Romancing the Talkies: 10 Favorites from 1930

joancrawford_microphoneA few weeks ago the marvelous Katie of Cinema Enthusiast invited me to participate in a poll and name my 10 favorite films of 1930.

I enjoyed the exercise of putting together my “ballot” and, as I combed over the other submissions, I realized that I wanted to write a bit about each of my picks.

3,000 or so words later, here we are. (Make it to the end of this post and you’ll get a Lubitsch GIF. That’s a promise.)

To call 1930 a year of transition in Hollywood would be a tremendous understatement. Sound was here to stay, but the industry was still scrambling to reshape production protocols, star images, and film properties for the talkies. Directors working during this fraught period faced a steep learning curve as they negotiated unwieldy technology and unpredictable audience reactions. All the panic and overhaul led to some very bad, dull movies, for sure, but 1930 gave us far more good American movies than popular opinion suggests.

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Delight Evans, critic and editor of Screenland magazine.

Delight Evans, the perceptive editor of Screenland magazine, noted in March of 1930 that the advent of sound pushed narratives towards realism—and often reduced romance to absurdity: “Talkies leave little to the imagination, you see. We [each] wrote our own dialogue for the Gilbert-Garbo kisses. Now we have to look and listen to a deliberate and diagrammed dissertation on the love scenes. Gone is the mystery, the mood, the enchantment.”

Evans was a sharp cookie. She wasn’t sounding the death knell of celluloid romance as much as she was making a simple observation—and reporting industry news. With the calamitous reception of John Gilbert’s ludicrous dialogue in His Glorious Night (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, his voice) and similar hoots of hilarity from audiences watching early sound love scenes, many producers baulked at flowery declarations of passion and green-lit gritty, hardboiled dramas instead.

Sound films do indeed occupy another of our senses, shaking up the gauzy, dreamlike pace of silent movie lovemaking. Talkies clipped cupid’s wings by grounding romance in our terrestrial scheme, our space-time continuum. We lost a part of the movies, a pleasing parenthesis that the viewer could fill with his or her own fantasies. After all, love in reel life as well as real life is often not a matter of what’s said, but what’s unsaid.

It occurs to me that most of the films on my list explore the talkies’ potential for romance, whether cheerful or star-crossed. Whereas many early sound films have a tendency to blurt feelings and messages (“I love you! I love you! I love you!”), I tried to choose movies that fiercely guard their subtext and keep it… sub. Hidden. Unspoken. Tantalizing.

Several great directors seized the opportunities afforded by sound: Capra, whose empathy and belief in human goodness could redeem the oldest clichés in the book; Lubitsch, whose winking ellipses and whimsical reversals celebrated the unseen and the unpredictable in our nature; and Von Sternberg, whose lush mise-en-scene permeated his films mystery and desire.

That said, this list also embraces the boldly anti-romantic side of 1930: gangsters, soldiers, spirits in limbo, and badass shopgirl Joan Crawford interrupting love scenes with feminist zingers.

I wonder how I would’ve reacted to the coming of sound if I’d been a moviegoer way back then. Would I have mourned the silents and written angry letters to magazines, as did many fans? Perhaps. Change hurts. And we lost a great art at the zenith of its powers when the silents died. But I like to think that any of the movies on this list would’ve changed my mind and made me fall in love with cinema all over again.

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The Devil to Pay – George FitzMaurice

I defy you not to adore any movie that features Myrna Loy simmering in a steam bath and Ronald Colman conversing with a dog. An elegant trifle, The Devil to Pay hints at the madcap joys of the high screwball comedy, which wouldn’t blossom (depending on whom you talk to) for a few years at least.

Lovable n’er-do-well aristocrat Willie Leyland (lovable because he’s Ronald Colman) returns to London to sponge some more money off his crotchety father. Willie succeeds in getting his cash, but then falls in love with a spirited—and engaged—linoleum heiress, Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young). Nobody seems to approve of the match, except the girl herself. And that’s all that matters for Willie. Now, will he have the guts to break off his long-term affair with a stage star (Myrna Loy) before Dorothy gets the wrong end of the stick?

Early talkies about the upper classes—especially the British aristocracy—often ring false, with stilted dialogue, awkward accents, and unconvincing relationships. In The Devil to Pay, the familial bonds feel, well, familiar: sweetly critical and teasingly affectionate. The cast carries a lightweight plot off with breezy chemistry. 17-year-old Loretta Young, already a screen veteran, makes Dorothy, a character that could’ve been a living prop, into a delightfully strong-willed woman who’s not afraid to stand up to her father, her fiancé, or the man she loves.

The film begins as Willie auctions off all of the furniture from his hut in Africa. His bed comes up on the block. One woman asks: Does the bed come with the owner? I suspect that cheeky line elicited yearning sighs from every lady in the audience 86 years ago (and it still does for me, 86 years later). As Willie, Ronald Colman glows at the peak of his handsomeness and exhibits a dashing fluency in sound comedy that most other film actors could only envy in 1930.

Where can you see it? It’s, alas, not available on DVD. But let’s just say it’s around online.

