Mike’s Top Ten of 1934
So now we’re firmly in the era of the Production Code, and the subject matter’s gotten a lot less fun. But that doesn’t mean anything, since it’s almost a good thing. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but the minute they put restrictions on, they busted out with some real classics.
For me, 1934 is always gonna be known for two things. First, it’s the year my favorite film of all time was made. And second, it’s the year where Hollywood established its “classic” formula. It Happened One Night is the benchmark film of the studio era. You could watch it and see the progression of just about any film made for the next thirty years.
Otherwise, a lot of other things began in this year: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple and William Powell and Myrna Loy. We’re hitting the ground running, and it’s only gonna get more fun from here.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1934
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Death Takes a Holiday
The Gay Divorcee
Imitation of Life
It Happened One Night
Little Miss Marker
The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Thin Man
11-20: The Affairs of Cellini, Cleopatra, The Count of Monte Cristo, Easy to Love, The Gay Bride, The Lost Patrol, The Merry Widow, Sadie McKee, Treasure Island, Twentieth Century
Tier two: Broadway Bill, Chained, Here Comes the Navy, Four Frightened People, The House of Rothschild, It’s a Gift, Jimmy the Gent, Little Man What Now, Murder at the Vanities, The White Parade
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1. The Thin Man
“You got a pistol permit?”
“Ever heard of the Sullivan Act?”
“Oh, that’s all right, we’re married.”
My absolute #1 favorite film of all time. Still. I’ve seen thousands of movies, and this little comedy from 1934 is still my favorite of them all. It’s perfect. William Powell and Myrna Loy’s chemistry is the best I’ve ever seen on screen, and the movie was so good and so successful it spawned a franchise of six films. Nick and Nora Charles (and their dog Asta) are still some of the most iconic film characters (and crossword puzzle answers) of all time.
Here’s the rundown, in case I need to sell it to you: we begin with a mystery. Which I love. Our main character isn’t on screen for the first ten minutes. An inventor disappears, leading his daughter to suspect foul play. She asks an old family friend, Nick Charles, famous detective, to take on the case. Nick has recently married Nora, an heiress, and has decided to give up being a detective to spend his wife’s money and drink. And drink he does. The first time we see him, he’s mixing a cocktail for himself, instructing the bartenders how to do it. And the film is about him not trying to take on the case while somehow getting pulled right in the middle of it because everyone thinks he is on the case.
Some of the best dialogue ever put to screen, and without question one of the best screen couples in history. Powell and Loy are so good, and you’d honestly rather watch them than the mystery, which the films know, so they make the mystery secondary to their main characters. This film also started the trope (which would be openly mentioned in later films as being the ‘move’) of the detective bringing all the suspects together to a dinner party and explaining in great detail how the murder was committed and “whodunit.”
It’s my favorite film of all time, so if that’s not enough of a recommend, I don’t know what is.
2. It Happened One Night
“By the way, what’s your name?”
Who are you?”
“Who me? I’m the whippoorwill that cries in the night. I’m the soft morning breeze that caresses your lovely face.”
“You’ve got a name, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, I got a name. Peter Warne.”
“Peter Warne. I don’t like it.”
“Don’t let it bother you. You’re giving it back to me in the morning.”
This is legitimately one of the most perfect films ever made. If you were ever going to look for what a prototypical romantic comedy looked like, this is the one you would use. This film is the first film to win all the five major Academy Awards, and when you watch it, you can see why. It’s immaculately made, which is made so much better when you realize the stars were on loan from another studio and figured this would just be some small picture they did that would never amount to anything.
Claudette Colbert is a spoiled heiress who wants to marry a playboy. It’s clear he’s not the right man for her, but she’s adamant. So when her father tries to prevent the marriage, she escapes from his yacht off the coast of Florida and tries to make her way up to New York to marry the playboy. Meaning she has to travel under the radar without any of her father’s money, so as not to be caught. She ends up at a bus station, with no knowledge of how real people live. There, she meets Clark Gable, a reporter who has recently quit his job (something you get the sense happens a lot). He realizes who she is and tells his boss that he’ll get the exclusive on the story for a big bonus. (It’s actually a similar setup to Roman Holiday in that regard. Another legitimately perfect movie.) So he ingratiates himself to Colbert (naturally they don’t get on well upon initial meeting, as most meet-cutes are) and ends up becoming her travel partner along the journey, helping keep her shielded from all the (other) press. Naturally, they fall in love.
