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The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1931

The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1931

The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch)
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin)
Tabu (F.W. Murnau & Robert Flaherty)
Street Scene (King Vidor)
Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg)
The Champ (King Vidor)
The Struggle (D.W. Griffith)
The Criminal Code (Howard Hawks)
Arrowsmith (John Ford)
An American Tragedy (Josef von Sternberg)
The Skin Game (Alfred Hitchcock)
Private Lives (Sidney Franklin)
Wicked (Allan Dwan)
Bad Girl (Frank Borzage)
Chances (Allan Dwan)
The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra)
Girls About Town (George Cukor)
Frankenstein (James Whale)
The Public Enemy (William Wellman)
Seas Beneath (John Ford)
The Yellow Ticket (Raoul Walsh)
Tarnished Lady (George Cukor)
The Guardsman (Sidney Franklin)
Dirigible (Frank Capra)
The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille)
The Brat (John Ford)
Doctors’ Wives (Frank Borzage)

Charlie Chaplin’s first sound picture is a source of great excitement, but City Lights turns out to be a silent picture with a synchronized score and some sound effects; and becomes a huge success. The majority opinion is probably that it’s the best picture of the year—and certainly it is a sublime achievement—but at this point in my life, I prefer to see Ernst Lubitsch’s delectable third musical (in as many years), The Smiling Lieutenant, a bittersweet masterpiece with Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins, perhaps the only musical with an ambiguously unhappy ending. The uniquely magical world of Lubitsch, like the land of Mozart at once both light and dark, becomes more enchanting and precious with each passing year. But then, as John Wayne says in Rio Bravo, I’d hate to have to live on the difference: Chaplin’s picture is still pretty devastating, that final closeup justly famous and haunting. Also essentially a silent movie is F.W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu, a dazzlingly beautiful, poignantly simple and tragic love story, combining the best elements of two profoundly different filmmakers, the illusionist and the poetic documentarian.

Now, King Vidor’s Street Scene, based on the Elmer Rice drama set on one New York City block, is a brilliant example of how to adapt a play into a film; King saw a fly walking on a sleeping man’s face, and thought that to the fly this person’s face was an enormous area, so turning his camera into a fly, one city block could also be enormous. His vision was dead on, and paid off with a fascinating work. In a different vein, Vidor directs Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper in the tearjerker classic, The Champ, his second picture in my top ten. Also with two in the top ten is Josef von Sternberg, who continues his run of exotic odes to Marlene Dietrich with Dishonored, in which she plays a hooker conflicted between love and patriotism; and he also has released a somber, unromanticized, sharp version of the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy (20 years later to be the basis of George Stevens’ far more popular adaptation, A Place in the Sun).

The father of film narrative, D.W. Griffith, directs his last film, The Struggle, which gets terrible notices accusing this towering figure of being out of touch with the present, but it’s a bum rap, for the picture is strikingly modern, about a man’s alcoholism, graphically shot on the real streets of the Bronx. Yet the pans stick, the film tanks, and for the last sixteen years of his life, D.W.G. can’t get a job—a tragic, irreplaceable loss.

For his second talkie, Howard Hawks does an uncharacteristic story—a harsh prison picture—with a particularly strong turn by Walter Huston, and fine support from Boris Karloff in his “first really important part,” as Boris put it (having played a small role in Hawks’ Scarface last year). Though this year also sees the release of James Whale’s Frankenstein, which instantly makes Karloff a star and gives him a niche for life. Karloff also remains the one indisputable master stroke in an otherwise over-rated work (but then I’m not a horror fan). Also over-praised is The Public Enemy, crudely directed by William Wellman, with only fair writing, but it made James Cagney a star overnight, and he remains the only big reason to see the picture: he is pure dynamite, and will subsequently become one of the truly great star-actors of the Golden Age. Funny, he almost didn’t get the part; indeed, he was first cast in a supporting role, but when he and the lead (Edward Woods) were in scenes together, Cagney pulled focus so strongly that Jack Warner had them switch roles. If it hadn’t been this picture, though, Jimmy still would have become a star in something: he was born a star.