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The Doorway to Hell – Archie Mayo

Before Scarface, before The Public Enemy, before Little Caesar, there was The Doorway to Hell, a bitter, gory talkie gangster film frequently punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of a “Chicago typewriter.”

Louie Ricarno, a precocious mob boss with aspirations towards respectability, organizes vying factions in the mob like a business, then tries to go legit. (Sound familiar? The Doorway to Hell might be the nearest classic Hollywood relative to The Godfather films in terms of narrative DNA.) When former associates threaten Louie’s beloved family, our anti-hero rides back into town for the bloody vengeance that triggers his inevitable downfall.

Some might argue that devilishly pretty 22-year-old Lew Ayres lacked the grit to take on a tough-guy role. James Cagney, cast as Ayres’s right-hand man here, would obviously go on to define the pugnacious bad-boy allure of the gangster better than anybody else. Today’s viewers might find it difficult not to focus on Jimmy throughout the movie.

From where I’m sitting, though, Ayres infuses Louie with enough dead-eyed, tight-lipped weirdness to make one’s skin crawl. No, he’s not a swaggering punk like Cagney, nor a bravura stereotype like Muni, nor a ferocious pocket thug like Robinson. Ayres plays Louie as nothing less than a stone-cold killer.

His stiff posture and smugly placid resting expression (bastardface?) convey stuntedness; we’re looking at a little boy who absorbed too much reality too early. This man carries something still and unnatural in him, we feel, something spookier than pride or greed. It’s as though the American Dream were a corrosive substance that ate him away from the inside, leaving only a slick shell and the barest remnants of humanity. Louie is the return of the repressed, the monstrous product of a drive to survive that we all share—and of a society that refuses to take responsibility for him.

The Doorway to Hell packs its share of gut-punch moments. A kidnapping attempt on Louie’s untainted little brother goes awry, pushing the child into the way of an oncoming truck. A few scenes later, Louie shows up at a plastic surgeon’s operating room, asking if the doctor can make his brother look the way he did. “Where is he?” Asks the doctor. “At the undertaker,” Louie replies. Thus the film informs us that Louie’s one hope of transcending his inner meanness has died. Tough, laconic, devastating. (And, gee, doesn’t that foreshadow Don Corleone’s plea to the undertaker Bonasera?)

The dialogue offers a treasury of punchy and creative underworld euphemisms, such as “a handful of clouds” for a fatal spray of bullets. When Louie finally resigns himself to his handful, he struts out of his hideout with a wild paroxysm of laughter, boldly meeting death and renouncing this ugly, pitiless existence as just so much ill-smelling ether. It’s one hell of an ending to one hell of a movie.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive. So that’s nice.

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Follow Thru – Lloyd Corrigan and Lawrence Schwab

I’ve already gushed at length about this bawdy two-strip Technicolor romp, which I saw at last year’s Capitolfest. The film offers, among other joys, gobsmackingly vibrant close-ups of Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd wearing little more than beads and feathers, a splashy musical number about misbehaving (backed up by a chorus line of dancing devils), and Eugene Pallette in drag. It’s so much fun that it borders on gluttony.

Where can you see it? Ahem, you might find it around online. But the available prints don’t do the film justice. How I wish the glorious UCLA restoration that I saw would get a DVD/Blu-ray release!

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Journey’s End – James Whale

Overshadowed by the more technically adventurous All Quiet on the Western Front, James Whale’s drama of the Great War opened in theaters several months earlier. Adapted from R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed stage play, Journey’s End evokes the claustrophobia of trench warfare with grim authenticity. (Whale had served in WWI, and the horrors he witnessed over there carved a crooked smile into all of his films. His macabre revision of Frankenstein owes as much to the daily crushing terror of total war as to the solemn grandeur of Gothic literature.)

Its auteur aside—and Whale surely deserves the distinction of auteur—Journey’s End makes my list of 1930 favorites because of its star, Colin Clive. Though best remembered today as Doctor Frankenstein, blueblooded Clive rose to fame in the 1920s for his stage portrayal of Captain Stanhope, the doomed commanding officer who numbs his shellshock with alcohol and hopes he’ll die in a blaze of glory before his loved ones learn what he’s become. (Side note: Laurence Olivier was first cast in the role, but didn’t quite click and left the play. Clive took over and scored a hit.)

Brought to Hollywood to reprise the role, Clive made a haunting film debut and demonstrated an intuitive understanding of film acting—at a time when even experienced movie actors were struggling to adapt to the talkies.

Nobody could come apart at the seams before a camera like Clive. He specialized in blow-ups and breakdowns, the emotional trapeze parts that seem overacted unless grounded by utter sincerity. Clive brings Stanhope to life in all of his tortured contradictions: snappish yet gentle, petulant yet wise, terrified yet brave, exasperating yet endearing.

(A few years ago I did a post on this film and Clive, whose brief life paralleled his tragic roles.)

Where can you see it? I believe that the film is in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube. Sadly, I’ve only ever seen murky prints around.

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Ladies of Leisure – Frank Capra

Capra and Stanwyck’s first collaboration is just as good as you’d hope and needs no introduction from me. I caught it on TCM years ago and can still picture the way Stanwyck’s eyes shine when her hardened “party girl” character realizes that love is not only real, but has come calling in her life.