They really don’t make them much better than this.
3. The Gay Divorcee
“You know, you’re beginning to fascinate me, and I resent that in any man.”
This is the first starring vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They first appeared together in Flying Down to Rio, a movie they stole from the leads. So they then made this movie, the start of a screen pairing that would include eight more films. At least half of them will be top ten films because they’re all so perfect. The way a Busby Berkeley musical number is better than entire films, a Fred and Ginger dance sequence is better than other whole films on this list.
This is the most screwball of their efforts. Ginger is trying to divorce her husband. She consults her aunt’s ex-fiancée for what to do. He says she should get caught having an affair. So they arrange for her to be “caught” with another guy they hire. Fred, a guy who met Ginger once and has fallen for her, is mistaken by her as the guy they hired. So she’s pretending like he’s her lover so they can be “caught” together, and he has no idea about any of this. And hilarity ensues.
Oh, and by the way — they dance too.
4. Imitation of Life
“What’s my baby want?”
“I want to be white, like I look.”
The Douglas Sirk remake is the one everyone remembers (and with good reason), but this original is just as good. It’s arguably one of the most important films ever made about race and race relations.
Claudette Colbert and her black housekeeper team up to start a pancake restaurant (it’s less crazy than it sounds… though there is an unfortunate Aunt Jemimah comparison there). They both start off very poor and end up pretty well-to-do. The real story comes with their daughters. Beavers’ daughter is of mixed-race, and has a very light complexion. So she begins passing herself off as white, something she’s able to do very well except when her mother shows up to let the cat out of the bag. She soon begins to hate her mother and runs away. And the film ultimately becomes about this mother and daughter, and it’s so fucking good.
The Sirk version packs a bit more of a punch in that regard, but this version holds serve almost all of the way. It’s really good, and is unfortunately not as well remembered by most film fans as it ought to be.
Jean Vigo only made one feature film, and it’s regarded as one of the finest films ever made. He lived a short and hard life. His father was also a famous anarchist. He spent his early life like River Phoenix in Running on Empty, constantly on the run. Then his father got murdered in prison when he was 12, and he was subsequently abandoned by his mother, sent to boarding school, and ends up getting into film at 23, making a couple of shorts (including Zero de conduite, which should be seen alongside this) and dying at 29 of tuberculosis, something he’d had essentially since he was 21. But this film — it holds up.
For those reading these articles in order, you’ll see a bit of a resemblance in the general plot of this film and Murnau’s City Girl. (It’s not that uncommon a plot, but since we’re not that far removed from me talking about it, I did notice the similarity.) A barge captain gets married to a girl and decides to bring her back to the barge to live. And the film is about the woman (and those aboard the barge) adapting to this new lifestyle to which they are not accustomed. There’s also a bit of Sunrise in here, too. Not the almost-murder part, so we’re good there.
There’s also an amazing character in this movie called Pere Jules, a tattooed man who has a lot of cats. (Talk about the ideal match for a hipster.) And he pretty much steals the film.
You can’t really get into film seriously without this one, and fortunately it’s amazing and is the kind of film you can wholeheartedly recommend on top of its historical importance.
6. The Scarlet Pimpernel
“They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!”
There’s something so joyous about this movie to me. Maybe it’s the perfect casting of Leslie Howard. It’s basically if Robin Hood were an English aristocrat. He goes around and undermines all the efforts of Robespierre (this is in the Reign of Terror days), and is public enemy #1 in France, meanwhile in public he’s this foppish aristocrat no one would look twice at. So people are wondering who the hell this vigilante is, and to them he’s this effete intellectual who’d never be capable of such things. It’s so much fun. Leslie Howard makes this movie great. And it’s one of those movies that — well, let’s just say it does a great job with the ending. This is basically a Superman movie where it really plays up the Superman vs. Clark Kent dynamic and allows Kent to be a public buffoon who is secretly a boss when people aren’t looking.
