 years old at the time, is lovely and fragile, very dissimilar to her later hard-edged noir roles. And while Allister's performance as Algy may rub some viewers the wrong way, I find him humorous. This is light entertainment well done. This received Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Colman) and Best Art Direction.   7/10

 

Source: MGM VHS.

 

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#5 Favorite Movie of 1929

 

Woman In the Moon - Fritz Lang directed this "first scientifically-accurate science fiction film" based on a novel by his wife Thea von Harbou, and released by UFA. Adventurous entrepreneur Helius (Willy Fritsch) decides to build a rocket to the Moon based on the writings of the eccentric Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who believes that the Moon is rich with gold deposits. Also joining them on their voyage will be Helius's two assistants, Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Friede (Gerda Maurus), the latter of whom Helius secretly loves, despite her engagement to Windegger. The enterprise also involves the sinister American "Walter Turner" (Fritz Rasp), whose secret organization threatens to destroy their efforts unless "Turner" is allowed to travel with them. The astronauts also have a stowaway on board: a young boy named  Gustav (Gustl Gstettenbaur). Also featuring Tilla Durieux, Hermann Vallentin, Max Zilzer, and Karl Platen.

 

Despite the filmmakers' best efforts, there are many things shown here which have proven to be scientifically inaccurate, such as the Moon having a breathable atmosphere, but those issues are easily forgivable. The romantic triangle melodrama is routine stuff, and the evil organization is similar to several of Lang's previous films. I enjoy seeing the groundwork for future space travel movies being built, as you can see the influence this held on films like Destination Moon and the many Moon mission movies of the 1950s. The basic character set-up, with a few tweaks, would be the blueprint for TV's Lost In Space, with a father-figure, a mother-figure, another friendly adult male, a child, and an unwanted guest (Dr. Smith in the show, "Turner" in this film). Speaking of "Turner", the great German screen villain Fritz Rasp has one of his best roles here, and although his character is said to be an American, his look is markedly Nazi-like. At 169 minutes, this will try the patience of many viewers, but I like this early attempt at serious SF, even if the suppositions prove to not be entirely accurate.   7/10

 

Source: Kino Blu-Ray, with a 15-minute German making-of featurette included.

 

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#4 Favorite Movie of 1929

 

Blackmail - Alfred Hitchcock's first talkie is this moral dilemma drama from British International Pictures. Anny Ondra stars as Alice White, a fun-loving young woman who has grown bored with her current boyfriend, Scotland Yard Detective Frank Webber (John Longden). Alice decides to spend the evening out with charming artist (Cyril Ritchard), but when he tries to rape her, she kills him in self-defense. She leaves the place, but Frank finds her glove at the scene and tries to cover for her. Meanwhile, they are both approached by Tracy (Donald Calthrop), a low-rent sleazeball with an aim to blackmail them for money in exchange for his silence, as he witnessed Alice entering and exiting the artist's apartment. Also featuring Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, Hannah Jones, and Harvey Braban.

 

The decision to make this a talkie was made after production was already begun, and so some scenes were re-shot. There was one problem, though: star Ondra had a very thick Czech accent. Hitchcock resorted to having his leading lady mouth her lines while another actress read them into an off-camera microphone. This trouble aside, I thought Ondra gave a very good performance, expressing her fragile emotional state well with subtle facial moves. Calthrop, too, is good, especially during his self-assured scene buying a cigar. There are also a few good camera shots, including one that tracks up the side of a staircase being ascended by two characters, and there's an exciting finish at the British Museum.    7/10

 

Source: Mill Creek DVD, part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins set, featuring most of his silent and early sound movies.

 

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#3 Favorite Movie of 1929

 

The Cocoanuts - First feature for the Marx Brothers was this adaptation of the hit musical stage show featuring songs from Irving Berlin. Groucho Marx stars as Hammer, the manager of a shabby Florida beachfront hotel. Zeppo Marx plays Jamison, another hotel employee, while Chico and Harpo play a pair of lunatic ne'er-do-wells who set up shop in the hotel. There are a few sub-plots vying for time among the Brothers' lunacy, including a love story between Polly Potter (Mary Eaton) and Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), and a plan by a pair of shady characters (Kay Francis and Cyril Ring) to swipe a valuable necklace from hotel patron Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont). Also featuring Basil Ruysdael as Detective Hennessey. 

