Category Archives: 1936

The Most Overrated, Tiresome Movie of 1936 – The Great Ziegfeld

It may not be fair to call this the most overrated movie of 1936.  Maybe at the time it was overrated – it did win the Oscar for best picture and Luise Ranier snagged her first of two consecutive Best Actress statuettes – but I don’t think there are many who continue to admire it today.  I have to think that the ill-advised nod from the Academy may still steer unsuspecting classic movie lovers to The Great Ziegfeld, but be forewarned.  It is an overblown mess, devoid of emotion, historical context, or biographical information.  The only things going for it are a couple of pretty good musical numbers and a few sincere performances.

Though intended as a biopic of legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell), we don’t learn anything about the man we couldn’t have learned from a blurb.  It was a nostalgic trip for older viewers in 1936 who remembered the acts and shows Ziegfeld popularized from the 1890s to the 1920s, especially the Ziegfeld Follies.  But the movie isn’t any more ambitious than nostalgia, serving up one scene after another depicting how he discovered (or stole) his greatest hits like Anna Held (Rainer) and Fanny Brice (jollily played by herself).

There was a slew of much better movies that were better contenders for best picture.  Any one from my list would do, but also others like Dodsworth and Show Boat (which Ziegfeld coincidentally produced on Broadway).  This wasn’t the first time the Academy flubbed it, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  They have rarely gotten it right, but they usually pick a movie that is at least good by some standard.  This was one of their worst best picture choices and it’s enough to make me wonder how the Oscars became so prestigious.  

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1936 (#1) – My Man Godfrey

Apologies for my lapse in postings over the past few days.  I ran the Long Beach Marathon on Sunday and I have been recovering since then.  Needless to say the pain in my legs has trumped any desire to write and post.  I am now back on track, so on with the best of 1936…

My Man Godfrey

(U.S., Gregory LaCava)

Many (if not most) would probably consider this the wrong comedy to choose as the best picture of 1936.  I’ve already explained why Modern Times, most people’s choice for the best picture of the year, is number four on my list.  Like Chaplin’s classic, My Man Godfrey uses comedy to critique the capitalistic chaos and economic determinism that ruled (and continues to rule) people’s lives in the years of the Great Depression.  Without Chaplin’s overt sentimentality, LaCava’s My Man Godfrey makes its points with finely tuned satire and witty comedy.

We get the absurdity of our unofficial but no less perfidious class system, in which dingbats like Irene and Angelica Bullock prosper while hardworking people like Godfrey and his fellow “forgotten men” languish in the junkyards.  It’s a strange system where Godfrey faces stiff penalties for allegedly stealing a necklace, but Cornelia gets off with a withering look for framing Godfrey (or trying to anyway).  Our economic inequalities are legally codified: a spoiled girl’s necklace is more valuable than a working man’s life.

When Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) finds Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump during a wickedly insensitive scavenger hunt that calls for its participants to trot in a “forgotten man,” she takes an immediate interest in him.  She is moved and thrilled by the way he tells off the empty-headed society snobs for using down-on-their-luck men in their silly game.  Irene, delighted at his brazen contempt for her peers, offers the man a job as her family’s butler.  Godfrey embarks on the challenge of keeping together the insane Bullock family while putting his own life back together.  He prides himself on doing a good job even when it is not appreciated or deserved.  He goes out of his way to make sure breakfast is served on time, clothes are pressed, and the family doesn’t crumble under the weight of their own selfishness and arrogance while attempting to navigate Irene’s romantic aspirations.  All the while, Godfrey uses his newfound resources to put his old friends from the junkyard back to work without the knowledge of the Bullocks.

