Tuesday, January 10, 2012

10 FAVORITES (50) - Hollywood's Golden Age

It is now almost 2 years ago when I began this blog with a list of my 100 Favorite Movies of All-Time.  One of the things I noticed on the list was the number of movies from certain eras and decades.  Naturally, as a member of what was once known as "Generation X," a majority of the films came from the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s.  The decades that seemed to be the least prominent on the list were the 1930s and the 1940s, two decades that together have been called "Hollywood's Golden Age."  Together, there were a total of 10 films from both decades on the list.  So, technically, the "Top 10 of the Golden Age" were: 

But over the last few months (in large part, thanks to my father!), I have been watching several Hollywood classics from those decades (Bless you, Turner Classic Movies!).  And I started thinking about what movies from that era do I love.  Which films from that Golden Age just missed making my Top 100?  So, for the 50th  edition of 10 FAVORITES, I decided that this week would be devoted to: 

THE 1930s & 1940s

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
Since the #1 movie of the '30s and '40s is the film that sky-rocketed Judy Garland to Hollywood stardom, then it seems only fitting that one of the other movies from that era to make such a list would be the one that introduced her to the director who used her best in her career (and her husband!): Vincente Minnelli.  In Meet Me In St. Louis, Garland sings two of her (other) most iconic songs: the poignant Christmas ballad "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"  (of which I have already spoken about on this blog!) and the jaunty "Trolley Song" in which she sings the legendary line "Clang Clang Clang! Went the Trolley!"  This film became one of three films that are considered "definitive" Judy Garland (the other two being The Wizard of Oz and 1954's A Star Is Born).

Rebecca (1940)
Long before Alfred Hitchcock was making masterpieces like Psycho or North By Northwest or Rear Window, he began his career as a title designer and art director in the Silent Era.  And his flair for the picturesque is never more obvious than in his 1940 Oscar-winning adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's gothic novel Rebecca.  It was his first American project and it starred Joan Fontaine as a young woman who marries a dashing widower, Maxim de Winter (played by the always brilliant Laurence Olivier).  But de Winter has one flaw as a husband, the lingering memory of his first wife (the titular character) dominates everything within his large and gloomy household.  The mystery surrounding Rebecca's death becomes the focal point of Fontaine's character and Hitchcock's mastery of the psychological thriller entices the audience even more.

Ball of Fire (1941)
When it comes to the slang and the jargon of the era, no film uses it more perfectly than the 1941 classic Romantic Comedy Ball of Fire.  Gary Cooper is well cast as the smart and stiff ring leader of a band of professors compiling an encyclopedia about the entire world up to that date.  When he realizes that his article on slang is incomplete, he sets out to find out everything he can about the subject.  Enter the amazing Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, a night club singer who Cooper asks to teach him about slang.  As a mobster's girlfriend on the run from the law, she uses this opportunity to take residence in the professors' home and shakes everything up.  It is a hilarious and well-acted twist on the Snow White tale, especially with the delightful character actors who fill the parts of the other professors (just look up S. Z. Sakall or Henry Travers or Richard Haydn to get an idea of the track record of these actors!).

Modern Times (1936)
A couple people pointed out to me that my 100 Favorite Movies list neglected to recognize the genius of Charlie Chaplin.  To be honest, I have never been a great fan of his films but I do respect his artistry (especially in his classics like The Gold Rush or City Lights).  But, for me, it is his 1936 semi-silent satire of industrialism and trying to make it in tough economic climates (something we all know too well these days!).  Chaplin's iconic Tramp character is charming, endearing and hilarious with his knack for physical comedy.  The scene in the factory alone makes the movie a pure classic!

42nd Street (1933)
It is considered the ultimate backstage movie musical.  It contains the classic line "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"  It features some of the most notable of Busby Berkeley's filmed dance sequences.  It is also the film that introduced us to the likes of Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers, three of the biggest names in Hollywood's finest musicals.  It is a love letter to Broadway from Hollywood (which Broadway has since utilized fully well!).

It Happened One Night (1934)
Before Frank Capra moved us with emotional powerhouses like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It's a Wonderful Life, he created one of the most enduring Romantic Comedies in film history.  The movie follows the now-standard narrative of "Opposites Attract" as beautiful heiress Claudette Colbert, running away from her domineering father, falls for brash and married-to-the-job journalist Clark Gable.  The film further joined the pantheon of legendary classics when on Oscar night 1935 it became the first film to win the top 5 major awards of the evening: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (for Robert Riskin's wry and witty adaptation of Samuel Hopkins Adams' magazine story).  Only two other films have since been able to match that record (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992).

Stagecoach (1939)
Another criticism I received from my 100 list was for my lack of appreciation of Westerns.  It's true, I have never been a fan of the genre (most Westerns I tend to gravitate towards are more non-traditional with unconventional elements).  But if I had to pick which "traditional" Western would be considered my favorite, I would have to say that John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach is definitely a top contender.  The film is filled with great character actors in some of their best performances (like Claire Trevor as a prostitute with a good heart, John Carradine as a Southern gambler and Thomas Mitchell as a kind-hearted but alcoholic doctor - a role which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor).  The film also features John Wayne in a breakout role as the Ringo Kid, a fugitive out to avenge the killing of his father and brother.  But the true highlight of the film for me is Ford's camerawork that has influenced countless of other films.

His Girl Friday (1941)
If I had to pick a favorite actor from Hollywood's Golden Era, Cary Grant would be the first one to come to my mind (with Jimmy Stewart not too far behind, but I already discussed The Philadelphia Story!).  Grant was the ultimate in some of the two decades most enduring Romantic Comedies.  In His Girl Friday (which was an adaptation of the 1931 film The Front Page), Grant plays Walter Burns, a nose-to-the-grindstone newspaper editor who is stumbling on the story that will make his paper the best in the business.  As the movie begins, he is losing the one person he trusts more than anyone else, his ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson (played to perfection by the dynamic Rosiland Russell).  She is leaving the newspaper business to get married and live in the suburbs, a life Walter knows deep in his heart that Hildy doesn't want.  The chemistry between Grant and Russell is pitch perfect.  Every word they speak to each other (in their mile-a-minute dialogues) is filled with wit and verve.

Pinocchio (1940)
As Walt Disney's second full-length Animated feature, Pinocchio set the standard for the emotional pull that most Disney films have mastered over the years.  It perfectly combines music ("When You Wish Upon a Star," "I've Got No Strings" or "Hi Diddle Dee Dee") with poignant storytelling and characters that range from the comical ("catty" conman Gideon!) to the downright scary (Monstro!).  It also featured a lead character who, as a child-like character that certainly had flaws, was learning lessons right along with the target Disney audience members: children.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
When it comes to showbiz biographical films, Hollywood tends to sanitize the facts so much that the final story doesn't even come close to matching what really happened (look at the biographies of Florenz Ziegfeld, Cole Porter or George Gershwin for examples).  But the 1942 film about Broadway legend George M. Cohan is different from most of the other Hollywood biopics.  While the darker parts of Cohan's life are subject to the usual Hollywood sanitation cycle, the film does stick pretty close to the chronological happenings in Cohan's life and captures the nationwide sensation that the master showman was.  It really helps that the man cast as George M. Cohan really shines in a dazzling performance.  James Cagney, who before was known for his work in 1930s gangster films (Grapefruit anyone?), truly surprised everyone with his musical talents and he struck a chord with audiences with his moving portrayal of the iconic man who "Gave His Regards to Broadway."

No comments:

Post a Comment