Where can you see it? It’s out on DVD from Sony.

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Laughter – Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Films that tackle the heavy side of life with a light touch hold a special place in my heart. Some movies wield their direness like a blunt instrument, but who wants to be clubbed half to death? One of the worst ideas about art in the history of art is that great art must somehow be painful—and that, the more painful art is to consume, the better it must automatically be. Art’s greatness is inversely proportional to the pleasure it gives to ordinary folk. Or so asserts a certain school of thought. Personally, I refuse to penalize art for entertaining me.

Laughter is about heartbreak, starving artists, suicide, and the wrench of choosing loveless wealth over romance and poverty. Yet, without diminishing any of those serious themes, this film nourishes the viewer’s joie de vivre. Director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, a pal of Chaplin’s, understood that you don’t have to make the audience suffer to say something about human suffering.

One-time chorus girl Peggy (Nancy Carroll), now married to a decent but dull millionaire (Frank Morgan), longs for the bohemian good times of her past. When her ex-lover Paul (Fredric March), a vagabond composer, shows up, Peggy has to make a bitter choice: risk everything for love and freedom or entomb herself forever in a world of passionless material comforts.

Blending melodrama and zany proto-screwball antics, Laughter deserves all the critical praise it’s garnered over the years. When Pauline Kael describes a film as a “lovely, sophisticated comedy, an ode to impracticality” with “perhaps the best clothes ever seen on the screen,” you’d be a fool not to seek it out.

Best of all, the film defines healthy romance as continual playfulness. We recognize Peggy’s and Paul’s mutual love because they go for joyrides and get hopelessly, merrily lost. They roam around a stranger’s home wrapped in bear-skin rugs. They playact a gender-flipped husband and wife relationship. They discuss Paul’s work-in-progress symphony through an exchange of boisterous vocalizations. The irrepressible human need to love, create, and gather rosebuds while ye may bubbles forth from every scene.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD (Damn you, Universal/Comcast!), but you may find it somewhere around this jumble we call the Internet…

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Monte Carlo – Ernst Lubitsch

A minor Lubitsch film is one you can only imagine yourself watching, say, a half-dozen more times in your life instead of a hundred. Monte Carlo is a minor Lubitsch film.

In this musical confection, headstrong Countess Helene (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves her effete would-be groom at the altar and flees to Monte Carlo, hoping to win enough at the casino to balance her hefty debts and avoid marriage. While losing the remainder of her money, she catches the eye of rakish Count Rudy (Jack Buchanan) who poses as her hairdresser—the better to woo her and save her from financial disaster. The countess soon finds herself falling for the faux coiffeur. But will she let snobbery get in the way of true love?

Reviews of this film typically heap scorn on leading man Buchanan. I’d been listening to his song recordings for years before I saw this film, so I must confess my disappointment that his considerable charms did not, to put it mildly, translate well to Monte Carlo. (Hell, in the image above he looks more like he’s contemplating cutting Jeanette MacDonald’s throat than her hair.) But, hey, Cary Grant cited him as an influence, so I’ll just squint and work a little harder to appreciate Buchanan here.

The script at least makes Buchanan himself work a little harder to impress us and MacDonald. His early attempts to pick her up meet with spectacular (if unsurprising) failure; he has to enter her employ and win her trust with a really, really sensual scalp massage. I like the idea that the hero has to serve a kind of romantic apprenticeship, proving himself a loyal and useful companion before his lady love gives him a second look. When Buchanan starts trying to assert himself as master and order MacDonald about, though, the film takes a nosedive.

In any case, MacDonald more than compensates for Buchanan’s shortcomings. This goddess of frivolity indulges in aggressively bad decisions and imperious diva tantrums, yet I still worship at her altar. Why? Because she has amazing hair. I don’t say that in jest. Perhaps only Ginger Rogers could match MacDonald’s use of her hair as a weapon in the arsenal of physical comedy. Monte Carlo’s funniest moment arrives when MacDonald flips out and pulls her lustrous locks into a half-marcelled frizzbomb of feminine whimsy—in hopes of ruining Rudy’s reputation as a coiffeur.

Monte Carlo doesn’t ascend to the giddy, constantly-pleasurable heights of The Love Parade or The Smiling Lieutenant, but Lubitsch dazzles us with MacDonald’s rendition of “Beyond the Blue Horizon” as the music mingles with the rhythms of a locomotive chugging through the countryside. Plus, one of my favorite songs of the 1930s, “Always in All Ways,” provides a sweet moment of harmony between MacDonald and Buchanan. (Note to self: Why do I have this weakness for foxtrots about codependency?)

Where can you see it? Rejoice, ye cinephiles, it’s part of Criterion’s Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse box set!

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Morocco – Josef von Sternberg

Movies melt out of our minds, leaving the occasional morsels of dialogue, gestures, and images. The greatest movies give us something to hang onto. Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo will remain burned on my brain for as long as I can summon memories.

Marlene, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, tugging her bowtie in place as she looks into a grimy mirror.

