Archive for ‘1930s’

April 12, 2012

The 39 Steps (1935 – Blu-Ray)

“There are 20 million women in this island and I get to be chained to you”

In another step in my quest to watch all of the BFI’s top 100 British films, I come to number five, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller ‘The 39 Steps’.  I must declare a bias towards Robert ‘The definitive Jesus’ Powell’s 1978 version that I spent a rapt sunday afternoon watching as a nipper.  However I still enjoyed this less pacy but perhaps wittier version.  It feels like the earliest template for the classic Hitchcock film; innocent man is wrongly accused and relentlessly pursued across the land by shadowy forces, while still finding time for a spot of romance before ending with a tussle in/around or atop a famous landmark.  A formula that reached its zenith in 1959 with ‘North By Northwest’.

Robert Donat cuts an immaculately tailored profile as the dashing hero and Madeleine Carroll plays his love-interest/hostage.  As usual Hitchcock indulges his love of pushing sexual boundaries (For the time) in several scenes including an amusing discussion between two lingerie salesmen and the sight of Carroll slipping off her wet tights while closely handcuffed to Donat.  Sadly this Blu-Ray presentation disappoints, looking little better than my DVD version and the sound is atrocious.  While I certainly wouldn’t rank ‘The 39 Steps’ as the fourth best British film ever I did throughly enjoy it.

April 2, 2012

City Lights (1931 – DVD)

“I’m not acting, almost apologetic, standing outside myself and looking, it’s a beautiful scene, beautiful, and because it isn’t over-acted”

Next in my Charlie Chaplin boxset is 1931’s ‘City Lights’ which was perhaps Chaplin’s own favourite film, and it was also Orson Welles’ favourite and is named as Sight & Sound Magazine’s 2nd greatest film ever.  I found it to be in the mould of Chaplin’s beautiful and emotional, heart-warming film ‘The Kid’.  ‘City Lights’s plot has two halves which Chaplin cunningly weaves together into one seemless narrative.

One side features Chaplin’s Tramp befriending a drunken and suicidal millionaire, although when he sobers back up he is less than pleased to see the company he’s been keeping.  One of the funniest parts of this scenario is the look of disapproval and anger on the face of the millionaire’s Valet who is forced to follow his master’s drink sodden whims and treat the Tramp as an honoured guest.  Many sparkling comic vignettes follow, the greatest being when in an eating scene The Tramp accidentally chews the streamers hanging from the ceiling along with his spaghetti.

The other side is a sweet and tender romance between The Tramp and a poor blind flower seller that he meets.  Unfortunately, not being able to see his ragged clothes, she mistakes him for a rich man who he continues to pretend to be, making use of his millionaire friend in order to impress her.  He later learns she is to evicted, so in the guise of the rich gentleman he rashly promises to pay her rent and also pay for an expensive eye operation.  This leads him into a series of scrapes as he fights to get the money including a hilarious rigged boxing match.  The final scene between  the flower seller and The Tramp is utterly heartbreaking.  Naturally I respect Orson’s opinion, but I wouldn’t say this was my favourite film, however I would say it was Chaplin’s best early Silent movie (That I’ve watched so far) although I still think 1947’s Talkie ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ is his best film overall.

You can watch the full film on YouTube below:

February 10, 2012

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937 – Blu-Ray)

“About the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain’t any facts to face, so would you mind if I just went on pretending”

I just spent an emotional hour and a half watching Leo McCarey’s 1937 film ‘Make Way For Tomorrow’, a film that prompted Orson Welles to comment “My God, that is the saddest movie I have ever seen” and “It would make a stone cry”. It’s about an elderly couple played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi who lose their house and have to live apart with their children.

The first two-thirds of the movie chronicle the couple’s painful separation and the often comedic and sometimes heartbreaking little ways in which they unwillingly inconvenience their children and grandchildren.  The devastating final third features the couple reuniting for a stolen few hours spent retracing their honeymoon.  In these hours they almost become young again, finding strength in their love for one another. Moore and Bondi’s performances in this final part had me wiping away a few tears, particularly the heartbreaking final scene.

