Category Archives: 1933

Best Pictures of 1933 (#1) – Zéro de Conduite

The joy that went into making this homage to childhood and indictment of the French boarding school system is enough to make it the best picture of 1933.  Sure, it is technically unpolished, eschews a traditional narrative structure and runs only about 40 minutes, but in that brief time with rough tools Jean Vigo composed a truly great film.  We watch life unfold for the students at a typical French school for boys.  Four of the school’s students, Caussat, Colin, Bruel, and Tabard, constant troublemakers, plot a revolution to coincide with annual Commemoration Day ceremony.  We don’t see anything especially egregious or unjust occur against the children that would justify such a drastic reaction, but that is exactly Vigo’s point: the institution, the entire system is inherently repressive, but we’re not sensitive to it because we have been climatized to the inevitable injustices that the rigors of standardized behavior impose on us.  That’s just a fancy way of saying we don’t fully relate to the students because our schools have done their jobs and sucked the fun out of (most) of us.

We watch the secret life of these young boys with relish, perhaps eager to reconnect with our own childhoods.  This is clearly what Vigo intended.  We feel Vigo’s strong identification with the freedom of childhood and his sorrow at its inevitable extinction.  Most of the adults in the picture are grotesque caricatures of adulthood: the Headmaster is extremely short with a bushy beard, the House Master is totally silent, never speaking through the entire movie, and the biology teacher is enormously fat.  Their abnormalities suggest deeper neuroses.  The Headmaster is pompous (would it be a cliché to suggest he suffers from a Napoleon Complex?).  The House Master lurks around the school like a spy, but he uses his access to the school’s rooms to steal from the students.  And there are hints that the obese biology teacher may have at least tried to initiate a sexual relationship with Tabard.  Clearly the adulthood for which the school claims to prepare the children doesn’t have much relationship with the values of its own administrators.

Vigo understands this tension and exploits it fully.  His use of surreal elements (the disappearing ball, the self-correcting drawing, the dummies in the audience) reinforces the idea that, just as a movie only presents an approximation of a situation or place, a school also only exists as an approximation of real life for its students.  The school in this movie is isolated and aloof from the world, so instead of preparing its boys for life outside their walls, all they are doing is molding them with arbitrary and claustrophobic rules suited for an institution (like a prison), not a life supposedly of freedom and liberty.  It’s no wonder this movie made the French government nervous and banned it upon its release.

We can assess just how accomplished this movie is by comparing it to Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 If…, a remake of Zéro de Conduite.  (Some say it is only inspired by Vigo’s picture, but the story and characters are essentially the same so it’s a remake.)  Many people admire Anderson’s satire of British boarding schools, but I’m not one of them.  All of the joy and spontaneity of Vigo’s picture is sapped out of If… with its expanded story, glossier production values, and misguided decision to make the students older teenagers rather than adolescent boys.  Where Vigo’s use of surrealistic fantasy suggested an unpretentious homage to the secret life of children, Anderson fumbles with similar material, simply confusing his themes and the audience.  In 1968 Anderson showed that, with a more fully fleshed out script, a better budget and a longer run time, he couldn’t recreate the visceral joy we get when watching the original unpolished 1933 production.  Zéro de Conduite is not only the best film of 1933, but one of the best films ever.

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Best Pictures of 1933 (#2) – The Private Life of Henry VIII

The Private Life of Henry VIII (U.K., Dir. Alexander Korda)

I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the best movies of 1933 without including a discussion of Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII starring Charles Laughton as the eponymous king.  Aside for Laughton’s fantastic performance (many of the popular myths about Henry come about because of this movie and his performance), the movie is a surprisingly funny and poignant examination of the life of a man many have argued was beyond redemption (much less comedy).  The movie may be far from historically accurate, but even I, as an historian, don’t care because Korda and Laughton have such fun getting us from point A to point B.

We skip his first two marriages, just coming in as Anne Boleyn is being beheaded so Henry can marry Jane Seymour.  This is a shame since, as anyone who has read Hillary Mantel’s great novel from last year Wolf Hall, can attest, his cantankerous divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne are fascinating episodes in both Henry’s life and in the history of England.  Merle Oberon is compelling as Anne Boleyn in the few scenes she has before losing her head, and it would have been interesting to see what she would have done had she more time with the role.  And I would have been interested to see what Korda would have done with the role of Catherine.