Marlene tipping her hat back with crisp and cavalier gesture.

Marlene bending down to kiss a slightly shocked but excited female nightclub patron.

In her iconic tux, Marlene embodies a seductive, self-contained ideal, or rather two ideals, two binary fantasies, fused into one person. Behold, spectators: a woman as a complete and unassailable being, a woman who’s imbibed the best qualities of the gentleman and made them her own. When asked if she’s married, Dietrich’s character, Amy Jolly, replies, “Marriage? No, I never found a man good enough for that.” Of course not. She is her own woman and her own man.

Oh, yeah, there’s some plot going on here, too, involving wealthy Adolphe Menjou and Foreign Legion soldier Gary Cooper as rivals for Marlene’s heart. But the point lies elsewhere, in the hypnotic visions of alienation and exploration that Sternberg orchestrates for us. Even the denouement, as Dietrich kicks off her golden sandals and trudges into the the blistering desert sands to follow her lover, strikes me as not a surrender of Amy’s self-contained power, but an enlargement of it. With a slight alteration of costume, this shape-shifting, convention-defying woman will reinvent herself as her heart commands.

Where can you see it? It’s available from the Universal Vault Series.

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Our Blushing Brides – Harry Beaumont

I’ve been working on a post about Our Blushing Brides for over a year. Why has it taken me so long? Because I love this movie and just when I think I’ve run out of things to say about it, I think of something else I want to analyze.

Joan Crawford radiates raw and righteous anger as a department store model fending off the advances of a dapper playboy who happens to be her boss (Robert Montgomery, of course, it’s Robert Montgomery; like, really, were you expecting anybody else?). The screenplay, co-written by Bess Meredyth, flips the shopgirl-Cinderella formula on its head and provides Queen Joan with numerous opportunities to shred male privilege until Prince Not-So-Charming-As-He-Thinks learns his lesson.

Did I mention the mid-movie fashion show? Seriously, go watch this now.

Where can you see it? It’s available on a DVD from Warner Archive and is also currently streaming HD on Warner Archive Instant.

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Outward Bound – Robert Milton

As I was making my late-breaking 1930 list, I “eavesdropped” (or whatever the Twitter equivalent is) on a conversation between two esteemed cinephile friends of mine, Miriam Bale and Kimberly Lindbergs, as they discussed their own lists. Both had selected Outward Bound, a film I’d never heard of. “Gee, if they like it, it must be swell,” I thought to myself. (And, yes, my internal monologue sounds like a 1930s chorus girl.)

Seized by curiosity, I dug up this unavailable film late at night, telling myself I’d check out the first few minutes and watch the whole thing tomorrow. An hour and a half later, it was 2 a.m., I’d watched the entire film, and I was sobbing.

Before there was A Matter of Life and Death there was Outward Bound, a numinous meditation on the afterlife and the wages of our earthly actions.

A group of unconnected people from all classes of society find themselves on an eerily deserted ocean liner with no recollection of buying a ticket. They soon realize that they’ve recently died and now drift towards a unmapped port where they will all be judged for their sins and virtues.

The allegorical shipboard setting, with its winding hallways, simple gathering spaces and mist-shrouded decks, conjures a wondrous yet familiar atmosphere. Within this magically simple backdrop, the performances—from unfeeling grande dame Alison Skipworth to bullying businessman Montagu Love to meek charwoman Beryl Mercer—define a vivid microcosm.

As the first passenger to awaken to the horror of his situation, Leslie Howard balances faraway hopelessness with tightly-coiled angst. In his first sound role, Howard displays the otherworldly grace of a lost soul, a man dead long before he died. He need only run those fragile, tapered fingers of his across his forehead to convey all the broken dreams of the post-WWI generation. And that voice! Just listen to how he says “We are all dead, aren’t we?” in this clip. Listen to the beats between words, the rising pitch on “dead,” the resignation and relief of the last words. He transmutes a question into a phrase of music.

However, it’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Chandler who anchor the film as a devoted young couple drifting on the edges of the doomed group. Boyishly gorgeous Fairbanks and angelic, spellbound Chandler cling to each other with quiet but frantic anxiety: will the great judgement cast them apart for all eternity? Chandler’s singsong voice and delicate gestures finally made me break into tears as she totters down the foggy ship deck in search of her beloved… whom she may never see again.

Perhaps a movie can give us viewers no greater gift than the desire to invest ourselves more earnestly in life—to embrace every fleeting sensation, to bear fate’s blows more patiently, to correct our faults more humbly, and to love more generously. Outward Bound does all of this with the feverish beauty of a sad, half-remembered dream.

Where can you see it? Sadly unavailable, Outward Bound is due for a release. How about it, Warner Archive friends? (I think you own it, n’est-ce pas?)

And about that GIF I promised you…

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Christmas at the Capitol: It’s a Wonderful Life on 35mm

IMG_3571On December 20, 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life premiered at the Globe Theater in New York City.

And, 68 years later to the day, I got to see the holiday classic on the big screen for the first time—just the way it would’ve looked for its original audiences.

