Category Archives: 1930s

Woman of Tokyo (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Wherein we can see Ozu starting to become “Ozu”, if you know what I mean, playing with the sharp scene changes his later films would be full of, and doing so in a particularly startling way at one point when, without warning, the credits for the 1932 American film If I Had a Million abruptly appear on screen. For one horrible moment I thought there was something terribly wrong with my copy of the film, but no, we soon see the characters are actually watching the film at a cinema and Ozu just decided to be cheeky and cut bits of the American film directly into his own (in a manner I rather doubt Paramount would’ve actually given him permission to do) rather than show people looking at it on a screen. I’ve been amused before by the way Ozu inserted film posters and the like into his early films, but this was clearly taking that to the next level…

Otherwise, the story seems more like Mizoguchi than Ozu, revolving around a brother and sister, Ryoichi and Chikako who co-habit in a small flat; he’s a student and she’s pretty much the wage-earner, working in an office by day and, well, doing something else by night. Something else that’s attracted police attention for some reason that the film is oddly vague about (it hints at prostitution while also hinting at something apparently worse, but what?); Ryo’s girlfriend’s brother happens to be the officer investigating her, and when said girlfriend goes to warn Chikako, complications ensue. Ozu seems not particularly involved in all of this, and perhaps the film’s origin indicates why; for whatever reason the studio needed a film from him very quickly and he certainly delivered, tossing this off in just eight days and starting shooting before the script was even finished, so that doesn’t really bespeak a strong connection between him and his material. The ultimate bleakness of the thing just seems a bit pointless too, and the brevity of it (not even 50 minutes long) doesn’t give much opportunity to get close to the characters. OK, but not one of Ozu’s strongest works.


The Black Room (1935)

Director: Roy William Neill

“I can’t believe it’s not Universal!” Yeah, you don’t usually associate Columbia with this sort of thing; I can only assume Harry Cohn looked at the returns from Universal’s horror films of recent years (remember The Black Cat was the studio’s biggest money-spinner just the year before) and decided he should try some of that action. Director Neill and his production team would appear to have taken hints (and, apparently, some of the sets) from Universal and indeed the other studios that had dabbled in the genre, although the mission here was to come up with something less lurid than that, more a period melodrama with Gothic vibes. And Boris Karloff, in what is, effectively, actually three roles: the twin brothers, one of whom kills the other and then impersonates the latter. Basically, Gregor and Anton are the scions of an old noble family with a prophecy attached, that when twins were born, the younger would murder the elder out of spite at, you know, not inheriting anything. However, it’s actually Gregor, the elder, who grows up to be a nasty shit hated by his village folk, while the younger Anton is a kinder, gentler figure who, frankly, doesn’t seem like a murderer at all. But when he returns to the village after years of absence, the plot that unfolds is a bit more complicated than the old prophecy suggests. This is a fairly small and unassuming film in many ways (I assume it was meant primarily as a B programmer) and there’s a couple of possible plot holes if you look closely, but it’s surprisingly handsomely made, perfectly formed at 68 minutes, and of course Karloff is terrific in it; he didn’t always get much chance to demonstrate his actual acting skills in the films he made, but he rightly seizes the opportunity here.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Director: Sam Wood

So the second half of the Marxes’ film career began here with them moving to MGM and being looked after by Irving Thalberg. The jury still seems to be out as to whether or not this was a good thing; Groucho undeniably thought it was, and the box office returns were hard to argue with. I’m… still not convinced. Long before I first saw it, I was under the impression that this was generally considered their best film, and when I finally saw it I was… underwhelmed. (I liked the not quite so acclaimed A Day at the Races a lot better.) It was a colourised print which likely didn’t help, but even so… Anyway, tonight was my first viewing in a long time, and I’m not blown away yet.

