Monthly Archives: August 2010

Best Actress of 1934 – Ruan Ling-yu (The Goddess)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage), Marlene Dietrich (The Scarlet Empress), Carol Lombard (Twentieth Century), Dita Parlo (L’Atalante), Myrna Loy (The Thin Man)

Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers, the flirty but malicious gold digger in Of Human Bondage, repelled but mesmerized audiences.  Audaciously unlikeable with her transparent emotional manipulation and financial exploitation of crippled Leslie Howard, Davis delivered the best English language performance of 1934.  It is generally acknowledged that the Academy robbed her of an Oscar when they failed to even nominated her.  A write-in campaign could not break the puzzling It Happened One Night sweep, bestowing the Best Actress award to Claudette Colbert.  Though she dominates the English language field, Chinese actress Ruan Ling-yu work in The Goddess surpasses – only slightly – Davis’ performance.

Whereas Davis’ Mildred uses men for her amusement, Ruan’s nameless character is trapped – there are few legitimate employment options for a single woman and the few are full.  The only alternative to feed and house her son is prostitution.  For this choice (if it can really be characterized as such), she and her son are shunned in their neighborhood.  But she does not worry about the disapproval of her neighbors so long as she can afford to send him to school.  She is determined to provide her son with the tools to make a life for himself better that which she has made for him.  Her almost single-minded determination compels her to make dangerous choices, such as hiding money from her violent pimp, but anything to improve her son’s prospects is worth the risk.  She is strong, but only because she has to be for her boy; we get the sense that she would lose her spunk if she weren’t a mother.  But even with her son as motivation she does not have an endless well of strength.  When the school’s principal comes to possibly expel him because of gossip about her, she breaks down.  The fragile life she has built and the tentative future she envisions threatens to fall apart and she crumbles, pathetically begging the man not to ruin her son’s life because of her transgressions.

Yes, this is an explicit celebration of motherhood, but the boy’s appreciation for his mother – the “goddess” – will only come later (maybe).  What’s important is her devotion to him (especially the sacrifice at the end).  Like most children, he will not understand and value what she has done for him until much later, often too late.

Ruan Ling-yu, like Harry Baur, is an underappreciated actor today.  Both died too soon, limiting their output.  Baur died at the hands of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France and Ruan committed suicide only a year after The Goddess opened.  Both were exceptional actors for movie lovers of any language and, though they died before their times, they have left clear evidence of their talent.  Ruan Ling-yu should be especially remembered today for her timeless, touching part in The Goddess.

5 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Performances

Best Actor of 1934 – Harry Baur (Les Misérables)

Other Noteworthy Performances: John Barrymore (Twentieth Century), Boris Babochkin (Chapaev), Takeshi Sakamoto (A Story of Floating Weeds), Claude Rains (Crime without Passion), W.C. Fields (It’s a Gift), George Arliss (The House of Rothschild), William Powell (The Thin Man), Clarke Gable (It Happened One Night), Wallace Beery (Viva Villa!), Wallace Beery (Treasure Island)

It’s easy to imagine that when Victor Hugo pictured Jean Valjean he envisioned something close to Harry Baur.  Physically, Baur is perfect as the ex-convict remade into a respectable member of French society.  He has lived a hard life; it’s written on every line of his face.  What is remarkable is Baur shows us, in explicit detail and inscrutable believability, Valjean’s evolution from the poor, but good natured man sentenced to an unusually harsh sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, to a bitter desperate ex-convict, to the almost saintly benefactor of society hungry for redemption.  Baur pulls off these moral and personal (not to mention remarkable physical) transformations aided by a great script and director, both of which commit to taking the time to tell Valjean’s complete story.

Baur also succeeds because he enters the frame as a whole person, never completely one thing or another, refusing to reduce the character to simple parts.  When he stomps his foot on the chimneysweep’s coin and growls at him to beat it, we instinctively know that this isn’t a bad man, but like anyone as desperate as him, he is capable of great evil.  At that moment he is a complex person making a rash but bad decision, one any of us, no matter how moral we like to think we are, are capable of making.  When he realizes what he has done and futilely calls the boy back to return his coin we are acutely aware of how society has, through its inability to trust an ex-convict, ground down his moral sense and turned him into something worse than before.  Luckily for him (and society), Valjean is also aware of this dichotomy and overcomes the ex-convict stigma by taking a new name and building a new life on foundations of generosity, service, and doing no harm.

