Title: My Man Godfrey
Release Date: September 6, 1936
Director: Gregory La Cava
Production Company: Universal Pictures
I watched My Man Godfrey after watching several silent films, and it was startled by the quick and frequent dialogue. Talkies were of course well established by 1936 and this movie makes the most of it with enough witty repartee to make up for decades of silents. This movie is both a romantic comedy and a mild social commentary on the idle rich. At the center of this film is the dysfunctional Bullock Family and the butler they hire, Godfrey (William Powell) who straightens things out for them.
The film begins with Godfrey living in an homeless encampment along New York’s East River until he is picked up by the youngest member of the Bullock clan, Irene (Carol Lombard), who needs a “forgotten man” for a scavenger hunt being held by wealthy elites based at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Irene takes a liking to Godfrey and offers him a job as the family’s butler, and declares that he will be her “protégé.”
Despite learning of the high rate of turnover for the Bullock’s butler and being warned of the family’s general horribleness by the maid Molly (Jean Dixon), Godfrey finds the job restores his spirits, and enables him to work on a project to help out the other “forgotten men.” Irene falls in love with Godfrey and tries many dramatic ways to get his attention and to return her affection. Irene’s vindictive older sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick), meanwhile, and schemes to spoil any happiness for Irene or Godfrey (I’ve never seen Patrick in a movie before, but she is both a talented actor and stunningly gorgeous). And Godfrey has a secret past that may come back to haunt him. All of this if played at maximum screwball comedy level.
The denouement of the movie has Godfrey shorting the stock market, both to save Bullocks from financial ruin, and to fund a night club on the former homeless encampment which provides jobs for 50 “forgotten men.” Honestly, I didn’t expect short-selling stock to feature in a Depression-era comedy, but it was a great twist. The final scene where Irene manipulates Godfrey into marrying is both uncomfortable and unnecessary, but otherwise this is a terrific film.
Title: Top Hat
Release Date: August 29, 1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
In all my life, I’d never before watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. Much of the plot is a thin link between the wonderful dance sequences. This movie is also the origination of “Cheek to Cheek,” which was the first dance at my wedding reception. Nevertheless, much of this movie left me cold.
This movie is divided into two parts. The first is in London where American dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) has come to star in a show. His love for dance leads him to tapdance around his hotel suite awaking the guest downstairs, Dale Tremont (Rogers). When Dale complains, Jerry falls for her and begins following her around London. This is a romantic comedy trope that’s supposed to be romantic, but comes across as really creepy in this movie. His dance performance also involves him miming shooting all his back up dancers with his cane. Maybe its my modern sensibilities but I don’t find a massacre to be a fun thing to incorporate in dance.
The second part of the movie takes place in Venice where Dale travels for work and Jerry (creepily) follows her there. The set design for Venice only superficially resembles the city, but it’s great in its own right, and provides lots of steps and bridges for the dance sequences. I suppose if you ignore everything but the dance sequences, it’s really quite enjoyable, but I found much of the plot here, with Dale believing Jerry to be married, and then deciding to up and marry someone else, to just be obnoxious.
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre. Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert. Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.
The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld. The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.
Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building. The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level. Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film. The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting. Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.
Title: City Lights
Release Date: January 30, 1931
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Four years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin released another one his masterpieces of silent film. It’s kind of fascinating how Chaplain resisted the shift to talking films. On the one hand, there is great artistry in silent film, especially in the hands of an auteur like Chaplin. On the other hand, silent films existed primarily due to technical challenges. Considering that the theatre had speaking roles for thousands of years, it’s not too hard to believe that early filmmakers wanted to replicate that. Chaplin makes light of “talkies” early on by featuring politicians delivering speeches at the dedication of a statue where the sound of gibberish comes from their mouths.
The main plot of the movie focuses on the Little Tramp (Chaplain) and his perambulations through the city. One night he saves a millionaire (Harry Myers) from drowning himself. In gratitude, the millionaire invites the Tramp for a night out on the town. When he returns to visit his new friend, the millionaire has no memory of him. A recurring gag has Myers’ character only remember the Tramp when he’s drunk.