The wonderful part of this picture is that LaCava and screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind subtly make it clear that we can’t improve the economic health of the country without improving it for everyone.  We can’t ignore some for the benefit of others, a lesson timid politicians in Washington and myopic Freidmanite economists would be wise to consider today when the gap between rich and poor is startlingly wide, maybe even wider than in the 1920s.  This might sound heavy for a comedy, but LaCava made a movie for us to laugh.  The Bullocks aren’t despicable people; they are silly and empty-headed.  One could argue that they are victims of economic disparity as well, albeit victims who eat incredibly well.  They have, however, been duped into believing their money proffers value on them as people, making any other accomplishments besides a good time superfluous.

I’m afraid I am making this movie sound more serious than it is.  Trust me, if you don’t want to think about these issue while watching this movie, you don’t have to.  It’s a comedy, pure and simple, and it is the most satisfying and entertaining movie of 1936.

 

4 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1936 (#2) – Osaka Elegy

(a.k.a. Naniwa erejii)

(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Mizoguchi’s strong empathy for women continues in this beautiful movie about the double standards women faced in 1930s Japan – a country perilously teetering between tradition and modernity.  We see pieces of traditional life being shed away in favor of modernity, but changes in women’s positions are not keeping up with these unnerving changes.  Mizoguchi uses the tragic tale of Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada), telephone operator for a pharmaceutical company whose commitment to her family leads to her downfall, to argue for greater flexibility for women in Japanese society.

Ayako’s family depends on her without realizing or acknowledging her worth.  Her father has been thrown out of work after his company discovered he had embezzled a large sum of money.  Ayako now struggles to pay back the money to keep their father, who spends more time drinking than trying to find a job, out of jail.  Ayako’s younger daughter attends school and their older brother is away at college.  At various times Ayako sacrifices her reputation and life to save each of her family members.  Early in the picture she succumbs to the advances of her boss and becomes his mistress, accepting his money to pay her father’s debts.

Most of her family doesn’t understand what she has done for them (especially her brother who avoids expulsion from school with her anonymous money), so as stories about her being kept by an older man or being arrested for blackmail trickle back to them, they are deeply ashamed and shun her.  There is a poignant scene near the end of the picture when Ayako tries to reconcile with her family but they can’t see past her transgressions, ignoring or failing to understand why she did what she did and how their lives are now better because of her.

Mizoguchi, in his quiet and compelling way, lashes out at his nation’s continued hypocrisy over changing values in just about every area of society except those that involve women.  Osaka Elegy is a beautiful, heartbreaking film where we understand why Ayako does what she does, but we can’t understand why her family refuses to let her back in.  It is this absurdity that Mizoguchi wanted us to ponder as we walk away from the theater.  That Mizoguchi chose to characterize the story as an elegy suggests it never mattered what Ayako did; by stepping out of her traditionally assigned role, even to help her family, she was doomed to tragedy.

2 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1936 (#3) – Sisters of the Gion

(a.k.a. Gion no kyodai)

(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Few films in 1936 dealt with the lives of prostitutes with the same compassion and empathy as Mizoguchi does in Sisters of the Gion.  Mizoguchi, famous for his proto-feminist films, used the extreme exploitation of the socially lowest women (geishas) to comment on the position of all women in Japanese society and he was less than optimistic about their futures.

In this film we follow the divergent paths of two geishas who are also sisters working in the Gion, the red-light district of Kyoto.  Both sisters approach their jobs and their relationships with men differently.  Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) feels an emotional connection to her clients and holds onto a very real sense of obligation for their patronage.  She even goes so far as to take in a former client who has gone broke and has been deserted by his family.  Umekichi believes her relationships with long-term regular clients are symbiotic – they are there to benefit and support each other.  In a sense, she plays out marital relationships with them.

Umekichi’s younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada), on the other hand, abhors men.  She identifies them solely as a means to an end, using them for what she can get out of them, even getting one man to essentially steal from his employer.  Her philosophy is that if men treat her like any other commodity – an object to be bartered over – she needs to extract whatever (mostly) material benefits from them she can before they take advantage of her, as she believes is inevitable.  Through all of her cooing and cajoling we see little true emotion toward her clients (like her sister would exhibit), but that lack of real emotion is what vain, self-centered men want: attention from a pretty young girl without the messy complications of romance or responsibility.  She plays the part well until she doesn’t need the man anymore, discarding them no matter what the repercussions.

