Friday, December 17, 2010


Probably much could be said of the fact that talking movies first became popular with the American masses during the Great Depression.  But though it was a time when some of the greatest of American writers were having their say in literature, very few movies were recorded during the decade that contained any substantial message.  The talking movie was early in its infancy and most of the movies from the era were designed as escapism.  The Marx Brothers came into their own, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. appeared in a number of horror flicks, and the gangster was for the first time romanticized.  Maybe that’s what the nation needed at the time - but I doubt it.
Still, probably the most important movie that was ever made appeared in 1939.  Written by a writer named Margaret Mitchell who seemed to feel that the freeing of the slaves was a tragic event, the book Gone With the Wind was a thousand page mess that has forever distorted the perception of the Old South.   Fortunately, the making of the movie fell into the hands of an insane producer named David O. Selznick and equally daffy director named Victor Fleming.  They hacked off much (though certainly not all) of the unpalatable material contained in the novel, filmed the movie in Technicolor by painting each negative of this long movie separately, and built a set design as large as a city with the sole intention of burning it to the ground.  Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara amounted to perhaps the two most memorable characters ever cast.  The movie has been badly imitated in many so-called epics since that time and has forever damned the male viewer to escorting his dates to the large number of Hollywood romance movies that followed.  Yet there is no question that the acting and the memorable and even realistic war scenes showing the aftermath of the destruction of the south make the filming of this movie a positive experience.  Though not my favorite movie, there probably are no other movies from the decade that have made as great of an impression on me.
Here, in order, are a list of my ten favorites and some honorable mentions:
(1) Scarface (1932): One of only a handful of movies from this decade still shown that is neither quaint nor outdated.  This fictionalized portrait of Al Capone (made while Capone was still alive) starring Paul Muni and directed by Howard Hawks is stark and frightening.  I think of it as one of the five greatest movies ever made.
(2) Public Enemy (1931): This, and not Yankee Doodle Dandy, is the one that James Cagney should be remembered for.  More dated than Scarface, it still is one of the few gangster movies from this era that does not glamorize the villain.  Cagney smashing the grapefruit into the face of his mistress clears up any misconceptions a viewer may have concerning the gangster’s character.
(3) Of Mice and Men (1939): Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith (respectively as Lenny and George) give us the best rendition of any Steinbeck novel (even better than The Grapes of Wrath) until East of Eden came along two decades later.  Any overacting in the movie (which does occur) was performed by others than the two main leads.  The movie remains watchable, but probably won’t appeal to those turned off by black and white film (meaning viewers that should go back to watching their television sets).
(4) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935): Clark Gable is great, but Charles Laughton is the real star as the highly disciplined and tyrannical Captain Bligh.  It probably deserved the award for Best Picture.
(5) Gone With the Wind (1939): A movie so broad that it tries to address everything, this is the model for every epic movie since that time.  And Vivian Leigh shows why she should be considered one of the greatest actresses of all time.  Its glamorization of the south prior to the civil war is of course ridiculous.
(6) King Kong (1933): The beast removed from its tropical island comes to New York and carries his girl (Fay Wray) with him to the top of the Empire State Building.  I suppose the gorilla could symbolize the plight of the workingman during the Depression when he falls to his death after being shot down by the establishment.  Who knows?  I think it was meant in good fun.  The special effects are great to watch and obviously don’t compare to the ones made today – for anyone who thinks special effects are what make the movie.
(7) Angels With Dirty Faces (1938): James Cagney and Pat O’Brien are two old friends whose lives go in different directions.  Cagney becomes a gangster and O’Brien becomes a Priest.  In that day and age it was not hard to distinguish between the two in a movie (and maybe even in real life).  The youth idolize Cagney, even when he’s on death row, and O’Brien wants this admiration to stop.  O’Brien asks Cagney to breakdown at the time of his execution and humiliate himself.  This, of course, is a very low thing for O’Brien to ask, but Cagney purposely obliges – showing that Cagney actually did have more nobility than the Priest.  This movie would be worth very little if not for Cagney’s performance.
(8) Stagecoach (1939): Certainly not the best western ever filmed, but the first one of any quality.  It was John Wayne’s first major role and one of the few where he showed any real acting talent.  The movie directed by John Ford contains a stagecoach, a strange assortment of stagecoach passengers, Indian attacks and various shootouts – in short, one of the most imitated movies of all time.
(9) Little Caesar (1930): The first major movie to romanticize the gangster starring Edward G. Robinson.  At first a small time crook, he later becomes one of the biggest underworld mobsters.  Extremely dated, but it gives a viewer an idea where the stereotypical mobster came from.
(10) Treasure Island (1934): Starring Wallace Berry as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins, its one of the few movies for children that still holds up from that era.  Adults may want to view it once every ten years or so to escape the fact that they are now working in an office cube.
Some honorable mentions include Sons of the Desert (1933), probably the best of the Laurel and Hardy series; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which contains a powerful ending (though not even close to as powerful as the novel); and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), the first famous prison flick (though it pales in comparison to those to come).
Significant omissions from this list include It Happened One Night (1934), which, though I’m a great admirer of the actor, shows Gable pretty much playing a parody of himself.  That Leonard Maltin calls it enchanting (a really wretched adjective) may be one of the reasons that I shun it.  Other movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Gunga Din (1939) don’t age well because Errol Flynn and Cary Grant are more caricature than real in their roles.

I’d still like to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) starring Charles Laughton and the various movies in The Thin Man series.  I’d also like to see the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, a movie I have only seen in parts.
As an aside, Hollywood was mostly clearing its throat during the 1930s with the exception of a few movies mentioned above (and possibly some movies that I have never seen).  I mention this in the event that the reader does not feel I sufficiently appreciate these older films.  Outside of Scarface and Public Enemy, the more penetrating and greater movies were to come in the following decade.

November 13, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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