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Mike’s Top Ten of 1931

1931 places us firmly in the sound era. The only silent films you’ll see here are ones made either foreign, or by very specific auteurs. Now that sound is the norm, we start to see the era of Pre-Code films seep in. More specifically, one type of picture that would be very big in this era: the gangster picture.

The gangster picture sees its heyday from 1931 through the early 40s, when it starts to fade away and be melded into the noir genre. Also here, a genre that is only starting to emerge now, with sound, the horror film. The horror genre wasn’t really prevalent in the silent era. There are notable exceptions, but the genre only really starts to take off in 1931, with three very iconic films of the genre coming out and paving the way.

There’s not a whole lot to say about 1931, since it’s still transition to sound, and Pre-Code. Mostly of interest are the specific films that came out this year.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1931

Bad Girl

The Champ

Cimarron

City Lights

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Frankenstein

The Front Page

M

The Public Enemy

Skippy

11-20: The Criminal Code, Dracula, Five Star Final, A Free Soul, Little Caesar, The Maltese Falcon, Monkey Business, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, The Smiling Lieutenant, Street Scene

Tier two: Arrowsmith, The Guardsman, Le Million, Night Nurse, Platinum Blonde, Smart Money, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, Tonight or Never, Waterloo Bridge, White Hell of Pitz Palu

– – – – – – – – – –

1. M

“That is a nice ball you have.”

This might be Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. Metropolis is great, but this film eclipses that with its storytelling and use of sound. And it’s about a child murderer.

It’s the first film Lang made with sound, and he’s clearly enjoying it. What’s great about it is that it’s a procedural and manages to make the most out of its killer scenes. You know how now, in all those cop films they cut to the killer doing evil things and it just kills the momentum of the movie because you’ve seen it all a thousand times? This might be the first time they did it. And it’s still chilling to this day. Peter Lorre, walking around, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and kidnapping kids. And the way they show the murders is just brilliant too.

And you get the bonus of it being a procedural for both the cops and the criminals. I love that the cops and criminals team up to find this guy, because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s don’t murder children.

2. City Lights

“You can see now?”
“Yes, I can see now.”

This might be Chaplin’s masterpiece. Not that he didn’t make five of them minimum. But this might be my favorite of the lot. It’s so good. This is the one with the most touching ending of them, that’s for sure.

Chaplin was the master of infusing his great slapstick with utter pathos. Starting with The Kid, he knew how to turn an audience on a dime from laughter to tears. I always thought Buster Keaton was a better physical comedian (which we can argue another time) but Chaplin was always the better filmmaker.

This movie, of all of them, feels like it veers the most wildly from whatever the set plot is. The others generally stay tethered to the through line and only occasionally get weird (that “angel” sequence in The Kid?). This one feels like a lot of it is random gags. Like the millionaire and the boxing. I know that technically is related to what the ultimate story is, but it also feels a bit further from what we usually get.

Still, though, there’s something about this film that continues to charm me more than the rest. That final scene…

3. Frankenstein

“It’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”

This movie is so iconic. Even if people haven’t seen this, they know most of the story beats. It’s one of those horror movies that’s actually almost perfect. Also the first real time, to my knowledge, the monster is made legitimately sympathetic. I’m sure earlier films did it (The Golem sort of does it), but not quite the way this one does.

Pretty much any time you see a visual representation of Frankenstein’s monster, it’s based on this film. Some might say Bride of Frankenstein is the better film, and that I won’t refute. But I will also say — that film was trying to say something underneath all the horror elements. This film is just straight horror. And I love what they did. It still holds up.

4. Bad Girl

“You can’t watch a girl hard enough to keep her good if she don’t want to be.”

I love this movie so much. When I first saw this, I knew nothing about it except a (very) basic synopsis, which really only covers the first five minutes of the movie, and the fact that Borzage won Best Director for it.

I was already predisposed to his films after taking a class on silent film in college and seeing Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. Both of which I loved. This is one of his first talkies. The basic premise is: a girl meets a guy. She’s the kind of girl who gets hits on by every guy and just wants nothing to do with them. But he’s the first one who doesn’t try to sleep with her, and actually seems disinterested by her. And that makes her interested in him. And they hang out and go on a date. And she spends the night at his house (platonically). Though this causes her shame, since she’s living with her sister and her husband, and to them she’s just ruined her virtue and can’t live there anymore. So in order to save face, she and this guy who barely know each other need to get married. And the rest of the film is these two people, with barely any money, trying to make ends meet and decide whether or not they actually should have gotten married.