Thalberg’s view was that the Marxes were fundamentally unsympathetic and too obnoxious, so what they needed was softening up by making them be, you know, useful to the younger romantic leads and making the films more story-driven. This was the first result, and it was a palpable hit, but at what cost to the Marxes themselves? Therein lies the still unanswered question. Watching this again immediately after Duck Soup was instructive, cos it made me realise just HOW extensive the changes under Thalberg were… I mean, it’s absolutely not a bad film, it’s a perfectly good one, it has a lot more going for it than otherwise. Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle are fine as the romantic couple. The stateroom scene and the hotel scene where they’re escaping are outstanding, and there’s lot of individual bits of brilliant business. Just… I don’t know. Something about the whole work that doesn’t really do it for me for some reason. Maybe I just prefer the Marxes when they’re not good guys…

Duck Soup (1933)

Director: Leo McCarey

It’s been far too many years since I last saw this (David Stratton’s Continuing Education Course back in 2000, evidently), and I’m happy to report it hasn’t lost anything over that time; it is still one of the most screamingly funny films ever made. And yet McCarey wanted nothing to do with it, even though the Marx Brothers specifically requested he direct it; they got their way eventually but McCarey evidently found them as impossible to manage as their previous directors had. Audiences of the time seem to have been kind of freaked out by them, too—undeniably popular (previous Marx comedy Horse Feathers was apparently Paramount’s highest-grossing film of 1932) but maybe a bit too weird and extreme for most tastes—and while it wasn’t the box office bomb it’s been called, it still didn’t do the expected business, and I gather neither Paramount nor the Marxes were overly sorry to see the back of each other afterwards. Now, of course, it’s much more highly regarded, and with good reason, cos it is fucking brilliant; I’d actually forgotten just how aggressively comic it is, too, it really doesn’t let up much over 68 minutes… basically, Groucho gets appointed the leader of Freedonia and manages to declare war on the neighbouring country for whom Chico and Harpo are spying, but the story is not what you watch this for; you’re here for the barrage of puns and the outstanding slapstick, the hapless Margaret Dumont and the sorely beset Edgar Kennedy, “All God’s Chillun Got Guns”, Groucho’s famously inconsistent uniform… And whatever McCarey’s ill will about having to make this bloody thing, he kept it off-screen, this is not one of those films where the production difficulties are visible in the finished work (apart from a few continuity errors big enough for me to notice them). Stunning.

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Director: William A. Seiter

It’s… been a while, to say the least, since I left off with the Laurel & Hardy features, which I started watching around the start of the time when I couldn’t be bothered much with films any more, and I wasn’t crash hot on the first two films so I thought I might be better leaving the rest for a time when I was more in the mood for them. Didn’t expect that to be two and a half years later, though…

Anyway, once more unto the L&H. The set I have actually doesn’t have all their films, for reasons I don’t understand though I presume it’s rights-related, so we actually skip over one (Fra Diavolo) to land on this, their fourth feature. I’d actually seen this before, on the big screen no less, back in the days of the old Cinematheque at the Chauvel, part of a double bill with one of the Robert Youngson compilations, and I recalled enjoying it so I was looking forward to finally revisiting it… and now that I have done, I’m not sure how much I did like it. While watching it, I kept thinking “this could really have been a two or three reel short”… and then I discovered it kind of had been; it’s basically a rework of their earlier short Be Big made in 1930, and damn me if it didn’t feel like a 1930 talkie as well… Stan & Ollie were never the speediest comedians—a lot of their humour revolved around Stan not getting something before eventually getting it wrong and Ollie’s reaction face—and the lack of incidental music (kind of surprising in a film from late ’33) kind of does nothing to make the film feel any livelier. Still, as I said of their last feature that I watched (Pack Up Your Troubles), the good bits really do shine, particularly the business of Ollie faking his illness and having to contend with a footbath full of too-hot water… I just didn’t like it on the whole as much as I remember doing about a decade ago or whenever it was. Maybe when they were still flourishing in short films they still weren’t sure what to do with features? Maybe.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Director: James Whale

Apparently H.G. Wells was not exactly thrilled by Island of Lost Souls, and demanded Universal treat his book more respectfully than Paramount had done. I haven’t read the book since the late 80s, and I remember very little of it, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is, but Wells had to approve the script so it can’t have been too far off, I suppose… Anyway, it was interesting to watch this after The Mummy; if the voice of Karloff (originally supposed to star) was a big part of that film, Claude Rains’ voice was, basically, the star of this one. Nothing if not an extraordinary Hollywood debut (Rains had only made one film previously, and that was in 1920), his face doesn’t become visible until the very last shot of the film and he is, technically, naked for much of the film. Of course, this was a James Whale film, his third Universal horror; The Old Dark House (his second one) had displayed an element of weird humour that Frankenstein (his first) hadn’t exactly done, and that is ramped up here. Rains’ scientist, Griffin, is quite mad as a result of his experiments with invisibility, but along with the megalomania and murderousness it also inspires him to a sort of silly prankishness, most notably the golden moment when he steals a policeman’s pair of trousers and is next “seen” chasing a screaming woman terrified of these unnaturally animated pants… Needless to say, all of this required technical marvels that are still kind of stunning, particularly when you consider how difficult some of them would’ve been to achieve in 1933 (the shot of Griffin unbandaging himself in the mirror required four separate pieces of film to be combined); they’re not as flashy as modern CGI would be but they’re still amazing. Invisible Man doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered as Whale’s other horrors, but it was very pleasing to watch again tonight; the mix of horror and humour is certainly peculiar and occasionally disconcerting, but good fun overall.