John Ford has three films released: a prestigious, if not especially personal, Sam Goldwyn-produced adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ best-seller, Arrowsmith, about an idealistic doctor, with Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes; plus two bread-and-butter programmers, Seas Beneath, with some pretty dated acting but numerous Fordian touches in embryo form, and The Brat, which has only one memorable sequence—an hilarious cat fight between the brat and a society girl.

Alfred Hitchcock, still in England (till the end of the decade), does a fine version of John Galsworthy’s drama, The Skin Game—with some occasionally pretty stilted dialog—but distinctively handled by the future Master of Suspense; a morality tale well suited to the director’s temperament. Sidney Franklin, a journeyman director at MGM for years, gets two glorious opportunities with two superb stage comedies: Noel Coward’s irresistable romance Private Lives, and Ferenc Molnar’s farce about actors, The Guardsman, but unfortunately Franklin brings little to the party, yet the casts save the day: Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer studied the original Private Lives theatre-production’s stars and staging–Noel Coward himself directing and playing the lead, with the divine Gertrude Lawrence as his co-star— and did their best to reproduce the sparkle. For the Molnar, two of the greatest Broadway stars of the day in their first and only movie, the Lunts—Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt; the movies diminish their mesmerizing stage presence and they both hate how they look. They needed George Cukor, of course, but they do better than they think.

Meanwhile, Cukor is busy over at Paramount with two releases, Girls About Town, concerning two high-priced N.Y. call-girls—very well played by the adorable Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman with Joel McCrea as the love interest — dated script but exceedingly likeable; also Tarnished Lady, a quite old-fashioned melodrama, yet the direction and star performer, the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, remain untarnished. Two (or more) releases too from Allan Dwan, Frank Borzage, and Frank Capra: Dwan’s Wicked—clearly a “second feature”—is the most quickly plotted 55 minutes in pictures; there’s a killing, unjust sentence, imprisonment before the first reel is over. Far-fetched script but an object lesson in directorial economy and pacing. Dwan’s Chances is an effective World War I drama and one of his most respectable early talkies. Borzage’s Bad Girl is in his usual romantic-antagonistic male-female tradition, with fine sparring from James Dunn and Sally Eilers; the script runs out of steam but Borzage’s charm keeps it alive. Doctors’ Wives clearly doesn’t hold as much interest for Borzage yet retains his narrative ability, and his romantic personality shines through. Capra’s Dirigible is a well done, though average, action picture, but his drama, The Miracle Woman, a good fictionalized view of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, is the filmmaker’s second time (out of five) working with the brilliant, can-do-anything Barbara Stanwyck, always known as his favorite actress, and not at all surprising.

Adventurous Raoul Walsh has a couple of releases as well but only The Yellow Ticket is worth a look, though it’s an uncharacteristic setting—Russia, 1913—still vigorous, fast-paced romantic melodrama with a very callow Laurence Olivier and pretty hammy Lionel Barrymore. Finally, the screen’s most successful and famous director in his day, Cecil B. DeMille, does his third version (first with sound) of The Squaw Man, about an Englishman who flees his country for America, marries an Indian girl, followed by multiple complications, of course, done with DeMille’s usual crude narrative skill. Howard Hawks summed up C.B. to me once: “DeMille was so bad he was almost good.”

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“And speaking of the newspaper biz, where’s Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE? The lead, Robert Wiiliams, is obvious star material, but he died not long after the film came out. Jean Harlow is an odd choice as a Long Island society type (this could only happen at Columbia Studios), but Loretta Young is extra nice as the ‘right’ girl.”

It’s amazing to think that Harlow was all of 20 when she made this film (she wouldn’t really find herself as an actress until 1932, when she shows signs of progress in “The Beast Of The City,” then fully blossoms in “Red-Headed Woman” and “Red Dust”), but she’s not the junior star; that title goes to Loretta Young, who is playing a big-city newspaperwoman at age 18! Could some of our younger stars today pull off such maturity? Tend to doubt it.