 

The Marx Brothers anarchic style is on fine display here, and this is one of my favorite unhinged Harpo performances. Groucho is already the king of wordplay and the quick verbal gag, and Chico has some great moments too. The love story is dull, though, as are Eaton and Shaw as the young lovers. Kay Francis is beautiful and compelling as the conniving wouldbe thief. Some sources list this as her first film, others as her second. The film had two directors, Robert Florey for the dialogue scenes and Joseph Santley for the musical numbers. The latter are a mixed bag, although interestingly depicted in a proto-Busby Berkeley manner. The print is a patchwork of the best possible material from a few different sources, so the quality varies greatly throughout the film, and over 7 minutes are thought to be lost altogether. I really liked rewatching this one, as the last few days have been a nerve-wracking pain with the Hurricane Irma preparations. I needed the laugh break! From Paramount Pictures.   8/10

 

Source: Universal DVD, as part of The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. There are a few late-life interviews included as extras.

 

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#2 Favorite Movie of 1929

 

Un Chien Andalou - Short film that's a collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. A man slices a woman's eyeball open with a straight razor. Ants crawl out from a hole in the palm of someone's hand. A woman languidly prods a severed hand on a busy sidewalk. A man's mouth disappears before being replaced by armpit hair. These are just a few of the bizarre, nonsensical moments in this 16 minute surreal masterpiece.

 

While the imagery is certainly striking, with moments of extreme violence and nudity, the reason that I regard this short film so highly, and why it's the only short film on my Top Ten Favorites lists, is because of the profound impact it had on me when I saw it for the first time. I was in my early 20's, and while I had read about this movie, I was uncertain if I would like it, as abstract "artsy stuff" wasn't my thing. The reason I bristled at this kind of art is because I had previously always looked for distinct meaning and purpose in art: the plot, the character, the emotional truth that the filmmaker was trying to convey. And it wasn't until I saw Un Chien Andalou that I realized that art did not have to have an inherent viewpoint, or serve a narrative purpose, or be any kind of preconceived notion of what a movie should be. Instead, art could be simply images filmed and edited in any way the filmmaker-as-artist wished, and the audience could draw from it what they wished, and that there were no right or wrong answers as to what the art should be saying. The same can be held true for abstract painting or sculpture or music or whatever else form it can take. That may seem like an obvious notion to many, but for me it was a revelation, and I've looked at art in a different way ever since. And if a film can fundamentally change the way you view the world, what higher praise can there be?   10/10

 

Source: transfluxfilms DVD, with an assortment of extras, including an interview with Bunuel's son, a transcript of a speech given by Bunuel in 1953, and audio commentary from "surrealism expert" Stephen Barber.

 

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#1 Favorite Movie of 1929

 

Man With a Movie Camera - Soviet director Dziga Vertov's "documentary" is more of a cinematic poem than a document. He uses exquisitely framed shots, rapid editing, and early special effects techniques to broadly paint a picture of life in a bustling city. As the film proudly, defiantly proclaims at the beginning, there is no plot, no script, no actors or sets, there are no intertitles (this is a silent film with music). This is meant to be experienced, not followed. For me, it is similar to Un Chien Andalou, in that it pushes the boundaries of what a movie can be. Obviously this won't appeal to a lot of casual film viewers, but for any interested in film history, the development and refinement of technique, or purely visual endeavors, they don't come any better than this.   10/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, with a score by Michael Nyman. There are also short text biographies of Vertov and Nyman.

 

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#10 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

The Big House - The prototypical prison movie, from MGM and director George Hill. Young Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is sent to "the Big House" (prison) on a ten-year stretch for manslaughter after he ran down a pedestrian while drunk driving. His two cellmates are slick forger John Morgan (Chester Morris) and thuggish brute "Machine Gun Butch" Schmidt (Wallace Beery). The terrified Marlowe seems to gravitate towards whomever will protect him more, be it fellow prisoners or the guards, so when Morgan has his parole canceled after a knife is found in his jacket, he believes it was planted by Marlowe and vows revenge. Morgan escapes, and tracks down Marlowe's sister Anne (Leila Hyams), but the nice girl forces Morgan to reevaluate his decisions. He eventually turns himself in to finish his stretch and be free and clear, and to also look out for Kent, who by now has fallen in with Schmidt and friends as they plan a violent escape attempt. Also featuring Lewis Stone, Roscoe Ates, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, DeWitt Jennings, and Karl Dane. 

