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The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1932

The Golden Age of American Talkies: 1932

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Scarface (Howard Hawks)
One Hour with You (Ernst Lubitsch)
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
Tiger Shark (Howard Hawks)
Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg)
A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage)
What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor)
One Way Passage (Tay Garnett)
While Paris Sleeps (Allan Dwan)
The Crowd Roars (Howard Hawks)
Rich and Strange (East of Shanghai) (Alfred Hitchcock)
American Madness (Frank Capra)
Air Mail (John Ford)
A Bill of Divorcement (George Cukor)
Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh)
The Kid from Spain (Leo McCarey)
The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille)
After Tomorrow (Frank Borzage)
Cynara (King Vidor)
Wild Girl (Raoul Walsh)
Bird of Paradise (King Vidor)

Look at that year: Two by Lubitsch, three by Hawks, two by Sternberg, two by Borzage, two by Cukor, two by Walsh, two by Vidor, not to mention McCarey, Hitchcock, and Capra—a Golden Age indeed!

At the top, again, a vintage Lubitsch comedy—perhaps his best—Trouble in Paradise fights it out with Hawks’ gangster classic, Scarface, and it’s difficult to decide which deserves first place, but I went with the film I prefer to watch more often. One Hour with You is Lubitsch’s fourth musical comedy in as many years, and just about as good as the others, a musical remake of his ground-breaking silent comedy, The Marriage Circle (1924).

I checked out my movie card-file (which I kept from 1952 through 1970) to see what I thought of all these American classics when I first saw them, and the opinions aren’t that different from my take on them now (though, unfortunately, I haven’t re-seen each one). Missing entirely is John M. Stahl’s undoubtedly worthy Back Street, which I have yet to catch up with.

Viewed three times between 1960 and l970, Trouble in Paradise was instantly a favorite: “One of Lubitsch’s most sparkling, delightful comedies,” I wrote at the age of 21, “a sophisticated, dazzling, witty piece about a pair of charming jewel thieves, beautifully played by Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and their conquest of a very rich Kay Francis… A masterpiece of high comedy, with great support from Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles.” When The Criterion Collection brought out their splendid DVD edition of this treasure, I was asked to do the video introduction, which was a joy and a priviledge.

Scarface I saw for the first time in 1963, and then three more times before the end of the decade; I was bowled over right away: “Certainly the best gangster film ever made—the fastest, darkest, most murderous, exciting and brilliantly conceived—the rise and fall of Tony Camonte and his subtly incestuous love for his sister… a complex, deeply intelligent, memorably thrilling experience.” The next two viewings brought out similar effusion: “Among Hawks’ masterpieces… Really a great movie.” And: “Perhaps the most expressively photographed of any Hawks film, with…complex emotional relationships…” In 1980, I was offered to direct the remake, and turned that job down very impolitely, I’m afraid.

When I first saw One Hour with You in 1963, I wasn’t as taken with it as I would come to be, but loved it nonetheless: “Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in Lubitsch’s thoroughly delightful, fresh and charming musical… Gay, risque, irreverent, it is not one of Lubitsch’s masterpieces—The Love Parade is superior in the genre—but a captivating, melodious, completely personal, stylish work nonetheless.” Three years later, I already liked it more: “The film lies somewhere between the gaiety of Monte Carlo [see 1930 list] and the wisdom of Angel [1937]…wonderfully played, slight in appearance, but with considerable depth beneath the light touch. A special and completely Lubitschian piece.” George Cukor worked briefly on this picture, but things evidently didn’t work out too well so the Master took over, and George was given a token credit though all of it looks like Lubitsch.

In 1959, the first time I saw Marlene Dietrich in Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, I admired the work but was too young to really get it. Five years later, my opinion was more informed: “One of Sternberg’s most popular films and a fascinating one, filled with the director’s use of light and shadow, veils and compositions in depth. Clive Brook is terrible, but everyone else is superb and the movie features one of the great lines… Brook asks Dietrich if she is married. ‘It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,’ she answers seductively.” I’ve seen the picture quite recently, and it holds up well, especially Marlene, of whose every closeup is a masterpiece of lighting and love—the director obviously crazy about her—and who wouldn’t be?

