Nineteen-thirty was not a great year for movies. In the first full year of sound, Hollywood and international film production struggled to come to terms with the new technology. Sound had been slowly creeping into movies since The Jazz Singer in 1927, but by 1930 most studios had converted some or all of their stages for sound recording and theaters had sound systems in place, but there was an artistic lag. Studios did not adapt to sound well; they seemed to still be making silent movies with a layer of sound rather than integrating the new technology into the art of film. The scripts often feel appropriate for the stage rather than movies and the acting is often even less appropriate to the medium. Unfortunately I couldn’t find ten movies that I loved, but there are still several worth seeing.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front (U.S., Dir. Lewis Milestone)
No one who wasn’t there can truly know what life was like in the trenches of World War I, but this anti-war, call for understanding from Lewis Milestone and Universal (a rare prestige picture from the traditionally low-budget studio) probably gave the most accurate portrayal Hollywood ever produced. Based on the celebrated Erich Maria Remarque novel, the film follows the initially enthusiastic enlistment of a group of German students and their gradual disillusionment in the face of the horrors of World War I. They are slowly killed or wounded (two or three before they see any actual combat) until we are left with only Paul (Lew Ayers). Ayers wasn’t the strongest actor, but he certainly looked the part, a nice combination of innocence with a potential edge under the surface. All Quiet on the Western Front constructs the hardest image of the First World War seen in movies up to that point. It is stronger than King Vidor’s excellent movie The Big Parade (1925) and certainly stronger than the fluffy Wings which inexplicably took the first Academy Award for Best Picture. We see the realities of war as the men on the front are slowly driven mad by waiting, mud, rats, bombardment, homesickness, hunger, bad shoes, disease, horniness, and a growing sense of futility. In one scene several of the characters discuss what they are fighting about and no one comes up with a satisfying answer. And when there is fighting it is pointless attack, fall back, attack again, and everyone ends up where they were at the start of it all.
Milestone succeeded in filming the horrors of war without sacrificing a subtle but positive message: despite all the horrors of the war, Paul and the men with whom he serves create bonds with each other and continue to live, no matter how miserable things got. They learn through war to love and respect each other and their enemies (it was no accident that the story is about German soldiers which didn’t make French audiences happy). They learn that what they experienced was too complicated for black and white good versus evil explanations, nationalism, and jingoistic slogans. It’s anti-war without the usual mushy-headed naivety of well-meaning liberals who have never experienced war. And they can, after 4 years in the trenches, still appreciate the beauty of the world: the final shot of Paul reaching for the butterfly on the battlefield could have been hokey, but Milestone handles it deftly and it is the perfect quiet note on which to leave the picture.
2. The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, Germany, Dir. Josef von Sternberg)
This chilling movie is about romantic obsession and how our passions can trump our dignity, how infatuation can reduce us to places we never thought we would end up. Emil Jannings is a respected professor slowly unraveled by his fixation on the sultry temptress Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). This is a fantastic movie that deals with these issues in a way only a movie from Weimar Germany could have in 1930. There is no moralizing, no tut-tutting, just a straight forward story of the professor’s slow degradation until, after being dismissed, he literally becomes a clown to support his obsession. Director Josef von Sternberg directed an English language version at the same time, but was thought lost until recently. I haven’t seen it yet, but I would be curious to see how it stacks up to this great movie.
3. The Big House (U.S., Dir. George W. Hill)
Warden Lewis Stone tells playboy Robert Montgomery, newly incarcerated for manslaughter, that prison doesn’t make people yellow, but if you already are yellow prison will make it worse. Well, he is yellow and that leads to all kinds of problems. I wasn’t expecting to like this movie before I saw it. I’ve seen tons of prison movies and rarely do they thrill me. This one is surprisingly good and my affection for it has only grown over the years. Wallace Beery has garnered a lot of praise for his performance as the tough con with a soft side (sort of). I think he might be a shade this side of hammy, but maybe that’s part of the movie’s charm. I am more partial to the performances of Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery, both of which are necessary for the gripping climax.
