Category Archives: 1935

Best Pictures of 1935 (#1) – The Bride of Frankenstein

(U.S., James Whale)

How hearts must have sunk when Universal announced plans to produce a sequel to their great (loose) adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  What else was there to do but exploit and tarnish the legacy of the original film?  That studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. didn’t rush the picture into production after the massive success of the original should have encouraged fans.  Laemmle allowed screenwriter William Hurlbut time to develop a story that didn’t simply repeat the premise of the original.  Instead Hurlbut expanded on the movie’s themes, continuing to explore the ethical and moral quandaries of Dr. Frankenstein’s work and tracing them to their horribly logical conclusions while considering our natural garrulousness and our conflicting aversion to anything new or out of the ordinary.

Boris Karloff brought an unexpected depth to Frankenstein’s Monster and builds on his accomplishment in this picture.  All of his pathos, confusion and pain are articulated more clearly here as the Monster’s grunts and groans are replaced by rudimentary speech.  (“Alone bad.  Friend good.)

So the Monster isn’t a monster at all, a fact we in the audience knew all along.  This makes his exile from society all the more heartbreaking.  He doesn’t understand why most everyone reacts with horror when they see him.  His violent outbursts usually result from people’s overreactions; he just wants them to stop screaming but becomes frustrated when he can’t reason with them and lashes out.  Only a blind man, blissfully unaware of his physical grotesqueness, opens his home and heart, giving the Monster an all too brief glimpse at the joys and possibilities of companionship.

The companionship he craves though is idealized, unrealistic.  Consider the relationships of the “normal” people in the movie:  Hans and Helga’s obsessive attachment to their dead daughter, Edward and Elizabeth’s frustratingly unconsummated marriage, and Dr. Pretorius’s vicious hold over Edward.  The Monster’s desire for a bride, a task assigned to Edward and Dr. Pretorius, is doomed to fail like all the other relationships in the movie.  No one considers the possibility that the Monster’s bride will have a mind of her own and be just as repulsed by him as everyone else.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the rare sequel that surpasses the original.  It is also one of the rare horror movies that isn’t satisfied with titillating or frightening the audience.  Like Night of the Demon, Night of the Living Dead, and Carrie, it has something more to say about the human condition.  Whale wants us to reflect on the dichotomy between our overwhelming (sometimes obsessive) need for human companionship and our conflicting aversion to anything different.  That these are contradictory impulses (after all, isn’t everyone different in some way?) is lost on most of us, but Frankenstein’s Monster bitterly learns this lesson at the end of the picture.  He is lost; hopefully the rest of us, rather lamely symbolized by Edward and Elizabeth, are not.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#2) – Ruggles of Red Gap

(U.S., Leo McCarey)

This is simply the finest comedy of the year, featuring Charles Laughton in another superb performance.  (For those who pay attention I chose Laughton as the best actor in 1933 for his work in The Private Life of Henry VIII and as best supporting actor in 1934 for The Barretts of Wimpole Street.)  Like most great comedies Ruggles has something to say beyond its attempt to make us laugh.  It celebrates the freedom and opportunity the United States offers to all comers (as long as they are white of course, more on that later), over the antiquated socio-economic rigidity of Europe.  Sure McCarey and screenwriter Walter DeLeon may lay on the American Dream stuff a bit thick, but the movie still reminds us of the ideals that have helped to make this country so great even as small minds tried (and still try) to undercut them.

Charles Laughton plays Ruggles, a gentleman’s gentleman who is lost by Lord Burnstead in a poker game to the uncouth and unrefined cattle(?) tycoon from the American West.  Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) is mortified at the idea of having someone serve him and insists on treating Ruggles as an equal, much to Ruggles’ initial discomfort.  But Egbert’s wife Effie (Mary Boland) sees Ruggles as crucial for sprucing up her embarrassing husband and raising their social standing in their hometown.

When the Flouds take Ruggles back to Washington State, Ruggles begins to shake off the metaphorical shackles that have bound him his entire life.  Since Egbert treats Ruggles as his equal everyone in town assumes Ruggles is a British gentleman, not a valet.  Ruggles, much like many new Americans, begins to understand that he is no longer under obligation to a repressive social system and the man blossoms, eventually opening up his own business and initiating a romance with a local woman (played by Zasu Pitts).

