Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The 30s

Okay. Here's what we start with. Five films per decade, one honorable mention. Between the two of us, that's a possible twelve films, which should approach the cream of the crop. My choices are my faves which are functionally my choices for best. Once we work our way through each decade we can start the responses about the best decade...

Gaston's list

City Lights
Trouble in Paradise
Duck Soup
Gone With the Wind

Honorable Mention:
The Lady Vanishes

Azimuth's List

Azimuth's Films

Best Films, 1930-1939

1. Gone With the Wind
2. It Happened One Night
3. Duck Soup
4. Bride of Frankenstein
5. The Wizard of Oz

Notable Films, 1930-1939

6. All Quiet on the Western Front
7. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
8. King Kong
9. M
10. Modern Times


T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

not a bad format, but i think 10 is a better number-especially if we're considering foreign films (we should). i doubt we're going to have 6 different movies for each decade, so this way, we can account for the overlap.

Gaston Monescu said...

Let's start with this. I think we CAN account for foreign films by making some tough choices. If we have decades that are close THEN we add the next five. I think this makes us really work for it.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

just remember: as i said before, i have 23 movies from the '50s in my top 100. i can't see narrowing that down to 5 without leaving out some pretty damn amazing movies, which deserve to be mentioned.

but i'll give it a shot.

Gaston Monescu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gaston Monescu said...

Okay. Let's start with what we have in common.

Gone With the Wind. Of course. The best film from "best year in Hollywood"...
Duck Soup. I was surprised we both had this, but I think it's by far the best screwball comedy of the lot. Sheer anarchy in 80 minutes.

Now to the other selections. Here's my feeling. You have touchstones, and you can quibble over the details, but I'll settle for ballpark approximations.

So...I think you MUST have a Charlie Chaplin film in your top five. You HAVE to. I'll give you Modern Times over City Lights. I think CL is just more poetic and beautiful. But I think you NEED a Chaplin film, esp. over Bride of Frankenstein.
Romantic comedy? Okay, you think the Capra film is better. I think Lubitsch, esp. pre-Code Lubitsch, is far more essential AND charming THAN Capra could ever be. In fact, I think ToP is the best rom-com ever, AND it's representative of the sophistication films could have before Hays.
We both have M, thuogh I find it more essential than you.
My question is this: what is WoO doing there? And BoF? I wanted to make a nod to British Hitchcock, and I like LV more than 39 Steps. I can see Snow White. But your choices, esp. the above, seem weird.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

So, a few things out of the gate:

1. I think we're talking about different kinds of lists. I picked what I felt were the 5 best films of the decade--not necessarily the 5 most important or 5 most representative films. I know that distinction clouds the issues a bit here, but I think doing things the other way--where we try to come up with the 5 'most essential' films--leads to problems both here and later on. For example, by that logic, it would be hard to include both Godfather films in the 70s, although I think we agree they are the best 2 films made in that decade. It also presents problems here: yes, a Chaplin is essential, as is a screwball, as is an epic...but why are you picking rom-com over, say, monster films from the decade? They were a huge component of early Hollywood's output (and remain so). What about gangster films? I know SCARFACE and LITTLE CAESAR are '30s, and I think WHITE HEAT is, too (not sure about that). Are they not 'necessary' recommendations for a list using this logic?

For my money, I think '5 best' is the easiest thing to do. But I think trying to work out the '5 most essential' films will lead to better discussions. So, although I just trashed it, I want to play that game with you.

I just want it to be clear that we both know what game we're playing.

So, that being said, here are my thoughts on the films:

1. GONE WITH THE WIND. Top 20 movies ever, best movie of this decade, and one of the most successful and influential films ever. MUST be on this list.

2. DUCK SOUP. The '30s were the Marx brothers' best decade, and this is their best film. Socially relevant, anarchic, and hilarious.

3. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. This one's got the critical and historical pedigree, and it's probably Capra's best film. I know you slight the sentimental (Spielberg hater and all), but the man is an ESSENTIAL director of the early studio system. This movie is also a top-notch screwball, which is a genre that needs a voice on this list. As for TROUBLE IN PARADISE, I haven't seen it. You may be right about--I don't know.

4. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Without a doubt, this is the best Hollywood monster movie ever made. It manages cultural relevance while at the same time serving up breathtaking images, iconic characters and essential scenes. The monster movie genre, I am arguing, is key to this list, and there's plenty of critical justification for that line of thought. Remember that not 1 but 3 of the Universal monster films landed on the original AFI Top 100 list, with 2 in the top 40. BoF and DRACULA also appear in lists by TIME, Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, NY TIMES, etc.