The other main plot line focuses on the Tramp falling for a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers. He befriends her, and takes up jobs – as a street sweeper and a boxer (each with their own set of gags) – to try to raise money to help her restore her vision. Eventually he is able to get her the money, but at a personal cost. The final scene is one of the more touching and heartwarming scenes ever recorded on film.
Title: The Blue Angel
Release Date: April 1, 1930
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Production Company: Universum Film A.G. | Paramount Pictures
Here’s another German film that’s a kind of weird morality tale about how women are the devil or something like that. I found it more enjoyable than Pandora’s Box, though. Marlene Dietrich is completely captivating as the cabaret performer Lola Lola, and not surprisingly this film made her a big star. The Blue Angel was intended to be a vehicle for renowned German theater and film star Emil Jannings, but he gets overshadowed by Dietrich.
This is one of the first German talkies and the direction seems to revel in sound, especially early on when the camera focuses on a clock ticking and the bell ringing the hour, or when Jannings’ Professor Roth opens a window allowing the sound of children singing on the street to enter, and then closes the window again to make silence.
The story starts with Professor Roth teaching at a preparatory school, where he gets little respect and they play pranks on him. He catches the boys circulating postcards of Lola Lola, prompting him to visit the cabaret that night in order to catch the boys going there. Instead he finds himself captivated by Lola Lola. After a few visits, he asks her to marry him, and surprisingly she says yes.
It’s not really clear what Lola Lola sees in Professor Roth. Maybe she wants someone who will protect her, maybe she’s charmed by his old fashioned devotion, or maybe she just takes pity on him. Over the next few years though, it becomes clear that Roth won’t be her only man. Roth becomes envious of her flirtation with other men and that he is financially dependent on her, and he becomes angry and abusive. The culmination of the film sees the troupe return to Roth’s hometown, and the townspeople come out en masse to see Roth – now performing as a clown – humiliated.
This movie is depressing, and tragic in the sense that the demands of toxic masculinity lead to Roth’s downfall. Nevertheless, it is a well-acted and well-made film, and seemingly ahead of its time.
Title: Pandora’s Box
Release Date: January 30, 1929
Director: G. W. Pabst
Production Company: Süd-Film
This German film is deeply weird and severely misogynist. American actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu, a young woman who is passionate and sexually confident and of whom the film tells us is “thoughtless.” But really it’s a morality play that would have us believe that a woman with an independent streak will bring everyone around her to ruin.
Brooks is a captivating actor and without someone of her capability in the role, I don’t think this movie would be worth watching. She’s a great silent film star because she can say so much with her face. I found myself pondering for a long time who she reminded me of, and then finally I hit upon Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag who also conveys so much with a look.
The story, for what it’s worth, has kind of a perils of Lulu plot as each scene leads to another level of degradation. Lulu goes from a mistress to a stage performer to marrying her reluctant lover to an accused murderer to a fugitive in an illegal gambling den to prostitution to a victim of Jack the Ripper. There are some interesting scenes, particularly during the backstage scenes of her variety show, where performers go on and off the stage entering and leaving Lulu’s drama in the backstage. This movie also broke ground with a prominent lesbian character, Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), who helps Lulu escape imprisonment.
The movie is kind of bland melodrama and I can’t really recommend watching other than for film history research.
Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Famous Players – Lasky
A big budget war epic and romance featuring the biggest star of the era? This movie is totally Oscar bait! Except the Academy Awards didn’t exist when this movie was made and it would win the first Best Picture award at a ceremony in 1929. Clara Bow is the big star of this movie, and while it’s clear that here role is awkwardly shoehorned into an existing story, she’s a delight every time she’s on the screen. I found myself crushing hard on a woman born before my grandparents!
The story focuses on Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) a young man who tinkers with engines and is enthralled with the local beauty Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, his neighbor Mary (Bow) is in love with him, but he’s oblivious to her attentions. Sylvia is in fact all but betrothed to David (Richard Arlen). When the war comes, both Jack and David enlist in the Army Air Force, and after some initial tension at training camp they become good friends and ace pilots. Meanwhile, Mary does her part for the war effort as an ambulance driver.