This movie doesn’t challenge the veracity of the American Dream, the assumption that we have more opportunity for advancement than the crumbling empires of Europe, but reifies it.  But even in 1935 this wasn’t entirely true and today even less so, when for the first time since World War II, we will have a generation that will be poorer than the generation before it.  And it parrots the unintended irony of the American Dream: that while everyone slaps Ruggles on the back and tells him he is just as good as the richest man in town, no one considers bestowing the same treatment on the Black maid or the Chinese cook.  In fact, at one point someone offhandedly observes that there used to be a restaurant in town owned by a Chinese man but someone shot him because he didn’t know how to cook ham and eggs correctly. (“He was always doing something Chinese to them.”)  I’m not sure that it would be correct to read this as an implicit critique of the racial limitations of the American Dream; the filmmakers appear to be as clueless on this matter as the characters in the story.

Despite these ideological problems, Ruggles is still a wonderful movie.  Laughton’s performance is spot on, perfectly capturing a stuffy valet with a long repressed sense of humor and worth.  It is well worth seeing, just be prepared for a heavy dose of American Exceptionalism.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#3) – The Informer

(U.S., John Ford)

The Informer was something of a passion project for John Ford, but RKO was less than enthusiastic about bringing this dark, depressing tale of poverty, betrayal, guilt and the endless cycle of hate to the screen.  (Of course any movie we call a “passion project” is almost always by definition opposed by studio execs.)  RKO finally relented, but only gave Ford $250,000 to make it.  Ford cut corners, including waiving his own salary, to bring this picture in on time and under budget, but it still flopped.  It was not until it won several Oscars, including a best actor award for Victor McLaglen, that audiences discovered it and turned The Informer into a major success.

Ford transports us to British occupied Ireland 1922.  Institutional poverty and British oppression weigh heavily on the city of Dublin.  Hulking Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) is worse off than most.  He was once a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army but was cut loose after he failed to carry out an assassination order.  Now he tries to exist on the fringes of both British authority and Irish loyalty, neither side ready to completely embrace him.  He scrapes together a meager living, though he can’t save his girlfriend Katie (Heather Angel) from a life of prostitution.

They dream of leaving Ireland behind and sailing for the United States, but the tickets are prohibitively expensive at £20.  That’s a small fortune for Gypo, Katie, and just about everyone else in the city.  However, Gypo finds a solution: the authorities are offering, as if by divine providence, a £20 reward for the capture of an IRA member who happens to be Gypo’s close friend.  Since he no longer has a stake in this fight for independence, he determines to turn him in and use the reward to take Katie to the United States.

That their potential escape comes because he sacrificed a friend’s life gnaws at Gypo’s conscious.  He immediately begins spending some of his newly earned blood money on alcohol to assuage his nagging guilt.  Meanwhile the IRA leadership launches an investigation to find the informer and Gypo isn’t covering up his tracks too carefully as he gets drunker and spends more of the money everyone knows he shouldn’t have.

Ford’s mise-en-scéne, dominated by oppressive shadows, ominous fog and sparse lighting, is clearly influenced by the films of German Expressionist directors.  Though his limited budget probably necessitated the judicious use of dark (a director doesn’t have to pay for that which we cannot see), Ford used his limitations to elevate the material.  He made a picture that succeeds in breaking out of the studio system’s cookie-cutter look; it has a personal vision in a system that discouraged individual perspective.  There is a wonderful shot early in the picture when British troops break into a house.  They splinter the door and light pours into the dark room from outside.  The soldiers burst into the room as faceless silhouettes.  It’s a visually stunning moment that heightens the drama of the violent moment, but also buttresses the idea that violence, direct or indirect, is always easier when we reduce our victims to non-human status.  The British and Irish clearly detest each other, but their hatred is broad and non-specific, like the silhouetted figures breaking into the house.

John Ford doesn’t just elevate the visuals.  He took a mediocre actor, Victor McLaglen, and, from all reports, painfully extracted a great performance from him.  The day before they filmed the climatic trial scene, Ford told McLaglen he wasn’t needed the next day and he shouldn’t worry about his lines.  Apparently Ford knew he would go out drinking if he thought he had the day off, but when Ford pulled him into film, the hung over and belligerent actor delivered exactly what Ford wanted.  (And I would venture to guess McLaglen delivered something he would not have been able to on his own.)  The Informer, more so than any other Hollywood movie of 1935, illustrates that the studio system wasn’t always oppressive of a great director’s vision.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#4) – The 39 Steps

Hitchcock loved to muse over how ordinary men would react to extraordinary situations.  spies mistaking ad exec Roger Thornhill for federal agent George Kaplan in North By Northwest, L.B. Jeffries witnessing a possible murder in Rear Window, Guy Haines fatefully chatting it up with the psychotic Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train, and Benjamin and Jo McKenna stumbling into an assassination plot in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  One of the first of these “wrong man” Hitchcock films is the fast-paced and supremely entertaining nail-biter The 39 Steps.

