Mike’s Top Ten of 1930
1930 is a year that’s memorable historically because it’s smack-dab in the middle of the transition to sound. The Jazz Singer comes out October 1927. Hollywood only starts getting into talkies in 1929, because it took them the first year to clear out the inventory and start new. The transition to sound is a fascinating era. Because first it’s all about showing films with sound. A lot of them are plays, with tableau staging and very theatrical stories and performances. Then slowly, as techniques begin to be developed and technology gets better (because remember, in order to shoot sound at first they had to keep cameras — which were very loud, as were the lights — stationary and had giant soundproof booths just to pick up everything), they start to get more advanced. By 1932, they’ve basically perfected the sound technology and are moving into narrative advancements.
But in 1930, you have an interesting mix of films that are just learning to use sound. Still a smattering of silents, but mostly talkies. And the talkies you see that do well here are of very specific genres: comedy, western, war, musical. The quintessential genres. You also see a very specific genre emerge: Pre-Code films. Now that Hollywood has the use of sound, they have much more leeway on dialogue. And they’re starting to go into some pretty dangerous territory, which will get them in trouble in a few years and lead to a self-censorship that prevented them from going into the subjects of sex and addiction and all that good stuff.
It’s an interesting year. There’s some good stuff in it. A lot of stuff that only works when you understand the era, but this year did give us an all-time great film. Like legitimate all-time, still holds up today, still one of the greatest films ever made. And the fact that it happened during the transition to sound is all the more impressive.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1930
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Big House
The Blue Angel
King of Jazz
People on Sunday
Up the River
11-20: L’Age d’Or, Anna Christie, The Big Pond, The Big Trail, The Dawn Patrol, Earth, Journey’s End, Morocco, Showgirl in Hollywood, Street of Chance
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1. All Quiet on the Western Front
“You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it’s better not to die at all.”
I could spend an hour talking about how incredible this movie is. I could probably give you five minutes just off the top of my head. Give me time to watch it thoroughly with the intent of giving a lecture on it and I could give you a full hour. This movie is a visual masterpiece. I feel like this movie only gets better when you realize the era in which it came out. Compare it to the other Best Picture nominees this year, and you see how far and away better this film is. Hollywood was struggling to have a film with sound — this movie has sound, a moving camera, complex staging and shoots war scenes on top of it. It’s a marvel.
Not to mention it’s based on one of the most famous novels ever written, which is also commendable. It’s hard enough to make a good movie let alone a good movie based on a book that’s considered one of the greatest of all time. Admittedly the movie was made just after the book was published, so it didn’t yet have that reputation, but still — it’s not the longest list, films based on really famous works of literature that also hold up among the best films ever made.
You can watch this movie on its own and find it very, very good. The added bonus is when you know all the stuff around it and can look critically at all the filmmaking aspects. I remember writing it up once to try to explain to people. It’s in one of the articles somewhere on here. You watch another movie from this list, say The Big House — the camera is positioned in front of two people, standing in one location and talking. Occasionally people walk by, but it’s almost like watching old TV. There’s no real complexity to it. Meanwhile, from this film’s opening shot, it makes you go, “Oh shit, this is way beyond everything else.”
All around, this is one of the best movies ever made, and for a movie made this early into the sound era, that’s a truly impressive achievement.
2. City Girl
“Oh, Lem… it’s wonderful to have a home.”
Of the silent films made after the advent of sound, only the ones made by the great filmmakers have held up at all. This is one of those. F.W. Muranu knew how to make a film. Sunrise, Nosferatu — the man’s made some of the greats. This film isn’t necessarily thought of as in that category, but it is quite good.
The simple pitch is: guy from the country is sent to the city to get a good price for the family’s grain, and instead falls in love with a waitress. He brings her back to the farm, and she’s got to adapt to living on a farm. (In a way, it’s the 30s version of the first act of Giant.)
The film is gorgeously shot, and Murnau was a genius at staging compositions and allowing his actors to move within the frame and create these gorgeous images. The fact that the film’s been restored only helps show how great it is. There’s one great scene in here where characters are talking in a room at night, and they use a simple table lamp and swing the shade from person to person to illuminate part of the frame to focus on a different aspect of the image. And it’s incredible. You can’t really do this stuff with sound.
The thing about 1930 is that while films might be great for the year, so few of them necessarily hold up as good films past that. This one, I think, actually does.
3. King of Jazz
This is barely a film. I saw this for the first time in a class about color in film. It’s one of the few pre-1935 films to be in full color. (Well, two-strip Technicolor, but you know what I mean.)
It’s a variety show, centered around Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. (Yes, it’s a white dude named Whiteman who is front and center in a movie called King of Jazz.) These Broadway variety shows are a staple of early cinema. Once sound happened, Hollywood took to the only thing it knew — the stage. All the stage actors came over, and there was an influx of classically trained actors and Vaudevillians who were the first big stars. Vaudeville was a huge influence, and these shows became some of the big early hits. The Hollywood Revue was nominated for Best Picture the year before this.
