1931: 7 movies

(Last updated 22 November 2012)

The Guardsman
Starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
Written by Ernest Vajda
Cinematography by Norbert Brodine
Art direction by Cedric Gibbons
Directed by Sidney Franklin
Produced by Albert Lewin and Irving Thalberg

   What happens when two actors fall in love? Do they ever slip into acting with each other? And if so, do their roles ever get complicated? Well, of course, they do. Even non-actors in love fall into games with facades and roles. The screenplay for this movie gives us a wonderful glimpse of romantic love and how it relates to the ego, to paranoia, and to role-playing. The magic of the movie is that it's still extremely fresh in its subject and its acting which includes witty humor. Though it deals with some fairly serious matters, it manages a playful sarcasm throughout, which feels like quite a triumph since they are smiling even though they hate each other even though they really, at the bottom of their hearts, love each other, even though they are only actors, even though they were actually really married.
   The lead actors were actually married in real life and they were actual stage actors, but unfortunately this is one of the only movies they performed in. Luckily though, their chemistry beams off the screen here for us. Kudos also to the people in charge of editing and makeup. Along with Sunrise (1927) and The Kiss (1896), this is possibly the most potent taste of romantic-love that cinema had yet seen.

M├Ądchen in Uniform 
Directed by Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich
Written by Christa Winsloe and Friedrich Dammann
Produced by Carl Froelich and Friedrich Pflughaupt
Cinematography by Reimar Kuntze and Franz Weihmayr
Edited by Oswald Hafenrichter
Art direction by Fritz Maurischat
and Friedrich Winkler-Tannenberg
Music by Hanson Milde-Meissner
Starring Hertha Thiele, Emilia Unda, 
and Dorothea Wieck

   Dozens of rich Prussian girls attend a strict boarding school where they learn about themselves, each other, and their teachers. That may be the basic premise of this movie, but the way it's fleshed out gives us a front-seat view of a nail-biting clash between discipline and love, between injustice and truth. Partly because of the intensely well-formulated camera placements, and partly because of the tremendous lighting, acting, and writing, we fall headlong into this exploration of the idealistic choices that lay in front of pre-Nazi Germany. We also get a stirring glimpse of  love between girls and women, and of love between students and teachers. At times, I felt like I was watching a play, so it makes sense that that was the original format for this story before the playwright adapted it for the screen, but the choice camera angles and top-notch performances raise the level of heat enough for me to have no objections on its minimal staginess. Beyond that, this movie is notable for its fantastic control of crowd scenes and for its completely female cast.  
   The title translates as "Girls in Uniform".

Street Scene
Directed by King Vidor
Written by Elmer Rice
Cinematography by George Barnes and Gregg Toland
Editing by Hugh Bennett
Music by Alfred Newman
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Starring Sylvia Sidney, Beulah Bondi, and John Qualen

   Starting at a leisurely pace, we get the feel of a New York City apartment-front. We see the comings and goings of the apartment's tenants. We see the situations within each apartment, and the interactions between neighbors. We witness the clashes in philosophy and chemistry as well as the various types of connections and alliances. Gossip, tolerance, sacrifice, and fidelity are among the main themes. But the most admirable trait of the movie is the fact that we never get bored of the setting. That might be because the apartment-building is the only true lead character; all the actors are virtually in supporting roles. Some of the acting and writing is a tad on the stilted, melodramatic side at times, but this is forgivable since there is also some great acting (by Beulah Bondi) to balance it out, and most of the character actors have fun with their performances. By the time the movie's over, I felt that I hadn't just watched a comedy, I hadn't just watched a tragedy or even a love story. What I got was a close-up glimpse of real life, with all of its ambiguous emotions and unpredictable futures, and that's always a thrilling thing.

Bimbo's Initiation
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Produced by Max Fleischer
Animated by Grim Natwick
Music conducted by Manny Baer

   Usually, a romp through various torture scenarios is not my idea of art, but since this is a cartoon and it has been doused with humor and contagiously snappy music, I found it rather fun. The goal isn't really a focus on pain, since the effect that I was left with was as if the visual mazes and torture setups had given me a diverting series of brain-teasers.  I also felt as if I had been given a parable about the foolishness of fear. The lightning-quick rate at which the movie unfolds and the rhythm it keeps is also quite admirable. Watch for the cameos by Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop!

Little Caesar
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Francis Edward Faragoh
Produced by Hal B. Wallis and Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio
Art direction by Anton Grot
Starring Edward G. Robinson

   It's a little campy, but there's something about the subtle but profound way the camera moves in this one that keeps it fresh. It's the camera, the sets, the costumes, and Edward G. Robinson that are the main stars here. The writing isn't flawless, but it gives Robinson enough room to give his character much fiery complexity. Plus it's lean and so it doesn't overdo it with sentimentality.

The Maltese Falcon
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Written by Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes, and Lucien Hubbard
Starring Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels,
Una Merkel, and Thelma Todd
Cinematography by William Rees
Editing by George Marks
Art direction by Robert M. Haas
Costumes by Earl Luick

   At some moments while watching this movie, everything seems perfect: every detail, every costume, the casting, the camerawork, the setting, the story, and the dialogue. At other times, it seems so forced, the actors seem so detached from their lines, the lines seem so detached from reality, and the editing seems so detached from any sense of rhythm that I wonder whether the whole thing is not meant to be watched like a joke. And that actually happens to be a great way to watch it, as if it's all a joke, as if nothing that anybody's talking about really matters. It's the best way to watch this movie because that's how the main character Sam Spade is played. He's a man who cares little about life, death, sex, money, and friendships. Some lines are amazingly witty, while other lines are super-corny. I don't know whether those lines are failed efforts, or if they are drenched in so much sarcasm that's it went over my head, but either way, they're always fun.
   Basically, this movie lays down the blueprint for gritty crime movies. It may feel jumbled at times, but another way to think about it is that it manages to juggle humor, sex, and suspense, while sacrificing nothing. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Starring Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
Cinematography by Karl Struss
Editing by William Shea
Makeup effects by Wally Westmore

   Scary, introspective, a marvel of special effects, and good fun. You'll wonder how they did it, you'll wonder how the cast and crew could be so cool and talented, you'll begin to wonder if some of the characters' problems might also exist in you, the depiction is that terrifying! The movie is a serious but diverting portrayal of abusive relationships, personality disorders, and drug addiction.

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