Mizoguchi has presented the two extremes of women’s relationships with men.  In neither of them, he tells us, can women become truly independent or successful on their own terms.  Their lives are always intertwined with men’s.  Their destinies will be determined by the often men, consciously or not.  Can women carve out a middle ground between Umekichi’s hopeful subservience and Omocha’s coldhearted manipulation?  Perhaps, but Mizoguchi isn’t confident.  Both Umekichi and Omocha face disaster despite their differing approaches to men.  Though they represent the extremes, where would the middle ground be?  Where would a woman be able to succeed without a man, either as a husband or as a patron?  In both cases, men would determine how far a woman could go and how independent they would be.  Mizoguchi laments that a woman has to hope for a decent man in her life if she has any chance of being even marginally happy.  This is no way to live, as both Umekichi and Omocha discover in Sisters of the Gion, one of Mizoguchi’s earliest masterpieces.

2 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1936 (#4) – Modern Times

(U.S., Charles Chaplin)

Blasphemy!  I have not chosen Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times as the best picture of 1936.  So many writers who have embarked on similar projects have chosen this movie for its top spot that it has almost become perfunctory, like Vivien Leigh as best actress in 1939 for Gone with the Wind.  While it is still a great movie, it isn’t a perfect; some lag time in the second half pushes a few other movies ahead of it on my list.  I do, however, still like the movie a lot (it is coming in at number four on my list), I just wish the entire picture could have been more consistent like some of Chaplin’s best (City Lights, The Gold Rush).

When Chaplin critiques modern industrialized and mechanized life, the movie shines.  Just about every gag works in the early scenes set in a factory in which Chaplin’s Tramp is an employee.  The grinding tedium of assembly line work causes one hilarious mishap after another (including one borrowed heavily by Lucille Ball for her classic chocolate factory scene) until Chaplin snaps, running rampant through the factory and on the street.  One of the most famous scenes of the picture questions just how far we are going to allow mechanization to overtake our lives: the trial of the mechanized eating machine.  Its inventor describes it as the industrialists answer to the pesky and expensive lunch break.  Now employees can strap into the eating machine and continue to work as it seamlessly feeds them.  Of course once Chaplin is ensconced in the massive machine for a demonstration, it goes haywire, treating Chaplin to a food bath rather than a meal.  Ultimately the owner of the factory declines to invest in the machine because it isn’t “practical” – not because it’s dehumanizing and unethical.  Had the machine worked, the owner of the factory would have invested heavily in the product and his assembly line workers would have been robbed of what little time they have to themselves during the day.

The introduction of Paulette Godard as a young ward of the state is less convincing; she’s clearly too old for the part and I don’t buy her as the plucky survivor.  Chaplin is trying to recreate the touching relationship he had with Virginia Cherrill in City Lights, but he never connects with Godard in the same way.  Though the movie drags a bit as their relationship develops, there are still some great moments in the second half, including Chaplin trying to make himself at home in a decrepit shack or when he goes to work as a waiter and attempts to deliver a roast duck across an uncomfortably crowded dance floor.

Modern Times may not be the best movie of 1936, but it is still very good, both as pure comedy and as an impassioned argument against the dehumanization of modern life.  Maybe if he had stuck with these themes and eliminated much of the tiresome romance with the girl, I would like the movie enough to place it in the top spot.

6 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1936 (#5) – Mr. Thank You

(a.k.a. Arigatȏ-san)

(Japan, Hiroshi Shimizu)

Hiroshi Shimizu is a director who has largely been ignored by history, though over the past several years the tide has begun to turn as more film historians have rediscovered this wonderful director (leading to a Criterion DVD release of four of his pictures).  Shimizu was a keen and perceptive observer of Japanese society and how economic changes delivered cataclysmic shocks to the same people they were meant to help.  He was ambivalent about the alleged benefits of industrialization and empire building, wondering when the promised days of milk and honey would come trickling down.  Mr. Thank You is a sincere attempt to grapple with how economic uncertainty jostles people’s lives, disrupts traditions, and undermines familial relationships.

