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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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