1.) M (Germany, Dir. Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang plays with our emotions and expectations in M, the best movie of 1931. We begin the stylishly directed film on the lookout for a child murderer, but the movie is less about why the killer (Peter Lorre) kills children or the hunt for him, but it is about the corruption of Weimar German society. The police, desperate for some clues about the killer’s identity, crack down on the criminal underworld of the unnamed city. The leaders of the underworld, stifled by this crackdown, decide to track down the killer themselves. So while the police investigate using modern criminology, the underworld uses their own methods to find him. Lang’s technique is brilliant showing how the police and the criminals thrive off of and are dependent on each other. A cynical man might ask why the police don’t apply this level of pressure to the underworld at all times if they are truly concerned about crime. And, conversely, how can criminals adorn a mask of righteousness when they finally catch Lorre and put him through the paces of a kangaroo court? Lorre’s appointed “defense attorney” points out that one of the judges has several prior manslaughter charges himself. But Lorre’s character says it best when he pleads for his life. He tells his self-appointed judges he is sick; he has a compulsion to kill and can’t help it, but they, the one’s sitting in judgment of him chose to lead a life of crime.
Can those who made that conscious choice really stand in judgment of someone who is clearly mentally ill? It’s a provocative question and Lang assaults our senses and emotions throughout this masterful picture in exploring the answer. It’s also remarkable that Lorre’s character, monstrous in his actions, becomes a figure for – not pity, that isn’t the right word – but some sort of identification that most films wouldn’t dare to attempt for a child killer. Lang isn’t advocating letting child killers loose or inspiring sympathy for them, but he uses Lorre’s character to illustrate society’s destructive dual personalities. Modern filmmakers would have trouble pulling off what Lang did here.
2.) City Lights (U.S., Dir. Charles Chaplin)
It was really a close call for me between M and City Lights for the best picture of 1931. M only slightly edged out Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece and, depending on my mood or the quality of argument presented to me, I would switch them out quite easily. Chaplin made a uniquely funny and moving silent picture – the silent part was daring for Chaplin in the new era of sound. But his gamble paid off and the picture was a success, both artistically and commercially. Chaplin plays his iconic Tramp who has arrived in a big city. There he becomes smitten with a beautiful blind flower seller. Due to a mix up, the girl (Virginia Cherrill) believes Chaplin to be a rich man. To maintain the illusion of his wealth, Chaplin gets a job as a street sweeper to help pay her rent. Later he saves a drunken millionaire from killing himself who embraces Chaplin as his best friend. However, the gag is that once the millionaire is sober he doesn’t remember Chaplin and refuses to believe that he would buddy up with a tramp. Chaplin’s quest becomes to raise the money Cherrill would need for an operation that would restore her eyesight. He tries many things with great comic effect, like an uproarious boxing match. Chaplin does a wonderful job of mixing comedy and sentiment. The first time he sees Cherrill he stand gazing at her in awe as she washes out her pail at a faucet. He is transfixed on her beauty and it’s a quiet, beautiful moment, surprisingly interrupted by Cherrill throwing out the water into Chaplin’s face. Chaplin was a master at moments like these. The last few minutes of the picture though are pure tear-jerking sentiment that still gets me after having seen it half a dozen times.
3.) Mӓdchen in Uniform (Germany, Dir. Leontine Sagan)
Two years before Jean Vigo made his classic critique of French boarding schools in Zero de Conduite, Leontine Sagan made Mӓdchen in Uniform, a story about the stifling effects of a girl’s boarding school. Hertha Thiele plays Manuela, a young girl sent to a school run by a strict and rigid headmistress. There she falls in love with her teacher, Fraulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck). The way this film treats the subject of lesbian attraction and love is refreshingly frank and non-judgmental, something almost impossible until recent decades. Manuela and the other girls find their same-sex attractions natural as their sexuality begins to emerge in an all-girl environment. And von Bernburg tries to repress her own attraction to Manuela and the other girls, but when she can’t continue to repress her feelings for Manuela tragedy results. This movie was banned in the U.S. and later Nazi Germany because of its “decadent” subject matter, but the movie is far from decadent. It explores taboo love, but there is nothing decadent about love. It isn’t clear if Manuela is going to actually grow up to be a lesbian; it is possible that in hormone-clouded puberty she has mixed up her need for maternal love with sexual attraction. But von Bernburg is in love with Manuela and her indiscretion is the greater crime. (The French teacher doesn’t tell her she shouldn’t have romances with the girls, she just tells her she needs to be more discreet.) It’s a landmark of both German and gay and lesbian cinema. It has been hard to find in recent years, but some generous people have kindly uploaded it to You Tube.
