My 10 Favorite Films of the 1930s

The Devil is a Woman (1935) Josef Von Sternberg

Has that obscure object of desire ever been as beautiful or elusive? The Devil is a Woman is the most gorgeous of all the Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations, no mean feat considering they include such titles as Morocco and The Scarlet Empress. Poor Lucien Ballard had to satisfy both Von Sternberg (a cinematographer himself) and Dietrich (an actress who understood lighting). The fights on the set must have been epic.

It’s more truthful about passion than any other film I’ve seen. “I’ll love you forever.” is a lie. There’s no such thing as forever and love lasts as long as it’s convenient. Don’t worry. You can just keep lying to yourself, just like Lionel Atwood does. Your sugar baby, your ultimate goal, whatever you want to call it–that thing is going to laugh from the train window as it leaves you heartbroken in its destructive wake.

L’Age D’Or (1930) Luis Bunuel

Luis Bunuel spent the 40s and 50s honing his craft doing commercial pictures in Mexico. A few of these films are quite good. They have a subversive streak, slipping in whatever filthy absurdity the censors allowed. Though his greatest work would come later (After a completely necessary move to France), he’d already struck gold 15 years before when he shocked the world with L’Age D’or. This surrealist masterpiece covers the same ground as all of Bunuel’s films–the church and society taking away true freedom and displaying stunning hypocrisy while doing so–but it has no need for pesky narrative structures. The woman sucking the statue’s toe and the ghastly scene with the Marquis De Sade still tickle the squeamish spots. Imagine if cinema had continued this way. Imagine what society would be like.

Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks

Ann Dvorak and Paul Muni are otherworldly in this, the greatest of all the 30s gangster flicks. Howard Hawks edits like lightning–look how fast this thing barrels across the screen. He’s great with groups, crowding his frames while always keeping the action accessible tot he viewer. Brian DePalma’s elephantine remake looks diseased next to this perfect valentine to megalomania. Sexy, dangerous, subversive…the adjectives never end.

I Was Born, But… (1932) Yasujiro Ozu

I’ve got two great films about childhood on my list. While Zero For Conduct is one of the great films about rebellion, Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… begins as rebellion, but its main subject is empathy, specifically the moment you look at your parents and realize they are human. They’re failures filled with heartache…just like you’ll be someday. Responsibility has a way of draining one’s soul which is why it should be introduced slowly to children.

Our two main characters are young brothers who idolize their father until the day they witness him playing the buffoon for his boss. This earth-shattering event drives them to disobedience. Their father tries to explain the idea of social hierarchy, but the children see right through him. Later, he confides his unhappiness to his wife.

This has all the trappings of Ozu–the camera at ground level, breaking the 180-degree angle (well before John Ford), and scenes filled with profundity and charm. I haven’t seen the remake (Good Morning 1959), but I can’t imagine its purpose except to duplicate IWBb…’s success in color.

The Black Cat (1934) Edgar G. Ulmer

Oh boy! Let’s talk about the plot for The Black Cat. Bela Lugosi is traveling to Hungary to confront Boris Karloff. See, Karloff went and did a terrible thing. During the war, he betrayed his fort, allowing the Germans to kill or imprison all of his comrades including Lugosi who was interred in Siberia. While Lugosi was away, Karloff married Lugosi’s wife and, after her death, he did the same thing to Lugosi’s daughter. What a jerk, right? Lugosi gets his revenge by skinning Karloff alive. The great Edgar G Ulmer directed with his usual disdain for anything approaching gratuitousness. Of course, I’m speaking about the story, not the bad taste. In fact, if you have good taste, you should be forbidden from watching it. There should be a sign on this film: “All ye with good taste can fuck right off.”

Sabotage (1936) Alfred Hitchcock

One of the great pleasures of films from this era is the slow coalescence of editing and mise en scene. For a while, filmmakers seemed focused on one or the one or the other. Battleship Potemkin or Sunrise? The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Intolerance? Modern cinema demanded both, so we got modern filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock. Of course, that’s generalizing, but I’m a blogger and that’s what I do.

Sabotage is based on a Joseph Conrad novel called The Secret Agent (1907) which is not to be confused with the 1936 Hitchcock stinker Secret Agent or his okay 1942 film Saboteur. It’s a dark, troubling film about one of Hitch’s favorite subjects–guilt. On the surface, Karl Verloc is a respectable cinema owner (in the novel he owns a porno theater!), but he is actually in cahoots with a bomb-maker. The motive for his attacks is never explained because this isn’t a film about terrorism. Verloc’s wife is unwittingly drawn into his dirty business, leading to two of the most remarkable sequences Hitchcock ever filmed.