I saw Hawks’ Tiger Shark three times between 1961 and 1969, and kept liking it better each time; first: “Edward G. Robinson is superb as an ugly, rough tuna fisherman who loses an arm to a shark in this moving, powerful Hawks picture shot on location. Men in dangerous jobs, two strong rivals for the same girl—these situations are typically Hawksian, though many of these things are still in rough form here.” Second: “Superb fishing sequences, fascinating characterizations, exceptional atmosphere of the waterfront types—all these  make this movie increasingly more effective.” Third: “It is a beautiful film, with something of the feel of a ballad, and though the acting is uneven, the direction is not—it is hard, personal and evocative.”

Blonde Venus, Sternberg’s other Dietrich picture this year was not a success, but it lingers in memory as one of Cary Grant’s first movies, a fine performance by the always excellent Herbert Marshall, and a wild song number in which Marlene appears in an gorilla outfit and slowly takes it off, head first. In 1959, I wrote: “Marlene Dietrich is excellent in this story of a mother’s sacrifice and devotion. Stylized in concept, photography; personal, fascinating…” In 1964: “Typically Sternbergian tale [it wasn’t really], superbly told through his use of light and shadow, evocative atmosphere…composition.”

There’s only one entry on Borzage’s film of the Hemingway novel, A Farewell to Arms; seen in 1965: “Deeply moving, tragic, romantic version of Hemingway’s story of the ill-fated love of an American ambulance driver and a nurse during World War I. Expressively played by Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, Adolphe Menjou, well written, and directed with a personal Borzagean emphasis on the romantic aspects of the tale, playing down its war-destroys theme, although the battles are effectively and grimly portrayed. But while Hemingway says there is no glory in death, Borzage shows that the strength of their love defies this brief separation—thus it becomes, as it should, Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms, and it is as affecting in its way as Hemingway’s.”

Two entries on George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?, first seen in 1967: “Among the best inside-Hollywood stories, and the first—and perhaps most honest—of the Star is Born pictures, about a director on his way down and an actress on the way up; beautifully directed and acted, with a clever and witty script. Not in the least dated, and very typical of Cukor’s effortless and easy style; one of his most likable early films.” And in 1969: “Probably Cukor’s first really completely effective work, with some evocative montage sequences by Slavko Vorkapich; uneven, not completely focused script, it has often brilliant dialog and fine performances from Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, Gregory Ratoff.” Of course, twenty-two years later, Cukor would take on the same basic plot with his Judy Garland-James Mason version of A Star is Born.

Tay Garnett, best remembered perhaps as the director of the John Garfield-Lana Turner thriller, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was responsible for another memorable ill-fated love affair, One Way Passage, which I saw twice, first in 1961: “Garnett’s masterpiece of mood and romance; a simple, moving, never maudlin tale of a doomed shipboard love between an escaped, condemned convict and a girl dying of heart disease, superbly played by William Powell and Kay Francis… A sad, charming, sometimes very funny, lovely picture, only slightly dated by primitive sound-recording, and totally absorbing.” In 1968, I added: “Garnett’s camera movements are evocative and ambitious—sometimes beyond the abilities of his crew—but this is a very good movie, and it has great humor.”

The prolific Mr. Allan Dwan, who started directing, as Orson Welles remarked to me, “Sometime around the invention of the electric light,” had an under-the-radar sleeper this year with While Paris Sleeps, starring Victor McLaglen, which I saw in 1969: “Most evocatively directed and photographed melodrama about a condemned man who escapes back to Paris to see his daughter and the good he does her—all anonymously so that her faith in her martyred father-image is not destroyed; in fact, he dies for her. The plot does not convey the sensitively and skill with which it is told—the film has the look of the thirties French films that had not even been made yet; the gloomy, foggy, shadowy mood is expressively captured, and the direction of camera is evocative, simple and quite beautiful. Among Dwan’s best early talkies, revealing the great silent film skill he had as well as his easy acceptance of dialog. A minor revelation.”