But that is the power of this movie.  We want to see more, rather than, as so often happens, we beg for the end credits to role.  We want to spend more time with these characters, even if it means pushing the film’s run-time over the traditional two hour mark.  Each marriage the movie chronicles – first to Jane Seymour, then to Anne of Cleves, then to Katherine Howard, and finally to Catherine Parr – takes on a character of its own.  With Jane (Wendy Barrie) he has a loving if rather paternal marriage that ends with her death giving birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I.  His brief marriage with the German princess Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) is classic high comedy, as she cleverly cons her way out of the marriage so she can be with the man she loves.  The bulk of the movie is devoted to his seemingly happy marriage to Katherine Howard, whose betrayal leaves him a broken man.

The movie would not have been successful without the blustering and high spirited performances of Charles Laughton.  He embodied everything popular culture has come to associate with Henry VIII: a confident swagger, vulgar gnawing on chicken bones, a hearty laugh, and a mercurial temper.  I don’t know if this is really what Henry was like, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was.  Plausibility: isn’t that all we really want from our historical fiction?

Henry VIII is one of those rare movies that effectively intertwines scenes of comedy and drama without contradicting itself.  There is no confusion over tone because we instinctively recognize that power to a man like Henry is alternately great fun and even greater heartache.  We also recognize that love and companionship come harder and at a greater price for a man with so much power.  At the end we take away a more sympathetic view of a king who has been demonized by history without completely accepting his brash arrogance and mercurial temper.  That Korda and Laughton were able to accomplish this complex task and produce a timeless movie is a treat.

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Best Pictures of 1933 (#3) – The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (U.S., James Whale)

There isn’t a more compelling or stylish horror/thriller from the 1930s than James Whale’s The Invisible Man, a movie I consider better than classics like Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House.  Whale (and a laundry list of screenwriters) was smart enough to skip all the boring background and jump right into what we came to see: an invisible man playing havoc with the world.  We don’t care about all the boring experiments and gradual mental deterioration, especially when we already know exactly where it is going.  (It’s hard to avoid that when they put it in their title.)  So the movie begins with scientist Jack Griffin already invisible, covered from head to foot in a hat, gloves, dark glasses, and bandages covering skin that should still be visible so as not to betray his non-visual-friendly state.  Taking a room at an isolated country inn to continue his research and, hopefully, become visible again, the mysterious man makes life miserable for the innkeeper and his wife (Forrester Harvey and, in a treasure of camp, Una O’Connor).  Upon trying to evict him, Griffin reveals his invisibility and assaults the inn keeper and anyone else who tries to apprehend him.  The police are called in, but Griffin strips down nude and escapes killing an officer in the process.

What has happened to the once respected Dr. Griffin?  His colleague and friend Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan) investigates discovering a partial list of the chemicals he used for his formula including one that causes insanity.  The race then intensifies to catch the man as he becomes more dangerous both to himself and others.

This is a wonderfully effective movie that takes substantial risks that pay off.  There is no traditional protagonist in the picture.  Kemp would seem to be the obvious choice, but he turns out to be a rather gutless lead.  And the obligatory romance is stunted: Griffin spends most of the movie invisible and insane and has little time to spend with his grieving fiancée Flora (Gloria Stuart) between all the killing and robbing.  We do have to sit through Henry Travers playing a mentor of both Kemp and Griffin, but he is sadly miscast; he delivers his lines with so little confidence that we can never take him seriously.  Despite this glaring casting flaw, the rest of the movie shines in an almost non-stop chase for the invisible killer.

The leading man and the romance are eliminated because Rains’ Griffin is really the protagonist despite all the crimes he commits.  He stands for everything we fantasize about doing if we were suddenly blessed (or cursed?) with invisibility.  Who hasn’t wished to be invisible at some time or other?  The things we could see, the secrets we could learn.  (I’m reminded of Mia Farrow in Alice using the invisibility potion to spy on people in her life.)  The warning of Whale’s movie though is where would we draw the line?  Once we have eavesdropped on a private conversation or peeked at someone in the shower, what would prevent us from taking another step across that moral and ethical line to theft?  And once we became addicted to the power afforded us by invisibility can we honestly say we wouldn’t also protect our privilege with physical violence?  The movie uses the insanity-causing chemical to vitiate Griffin’s guilt so he can have a moment of redemption at the end, but was the introduction of that compound even necessary?  I don’t think so because based on human nature anyone who becomes addicted to the power afforded by invisibility would more than likely react in a similar fashion.