 

I enjoyed this much more than my previous time watching it, and I appreciate the performances more, as well. This is one of Beery's best roles, looking especially menacing with his bald head. Montgomery is also good as the weak-willed Marlowe. The moral turnabout of Morris's character is a bit unbelievable, but typical of the cinema of the day. The crowd scenes are very impressive, as are the large indoor sets. In a case of "what might have been", Lon Chaney Sr. had originally been cast in the Schmidt role, and he would have been amazing in it, I think. But his terminal illness struck, and the role went to Beery, whose carer by this point was thought to be nearly finished, as his contract had been dropped when sound came into vogue. When this became a huge hit, it jump-started his career once again, and he would be the highest paid star in the world a couple of years later. This was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Beery), and won the Oscars for Best Sound and Best Writing (Frances Marion).   8/10

 

Source: MGM VHS.

 

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#9 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

Earth - aka Zemlya, silent Soviet/Ukrainian collectivist farming propaganda from director Aleksandr Dovzhenko. The meager plot follows a group of peasant Ukrainian grain farmers, led by the young and charismatic Basil (Semyon Svashenko), who decide to forgo the old ways that seem to only benefit the wealthy kulaks, and to modernize and collectivize their efforts. This leads to violent reprisal, but a new awakening for those who survive. Also featuring Stepan Shkurat, Yuliya Solntseva, Yelena Maksimova, Nikolai Nademsky, and Pyotr Masokha.

 

Much like Eisenstein's Old and New (1929), this is another triumph of style and technique over substance. There is a lot of visual poetry here, from the wind moving through the tall grass, to the rugged faces of the peasants, to the stellar montage sequence showing the grain from harvest to the actual bread that it eventually becomes. One segment that always strikes me as indelible is a sequence of Basil doing a joyous dance down an empty, dusty, darkened street, accompanied on the score by sinister and foreboding music.   8/10

 

Source: Kino DVD. Also included on the disc are Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Chess Fever (1925).

 

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#8 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

Morocco - Sand-swept romantic drama from Paramount Pictures and director Josef von Sternberg. Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) is a "vaudeville performer" fresh off the boat in the title locale. Her gender-bending nightclub act, involving her in a man's top hat and tails singing throaty songs laced with double entendres, is scandalous, but it draws the attention of Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a French Foreign Legionnaire. The two begin an affair, but they both know it is doomed to fail, as he can never settle down. Amy is also wooed by the wry, dissolute Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), but all of his money and sophistication can't compete with Tom's animal magnetism. Also featuring Ullrich Haupt, Eve Southern, Francis McDonald, Emile Chautard, and Paul Porcasi.

 

As with most of von Sternberg's films, the cinematography (by Lee Garmes and an uncredited Lucien Ballard) is exquisite, with expert use of light and shadow. There are also interesting shot compositions, like having a dangling, illuminated light bulb in the foreground. The sets are highly detailed, but the film has a distinct studio quality that, while divorcing the action from harsh reality, also adds a layer of dream-like reverie. Cooper is adequate, if a bit clumsy, and Menjou is perfect, in one of his better underplayed roles. But this is Dietrich's show all the way, and she owns it like few can.

 

I'm in the process of reading a Dietrich biography, and I read how much promotion went into this film to help create the aura and mystique of "Marlene Dietrich". The Blue Angel was shot first but had not yet been shown in the US, so this would be her introduction to American audiences. And while the studio did its best to manufacture a star, it wouldn't have worked if Dietrich didn't also have "It", that indefinable star-quality. She's sexy, mysterious, vulnerable yet strong, and she had an allure that attracted both sexes. The pre-code dialogue is a riot, as well: fellow soldier to Cooper: "What are you doing with your fingers?" Cooper: "Nothing...yet." as he spies some veiled women. Later, Cooper to Dietrich: "Two weeks pay is a lot of money for an apple". Dietrich: "You can have it for nothing, if you like." Cooper: "Nothing doing. I always pay for what I get". And then there's the terrific ending, one of the most haunting in the pre-code era. This was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress (Dietrich), Best Director (von Sternberg), Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier), and Best Picture, but it failed to win any.   8/10

 

Source: Universal DVD (Vault Series).