  1. Bette Davis once said she specialized in “kick the dog” scenes whereas most actors pet the dog. Hitchcock, for all his darkness, was more of a pet the dog director. He craved commercial success, reasoning that it led to creative freedom. Every once in a while he would kick the dog. In Sabotage the wife’s little brother is given a “package” by Verloc along with instruction to deliver it to Picadilly Circus Station. Unfortunately, he keeps getting distracted on his way. The timer keeps ticking and the tension keeps mounting until kiddie goes boom. Talk about kicking the dog!
  2. The result of this horrifying event is a passionate, dialogue free murder scene. The editing does all the speaking. Verloc knows he deserves death and his wife knows she has to give it to him. The psychological tension is unreal.

Sabotage is easily the best Hitchcock film of the 30s and (unsurprisingly) one of the least loved. It has none of the charm or wit of The Lady Vanishes, it’s not nearly as technically astute as The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent, and none of the performances are as good as those in The Man Who Knew Too Much. It’s a dark, despairing film without pretense of sanitization. Of course, I love it.

M (1931) Fritz Lang

M is the quintessential film about the seedy underbelly of a so-called civilized society. (see David Lynch and most Australian films of the 70s) Lang, whose career before coming to Hollywood seemed to consist of warnings about Germany’s future, doesn’t pussyfoot around. Peter Lorre stars as Hans Beckert, a child murderer and one of the more sympathetic characters in the film. That is neither a trick nor a sick joke. It’s a mirror of Berlin and a testament to the fact that some vices are more acceptable than others.

I can’t help what I do! I can’t help it, I can’t…What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work. If you weren’t a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment! … It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me, silently, but I can feel it there. It’s me, pursuing myself! I want to escape, to escape from myself! But it’s impossible. I can’t escape, I have to obey it. I have to run, run… endless streets. I want to escape, to get away! And I’m pursued by ghosts. Ghosts of mothers and of those children… they never leave me. They are always there… always, always, always!, except when I do it, when I… Then I can’t remember anything. And afterwards I see those posters and read what I’ve done, and read, and read… did I do that? But I can’t remember anything about it! But who will believe me? Who knows what it’s like to be me? How I’m forced to act… how I must, must… don’t want to, must! Don’t want to, but must! And then a voice screams! I can’t bear to hear it! I can’t go on! I can’t… I can’t!

Freed from Hollywood’s later attempts to turn his genuine creepiness into camp, Lorre gives one of the great screen performances. It’s this reason why Metropolis and the Mabuse films are considered Lang’s better achievements. Those films have the directorial stamp on each frame. I feel most people think of Lorre when they think of M. It’s a pity The fluid camera and the deft crosscutting give us a picture of a big city. As the film progresses, its world tightens until it squeezes everyone into that basement as they stare at the monster borne from their own diseased souls. I think it’s Lang’s finest achievement.

Zero for Conduct (1933) Jean Vigo

lyricism (noun) : an artist’s expression of emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way eg. Zero for Conduct

The beauty of image (and sound I suppose) is its economy. We’ve all had that moment. We’re walking through a museum and we stop, suddenly awestruck at an image that says more than words ever will. It’s perhaps impossible to write about ZfC. The plot is nothing–four students stage a rebellion and take over the school to the dismay of their teachers. Lindsay Anderson would do the same tale with If , a film with the poetry of ZfC but not the economy.

It’s the sympathy. This film understands the frustration with the adult world. It’s a frightening place, one that everyone thinks is absurd but still adheres to with the dedication of sisyphus. You can (and should) watch it here.

Freaks (1932) Tod Browning

The other.

DUCK SOUP (1933) Leo McCarey

I’ve never been much of a fan of romantic comedies for the same reason I’m not a fan of horror-comedies–the requirements of the two genres butt heads far too often. When I think of the romantic comedies I rate highly, I’m filled with awkward and unbearable emotion. Something like Minnie and Moskowitz or Punch-Drunk Love mirrors my own inadequacies (with both romance and comedy) to such a frightening degree that I feel personally attacked. Occasionally, I’ll enjoy a Cukor or a Lubitch, but for the most part, the anarchy of comedy and the ache of romance do not mesh. (Personally, I think fans of Rom-coms are reminded of the first few weeks of a romance. Everything is funny and there’s just as much laughing as caranality)

If I want a romance, I’ll watch Borzage and if I want a comedy I’ll watch Tati or Chaplin or the brothers Marx. Duck Soup is pure comedy, filled with cynicism and political disregard, so it’s no surprise the film flopped. The studio determined what was missing–a love interest. (For fuck’s sake!) The future Marx Brothers films had side romances that are boring as shit, Naturally, the films became profitable.

Of course, time is the ultimate judge. Duck Soup is far more influential and loved than any of their other work. Why? It’s the comedy, stupid.

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