The strength of this movie is its confidence in obliging us to identify with a madman who, incidentally, we don’t see for most of the picture.  It is always gratifying to see a filmmaker subvert our movie-going expectations in ways that enrich our understanding of both what is happening on the screen and in the world around us.  The Invisible Man is an unlikely candidate for such lofty cinematic goals but it does succeed, making it one of the best movies of 1933.

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Best Pictures of 1933 (#4) – Duck Soup

Duck Soup (U.S., Leo McCarey)

The nation of Fredonia is nearing bankruptcy – again.  The nation’s richest woman, Mrs. Teasdale, has bailed out the treasury once before, but she is less willing to fork over the money this time without radical changes to the government.  She wants Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) appointed Prime Minister, but the ministers are outraged: he is a loose cannon, a radical, etc.  That, she tells them, is the point.  They need bold leadership and Firefly is the only man who can save Fredonia.  So Firefly is appointed and he leaps out of bed to take power singing: “The last guy nearly ruined this place/ He didn’t know what to do with it/ If you think this country’s bad off now/ just wait ‘til I get through with it.”  He doesn’t pretend he’s going to fix everything and no one seems to care.  They are just glad they have someone new.

This is a pretty good rough outline of how most fascist governments come into power.  A crisis catapults a charismatic personality into leadership who is always very specific on who to blame, though less so on what to do.  Without taking a Marx Brother’s movie too seriously we immediately understand that Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is mocking Europe’s fascist leaders like Benito Mussolini, a figure history would regard as a buffoon had he not had Hitler’s Germany with which to ally.

While Groucho is having fun poking fun at the conceits of power, Chico and Harpo enter the scene as spies hired by Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of Fredonia’s rival Sylvania.  They spend more time selling peanuts and annoying a neighboring lemonade salesman (Edgar Kennedy) than doing any “spy stuff.”  Groucho, attracted by Chico’s bellows from the street, offers him a job in his cabinet, a clever send up of how totalitarian governments are subject to personal whim rather than sound policy.  Meanwhile, Firefly and Trentino are competing for the romantic attentions of Mrs. Teasdale wonderfully played, as always, by Marx Brother’s regular Margaret Dumont.  This personal rivalry leads to diplomatic complications between their two nations, something with which Firefly is blissfully unconcerned.

Duck Soup has been criticized for not having much of a plot, but I think that is one of its strengths.  There are so many witty lines, double entendres, and classic sight gags, like the mirror routine, that we don’t much care about the flimsy plot.  Plus the fluid narrative allows the Marx Brothers free rein to subvert our expectations at every turn.  The raucous and unpredictable structure of the movie mirrors the fascist governments they were lampooning; the incredible irony about fascism is though it purports to be about law and order, the regimes depend on illegal and unethical actions to stay in power, or, in the absurdist worldview of the Marx Brothers, they are ridiculous people who grab power by flaunting their insincerity and intellectual dishonesty as strengths to a populace eager for simple answers.  This dichotomy made fascism a perfect ideology for the Marx Brothers to satirize: they always relished the opportunity to expose the cracks of hypocrisy in culture and society and there is nothing more hypocritical than fascism.

Perhaps this explains the movie’s disappointing box office in 1933 and its mixed critical reaction: Americans were not ready to take on Mussolini or, beginning in 1933, Hitler in such a lighthearted manner.  No one knew what these dictators were going to do and faced with that kind of uncertainty many must have found it hard to laugh.  Luckily time has reclaimed Duck Soup as a classic of U.S. comedy and one of – if not the – best of the Marx Brothers movies.  And for those looking for something more substantial, it can also be read as a biting satire of political fascism, well ahead of Charlie Chaplin’s tackling of the same material in The Great Dictator.

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Best Pictures of 1933 (#5) – The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Germany, Fritz Lang)

Fritz Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in a fit of ill-placed optimism.  Produced on the eve of the National Socialist takeover of the German government, Testament is a thinly veiled jab at the manipulation of fear as a tool of politics.  Lang issued the warning but the ending of the picture suggests he had sufficient faith in the people and institutions of Germany that they would prevent anything truly disastrous from happening.  (Whoops.)

