Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: The '30s (Minus 1939)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced in 9 films
together during the 1930s
Although a terrible time for the rest of America, the 1930s were boom-times for the film industry both artistically and financially. With the dominance of the talkie and the advent of Technicolor, not only did filmmakers have a ton of new toys to play with, but they also had millions of struggling Americans clamoring for the escape which movies offered from their marginal existence. While many lament the creation of the Hayes Code as an act of censorship, I look on it as a challenge to filmmakers to use character and plot instead of mere titillation to hold the audience's attention, and they really pulled it off. Inside this matrix directors like Frank Capra and producers like David O. Selznick were at the height of their artistic powers. Talents like the Marx Brothers were imported from the New York stage, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced their way into the world's heart.

I have a tremendous love for movies of the '30s, so much so that I am loathed to pick only 10 to represent such a dynamic decade. I've tried, therefore, to pick my favorite from each genre, and I have excluded the 1939 crop because they deserve their own category. So without further ado, a list of the top 10 movies of the 1930s, as deemed by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste

10. A Night at the Opera (1935)
For comedy I prefer the Marx Brothers over the Three Stooges any day. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx all have very different styles of comedy, as well as adding a musical element which the Stooges lack. People will make the argument for Duck Soup being the better Marx Brothers movie, but I take this one better because Harpo gets to play the harp, and we are favored with the superb singing talents of Allan Jones. I love opera, but it takes itself so seriously that it's just ripe for satire, and the Marx Bros. pull it of perfectly with the combination of Groucho's biting quips and Harpo's slapstick sabotage.

9. Showboat (1936)
Operettas were big in the '30s, and although Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were the established stars of the film genre, the one I think is the most enduring operetta from the decade is the stellar adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's great American operetta, Showboat, featuring Irene Dunne and Allan Jones as star-crossed lovers, singing a score that features such classics as "Old Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine," and "Only Make Believe (I love you)."

8. A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
David O. Selznick was the the best book-to-film adapter of the '30s, and Dickens was his favorite author. Ronald Coleman famously shaved his pencil-thin mustache in order to play the tragic hero Sydney Carton in this film. While Selznick's David Copperfield is the more famous adaptation, I think this is the superior adaptation. This stems from the fact that A Tale of Two Cities is a much shorter book, and thus adapting it into a 2-hour movie doesn't make it feel nearly as rushed or chopped-up as Copperfield does.

7. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Although it was remade with Marlon Brando twenty years later, Clark Gable is a much more likable and credible Fletcher Christian, and Charles Laughton plays one of his best roles as Captain Bligh. Despite Gable's lack of a British accent, his performance is charismatic enough to make us overlook it. I even forgive the anachronistic pencil-thin mustache because the movie is so good.

6. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Countless movie versions have been made of the Robin Hood legend, but none can top the 1938 Errol Flynn version. With a fabulous supporting cast including Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marion, Claude Rains as Prince John, and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, this Technicolor extravaganza remains the quintessential Robin Hood film. This movie hits on all marks: funny when it's supposed to be, dramatic at the right moments, credibly romantic, and containing superbly filmed action sequences, including a sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone that showcases both actors' considerable skills.

5. Swing Time (1936)
As with my Marx Bros. pick, this Astaire/Rogers choice isn't as popular as their film Top Hat, but it features an equally impressive score, much better dancing, and a move away from the mistaken identity plot previously employed in Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee. Three songs became jazz standards: "Pick Yourself Up," "A Fine Romance," and "The Way You Look," and the dance number "Never Gonna Dance," is considered the finest routine they ever put together.

4. Bringing up Baby (1938)
The Baby of the title is a tame leopard who gives an overworked paleontologist and a ditsy heiress a run for their money. This movie is considered the quintessential screwball comedy, utilizing Cary Grant's considerable physical and verbal comedic skills. The elaborate conceits that Grant and Katherine Hepburn have to find their way out of have to be seen to be believed.

3. The Thin Man (1934)
Crime-solving couples were born back in the '20s with Agatha Christie's sleuthing duo Tommy and Tuppence, but Nick and Nora Charles were the first to make it to the silver screen. William Powell and Myrna Loy are delightful as they booze and bicker their way through a baffling murder. The tongue-in-cheek dialogue and chemistry between Powell and Loy were enough to spawn a litter of sequels, all of which are entertaining and the fist of which is as good as the original.

2. The 39 Steps (1935)
Alfred Hitchcock's first international hit is a comedic spy thriller about a man who accidentally involves himself in a spy conspiracy. The pacing of this movie is relentless enough so that the audience feels just as haggard as Robert Donat's character as he runs across Scotland trying to escape both the police and the foreign agents who want him dead. If you like this title, by the way, check out The Lady Vanishes, another early Hitchcock of similar brilliance.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert hitchhike to New York in
one of the best films of the decade, It Happened One Night.

1. It Happened One Night (1934)
This extremely low-budget romantic comedy was the first movie ever to sweep the 4 major Oscars: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It was also the first of three Best Director awards Frank Capra would garner during the decade. Clark Gable is at his most charming as a quick-witted out-of-work reporter helping an heiress (Claudette Colbert) escape from her overprotective father. The film also features the famous hitchhiking scene where Colbert hitches a ride by hiking up her skirt.

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