The B+ Movie Guide: Part II
In May of 2012, Colin said I should make a list of movies that need to be seen, because he felt there were huge gaps in what he’d seen, and wanted something to do. The idea was that I’d make up a list, as “homework” for him, and he’d use that as things to watch.
So we came up with a giant list of 500 movies that worked, and Colin went about finishing it. And now that it’s finished, we’re gonna write it up. Because you don’t watch a giant list of movies without documenting that you did it.
We’re going through the entire list, little by little, for posterity’s sake. And here’s the next set:
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Self-explanatory. Anyone who’s read this blog has heard me on numerous occasions talk about how incredible this movie is. Aside from being based on one of the most famous novels of all time, it’s also a movie that’s a decade ahead of its time. I am not kidding when I say this — this movie was so well-made and well-directed that it could have and likely would have won Best Director in any year, pre-Gone With the Wind. It’s that impressive. Must-see for everyone. (2)
This is apparently the oldest movie on the list that I had seen before starting, and coincidentally I had in its entirety by the time I reached middle school. I have no idea where my father first saw this movie or when, but he must have been very fond of it, because at some point during elementary school, he came across it at a movie store and immediately rented it for us. These are the same circumstances by which I was introduced to a bunch of awesome 30s movies, like The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Four Feathers. There are going to be a lot of movies on this list about which that’s the case.
Anyway, we watched it, and I remember it as my first real exposure to WWI film; I’m really glad that this is the movie that I can go back to as my first understanding of the ‘war is hell,’ ‘glory is a lie,’ ‘old men prattle as young men die’ themes that define the WWI sub-genre. Even compared to a film as brilliant as Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front lays it all bare, the way that only a product of the 20s or 30s really could. When the previously starving soldiers receive double rations because the sheer number of casualties allows for it, the message is more stark rather than contemplative, the way a later film would deliver it.
Later on, you watch the more recent WWI canon, like Paths of Glory, Gallipoli, The Grand Illusion (I don’t really include stuff like The African Queen or Lawrence of Arabia because they aren’t trenches in Europe) and you get different perspectives, but none of them touch this movie. In AP European History, we read the novel (by Erich Remarque – if you haven’t read it, read it and then watch the movie, today) and I realized why it was such a tour de force. It came out as a book, in German, in January, 1929. By August, 1930 it was a 150 minute epic film in America. That’s enough. Watch this movie. Seriously, most of this list is essential, but this is e-ssential.
City Lights (1931)
Chaplin. My personal favorite of his films. This one also mixes comedy and pathos really well. One of the most iconic final images in cinema history. (2)
I want to say, “Well, I’m not sure it was as good as The Kid or Modern Times, but attempting to really rank the core Chaplin movies is like trying to rank your children. It’s not to be done. The comedy is good, as it usually is in movies featuring alcoholic millionaires, but it’s the end that sticks with you. He doesn’t give you all the satisfaction you’re looking for, and instead leaves it a bit open-ended. But you can tell he’s satisfied with his own role as the selfless savior and happy martyr. A lovely film.
It’s probably the classic monster movie. At least, Universal monster movie. Bride of Frankenstein is the better film, but they should really be taken as a pair. Only because James Whale did them both, and you really see how a filmmaker can put a stamp on a film by watching them both. This one has a lot of the iconic moments we represent with the Creature (“It’s alive!” and the little girl with the flowers.) (2)
This was fun for me for a few reasons. First, because I watched it in the middle of a horror kick that I was on, which is a really rare occurrence for me. And second, because I watched the bejesus out of Young Frankenstein growing up and never knew until I saw this just how many of the visual cues and jokes were based on actual moments in this and Bride of Frankenstein. Sort of like how when you watch Austin Powers, you enjoy it more as a Bond fan, I got a lot out of this beyond its individual worth as a film because of what it lent to later movies.
It’s early 30s American horror, which in my eyes is in many ways a step backwards from 20s horror, but it’s still awesome. You really have to watch this to understand how later monster movies are put together. And it’s like 70 minutes long, so there’s really no excuse to not watch it.
Little Caesar (1931)
Meh, see? It’s Edward G. Robinson in the birth of the gangster film. Very early 30s. It definitely doesn’t hold up in terms of film quality. It’s very much hindered by the transition to sound. But it’s still one of those movies people should see. Because mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico? (3)
I didn’t think, after watching this, that it was simply a movie I should have seen. I was really glad I watched this movie. I love the early 30s gangster movies, because of how effortless they make the climb to the top and how far off the rails the main character always goes. Like, you start with Edward G. Robinson, so obviously the guy’s voice is already sufficient reason to watch the movie. But then there’s a meteoric rise in the ranks from cheap gunman to mob kingpin over the course of like 50 minutes, and even when he reaches his low point, the guy is still the very picture of braggadocio. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I think most people did. There’s a reason why that “meh, see?” stuff got so iconic. For whatever reason, it’s just funnier to mimic than Cagney.