The third Hawks film of the year I have only seen once, in 1961: “A vintage auto-racing action story…with [James] Cagney and Joan Blondell, is lifted into an exciting, fast, clean piece of expert filmmaking by Mr. Hawks’ incisive direction. One of his first sound pictures, it is rarely dated… with his theme of men in hazardous situations, who never question what they do or why—a theme that haunts all his adventure films. The story is simple… a racing hero (Cagney) tries to dissuade his younger brother from the same life he has chosen… The brother, however, is determined, soon becomes a hero himself while Cagney becomes a has-been… The two are finally reunited in a climactic, thrilling race in which both are injured. Still unperturbed, forever loyal to their creed, the film ends with them being raced to the hospital, cheering from the back as the ambulance passes other cars.”

While preparing the Hitchcock retrospective for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1963 (the first in the U.S.), I saw virtually every film of his, and here’s what I wrote about the made-in-England Rich and Strange (also known as East of Shanghai): “A particularly delightful Hitchcockian surprise: a wildly improbable comedy-adventure about a giddy British couple, their dreary life, their sudden trip around the world, their infidelities, their final reconciliation; erratic, raucous, brilliantly directed, experimental in technique, exciting, personal, and especially fascinating in its continuing theme of average people who yearn for excitement thrown into horrible circumstances and insane situations.”

In 1966, I finally caught up with Capra’s wonderfully titled American Madness, and noted: “The first of the real Capra films, in which the central issue
—that banks should go on character as much as anything else, and the small man’s assistance to a bank that is the victim of a run—is obscured by some needless melodrama involving gangsters and the bank owner’s lonely wife—the sort of thing Capra soon learned to avoid. Walter Huston is excellent as the bank owner, and the observation and staging of the bank scenes are all exceptional; a fantasy in disguise as realism—as with all of Capra—in which the suspension of disbelief is hindered by the dated, conventional plot twists.”

John Ford returned to Universal, the studio he started at in 1916, and made a modest flying picture, Air Mail, which I saw twice, first in 1961: “Interesting example of early Ford sound work; a likable, well directed story of air mail flying, centering on an incorrigible daredevil, reckless but remarkably able, and his sober superior—Pat O’Brien and Ralph Bellamy fit the roles nicely. Similar to Hawks’ [1936] Ceiling Zero (which is better), probably because Frank Wead wrote both. Ford was later to immortalize Wead in The Wings of Eagles [1957]. This is decidedly minor Ford, but exciting and excellently made nevertheless.” In 1965, I added: “All the humorous touches—especially those involving Slim Summerville—are the most personal to Ford in this…and they are also the best things in it.” In 1985, I would use a short clip from Air Mail playing on TV in my film, Mask, which if you blink you will miss.

This year George Cukor did his first picture with Katharine Hepburn in her movie debut, A Bill of Divorcement, the start of a relationship that would total ten films together. I saw the picture twice in the sixties, first in 1964: “An early Cukor, smooth but somewhat less than personal, with Katharine Hepburn in her first film performance, still a little stagey but unmistakably a star. John Barrymore gives a beautiful, pitiable, minor-key portrayal of a shell-shock victim returning home after fifteen years in an asylum.” In 1969, I added: “Typically impressive invisible Cukor direction, and a memorable performance by Barrymore, together with Hepburn’s eccentric presense distinguish the work; Billie Burke is weak and the play is dated, but it has a definite archaic charm.”