I loved it. I really did. There’s something that hits all the different quadrants for me. It’s Pre-Code, and has those themes you would expect from this era. It’s also got that Borzage touch to it, where he finds a way to get you emotionally invested in the situation in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. And it also has that social drama element to it — like in The Crowd. Where it feels like real people having real issues. (Well, as real as it could in 1931.)

I think this is a hidden gem for all the 30s and I could not recommend this highly enough for people to see.

5.  Skippy

I’ve always felt this is one of those movies for me, but not something I’d ever force upon anyone else. Because it’s so perfectly up my alley, but could be seen as very annoying by others.

It’s based on a comic strip, actually. The primary cast are all children, and it seems like a clear precursor to Our Gang and The Little Rascals. Simple story — kid from the well-to-do part of town is best friends with a kid from Shantytown, and they befriend a stray dog, who is eventually captured by the local dog catcher. And the two go around trying to raise enough money to save the dog.

Most people will hear that and wonder what the hell I see in it or go, “That’s definitely not for me at all.” Which I get. I love it because Norman Taurog shot most of the film from a child’s perspective. The camera is low to the ground and is focused on this other life going on around real life. And I appreciated that. Not for everyone, but I love this movie.

6. The Champ

“Ain’t you proud of the old man now?”
“Aww, gee, Champ, I always was.”

This is one of the most famous film stories of all time. You should be able to know it from the picture alone. Wallace Beery won an Oscar for this, in what is probably his signature role. Somehow they’ve only made this story twice on film, yet everyone knows it. Especially that final scene. There’s also something fascinating about the perennial loser who’s just trying to right by those they love. The remake of this movie is actually quite good too. A classic all around.

7. The Public Enemy

“I ain’t so tough.”

Jimmy Cagney gangster movie. They don’t come much better than this. The only thing that holds this back is the fact that it was made so early and they couldn’t do as much visually and sound-wise as they could do later. Still, this is a benchmark of the genre. Cagney cemented his status with this and watching him on screen is just so, so cool.

8. Cimarron

“Sugar, if we all took root and squatted, there would never be any new country.”

The first epic western of the sound era. Which actually stops becoming a western and becomes a straight drama. In a way, it’s a history of the west up to a certain point. People move out west in search of land and manifest destiny. They take the wild and turn it into towns, which become cities. It’s very much the “clean” version of the western. No outlaws or gunfights or anything like that.

One of my favorite little bits in this movie is a scene where they’re settling in this town, basically putting their wagons in one area and roping off the area they’re claiming for their businesses, and to avoid fighting, each place gets it own name. They just casually name one place. Then later, as the town is fully formed, that’s the name of the main street. Which starts to become the name of businesses, and eventually becomes the name of the town. Which I think is a nice touch.

Another thing that’s great about it — after a certain point, the film’s main character decides he’s board and goes further out west for more adventure, leaving his wife and family behind. And the wife becomes the main character for the last third of the movie. Which is (fairly) bold for a film of this era, especially since the wife becomes the head of a major newspaper and an important businesswoman in her city who is well-respected and treated with respect. Not exactly common in a western.

9. The Front Page

“I’m all washed up.”
“What’s that?”
“I mean it this time, Walter.”
“Oh, Hildy, if I only thought you did!”

His Girl Friday will always be the best screen version of this play, but this version is very good in itself. Plus, being in 1931, there’s not a whole lot of competition around it. That play is so well-written it was almost automatically going to rise to the top of the year.

This is the play as it was originally written, with the Hildy character a man. Adolphe Menjou plays Walter Burns and Pat O’Brien is Hildy. Great film. Hecht and MacArthur. The best.

10. The Smiling Lieutenant

“When we like someone, we smile. But when we want to do something about it, we wink.”

Maurice Chevalier. Still singing about sex, though this one’s got a dramatic element to it that I wasn’t expecting.