The story begins casually enough.  When Richard Hannay, a Canadian living in London played by Robert Donat, stepped into the London music hall, he was expecting an evening of entertainment and relaxation.  Instead, gunshots interrupt the performance and in the confusion a beautiful woman with an indistinct accent attaches herself to him.  Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) asks him to take her back to his place and, more amused than anything, Richard agrees.  At his place she plays cloak and dagger, closing the blinds before they turn on the lights, refusing to allow him to answer the phone.  She tells him she is a spy and there are men after her.  Of course Richard doesn’t believe her and tells her to go to sleep.  But when she bursts into his room in the middle of the night with a butcher’s knife in her back he figures she was probably not the loon he first pegged her as.

Hannay spends the rest of the picture running for his life from the local police who think he murdered the woman and enemy agents who think he knows too much.  The little he does know is he must race to Miss Smith’s contact in Scotland to stop a crucial national defense secret from being smuggled out of the country.  However Hitchcock constantly keeps our equilibrium off, rarely allowing us to get comfortable.  Everyone Hannay thinks he can trust turns out to be untrustworthy and the one person he knows he can’t trust, a beautiful woman skeptical of his story (Madeline Carroll), turns out to be the one he depends on the most.

We can feel Hitchcock’s delight when he toys with the audience, a devilish exuberance that would come to define his later pictures.  Even those considered heavier like Psycho and Frenzy had light moments that punctuated their somber stories.  In The 39 Steps Hitchcock continually reminds us that this is all play acting and he’s just having a bit of fun: when Hannay is mistaken for a politician at a local meeting he stands up, despite not knowing the man’s political affiliation, and gives a speech full of the vagaries hack politicians are praised for.  It is a clever sequence in which Hitchcock reminds us that none of it is to be taken seriously.  Lives and national defense plans may be at stake, but it’s all in service of amusing and entertaining us.  Hitchcock would refine his themes and techniques in later movies, but The 39 Steps is still an entertaining quality film.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#5) – Wife, Be Like a Rose!

(A.k.a. Kimiko, Japan, Mikio Naruse)

Naruse made an absurd number of movies in 1935.  Most were mediocre at best (like The Girl in the Rumor).  Wife, Be Like a Rose! though is where most of his creative fire went.  It’s one of those movies, like Mizoguchi’s Poppies, that are quiet and sparse, but the more we watch, the more layers of emotional and visual complexity we find.

Young Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba), a modern city girl is close to being ready to marry and she needs her father, but he has deserted her and her mother in Tokyo.  He left the city and moved to a small village with another woman and their children, much to the shame of his wife and adult daughter in Tokyo.  Their only contact with the man is money he sends them on occasion, only cash with no letter.  Kimiko resolves to go to her father’s village and bring him back both for her cold and distant mother, who is more interested in writing emotionally-charged poetry than expressing her own feelings, and for herself.  She knows she will have to brave the horrors of his other life, including the woman with whom he consorts, a former geisha clearly using the poor weak man unable to resist a beautiful young woman.  But this must be done if the geisha’s crafty spell is to be broken and her father is to be returned to his real family.

But her trip reveals that not all is as it seems and Kimiko is forced to reassess her assumptions and expectations.  Naruse also forces the audience to discard their prejudices and look at people and their relationships in a fresh way.  He is especially impatient with the stories we hear about people, usually from third parties that always giddily tell second hand stories about people they barely know.  Gossip often shapes our views of people; we make our determinations based on unreliable sources and unyielding prejudices.  Naruse wants us to reconsider our assumptions and look at the world with impartial eyes.

The movie is powerful and emotional without melodramatic hysterics to distract from the quiet, deliberate pace of Naruse’s direction.  This is a welcome change from the increasingly moralistic storylines coming out of Hayes Code Hollywood in which no one who transgresses, especially in matters of sexuality, can live happily ever after.  Naruse and other Japanese directors like Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi showed a higher degree of sophistication and insight into human nature than much of what was coming out from the U.S. and Wife, Be Like a Rose! is one of the best examples.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#6) – Alice Adams

(U.S., George Stevens)

Alice Adams (Katherine Hepburn) desperately longs for acceptance from and admittance to her small Indiana town’s upper crust society.  She precariously hangs onto the edges pretending with all her might that she belongs, though she more often than not simply embarrasses herself when assuming airs inconsistent with her humble middle class station.  Mostly due to sympathy or childhood friendship (when grownup boundaries are happily absent) some of the rich kids invite her to dances or other functions.  These are moments of joy and hope for Alice: for a few brief hours she can pretend she belongs and she can fantasize about a future in which she will be saved from the horrors and shame of secretarial school.  Though she clings to these hopes, the others rarely consider her anything more than at best an oddity, at worst a joke.

