Category Archives: 1938

Bringing Up Baby – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#1)

It has been pointed out to me that my choices on these lists reflect a bias toward comedy. If I wanted to dispel that notion, choosing Bringing Up Baby as the best picture of 1938 would do little to that end. (Thankfully I don’t care to dispel it.) Despite this bias, I don’t think any movie lover could seriously argue an affection for the antics of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant under the skillful direction of Howard Hawks could only be explained by a unshakeable prejudice for comedy. It is a brilliant movie by any measure.

Other comedy directors like George Cukor and, a little later, Preston Sturges kept their stories rooted firmly in the real world peppering their realms with eccentric characters. Hawks on the other hand only used the real world as a rough outline for this picture. Every character is, to varying degrees, a nut. The straight man is missing from the comedy equation here – the cast is all Gracie Allens, Bud Abbotts, and every other comic half of comedy duos. The only exception is Mr. Peabody, the long suffering, serious attorney in the midst of all the loons. (Then again he may seem normal because we see him so little. Had Hawks decided to give him more screen time I have a feeling he would have turned out just as ridiculous as everyone else.)

It might sound like a risky strategy to pack the movie with so many wackos. With whom, after all, can the audience identify? And when do they get a chance to catch a breath? The genius of the movie is there is no one to identify with and there is never a chance for the audience to catch our breaths. It’s a whirlwind of zaniness that never feels real, but is always engaging. It simply works.

And how can it not featuring a scatterbrained paleontologist (Cary Grant) trying to find a lost intercostals clavicle, the final piece he needs for his brontosaurus, while trying to wed to his all-business fiancée Miss Swallow. Getting in the way of both are hare-brained heiress Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), her gruff aunt (May Robson), a yappy fox terrier named George, a jittery big game hunter, an alcoholic gardener, an over-zealous constable, an arrogant psychiatrist, a man-eating leopard, and a tame,  affectionate leopard named Baby.

Hawks created a world where it is plausible that two leopards could be loose in Connecticut at the same time, that Susan could pass herself off as crime moll Swingin’ Door Suzy, that Susan just happens to be the niece of the woman Grant’s character David is trying to get a one million dollar grant from, that David could pass himself off as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown, that Susan could try to pass David off as a big game hunter the very night another big game hunter is coming to dinner, etc. It’s a world of misunderstandings and mishaps, of coincidences, disasters, accidents, and ruses all crafted, engineered, and executed by a master filmmaker for our laughter. What more could we ask for from a film?

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The Lady Vanishes – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#2)

Conspirators all around...

This is Hitchcock at his pre-U.S. best. The Lady Vanishes is the closest to cinematic bliss there is without being terribly important or deep. Hitchcock doesn’t have anything to say about the diplomatic tensions in Europe, nor does he take the adventures of the protagonists all that seriously. It’s a lark, a lighthearted brush with danger that grips our attention from the beginning and holds on without ever seriously considering deep or resonate themes. It’s what we might call a light masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless.

Part of the success of the film is Hitchcock’s willingness to take the story to unexpected avenues and jar our expectations. What else could he do with a story so fantastic, a story that tickles our childhood sense of adventure? When an elderly British woman disappears from a train in a fictionally fascist central European state, plucky Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) sets out to find out what happened to her, despite everyone’s insistence that there never was an English lady on the train. Either Iris is crazy or there is a mysterious conspiracy involving almost everyone on the train.

Since this is Hitchcock we know it could only be a deliciously nefarious conspiracy, but to what end? Why would anyone kidnap or murder a harmless old woman and then get a trainload of people to feign ignorance? Even the other British passengers on the train don’t fess up to seeing her, afraid of what will happen if they confirm Iris’ story. Sure, they saw her, but the magistrate traveling with his mistress doesn’t want to be implicated in an official investigation and a pair of chums fear the search will delay the train which would make them miss a crucial cricket match. Only a flirtatiously impertinent folk musicologist named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) believes Iris and joins forces with the determined young woman to solve the mystery.

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood

Like a roller coaster, The Lady Vanishes is an exercise in adrenaline rushes. Each character presents a sinister and often funny obstacle to Iris and Gilbert’s investigation, including a tight-lipped baroness, a grinning Italian magician, a dower imposter, a cheerful doctor, a bandaged burn patient, and a mute nun. And, in Hitchcock’s estimation, a plot this absurd deserves an equally fantastic execution, climaxing in an unlikely but exhilarating stand off between the conspirators and the few British passengers not in on the plot.