“Then, back home @ M-G-M, Gable gets to be mean to Norma Shearer, in her daring Pre-Code mode, in the ridiculously entertaining A FREE SOUL, the decor alone makes this worth a look.”

Had a best supporting actor category existed in 1931, Gable certainly would have been nominated for “A Free Soul,” and there’s a good chance he would have won. The ’31 Gable was brutish in his magnetism, far less refined than the charming rogue we came to know later in the decade. He and James Cagney brought a new persona to male screen roles, one that better fit the challenging times of 1931 when the recession which had begun with the 1929 stock market crash bottomed out into full-fledged global depression.

“BTW, thanks for giving THE SMILING LIEUTENANT so much attention Any film that lets Claudette Colbert sit down at a piano to play and sing ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’ has earned its place in the sun. How’d Lubitsch ever make this treat in Astoria? What an amazing man.”

Great film, great song (“Be happy, choose snappy…music to wear”); don’t forget Miriam Hopkins’ contribution to the film, either. (Supposedly, Carole Lombard sought the Hopkins role, and while Carole is my all-time favorite actress, she probably wasn’t quite ready yet for such a challenging part — although one could argue she had more sex appeal than Hopkins. Of course, eventually Lombard would work with Lubitsch.)

Bob MacLean (

The comparison of Lubitsch to Mozart is beautifully apt. The Smiling Lieutenant can be seen in its entirety at

Christopher Stilley

In silence,Karloff spoke volumes in Frankenstein,while others spoke little and said nothing…”Talkies” really did cripple and set back a great visual medium that had begun to take off as never before in 1927-29..By 1933 they would have the kinks worked out,never the less theres plenty to love in those first few years.
I can’t think of any 2 films better to start off a list than The Smiling Lieutenant and City Lights.A couple of my faves are James Whale’s ,Journey’s End-2hrs of nothing but talk in a WW1 Trench and never a dull moment…and Archie Mayo’s 1931 Vitaphone live action cartoon,Svengali-maybe there is hope for cinema as a visual stimuli and Jack Barrymore is as engaging to listen to as he is to look at..

Rick K.

Peter … You should not allow your personal partiality against horror films color your judgement of truly notable achievements in cinema. I previously sensed your dislike for the genre when you wrote so despairingly about MAD LOVE (1935) in your essay The Kane Mutiny … that film, by Karl Freund and Gregg Toland, is actually a horror classic. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN is indeed immortalized by Karloff’s masterful performance, but Whale’s treatment was a transitory one with stylized flourishes which identify him as both a signature artist in an auteurist sense, and one who creatively nurtured and inspired genre conventions at the onset of a period now acknowledged as “the golden age of horror”. At any rate, I hope you won’t ignore Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE and Karl Freund’s masterful THE MUMMY when you roundup your selections for 1932.

Also, I feel you have unfairly overlooked William Wyler during this period, whose HELL’S HEROES (1930) and A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931) are remarkable, cutting edge works. Both of these are compelling films which, in many respects, were ahead of the curve toward refinement of narrative technique during the early sound era. Whatever you may feel about his later career, this period finds Wyler at his most enterprising and resourceful (see also COUNSELLOR AT LAW, 1933).


Just for neatness . . .
Everybody writes Lynn Fontaine, but it’s actually Lynn Fontanne. (Flo Ziiegfeld gets the same treatment; everybody turns his name into Ziegfield.)

A few extra picks from ’31:

The Marx Bros left Paramount in Astoria and made MONKEY BUSINESS at Paramount in Hollywood. A real film, not an embalmed stage show. And there’s lots of S. J. Perelman material in the script.

Over @ Warners, Mervyn Leroy made one of his better films: FIVE STAR FINAL with Eddie Robinson, Aline MacMahon & another nice bit from Karloff. A little slow, but as timely now as then, plus lots of newsprint atmosphere.

