Category Archives: 1934

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.

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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.

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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.

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Best Pictures of 1934 (#3) – Les Misérables

(Raymond Bernard, France)

Raymond Bernard made the definitive version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of poverty, survival, duty, guilt, and all the other major themes, Les Misérables.  Other filmmakers have taken the bare bones of the plot and shoehorned it into a traditional movie run time, sacrificing characters and subplots that appear to be minor to the main story of Inspector Javert’s relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean.  By omitting the complete world Hugo created, other films have lacked the same depth that Bernard’s 1934 film captured.

We all know the story: a hardened criminal, Jean Valjean (Harry Baur), finds redemption through a series of incidents that convince him to lead a good life.  He becomes the mayor of a small town and adopts an orphan girl, Cosette.  But his past catches up to him when a police Inspector, Javert (Charles Vanel), recognizes him and Valjean is forced to go on the run.  Javert ruthlessly pursues the man through the vicissitudes of the 1848 revolution.  Valjean is willing to do anything to protect his adopted daughter, who has fallen in love with Marius (Jean Servais), a young revolutionary.

Bernard’s film, which runs about four and a half hours, develops not just Valjean, Cosette, Marius, and Javert, but other characters essential to the fate of all four.  Most noteworthy is the time he devotes to the wretched Thénardiers (Charles Dullin and Marguerite Moreno), especially after they have descended into abject poverty and hatch their plot to blackmail Valjean, Marius’ aristocratic uncle, the young Gavroche, Eponine, the almost saintly bishop, and the wronged chimney sweep boy.  By willing to linger over scenes, characters and moments, Bernard exhibits the same empathy for these characters that Hugo did when he created them.  Bernard is plainly passionate about the story and its characters.  We get the sense, for example, that Bernard could not have cut some of the early scenes with Gavroche because of his connection to the material.  How can we truly understand what Gavroche’s death means without understanding where he came from?

The picture isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection when so much is so special?  Sure the street barricade sequence probably goes on too long, but who cares when most others are handled so expertly?  I will sit through many poorly executed scenes for one great one and there are many more than one great scene in this movie.  Thinking back I remember Valjean’s evening with the bishop, his last act of crime against the chimneysweep, the final scene between Valjean and Javert in the carriage, and the trial of the man wrongly accused of being Valjean.  On the evening before the trial, as Valjean (now as Mayor Madeline) struggles with what he should do about the man falsely accused, Bernard spends a lot of time chronicling his internal moral debate.  How can he allow an innocent man to go to prison for his crimes?  But at the same time the only way to prevent it would be to confess and give up everything.  Bernard allows Madeline/Valjean time to grapple with the dilemma and the audience time to consider the implications of either course of action.

This scene is evidence that Bernard is more concerned with the moral development of the characters rather than the mechanics of the plot.  This is why this version of Les Misérables stands so strong: Bernard wanted to tell the story of redemption and sacrifice that Hugo told in his book.  I haven’t read the book since I was in high school, but after watching Bernard’s ode to Hugo and his characters I feel as though I understood the book better than I ever had.  It is a rare accomplishment for a movie to illuminate the themes of a book rather than obscure them.  Bernard’s dedication to Hugo shines through in this thoughtful, exciting, romantic, heartbreaking, and funny movie.

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Best Pictures of 1934 (#4) – The Goddess

(Wu Yonggang, China)

The Goddess is one of those movies you just sit back and soak in.  I often take little notes while watching movies, but I didn’t feel compelled to do anything other than stare at the screen and follow the journey of the nameless prostitute trying to raise her son and giving him the advantages she never had, something most parents want for their children.  Director Wu Yonggang put together one of, if not the, best movies to come out of pre-World War II China.  His style is fluid and graceful, his narrative is tight, and his themes are informed by history and politics without being bogged down by them (which was often the case with some of the prominent Leftist directors of China like Sun Yu and Shen Xiling, though they still managed to make some good films).

The story is simple enough.  A young woman (Ruan Lingyu) earns her living and supports her young son through prostitution.  She is “claimed” as a bride by a brutish leech of a man who terrorizes her, steals her money and threatens to sell her son if she tries to leave him.  Meekly and without enthusiasm she lives with the man, though she squirrels away most of her money in a secret hiding place so she can send her son to school.  As if things are not tough enough for the young mother, the women of her neighborhood resent her and take it out on her son, forbidding their children from playing with her son and starting a whispering campaign to have him expelled from school.