 

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#7 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

The Divorcee - Boundary-pushing pre-code melodrama from MGM and director Robert Z. Leonard. Norma Shearer stars as Jerry, a high society girl who decides to settle down and marry the handsome Ted (Chester Morris). But when Jerry later learns of Ted's promiscuous past, she has a fling with their drunken friend Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted learns of it, he's furious, but instead of being contrite, Jerry tells him off, ending with the immortal line, "From now on my door will be open to every man but you!" Also featuring Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Helene Millard, Robert Elliott, and Mary Doran.

 

This is a case where repeat viewings have increased my appreciation. I watched this the first time simply because it was an Oscar winner, and I found it dull and stilted. However, when I watched it again after getting it on disc, I liked it much more, and grew to respect Shearer's performance. She's never been a favorite of mine, but her proto-feminist, sexually-liberated Jerry is quite a contrast to many of the big screen women of the time. I was also impressed by Conrad Nagel, never one of the more compelling actors to my mind, but here he brought a haunted quality that made him stand out. Shearer won the Best Actress Oscar, and the movie was also nominated for Best Director (Leonard), Best Writing (John Meehan), and Best Picture.   8/10

 

Source: Warner Brothers DVD, part of the Forbidden Hollywood  Volume Two set.

 

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#6 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

Under the Roofs of Paris - Charming French pseudo-musical romance with crime drama touches from director Rene Clair. Albert (Albert Prejean) sells sheet music on the street, singing the latest hit tunes as his sales pitch (his performances, as well as the crowd singalongs that he initiates, comprise the musical aspect of the film). Albert meets immigrant Pola (Pola Illery), and their tentative steps towards romance are detailed. Things get off track when Pola's former beau, tough-guy crook Fred (Gaston Modot), gets Albert involved with criminal shenanigans. Also featuring Edmond Greville, Bill Bocket, and Thomy Bourdelle.

 

Sound isn't regularly discussed when speaking of films, but it is intrinsic to this film's appeal. Director Clair was not enamored of the new talkie "fad", and bristled at making a sound film. So he compensated by using music, dialogue and sound effects in clever and sparse ways. A nearby train's horn drowns out the sound of a street fight. The sound of breaking glass spikes the suspense in a scene. The noise from closely packed apartment houses are shut out with a closed window or door. Besides the audio tricks involved, the film is also a sweetly artificial depiction of lower-class Parisian fringe people, those struggling to make ends meet and those ready to prey on them.   8/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, with bonus features including a deleted scene, a circa-1966 interview with Clair, and Clair's 1924 short film Paris qui dort aka Paris Asleep.

 

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#5 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

Up the River - Prison comedy from Fox and director John Ford. Saint Louis (Spencer Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) are repeat residents in our nation's penitentiaries. Their latest stint sees them incarcerated with nice-guy inmate Steve Jordan (Humphrey Bogart), who's doing a stretch for manslaughter. The men's prison is next door to a women's prison, which is how trustee Steve meets female inmate Judy Fields (Claire Luce). The two fall in love, and when Steve is paroled, he begins making plans to marry Judy upon her release. However, Judy's con-man former partner Frosby (Morgan Wallace) threatens to expose the couple's past to Steve's wealthy family. Saint Louis and Dan break out of prison to help Steve set things right. Also featuring William Collier Sr., Joan Lawes, Bob Burns, Edythe Chapman, Harvey Clark, Noel Francis, Althea Henley, Sharon Lynn, Goodee Montgomery, and Ward Bond.

 

Here's a case where repeat viewing diminishes my opinion of the movie. This was Tracy and Bogart's feature film debuts, and coupled with direction by John Ford, this may have overwhelmed me with its pedigree alone. Watching it again, it's uneven, with some bad writing, cringeworthy racial moments, but a few bright spots, too. Tracy and Hymer's relationship is amusing, and Hymer is pretty funny throughout. Bogart doesn't impress much, and it's hard to judge him without his future persona overshadowing things. The quality of the print is also dubious, with the company even putting a disclaimer before the film warning that this is as good as it gets. There are many frames missing, so some scenes seem to skip every third word of dialogue. But I suppose we should just be grateful there's anything left at all to see. In my updated Top Ten list, this won't be included.  7/10

 

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

 

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#4 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

The Blue Angel - Josef von Sternberg traveled to Germany to make this allegorical drama for producer Erich Pommer and UFA. Emil Jannings stars as Professor Rath, an uptight high school teacher and moral disciplinarian. When he finds some racy pictures on one of his students, he learns that they came from a sleazy night club called the Blue Angel. He goes there ostensibly to chase away any students (and there are a few), but when he sees headlining singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich), he is instantly infatuated with her. The rest of the film details his downfall as he allows his obsession with Lola to destroy everything he was. Also featuring Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, and Karl Huszar-Puffy.

