Tuesday 9 October 2012

Finishing the Thirties

Finishing the Thirties
With Wuthering heights I finished the thirties. Or rather, I finished watching the movies from the thirties; I have yet to comment on them all. That will come in time. Yet this is a milestone and will allow me to sum up on the past decade.

I started blogging long after I entered the thirties so I never go around to sum up the twenties so it will be difficult here to ignore that decade entirely. It took me a while to cover that decade, mostly so because I also watched a number of box sets during that period. With the thirties the pace picked up and it took me about 16 month to cover the approx. 80 movies making up the thirties. Still slow, I know, but at least I am not getting fed up with watching them. For personal reasons the pace is now slowing down again. There is a lot happening in my life right now, so the coming decade might take a really long time to cover.

So what were the thirties like?

It was a decade that covered a lot of ground technically, artistically and politically. Films are a barometer of the sentiment of society as well as practically any other development and covering an entire decade like the thirties allow you to appreciate this development.

The end of the prohibition at the opening of the decade gave rise to a string of gangster movies and the hardboiled type had his first heyday. He would come back many times in the coming decades, but with the gangster menace in fresh memory this hit a node in those first years of the thirties.

Then came the Great Depression. You would think that would generate a number of social realistic and political movies supporting the victims or explaining the causes of depression. But there were very few of those. Chaplin’s and Renoir’s were the only ones I can think off off-hand. No, when times are tough you want to get happy when you go to the cinema. You want escapism and happy endings, singing and dancing and beautiful people. And that could be the keywords to a whole swath of movies crowding the early to middle years of the thirties. All those Busby Berkely or Fred Astaire musicals or silly comedies of the age are clearly a reflection of this. You go to the cinema and you want to forget your miserable life. With the Hay’s Code placing a secure lid on what you could show or say, the cinema was fairly harmless.

As the decade progressed and things lightened up a bit the movies got better and often more serious and even able to deal with difficulties in society. “Make Way for Tomorrow” and “Stella Dallas” are good examples of this move and as we reach 39 we get a fireworks of pictures of all sorts. Serious and silly, historic and current. Adventure and realism. There may be a war on the horizon, but it is difficult to see from the movies in America.

In Europe we get some of the same trends, but also differences. German film had its heyday in the mid to late twenties before the blossom of German movie industry moved to America to boost Hollywood to new heights. But the very best is actually of the thirties: “M” by Fritz Lang.  But then it stops. Clearly reflecting the ascension of the Nazi regime the only quality films we get out of Germany since 33 are the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl. To think that the country that once gave us the best movies changed into a place that burned books (and many other terrible things!), that is just so sad.

French film on the other hand blossomed. On the list it is particularly Clair and Renoir which are represented, but they are also very well represented. Unlike the American filmmakers they seemed not to have qualms portraying the hardships of life in the thirties. But then Renoir was also known as a very political director.

Technically the decade went through a massive development. Sound film was new in 1930 and the use of it generally primitive. There were notable exceptions like “All quiet on the Western Front” and “M” but mostly the quality was poor. The misery was compounded by the technical limitations imposed by the use of sound. Since dubbing was not yet used sound was recorded concurrently with the image, meaning that all the action had to take place in a studio under very restricted conditions. But the technique quickly developed. By the late thirties sound was not a problem but an instrument to be used like any other and there seems to be no limitations left set by sound.

Restoration can save almost any movie so it is difficult to say much of the picture quality and most of the advances in the filming itself had already been done in the twenties. Yet there is a development through the decade, though more subtle and that has probably mostly to do with the direction. A picture like “Gone With the Wind” would have been unimaginable in 1930, well frankly even in 1939, yet it is there and it is not just because of the colors that it is so impressive. The use of cameras had become better and better. Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu” is another such example.

So which movies were my favorites?

Why, but there are so many! That is what the list is all about.

A rough list of the top notch movies on my personal list would include:

“M”, supreme in so many ways

“All Quiet on the Western Front”, the first really good (anti)war movie

“The Footlight Parade”, the first time EVER I like a musical movie

“It happened one night”, a romcom that is way ahead of any recent romcom I can think of

“Modern Times”, the peak of Chaplin and a really intelligent slapstick comedy

“Le Grand Illusion”, my favorite Renoir (even including “La Regle du Jeu”) and a very humanistic war movie

“Make Way for Tomorrow”, one of the saddest movies I ever saw

“The Awful Truth”, Cary Grant is currently my favorite actor and he is glorious in this one

“La Femme du Boulanger”, an entirely perfect comedy

“Only Angels have Wings”, Cary Grant rules!

The nice thing about making such a list is that I do not really have to defend it. These are not objectively the best movies, but simply those that I liked the best.’

Let us see what the forties bring.


  1. I have one film in the 1930s left, and it happens to be Wuthering Heights. How interesting that we both saved it for last.

    I agree with a lot of what you have here. I still think The Thin Man is a better film than It Happened One Night, though. I love that screenplay.

    1. well, my explanation for saving it for last is very simple indeed: It is the last film of the thirties on the last. I know, boring reason.
      I know you are a big fan on "The Thin Man", so it does not surprise me. The version I found lacked subtitles and that meant I did not get the full experience of the dialogue. Maybe I will like it better second time.

  2. Good analysis. I believe you are completely correct that people go to the movies for escapism, not to be reminded of their misery.

    I've still got a few dozen films from the 30s to see (and some from the 20s, as well). I've actually been concentrating at the other end. I've now knocked off every single film that has been added to the original 1001 Movies list, including the 2012 additions. I finished it off with Lantana a few days ago.

    1. Thank you. The interesting thing is that in the seventies it was the other way round. Depressive social realistic movies were lining up and did quite well in response to the recession. The current recession have not really sparked a wave of movies dealing with the hardships of the common people.

      Yes, I have noticed a focus on the later movies. I am sorry I am entirely out of touch with current cinema so I have not been commenting as much of it as I probably should. In any case it feels good to close a period and say that is that.