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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