 

This was not Dietrich's first film. She had been acting in German films, mostly in minor roles, for years, to little notice. But von Sternberg saw her acting in a play and cast her against the producer's wishes. This was an instant sensation in Germany, met with rapturous applause, and led to Dietrich's signing with Paramount and moving to the US, where she and von Sternberg managed to film Morroco before the year was out, and before this film was released in America. She is sensational, fleshier than usual, and less affected. Though tame by today's standards, she was seen as the epitome of unbridled female carnality at the time. Jannings is also good as the blustery professor, a stand-in for old Germany, while Lola represents the debauchery of the Weimar Republic, and the professor's dissolution the expected fate of Germany if things continued as they were. But we know how that really turned out. This shows less of von Sternberg's technical bravura than his later Dietrich collaborations, but it still manages a decayed grotesqueness inside the title locale.   8/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, on 2 discs, one the English language version, the other the German one. I prefer the slightly longer German version. There's also audio commentary, Dietrich's screen test, an interview with her, and footage of her performing in stage.

 

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#3 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

Animal Crackers - Anarchic musical comedy from the Marx Brothers, directed by Victor Heerman and released by Paramount Pictures. Society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) is hosting a lavish party at her posh Long Island mansion. The guest of honor is Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho Marx), a famed explorer just returned from a journey through Africa. There is also to be a showing of a valuable painting procured by Roscoe Chandler (Louis Sorin). Music is to be provided by Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his partner the Professor (Harpo Marx). There are various shenanigans related to a plot to replace the painting with a duplicate. Also featuring Zeppo Marx, Lillian Roth, Hal Thompson, Margaret Irving, Kathryn Reece, Robert Grieg, Edward Metcalfe, and Fredi Washington.

 

Like the previous The Cocoanuts (1929), this was based on a stage show, and some elements of that survive in the performers "breaking the fourth wall" and directing lines at the audience/camera. The Brothers are all fantastic. Groucho gets to say his famous "elephant in my pajamas" joke, while Chico has a great bit at the piano. Harpo is deliriously unhinged. And Dumont's contribution as the target of many of Groucho's gags is also worth noting. This may run just a tad long, and the young-love B-plot is a waste, but this is prime Marx Brothers mayhem.   8/10

 

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

 

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#2 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

L'Age d'Or - Director Luis Bunuel's surrealist attack on bourgeois French society. After a bizarre introduction involving scorpions, old Catholic bishops sitting by the seashore, and a cadre of lame militants, the film follows a man (Gaston Modot) as he continuously, unsuccessfully tries to have sex with a young woman (Lya Lys) with something always interrupting them. Also featuring Caridad de Laberdesque, Lionel Salem, Germaine Noizet, and Max Ernst.

 

While Bunuel flirted with it in his previous Un Chien Andalou, he truly sets his sights on organized religion, particularly the Catholic church, beginning a long history of censorship battles. Bunuel's assertion here is that the church and modern society have stifled and repressed human sexuality to the point that it has started breeding senseless violence. And there are some shockingly violent moments, like a small boy getting shot (twice) and a cross festooned in the scalps of women. But don't let that give you the wrong impression; much like his previous outing, this is very funny, even if the comedy is of the absurd variety.   9/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, featuring audio commentary and a stills gallery.

 

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#1 Favorite Movie of 1930

 

All Quiet On the Western Front - Magnificent anti-war film from Universal and director Lewis Milestone. A group of young Germans, including Paul (Lew Ayres), eagerly join the army to fight in World War One. But life in the trenches turns out not to be the glorious revelry that they expected, but instead a place of hunger, filth, misery and death. The men learn to fight for each other under the rough-edged guidance of grizzled veteran Kat (Louis Wolheim). Also featuring John Wray, Slim Summerville, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis Jr., Walter Rogers, and Beryl Mercer.