The total package. Iconic, memorable, amazing, and should be seen by both film students and film buffs. Brilliantly shot, absolutely haunting — Peter Lorre kills it. And you’ll never be able to hear “In the Hall of the Mountain King” without thinking of this movie ever again. Just the way this is constructed — the procedural nature, the abduction scenes, the fact that it delves into the psychology of the killer — the chase scene, with both cops and criminals looking for him — and the final trial. What a movie. One of the most essential and worthwhile movies on this entire list. (2)
Couldn’t agree more. I was sold on this when I saw that it was Peter Lorre, but when I starting watching the movie I realized that there was a lot more to it than that. First thing that comes to my mind is definitely the leitmotif. I showed my girlfriend The Social Network for the first time — people who don’t watch movies, right? — and had to stop at the crew race scene because of the song. Some people hear “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and think of that scene, and I’m betting that some of my fellow Millennials hear it and think of Ritz Bits cheese crackers. Once you’ve seen M, you will think of German kids getting snuffed first and foremost.
The way that they use leitmotif to build the tension in this movie is still effective more than 80 years later. But of course, on top of that, you have to give it to them for really capturing the psychology of a mentally deranged killer and the mob mentality of Weimar Germany. I’ve billed this to friends as “the best movie you’ll ever see about child murder” and gotten some funny looks, but it’s really worth your attention. And it’s Fritz Lang in 1931. That should be all I have to say.
The Public Enemy (1931)
James Cagney. Gangster movies in the 30s are pretty much defined by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft Bogie came on toward the end. But mostly it’s those guys. Cagney has the distinction of making at least three really iconic gangster movies. This, Angels with Dirty Faces and White Heat. Which is great, because it’s a sort of beginning, middle and end of the gangster genre. This one, though — really iconic. This will show up in every single film textbook under the gangster genre. (2)
I don’t know if I’d say that this was any more enjoyable than Little Caesar, but it’s definitely better made. The quality of the film is there, particularly in how robust the story is. You still have the common themes, like the gangster coming up with a friend who approaches crime and women differently, and who ultimately pays a heavy price for association with the main character.
But I really appreciate The Public Enemy for the way it incorporates the larger gangster ethos vis-a-vis current events issues like prohibition and family values. And there’s a key distinction — in Little Caesar, we’re the only ones weeping for Rico, but in The Public Enemy, we’re joined in mourning Tom by his mother and brother who still believed he had it in him to go straight. So all in all, it’s better put together than Little Caesar, but I still say you should watch both for the context and for their respective lead actors.
This movie is so fucked up. Trust me, it’s essential. You may not know why until you see it. But it is. The great story behind this is that Tod Browning made Dracula, and because of that, was the big guy on campus afterward. They were throwing movies and money at him. And rather than do a Dracula sequel, he decided to make this. And barely worked ever again. That’s how fucked up this is. This film is a right of passage. Gooble gobble. (3)
This is the first movie on the list (chronologically) that I will say creeped me the hell out and to not watch it unless you need to see it or want to be creeped out. Freaks. That’s what they are, and it’s a perfect title. Not pleasant, and not supposed to be. Mike said so, Browning barely worked again. It was like his Peeping Tom, only I was better able to stomach that. I shuddered when someone quoted the “gooble gobble” line at work once, and I realized that they were quoting it from South Park (apparently Big Bang Theory has referenced it too). You don’t shudder at it coming from South Park. You shudder at this movie.
Grand Hotel (1932)
This is one of those movies — I feel like it’s not well-remembered outside of Garbo’s famous “I want to be alone” line, but when I think of the early age of Hollywood, I think of this movie. Because this was the first all-star cast film. MGM basically crafted a movie where every major star on their roster got to be in it and have parts. The hotel is essentially the star, with all of the different stories weaving in and out. You get the Barrymores (John and Lionel), Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Garbo, Jean Hersholt, Lewis Stone. This is the equivalent of the big, classy, Oscar bait movie today. This movie also holds the distinction of being the only movie in the history of the Oscars to win Best Picture and not even be nominated for any other awards that year. (3)
That actually makes a lot of sense, because rather than the story or the overall film, I remember the characters and the actors who appeared. For me, that was primarily the Barrymores, Crawford and Garbo. It’s also a movie of bookends. This movie opens and closes with a remark by a permanent resident of the hotel: “Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”
I love this in perspective with rest of the story, because it’s sort of like how Casablanca begins with the narration about refugees trying to get to Lisbon and how they wait…and wait…and wait. It’s making a general sort of assertion for the benefit of the audience, but we know that what follows will be more “something” than “nothing” and that “waiting” is more worthy of trepidation than the narrator lets on.
