By Brian Saur
The 1930s was a very fascinating time for cinema and I feel like I had written the period off a bit as "too old to be good," outside of a few classics, until I really started to dive in and explore just how much goodness the decade had to offer. The fact that the production code was not fully in place until nearly midway through the ‘30s makes for an interesting before-and-after contrast, but the freewheeling nature of Hollywood in this period can be felt, especially in its comedies. Here are a few gems that I feel like may need a little more attention.
Suggested by a story by the great Edgar Allen Poe, this is easily one of the weirdest movies that both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi ever had the pleasure of being a part of. After a bus crash, a young honeymooning couple in Hungary finds themselves taken to the home of a weirdo (Karloff) to tend to the injuries the wife has incurred. They happened to have been traveling with a doctor who was on his way to see the weirdo based on a longstanding vendetta they have with each other. As the story unfolds, we come to understand the history these two characters have and just how strange things have gotten over the years at Karloff's place.
I won't go any further in attempting to explain the plot, as it just needs to be experienced. Just know that it is from director Edgar G. Ulmer who also did the film noir classic DETOUR, but this is his moody Universal Horror flick. I first discovered the film through Danny Peary's Cult Movies 3 and even talked about it on our episode of The Pure Cinema Podcast covering books.
One of the most heartbreaking films of the 1930s and an intriguing entry in the filmography of Leo McCarey, who was somewhat known for his more comedic efforts like THE AWFUL TRUTH, RUGGLES OF RED GAP, and of course DUCK SOUP with the Marx Brothers. MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW tells the tell of an old couple who have run into some financial hardships and been forced to live with their fairly ungrateful and fairly awful children. They even have to be split up and live separately from each other, which is quite sad. In one of the most devastating scenes in the film, the old woman takes a phone call from her husband, who she hasn't seen in some time, in the living room of one of her kids while they are having a bridge night and being particularly loud.
McCarey injects moments of humor and affection throughout, but overall the film plays as a powerful drama that leaves you positively moved. In fact, so powerful was the impact of this film that it inspired Japanese master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu to make one of his masterpieces in TOKYO STORY. This one was unavailable for some time, but Criterion finally grabbed it and put it out in a wonderful edition.
This one may be a little less underrated than the others on this list - partially because of the cast - which is headlined by Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Considering that it was directed by George Cukor, who did several classics with Hepburn - including THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and a few with her and Spencer Tracy (ADAM'S RIB, PAT AND MIKE) - I feel like this one gets a little overlooked and it is one of his best.
Basically, Cary Grant's character is a free spirit who has fallen for a rich girl. He goes to meet her family and when he tells them about his plan to leave his job and take a year off to travel around the world (while he's young and can enjoy and learn from the experience), he is met with skepticism from most of the rich girl's family except her eccentric sister (Hepburn) and oddball brother (Lew Ayres). A delightlful romantic tale and one I even prefer to PHILADELPHIA STORY in terms of the Cary Grant and Heburn films.
A Lubitsch film written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder?! It is shocking to me that a movie with such a pedigree, both in terms of the writing and directing and the cast, is not better known, but that will make it all the more fun for others to discover. Just as wonderful as you'd hope it would be. Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper are just outstanding. Add to that David Niven and Edward Everett Horton! Such a delight!
Another from the dynamite Brackett and Wilder writing team, this one also stars Claudette Colbert - this time as a chorus girl stranded in Paris who runs into a cab driver (Don Ameche) who decides to take pity on her (she is broke) and help her find her way in the city. There's some fun screwball shenanigans here that she becomes involved in - concerning a millionaire and his wife, but I'll leave those for the viewers to encounter on their own. Just know that with Wilder and Brackett at the helm in terms of dialogue and plot, it is a lot of fun to watch and quite a hoot. One of my favorite romantic films from this period.
Brian Saur is a podcaster and blogger from Los Angeles that specializes in cult and classic films. He is co-host of the Pure Cinema Podcast and also produces and hosts another show called Just the Discs, which focuses on Blu-rays. He has run the Rupert Pupkin Speaks website since its inception in 2009 and continues to highlight obscure cinematic gems there on a regular basis. Follow him on Twitter (@bobfreelander, @justthediscspod, @purecinemapod), Facebook, or Instagram for more film recommendations.