The movie has none of the dark motifs and heavy themes of Hitchcock’s later, more finely crafted films, but it is still a ripping good time at the movies. Hitchcock always wanted his audiences to have fun in his pictures, even when he dealt with heavier themes like in Vertigo and Psycho. (OK, maybe not in Vertigo.) It’s action and adventure with a strong undercurrent of humor, satisfying and eminently entertaining.

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Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) – Best Pictures of 1938 (#3)

Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan

There’s an almost prescient fatalism in many French movies of the late 1930s. Dark themes, shadowy aesthetics, and shady characters articulate a cynical outlook for France’s future and none embodied that trend more than Michel Carné’s Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). Carné succeeded in capturing the festering pessimism and ennui of French culture and society in this film so well that it supposedly prompted one French government official to blame the fall of France to Nazi Germany on Quai des brumes. Carné is said to have responded to the charge by saying one doesn’t blame a barometer for a storm. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it is worth noting that Carné viewed his film as a barometer of sorts for the unease and discontent of the French people that would, in a matter of months, prove founded.

The movie follows a fateful day in the life of Jean (Jean Gabin), a deserter from the French Foreign Legion as he arrives in the port of Le Havre, on the look out for a ship to get him out of the country before the authorities apprehend him. He finds refuge at a seedy bar on the outskirts of town where other outcasts and runaways gather and it is there that he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Nelly (Michèle Morgan). She has also run away, but from her lecherous step-father Zabel (Michel Simon). Their relationship pits Jean against Zabel and Nelly’s wanna-be tough guy boyfriend, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). Jean gives Nelly the courage to finally stand up to Zabel’s unwanted advances and envision a life away from the drudgery, but Jean is trapped between his new love and the need to get out of the country.

Nelly (Morgan) struggles against Zabel (Michel Simon)

The genius of Carné’s film is, like most people, no one in the movie is particularly noble. Our protagonist is Jean, but he isn’t a paragon of virtue. And on the flip side, the villains aren’t particularly evil. Simon and Brasseur play them more as weak, scared little boys, unable to chart any other course for their lives. Like Jean, they are trapped by their own misdeeds and flail around in an attempt to appear in control. Zabel clings to a thin veneer of respectability, covering his dabbling in crime, and Lucien pretends to be a tough guy, mimicking the movies of James Cagney or Paul Muni., when he’s really a cowardly little boy.

Carné is unsparingly brutal in his condemnation of French society. Jean and Nelly have to flee from two institutions meant to protect its citizens (the military) and nurture new ones (the family). They don’t find safety anywhere except for a dingy bar that, since we have the virtue of hindsight, eerily feels like a hideout for the French Underground. Carné populates the bar with anyone who might feel left behind by the collapse of the Popular Front and the rise of fascism throughout Europe, including a disillusioned young poet who takes his life early in the picture, leaving his clothes for Jean.

Quai des brumes is a melancholy portrait of a specific time and place. Everyone knew they were headed for disaster, but no one knew what they could do to prevent it. Some retreated and escaped, like Jean and Nelly, while others tried to make the best out of it for themselves with little regard for who they might wrong, like Zabel and Lucien. And still others took their lives, unable to face the world without the France in which they grew up.

In some ways the (apocryphal?) French official who claimed they fell to Nazi Germany because of this movie is correct. Carné gave voice to the unchannelled discontent and frustration with the direction of their country without suggesting solutions. The tragic ending of the film told its audience there was nothing they could do, the end for them and their country is coming. All they could do was sit back and wait.

 

 

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The Childhood of Maxim Gorky – Best Pictures of 1938 (#4)

Biographies are often weakest when they recount the childhoods of their subjects. It often feels perfunctory and ultimately disinterested except as a tool for highlighting those moments that would explain the subject’s later success. We learn how our subject discovered whatever it is that made him or her famous, but little else: little Galileo might spend hours staring at the stars, or little Tina Turner might start singing, or little Mark Twain telling tale tales to his friends. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky avoids this tiresome convention; instead director Mark Donskoi focuses on the formative years of Aleskei Peshkov, later author Maxim Gorky, presenting us with a series of episodes that served to form the whole person, not just the artist, a distinction that Gorky no doubt would have appreciated.