The other thing is the subject of rising and falling in show business, another great Hollywood theme. You’ve got Crawford, the aspiring actress experiencing all the challenges of her station, and Garbo, the waning star who has to face the music. It’s also worth mentioning that I watched this movie just after The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, and the imagery and setting of a prestigious pre-war hotel in Europe (along with The Last Laugh) was nice. Maybe not massively essential, but enjoyable enough.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
One of the most underrated classics of the 30s. It’s kind of an early version of Cool Hand Luke. Maybe Cool Hand Luke mixed with Shawshank. Paul Muni is wrongfully prisoned, and gets thrown on a chain gang. And the conditions are so ungodly fucked up he has no choice but to try to escape. Limited by its era, but completely immersive. The ending is one of the greatest in cinema history. (3)
This movie really got me going, because it turns out that I have a rather indignant spirit when it comes to false accusation and wrongful incrimination. You suffer alongside Paul Muni during this movie, and his struggles are made all that much worse by his consistent efforts to make good. More so than Cool Hand Luke — which I love — this was an indictment of the United States’ system of justice and the burden it placed on citizens who deserved better.
At the risk of sounding preachy, there’s value in watching this as context for the debate on mass incarceration and the effects of long-term imprisonment on non-violent offenders. A title like “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” makes you want ask, sarcastically, “Gosh, what’s it about?” but this movie pulled me in more than a good three-quarters of the movies on this list. Highly recommended.
The original Howard Hawks. So controversial at the time they had to add the subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” because it glorified the gangster that much. They also added a coda at the end too to say that violence is bad, which is actually pretty hilarious, because it’s like, “Yeah, some written text after all that cool shit. That’ll get the message across.” You can really see the stuff that Stone and De Palma elaborated on in the later movie. Or didn’t. The incest thing is really interesting in this one. Also, this is where that “X marks a death” motif that Scorsese used in The Departed. Otherwise, it’s Scarface. You know what you’re getting here. (2)
You should really watch this if you’ve seen the Al Pacino version. Or even if not. We had other gangster movies on this list, but this is really the one from the early 30s that you should probably watch. It’s massively violent, and it’s a story you know with themes even deeper and more advanced than The Public Enemy. I’m not saying you watch this and not the others, but whether it’s because of the remake or because of the violence, this movie’s being referenced when it comes to 30s gangster flicks. Coincidentally, this one doesn’t resemble Grand Theft Auto: Vice City quite as much, but I’m lobbying for a 1930s GTA, so hang tight.
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Ratings: I almost wanted to make All Quiet on the Western Front a 1. Still do. Chaplin movies are all 2s. Frankenstein is a borderline 1 as well. The only thing keeping me from making it a 1 is the fact that it’s 1931. As humans, you should see a movie version of All Quiet on the Western Front and Frankenstein, and these are the best ones, which is why I want them to be 1s. Little Caesar is great, but I don’t think you should feel responsibility to see it if you like movies. You can get around to it at your leisure. M — yes. Need to see if you like movies. Public Enemy — almost a 3, but more iconic than Little Caesar. Freaks, nobody should be responsible for, but it’s a real treat. Grand Hotel definitely not something average movie buffs need to see, but historically, yes. I Am A Fugitive — I feel like typical movie buffs probably won’t have even heard of this. So 3. Scarface is iconic, so 2.
Overall a worthy list. If I had to try to compress it for other things, I’d say that maybe Little Caesar isn’t the most of essential movies. Because I know I didn’t get The Blue Angel on there. But that’s more of the film student kind of essential movie. Little Caesar is just awesome. So I don’t feel bad for a second about having that on there for Colin. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot in this little segment that I’d have swapped in or out. They all are very much worthwhile.
The transition to sound is a really fun time. There’s a lot here that I really enjoyed for artistic reasons, even if I didn’t find most of the movies on this part of the list to be quite as poignant as the 20s movies. The two that I’m glad I watched as individual films are All Quiet on the Western Front and M, but this snapshot in film history belongs to the gangster movies. I don’t regret these three for a second, and all things considered, I’m glad we included Little Caesar instead of The Blue Angel. I can see how that’s something that would normally deserve a spot here, but I’m also inclined to think, come on. It’s Little Caesar. Meh, see? It’s going on the list, see?
That said, the unexpected star on this segment was I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. It really is a forgotten classic (though Grand Hotel is too) that people need to watch now for how good it is and how well it holds up in the context of our legal system. And if you must, watch Freaks, but I’m not necessarily encouraging it.
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More movies tomorrow.