The Venue

This past weekend, the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York screened a crisp 35mm archival print of Capra’s masterpiece, on loan from the Library of Congress. The 1920s Moorish-style movie palace took on a festive glow for the occasion. A Christmas tree twinkled in in the lobby, a starry pattern of red and green illuminated the ceiling, and an a cappella ensemble crooned by the concession stand.

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The joy of Christmas melded with joy of experiencing film on film—a pleasure so increasingly rare that I traveled 2-and-a-half hours for it! Each year the Capitol shows It’s a Wonderful Life on its carbon arc projector, one of only about 30 still in continuous use in the U.S.

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Up until the 1960s, movie theaters showed films on this kind of projector, its light emitted from carbon electrodes. This means that your favorite classic Hollywood movies were originally screened by the clear intensity of carbon arc light. That’s the way they were made to be seen.

Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, and Bob Hodge, the Capitol’s projectionist, let me invade the projection booth.

Before IMG_3551showtime, I caught Hodge winding the film strip onto a different set of reels so that it would run correctly.

As Hodge explained, if he projected the film the way it arrives from the Library of Congress, it would run upside-down and backwards.

Even in the heyday of celluloid, projectionists would run films on the theater’s own set of reels, kept in pristine condition, instead of the rougher set on which the film arrived.

It took all my willpower not to muster my best Jimmy Stewart impression and exclaim, “Merry Christmas, you old carbon arc projector!”

After the film, I got to see a very different kind of projection booth: the digital works at the Capitol’s art house venture, Cinema Capitol, which opened in late November. Jack Theakston, as well as Capitol manager Art Pierce, and Capitol board member Doug Swarthout kindly gave me a tour of the new theater.

After seeing it as essentially an empty office space in October, I was amazed by how welcoming and hip Cinema Capitol looks now. In the 52-seat theater, spectators can appreciate intriguing current releases along IMG_3501with digital restorations of classics. While I was there, I got to peer at Bing Crosby through the projection window as the holiday re-release of White Christmas played for a small but enthusiastic audience (who applauded at the film’s conclusion).

Needless to say, it warms my heart to see 35mm coexisting with digital right next door. From sconces made of old film reels to a retired carbon-arc projector in the lobby, the theater celebrates the old along with the new. Cinema Capitol proves that 21st century technology doesn’t have to replace the beautiful cinematic traditions of the 20th. Rather, they complement each other.

Come to think of it, the Capitol and the staff of movie fanatics who keep it alive remind me quite a lot of the Bailey Building and Loan and its staff of lovable characters. Both triumphed against the odds to preserve something meaningful and attracted a loyal crowd of admirers in the process.

And that, friends, is the true meaning of Christmas. Well, on this blog, at least.

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The Movie

2014 made me change my tune about a bunch of things, from Gone with the Wind to Dana Andrews. The Ghost of Celluloid Past must’ve been chuckling at my reactions all year.

So I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life with a very definite goal in mind. I was hoping to gain some perspective on a Christmas movie that I don’t love, to put it mildly.

This is a guilty secret that only those closest to me have shared (and, if I’m honest, gasped at in disgust).

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Can I blame my former lack of fondness for the film on my generation? Try though I might to deny my millennial-ness, I’ve had a tough time relating to It’s a Wonderful Life since childhood.

The selfless values of America’s “greatest generation” struck me (and many people my age, I assume) as noble but remote, like the Medieval code of chivalry. Then again, viewers in 1946 weren’t crazy about It’s a Wonderful Life either. It turned out to be a box office disappointment for Capra.

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While I’d never refute the sheer filmmaking genius behind Capra’s ode to the American little guy, the fact that he didn’t just use Western Union to send his message irritated me. I hate myself a little bit for writing this, yet a deep, cynical part of me had instinctively rejected It’s a Wonderful Life as propaganda. The most beautiful, harmless propaganda in the world, yes, but propaganda nonetheless.

On a big screen, however, the film’s much-reproached corniness melted away like snowflakes on my tongue. The introspective gravity of those ethereal opening shots, as the voices of characters we haven’t met rise in prayer for a man in trouble, grabbed me and never let go.

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The story and, above all, the personalities enfolded me. I couldn’t distance myself from the movie like I could in the security of my house; there was no room to chew on ideological concerns. As never before, It’s a Wonderful Life genuinely entertained me for over 2 hours.

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The movie’s almost continual funniness also took me by surprise. From my dozen or so previous viewings, I’d remembered isolated bits of comic relief in what is, let’s face it, a pretty damn dark Christmas classic. On this viewing, Capra’s warm sense of humor sustained me for the duration and seemed to weave more intricately into the moments of pathos.

In fact, one of the biggest laughs arrived at the lowest point of George’s trajectory, in the barren ruin of his home, when Clarence bites Bert’s hand as a diversion. The comedy of It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t neutralize the disturbing spectre of Pottersville, as I’d thought it was supposed to. It actively affirms that the same higher power striving to make life worth living also has a sense of humor.

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I joined an audience comprising a wide range of ages in chuckling heartily every few minutes thanks to the film’s masterful pace. As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”

Indeed, if you want to know how amusing a movie is—or how contagious laughter can be—watch it in a darkened theater with a hundred or so strangers.