It is something of a mystery how Gorky came out of his childhood as shown in this film with the strong sense of empathy for humanity that characterized his work. (I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on liberties Donskoi took with it.) As a young boy his mother left him at his grandparent’s house for them to raise, a household governed by the equally dominate personalities of his grandfather and grandmother. Their competing personalities made for a schizophrenic upbringing. His grandfather is taciturn, petty and often arbitrarily cruel. His grandmother, however, is warm, loving, and compassionate. Aleskei’s uncles and cousins, also living in the household, adopted his grandfather’s penchant for dominance and causing pain, but somehow Aleskei is touched more by his grandmother’s influence and he grows up with a heightened sense of fairness and justice.

Young Aleskei (tenderly played by Aleksei Lyarsky) grasps for whatever love and friendship he can when he arrives at his strange and not entirely welcoming new home. While his grandfather, uncles, and cousins torment the young boy, he of course finds solace with his grandmother, but there are others with whom he connects. One of the first is a young man named Ivan, the apprentice and adopted son of his grandparents who faces the ire of his uncles because Ivan works harder than they do, making him a more fit heir for the family business. Aleksei observes his uncles’ petty cruelties directed toward Ivan that will eventually end in tragedy. Later Aleksei befriends a group of neighborhood boys, including Alexei, a  handicapped boy who is confined to his bed. It is a touching moment when Aleskei builds a cart for Alexei so the boy can finally leave his bedroom and experience the world outside.

Aleskei’s generosity extends to everyone. At first he cringes in fear but later fights back when his grandfather beats his grandmother. He bonds with Old Grigori, a lifelong employee of his grandfather’s shop. Constant contact with poisonous chemicals makes blindness an eventual certainty for Grigori and Aleskei’s grandfather will put the old man out on the street. Aleskei is moved by the old man’s plight and dumbfounded by his grandfather’s ingratitude. He also befriends a lodger at their home who reads and talks of revolution. It is through the sum of these relationships that Aleskei will turn into the great writer, the champion of the poor, the enemy of Tsarist oppression, Maxim Gorky.

Donskoi avoids a couple of major pitfalls with this film. First he chucks out any pretence of a traditional narrative. We watch the sensitive young boy grow into a hardened young teen who never lost his compassion. By the end of the film he is finally able to stand up to the tyrannical sadism of his grandfather. We don’t need any manufactured dramatics; this is an approximation of pre-Soviet Russian life and that was dramatic enough. All we need to do is visit certain episodes of Aleskei’s life to watch the boy’s social conscious progress.

Another pitfall Donskoi miraculously avoids is Soviet propagandizing, a major problem with many Soviet films of this era. Donskoi manages to relate the story without awkward condemnations of capitalism (though they are implied) or undue praise for the Soviet system to come. He keeps our focus on the story of this one boy who would collect his experiences and observations and dream of a better, more just world.

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is a masterpiece of humanism that needs to be seen much more broadly than it is now. Many other years this would have snagged the top spot, but 1938 produced four masterpieces. Though the top choice stands above them all, Maxim Gorky is not the weakest of the four. The three after the number one choice could really be scrambled in any combination and this one ended up being number four rather randomly. It could easily have slipped into the two or three spot; it’s that good.

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Holiday: The Best Movies of 1938 (#5)

Holiday is an understated comedy from George Cukor starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It has none of the Marxian zaniness of the leads’ other venture of 1938 Bringing Up Baby. It’s quiet and unassuming with undercurrent of frivolity. The actors restrain their well-known comedic impulses to play it as straight as their characters feel. That it is still funny and utterly charming is remarkable, but Cukor’s direction of a stellar cast saves the film from melodramatic dourness and from light farce. It’s a clever combination of the two that could have failed had Cukor not been as good of a director as he was.

Johnny Case (Cary Grant) is a self-made man, working steadily since he was ten. He worked his way through college doing everything from serving in the cafeteria to collecting garbage. Now he is a junior analyst for a stock brokerage and is on the verge of making a small fortune. He’s also on the verge of marrying the beautiful Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), a woman he met only two week earlier at Lake Placid. They are head over heels in love and Johnny returns to New York to meet her family and ask her father’s permission.

What Johnny doesn’t realize is Julia Seton is the daughter of the uber-wealthy Seton clan, masters of finance and wizards of commerce. He’s initially shocked, but ultimately unfazed. Her wealth doesn’t change a thing in his eyes. Not only doesn’t he want her money, he doesn’t need it. With this impending deal on the horizon he will have plenty of money to do as he wishes, which, unbeknownst to Julia, entails taking a couple years off to find himself, to find out why he’s been working so hard for so many years.

