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A Journey Through My Collection: 1930's

Bring on the sound era! For the first full decade of my 101 year experiment, there was an interesting batch of movies looking back at World War I and a surprising number of movies that look ahead to World War II or the Cold War. We get a couple of Hitchcocks and a handful of timeless monsters and the dawn of American film censorship through the Hays Code that began in 1934. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

In my quest to see 101 years of movies from my physical collection this year I have finally made my way out of the 1920's and into the sound era. While the first movie with sound was released in 1927 and the first sound picture with color was in 1928, it's going to be quite a while until I catch up to that innovation in this experiment. "All Quiet" is a film of such scale and shot so well that it feels like it could have come out after World War II. It's funny to think of films that way, but very often there are movies 20 years ahead of their time, that don't feel like they are that good until you go through 20 years of movies and realize good filmmaking doesn't age out. Pretty crazy that this took home a handful of Oscars and the remake won one over 90 years later.

Frankenstein (1931)

My son is a Halloween baby and I have this fantasy of playing this on the projector outside for him one year on his birthday. He's pretty young and not the biggest horror guy, but this is just scary enough, but not exactly too scary. This is so well shot, on this viewing I noticed a dramatic push in that was surprisingly subtle. Boris Karloff is perfect. There could be no other Frankenstein monster. His body is so large and lumbering and his eyes so dead and menacing. A fun, timeless classic that felt supernaturally evil when I was a little kid reading about the movie in a book at the school library, I was scared to actually see it on my own until I was an adult. Thankfully it's a treat.

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

I had to dig this out of the moving boxes, but I'm glad to revisit this after watching the Hemingway doc and listening to a podcast on the film 1917. I really like how this feels as though it captures the feel of the writing from the book, the air between the words and the simple but vibrant tone. The Hemingway doc notes that this was written with a love affair he had in a European hospital during WWII very much in mind. I think the things that really elevate this story for me is where the story diverts from his true story to the "light out" sequence at the end, to borrow a phrase from Huckleberry Finn. This is where 1917 comes to mind, the concept that that story came from the imagination of Sam Mendes piecing together stories from his grandfather from the war to make one day or two long story. Fictionalizing real WWI stories to create something elevated and touching, and very likely not entirely true, even in the more non-fictional aspects of storytelling.

King Kong (1933)

Through a modern lens, the moviemaking here is lacking a couple of aspects, there are times I would have enjoyed longer shots or longer scenes to live in the world a little more. Yet, the animation is so good, that it creates a playfulness that's very engaging. When I was little my parents were invited to a dinner party at the house of a girl I knew from school. The parents would sit and chat in one room and the kids would roam around the maze-like house of a blended family with 6 kids, but in their living room they had this playing to no one, and no one was quite sure what it was. I stopped in front of that TV staring at Kong fighting dinosaurs, having no clue what I was seeing. I had enjoyed about book about old movies from the elementary school library with synopsizes and screenshots that made me aware of all of the classics, but I had no clue there were dinosaurs in King Kong. I'm not sure I realized it was King Kong for a while, maybe not even a few years, but it felt like I was witnessing an adventure that would enter into dreams and fantasies. The amazing thing is that it set a standard for realism in special effects that would create a lot of disappointment in subpar effects decades and decades later. I like the story, I get a little lost on the "beauty killed the beast" line, it's pretty clear that it wasn't a mistake by Kong that killed him, but all the times that people treated him as a threat that made him a threat.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

I wonder if this movie and the retry Hitchcock made with it are victims of the Hays Code. The Code went into effect in 1934 putting restrictions on violence and morality in films, even effecting storytelling to the point that someone that commits a crime has to be punished by the end of the movie. This ends in a deadly shootout, killing the criminal ring off in one events. It's reminiscent of the shootout to end Scarface, the movie and remake that tend to mark violent bookends of the end of the pre-code era and the end of the code when filmmakers had more freedom and brought in the illustrious and edgy films of the '60's and '70's. This isn't a perfect film, but it's certainly more interesting that the criminals go out in a hail of gunfire rather than hamming it up while being led off in handcuffs.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