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For me, the greatest revelation was how much I cared about every character in It’s a Wonderful Life (Potter and his lackeys excepted). On a small screen, Jimmy Stewart dominates the movie so totally that his despair triggers a kind of emotional claustrophobia. Besides, not everyone can be a George Bailey—and even he didn’t want to be one. Does a life only have value to the extent that it serves other lives?

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In an interview, Capra said that It’s a Wonderful Life expressed “the importance of the individual,” an unusual statement about a film that I’d considered a paean to community. As I rediscovered the film a few days ago, however, Capra’s tender attention to each and every person in Bedford Falls came across with poignant conviction. I know my limitations and I’ll never be a George Bailey. But I can aspire to be a Bert or a Sam Wainwright or an Annie. And those are all pretty wonderful things to be, I realized.

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Finally, I noticed many aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life that I’d never picked up on before. As it sprawled across the Capitol’s 20-by-40-foot screen, it gave me more “cinephiliac moments” than I could possibly recount in a single post. Like how you can see the mist of Mary and George’s breath as they sing “Buffalo Gals.”

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Like the dead, hollow eyes of Ernie the cabdriver, once full of such eagerness and humor, as he drives to 320 Sycamore.

Like the glistening, ghostly threads of cobwebs that tremble in the night air when George finds his house empty and abandoned.

Like the way Zuzu doesn’t know the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” prompting George to help her a little.

Tiny stitches in an intricate piece of embroidery, innumerable details—some intended, some improvised, some providential—added up to something I could begin to enjoy. Will it ever be a favorite of mine? Probably not. But my appreciation, like the Grinch’s heart, grew a few sizes.

For those of you who cherish It’s a Wonderful Life, believe me, you need to see it as it was meant to be seen. Treat yourself. Life is short. For those of you who don’t love it, you need to see it on a big screen even more. And, if you can, try to see it at the Capitol.

Merry Christmas to all you cinephiles!

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The Laughing Academy: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night

“If the movies are an art, I kinda think it’ll leak out somehow without bein’ told; and if they’re a science—then it’s a miracle.”

—Will Rogers at the Academy Awards banquet, 1934

“Let’s get this over with.”

—Clark Gable, arriving on the set for the first day of shooting on It Happened One Night

“I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made.”

—Claudette Colbert, on finishing It Happened One Night

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is not exactly known for rewarding a good laugh.

We all know that if you want one of their little gold men on your bedside table, your safest bet lies in unearthing the most degrading, unglamorous, tragic script you can find and wringing it for all its worth. Which is a shame, really, because many of the best movies ever made are comedies and I would argue that it’s much harder to make a good funny picture—one that really makes your sides hurt and a twinkle reappear in in your eye—than a good depressing one.

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Don’t get me wrong—many fine comedies have gotten Oscar nods, and several have attracted one or two of the big awards, but that’s comparatively rare. Perhaps the idea of serious drama adds an air of respectability and legitimacy to movies, and that’s why rather dire, pompous, or grandiose movies tend to hold the Academy trump cards.

Except for once.

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In 1934, a low-budget comedy won every major award. Best Actor. Best Actress. Best Director. Best Screenplay. And, of course, Best Picture. It was the first movie ever to sweep the big awards like that. However, it starred two loaned-out actors who didn’t want anything to do with it. It was made at a fledgling studio in the midst of a town dominated by reigning giants. It bridged the wide gap between an era of Pre-Code naughtiness and a new period of constraints and stringent censorship. It forged a new subgenre: the screwball comedy, which embedded cheeky adventures into a more cautious, traditional courtship framework. It’s a miraculous movie.

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Although it was initially entitled Night Bus, the movie bore a stunningly romantic, already nostalgic name: It Happened One Night.

Night Bus

But let’s get one thing clear: I don’t by a long shot consider it the greatest comedy ever made. I’d nominate Trouble in Paradise, Some Like It Hot, or The Lady Eve for that honor. Nor is it the best movie Capra ever made. Nor is it even the funniest movie ever made.

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Yet, in it’s own strange way, It Happened One Night stands out as perhaps the most likable film ever made—even more so than Casablanca, with its occasionally mawkish bouts of patriotism (although I do love Casablanca). Capra’s little laugh-fest fills me with cozy joy, as if it were tapioca pudding in movie-form. And, in 1934, the heart of the Depression, apparently even the Academy appreciated some filmic comfort food.

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Claudette Colbert: existentialist.

The film glows with the impression of genuineness, of spontaneity. Notice I say “impression” because anyone who’s ever held a camera can tell you that spontaneity requires some of the greatest illusory juju that any cinema shaman can summon up. We talk a lot about Capra the humanist and Capra the idealist—but I want to praise Capra the magician, who can pull realism out of staged simplicity, who can turn two freakishly charismatic people into ordinary individuals who need baths and get hungry, who can even use snappy dialogue and character involvement to make us forget that we’re looking at a rear-projected shot.

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This contrived tale of a runaway heiress and an out-of-work reporter racing to get her back to her fiancée—and inevitably falling in love in spite of their antagonism—succeeds. And how!

