1932: 5 movies

(Last updated 13 July 2013)

Blonde Venus
Directed, produced, and edited by Josef von Sternberg
Cinematography by Bert Glennon
Writing by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren
Art direction by Wiard Ihnen
Costumes by Travis Banton
Starring Marlene Dietrich and Dickie Moore

   Blonde Venus gets better the more that it's watched. The first reason for this is the unique structure of its story. At its core, it's a weepy soap opera, but because of the direction and alternately icy/fiery performance by Dietrich, it blooms sneakily into a masterpiece. Another pleasure comes from the unique and daring cuts between scenes. They keep us always on our toes about how much time has passed since the last scene. This style of editing feels so advanced it continues to push our intelligence even today. The cuts ask us to make temporal leaps to understand the logic of the production, and  is an eternal puzzle which marvels and enthralls the mind. 
   The photography is hands-down unbeatable, what with the club scenes, and interior shots, and moments on the run. The camera is clearly in love with Dietrich, wherever she goes, and it's not afraid to show it. She brings the screen to life and it seems to enliven her as well. Her face is like a private diary into her character's soul. The overall feeling is of a fairytale told in a bluesy late-night sleepy bar, but there are also moments so enlivening that it is not uncommon to yell at one or more of the characters. 
   It's possible to think of it as a good old-fashioned ending, or as an ending tacked on by Hollywood in the hopes of selling more tickets, or even as a dream sequence, akin to the one in Murnau's ""Der Last Mann"" (1925). There is one more possibility however, that Von Sternberg is not really concerned with this particular story, and is rather showing us a multiplicity of endings.
Cinema and drama have never been more entwined than here. Plus, the musical numbers are quite spicy intermissions. Perfection!


Shanghai Express
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe
Written by Jules Furthman
Edited by James Sullivan
Art direction by Hans Dreier
Costumes by Travis Banton
Starring Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong

   Shanghai Express is about life on a train. It uses that brisk, uneasy feeling as a parallel to speak deeply about the fleetingness in beauty, the fleetingness in relationships, and the fleetingness in life itself. Even though things get a little campy due to some melodramatic over-acting and some unbelievable plot turns, it becomes clear that those things aren't the heart of the story. Von Sternberg's lovely shadowplay photography is what's important. Marlene Dietrich uses her performance as a cover to give a seductive dance of body and voice. And Anna May Wong's performance is mind-blowing with its sly, deadpan humor and merciless sexuality. It is the collaboration of these things, and the uncanny art direction which produces a powerful and cathartic balm to help counter spiritual unease.

Horse Feathers

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Writing by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S.J. Perelman, 
Will B. Johnstone, and Arthur Sheekman
Produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz
Cinematography by Ray June
Music by John Liepold
Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, 
Harpo Marx, and Thelma Todd

   The puns are piled on even more generously here than in the previous Marx Brothers movies. They are funnier puns and gags are wilder, more outrageous, and more defiant towards what was (and largely still is) the standard purpose and anatomy of cinema. The music is great, alternately cheerful and passionate. Somehow, the shredded plot manages to hang together just enough for us to see how bad it could have been, and how lucky we are that anarchy came in three persons to save the day. Whether it's the speakeasy scene, the classroom scene, the scenes between Harpo and his horse, or the ones with the frustrated vendor, each one is a perfect meld of writing and performance.



Love Me Tonight
Directed and produced by Rouben Mamoulian
Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, George Marion Jr., and Waldemar Young
Cinematography by Victor Milner
Editing by Rouben Mamoulian and William Shea
Art direction by Hans Dreier
Set decoration by A.E. Freudeman
Music by John Leipold
Starring Maurice Chevalier

   Breathlessly moving from one scene to the next, it feels like we're watching in real time. There are moments of verbal wit, others of photographic magnificence, some of musical triumph, and plenty of good-humored absurdity, but it's the direction, production, and editing that keep it all just on the verge of a wacky explosion. There's also no better face for such a movie than the exuberant Maurice Chevalier at his best.

Scarface
Directed by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson
Produced by Howard Hawks and Howard Hughes
Cinematography by Lee Garmes and L. William O'Connell
Editing by Edwin Curtiss and Lewis Milestone
Written by Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller,
John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett,
Howard Hawks, and Fred Pasley
Starring Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak,
George Raft, and Karen Morley

   The Marx Brothers introduced us to a new, previously discovered wilderness in cinema, the result being uproarious laughter. Hawks' Scarface, on the other hand, introduces us to a chilling, violent, and paranoid wilderness that simultaneously frightens and delights us. With a close-up thrilling presentation of contemporary crime, power struggles, the limits of friendship and family, we are socked in the eyes with an avalanche of spirited writing, directing and acting. The wild-eyed performances from Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak convince us of their complicated siblinghood. George Raft and Karen Morley, meanwhile balance out the fiery duo with a cool but tragic grace. The lighting, sets, and framing have never been bested, and add almost more clarity and proximity than we want for such a plot. 

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