By Greg Boone
Hello again, fellow film lovers.
This month, we are focusing on films from the thirties. I have to say that this is one of the most intriguing decades in all of cinema. There is SO much going on! Not until the sixties will we see such change again.
We have audiences seeking an escape from a backdrop of the Great Depression as well as the build-up to World War II throughout the decade. We see spy movies and monster movies come of age. We see prohibition end in 1933. Censorship (The Hays Code) is enforced heavily beginning in mid-1934, and Hollywood has to figure out how to make movies without sex and violence overnight. Five years later, 1939, is now widely recognized as possibly the greatest year in film history. So, yeah, it’s a doozy of a decade, and I love to visit it.
In the pre-code era, 1930 to mid-1934, there was very little censorship in film. Many people know that censorship ended in the mid-sixties, but don’t realize that we have this little treasure trove of movies in the early thirties from BEFORE censorship! There were murderers, gangsters, bootleggers, hookers, gay characters, sex, violence, you name it. It’s all there. Granted, the equipment is primitive and the acting is still overdone as the actors try to get the silent film style of overacting out of their systems, but stories and the ART are there. Sit back and enjoy practically any film from this period. I’ll pick a few here, but this is just scratching the surface.
A Cecil B. Demille classic. See the naked milk bath! The lustful erotic writhing dancer! The thinly veiled homoerotic moments! Add in gruesome arena deaths and it’s all here, along with the struggle between the Romans and Christians.
A very early Barbara Stanwyck film. She literally sleeps her way from being prostituted by her father to the top of a high-rise business in the big city! One of the films most responsible for the institution of the code. This film was so hot that even the weak censorship at the time made them make a few changes. Given a choice, be sure to watch the prerelease version, NOT the original theatrical release.
Jean Harlow manipulates all the weak-willed men she can in order to achieve her goals. Some very clever writing here.
An unlikely marriage of broadway musical and the subject of the Great Depression. Featuring The Forgotten Man and Pettin’ in the Park. No wonder this movie was so popular at the time. We also have early Busby Berkeley choreographing as only he can. Another movie pushing the boundaries at the time. The players must make the show succeed, otherwise girls will “have to do things I wouldn’t want on my conscience…” as one character puts it. Pettin’ in the Park is, for me, one of the greatest production numbers ever! Early Joan Blondell, early Ginger Rogers. This is one of those films that I can’t stop watching if I start it.
Norma Shearer, known for playing parts of the more liberated woman of the time, stars as a woman that decides that if her husband can have affairs, then she can darn well have affairs of her own. She won an Oscar for Best Actress, and the film was nominated for Best Picture. We also get a very young Clark Gable.
You want gangsters? This is the film that started it all, and the one that made Edward G. Robinson famous as he climbs to the top of the underworld. Or if you prefer, check out The Public Enemy (1931) featuring James Cagney and Jean Harlow, as he (sounds familiar?) climbs his way to the top of the underworld. Features the famous shocking scene of him smushing a grapefruit into Harlow’s face. Or maybe you are a fan of Scarface with Al Pacino? You can see the original Scarface (1932), which is about (you guessed it) Al Capone’s rise to the top.
You simply can’t miss pre-Code Mae West. Her double entendres are to die for. Pick either (or both!) She Done Him Wrong (1933) or I’m No Angel (1933), both featuring an impossibly young Cary Grant.
You want monsters? We’ve got monsters! Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), King Kong (1933). You can’t go wrong with any of them!
There is a noticeable difficulty that the industry has in finding ways to tell stories without showing lust or violence. Now the good guys have to win. Bad guys have to lose. Those with poor morals must not prevail. If a couple is on a bed one foot must be on the floor. Yes, it gets that specific. And it takes a few years for things to hit their stride. Many of the films over the next five years are just incredibly inferior. But there are still some great ones. My favorites here in the latter part of the decade are:
Who doesn’t like Nick and Nora? This comedy/murder mystery stars William Powell and Myrna Loy in the first film of a series. And don’t forget Asta, the little terrier!
Winner of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Writing - Adaptation, and Best Director, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert at their best. A young woman flees her rich father and is befriended by a reporter who helps her in exchange for the story once all is done. I’ve seen this one many times and it never disappoints. Colbert actually thought the film would be a flop. And then won multiple Oscars for it.
This sequel is even better than the original.
The most successful of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. If you like dance films, don’t miss this one. Legend has it that Fred was self-conscious about how large his hands were, and purposely curled his outer fingers inward to make his hands look smaller. See if you agree. The case has also been made that Ginger Rogers was the better dancer, because she did everything Fred did. Backwards. In heels!
This swashbuckler is the film that made Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland stars. An imprisoned doctor sold into slavery escapes to eventually lead buccaneers in this rip-roaring tale. Note the arms akimbo whenever the hero is standing in a heroic pose. You’ll see this everywhere in action movies of the time.
This is Warner Bros. first Technicolor film and it shows. It is SO far over the top with color that it is a pure delight to just revel in the absurdity of it all. I can’t recommend this one enough. I own it and loan it out a lot.
And don’t forget:
The Marx Brothers at their best.
BEST YEAR IN FILM HISTORY?
The decade ends with a veritable explosion of quality! As mentioned above, this is often considered the greatest year in film history! In 1939, we have these films and many more:
This film needs no build-up, except to say that Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar. David O. Selznick had to work to even get her admitted into the building for the ceremony due to segregation. Even then, she was not allowed to sit at the table with the rest of the stars of the movie, but had to sit at a small table far away.
Considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time. John Ford directing a young John Wayne. As usual in this period, the portrayal of the “Indians” as just savages can be hard to take, but the rest is a masterpiece.
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Watson. This is the first and possibly the best of fourteen films that they made together. This Holmes is the one that all Holmes actors get measured against. Many have tried to equal his portrayal. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that Benedict Cumberbatch is the only one that comes close.
SEE THEM ALL. You can’t go wrong with any of them! Then, you can decide for yourself. Do you agree that they are all-time greats?
Greg Boone spends his days helping the hearing impaired at his practices in Lafayette and San Leandro, while his nights are spent on a many years-long project watching the most notable films in history.