Mike’s Top Ten of 1936
1936 makes me happy. This is the first top ten list where I can honestly give a resounding thumbs up to all of the films. I look at this list and I feel actual excitement at the films that are on it.
The one thing that jumps out at me for this list in particular: William Powell. He’s in four films in this top ten. And Myrna Loy is in three of them too! Which, honestly… that pretty much sums me up as a film goer.
Otherwise — a lot of the standard stuff appears, both in terms of my taste and the classics. The big thing about this year in particular for me is that it contains one of the great hidden gems of all time, one of those films that I am constantly shouting about as one of the greatest films ever made that has never fully gotten its due.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1936
After the Thin Man
The Great Ziegfeld
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
My Man Godfrey
The Petrified Forest
11-20: Anthony Adverse, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Come and Get It, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, The Prisoner of Shark Island, The Story of Louis Pasteur, Theodora Goes Wild, Things to Come, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Wife vs. Secretary
Tier two: The Devil Doll, Follow the Fleet, The Gorgeous Hussy, The Plainsman, The Princess Comes Across, Reefer Madness, The Road to Glory, The Texas Rangers, These Three, Three Smart Girls
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“Would you like to enjoy life for a while?”
“Show me how.”
I’m all in on this movie. I love it a lot. This is the one I saw among a dozen other 30s Best Picture nominees, not having any particular idea of what it was or any inkling that it would be good. And I came out going, “How does no one know this movie exists?” If you dig deep enough, you might see some people calling this one of the unheralded masterpieces of the 30s and one of the essential films of the era. But you gotta dig. Why is it not just out there how good this is? And, since I’ve created this little soapbox for myself, I’ll take it upon myself to get the word out there.
To begin, this movie was directed by William Wyler, and if there’s one thing that should tell you, it’s that the film is quality. William Wyler is one of those guys who made a sneaky amount of films you really like. He’s responsible for at least three of the 100 greatest American films ever made.
Next, it stars Walter Huston. I know most of you are better acquainted with his son John, but you’re also acquainted with his brilliant work in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Which is just the tip of the iceberg. Before that, the man was one of the best actors in cinema. He started on Broadway and moved over when talkies got started. When you get into old films, you’ll quickly find that he’s constantly in really good films and always delivering the goods. From Yankee Doodle Dandy to The Devil and Daniel Webster to stuff like Of Human Hearts and early films like Rain.
Now, this film in particular is about Huston as a self-made auto magnate, who started with nothing and worked his way up to owning his own factory and being able to retire early enough to enjoy it. Once retired, he and his wife go on a long vacation in Europe. Quickly into the trip they realize that they have very different aspirations. He wants to go around and see all the sights and get the most out of every place they visit. She, meanwhile, would rather get in with all the social circles of the well-to-do. He realizes that he spent all those years working and not spending time with his wife that he may not actually know her at all. While on his tourist excursions, he befriends Mary Astor, an American divorcée, who also wants to see all the sights. They hit it off and become very friendly. His wife, meanwhile, starts an affair with Paul Lukas, a playboy. Huston leaves midway through the trip and goes back home, while his wife stays in Europe with Lukas. Then when Huston returns home, he thinks he’ll get to spend time with his kids. But pretty quickly he realizes — he doesn’t know them either. It’s like the world changed without him realizing it and there’s no long a place for him. He spent all those years working and now he doesn’t know what his true place in the world is.
It’s such a good movie. This is one of those movies that’s so universal on a lot of levels (just like one of the top films from 1937), and holds up so incredibly well. This should be ranked among the great films of all time. It’s a damn shame most people have no idea this exists. If I had to make a list of the 100 most underrated, need-to-be-seen hidden gems of all time, this would be in the top five of that list. It’s films like this that are the reason I’m writing up these lists.
2. Swing Time
“Some day, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight”
This film features one of the ten greatest love songs ever written. It’s also probably the best Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. Directed by George Stevens, which may have something to do with it.
Fred is a gambler and a dancer, who seems to never have a string of bad luck. He’s all set to marry a rich woman, when her father says that he needs to earn a bunch of money just to prove he’s not after hers. So he heads to New York, broke, and meets Ginger Rogers, a dance instructor. Their initial meeting goes horribly (in classic screwball fashion), leading to one of the great sequences in musical history. He goes to her dance class and takes a “lesson” from her after their disastrous initial meeting. He deliberately screws it up. She tells him he’ll never learn how to dance, which her boss overhears, causing him to fire her. Fred, feeling bad, then does this incredible dance with her to prove that she did “teach” him how to dance. And then one thing leads to another (as it does), and they dance together and fall in love.