 

This is truly a towering achievement, one of the greatest war and anti-war films ever made. The relationships between the soldiers are expertly drawn, and all of the war-time archetypes are represented, from the blustering coward, to the shell-shocked mental case. Ayres is perfectly cast as the naive Paul whose entire worldview is torn asunder by his experiences, and Wolheim gives the definitive performance of his too-short career. The battle scenes are thunderous and suspenseful, and often shocking. One startling moment shows a soldier approaching a wire barricade only to be hit by a mortar shell, and when the smoke clears the only things left are his dismembered hands still clutching the wire. The ending ranks as one of the most poetically devastating in film history. This earned Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Ayres) and Best Writing (George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews), and it won for Best Director (Milestone) and Best Picture.  10/10

 

Source: Universal Blu Ray, a remarkable edition featuring the finest picture quality I've ever seen from a movie this old. The DVD of the film is also included, as is a very nice booklet detailing the film's production, with biographical sketches of the actors involved, and reproductions of lobby cards and Universal office memos discussing the film's making. Included on the Blu Ray is the rarely seen silent version of the film, featuring a unique score, and an introduction by Robert Osborne.

 

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#10 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

The Front Page - Fast-paced newspaper comedy based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from producer Howard Hughes and director Lewis Milestone. Sharp-witted newspaper editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) has a big story to cover, a scheduled execution of a convicted killer, and he wants his top reporter, Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien), to cover it. But Hildy is tired of the high-stress, low-pay work of a reporter, and he's getting married to sweet girl Peggy Grant (Mary Brian). Burns tries every trick in the book to get Johnson to the prison to cover the story, which gets more complicated than any imagined. Also featuring Edward Everett Horton, Mae Clarke, George E. Stone, Frank McHugh, Slim Summerville, Walter Catlett, Matt Moore, Clarence Wilson, and Gustav von Seyffertitz.

 

The dialogue moves at breakneck speed, and the unprepared viewer may be left dazed. Regardless, the lines are funny, the assembled character actors are terrific, and the story works well enough to inspire many remakes in the years since. The drawbacks include a stageyness to some of it, and a very hit-or-miss sound quality. This was nominated for Oscars for Best Actor (Menjou), Best Director (Milestone), and Best Picture.   7/10

 

Source: Kino DVD, featuring audio commentary by film historian Bret Wood, a short documentary on the film's preservation, and two audio-only radio adaptations, one from 1937, the other 1946.

 

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#9 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

Little Caesar - Warner Brothers got the gangster genre roaring with this effort from director Mervyn LeRoy. Edward G. Robinson stars as "Little Caesar" aka Rico, a mean and ambitious young hood newly arrived in the city with his pal Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Joe wants to leave the crooked life and go legit as a dancer, meeting a willing partner in Olga (Glenda Farrell). But Rico only has eyes for the top of the rackets, so he goes to work for mid-level boss Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), beginning his fast, bullet-riddled ascent. Also featuring Sidney Blackmer, George E. Stone, William Collier Jr., Ralph Ince, Thomas E. Jackson, Maurice Black, and Lucille La Verne.

 

Rico was based on Chicago gangster Al Capone, and with this role Robinson became a star, and forever associated with the genre. There's a lot of interesting editing work here, especially during a hold-up scene at a nightclub. The script, by Francis Edwards Faragoh, Robert N. Lee, and an uncredited Darryl F. Zanuck, is a little lean on character details, but it keeps the action moving at a fast pace. While I view this as the weakest of the big 3 gangster pictures (along with The Public Enemy and Scarface), it still holds a lot of distinctive charm. The movie earned an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Adaptation (Faragoh & Lee).   8/10

 

Source: Warners DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection. Bonus features include vintage trailers, a featurette on the film, commentary by film historian Richard B. Jewell, an introduction from the 1954 re-release, a new Leonard Maltin intro, a vintage newsreel, and live-action & animated short subjects.

 

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#8 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

Dracula - Universal began their horror film cycle with this adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel and the play by John L. Balderston & Hamilton Dean, directed by Tod Browning. British solicitor Renfield (Dwight Frye) travels to Transylvania to finalize a land purchase by the reclusive Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), who turns out to be an ancient undead monster. The now-insane Renfield and his vampiric master travel back to England, where Dracula begins to prey on society girls Lucy (Frances Dade) and Mina (Helen Chandler), much to the annoyance of Mina's fiancee Jonathan (David Manners) and parapsychologist Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Also featuring Herbert Bunston, Joan Standing, Charles K. Gerrard, and Carla Laemmle.