That she isn’t a debutante rankles her mother (Anne Shoemaker).  She has long believed that if her husband (Fred Stone) had shown any initiative he could have made a fortune with a glue formula he invented.  Instead Mr. Adams chose to remain a faithful employee for Mr. Lamb (Charles Grapewin), who has taken his formula and let it sit gathering dust and now Mr. Adams has taken a leave of absence because of ill health.  Mrs. Adams advocates for her husband to take the formula, open his own factory and make the family’s fortune.  Mr. Adams has always refused, citing ethical concerns and loyalty issues, but these heady problems are only intellectual parlor games for his wife.  She wants a concrete, stable future for her daughter who, in her view, is meant for something more than a humdrum middle class (lower middle class at that) life.

But Alice loves her father too much to blame him for any of their economic or social shortcomings.  After all, he’s done his part: he has worked hard and supported his family.  For Alice, it isn’t his fault that he is too sick to work or that he has ethical concerns about taking the formula.  Alice’s affection for her father trumps her social ambitions.

The picture opens with Alice preparing for one of the rare dances she is invited to and her mother browbeating her reluctant brother Walter (Frank Albertson) to take her rather than go out to a jazz club.  At the dance, while being ignored by everyone including her brother who disappears to roll dice with the house servants, she is noticed by Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray), a rich kid new to town.  Arthur is intrigued by Alice’s innocent nature and much to everyone’s surprise, most of all Alice, Arthur falls for the girl. But Alice isn’t confident enough to tell Arthur the truth and spends much of the picture pretending she belongs to his world.  She piles one lie on another until a disastrous family dinner.

The end of the picture is rosy, but Alice should be fated for disappointment as Booth Tarkington intended in the novel on which this movie is based.  It would have been much stronger had RKO not discarded Tarkington’s end, but there is an undeniable charm to the happy ending.  I think it speaks to the strength of the script, George Steven’s direction, and Katherine Hepburn’s superlative performance that the weakened end does not diminish from the movie’s worth.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#7) – A Night at the Opera

(U.S., Sam Wood)

Though not the strongest Marx Brothers’ movies, A Night at the Opera still stands as one of the great movie comedies of the 1930s.  Their move from Paramount to MGM didn’t dehydrate their creative juices the way Buster Keaton’s move to MGM did.  Instead the Culver City studio polished the Marx Brothers’ subversive humor, though their rougher Paramount pictures still work better.

As always the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, and Chico) toss our expectations out the window.  In the past Groucho often nipped at the absurdities of high society, usually embodied by Margaret Dumont, as an outsider tenuously holding on to society’s edges.  In this picture, Margaret Dumont’s Mrs. Claypool is the one on the outside and she has hired Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) as the unlikely guide for her into the nearly impenetrable walls of New York society.  Driftwood’s gimmick is for Mrs. Claypool to endow a fund for the opera.  Throw into the mix an arrogant star tenor, a thwarted romance, and a raucous trans-Atlantic voyage and we have all the necessary parts for A Night at the Opera.

The comedy in this picture is more restrained than in Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, and Horse Feathers, but their ability to make a less anarchic movie work speaks to their versatility.  Groucho is less edgy, less biting – he’s sacrificed the twinge of misanthropy for an increased level of benevolence, especially for the Allan Jones-Kitty Carlisle characters.  Groucho’s character had often been rather indifferent to the romantic storylines, but here he actively helps the wayward lovers overcome the obstacles to their union appearing more as a fairy godfather than Captain Spaulding or Rufus T. Firefly.

This time around their anarchy has a point.  It isn’t anarchy for the sake of glorious disorder.  To get young Allan Jones’ struggling singer on the stage and facilitate his romance with Kitty Carlisle, the Marx Brothers disrupt a production of Il Travatore, blackmailing the opera manager into putting Jones on the stage.  They exchange music with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the infiltrate the cast of extras, and monkey with the backgrounds.  (“A battleship in Il Travatore?!”)  All of this is quite funny, but we are left acutely aware that we are seeing a transition; their madness has been contained and co-opted making the Marx Brothers kinder and gentler for a broader audience.

These reservations don’t diminish the accomplishment of this picture.  There are wonderful moments, including the rightfully famous cabin scene on the ship.  This is also the last time the Marx Brothers would make a movie that really works.  Their subsequent movies like A Day at the Races, The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca sought to recreate the success of this picture, but they mostly fell short.  A Night at the Opera stands as the Marx Brothers’ last great movie.

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