The film opens with one seemingly unrelated crime after another, which disorients us; we have no idea what is going on.  We watch various criminals execute odd and sometimes contradictory orders from a disembodied voice – blackmail a bank official, but don’t take money, invest in drugs but hand them out for nothing, kill anyone who talks.  We don’t understand the point of these random crimes but then neither do the criminals.  Some, like a dandy gunman, relish their criminal roles while a for-hire counterfeiter, Kent (Gustav Diessl), struggles with the escalation of the crimes while falling in love with the absurdly moral and pristine Lilli (Wera Liessem, one of the weaknesses of the picture).  The heart of the movie though lies with Otto Wernicke who reprises his role as Detective Lohmann from Lang’s M.  Lohmann is tireless in his work, slowly piecing together the facts that connect seemingly disparate and unrelated crimes – including a jewelry store robbery, the disappearance of a former colleague, and the murder of a prominent doctor – back to the same insane asylum.

Lang has revived Dr. Mabuse (played again by Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the master criminal and hypnotist from his 1922 hit Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler.  He has been housed in an insane asylum since his capture where he has remained in a semi-catatonic state, silently scribbling notes day after day.  These notes are collected and consumed by Dr. Baum, Mabuse’s psychiatrist.  Obsessed with the notes, Baum (Oscar Beregi) uses them to initiate his own empire of crime by assembling a team of thieves and murderers to execute Mabuse’s vision.  Slowly the point, if we can call it that, becomes horribly clear.  Mabuse’s notes constitute a plan to usher in a “Reign of Crime” by subverting confidence in the government’s ability to protect, undermining the economy, and fostering a general epidemic of crime and anarchy.

Dr. Mabuse’s “testament” only works in an already corrupt and unstable society and was clearly a metaphor for the rise of Nazism, which matured under those conditions in the Weimar.  In one of his first acts Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels banned the film, claiming that it undermined confidence in Germany’s leaders.  Baum’s tirade about the state of their degenerate society sounds suspiciously like a speech Hitler might have delivered, in effect putting Hitler’s words in the mouth of a madman.  But what the movie’s bigger offense, which Goebbels no doubt recognized, was to expose the tactics of a regime that politically profited off of fear.  The arsonist who burned down the Reichstag would prove to be a prime example of how Nazis exploited fear for their own power.  Whether the arsonist was a Communist, a Nazi, or disgruntled sausage stuffer is irrelevant:  Nazis used the fire to stoke fear in German voters of a Communist revolution and push the government to strip civil rights away from citizens, creating the basis for a police state.  Lang would have been close to wrapping up production when the results of the Reichstag fire confirmed many fears that he addressed in Testament but it would be too late.  The upbeat ending, that told its audience that good will always overcome the forces of evil, that Baum could not succeed because decent people like Lohmann and Kent will always be there to stop them, looked less likely.  Nazis stormed into power sending Lang into exile with no Detective Lohmann to check them.

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Best Pictures of 1933 (#6) – 42nd Street

42nd Street (U.S., Lloyd Bacon)

As much as I love Gold Diggers of 1933 I have to admit that 42nd Street is probably the better movie, but not by much.  We have essentially the same formula we saw in the other two great Warner Bros’ musicals of the year, Gold Diggers and Footlight Parade, but this time Bacon and choreographer Berkeley do a better job of weaving the comedy, drama, and music together into a classic picture about pluck and determination in an indifferent world.  There is an underlying desperation throughout 42nd Street that highlights everything we see, from the lowly showgirl up to the director of the show.  Warner Baxter plays Julian Marsh, a once great director who’s down on his luck ever since the Crash of ’29 and he needs a hit – or, more to the point, he needs cash.  But the financing of the show, “Pretty Lady,” is as capricious as the nation’s economy: the sugar daddy of the show’s star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) agrees to finance it and as long as the wealthy businessman, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), is kept happy with Dorothy’s flirtations the show and the livelihoods of everyone attached to it will go on.  Is Abner willing to pull the money when he discovers Dorothy may not have been faithful to him?  This is just one of many situations that threaten to derail the show.

The showgirls, regulars Lorraine and Annie (Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers) take newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) under their wing despite tough competition in the auditions.  They school the first time but talented performer in the ways of the theater while she flirts with the show’s lead Billy Lawler played by the inexplicably busy actor on the Warner’s lot, Dick Powell.  (I mean who liked this guy?)  Like in Gold Diggers and Footlight Parade we see how nearly four years of depression toughened up the young women of the United States (because these are really movies about the women, all the men save Julian Marsh are almost incidental except as love interests).  Instead of demur girls only working until they can find a man to take care of them, we see women slogging through tough jobs for the love of performing and the necessity of a paycheck.  And they aren’t shrinking violets either.  They are sharp and caustic.  When the stage director snarls at Ginger Rogers to put some feeling into her performance, she simply glares at him and shoots back, “What do you want me to?  Bite my nails?”  These moments must have been, if not shocking, at least disconcerting to a country that only recently began subverting many Victorian notions about the proper place and demeanor of women.