And speaking of the newpaper biz, where’s Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE? The lead, Robert Wiiliams, is obvious star material, but he died not long after the film came out. Jean Harlow is an odd choice as a Long Island society type (this could only happen at Columbia Studios), but Loretta Young is extra nice as the ‘right’ girl.

And it’s fun to watch M-G-M spot Clark Gable’s huge potential in George Hill’s THE SECRET SIX – Gable only gets sixth billing, but they basically throw the picture to him. He even gets the fade-out shot at the end. You can almost feel Thalberg watching the dailies and changing the film’s focus right in the middle of production.

On loan @ Warners, Gable treats Barbara Stanwyck plenty rough in NIGHT NURSE, another uneven William Wellman project, but Joan Blondell is on hand to be make nice,

Then, back home @ M-G-M, Gable gets to be mean to Norma Shearer, in her daring Pre-Code mode, in the ridiculously entertaining A FREE SOUL, the decor alone makes this worth a look.
And if you’ve ever wondered where the O.J. Simpson team got the bit about ‘the glove won’t fit,’ well, this is where it came from. But instead of a glove, Lionel Barrymore, as Shearer’s brilliant, but alcoholic lawyer/father, does the same routine with a HAT that won’t fit.

BTW, thanks for giving THE SMILING LIEUTENANT so much attention. Any film that lets Claudette Colbert sit down at a piano to play and sing ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’ has earned its place in the sun. How’d Lubitsch ever make this treat in Astoria? What an amazing man.

Blake Lucas

I always understood that Flaherty and Murnau began as co-directors (and collaborated on the story), but were pulling in different directions and Flaherty wound up leaving before the film was finished. I don’t take away anything from Flaherty or any contributions he might have made, but the film always felt definitively to be a Murnau work to me, more and more as it moves from idyllic opening to tragedy, and best appreciated as his film. And as it’s his last, this is important.

Of course, it’s Murnau’s tragic death that ended his career, but it’s still interesting his last film is in the same year as Griffith’s. I like what you said about THE STRUGGLE and would only add that I would have TABU at the top of my list and THE STRUGGLE second. Of course, I don’t take anything away from CITY LIGHTS–and especially don’t feel differently from you or anyone about the ending. No one else could do what Chaplin could do as an actor–and did any actor ever direct himself better? And THE SMILING LIEUTENANT is a wonderful movie too, of course, but for me Murnau has the strongest claim on sublimity here, and Griffith and Chaplin have their share.

William Wellman was always uneven, and that goes for his generally uneven pre-codes too. What you said about PUBLIC ENEMY is completely fair. But one of own two votes for a film not on your list would be for one of Wellman’s other 1931 films, the stunning and brilliant, if still obscure, SAFE IN HELL, for me one of a just a few Wellman films I consider to be really great.

The other one is THE LAST FLIGHT, very unusual movie and I consider it the best one I know of William Dieterle (his first American film too), thoug personally I’m a long way from having seen all of his films and have no strong feeling about how his body of work holds together.

Chris Barry

I love your quote above re: FRANKENSTEIN and Karloff: “but then I’m not a horror fan.”

Of course! Correct me if I’m wrong, TARGETS, one of the best “horror” films of the late 1960s is actually “anti-horror.”

BTW – another great post!


I understand Flaherty served as a producer and worked extensively on the
script, and the picture certainly has a Flaherty quality in many ways.


Hi. Sorry for pedantry, as I very much enjoyed this article, but just seeking a clarification: Tabu is listed as “F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s film” both in the text and in brackets used to indicate the films director in the opening list. I always thought that Flaherty just worked on the story and did not direct or co-direct this film.

The article makes no mention of other screenwriters by name so I was wondering why the promotion of Flaherty to being co-author, as it were, of the film? Is this due to an indiscretion in research, a highlighted collaboration because of his own celebrated name as a film-maker or a mistake on my behalf?


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