The love “quadrangle” is central to the melodramatic plot of the film. But there’s also quite a bit of humor. El Brendel plays a character named Herman Schwimpf who consistently is challenged on his German name and thus demonstrates his over-the-top pugnacity for the American war effort (but then he disappears about half through, so I guess they ran out of gags for him). In an extended scenes in Paris, Jack gets intoxicated on leave and comically goes on about the bubbles in champagne (which are animated on the screen) while Mary attempts to get him to his room to sleep. But really, this movie is about airplanes flying and shooting and one another, and the scenes of aerial combat are really quite remarkable over 90 years later.
Release Date: January 10, 1927
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: UFA
One of the earliest science fiction feature films, the list of movies influenced by Metropolis is quite lengthy. Set in a futuristic city of high towers and massive machinery, the city of Metropolis is ruled by the wealthy industrialist Joh Fredersen. His son Freder enjoys an idyllic life until a woman named Maria invites him to come below the surface to see how his “brothers” are suffering.
Freder witnesses the grueling life of the workers on their machinery, and how the dead are casually disposed of after one of the machines explodes. Unable to convince his father to improve conditions for the workers, Freder rebels and joins Maria in trying to lead the working people to a more equitable Metropolis. Meanwhile, Fredersen enlists the inventor Rotwang to use a robot to impersonate Maria and discredit her with the workers. Rotwang has his own plans and various conflicts and tragedies occur before the film’s conclusion.
The dystopian world of Metropolis is all the more chilling considering this is a German film made just years before Hitler’s dictatorial regime came to power. I found it hard not to wonder if the actors in this film, especially the children, ended up becoming Nazis. From a filmmaking perspective, it’s hard not to see why it’s so influential as the cinematography, set design, and special effects are spectacular. Story wise, the film comes across a bit stiff, more of a preachy Socialist parable than a human story one can engage with.
Title: The General
Release Date: February 5, 1927
Director: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions | Joseph M. Schenck Productions
I knew I’d need to watch a Buster Keaton film for my classic movie project, but was disappointed that his most famous work is not only a Civil War film, but one sympathetic to the Confederate cause. So I watched this movie rooting against Keaton much of the time.
The movie was a big-budget spectacular for its era and stars Keaton as Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer dedicated to maintaining the engine The General. When the war begins, he attempts to enlist, but is denied because his skills with the trains are needed. Nevertheless, his fiancée Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) believes him to be a coward, and refuses to speak to him.
A year later, Union spies steal The General (with Annabelle Lee aboard the train) and head north from Georgia to Tennessee with a plan to destroy the rails, bridges, and telegraph wires behind them. Johnnie pursues The General through various means, eventually working on his own as he leaves the Confederate soldiers behind. There are are a number of spectacular gags as Keaton walks along the train performing various stunts and fights with the spies. Scenes from the next day show him returning with The General and Annabelle Lee, leading another chase and culminating in a battle (which was the most expensive shot in film history to that point due to hundreds of extras and the collapse of a bridge with a train on it).
Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this film and think the stunts and slapstick hold up well, even if the politics do not.
Title: Battleship Potemkin
Release Date: December 21, 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
This classic Soviet propaganda film dramatizes events of the Russian uprising of 1905, which the filmmaker Eisenstein saw as a prelude to the successful October Revolution of 1917. The film depicts sailors aboard the Potemkin returning after the Russo-Japanese War and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the officers.
When some of the sailors refuse to eat maggot-infested meat, the tyrannical captain sentences them to death for insubordination. But a revolutionary sailor inspires the firing squad to lower their rifles, and the sailors stage a mutiny instead. Grigory Vakulinchuk, the Bolshevik sailor, dies in the uprising and when his body is brought to Odessa, thousands of civilians pay their respects. The people join in the revolution, but it is quickly repressed by a detachment of Cossacks who massacre them on the city’s giant stairway. The sailors escape on the Potemkin as Tsarist ships refuse to fire on them.
The movie impresses with its innovative film-making techniques, most notably editing between long and close-up shots, and creating connections among a sequence of shots. The most famous sequence is when the Cossacks fire upon the people on the Odessa Steps, which depicts brutal violence and cuts between the precision of the soldiers and the faces of their victims on a seemingly endless set of steps.
This is definitely a movie worth watching for its technical brilliance and its role in film history. That being said, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, not just due to the violence but the almost complete lack of characterization of the people depicted. They are merely cogs in a propaganda machine with no opportunity to empathize with them as individuals.