I'm not sure what came over me, but a few years ago I went all in and read the book and listened to the audiobook of Frankenstein after seeing the first Boris Karloff movie for the first time. I hadn't realized that first movie was really just half of the story, so I endeavored to watch this installment as well. There are a great many things about this that I love, that it picks up where the previous movie left off, that we get a good deal more of story and the effects are pretty good, too. I am mostly put off by the tiny jar people. Their existence does show the mad scientist nature of their creator and the effects are actually really good, but they are just one step outside of reality compared to the monster. One last thing, the title The Bride of Frankenstein, as interpreted through the pedantic lens of "Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster," implies that the woman he creates was really intended for Dr. Frankenstein to marry.

Things to Come (1936)

I find this movie so fascinating. It hits on just the right tone of Philip K. Dick's novel Dr. Bloodmoney imagining the remnants of society after a global cobflict, except here we see it from the prognostication from the '30's that skips World War II and goes straight into the Cold War going nuclear. I love the massive scale, the sense of telling a history of the world from far in the future, and reusing actors to portray different characters throughout time. That gives a feeling of Foundation, telling a story that spans generations. H. G. Wells didn't exactly invent science fiction, but his influence lingered through generations and different styles of sci-fi writers. This is one of my favorite Criterion blind buys of recent years.

Grand Illusion (1937)

I'm a little perplexed about why this happens to have the #1 spine in the Criterion Collection. It's a fine film and a bit ahead of it's time, a dead ringer for The Great Escape, but set in World War I and made before World War II. The funny thing is that even though it doesn't have the crisp uniform evil of Nazis, World War I German antagonists were especially nafarious looking due to the trend at the time of dueling where a status symbol was having grotesque facial scarring. Young German men would intentionally injure their faces to gain these scars in an attempt to prove masculinity and eventually age into a Blofeldian monstrosity. This is a fine movie, and personally fitting that it is DVD spine #1 considering Great Escape also happened to be one of the earliest Blu-ray releases I was exposed to.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

This movie does two very different things incredibly well. First, this is one of the best train movies ever, it does the thing that every movie set on a train should do, it travels throughout the different cars and shows the different experiences you can have in the train, including some of the areas the passengers aren't really supposed to go. Last year I took a long train ride from California to Denver and my youngest was under a year old and needed to be carried around to fall asleep. I would walk up and down the train, to almost the very front where I could see through one last sliding door into the checked baggage car. I took that walk for a few hours until a crewman informed me that I had actually wandered into the crew quarters section of the train. In the Lady Vanishes, the characters do wander into the areas they aren't really allowed into, and oddly true to real life, they go unnoticed because the crew is too busy with their own duties to constantly police the movements of the passengers. This definitely had me longing to take another long train ride. 

The other thing this movie does really well is sewing uncertainty in the audience and the main character about whether there really is a lady that has vanished or if we are seeing a trick of reality thanks to a head injury. I don't think this is done especially often in films, although it does seem like a very 1990's thriller theme. More recently, Unsane took the audience on a ride that had us questioning if the main character is having a bad mental health situation, which is a horror on its own, or if they are going through an elaborate trick. For me, this is perhaps the earliest Hitchcock movie with a great combo of both being a thriller and delivering with great humor.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

This is the most western movie ever. It hits every good aspect of a classic western and even features James Steward who found his way into a few John Ford movies. It was very funny to see this for the first time and realize that it was the story template for Blazing Saddles. I think it takes a grand total of 30 seconds to pick up the similarities. Thankfully, this doesn’t just coast on a perfect formula for a western, it satisfies in the final shootout and Marlene Dietrich excels in the role of Madeline Kahn… okay, maybe it was the other way around, they’re both great. 

Final Thoughts

The '30's have a good batch of fun movies, even if the pickin's from my collection are a little slim. There are a few gems I stumbled across and a few that I gave second chances to. I have a feeling the next decade will be a bit stronger as the '20's and '30's were the only two decades I needed to fill in gaps to make it back 100 years.

Up Next!

Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion!, Casablanca, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, They Were Expendable, It's A Wonderful Life, Black Narcissus, Fort Apache, The Third Man.


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