Top Ten Movies: 1934

the-scarlett-empress

What a searing affair was the collaboration between the manic sensibilities of Josef von Sternberg and his willful ceramic muse. So much so that for 1934 it’s managed to knock off a deceitfully ground-surging masterwork, buoyant in its simplicity and tenderness as opposed to any rush of impact. But L’Atalante gets enough exaltations without me adding histrionics, so the hell with it. The Scarlet Empress blights with monstrosity in comparison. It’s a culmination of its mad creator’s delusions, clawing its way into abstractness. Sternberg had long discarded plot as superfluous, but now with this elevated deification of Dietrich he throws out whatever shred of reason that had previously tamed his seething obsession. He uses Catherine the Great as a pretense to shroud his frame with gaudy ornateness, tarnishing the past in a maneuvered playing field to heighten the lurid. Gothic backdrops layered in countless shadows, casts of caricatures all sneers and insinuations, and of course, Marlene Dietrich at the helm of it all, spotlighted as a nymph hovering above the mud-work so as not to dirty up her hem. This would all inevitably collapse unto itself; but for one brief torrid moment the nitrate blazed and blistered. The rest, while strong-footed, run miles behind the likes of these two movies.

1. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg)
2. L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
3. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra)
4. The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
5. La signora di tutti (Max Ophüls)
6. The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch)
7. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock)
8. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer)
9. Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)
10. Judge Priest (John Ford)

A lot of comedies opening the flood gates for screwball with It Happened One Night banging the drum and rousing up the herd. This would undoubtedly be the genre’s decade. Then there’s early solid works by masters in the, if not already, making. Just take a gander at Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much or Max Ophüls’ La signora di tutti and tell me you don’t agree. Okay, the latter might actually be hard to find, which is unforgiving at our modern home movie release rate, but you get my drill. Then there’s Judge Priest, archaic in a snow-globe quaint fashion, but overseeing its datedness and understanding the context and intentions of the time, it’s still got Will Rogers at his most charming, and that’s saying a lot! The Black Cat is good old Universal horror macabre and my pick of preference over Lugosi in Dracula and Karloff in Frankenstein. But two cents, after all, are two cents. It’s too bad it had to come out the same year as Empress.

Those nibbling at the ends include W.C. Fields hating children in It’s a Gift, Astaire, Rogers, and company dancing night and day in The Gay Divorcee, Busby Berkeley kaleidoscoping (?) – hell, I’m trying – in Dames, Robert Flaherty hitting the shores in Man of Aran, which I would probably include if I ever watch in a decent print, and two honorable mentions, honorable in that I’ve yet to watch them, with King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread and Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess. Then there’s also Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now?, a great and under-appreciated tiny classic that was so tiny I forgot to add it above, so be on the look out.

Top Ten Movies: 1935

1935 The 39 Steps 4

The year could have easily gone to one of the most iconic of all monster movies, a film that’s a culmination of sorts for the Universal horror genre by daring to subvert its bold subtextual material under the censor’s noses. The year could have also gone to Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s seventh and final collaboration together, which isn’t as subtle as Bride in its attempt to portray a feverishly charged love triangle. But 1935 also happened to be the year that Alfred Hitchcock took full form with The 39 Steps. Hitchcock had already made a number of remarkable thrillers up to that point, but nothing as perfectly honed as this chase around rural Scotland that’s about as “Hitchcockian” a movie as you can get. From the beautiful locales and expressionistic sets shot in detailed precision, to the fleshed out supporting characters that are as complex as the two leads, the movie’s a textbook example about how to film suspense the right way. What’s incredible is that when you boil down to it, The 39 Steps is still exhilarating and entertaining today. Because no matter how analytical one can get, the movies are first and foremost… movies. And quite the movie this one is.

1. The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
3. The Devil is a Woman (Joseph von Sternberg)
4. Toni (Jean Renoir)
5. Alice Adams (George Stevens)
6. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey) and A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)
7. The Informer (John Ford)
8. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl)
9. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
10. Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor)

Toni is a small masterpiece by Renoir that’s all the more endearing because of it, not to mention another film that captures the quaint and quiet beauty of the countryside. Alice Adams is a lesser known Katharine Hepburn title that painfully tugs at your heartstrings the way her eyes swell up and her voice shakes in her normally sturdy exterior. Then there’s Hepburn again in Sylvia Scarlett and all its peculiarities that seem admirable today but disastrous when the film was first released. And if you haven’t watched Ruggles of Red Gap, then you need to watch Ruggles of Red Gap, a light comedy that’s refreshingly different by proving that middle-aged actors could make for perfect screwball leads just as much as a Cary Grant or Carole Lombard.

And speaking of Lombard, films that missed the cut include her rags to riches then back to rags again comedy Hands Across the Table. Gary Cooper and Ann Harding’s love literally glistened in Peter Ibbetson. Sacha Guitry had the Lubitsch-like Bonne Chance! And John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend and The Whole Town’s Talking completed his rather prolific year, which might as well could be a discussion about his whole career while we’re at it (seriously, the man had over 100 movies to his name. Over 100 movies!)

Something I’d like to note. It’s strange to place a musical like Top Hat right next to Triumph of the Will. But as horrific as Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film is, there’s no denying its brilliance in manipulation and its groundbreaking methods of composition and editing that have become templates for documentary filmmaking ever since. The same could also be said of her next film, Olympia, three years later. Truly surreal works of art… surreal in that one doesn’t know just where to place them exactly. So at number eight Triumph goes.

It’ll be spotty from here on onward but if I could get at least two posts a month then I’ll consider my blogging project a very VERY slow success. So next time expect the year 2014. Seems just like yesterday, doesn’t it?