In 1966, I saw Raoul Walsh’s little-known Me and My Gal, and noted: “Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett both bring such charm and personality to their roles as cop and café waitress, and Walsh’s handling is so vigorous, fast-paced, and humorous that they manage to turn a routine programmer script into an entertaining, delightfully frivolous comedy. The main attraction lies in the lusty relationship Walsh creates between the two stars—a quality that runs through his work—who insult each other, act course, coy, clever, parody Strange Interlude (intertube), and generally act Walshian. There is a marvelous extemporaneous feeling to the comedy—the ubiquitous drunk on the waterfront, Tracy’s partner who repeats everything everyone says, the girl’s drunken father—that indicates Walsh had as much fun making this as one has today, over thirty years later, watching it; it has lost none of its gusto.”

One of my favorite people, Leo McCarey, who brought Laurel and Hardy together in the silent era, directed an Eddie Cantor vehicle for Samuel Goldwyn, The Kid from Spain, which I saw in 1965 and wrote: “Extremely likable, fast-paced and snappy comedy with music, about a college kid who gets expelled for sleeping in the girls dormitory, then gets mistaken for a bank robber, flees to Mexico, where he is forced to pose as a famous matador’s son. Eddie Cantor is surprisingly personable, the songs are light and funny, the dances typically outrageous, the script wacky and clever, and McCarey’s sure direction and sympathetic personality keeps it all going smoothly and well.”

As I already mentioned in an earlier blog, Howard Hawks once said about Cecil B. DeMille, the era’s most famous and popular director, “He was so bad, he was almost good.” And C.B. had one of his typical quasi-religious epics released this year; I saw The Sign of the Cross in 1962 and noted: “Somewhat dated, but nonetheless powerful and fascinating DeMille spectacle about the martyrdom of the Christians during the time of Nero: crude, naïve, but often tremendously effective, with an excellent performance by Charles Laughton as Nero; good support by Fredric March and Claudette Colbert. With a modern prologue, shot in the forties, written by Dudley Nichols, paralleling the time of Hitler with that of Nero.”

Frank Borzage’s other release this year was After Tomorrow, which I saw in 1966 and wrote: “A typical Borzage love story—a young couple can not get married because of financial problems and parental strife—in which many basic human truths are told simply, somewhat crudely, but nonetheless realistically. Unusually, it is the older people—the possessive mother of Josephine Hull, and the kind but weak father of William Collier, Sr., both excellently acted—who command one’s interest, though our concern is with the Charles Farrell-Marian 
Nixon romance. Personal, still not fully at ease, but pure Borzage, and still affecting.”

Of the two King Vidor films this year, I prefered Cynara, which I saw in 1965 and typed on my card: “A lesser Vidor, not particularly personal and too much in the [producer Samuel] Goldwyn vein, but still effective and certainly likable story of a British lawyer, his conventional happy marriage, and the shake-up it receives when his wife goes away for awhile and he has an affair with a young shopgirl, who finally commits suicide when he throws her over. Well played by Ronald Colman, Kay Francis, Phyllis Barry; simply, sensitively directed; dated somewhat in dialog and viewpoint, but still affecting and thoroughly interesting.”

Raoul Walsh’s other release this year was Wild Girl, which I saw in 1966 and commented: “Beautifully photographed and robustly directed adventure set in the West, centering around a backwoods girl, delightfully played by Joan Bennett, and her dealings with several men: a good-hearted gambler, a hypocritical, lecherous politician, a two-faced rancher, and a young stranger who fought with [Gen. Robert E.] Lee and has come to kill the politician because he wronged his sister. The location shooting much improves the film, and Walsh’s unpretentious handling, speedy pace and sense of humor—as shown in the amusing stage-driver Eugene Pallette scenes—keeps things going even when the script bogs down in plots and sub-plots.”

And King Vidor’s other picture, Bird of Paradise, I saw in 1967 and noted: “Interesting, if dated, love story in the Tabu mold [see 1931 list], bettered a few years later by Ford in The Hurricane; nonetheless, the picture has a lyric intensity and a passionate quality that is Vidor’s; it is beautiful to look at, if contrived and no longer convincing on the whole.” All these years later, one image in this pre-Code picture remains memorable: Dolores Del Rio swimming naked.

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