You have great comedy and romance here, since Fred’s engaged the whole time and is trying not to fall in love with Ginger, and she of course is trying to get him to fall for her.
This movie is perfect. All the Fred and Ginger movies are.
3. After the Thin Man
“Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”
So the first Thin Man is my favorite movie of all time. And because it was such a hit, they made five more sequels. And, nowadays, you hear that and you assume they can’t possibly be good. But, for the 30s and 40s — five more sequels just means five more top ten films for me.
The beautiful thing about this franchise is that the plots don’t matter. The entire franchise is built around the interplay between Nick and Nora, his desire to not be a detective and drink, her desire to see him be a detective, and the usual hallmarks of the franchise, like Asta and bringing everyone together in the end to explain whodunit.
This movie begins about three days after the last one ended. The last one ended with them on a train going back home to San Francisco. This film begins with them arriving back in San Francisco. The last one was Christmas, this one opens on New Year’s. With a great scene of them getting from the station back to their house, with all sorts of low lives and criminals coming up to Nick and saying hi. There’s the great moment of some people in a car saying hi to Nora and Nick asking who they are. And she goes, “Oh, you wouldn’t know them, darling. They’re respectable.”
I can quote these movies for days. Then they get home and there’s the great scene of them walking into a party happening in their own house, thrown for them, yet no one there knows who they are. So they’re mingling amongst all the guests who are waiting for Nick and Nora to arrive. Fantastic.
The plot of this one is about them going to visit Nora’s family, with Nick having to deal with their old-money, snooty attitudes looking down on him, as well as a bit of detective work, as Nora’s cousin’s husband has gone missing.
It’s just as entertaining as the first film. A lot of great lines and moments of drinking. An early appearance by Jimmy Stewart too. And a great final line, “And you call yourself a detective.”
4. My Man Godfrey
“May I be frank?”
“Is that your name?”
“No, my name is Godfrey.”
“All right, be frank.”
This is one of the greatest comedies ever made. William Powell and Carole Lombard. Perfection all around.
The story is kind of insane, yet it completely works. William Powell is a homeless man found in the city dump by Carole Lombard and her family, who are rich and engaging in a scavenger hunt. Part of the scavenger hunt is that they need to find a “forgotten man.” Naturally you go to the city dump for one of those. Her sister tries to pay him a few bucks to come with them, but Powell, having some pride and not liking her attitude, refuses. He then sees Lombard, the ditzy-but-well-meaning, put-upon sister, and agrees to go with her, just to stick it to the other sister. Lombard, meanwhile, is the kind of girl who likes taking on these pet projects. So she makes her family hire Powell to be the family’s new butler. So now this homeless man is this rich family’s new butler, and much of the film is him learning just how insane all these people are.
It’s incredible. It’s so funny. One of the great final scenes, too, which cements Lombard’s place among the great comedians of all time. It’s the quintessential screwball ending, too. “Stand still, Godfrey, it’ll all be over in a minute.” So perfect.
5. The Great Ziegfeld
“I’ve got to have more steps. I need more steps… I’ve got to get higher… higher.”
That’s three in a row for William Powell. First his signature film franchise, then one of the greatest comedies of all time, and now finally the film that won Best Picture this year. It was a good year to be him.
This film is a biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, who’s not so much known now, though I’m sure people have come across the name Ziegfeld Follies. That was him. At the time, he was a huge stage producer, and doing a biopic of him in this era was like doing a biopic of George M. Cohan. People knew the name.
It begins with Ziegfeld as a carnival barker and shows him as he works his way up into the biggest name on Broadway. From his first marriage to a Polish actress (Luise Rainer, in a role that won her an Oscar. Specifically for that “telephone” scene) to his second marriage to Billie Burke (aka Glinda. Played here by Myrna Loy. There’s that Powell and Loy combo again).
One fun thing about this movie is that it features a sequence of Ziegfeld recruiting Fanny Brice into his Follies. You may know Fanny Brice as the subject of the movie Funny Girl, which earned Barbra Streisand an Oscar (and also features Ziegfeld as a character, due to his importance on her career). In this movie, Fanny Brice plays herself, which is incredible now, since you get to see Fanny Brice doing her shtick on camera. And when you see that, you’ll see just how perfectly she was cast in that movie.
The film is huge. For 1936, it’s clear they put a lot of money into it. There are ten musical numbers in it, and each one is basically a showcase of, “Look at how big our budget was.” The sets are huge, the costumes are ornate, and the sets are immaculately designed. This was the peak of Hollywood studio production in 1936.