McCarey was of course the director of The Marx Brothers’ 1933 satire ‘Duck Soup’ which makes him a comedy Saint. The Academy thought so, and in the same year as ‘Make Way For Tomorrow’ McCarey won an Oscar for his comedy ‘The Awful Truth’, but in his acceptance speech he quipped “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture!”.

You can catch the film on YouTube below (But I’d recommend investing in the ‘Masters Of Cinema’ Blu-Ray I watched):

January 31, 2012

La Grande Illusion (1937 – DVD)

“Out there, children play soldiers. In here, soldiers play like children”

While browsing the window of my local Entertainment Exchange I saw a mint condition 7 DVD Jean Renoir boxset for just £20, the same set that usually retails in the £40-£70 range (If you can find a copy at all!).  Needless to say I snapped it up and my first dip into the set is WWI POW Drama ‘La Grande Illusion’.

The simplest was to describe the film is as the French ‘Great Escape’.  Firstly because 1963’s ‘The Great Escape’ is clearly heavily inspired by ‘La Grande Illusion’ (To say the least!) and secondly because Renoir’s film is tonealy French in comparison.  Where as the later American film has Steve McQueen doing Motorcycle jumps, the earlier French film focuses on complex studies of character, class and comradeship.  To put things in context, ‘La Grande Illusion’ was released in 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland.  So the sympathetic portrayals of the German guards are refreshingly unburdened by the baggage of a post Holocaust world.  The cinematography and direction haven’t aged a day unlike American films of the period such as 1942’s ‘Casablanca’ which while wonderful looks very stylistically dated.  I know that I’m going to watch this again and again and still be finding new things in this powerful anti-war masterpiece.

Here is an interesting vintage clip of Renoir introducing a restored print to cinema audiences:

January 29, 2012

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933 – DVD)

“You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder”

I’m having a bit of a Golden-Age-Hollywood 30s/40s binge at the minute and have recently watched 1941’s ‘The Lady Eve’ and 1944’s ‘Double Indemnity’.  Both these films feature deliciously cynical and smart performances from Barbara Stanwyck so I was thrilled when I spotted a 6-DVD Stanwyck Boxset secondhand for a tenner in Berwick Street.  Among the six films is Frank ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Capra’s 1933 film ‘The Bitter Tea Of General Yen’.

Let’s get one thing out the way first, since it was made in 1933 it does feature the odd bit of outdated un-PC dialogue about “Chinamen” and does feature Nils Asther in full makeup as the title character (Although Asther and the makeup team where clearly at great pains to achieve realism). However it is actually staggeringly ahead of its time with wonderfully complex performances from the two lead actors. They portray an interracial love affair between the Chinese General Yen and naive American missionary Megan Davis, a subject way to controversial for audiences at the time. This and the films dark unflinching tone assured it’s commercial and critical failure. For example a memorable early scene has General Yen halting the mass execution by firing squad of hundreds of prisoners for no other reason than because the loud bangs are upsetting Megan. The enforcement of the strict Hays moral code in Hollywood just after this film’s release ensured that Hollywood Directors wouldn’t be allowed to tackle such subjects for decades after. The atmospheric cinematography, sumptuous costumes and detailed sets  just add to this masterpiece. ‘The Bitter Tea Of General Yen’ is simply one of the finest films I’ve ever seen and is ripe for re-discovery, re-release and (Fingers crossed!) HD restoration.

I thought while I was watching that it would make a brilliant double-bill with Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1988 masterpiece ‘The Last Emperor’. Both movies depict China in roughly the same period and both explore the same theme of an almost unknowably exotic and ancient culture clashing with the brutal expediency of modern times.

A kindly person has uploaded the film on YouTube in two parts here: