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By Aaron Keck

Top Ten Movies Of The 1930s, Part I

By Aaron Keck Posted November 18, 2013 at 3:39 am

Still catching up from being a day behind. I’ll get back to the more substantive stuff in a couple days.

As you may remember from a previous blog, I’m something of a movie buff—and recently I’ve embarked on a project to knock out all the movies on my “I want to see” list that I haven’t gotten around to yet. Working chronologically, I’m almost all the way through the 1960s—so now I’m going back and making my definitive list of the best (read: my favorite) movies from each decade.

A couple weeks ago, I posted my countdown for the 1910s and 20s. And since I need to write two columns today to catch up to my promised blog-a-day pace, what better time than now to keep it going with:

Aaron’s Probably Definitive, Entirely Subjective List Of The Ten Best Movies Of The 1930s, Or: Why B-Sides Are Sometimes Better Than A-Sides.

Without further ado:

10. A Night at the Opera. The earliest comedies of the talkie era didn’t quite have their timing down yet: they were mostly transfers from the stage, so they still had ‘stage’ timing, which isn’t quite the same. (Watch a few comedies from the early 30s: you’ll see a lot of unnecessary pauses after jokes, as the actors wait for the unseen audience to stop laughing before moving on.)

The Marx Brothers were brilliant comedians and film pioneers—but being pioneers, they were also guinea pigs, so you can see the language of comedy movies still working itself out in their films. (Same for Laurel and Hardy, incidentally.) That working-out process keeps the Marx Brothers further down on my list than they otherwise might be—but their best movies still hold up pretty well, decades later.

Most people single out “Duck Soup” as their best—that’s the A-side—but sadly I don’t like it as much as I should: I know the anarchy is the point, but there’s a level of anarchy beyond which I start to get turned off. (I also don’t love “Blazing Saddles.”) But “A Night at the Opera” is just as potent, just as funny, and just as gleefully skewering—what better place than an opera for Margaret Dumont?—while keeping its chaos in control. “A Day at the Races” is equally good, but I’ll give the nod to “Opera” if only for the stateroom scene.

30s movie 1

This is what the Blue Zone really looks like on game day.

Incidentally: the Marx Brothers were film greats, but the stage was their real element—so while it’s rare these days, if you ever get a chance to see a Marx show on stage, don’t pass it up. “A Night in the Ukraine” is a 1979 musical written in the Marx Brothers style; it’s a knockoff, but it’s still brilliant. I once saw “Ukraine” put on by a bunch of high schoolers in Michigan—still one of my favorite theater experiences to this day, and it was a high-school production.

9. Freaks. Tod Browning also made “Dracula,” but this is his masterpiece. It’s also one of the first movies ever to subvert the old notion that Ugly has to be Evil and Beautiful has to be Good. Here, the gorgeous blond and the strapping strongman are the scheming villains, and we end up rooting for a team of folks straight out of the uncanny valley. It works all the more effectively because “Freaks” really does sincerely care about and respect its characters—much more so than, say, “The Wizard of Oz” sincerely respects the Munchkins.

It’s a bit more complex, too, because “Freaks” really goes beyond good and evil here. The ‘freaks’ are themselves a bit vicious as well: the famous “one of us” scene is pretty creepy, and the justice they exact on the bad guys is so sadistic (albeit poetic) that you can’t be entirely comfortable with it and still feel good about yourself in the morning.

Watch it here.

8. Gone With The Wind. Another colossal achievement that’s tarnished by its utterly ridiculous treatment of pre- and post-war slavery, “Gone With The Wind” is still a damn fine melodrama that still has as much power to move today as it ever had. Scarlett O’Hara is a terrific character—we find ourselves pulling for her even as we recognize her spoiled selfishness—and the burning of Atlanta and its aftermath are among the most memorable sequences in movie history. The second act isn’t as powerful—one tragedy follows another until it all becomes dull—but the first act is still a tremendous achievement.

Side note, since I look for films that make me think as well as feel: my friend Margot Morgan, a professor at Indiana University Southeast, reads “Gone With The Wind” as an examination of how people deal existentially with “great social transformation”—or, in other words, how you deal with the realization that your civilization or way of life is historically destined to be swept away.  She’s talking about Margaret Mitchell’s novel there, not David O. Selznick’s movie—Mitchell’s novel actually includes a running discourse between Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler on the idea of the Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods—but it’s worth watching the film with that idea in mind as well. (Neither Ashley, Rhett, or Scarlett come out looking too good.)

7. Pepe Le Moko. Never heard of it? Yeah, neither had I. (My grad school roommate was getting his doctorate in comparative literature, so I was able to see a lot of films I’d otherwise never have discovered.) “Pepe Le Moko” is a gem: set in the Casbah of Algiers, it’s about a charming criminal on the run from the French police—who’s perfectly safe as long as he never leaves the Casbah. He loves the place, but after a couple years he starts to get antsy…

It’s worth seeing for so many reasons. For one thing, it’s a ton of fun, and Jean Gabin—who plays Pepe—is one of the greatest French actors of all time. For the more politically minded, it’s also a terrific lens into how the French understood their own colonialism—especially regarding Algeria, which France really thought of as more than just a colony. (It’s fair to say they were a bit surprised when it turned out the Algerians felt rather differently.)

“Pepe Le Moko” also plays a surprisingly important role in film history. “Pepe” was so popular when it came out in 1937 that it got an American remake the following year, as a movie called “Algiers.” And that was so popular that film studios started looking for similar projects to cash in on its success. They found one a few years later—it was called “Casablanca.”

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“De toutes les joints de gin en toutes les villes en tout le monde…”

Incidentally, speaking of Jean Gabin…

6. The Grand Illusion. Gabin stars in this one too, a French war movie often cited as one of the greatest ever made. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but it’s awful darn close…

Set in World War I, Gabin plays a working-class soldier who’s captured by the Germans, along with a fellow soldier from an aristocratic background. What follows is a devastating takedown of war, nationhood, and class solidarity—and anti-Semitism too, for good measure.

Class means more than nationality: the French aristocrat shares more in common with his German-aristocrat captor than his own fellow soldiers. War itself is an exercise in futility—the “grand illusion” of the title. The aristocracy itself is doomed—about to be relegated to the dustbin of history, like the Old South in “Gone With The Wind.” It’s a thought-provoking movie, even if you already subscribe to its antiwar ideals. Gabin’s presence is also a point in its favor, as well as the presence of Erich Von Stroheim (“Sunset Boulevard”) as the unforgettable German aristocrat.

Click here to continue with Part 2, counting down to #1.

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