Baur embodies Valjean definitively, putting most others who have tackled the part to shame, especially Fredric March who almost laughably tackled it a year later in an inferior MGM adaptation.  (Did anyone believe March could lift a cart with his back?)  In one of Baur’s best scenes he has just learned that another man, Champmatieu (also played to great comic effect by Baur), has been arrested and is standing trial for the crimes of Jean Valjean.  What does he do?  Valjean, now known as M. Madeline, has vowed to do no more harm, but no matter what he does here, harm will be done to someone.  If he stays put, saying nothing, an innocent man will be sent to prison.  But, if he turns himself in all the good work he has done in the village and all the people who depend on his charity will suffer.  When Fredric March played the scene we saw ACTING! in the worst way.  With Baur we watch a man struggling with a dilemma (we would now call it a catch-22), not by expressing and emoting, but through introspective, internal debate.  It is a poignant scene that, like the rest of the picture, faithfully explores Hugo’s themes and social criticisms.  How can society truly embrace the ideals of liberty, equality and humanity if a man’s past rather than his current actions determines how we perceive and behave toward him?  Baur plays Valjean as a man to be both admired and feared and this ambiguity would have made Victor Hugo proud.

8 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Performances

Best Supporting Actress of 1934 – Rieko Yagumo (A Story of Floating Weeds)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life), Louise Dresser (The Scarlet Empress), Flora Robson (The Rise of Catherine the Great), Alice Brady (The Gay Divorcee)

I don’t know much about Rieko Yagumo.  As far as the English speaking world is concerned, her only screen appearance was in my choice for the best picture of 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds.  Yagumo (on the right above) plays the disgruntled mistress of Sakamoto’s theater troupe leader and her characterization breathes life into what could have been a simplistic caricature of a woman scorned.  Yagumo doesn’t play Otaka as a scheming harpy (though she does scheme); she is instead an artist resigned to a life of poverty and depressed expectations.  The only happiness she gets is from Kihachi (Sakamoto) and when she realizes she might lose him her instincts set in.

Let’s be honest.  Looking at Otaka and Kihachi together, we know she could do a lot better than him, but he’s the best things around to keep her entertained and emotionally fulfilled.  She isn’t evil; she’s bored.  One evening as everyone sleeps, she mischievously eyes the piggybank of the young boy in the troupe.  She gently taps it, not because she wants to rob him (like his father); she just wants to see what will happen.  Yagumo delivers a quietly intense performance.  There is a coldness to her, but we know that coldness disguises bottled passion that has been put on hold for the duration of this stage of her life.  The idea that Kihachi could move on to a better and more stable life before she does is galling to her.  There’s a stunning moment late in the picture where she finally explodes, raging against Kihachi and her life.  In this scene all that passion is spit out, but is quickly suppressed for a later quite, resigned reconciliation scene in a train station.  It’s a perceptive and layered performance worthy of recognition.

2 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Performances

Best Supporting Actor of 1934 – Charles Laughton (The Barretts of Wimpole Street)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Boris Karloff (The Black Cat), Charles Vanel (Les Miserables), Michel Simon (L’Atalante), Henry Krauss (Les Miserables), Boris Karloff (The Lost Patrol), Sam Jaffe (The Scarlet Empress)

I chose Charles Laughton as the best actor for 1933 in The Private Life of Henry VIII and here in 1934 I am choosing him again for recognition, but as best supporting actor in the historical/ romantic (at least according to the publicity) picture The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  The movie lacks the passion or interest one might expect when watching the budding romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, two of the greatest poets of the English language.  One would think that they would speak to each other in more than platitudes and clichés.  It’s all mannered, stodgy, and it doesn’t help that two of my least favorite actors of the 1930s play Elizabeth and Robert: Norma Shearer and Fredric March.    The only time there is any sign of life in the picture is when Elizabeth’s tyrannical father Edward Moulton-Barrett creeps into a room and crushes any and all happiness and goodwill among the people in the room.

Charles Laughton plays Edward masterfully.  Later critics might look back at it and dismiss the performance as a dry run for a similar stickler for the rules character Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, but Laughton makes Edward more than a villain doing everything in his power to chain Elizabeth to him (physically and emotionally) and destroy her budding romance with Robert.  He adds unexpected depth to a thinly written character that a lesser actor would have turned into tyrannical stereotype.  With a simple uncertain, questioning look we see that he is a man who craves the love of his daughter, but because of his unyielding principles he cannot be flexible.  He isn’t a monster: like most people who behave monstrously, he only commits monstrous acts.  He believes he is in the right, unaware that he is using his power to shackle his daughter to him and helping to extinguish her love for him.  His best moments come when he isn’t speaking and we can see him struggle inside.  If he relents he loses his daughter, the only one of seven other children that he really loves.  He is a man trapped by his own emotional shortcomings and uncompromising nature, faults he could never recognize, thus assuring himself a life of solitude as he forces Elizabeth to run off and marry Robert.  Laughton simply does a great job and the movie would have benefited from more time with him, rather than the two boring leads.