5. THE WIZARD OF OZ. Probably the best fantasy film of all time. Beautiful to watch, timeless in its appeal to audiences, and (above all) immensely memorable. I don't know what's not to like here.


1. M. I dig M, but it's like OX BOX INCIDENT: thematically engaging but a tad bit dull in the storytelling/directing side of things. A good film--honestly, a great film--but not essential. If what you're looking for is a representative German film from the 20s/30s, you'd be better off with CALIGARI or NOSFERATU.

2. LADY VANISHES / early Hitchcock. Dude, there's just no need. Hitch will be in lists from the 40s, 50s and 60s. The 30s are his worst decade by a significant margin. If he hadn't gone on to make better films, we wouldn't be talking about 39 STEPS (which I really like) or LADY VANISHES at all any more.

In closing:

I'll grant you CITY LIGHTS in place of MODERN TIMES, TiP over IHON (on good faith) and I'll listen to your argument about WoO, but I don't quite get it. M would be fine on a decade long top 10, but not top 5. And you need to let LADY VANISHES go. It's neither essential nor better than any of these other films.

My request: take the BoF argument seriously. It's a great, great movie.

Your turn.

Gaston Monescu said...

1. What's the most essential gangster flick? We have Little Caesar (30), Public Enemy (31) and Scarface (32) to choose from. In retrospect, I would put Public Enemy over Lady Vanishes.

2. Dracula (31) isn't better or more essential than BoF?

3. WoO has significance, but there's a hell of a lot of great musicals from that decade. You've got the Busby Berkeley troika from 33 (best of which is Footlight Parade) and then the best of the Rogers/Astaire films were also from that decade. Top Hat and Swingtown are nominees w/ TH being my pick.

T. Azimuth Schwitters said...

1. I agree about PUBLIC ENEMY--it's a more well-rounded and more clear character study on the gangster persona than the other two films. It's also shot better. If you want, I can accept swapping it out for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN--I think the monster and gangster genres are pretty comparable in the '30s, at least in terms of the quality of films produced (3 great films from each genre, lots of imitators, etc.). So, I'll call that matter settled, in that it's coming down to a matter of preference.

2. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is the better acted and, by far, the better shot of the two movies: BoF is absolutely gorgeous. It's not as iconic as DRACULA, and F's Monster isn't quite as captivating a character, but the film moves faster and works better. There's also the problem that the '30s DRACULA isn't the best film based on that particular story: I would argue that Murnau's NOSFERATU is better, and both Herzog's NOSFERATU and Coppola's DRACULA aren't terribly far behind (a sign that the '30s version didn't 'say all that needed to be said' about Stoker's story). And lastly, the biggest gripe with the '30s DRACULA is that the Spanish version of the film, which was shot simultaneously, is actually the stronger of the two; this is the 'elephant in the room' when discussing the film, IMO. Anyway, if you're willing to accept a monster movie, BoF is the best of the decade, followed by FRANKENSTEIN, followed by DRACULA.

3. I hear you on the musicals, but I have to admit: I haven't seen the Busby Berkeley movies. I suppose my argument for OZ rests on that film's ability to transcend the musical genre, establishing itself with equally strong footing in the "Fantasy" and "Children's Film" genres. It also has had more legs, in terms of box office and continued cultural appeal, than any of the other musicals of the period (although I will be the first to admit that doesn't count for all that much). I do like TOP HAT, too, but I think you're kidding yourself if you say that story is as successful in the telling as the story in OZ--for my money, there's no comparison: TH is totally generic screwball fair with some damn fine dance numbers thrown in; OZ takes a difficult-to-adapt story and moves it along briskly, efficiently and compellingly. What's the harder task? Adding songs and long shots to a rom-com, or making selfish talking trees genuinely frightening? I stand by the WoOZ selection, and I would challenge your disrespect as anti-nostalgic and reactionary.

Although TOP HAT is a fine film.

My picks for the 'final' list:

1. Gone With the Wind
2. Duck Soup
3. It Happened One Night / Trouble in Paradise
4. Bride of Frankenstein / The Public Enemy
5. Modern Times / City Lights

Acceptable Runner(s) Up:

1. The Wizard of Oz
2. M
3. Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs
4. The 39 Steps (sorry, it's better)
5. King Kong (we didn't talk about this...)

P.S.-my verification word: PEARCHO