There’s absolutely no plot to this. The whole thing basically builds to a big Technicolor rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the end. (Which was recently restored, by the way. Check out a clip here.) But the early sequences are a lot of fun. Bing Crosby features prominently. There’s even a Woody Woodpecker cartoon in there. One of the big musical showcases is a bridal veil number, where a bunch of brides in wedding dresses in one of those giant scale numbers. The kind you’d see in later Busby Berkeley numbers, without the overheads. There are also nice comedy scenes, including a great one, “All Noisy on the Eastern Front.”
I’m not gonna say it’s an amazing film, but the color aspect puts it above a lot of other stuff for me. It’s definitely one I’d want to go back to just because it looks nice. To me, The Hollywood Revue is a better revue with more interesting segments, but this film is really entertaining. And for those who are as fascinating by early Technicolor as I am, this is a great watch.
4. People on Sunday
This may be familiar to some film buffs who’ve gone down the rabbit hole. But for others, here’s who directed this movie: Robert Siodmak (The Killers, The Spiral Staircase) and Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, The Black Cat), shot by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons) and written by Billy Wilder (you know him) and Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man, I Walked with a Zombie).
It was made in Germany and shot using non-actors, and actually shot on Sundays. It shows what a group of people do on the weekend, and it’s a great glimpse into the life of German people, post-World War I and just before Hitler came to power. There are a handful of main characters, and we watch them over the course of a single weekend. It’s one of those great “slice of life” films that feels like life, and also works doubly as this beautiful portrayal of a country just before world-changing events would occur. It’s like Cabaret, when this carefree story turns into Nazis. Though here, it doesn’t have Nazis at all, so it’s arguably even more poignant to watch, since you know where it’s going.
It’s an incredible film and well thought of in those film scholar circles. And rightfully so. It stands out so easily among the films of this year and of this era.
5. Hell’s Angels
“I didn’t start this war. I didn’t get them into this mess.”
This almost makes the top ten by default, just because this is far and away the “biggest” film of 1930. Howard Hughes had more money than most studios and made the movie he wanted to make. It’s not that it’s a great film, but for 1930, he certainly made something that could do more than everyone else.
Most people are gonna be familiar with this movie because it’s heavily featured in the first act of The Aviator. Hughes shot the film, then realized sound was the new thing, so he reshot half the film to have talking sequences. And he threw in the above Technicolor scene, where he went all out on the color and costume and set design. The rest of the film is tinted and toned, and that looks good.
It’s just a fun silent war film, whose greatest strength is its aerial photography, some of which Hughes captured himself. Simply by being an epic and a war film, that makes it better than most other films for me this year. I like going back and watching the sequences in this. The dogfighting is really great and seldom shown in films.
6. The Blue Angel
“I knew you’d be back. They all come back for me.”
This is the von Sternberg film that every entry level film person knows and is one of those easy go-to “I like old movies” films to talk about or reference. Seeing a movie put a Blue Angel poster on the wall of one of its characters was like that person in college who put the Che Guevara poster on their wall, or the girl who gets the Marilyn Monroe tattoo. Or the person who carries around “Cather in the Rye” or writes a story where the main character’s name is Holden. Yeah, we get it.
It’s the classic story of a professor who falls in love with a showgirl whose life is ruined by his obsession with her. It launched Marlene Dietrich’s career and still holds up as one of the great works in early film. Plus it doesn’t have a happy ending at all, which I always like to see.
I’m not gonna say it’s my favorite film, and I’m not even gonna say I think it’s an all-time masterpiece. I think it’s very good and it holds up as what it is. And again, for 1930, this easily beats most of the competition. What I love about top ten lists is that what constitutes a top ten film one year doesn’t for other years. But still, this one is a fascinating one for a lot of reasons. Namely Dietrich, von Sternberg and Emil Jannings, who, if you looked up cinema before 1940, are three titans of the era.
7. The Divorcee
“I’ve balanced our accounts.”
Ah, the Pre-Code film. What a genre. I feel like not everyone can fully appreciate these films unless they’ve seen a bunch of films of the era. Though I guess generally understanding film and early film specifically, I think when watching something like this, you can see why it’s labeled the way it is.
Having had a healthy diet of 30s and 40s films throughout my early days as a film buff, starting to get into the Pre-Code stuff really was a great time for me, because it’s so obvious what they’re doing. Hollywood was on the verge of straight up nudity before the government came down on them and they had to police themselves or risk major lawsuits and censorship.
