If you were to pick the most tumultuous decade of the 20th century, the 1930s would have to be a leading contender. The Great Depression. The rise of Hitler. The onset of World War II. Kinda makes the 1990s and the burning issues of welfare reform and the V-chip really pale in comparison.
It was also a nearly peerless decade for film. Hollywood was in full stride, churning out a remarkable array of outstanding films in all sorts of genres: drama, westerns, musicals, comedies (oh my, the comedies!). And Europe, while darkening under the rising clouds of fascism, political and economic upheaval, and the start of the Holocaust, turned out some enduring classics from the UK, Germany, France, and Italy. If I were to choose the best decade for film, it would be tough to top the 1930s. Here are some reasons why:
Charlie Chaplin’s best film and one of several from the 1930s that could be considered the greatest films ever made. Although “talkies” had been around for a few years, Chaplin made this as a silent film. If you’ve never seen it, don’t let that hold you back. Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets involved in the lives of people at opposite ends of society. First with poor blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) who has the opportunity to have her sight restored with a surgery in Austria. The other is with a drunken Rich Man (Harry Myers) who loves the Little Tramp when drunk but ignores and is bothered by him when sober. The sequences with the drunken rich man are fall-out-of-your-chair funny. Through various connivings, the Little Tramp is able to raise the money for the Flower Girl’s surgery, restoring her sight but leaving him even more impoverished than ever. The final scene of the movie always leaves me in tears. A great, great movie and one you must see.
Is this best movie musical of them all? Probably. Hard to imagine one that sweeps you up into its world more fully and completely than this tale of a girl from Kansas trying to find her way home. Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Jack Haley, the magnificent score by Herbert Stothart (lyrics by Harold Arlen), all of it just wonderful. You’re probably singing a tune from it right now. Me? Right now I’m singing: “With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’ I could be another Lincoln if I only had a brain…” Rent it again.
In the history of the Academy Awards, only three films have won all five of the major awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. This movie—deservedly—was the first. The only other two were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Frank Capra directs Clark Gable as a newspaperman and Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress on the run. It remains as fresh and amusing today as it was when it opened in the depths of the Great Depression 85 years ago.
Animated features are such a part of our lives now it’s hard to grasp what a daring and imaginative film this was when it came out. Cartoons were shorts. They were throwaways, mainly in black and white, silly, and unimportant. Walt Disney’s idea to create a full-length, full-color, animated feature with dazzling imagery, scary elements, musical numbers, and a big, old-fashioned romance was an audacious attempt…and it worked. My grandparents loved this movie, my parents loved it, so did I, and so do my kids. And I am pretty certain it will continue to weave its magic through the ensuing generations.
In many ways Berlin in the 1920s and early 30s was the capital of the world—intellectually, culturally, and artistically. It all came to a screeching halt with the ascension of Hitler, but prior to that Berlin was the epicenter of world culture. So many outstanding films were churned out in film studios in Berlin, and The Blue Angel may be the apex of that. It tells the story of a respectable if priggish prep school professor (Emil Jannings) whose life degenerates after meeting the beautiful cabaret singer Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). It features, of course, Dietrich’s signature song “Falling In Love Again.” If you’ve missed this movie, check it out. You, too, will fall in love with Dietrich.
Considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, and certainly one of the best ever from French cinema, this film tells the story of a group of French aviators and soldiers in German prisoner of war camps during World War I. They constantly plot to escape, and spend the rest of their time cooking, putting on theatrical revues (in drag) in the camp, and talking and talking and talking. This film is a deeply humane and a powerful anti-war statement. Written and directed by Jean Renoir. It’s unforgettable.
This heartbreaking tale of jealousy and the ultimate triumph of love is also considered one of the greatest films of all time. Directed and written by Jean Vigo, it tells the story of a canal boat captain and his young wife and how his jealousy and mistaken suspicions of her fidelity nearly destroy their marriage and their lives. Movies don’t get much more romantic or powerful than this. DVD.com has four of Vigo’s films available in a boxed set for rental. You might want to consider watching all four but be sure to start with this one.
Now you may have noticed that I left two obvious choices off my list. Let me tell you what they are and why I detest them. Gone With the Wind (1939) and Triumph of the Will (1935). I consider both of these films appalling, but for different reasons. Triumph of the Will, which is Leni Riefenstahl’s masterwork, is an obvious choice. Despite the astonishing skill she brought to the film, Triumph is both the greatest propaganda film ever made and a truly disgusting work. It chronicles Hitler’s 1934 Nuremberg Rallies. It is a glorification of Nazism that is terrifyingly effective and, in my opinion, played no small part in convincing the German public to follow Hitler’s ruinous and murderous course for their nation and the world.
I consider Gone With the Wind to be equally pernicious. The film glorifies the slaveholding economy of the South and has had, I believe, a terrible cultural impact on our country in that it made slavery seem, oh, not really all that bad. The blithe and comprehensive racism inherent in that film has persisted long after people forgot about or repudiated the evil glorified in Triumph of the Will. I’m sure many of you will disagree with me on this, but, to quote the film, frankly, I don’t give a damn.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.