There isn’t a false note in the picture.  Ruan Lingyu, a popular Chinese actress of the 1930s who died not long after this picture, is sublime as the embattled mother and the boy who plays her son is absurdly cute and innocent.  The movie feels so true that it could have been made last year.  It does not shy away from tough or uncomfortable issues the way U.S. movies did at the same time (1934 was the year anxious prudes instituted the Hays Code in Hollywood, essentially eliminating any frank discussion of sexuality in U.S. film).  Wu does not demonize Ruan’s character for selling sex; rather she is exalted for doing everything she can to give her son what he needs.  The problem is no matter what culture we are talking about, no one seems to be able to accept a woman who has sex for money.  Her son will not be able to escape the shame of his mother’s profession as he grows.  The irony is, like most prostitutes, she isn’t in that line for kicks; it’s a necessity.  If she cannot make a living any other way, what is she to do?

I have read that the word “goddess” in Chinese was slang for a prostitute.  I don’t know if that is true, but it adds a certain irony to the flavor of the film.  Above all, I see this picture as a celebration of motherhood, which is more than a mother-child relationship, but the consummation of a mother’s entire being.  The woman’s only thoughts are how to improve the life of her son in a society and economy that offered women, especially single women, few legitimate economic opportunities.

That Wu’s The Goddess isn’t seen more today is a shame.  It is one of the greats of Chinese and world cinema, a pure example of simple stories exploring real relationships knocking the big budget blockbusters out of the water.  Luckily modern technology is making it easier to find; a kind and generous person uploaded the picture on You Tube and the next time you have a spare hour and a half I recommend you sit down to watch The Goddess.  The first of eight parts is here.

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Best Pictures of 1934 (#5) – Twentieth Century

(U.S., Howard Hawks)

“I despise temperament!”

What better target for satire than self-important, arrogant, delusional, selfish artists or, more specifically, the selfish artists of the theater.  Howard Hawks’ deliciously wicked screwball comedy follows the rise and fall (and rise again) of the romantic relationship of renowned Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and rising starlet Lily Garland, née Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard).  We enter the story as Jaffe is preparing a cast for a new production with a speech that we will come to know (though we suspect it as we listen to his overly rehearsed delivery) is his standard pep talk chalk full of love and harmony before his temperament takes over and to trample their egos.  We immediately get that Jaffe is the worst kind of artist – an intellectually hollow hack who substitutes unacknowledged self-promotion with uninspired, vapid art.

Jaffe discovers Mildred Plotka at this rehearsal when his star quits and, though she has no acting experience and exhibits no discernible talent for the craft, he decides through sheer arrogance and force of will to make her a star renamed Lily Garland.  Naturally they fall in a sort of love, but she grows more and more egotistical and he grows more and more jealous as his career goes south while hers explodes.  They eventually wind up on the Twentieth Century, a cross country train, where the sorry remains of their relationship come to a head as Jaffe tries to get Lily to star in a new play.

The dialogue in this movie shines.  Written by sometime-team Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (with uncredited help from Preston Sturges), the screenplay is one clever line after another, further reflecting the empty-headedness of the artists they were lampooning.  All they know is what they have read in scripts and seen on the stage.  (Lily:  “I tried to save you pain.  I lied, yes, only to save you.”  Jaffe:  “That’s from Sappho!”)  They are shallow people only exhibiting shells of emotions and have successfully tricked their theater-going patrons into believing they have something profound to say about the shared human experience.  Unfortunately the public has (and still does) lap up phony highbrow nonsense because it all seems so serious and worthwhile, so it must mean something.  They don’t want to be the only ones not to get it – whatever “it” might be.

Barrymore and Lombard shine throwing everything they had into their respective performances.  Barrymore hams it up, milking his years of theater experience, to pump Jaffe up full of pose and bluster but little of substance.  He is a man who feels emotions, but suffers from the delusion that he understands them better than the average person when in reality he hasn’t a clue.  And Carole Lombard’s Lily begins the picture as a shy, seemingly decent girl who rockets to stardom.  She has been groomed by Jaffe and uses his character and personality as a template for her own newly successful life.  She behaves the way she thinks respected and celebrated artists should behave, but with Jaffe as her model so she is just as clueless as he is.  They have deluded themselves into believing they are essential to the cultural landscape of the United States.  This isn’t surprising; a lot of artists inflate their own egos.  What is surprising is how easily people like this snooker the rest of the world into believing their own hype.  Twentieth Century furiously and cleverly parodies not only these people, but also the rest of us who sing their praises and are blind to their intellectual and emotional emptiness.  It sounds heavy, but it is nothing but fun.