But 42nd Street’s strongest asset, despite this movie’s focus on the women, is Warner Baxter.  He is fantastic as the maniacal director trying to prove himself again while staving off another nervous breakdown.  Baxter swings between moments of sheer lunacy and quiet resignation.  He is a man desperate to make this show work even if it kills everyone in it and himself.  I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say the big show comes off as a success, so it isn’t giving anything away to talk about the nice job Baxter does as he listens to the reactions of the audience as they leave the theater.  They all love the show, but diminish his contribution to its success.  Clearly the star made the show, they say.  Why was he so arrogant as to splash his name all over the show?  Without the star, it would have been nothing.  Which is true only to a point – we know he put it all together and talent, without good direction, doesn’t add up to much.  Baxter subtly evolves through the scene from dejection to resigned acceptance.  He wanted recognition, to prove to the world that he could direct a great show without stars getting all the credit, but he sadly accepts his status in the public eye as a guy pretending to direct naturally talented people who could have done it all without him.  The show is a success and Jordan Marsh will get the money he so needed, but he still won’t get the recognition he craved – the recognition that in the end may have been more important to him than the money.  It’s a bittersweet moment reminding us that success cannot be measured by dollars, but sometimes it’s the best we can do.          

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Best Pictures of 1933 (#7) – Queen Christina

Queen Christina (U.S., Rouben Mamoulian)

Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina purports to relate the story of the seventeenth century Swedish queen’s life and reign, but is so far from reality that it’s a miracle the movie is as good as it is.  Mamoulian and screenwriters H.M. Harwood and Salka Viertel avoided any historical context and invented a storyline that not only isn’t accurate, but obscures the true reasons for Christina’s abdication of the Swedish throne in 1654, probably in an effort to placate a religiously diverse U.S. population (more on that in a moment).  The good news is the fictional story they tell is worth seeing in its own right, a tale of the clash between forbidden love and national (and, at the time, the intertwined religious) duty.

Greta Garbo delivers one of her most accomplished performances as the emotionally embattled queen.  She chaffs under the social confines of her royal station, periodically donning common clothes (as a man no less) and venturing into a Sweden over which she rules but has little direct contact.  It is on one of these trips, when she gets snowed into a country inn, that she meets and falls in love with Antonio, the Spanish ambassador played by John Gilbert in one of his last roles.  Her relationship with Antonio causes a fair amount of scandal.  Not only did most assume that she would marry national war hero Karl (Reginald Owen), but Catholic Spain is a natural enemy of Protestant Sweden and had been fighting on opposite sides of the Thirty Years War for – well, almost 30 years.  Christina labors to balance her duty as the leader of a Protestant nation and her love for a Catholic man, ultimately ending in her abdication of the throne.

This movie would end up higher on my list had the studio not skirted the issue of religion and the wars waged over it.  We know that Sweden has been heavily involved in the Thirty Years War (which concluded in 1648), but Mamoulian avoids probing the causes of the war – both the religious and diplomatic (not necessarily different things at time).  Catholics and Protestants are vaguely defined and as far as what we see on screen the friction might as well have been caused by divergent pound cake recipes rather than the theological and geopolitical quarrels that tore Europe apart.  In reality Christina secretly converted to Catholicism well before she abdicated and her abdication was directly related to her inability to reconcile her religious beliefs with her obligations to Protestant Sweden.  (After her abdication she moved to Italy and became a fixture at the Vatican.)  These would have been fascinating aspects to explore, but Mamoulian and MGM eschewed frank discussions about religion.  After all, they were trying to sell their product to a religiously diverse nation and probably wanted to avoid appearing to take the side of any specific denomination.  Instead of dealing with the touchier (and potential richer) subject of religious intolerance, they fell back on a standard love story trope.  But the fact that Mamoulian is able to create a compelling love story out of this bastardized history lesson is telling of his skills as a filmmaker.  Garbo and Gilbert are, as always, magnetic together, bringing tenderness to their parts that would have been missing had they remained faithful to the historical record.  I don’t like to see history willfully ignored in movies, but when it is I hope to see it in a movie as well done as this.

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