The Mummy (1932)

Director: Karl Freund

At least there’s no doubt as there is with Dracula as to Karl Freund’s directorship of The Mummy, even if Wiki is correct about him only being hired to direct it two days before shooting started. It does rather borrow in many ways from Dracula, too, although whether that’s a case of Freund applying his alleged directorial experience from that film or just screenwriter John L. Balderston recycling his earlier work is another matter (probably the latter). Also, The Mummy borrows some of Dracula‘s cast, notably Edward Van Sloan as the Van Helsing substitute and David Manners as the somewhat crap male romantic lead. However, there’s one big difference: Karloff instead of Lugosi, and there’s no doubt he is much the best thing in the film… Part of that is down to the quite extraordinary makeup job designed by Jack Pierce; you don’t get to see a lot of it in detail (especially not when Karloff is still wrapped up in his burial bandages), but when you do get close-ups of that impossibly lined face, you see just how remarkable it is. But there’s also this remarkable, underplayed gravitas to his performance as the titular mummy, inadvertently revived in the modern day and now in search of his long-lost love… who has, of course, been dead for 3700 years just like him; fortunately for him, her spirit has reincarnated through various points of history (business which was sadly cut from the film before released) and is currently inhabiting a somewhat troubled young woman (Zita Johann, evidently one of Hollywood’s more extraordinary figures from that era) in Cairo. Karloff plays the key scene in which he shows her their past lives in Egypt with striking conviction and seriousness, much of it conveyed by his voice, which is really quite incredible here. He kind of easily overshadows everything else here, and gives the film its main attraction; I don’t think it’s as memorable on the whole as some of Universal’s earlier horrors, possibly because it is largely refried Dracula, but it does give Karloff one of his finest hours.

Dodge City (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz

More wild frontier justice and stuff! This would’ve been one of the other big westerns of 1939 (I’m guessing, by the release dates, it would’ve been in production around the same time as Stagecoach), and it’s a markedly bigger-looking film than Destry, not least because it’s in colour; I don’t know what Destry cost, so I can’t compare the two on those terms, but apparently this one cost a million, which you can pretty much see on the screen. Quite apart from the Technicolor (which would’ve added to the cost by itself), this is a big production. Mind you, it seems a little bit torn about that bigness; you think at first it’s going to be one of those kind of self-consciously “epic” great-American-myth westerns, and to some extent it is (if a notably historically inaccurate one, and one in which the opening race between the horses and the steam train amusingly recalled Turksib for me), but then once the action starts in Dodge City itself—already a hotbed of violence and corruption where you can’t even take kids out for a Sunday school picnic without getting caught in crossfire—the film seems to kind of ease back on that and settle for, you know, a straighter version of Destry‘s story of a one-horse town being cleaned up by another actor making his western debut, i.e. Errol Flynn… the latter is a trail boss who rather reluctantly dons the sheriff’s badge in order to combat the criminal rule of an old opponent from out on the range. What kind of struck me was that, despite his adherence to the law, Flynn’s sheriff seems to come close to becoming a law unto himself in the process of civilising the place; maybe it’s just how I read the character, but it’s something the film doesn’t otherwise explore… Anyway, Dodge City was a big hit back in the day and I can understand why, though something about it didn’t quite engage me as I’d hoped it might. I must say the climax on the burning train is pretty amazing stuff, though.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Director: George Marshall