The premise is, he’s a soldier who is in love with Claudette Colbert. During a procession of a visiting queen, he and Colbert make eyes at one another from across the street. And in that moment, the queen passes, and it looks like Chevalier is winking at the queen. In order to save from international embarrassment, Chevalier is forced into marrying the queen. Which he does not want to do. So there’s a bit of the political angle, the romance angle, and the part where the queen actually does want to be a good wife but doesn’t know what to do, and Colbert has to step in and help the queen be a good wife for the man that she loves.

I love the Chevalier sex musicals, but I’m also a fan of the ones that do some heavier dramatic work as well. This is also a Lubitsch film, which is something you can never go wrong watching.

– – – – – – – – – –

11-20:

The Criminal Code — Howard Hawks and Walter Huston. That should make anyone with similar tastes to mine’s eyes light up. Huston is a prison warden trying to help an inmate have a second chance. The inmate begins dating his daughter and turning his life around. Only he gets involved in some prison stuff that threatens it. It’s a nice, early use of Hawks’ dialogue style that would become the norm in his later films.

Dracula — Dracula, man. It’s iconic. Definitely not on the level of Frankenstein (I think because it didn’t use German Expressionist-inspired sets), but still quite good.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — It’s not the best monster movie ever made, but what makes it nice are the special effects. The makeup job on Fredric March is quite good, and the camera tricks to show the transformation work for 1931. It doesn’t take a whole lot for something to stand out in this era, and those special effects are more than enough.

Five Star Final — It’s about the unscrupulous nature of the newspapers. The paper publishes a story on an old murder just to sell copies, and it ends up ruining the lives of innocent people. A solid drama for 1931, and it’s these more critical films that were the Pre-Code genre at its best and were the kind of films Hollywood was lacking after this.

Little Caesar — The Edward G. Robinson gangster movie that acts as a pair to The Public Enemy. Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?

The Maltese Falcon — Clearly not on the level of the Bogart version ten years later, but still quite good for its time.

Monkey Business — Marx brothers. Always good for a few laughs.

The Sin of Madelon Claudet — It’s a melodrama, but I like that Helen Hayes plays the same character over many years. And the part where she’s much older is actually extended more than you’d think. One of the great transformations of early sound films.

Smart Money — Notable for being the only time both James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were in the same film.

Street Scene — You guys know how much I love these ‘slice of life’ films. This film takes place on a single street over a single day. And it’s shot entirely on that street (except like one scene which is in a car on that street). The stories weave in and out and it’s literally just the goings on of a New York city block. It’s like Do the Right Thing but if it were shot more casually. Like State Fair.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • Arrowsmith
  • A Free Soul
  • The Guardsman
  • Le Million
  • Night Nurse
  • Platinum Blonde
  • Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
  • Tonight or Never
  • Waterloo Bridge
  • White Hell of Pitz Palu

Arrowsmith is an early John Ford that also features Myrna Loy. The Guardsman is one of my favorites of these early years, because the plot is so 1932. A husband and wife actor team (starring an actual married acting couple) have this elaborate game, where the husband thinks she’s cheating and shows up in disguise as a Russian soldier, thinking she’ll try to seduce him. I always wished they remade that film. Waterloo Bridge is a solid earlier version of the Vivien Leigh film from 1940. This one directed by James Whale. Tabu is F.W. Murnau. Night Nurse, Platinum Blonde and Tonight or Never are all solid Pre-Code films. A Free Soul is the film that launched Clark Gable’s career and also has a ten-plus minute monologue delivered by Lionel Barrymore at its climax. And White Hell of Pitz Palu is the film you might remember as being mentioned in Inglourious Basterds. Pabst gave young Michael Fassbender a close up.

– – – – – – – – – –

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2 responses

  1. I adore M! Especially the beginning, with the mother waiting for her daughter. This is, imho, the best murder scene ever put on screen to this day and it doesn’t actually show anything of the actual murder, instead it shows the loss, what is missing from the life of those left behind.

    July 6, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    • Though I am kind of surprised that you claim that the police and the criminals working together on this one…they don’t, they do have the same goal (catching the murderer) but they aren’t working together. What the movie actually shows is a segment of society (with fascist elements subtle added to the portrayal) getting off the rails because they feel that the police doesn’t do a good enough job and then in the end the police coming in and restoring order again.

      July 6, 2017 at 2:25 pm

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