Johnny doesn’t anticipate that Julia’s family doesn’t just come bogged down with money. They are also bogged down by expectation, tradition, and social standing. Julia’s father is slow to warm up to his daughter’s young suitor; he’s impressed by Johnny’s work ethic, but shudders at the idea of his daughter marrying outside of the social registry.

Julia’s sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn), however, loves Johnny. She sees him as a possible savior for her moribund family. His dynamic personality, indisputable charm, crackling sense of humor, and free-spirited nature are great counterpoints against the stuffiness and rigidity of her own family, or, strictly speaking, her father. After Linda meets Johnny, Julia asks her sister what she thinks of him and Linda is ecstatic. “My dear girl,” she cries, “do you realize that life walked into this house this morning? Don’t let him get away!” Linda, with her alcoholic brother Ned (Lew Ayers), works to remove all obstacles to Johnny and Julia’s wedding.

However, Linda doesn’t realize that her family is beyond redemption. All her frantic scheming to get their father to accept Johnny or to break down her sister’s unfair expectations is an effort to keep Johnny in her life, because the only one she can save is herself. Marrying Johnny off to Julia, who increasingly sees him as a project to clean up and seamlessly insert him into their predetermined social landscape, is Linda’s attempt to save the whole family, but Johnny can’t save them. In fact, Julia and her father threaten to crush the spirit and freedom that make Johnny so attractive, urging him, threatening him, prodding him to abandon his plan for a holiday to find himself. They want to install him behind a desk and bog him down with houses and servants and debts. Johnny’s entrance into the family can only destroy him; the forces of the Setons’ calcified souls are too strong.

I’m sure it’s fairly obvious where the characters are headed, but that doesn’t detract from the joy of the movie. We anxiously wait for Julia and her father to be told off and Johnny and Linda to find their ways to each other. For all of its predictability it is a remarkably good movie anchored by some superb performances, especially Grant and Hepburn, but also from Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Nick and Susan, Johnny’s equally free-spirited friends who recognize Johnny’s matrimonial mistake well before anyone else does. So we sit back and watch Johnny struggle with his ill-advised infatuation with an unsuitable partner while the perfect partner is just steps away.

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Jezebel – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#6)

Bette Davis and Henry Fonda

Bette Davis’ Julie Marsden is a clear attempt by Warner Bros. to preempt and deflate the upcoming Gone with the Wind mania. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Julie is a headstrong woman, willing to flaunt the rigid conventions of the pre-Civil War South (New Orleans this time, instead of Atlanta). Unlike the more well-known 1939 picture, Jezebel is not an idealized tribute to the antebellum South.  Instead it uses the strict social rules of that time and place to think about the true definition of courage.

Engaged to weak-willed Preston (Henry Fonda), Julie pressures the lovesick young man to support her often scandalizing decisions. After Preston breaks an engagement with her to help her choose a dress, she commits to her most egregious escapade when she chooses a flaming red dress to wear to the Olympus Ball. This causes pearl-clutching and hand-wringing throughout her family. Unmarried women, you see, never wear anything but white to the Olympus Ball. Julie’s aunt (Fay Bainter) begs her to reconsider, but she refuses; she will teach Preston a lesson.

Davis as Julie Marsden hatching a plot...

She bullies Preston into acquiescence after he refuses to take her by questioning his manhood, courage, and honor. Isn’t he, she asks, just afraid someone will insult her and he would be forced to defend her honor in a duel? Apparently Preston is fed up with Julie’s manipulations and, when she begins to get cold feet as they approach the ball, he forces her to go in.  And when everyone stares at her, refusing to dance on the same floor as her, he forces her to continue dancing on the empty floor, wanting her to experience all the consequences of her actions first hand.

The humiliating dance

This caprice is the last straw for the long suffering Preston. His break with Julie plunges her into a depression as she realizes she treated the man she loved much worse than he deserved and, maybe more importantly, she can’t always get what she wants through sheer force of will. But whatever positive changes his departure caused in Julie, his return with a new fiancée brings out the old manipulative woman, claws and all.  Her actions however, playing one admirer off another, leads to a tragic duel.