4.) Frankenstein (U.S., Dir. James Whale)
Adaptations of books often are slammed for not following the original source closely. James Whale’s Universal production of Frankenstein is one of those rare examples of a loose adaptation actually working. We all know the story of the obsessed scientist who builds a man from corpses and brings him to life. What we might not have expected was the way Whale and Boris Karloff as the Monster bring humanity to that which most of us would be afraid if we saw him lumbering down the street. For me Frankenstein is a tragedy more than a horror movie for both the entwined fates of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation. Much like Sissy Spacek in Carrie more than 40 years later, this movie has been lumped into the horror genre because of some horrific situations. But if we pull past the horror elements in both we see they are tragedies about the intolerance of society to those who are different and how people with limited capacity for judgment might lash out against the society that excluded them. Since both Frankenstein’s Monster and Carrie had been so thoroughly excluded from society the only way they knew how to strike back against the cruelty directed toward them was through violence. Though Mary Shelley might not recognize much of it, I think Frankenstein is still a beautiful and tragic movie.
5.) The Public Enemy (U.S., Dir. Howard Hawks)
Prohibition helped make a lot of criminals very rich (much like the War on Drugs has done today). The U.S. in 1931 saw headline after headline about gangsters flaunting the law and being rewarded for their brazenness. It’s no surprise that Hollywood would have been attracted to their sordid, but fascinating tales. Howard Hughes produced one of the best pictures of this era about the scourge of crime sparked by Prohibition. The picture catapulted James Cagney into stardom as Tom Powers, a young man who has grown up in the streets watching criminals live the good life. He and his pal join up with a gang and over time he rises to the top. Of course there can’t be a happy ending for an unrepentant criminal so the end is pretty much preordained. What makes The Public Enemy different is its depiction of Powers’ relationship with his generous and trusting mother (played wonderfully, as always, by Beryl Mercer) and his brother, a man made cynical but wise from his time fighting in the First World War. Tom’s brother resents the easy way out he chose to take while so many others suffer because of him. The last scene is still shocking to me no matter how many times I see it, not so much because Tom gets it, but because of the heartless way his killing is shown to his mother. James Cagney’s performance anchors the film and made him a star. I think his performance and the film hold up well today.
6.) Little Caesar (U.S., Dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
Jimmy Cagney personified the tough guy in The Public Enemy and, to an extent, glamorized Powers’ life. (The worst thing that happens to Tom is at the end.) Edward G. Robinson did many of the same things in Little Caesar but went a step further by depicting the extent of the rot a life of crime can cause in one’s life. Robinson plays Rico, a young man who comes to the big city to make his mark. Along for the ride is his best friend Joe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). Rico greedily eyes a criminal career, but Joe is more interested in dancing and the two part ways. Soon though Rico becomes suspicious that his old friend might betray him and one of the main tensions in the film is whether Rico will kill Joe. Not only will a life of crime end in violent death (like Tom in The Public Enemy and Rico here), but even while living even (or maybe especially) the most successful criminals with all the cash they could ever need have to live a life of mistrust and anxiety about those they previously thought of as loyal friends. Is there enough money to compensate for insecurity?
7.) Tabu (U.S., Dir. F. W. Murnau)
This is one of those movies I went into not really expecting to like, but ended up being completely captivated by this tale of tragic love and colonial exploitation. (Tragedy seems to be a recurrent theme for the movies of 1931.) Murnau and Robert Flaherty collaborated (not without tension it seems) to make this tale of the South Seas. In Bora Bora, a strapping young man (Matahi), falls in love with the lovely Reri (Ann Chevalier). But their plans of future happiness are derailed when the Tribal Elders choose Reri to be a maiden for the gods. She will have to remain a virgin her entire life. The punishment for breaking the oath would mean death for both the maiden and her lover. Matahi can’t accept this fate and, breaking the taboo, flees with Reri away from the island. They eventually end up on an island colonized by a Western power, but things don’t get easier as they strive to stay together despite voracious money lenders and agents from Bora Bora looking for them. Flaherty felt that Murnau, who rewrote the script, relied too heavily on a traditional story rather than the more naturalistic films Flaherty specialized in. It’s true that the story is a fairly traditional love story, but there is so much insight into life on an island in the South Pacific that it really blends the best of both Flaherty and Murnau. And the two main actors, Matahi and Ann Chevalier, are both attractive figures who have undeniable chemistry. They are the sort of couple that audience take one look at and want them to live happily ever after. That quality is essential for an effective romance.