 

Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. made a gamble that there was an audience for horror films and he proved to be right, with this becoming a big hit and starting the first horror boom. Lugosi, who had played the role on stage, became the definitive Dracula, with his image as the creature still influencing the cultural perception. I'm also a fan of Van Sloan as Van Helsing, and especially of Frye as the demented Renfield. I also like the eerie sequences in the broken down Castle Dracula in the film's first third, and the shots of "bizarre" animals, such as possums and armadillos, are amusing. I do have some problems with the film, such as the stagey framing (left over from the play), some listless and uninspired performances by some of the cast (Chandler, Dade and Manners), and a surprising lack of real style. I would have thought Browning would have done more with this material, judging by his silent films, but perhaps the hindrance of the new sound equipment thwarted that. I still wonder what someone like Rowland Lee could have done with the film.   8/10

 

Source: Universal Blu Ray, the Dracula Complete Legacy Collection, featuring 6 additional Universal Dracula films, as well as a documentary, The Road to Dracula, commentaries, a Lugosi bio, and many vintage trailers.

 

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#7 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

Monkey Business - Pure lunacy from the Marx Brothers in this first outing not based on one of their stage musicals, from Paramount Pictures and director Norman Z. McLeod. The boys, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo (they don't even bother with character names this time out) are stowaways on a luxury cruise ship, and when the crew discovers them, it's mayhem as they run to and fro around the vessel attempting to avoid capture, causing a commotion wherever they go. They eventually make it to port, where the boys end up at a fancy party complete with gangsters and beautiful dames in peril. Also featuring Thelma Todd, Rockliffe Fellowes, Harry Woods, Ruth Hall, Tom Kennedy, and Cecil Cunningham.

 

The script from S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone is chock full of verbal and physical gags that reward repeat viewings. Groucho gets to be more physically wild, coupled with his usual witty one-liners. Chico is terrific, and Harpo is still the most brazenly bizarre, and his girl-chasing gag is continued from the previous two Marx Brothers films. Zeppo is given more to do finally, but it still doesn't amount to much. This was reportedly banned in some countries for "promoting anarchy"!   8/10

 

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

 

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#6 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

Marius - The first installment in Marcel Pagnol's Marseille Trilogy, directed by Alexander Korda. The film follows the lives and loves of a small group of people who live and work on the waterfront of Marseille. Young Marius (Pierre Fresnay) works at the small cafe of his blustering father Cesar (Raimu), but he longs for the freedom and adventure of the sea. Fanny (Orane Demazis) is in love with Marius, and hopes to wed him, while she in turn is wooed by the old but comfortably secure Panisse (Fernand Charpin). Also featuring Alida Rouffe, Paul Dullac, Alexandre Mihalesco, Robert Vattier, and Edouard Delmont.

 

This is a character study, with a light plot, but frequent, rapid-fire conversation, often seeming to go nowhere but really serving to illuminate the inner selves of the speakers. Raimu is fantastic as the loud, gruff and opinionated Cesar, often displaying a naturalism that is years ahead of American film acting. Fresnay and Demazis make for splendid young lovers, each searching for their direction. Pagnol, who originally wrote and staged this, very successfully, for theater, has been accused of gently mocking these characters for their provincialism, but I don't think so, as I rather see the script as celebrating these real characters, in the true sense of the word, without thought toward malice.   8/10

 

Source: Criterion Blu Ray, featuring a spectacular remastering job, as well as bonus features like an introduction by director Bertrand Tavernier, an interview with Pagnol's grandson, and a "visual essay" by Pagnol's biographer.

 

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#5 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

The Public Enemy - Warner Brothers gangster classic that made James Cagney a star, from director William Wellman. Cagney stars as Tom Powers, a tough kid who grew up angry and crooked, eventually falling in with bootleggers and racketeers. He and his best pal Matt (Edward Woods) start to live the good life, hooking up with dames like the classy Gwen (Jean Harlow) and the saucy Mamie (Joan Blondell), but their criminal ways infuriate Tom's brother Mike (Donald Cook) and their long suffering mother (Beryl Mercer). Also featuring Leslie Fenton, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Murray Kinnell, Frankie Darro, Snitz Edwards, and Mae Clarke.