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Best Pictures of 1934 (#6) – The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (U.S., Josef von Sternberg)

Sternberg continued his work with Marlene Dietrich at Paramount with The Scarlet Empress, a lavish biopic of Russia’s eighteenth century Catherine the Great.  We follow the young German princess as she is sent to as a bride for the heir to the Russian throne, Peter (Sam Jaffe).  The current Tsarina, Peter’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) arranged for the marriage in the hopes that it would settle her reckless and unstable nephew and provide an heir for the Romanov dynasty.  Instead Catherine’s presence only seems to make things worse for Peter, igniting bouts of jealousy and paranoia.  These are all disturbing traits in the heir to a throne, but when Elizabeth dies and Peter takes over his unbalanced mind turns disastrous with Catherine caught in the middle.

Dietrich delivers one of her best performances as she transforms from a quiet girl to a confident leader.  We nervously watch this shy, good-natured German princess thrust into the intrigues of the Russian court and into the arms of an insane and cruel husband.  She is convincing as the innocent, naïve girl (no small feat after the public had already seen her in The Blue Angel, Morocco, Dishonored and Blonde Venus); she almost whispers her lines in timid acquiescence, as though being noticed would expose her as a fraud.  Her disappointing and terrifying experiences in Russia teach her about life at court and how to use power.  I love the scene where she realizes she can have lovers and nervously flirts with Count Alexei (John Lodge) in the stable, testing the waters but not yet confident enough to fully utilize her intelligence, beauty and charm.  Dietrich’s Catherine would use these assets, buffeted by her razor sharp mind, to lead a revolt and overthrow her husband’s despotic reign and take power as Empress Catherine.

I think we need to acknowledge the movie’s explicitly anti-Russian bias, though I clearly don’t think this bias is fatal.  The opening of the movie declares Russia’s history to be defined by “ignorance and cruelty,” as though the rest of Europe hasn’t had the same history.  And Catherine is framed as a salve – Germanic, no less – to this backward history; one of the many title cards proclaims that she was on her way to “the Kremlin to temper the madness of the holy Russian dynasty.”  Isn’t it enough to tell her remarkable story without diminishing an entire country’s history?  I’m sure there was an anti-Communist subtext running through the film, subtly declaring that Communism is simply the next logical step in Russia’s backward history (so don’t bother dabbling with Marxism; look how crazy these people are!).  At the end, after the successful coup, we see Catherine derive her authority and legitimacy from the military and the church.  The obvious question in 1934 would have been what happens when they take the church away as the Communists did?

Despite this unnecessary distraction Sternberg has made a beautiful and compelling picture.  Like all of his pictures it is beautifully photographed, but this one is darker than most of the others he made at Paramount.  The foreboding world of the palace that he constructed stands as great art all by itself.  The sets are dark and macabre, decorated with ghoulish statues and candelabras – skeletal fiends often peppered with arrows and faces contorted into grimaces of misery.  Sternberg’s vision of the palace cloaked in shadows and dust is wholly unrealistic, but terribly effective.  Massive doors which take several people to push open and closed and suffocating religious icons everywhere define Sternberg’s vision of a backward palace and government limping along the same as it had been in the time of Ivan the Terrible.  Members of the royal court might ape the fashions of Western Europe, but their minds and government remain bogged down by the weight of their history.

I prefer to ignore its anti-Russian point of view and focus on Catherine’s story and the look of the picture.  The performances are also dazzling.  Dietrich, as I said, is fantastic, but she is backed up with some effective supporting performances especially Sam Jaffe as her mad husband and Louise Dresser as the outspoken, no-nonsense Empress Elizabeth (in an anachronistic but completely delightful performance).  The joy is not in disparaging Russia, but in watching the development of this insecure wallflower discover her power in both intellect and sexuality and how she learns to use both to further her power and modernize Russia.  It is truly one of Paramount’s, Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s best.

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