Though this sounds like a fairly sappy love story, it is actually an unusually thoughtful film out of Hollywood. Director William Wyler uses this conventional melodramatic narrative to explore the fine line between courage and cowardice. How easy it is, Wyler tells us, to mistake one for the other. Sometimes the most courageous-looking act can be inspired by cowardice, and the most cowardly inspired by courage. All the men who scramble to defend Julie’s honor fight in pointless duels, one of the many silly ways men have been showing off their masculinity throughout history.  To refuse to fight, to refuse to take part in an inane ritual that proves nothing except its participants are slaves to appearance rather than what they know to be right, would mean being branded a coward.  Taking part in the duel would mean he is actually a coward while being considered manly and brave.

Tne insanity of dueling

It’s an interesting dichotomy that is never – and probably never can be – resolved.  Even the motivation of Julie’s final, selfless act that will probably result in her death is unclear.  Is her decision proof of her undying love for Preston or is it a way to stick it to his new fiancée and everyone else who ever doubted her?  It isn’t clear to us and, I would venture to guess, she probably doesn’t know herself.

Jezebel is both entertaining and thoughtful with a fine performance by Bette Davis. In many ways the movie is superior to the misguided tribute to the South we will see in Gone with the Wind next year. There is no glorification of the antiquated system of chivalry that demanded men fight in duels for the smallest perceived insults. Jezebel condemns any system that supersedes a man’s right to make his own decision, one of the many flaws of the antebellum South that Gone with the Wind glosses over or ignores. (Most egregiously, of course, would be its depiction of sugarcoated slavery.) Jezebel verges on greatness (though it settles for being very good) for its skillful melding of thoughtfulness and entertainment. It deserves to be remembered as more than the second film for which Davis won the Academy Award. It stands well on its own accord.

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The Young in Heart – Best Pictures of 1938 (#7)

What happens when a family of con artists decide to pretend to be honest in order to receive an inheritance from a kindly old woman they befriend?  They get jobs, stop cheating at cards, etc, but when does pretending to be honest bleed over into actual honesty? At what point does playing a part that envelops one’s whole life become one’s life?

The Carleton's consider their next move

 

This is the dilemma for the dishonest Carleton family after they take up residence in the London home of kindly Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree), an elderly wealthy woman eager for companionship who they met on a train in France.  The Carleton’s, lead by George-Ann (Janet Gaynor), hatch a ploy to become models of respectability in order to stay in Miss Fortune’s heart and home and worm their way into her will.  George-Ann’s father Sahib (Roland Young) lands a job selling Wombats, an obnoxiously super-fast car, while her brother Richard (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) abandons his usual pursuit of millionaires’ plain daughters for a job in an engineering firm.

 

George-Ann, meanwhile, prays that her family will come around, stop their cheating and scheming, to redeem themselves.  She keeps the plan tightly in place, assured that as long as they are pretending to be respectable, they can’t get into any trouble and, hopefully, will realize how much more fulfilling and less exhausting an honest life is compared to a life of grifting.  As the plan moves closer and closer to completion, George-Ann desperately hopes that someone will voice a concern, say it isn’t right to take advantage of such a gentle and kind old woman.  She wants someone else in her family to second her secret scruples and redeem them all from their past sins by committing to a life of honesty.

The Carleton men ponder a life of (gasp!) work

What follows is a heartwarming and funny comedy as the family discovers there is more to life than the next mark and other ways to make money than theft.  Each character goes through their own transformations, keeping their newfound scruples secret, including their wonderfully scatterbrained mother Marmy (Billie Burke).  (“My children were born in India.  They tell me it’s beautiful.  I’ve never been.”), who glides through the picture in an apparent dingbat haze until a crucial moment.  Sahib discovers the joy of salesmanship, where being an experienced con man is handy without breaking the law.  And Richard realizes engineering is kinda interesting and the girl he wants (Paulette Godard) won’t put up with dishonesty.  George-Ann, meanwhile, conducts a rocky on-again off-again romance with Duncan, a young man disgusted by what he has learned of her and her family’s past, but unable to say goodbye to her.

Fairbanks and Gaynor

Each family member keeps their newfound legitimate industry to themselves, thinking they are alone with their strange new feelings of accomplishment and don’t want to disrupt their close-knit family dynamic based, they think, on deception and theft.  A nice twist at the end tests their new resolve and suggests that their bond is deeper and more meaningful than they thought.

 

The Young in Heart is not a well remembered movie, but it should be. It has humor and romance  and, not incidentally, Janet Gaynor’s last film appearance. If you love 1930s movie comedy with a heart, this should be added to your Netflix queue immediately.

 

 

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