Generally these movies deal with three topics: sex, violence or social issues (like addiction, etc). In early cinema, people couldn’t even really be pregnant on screen. These Pre-Code movies deal with prostitutes and rape and all sorts of wanton sex. Typically it’s most fun when the dialogue is dripping with sex, but something like this is fun too, because it’s barely even hiding what it’s about.
A woman finds out her husband had an affair… so she fucks his best friend. And then that dissolves the marriage so she, being free and not in danger of losing her virtue, goes out and fucks a lot of guys. And the husband becomes a drunk, because he needs something too. They try to say she goes out and parties a lot, but when you watch the film, it’s clear that she’s fucking lots of dudes.
Watching these movies is so fascinating from today’s perspective. A Pre-Code film from 1930 is way more interesting than most regular films of 1930.
8. Up the River
“Steve, did you ever see a guy go to the ‘chair’? Huh? Well, I did. I spent eight months in that Condemned Row. Watched ’em go, one by one. Pals of mine. Guys you’d say ‘good morning’ to in the morning. And ‘good night’ to at night. And then they’d go. And I’d wait, day after day, week after week, month after month, wondering if I was gonna’ be the next to go.”
There are a couple of truths I constantly repeat on this site, and they never fail. One of them is: prison films are always interesting. They could get crazy, but they’re always at least somewhat interesting.
The plot here almost doesn’t matter. It’s a comedy, too. It’s a prison comedy film. Think MASH in prison. It also stars Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, which makes it doubly appealing. And Bogie gets to be the male romantic lead, which didn’t happen often.
The simple pitch is — he’s in prison and falls for a female prisoner. He gets out on parole and goes to her hometown to wait for her. Meanwhile, some other criminals find out about him and try to blackmail him into committing crimes with them. Tracy and another prison buddy find out about this and break out of prison to help him out. But because they’re honorable prisoners, they make sure to get back in time for the big baseball game they need to win.
It’s a really fun film. The prison aspect makes it good, and the fact that it’s a comedy and doesn’t really care about the prison aspect makes it even better. A really fun and forgotten film.
9. The Big House
“Don’t let the guys know you’ve gone straight. They used to have a lot of respect for you.”
This was nominated for Best Picture this year. Watch this before All Quiet on the Western Front to see the gap in between the two, quality-wise.
Everything I said about the prison film in the above entry still stands. This one is more of a straightforward film. A guy is sentenced to prison and get acclimated to that life. He gets framed for a murder and thrown in solitary, eventually escapes, falls in love, then goes back to prison where he gets embroiled in the middle of a planned escape attempt and a big prison riot.
It’s fun. Wallace Beery is great here. And for 1930, it works. Mainly because the genre keeps it more engaging than the standard dramas of the year.
10. Animal Crackers
“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”
You can never go wrong with a Marx brothers film. It’s just a series of gags and one-liners. What more do you need?
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L’Age d’Or — It’s a love story told through the lens of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Not the metaphorical lens — they actually wrote this movie. Interesting as hell.
Anna Christie — Greta Garbo’s first American movie. It has its moments. And her first line is the immortal, “Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”
The Big Pond — Maurice Chevalier woos a girl and ends up working for her father in a gum factory in America. Chevalier was one of the great Pre-Code actors who just dripped sex with every line he spoke and gesture he made.
The Big Trail — John Wayne’s first leading role, as directed by Raoul Walsh. It looks good for a 1930 western. Simple plot: he helps a bunch of people in a wagon train get out west. Still works.
The Dawn Patrol — They remade this 8 years later with Errol Flynn. This is the Howard Hawks one. A flying ace assumes command and soon learns how hard it is to be the one to have to order men to their deaths. Solid early Hawks, even though no one really goes back to his stuff, pre-Scarface.
Earth — Alexander Dovzhenko. Soviet silent cinema. Montage. All that great film student stuff. Beloved by directors. And a great film to watch if you’re a fan of film history and the film histories of different countries.
Journey’s End — World War I, trenches. Love that stuff. Also James Whale directed this, and it’s clearly influenced by his experiences fighting in World War I. Not quite All Quiet on the Western Front, but still solid.
Morocco — Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. Famous for the scene where Dietrich wheres a suit and kisses another woman. A great example of von Sternberg shooting a film to make Dietrich look great (even going so far as to make Gary Cooper look weaker at times, which I bet didn’t happen a whole lot).
Showgirl in Hollywood — The title speaks for itself. Girl in a show is lured out to Hollywood by a producer. And she’s torn between her boyfriend and the producer, all while her star rises. It’s early Hollywood. And Pre-Code.
Street of Chance — William Powell in a serious gangster role. It’s weird to see now, but it kind of works. His charm shines in these roles. He plays a gambler who quits so as not to get himself killed or corrupt his younger brother. And then he finds out his brother somehow has followed in his footsteps, which forces him back in the game one last time. It’s good. It would have made a nice noir fifteen years later.
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