By what strange alchemy does this movie turn to gold? I give a lot of credit to what I’d call orchestrated amateurism—endearingly crude cuts and awkward moments added in to what would otherwise be a flat, dull, artificial enterprise. Capra can do flawless and sophisticated. He did it, in my book, the year before with The Bitter Tea of General Yen—a lush, expressionistic story of a doomed romance, every shot of which is fit for framing and hanging on a gallery wall. It Happened One Night, however, is brilliantly flawed and splendidly arranged to seem like everyday life, to seem like it’s just happening as it goes along.

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For instance, there’s a moment that’s always distracted me. Ellie Andrews, the pampered runaway, has to spend a night in the same autopark room with Pete Warne, a canny, independent newspaper man. Although they didn’t exactly go to sleep on good terms, they wake up on a better foot and sit down to breakfast together. Claudette Colbert exudes a natural shimmering warmth in any role, so as she tells Pete about how her filthy rich life wasn’t so great after all, her speech strikes me as cute—but that’s not what I’m watching.

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Ellie’s eating as she talks. Not “movie eating,” picking at food, pretending to eat. Really eating. Shoveling eggs in and chewing them up. And at one point, a little shred of egg white gets caught on her lip and she flips it back into her mouth. It’s a split-second motion, not in the least played up for comic effect, but that’s all it takes to turn a staged scene into something that feels much more real. Capra was the master of the reifying detail, the one thing that turns a scene from a clunker to a charmer.

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Capra cultivates this not-quite-put-together ambiance, this intentional sloppiness in the famous scene the night before, when Pete undresses in front of the camera. Ellie stands there all the while, bluffing, trying to insist that she’s not afraid of Pete’s rough virility. Meanwhile, taunting her in this game of erotic chicken (oh, God, I hope that “erotic chicken” doesn’t show up on my search terms list), Gable does what we must recognize as one of classic cinema’s few male stripteases. Yes, take THAT, male gaze-obsessed film theorists!

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All digressions aside, make no mistake: this is a constructed scene, as snappy and precise as a Busby Berkeley tap routine. In fact, the reason why Gable takes off his shirt to reveal no undershirt (and thereby bankrupted many an undergarment company) isn’t a question of style but of timing: with the undershirt, the spiel and the routine took too long.

However, the editing makes the scene seem a lot more amateurish than it is. When Gable prepares to unbutton his pants, and every female viewer leaned forward a little, we see Colbert, leaning against the door, rush forward—Heaven forbid she see a naked man! Then we get a quick cut to a longer shot, and she’s back where she was, leaning against the door! Almost immediately, she jerks forward again and scampers to the other side of the Walls of Jericho, the blanket that separates the unwilling roommates. In case I’m not being clear, we see the same action, Colbert starting to run away, twice, if only for a second. I wish I could capture it via screenshot, but it’s too fast—I happens right after this…

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Call the referee! A continuity rule has been violated!

Seriously, though, that messy cut consecrates the scene with a paradoxical sense of documentary authenticity. Obviously, anything that’s been edited has been contrived. However, a jumpy cut encourages us as viewers to see this film as somewhat haphazardly thrown together. It’s natural, uncomplicated, unvarnished, practically a home movie, we’re meant to believe. Our good will towards this quaint, patched-up picture from a minor studio swells into fondness. I’d also point out that the doubled action adds an almost Eisensteinian surge of energy to the moment—a jolt to conclude one striptease and usher in another, as Colbert strips to her slip on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

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Seriously, though, if you’re watching It Happened One Night for the umpteenth time, keep an eye out for how many weird cuts rip through this masterpiece of calculated nonchalance. Perhaps the most effective and, I would argue, self-conscious of these jumpy cuts arrives at the moment when Pete and Ellie come nose-to-nose for the first time—the first time that they’re not screaming at each other, that is.

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As Ellie reclines in a hay bail, Pete folds his trench coat over her. They come face to face. We expect a kiss. Instead, we get a jump cut closer.

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I love how that gratuitous little inch forward allows us to experience the intimacy of that instant. There’s no kiss. There’s no sex. And yet something changed there and we all perceived it. Then Pete gets up and makes up his bed of straw. There are so many hackneyed ways to insist on attractive tension—360-degree camera spirals, zooms, fetishistically long close-ups. But Capra, not exactly known for avoiding sentimentality, saves us from all that saccharine sweetness with a dose of jagged cutting that brings us back to reality… or the illusion of reality.

I suppose that my point, if I must indeed have a point, consists in showing that It Happened One Night deserves every single one of its awards for seeming so effortless, buoyant, and, yes, even a little shoddy.

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As for our Best Actor, I’ll admit it: I usually don’t love Clark Gable—he doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. However, in this movie, I can’t resist his disobligingly teasing swagger. He could have collected an Oscar just  for how he mockingly sings, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” to sheltered maiden Ellie on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

Whether gnawing on carrots or tossing his best set of pajamas at Ellie, he amplifies the Average American Man, or what we’d like to think he is: basically decent, crammed with his own cockeyed wisdom, foolish, savvy, glib, cynical, sentimental, sincere, and strong—all in one. These qualities shine beautifully through in Gable, the kind of guy who would and did give his Oscar to a little kid who remarked on it in the street.