7. Manhattan Melodrama
“Die the way you lived, all of a sudden, that’s the way to go. Don’t drag it out.”
This is the film that got Dillinger killed. I can’t blame him. I’d have come out of hiding to see Myrna Loy too. Myrna Loy and William Powell. Them two and Fred and Ginger are, for my money, the best screen pairings in cinema history.
This is one of the few straight dramas they made together. Clark Gable is a gangster and Powell is the DA. They’re best friends. Naturally this puts somewhat of a strain, but they remain friends. Troubles arise, though, when they both fall in love with the same woman.
You got William Powell, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable. What more could you ask for?
8. Death Takes a Holiday
“I bound myself to life, and with it, to the little rules by which it is lived. And now I must bow to it. What a monstrous comedy!”
They remade this as Meet Joe Black, and that’s probably the better film, but this one still works really well for 1934. It’s also different enough to where both work in their own ways.
Death, after wondering why everyone is afraid of him, decides to take a vacation. He takes human form for three days, and mingles among the living. He ends up at an Italian duke’s house, and while there, falls in love with the duke’s daughter. It’s a film that tackles heavy, spiritual themes in a really engaging way.
The film doesn’t do a whole lot, visually, as it’s based on a play that largely happens in a single space, but it does hold interest. This would have been perfect had it been released three years earlier. Here, it’s a bit theatrical for the year, but still holds up fine because the subject matter is so interesting.
9. Little Miss Marker
This was the first big leading role of Shirley Temple. She had her first big success earlier this same year, but that was a supporting role where she stole the picture. This is more the first film where she’s the focal point, and this was essential in launching her into the biggest star in Hollywood for the next half-decade or so.
It’s actually a really great story. They remade it with Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews in 1980. It’s about a guy who puts down a big bet on a horserace. He doesn’t have the money, so he gives the bookie his daughter as collateral. He loses, and kills himself. She ends up going to live with the bookie, who intends to keep her just long enough to use her in fixing a race, but of course ends up becoming charmed by her and actually likes being a father-figure for her. And so he and all his gangster pals and the gangster’s moll all become a weird family for this little girl. Of course she also starts to pick up all their bad habits as well. Which, as you can imagine, is where the film gets some of its laughs — Shirley Temple knowing all the gambling terms and such.
It’s a completely charming film, and when you see it, even if you think you’re the cynical adult film fan, you’ll see why Shirley Temple was the biggest star in the world. It’s hard not to smile at this.
10. The Barretts of Wimpole Street
“Papa, please. I’m not a bad girl, I swear I’m not, only I love him, I love him. He’s a good man, it can’t be wrong to love him. I want love, I can’t live without love. Oh Papa, remember how you loved Mama and how she loved you!”
You know those films that are really good, but they’re more about the acting than the actual film quality? That’s this one. The acting here is off the charts. Charles Laughton is so good.
The film is about a real life romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, here played by Norma Shearer and Fredric March. But the main interest in the film is the relationship between Shearer (and all her siblings) and her father, Charles Laughton. He rules his family with an iron fist, and is so domineering it’s as if he’s deliberately killing all his children’s chances at happiness, for some unknown reason. It’s heavily implied it’s because he’s gay and is so repressed he’s taking it out on his children. The actual reason given in the film is actually something closer to sex addiction. Still — Laughton is so good here and the film is actually quite good too.
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The Affairs of Cellini — This movie is so much fun. Frank Morgan is the Duke of Florence, and both he and his wife are looking to have affairs. He’s got his eye on a young woman in the court and his wife has her eye on Fredric March, the guy designing plates for her husband. Unbeknownst to Morgan, March is the famed Cellini, known for cuckolding all the elite members of Italian society. He knows his wife is looking to sleep with Cellini, but doesn’t realize March, the man he’s telling all this to, is Cellini. So he sends his people out to find and kill Cellini, meanwhile he’s got March by his side, and tries to set up a dinner party where March pretends to take the woman he’s trying to sleep with so he can have an excuse for her to be there. Meanwhile that plays right into March and the wife’s hand, and comedy ensues.
Cleopatra — The Elizabeth Taylor version is still best, but Claudette Colbert puts on a hell of a show in this one.