8.) Five Star Final (U.S., Dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
The Front Page is the newspaper movie from 1931 that is better remembered mostly because, I think, Howard Hawks used the story for the much better 1940 movie His Girl Friday. For me, The Front Page is a little too formal and doesn’t have half the energy that Hawks gave the remake, cleverly turning the fast paced melodrama into a screwball comedy. The better newspaper movie from 1931 is the nearly forgotten Five Star Final with Edward G. Robinson as an editor of a major metropolitan newspaper pressured to do anything and everything to get the big story and boost circulation. The Front Page hinted at criticism for the cynicism and ruthlessness of newspaper men, but in the end the heroes are still the journalists. Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final took the critique head on and did not shy away from demonizing journalists who will lie, cheat, and take advantage of innocent (and often simple minded) people. The crux of the story involves the paper’s publisher convincing editor Joseph Randall (Robinson) to do a retrospective on a crime committed 20 years before. A secretary shot her employer after her knocked her up, but refused to marry her. The former secretary has by this time married Michael Townsend, a respectable man, raised a daughter, and put the incident behind her. Her daughter, about to be married to the son of a wealthy family, knows nothing about her mother’s past and her parents hope to keep it that way, but the impending story threatens their secret. Randall is ambivalent about doing the story, but understands things like this are an intricate part of his job and grudgingly goes along. One of the sleaziest things done to get the story is when reporter Boris Karloff pretends to be a priest and wins the confidence of the Townsends. He then uses the information they told him in confidence to write his story. LeRoy, without any subtlety, takes on unethical journalistic practices and finally has Randall take responsibility for the tragic outcome the story. Much more effective than The Front Page.
9.) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (U.S., Dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
Despite some rather juvenile ideas about good and evil and some disturbing (if veiled) racist makeup for Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde (picture on the left), this is probably my favorite version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mamoulian’s hand is so confident in this picture; he wasn’t afraid to be creative (something many directors are ironically timid about) with wonderfully fluid tracking shots, makeup, and camera effects. There is a wonderful tracking shot in the beginning of the picture that includes about a minute when the camera is looking directly in a mirror. There was a brief moment when I wondered how he did it before catching on to the fairly simple trick being employed without any special effects. March was never one of my favorite actors; he is often too rigid and formal for my taste, but I think those qualities work for his Dr. Jekyll. And he seems to have been freed by the makeup when he becomes Mr. Hyde to truly become scary and threatening, certainly more effectively than Spencer Tracey in the same role ten years later. And the woefully underrated Miriam Hopkins steals scenes from everyone else. Mamoulian was one of the best directors of the Hollywood studio system. He proved time and again that Hollywood did not necessarily stifle innovation and creativity and Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a strong example of this.
10.) The Champ (U.S., Dir. King Vidor)
Yes it’s pure sentimentalism and unabashed melodrama. Yes it’s sappy with a touch of corniness. But it’s all of those things done so well. King Vidor, with the help of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper turned the hokey story of scrappy Dink’s (Cooper) turbulent life with his worthless, alcoholic father, ironically known as Champ (Beery) into something more. Beery was once a successful boxer, but years of drinking have taken their toll; he does all he can to scrape together enough money for him and his son to live by fighting in minor matches. Dink’s mother re-enters the picture and wants her son back. She believes that she and her new husband can give Dink a better life. Both Champ and Dink resist, but soon Champ comes to see she is right and tries to send Dink back to his mother (heartbreakingly by telling Dink that he doesn’t love him anymore and even smacking him to prove it). Well, needless to say Dink and Champ find their ways back to one another, but not for long. There is only one way Dink would leave the father he loves so dearly, and the last scenes with Cooper crying frantically over his father’s body, are stirring. I like what Time said about the movie at the time: “Utterly false and thoroughly convincing, The Champ is a monument to the cinema’s skill in achieving second-rate perfection.” I think this is exactly right. Vidor lifted up material most directors would have surrendered to the realm of cheap melodramatics and turned it into a classic still worth seeing.
Other Noteworthy Picture: Le Million (France, Dir. René Clair).