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Colbert earned her Oscar by refusing to tone down her part. No mistake—Ellie can be an atrocious brat. In the first five minutes of the movie, she pitches a tray of fresh food on the floor with such single-minded, adolescent fury that I imagine a whole audience of undernourished Americans wanted to slap her, just as Walter Connolly does. She’s the kind of childish gal who returns the stuck-out tongue of a girl half her age!

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Her comedic timing generates laughs, but never hits you as forced or mannered. For instance, in the hitchhiking scene, Gable gets most of the antics, demonstrating the several methods of hitchhiking—all she does in response is go, “That’s amazing.” But, man, the dry, falsely-impressed timbre of her voice is funnier that all the custard pies in the world.

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She was convinced that she’d never win the Oscar and was on her way out of town when she heard the news and was summoned to attend the Academy Awards Banquet. She later recalled: “I was surprised when I got the prize. I really had no idea I would get it. In fact, I was ready to leave for New York the night they called to tell me about it. Dressed in a mousy brown suit, I was escorted into the banquet hall full of diamonds and tail coats. It was especially embarrassing because I imagined they thought I was putting on an act, making an entrance.” Rather appropriate, considering the runway heiress she played in the movie, n’est-ce pas?

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The winning script, by frequent Capra collaborator Frank Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, not only packs in lots of witty diatribes, but an extraordinary amount of hilarious situations. To list only a few, who could forget Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter and screeching like a fishwife when private detectives come looking for her? Or Gable throwing her over his shoulder and toting her across a stream? Or the infamous hitchhiking thigh-flash? Or the definitive runaway bride wedding?

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She’s at the ten, the twenty—no one can catch her!

I also admire how Riskin uses lots of stock characters and tropes of the day, but bends them to the will of the public. Our schadenfreude gets a healthy workout as bad things recurrently happen to bad people—and everyone gets their just desserts. The infamous playboy King Wesley gets ditched at the altar and the self-indulgent, self-important Daddy Andrews freaks out because his daughter finally took a stand against him.

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Between love and madness there lies It Happened One Night

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Even the lead romance works only because there’s an element of playful humbling involved on both sides. If we believe that Ellie and Pete are meant for each other, it’s on the level of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth—their love is founded on romantic one-upmanship, the cancelling out of their proud natures. He shows her up by revealing that there’s more to life than money and she shows him up by knowing things that women just naturally know—that is, how to control men!

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The script cleverly calls for the main characters to slip in and out of several identities. For instance, take Pete’s terrifying imitation of a gangster, scaring the living daylights out of the blackmailing womanizer Shapeley (a very irritating Roscoe Karns) who threatens to reveal Ellie’s identity. In the years previous to this, Gable had played a lot of tough customers (he’s absolutely chilling as a would-be child-murderer in Night Nurse), so he slides easily into the persona of a cold-blooded killer.  Yet, in this case, instead of feeling like we should boo him, because he’s a gangster, we enjoy watching the fierce pre-code villainous Gable put the fear of God into a sniveling creep.

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In the same manner, we can relish Colbert’s impersonations of loose women because we’ve been let in on the secret that Ellie’s never even been alone with a man before she spends the night in the same cabin with Pete. Riskin cunningly takes morally upright people (by the Code’s standard) but leads them through cheeky transformations—dictated by necessity. He deserves a prize for Best Circumscription of Regulations.

And Best Director Capra reinvents realism on two levels. First, his attention to the idiosyncrasies of how people really live comes across as nothing short of staggering.

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A hobo on top of a train waves to an ecstatic Pete—just another “realistic” touch that adds to the movie’s charms.

Second, Capra blows me away with his understanding of a viewer’s desire to believe that a movie is close to reality. We want to think that the circumstances it portrays are true. He knew well enough not to conceal his stars’ cranky attitudes and the less-than-ideal production circumstances. Instead, he emphasizes them in all their unvarnished, slapdash glory. Oftentimes we don’t want our movies to be all wrapped up and consumable. We want them ragged and lovable. He understood this, which is why he really was one of America’s Best Directors, despite what Orson Welles’ called his Saturday Evening Post sensibilities.

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And I think that we must view It Happened One Night as one of Capra’ best films because his mildly preachy American Dream stuff stays under the rug here. Instead of trying to reassure us that God is good and nice guys don’t finish last, he kindly serves us a funny, serendipitous love story. In the end, that’s all I want to see.

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The big messages, the politics, the values of an era tend to fade away, don’t they? Funny, however, usually stays funny. It takes guts and foresight to reward comedy and I wish more comedies had won Academy Awards. But I’m certainly glad this one harvested a whole crop. It does me good to know that, from time to time, even the Academy can laugh.

Or at least appreciate Claudette Colbert’s gams.

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(One last fact: Claudette Colbert initially refused to bare her legs for the hitchhiking—she thought it was cheap and stupid. So Capra got a leg double. And no sooner did Colbert see those replacement legs than she changed her mind and insisted that Capra use her own inimitably lovely pins, the ones you see above.)

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.