The Count of Monte Cristo — These literary adaptations of the 30s are hit and miss. Some of them I really like, others I just don’t care for at all. This one was really engaging. Robert Donat as Edmund Dantes. As solid a version as any that have been made.
Easy to Love — This one is fun. A husband is having an affair with his wife’s best friend. Meanwhile the best friend’s husband has had a thing for the wife all along (though she’s not interested in him). She finds out about the affair and makes a plan to fuck with him and get him to come back to her. She also uses her friend’s husband to pretend they’re having an affair, though the husband thinks she’s finally agreed to actually have one and is all prepared for that. Meanwhile, the husband and wife are fighting, which causes their daughter — who they want to get married to her sweetheart — to form her own plan to get her parents back together. And in the end, everyone ends up in a hotel room, six people, a justice of the peace, a fire ax, and one of the couples naked in bed. That’s screwball comedy, folks.
The Gay Bride — A screwball comedy featuring Carole Lombard. Get ready, folks, there are gonna be a lot of these for the next eight years. She’s a chorus girl who’s only interested in money, so she marries a bootlegger. But he gets killed, so she starts bouncing around from one guy with money to another. Meanwhile, aside her all along is the bootlegger’s former right hand man who she’s never looked twice at because he had no money. You can guess how it ends. It’s really fun. Great repartee between the two of them.
The Lost Patrol — Great film. John Ford. One of the best films he made, pre-Stagecoach. One of his most underrated films too. A bunch of British soldiers are in the desert and their commanding officer is killed by a sniper. They have no idea what their orders are, so they have to figure out what to do as, one by one, they start to all be killed by the sniper. It’s awesome. This would have been my #11 for this year. Barely missed the top ten.
The Merry Widow — Ernst Lubitsch, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier musical. Need I say more? It’s actually also a really fun plot. Jeanette MacDonald is a widow who is the primary taxpayer in her kingdom. She decides to leave to go marry someone, and Chevalier is ordered to go marry her instead so they can keep getting her tax money to keep the place afloat. You don’t need more than the stars and the director, but as plots go, that’s good.
Sadie McKee — Pre-Code drama about Joan Crawford going from maid to poor nightclub dancer to wife of an alcoholic rich man. The kind of movie where despite all the hardships, all the men in her life are in love with her, and she ends up with the right one with the least problems.
Treasure Island — About as good a version of this story as you’ll see, though pretty much just like all the rest. What makes this one fun is that it was directed by Victor Fleming and stars Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. And you have Lionel Barrymore and Jackie Cooper too.
Twentieth Century — Howard Hawks, Carole Lombard, John Barrymore. The film that established Hawks’s dialogue style and also is pretty much your prototypical screwball comedy. Great stuff.
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- Broadway Bill
- Here Comes the Navy
- Four Frightened People
- The House of Rothschild
- It’s a Gift
- Jimmy the Gent
- Little Man, What Now
- Murder at the Vanities
- The White Parade
Broadway Bill is the second Capra movie he remade twice and never quite cracked, even though it’s still quite enjoyable. A romance set among a horse race. The White Parade is possibly the hardest Best Picture nominee to find, and I had to go to UCLA to view a copy of it. It’s an interesting film — about a bunch of women in training to be nurses. And we follow them from when they begin until graduation. Here Comes the Navy is essentially the comedy version of An Officer and a Gentleman, starring James Cagney. Chained is Joan Crawford and Clark Gable falling in love on a cruise ship even though she’s another man’s mistress. Little Man What Now is a Frank Borzage film about a couple who has to keep their marriage secret so the husband can keep his job. It’s a Gift is W.C. Fields, who is his own titan of comedy in this era. If you like characters who are constantly drunk and would rather drink than do anything else, W.C. Fields is your man. Jimmy the Gent is James Cagney as a swindler who tries to get his girlfriend, Bette Davis, back from a man who seems to be legitimate but is just as phony as he is. The House of Rothschild is about the famous banking family and all the anti-semitism they faced during their rise to success. Four Frightened People is a cool disaster/survival type movie about people who have to get off a ship infested with plague and have to survive the jungle.
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