5 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Performances

The Most Overrated Movie of 1934

I am going to start posting a brief note on the movie (or movies) that I think is highly overrated.  First up: a Capra classic.  It Happened One Night is probably the biggest name omission that didn’t make it on the list partly because the movie just isn’t any good.  I hadn’t seen it in quite a long time and I just assumed it would appear on this list, probably in the bottom half.  But I watched it again last week and I was stunned at how bad and boring it was.  It starts out fairly well, but the second half just goes on and on (and on and on … zzzzz).  And, as I’ve said before, I can’t stand comedy that relies on misunderstandings that don’t make sense.  Why couldn’t Clarke Gable tell Claudette Colbert he was going into the city?  Or – now here’s a radical idea – leave a note!  That way when she wakes up and you are gone, she won’t think you abandoned her and run back to her fiancé.  Oh, but I forgot, it was the Depression so maybe there was a pencil shortage?  That nonsense at the end is enough to knock the movie well out of contention and how it won so many Oscars, I’ll never know.  Claudette Colbert didn’t think much of Frank Capra or the movie (until, perhaps, she had Oscar in hand) and I think her instincts were right.  Capra’s son suggested it was a case of an actor not having the complete vision of the movie that the director had, but I don’t think so.  She knew bad writing when she saw it.  The only really good thing about the movie is Clarke Gable’s surprisingly jubilant performance.  (I say surprising because I’ve never been a big Gable fan.)  This movie is average at best and isn’t anywhere near as good as my bottom two on the list Happiness and The Thin Man.

6 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1934 (#1) – A Story of Floating Weeds

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan)

I’m not sure if A Story of Floating Weeds is considered one of Ozu’s best movies, but it is one that I really loved when I saw it a couple years ago and it held up well to a second viewing a couple of weeks ago.  Like so many of Ozu’s pictures, it examines the temporality of relationships and the desperation of loneliness without sappy melodramatic undertones.  The silent masterpiece opens on a motley theater troupe arriving in a small town in preparation for a series of performances.  The leader of the troupe, Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto), slinks away from his performers to see former mistress and her teenage son.  No one but Kihachi and the boy’s mother Otsune (Chouka Iida) know that Kihachi is in fact the boy’s father.  He has been sending money for his upkeep and education and visited occasionally as an uncle, not a father.

Kihachi’s nightly visits pique the curiosity of his current mistress Otaka (Rieko Yagumo), also a member of his troupe, who investigates and discovers the truth about Kihachi’s son.  Otaka’s jealousy leads her to hatch a cruel plot that eventually forces all the carefully hidden secrets out into the open.  I don’t want to give more away than this (which may already be too much for anyone who hasn’t seen the picture); this is a movie best approached fresh.

Like Vigo in L’Atalante Ozu exhibits a profound respect for working class people and privileges their stories and their relationships in a way few great filmmakers have (or do).  Ozu reminds us that great drama is not confined to the halls of ornate palaces or among the rich and famous; a simple story among common people can be just as moving and piercing as anything in Shakespeare.  His inherent humanism compels him to respect people of all class and situations and to faithfully tell stories that reflect the human condition.  And in A Story of Floating Weeds he succeeds admirably in telling a story that is relatable not just in Japan but around the world.

Also like Vigo, Ozu finds visual beauty in unlikely places.  A Story of Floating Weeds is beautifully photographed.  Ozu photographs the prosaic surroundings of his poor characters with thought and care, finding visual poetry in the unlikeliest of places – bowls collecting rainwater from a leaky ceiling, a dusty dirt road and gnarled tree.  There is an especially beautiful moment when Kihachi goes fishing with his son.  They stand knee-deep in water, casting their lines into the quickly running water with the mountains stretched out behind them on the horizon.  It’s a quiet, touching moment as we know Kihachi would like to open up to his son and tell him the truth, but he cannot.  It is one of those perfect scenes – perfectly shot, edited and acted – that come to define an entire picture for me.  But it’s only one of several throughout a masterful picture.