So, Stagecoach basically revived the “A” western as a major box office draw after it had spent a lot of years in the Poverty Row wilderness, and I suppose this film—released at the other end of 1939—was one of the first “big” examples of the genre to benefit from John Ford’ example. Actually, it was in fact the second film of that title, Universal having previously made a film called Destry Rides Again in 1932 before they made this one… neither of them having anything to do with the book of the same name published in 1930; the “suggested by” caption in the opening credits here being a nice way to quietly admit the only thing the makers took from it was the title. Anyway, our setting is a kind of corrupt and wild old town called Bottleneck, where the local landowner makes a mockery of the law by, well, literally shooting it dead; the mayor appoints the town drunk, Wash, as the new sheriff after the previous one “leaves town” on the assumption he won’t repeat the latter’s error of actually trying to enforce the law. However, Wash is determined to take the job seriously, having served as deputy to legendary sheriff Tom Destry, and he summons the latter’s son to be his own deputy. Except that Tom junior isn’t quite the rootin’ tootin’ gunslinger his old man was. This was James Stewart’s first western, and he kind of inhabits Destry just by, you know, playing himself as I suppose he always did (can’t quite imagine Gary Cooper, the original choice for the role, doing it the same way), so surprising that he didn’t do another one until Winchester 73 in 1950… and Marlene Dietrich, bless her, who didn’t want to do a western at all and yet comes close to stealing the film from Stewart at times, particularly in that glorious catfight in the saloon. Actually, the really remarkable thing is just how, even though Destry is generally played for comedy, it could so easily be turned into a film noir or something and made really dark. It’s a funny film, brilliantly so at times, but that undercurrent is always there nagging away at the comedy. Great stuff.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone

So today is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, which fact is something I think most Australians are probably sick of hearing about by now; there’s been talk of “Gallipoli fatigue” in recent weeks as media outlets have been forced to admit their commemorative programming just hasn’t been drawing the audiences they’ve hoped for. Now that the big day has actually passed, I daresay we can now resume our lives and carry on, but I still felt I should watch something to commemorate it myself. The obvious and logical thing to do would’ve been to watch Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (which I recently saw accused of kind of kickstarting the “Gallipoli industry” as it now exists), but 1) I don’t actually own it and anyway 2) why on Earth would I do the obvious and logical thing? As such, I went for something that, in its way, might be more suitable (and, amusingly enough, it apparently also played its first New York session on this day 85 years ago)…


Now, I’ve said before that early talkies can be a bit of a grind, especially since so few of them have incidental music, just opening and closing music… and Lewis Milestone didn’t even want that much; he wanted no end music and the film was only restored to his original intention (as much as it could be with something like 15-20 minutes apparently lost for good) long after his death. And AQotWF is surely a grind, but not for the usual early talkie reasons. It’s just really fucking heavy. The length is a bit wilting and the narrative perhaps too episodic to counteract that, and yet it’s still one of the very best films to have emerged from that difficult time when Hollywood was still getting a grip on an industry-changing technology called sound. It was a fairly big production (and must have been a reasonably quick one, too, given the original German novel only appeared in January 1929), and you can see that throughout the film (there’s some great deep focus stuff that lets you see—especially on blu-ray—just how much business Milestone could fit into a frame). It’s also pretty unrelenting in its bitterness; the film’s tendency to heavy-handedness and speechifying is undeniable, but it’s also impressive in its determination to be as brutal as a film made in 1929/30 could be…


…indeed, every time I see the film I’m amazed yet again by the above shot. I know no one took the Production Code too seriously before 1934, but I still can’t believe those disembodied hands that a German shell just forcibly separated from their former owner actually made it into the film. I’ve seen far more explicitly graphic things than that, obviously, but something about that is still kind of shocking.

Not everyone appreciated the film’s many virtues, of course. It was banned in this country, which is faintly ironic given how one of our supposed defining myths is, lest we forget, a catastrophic and pointless wartime engagement of the sort this film depicts. And it was banned in France until the 1960s, and in Italy and Austria until the 1980s (though Wiki implies it may have been shown before then and no one realised the ban had never actually been lifted). And as for Germany, well, yeah. The book had caused a stink of its own, so the film was going to do the same thing, with the Nazis pestering the few cinemas showing it and eventually banning the thing. So many films that were controversial a long time ago kind of lose their strength with time. Not All Quiet, which is still kind of overpowering in its grimness. On a day which causes so much angst in certain quarters of this country about the glorification of war as part of the national narrative, I was pleased to see again a film that resolutely refuses to do so.

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