The movie follows the driver and passengers on a bus as it moves through the countryside of Japan, from a small town to a large city.  Passengers embark and disembark, interrupting narratives and beginning new ones, as we would expect on any bus trip.  This restrains (or frees, depending on one’s perspective) Shimizu from using a traditional narrative structure.  Instead, he gives us a series of glimpses at the lives of everyday Japanese folks.  Throwing them all together in a vehicle of public transportation zeros in on the hardships of modern life and how people, traveling from one place to another, cope with them.  We meet some menial laborers going from one worksite to another, a shady middle-aged man clearly hiding from the authorities, criminals, or both, a hard-edged “working girl,” and a true aristocrat heading home from a hunting trip, though we are unsure why he would need to take a bus.  Two passengers thread through all the other stories: a mother taking her daughter to the city where she will be sold into a life of prostitution.

The eponymous Mr. Thank You (Ken Uehara) is the driver of the bus, a face of cheer among his passengers and the people in villages along his route.  His is the epitome of friendliness and politeness; his name derives from his cheerful and sincere shouts of “thank you” as slower vehicles or people on the road move aside to allow him to pass.  He represents the compromise between traditional Japanese values and modernity.  He drives a modern (though clunky) bus, but has found a way to make his mechanized, regimented and time-tabeled job compatible with traditional concepts of honor and respect.

Shimizu was slyly commenting on the pace of industrial growth in Japan.  He didn’t besmirch growth and development, but wonders when we’ve gone too far.  The ending of Mr. Thank You could not have occurred without the slow and steady pace of the bus, allowing some of the passengers and the driver to get to know each other, to get involved in their personal dramas, and resolve to help.  If they had sped along faster, or the driver had refused to engage in conversation with his passengers, things would have turned out differently.  I wonder if the speedy sports car that zooms past the bus several times is a metaphor for the rapid change inflicted on Japan.  After all, the bus makes it to where it’s going, while the sports car, despite its flashy promise, breaks down on the side of the road.  I think it’s fitting for an unfashionable sputtering bus, mules pulling carts, and peasants on foot with goods strapped to their backs all to pass the disabled symbol of over-exuberant modernization.

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures

Best Pictures of 1936 (6-10)

It is time to begin another annual consideration of the best movies and performances.  In order to move this project along and finish before 2019, it is necessary to condense the list a bit.  Numbers 6 through 10 of my choices for the best pictures of 1936 are below.  The top five will be coming later, along with best acting categories and the always challenging, sometimes controversial most overrated movie of the year.

 

6. The Only Son (Japan, Yasujio Ozu)

One of Ozu’s best about a mother who sacrifices everything for her son’s education only to be disappointed by his low level job.

 

7. Mayerling (France, Anatole Litvak)

If you know anything about royal scandals in European history, you probably know how this one turns out.  If not, this tragic tale of love between a disillusioned young prince (Charles Boyer) and a naïve young girl (Danielle Darrieux) in the Viennese court of the 19th century is sure to impress.

8. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (U.S., Frank Capra)

I love that Gary Cooper’s rube who inherits a fortune doesn’t turn out to be a total dingbat, the way the Clampetts in The Beverly Hillbillies were.  But his smarts can’t prepare him for all the dirty tricks waiting for him.

9. The Crime of M. Lange (France, Jean Renoir)

Trust me.  You’d have killed the guy too.

10.  The Charge of the Light Brigade (U.S., Michael Curtiz)

Loosely based on the Tennyson poem and historical events, this Errol Flynn-Olivia de Haviland picture is a gripping account of a colonial massacre in India, followed by a single-minded lust for revenge even in the face of almost certain death.

Next up:  Best Supporting Actor of 1936

 

2 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Pictures