The Best Discoveries of 2020: The 1930s
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Continuing my journey through the decades with the best movies I watched for the first time from the 1930s. I'm a little better versed on films from the 1930s (especially the precursors to film noir), but I'm finding quite a variety from that decade. I hope you'll find something interesting to discover here.
Blind Alley (1939) Charles Vidor (Criterion Channel)
In this early home invasion story, convicted murderer Hal Wilson (Chester Morris) has just escaped from prison, thanks to some help from his gang (including Ann Dvorak). Wilson and company hang out at the home of psychologist Dr. Anthony Shelby (Ralph Bellamy), who seeks to turn the tables on his captors by getting inside Wilson’s head. Blind Alley was remade (somewhat unnecessarily) in 1948 as The Dark Past with William Holden as the escaped killer and Lee J. Cobb as the psychologist.
City Lights (1931) Charlie Chaplin (Criterion Channel)
From Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. Put simply, the Little Tramp (Chaplin, of course) falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). But there’s so much more to this marvelous film, perhaps my favorite Chaplin and his last silent.
Easy Living (1937) Mitchell Leisen (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
In attempting to teach his spendthrift wife (Jenny Ball) a lesson, the ultra-wealthy but high-strung J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) tosses one of her sable coats out the window of their high-rise, where it lands on a hard-working girl named Mary Smith (Jean Arthur). This madcap screwball comedy could only have been written by Preston Sturges and it’s a pure delight.
La Bête Humaine (1938) Jean Renoir (Criterion Channel)
I’m eventually going to take a much more in-depth look at this one. Briefly, this Jean Renoir classic, based on a novel by Émile Zola, follows railroad stationmaster Roubard (Fernand Ledoux), who murders the man who seduced his young wife Severine (Simone Simon). The train’s engineer, Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin), the only one who knows the truth about the murder, finds himself having an affair with Severine, but Lantier has secrets of his own. A tremendous film. A definite rewatch for 2021.
The Little Giant (1933) Roy Del Ruth (Warner DVD)
With Prohibition at an end, bootlegger Bugs Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson) decides to move to California and enjoy the high life, falling for a socialite (Helen Vinson) and hiring a secretary (Mary Astor). Good fun.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) Ernst Lubitsch (Library DVD)
A retired married couple (Victory Moore, Beulah Bondi) lose their home to foreclosure, having no one to turn to but their children, who quickly discover they’re not equipped to care for their parents. A very timely film, although with a different feel from the era of the Great Depression. Make Way for Tomorrow is one of those exceptionally rare films that is sentimental, but so completely effective.
Night Must Fall (1937) Richard Thorpe (Warner DVD)
What a terrific film, one so few people talk about, a real slow-burn of a thriller with an outstanding performance by Robert Montgomery as Danny, a ne’er-do-well who charms his way into employment with the irascible Mrs. Bramson (Dame May Whitty). Although Danny is promised to one of Mrs. Bramson’s servants, he has eyes for the elderly woman’s niece Olivia (Rosalind Russell), who suspects Danny may be a freeloader or worse. Do seek this one out.
The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) Phil Goldstone (YouTube)
This pre-Code Poverty Row film is remembered more for its Alberto Vargas poster than for the film itself, which begins with Edith Crawford (Claire DuBrey) visiting her deceased husband’s brother, District Attorney John Grant (Alan Dinehart). Crawford has discovered letters proving her husband was having an affair before his demise. Grant lets her in on a little secret: The woman in question was the infamous Nora Moran (Zita Johann), the first woman to die in the electric chair in over 20 years for a crime she didn’t commit. Thus begins a flashback that tells us the full story. In addition to flashbacks, the film uses other noir techniques such as voiceover narration, dream sequences, and more. Your mileage may vary depending on how you define film noir (or pre-film noir, as the case may be), but The Sin of Nora Moran is definitely worth a look, especially for noir fans.
The Sisters of Gion (1936) Kenji Mizoguchi (Criterion Channel)
Since this is the first film discussed in a book I picked up recently - Reading a Japanese Film, by Keiko I. McDonald - I was delighted to find it on the Criterion Channel. Two geisha sisters (Isuzu Yamada, Yôko Umemura) have very different ideas about how their line of work should be carried out. I’m looking forward to learning more about Japanese cinema and (in this film, at least), learning about the (mis)treatment of women in general in prewar Japan. I hope to eventually write more about this and the other Mizoguchi film I watched this month, The Life of Oharu.
Trouble in Paradise (1932) Ernst Lubitsch (Dailymotion)
Another from Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list - A real treasure… Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins play lovers who are also partners in crime. The script is fast and smart, and so are the performances. Where is the Blu-ray of this film?????
The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) John Ford (Criterion Channel, Twilight Time Blu-ray)
This absolutely charming screwball comedy stars Edward G. Robinson in a dual role, playing Arthur Ferguson Jones, a low-level advertising man who looks exactly like the notorious at large “Killer” Mannion. Jean Arthur is wonderful as Jones’s co-worker, and the entire film is a real hoot.
Into '30s movies? Tell me what you like.
Next up: The 1940s