4. Morocco (U.S., Dir. Josef von Sternberg)
This is another Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg pairing, but this time made in the U.S. with a super-hunky young Gary Cooper. Like The Blue Angel this movie also deals with what sacrifices some are willing to make for love. Feminists tend to hate the movie because of the sacrifice Dietrich makes at the end, but they fail to recognize that both Cooper and Dietrich make massive sacrifices for each other (not to mention the sacrifice Adolph Menjou’s character makes because of his love for Dietrich). This is not a movie that advocates women’s subjugation to men; it advocates the subjugation of men and women to love. Maybe not the best advice in the world, but still a great movie.
5. Animal Crackers (U.S., Dir. Victor Heerman)
I love the Marx Brothers. Their comedy pushed the boundaries of logic, decorum, and language (not to mention patience of the long suffering Marx “Sister,” Margaret Dumont). Their MGM picture A Night at the Opera (1935) is general considered their best, but I prefer some of their less polished Paramount pictures from the early 1930s, like Animal Crackers. The roughness of the filmmaking and uneven narrative works well with the insubordinate and chaotic humor of the Marx Brothers. The story, such as it is, revolves around a massive party given by Mrs. Rittenhouse (Dumont) for Capt. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), just returned from big game hunting in Africa. There’s something about a stolen painting and a fairly routine romance between supporting characters, but, like all Marx Brothers’ movies, this picture is a showcase for gags that still work: the absurd genius of the bridge scene, wonderfully zany word play, and Harpo’s shooting spree and a statue that returns fire.
6. Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un Poete, France, Dir. Jean Cocteau)
I’m not usually a big fan of surrealism in the movies. They are often treated so solemnly that it’s a bit hard to take anything seriously. Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or is considered the surrealist gem of 1930, but I find it heavy and formal. Buñuel, like most surrealists, thought he was saying something meaningful through obscure symbolism only exciting to the educated, not mass audiences (those you need to truly revolutionize society). He created some stunning images, but I got to the end and wondered what he thought he had accomplished. Maybe it was provoking to indict bourgeois society and the church at the time, but it hardly holds up today. Buñuel’s later movies exhibit a much sharper wit and humor, like Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet isn’t as funny as I would like, but I find it much more watchable. Some images are striking, some disturbing, some erotic. Cocteau explores the mind of an artist and his relationship to his work. The art that he produces begins as a reflection of the artist’s psyche, initially exhilarating to him, but slowly it begins to horrify him, showing him things he never wanted to see. I was especially struck by the talking sketch, the talking mouth on the Artist’s hand (ew!), the snowball fight that ends in death, and the creepy scenes that the artist spies through the keyholes of the hallway, not to mention the incredibly sexy Enrique Rivero as the Artist, who Cocteau was smart enough to leave shirtless throughout much of his screen time.
7. Earth (Zemlya, USSR, Dir. Alexandr Dovzhenko)
The Soviets might have done a lot of things wrong (like creating a completely unsustainable economic system), but they knew how to make movies, at least until Stalin consolidated his power and moved to use the Soviet film industry to educate the masses “correctly.” Stalin had little patience for artistic expression or individual vision; everything had to conform to the party line and every film had to tell the truth, as defined by the State (ironically christened as socialist realism). Dovzhenko’s Earth is the only fully silent picture on this list, and is one of the last great Soviet films before Stalin’s oppression of the film industry really took effect. Earth is a loving tale, not of people per se, but literally of the soil that sustains them. The rich local landowners refuse to sell their land to the peasants for a cooperative, so Vasly, the leader of the village, takes it anyway. He buys a tractor and they thrive, until he is shot by the son of one of the dispossessed landowners. Vasly’s father sends away the priest in favor of a people’s funeral. Much of the narrative is cloudy, difficult to follow, but it all comes together in a stunning sequence that intercuts Vasly’s funeral, his naked widow thrashing around a room, his mother giving birth to another child, and his killer running through the fields that he and his family have lost. The cutting becomes frenetic, but the energy elevates what could have been a tragic tale into one of hope. Vasly may have been killed but his family and his village will live on through the soil that has sustained them for generations.
Other Notable Movies of 1930: Hell’s Angels (U.S., Dir. Howard Hughes), The Unholy Three (U.S., Dir. Jack Conway).