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Best Discoveries of 2021: The 1930s

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

Because I’ve largely eliminated genre pictures from these lists (they’ll be covered separately), I don’t have many discoveries from the 1930s this year. Some of that is because I, like some of the era’s movie stars, have a tough time transitioning to sound pictures, or at least the infancy of sound pictures. But what I have is what I have, so here are my favorite discoveries from the 1930s:

Three on a Match (1932) Mervyn LeRoy (Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 2 DVD set)

I recently picked up Ann Dvorak’s biography, Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel by Christina Rice. I knew very little about Dvorak, but since many of my friends praised the book (and since it was 75% off the retail price during a University Press of Kentucky sale), I bought it and dived in. Knowing that I hadn’t seen a Dvorak movie in a long time, I decided to watch Three on a Match, which chronicles the lives of three young women who for a time all went to the same public school: Vivian (Dvorak, right), Mary (Joan Blondell, center), and Ruth (Bette Davis, left). Although Vivian should be the happiest of the three, marrying a rich, prosperous man, she’s the least satisfied. Her poor life choices cause her friends to help her, but her relationship with a local mobster (Lyle Talbot) makes her life - and the life of her young son - hellish. This pre-Code crime picture is still hard-hitting and Dvorak is wonderful in it. The film also features (briefly) Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and Edward Arnold.

Nothing Sacred (1937) William A. Wellman (Kanopy)

This color screwball comedy contains all the makings of an unforgettable classic, but fell short of that status for me. I still enjoyed it. With Carole Lombard and Fredric March, how could you not? Lombard plays Hazel Flagg, a young woman diagnosed with radium poisoning whose plight comes to the attention of newspaper reporter Wally Cook (March), who needs a big story. When Hazel discovers she’s been misdiagnosed, she decides to keep up the deception. Lombard is wonderful, but the chemistry between her and March isn’t quite there, and something about the rhythm of this film doesn’t click. Those hideous figures in the opening credits sure don’t help. Maybe the Blu-ray looks better.

A Day in the Country (1936) Jean Renoir (Criterion Channel)

This will probably come across as sacrilege, but A Day in the Country is (so far) my favorite Jean Renoir film (and I’ve seen several). Although the film’s running time is only 41 minutes, the director does more in those 41 minutes than many other directors could do in two hours. The story seems simple enough: Needing a break from city life, a family of Parisians decide to spend the day in the country. The young daughter (Sylvia Bataille) instantly attracts the attention of two local men, but if you think you know what’s going to happen, you may be surprised. I’m going to pick up the Criterion Blu-ray of the film, especially since it includes a documentary on the film that’s over twice as long as the feature itself.

Black Fury (1935) Michael Curtiz (Criterion Channel)

Although all he wants to do is work hard and marry his sweetheart Anna (Karen Morley), immigrant miner Joe Radek (Paul Muni) finds himself in the unlikely position of leading a ragtag union of workers striking against unfair labor practices. Muni gives an intense, yet often tiresome performance in a film that was no doubt harder-hitting in 1935 than it was even a few years later. It’s fun to see some fairly early work from character actors such as Barton MacLane, J. Carrol Naish, and one of my favorites, John Qualen.

Murder! (1930) Alfred Hitchcock (Library DVD)

Previously discussed here

Dinner at Eight (1933) George Cukor (Criterion Channel, Warner Archive DVD)

There’s easily enough material here for three movies and a cast that could handle the task with both hands tied behind their backs. Imagine Short Cuts (1993) or Magnolia (1999) in the 1930s, and you get an idea of what Dinner at Eight is like. The film was meant to imitate the structure of Grand Hotel (1932), another film with big stars and multiple stories, this one converging at a lavish, upscale dinner party in Manhattan. Just look at this cast: John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Billie Burke, and the magnificent Marie Dressler. Comedy, drama, romance, and social commentary, written by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) Dorothy Arzner (Library DVD)

Wealthy heiress Joan (Sylvia Sidney) can’t resist reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March), marrying him before finding out that he can’t stay away from alcohol or a blonde named Claire (Adrianne Allen). Still hard-hitting, but probably very much so for its time.

Beau Geste (1939) William A. Wellman (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

This grand adventure follows brothers Beau (Gary Cooper), John (Ray Milland), and Digby Geste (Robert Preston) who join the Foreign Legion, where they suffer under the command of the abusive “leadership” of Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). There’s also a missing jewel, a family secret, and the unexplained death of every soldier stationed at a fort. The film also stars Susan Hayward, J. Carrol Naish, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, Donald O’Connor, and others.

See anything from the '30s this year? Tell me about it.

Next time: The 1940s

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