Kihachi didn’t abandon his son; he freed him and his mother from an insecure life.  There is a young boy – the son of one of the members of Kihachi’s troupe – that travels and performs with them, often in a raggedy dog costume.  Ozu allows us a glimpse at what Kihachi’s son missed or, more accurately, dodged.  The boy cannot trust anyone, not even his own father, who he catches stealing from his piggybank.  Will this boy have the same opportunity to attend school and get a good job?  We suspect not and slowly come to understand that Kihachi was not being selfish in leaving, but he was sacrificing for the boy.  Even later, when it looks like they will have the opportunity to build a father-son relationship, Kihachi still leaves, as though he knows that his life has been and always will be one of impermanence and transience and whatever they build will only crumble due to his own nature.  This is one of Ozu’s first films that deal with family, relationships and sacrifice.  Though many of the later are more polished, A Story of Floating Weeds is, for me, one of his perfect movies.  It wasn’t even a close call when I was choosing the best picture of 1934.

2 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1934 (#2) – L’Atalante

(Jean Vigo, France)

There isn’t a cinephile in the world who hasn’t wondered what Jean Vigo would have done had he not died so young.  He only made two features, my choice for the best picture of 1933, Zero de Conduite, and my choice for the second best picture of 1934, L’Atalante. He died at the age of 29 shortly after completing L’Atalante but made a lasting impact on French and world cinema on the strength of these two remarkable pictures.

I first saw L’Atalante in an undergrad class on French film many years ago and I have to admit I didn’t care for it all that much at the time.  I found it slow and didn’t particularly relate to the characters.  Since then, having put some years of experience under my belt, I have seen the picture three or four more times and each time I see it I love it a little more.  The boredom and inability to relate I felt fifteen years ago had more to do with my own inexperience than with any shortcoming of the picture.  The more I lived, the more I recognized the characters and could understand the subtext of the film.

The opening shots show us a wedding procession of a young, shy couple making their way through a sad looking French village.  We catch little snatches of conversation about how the man is a stranger and how the young girl always wanted to get out of their parochial village.  We learn the groom is the captain of a river barge and they will make their new life together in the close confines of the boat.  They walk directly from the church to his barge while the wedding guests look on, neither with sadness nor anger – they just look shell shocked, amazed that someone is actually getting out of the village.

At first Jean (Jean Dasté) is awkward, but attentive to the needs of his new wife.  His crew, a young cabin boy and a grizzled first mate Jules (Michel Simon), do their best to make their new “boss lady” welcome, but the signs of disappointment are immediately apparent on her face.  The boat is dirty and cramped, and the route won’t take them to many interesting places except Paris, which they may or may not have time to see.  This isn’t what she had in mind at all.

Juliette (Dita Parlo) wanted out of her small town life and we image Jean was the first chance of escape she saw.  Not that she married him only because his occupation could take her to exciting new places; she isn’t that calculating.  Perhaps though she mixed up her excitement at the experiences he offered her with love, something young lovers (and too often old lovers who should know better) often do.

The story explores the limits of Jean and Juliette’s relationship as it is strained by claustrophobic quarters, the intrusive cats of Jules, the fading luster of traveling up and down the Seine, and the normal disappointments every couple experiences after living together for a while as the monotony of everyday life overshadows the initial giddiness of love and lust.  Their small quarters highlight how weak their relationship really was from the beginning.  Jean is jealous of Juliette when he catches her talking to Jules in his room.  Jules has photos and souvenirs from his voyages around the world and she is fascinated by them.  There is never any threat of the two of them having an affair, but Jean is outraged, throwing objects around the room and telling her she cannot go to Jules’ room.  Jean doesn’t understand why she would need or want more companionship than him, as though she is supposed to anxiously wait for him when he is working, hang on his every word at meals, and only want to spend her free time with him.  This becomes an especially big problem when he takes her for her first visit to Paris and she attracts the attention of another man sending Jean into a jealous rage.

L’Atalante is a beautiful movie about the drudgery of relationships that picks up after the “happily-ever-after” and reminds us that the wedding bells that so often end films are actually just the beginning of a lifetime of drama.  Vigo de-romanticizes love and marriage by showing how hard it is to really make a marriage work, especially when its members come at it with differing expectations and are unable to articulate their feelings.  By setting his tale in the unglamorous world of shipping and populating it with working class characters Vigo lifts the glamorous veil off of love and demonstrates his profound respect for those who were (and still are) excluded from major motion pictures.

3 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Pictures