 

The two roles of Tom and Matt were originally swapped, with Cagney in the supporting role, but after impressing the producers in other films, his role was switched to the main centerpiece. And what a role. Few actors illuminated the screen with such "heat" like Cagney does here, a crackling spark plug of menace and unpredictability, spitting out his lines like he's in a race. The famous grapefruit-in-the-face to Mae Clarke is just one instance of his outrageous behavior, and I have to admit that of all of the big gangster movies of the period, this is the one that makes the thug look attractive. Rico (Edward G. Robinson) in Little Caesar and Paul Muni in Scarface are unappealing in a way, wearing their immorality on their sleeves, coming across as animalistic brutes. But Cagney as Tom Powers seems like a dangerous yet likable guy that I imagine certain men wanting to emulate. Blondell is adorable, while Harlow is odd, seemingly miscast, but leaving an impression regardless. The ending is appropriately dark. This earned an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Original Story (John Bright, Kubec Glasmon).   8/10

 

Source: Warners DVD, part of the TCM Greatest Gangster Films. The disc includes a short documentary on the film's making and subsequent impact, commentary by historian Robert Sklar, an introduction by Leonard Maltin, and vintage newsreel, cartoon, and live-action shorts.

 

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#4 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

City Lights - Charlie Chaplin stays silent with this comedy masterpiece. He once again plays the Tramp, that amiable fellow down on his luck, who bumps into a lovely Blind Girl (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. She can't see his decrepit state and assumes that he is wealthy, a ruse that he goes along with. The Tramp also runs into a drunken suicidal Millionaire (Harry Myers), and after saving his life, the two go on a wild adventure. The Tramp is determined to help out the Blind Girl however he can, even if it means he has to participate in a boxing match. Also featuring Florence Lee, Allan Garcia, and Hank Mann.

 

Chaplin spent nearly two years just on principal photography. His perfectionism paid off though, as the film doesn't have a wrong beat in it, and the end result is a deceptively simple comedy with ingenious gags and earned emotional moments, including the justly lauded ending. Chaplin's insistence on staying silent doesn't hinder the proceedings at all, and in fact add to the film's charm. This would make a perfect introduction to silent film for new viewers, as there is still a synchronized score and sound effects. I was even more impressed with this latest viewing than ever before, and have raised it up a point.   10/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, featuring commentary by biographer Jeffrey Vance, 2 documentaries covering the film's making and Chaplin's private studios, and excerpts from early short films and vintage behind-the-scenes footage. There's also a lengthy booklet included in the insert.

 

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#3 Favorite Movie of 1931

 

A Nous la Liberte - Unique French musical comedy from director Rene Clair. Louis (Raymond Carmody) and Emile (Henri Marchand) are cellmates in prison. They attempt a daring escape, but only Louis makes it to freedom, while Emile is quickly re-captured and returned to his cell. Meanwhile, Louis creates a new identity, getting a job in a record store, and after several years becomes the wealthy head of a giant record company. Emile is released from prison and unknowingly gets a job in Louis's assembly line factory. When the two finally encounter each other again, it causes Louis to reassess his life and long for freedom from the pressures of his position. Emile also pines for beautiful co-worker Jeanne (Rolla France). Also featuring Paul Ollivier, Jacques Shelly, Andre Michaud, and Germaine Aussey.

 

Clair continues his singular use of sound that featured in his previous works Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) and Le Million (31). Characters break into song refrains,while sometimes the same song is heard on the soundtrack with no one singing it. In one scene, a song is heard, and Emile thinks the sound is coming from a flower, then from the girl near the flower, only for it to actually be from a nearby phonograph. Clair seems very critical of modern society in this film, from the dehumanized mechanization of the assembly work shown to mirror that of prison laborers, to a scene with an old politician giving a speech that no one listens to; rather, they are all wildly chasing after paper money being blown about by the wind (the out-of-touch government prattles on while the citizenry are too busy chasing after the almighty dollar). The film is joyfully anti-establishment, a cheerful rebuke of the stifling modern age. This actually nabbed an Oscar nomination, a rarity for a foreign film at this time, for Best Art Direction (Lazare Meerson).   9/10

 

Source: Criterion DVD, featuring deleted scenes, an interview with Clair's widow, an audio essay detailing the plagiarism lawsuit later filed by the film's producer against Chaplin and his Modern Times, and Clair's breakthrough 1924 short film Entr'acte.

 

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