6. Modern Times
Is there a top ten list for 1936 that doesn’t feature this film? Some consider it to be Chaplin’s best. At this point, they’re all so good it’s really just whichever one people prefer most. This is not my personal favorite, but that’s like Bill Russell telling you which of his rings means the least to him. Perfection is perfection.
Chaplin was incapable of making a bad movie. To me, the real interest in this one is Paulette Goddard, who Chaplin launched as an actress with this movie. She just explodes off the screen.
Also, my god — it’s hard enough to make a movie that lasts. But Chaplin… just looking at that image up there… what is it, one of the twenty most iconic images in cinema history?
7. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
“People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.”
One of my favorite movie titles that should also be the name of a porno.
Frank Capra is one of those guys who managed to tap into something special and was able to do so more than once. The man has at least three perfect movies, and has made at least five really iconic pieces of American cinema.
Let me begin this by saying: if all you know about this story is the Adam Sandler version — no. Absolutely not. You’re wrong. Go home and go watch this movie right away.
Gary Cooper is a small town man who inherits $20 million from a dead uncle. He’s forced to go into the big city, where he’s hounded by newspapermen and scheming members of his late uncle’s company. Comedy and romance ensue.
It’s your prototypical Frank Capra film. The first time he really used that formula we know him for — everyman going up against the rigid norms of society and overcoming them with a little help from all his friends. It’s great. Gary Cooper at his best and Jean Arthur being great as always.
8. The Petrified Forest
“Maybe you’re right, pal.”
“Oh, I’m eternally right. But what good does it do me?”
A lot of people are gonna come to this for either Humphrey Bogart or Bette Davis. But the real star of this picture is Leslie Howard. If you didn’t know who he was before this (or really only know him as Ashley Wilkes), you’ll know who he is after this.
This is a proto-noir. It’s got nearly all the elements of the genre about a decade before it began. It’s interesting to watch, because you see all the elements you normally would, but instead it’s played purely as drama. Which somehow makes it work.
Howard is a wandering, suicidal drifter who used to be a great writer. He stumbles into a diner and gets involved with the lives of the people who are there. Mainly Bette Davis and her father, Porter Hall. He was a soldier who married a French woman, but she left him soon after the war. Davis, meanwhile, dreams of living in France and can’t stand her dead end existence. And a bit of a romance ensues between her and Howard. He responds to the amount of life she has, and she likes his worldliness. And that’s about half the movie. The other half happens with Bogart shows up. He’s a gangster on the run from a shootout, and uses the diner to hide out until his girl shows up and they can escape into Mexico. So it becomes a Key Largo situation.
The movie’s 83 minutes. It gets in, it gets out, it’s great. This is about as close to a noir as you’re gonna get, pre-1941.
9. Libeled Lady
“I thought that was rather clever of me.”
“Yes, I thought you thought so.”
William Powell and Myrna Loy. They just made great films together. Also here, you get Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. Which is just a double bonus.
Spencer Tracy is a newspaperman and Jean Harlow is his fiancée, whom he regularly ignores to focus on his job. (It’s basically a Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday situation.) Tracy gets in trouble when he publishes a story that Myrna Loy, a socialite, is about to break up the marriage of a man she’s seeing. This turns out to not be true and she sues his paper for libel. Tracy doesn’t want that, so he brings in William Powell, an out-of-work reporter, to make the story true. The plan is that Powell and Harlow get married, and then Powell seduce Loy, thereby actually making her a home wrecker and eliminating the libel suit. Of course complications ensue when Harlow realizes she actually likes being married to Powell and Powell and Loy actually fall in love.
It’s screwball all the way, and it’s great. Though really, I didn’t need to tell you anything past William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, did I?
10. San Francisco
“I’m going to stay.”
“That’s right. You’re in probably the wickedest, most corrupt city, most Godless city in America. Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end’s going to be. But nothing can harm you if you don’t allow it to because nothing in the world, no one in the world, is all bad.”
I had no idea what to expect in this one. I think that had a lot to do with my reaction to it. I can’t imagine most people will have the same reaction, since in order to not know what you’re getting here you need to watch it amongst a bunch of other movies and not really be paying attention to what it’s about. Still, it helped.
It’s a bit of a love triangle (but not really, since we know what relationship is gonna win out) in (insert title here) at the turn of the century. Clark Gable owns a nightclub and his best friend is Spencer Tracy, a priest. Jeanette MacDonald is a talented singer who falls for Gable. She should be singing opera but sings in his clubs because she loves him. So you get a bit of — him being the gambler and Tracy being the priest and that Angels with Dirty Faces kind of dynamic without going full gangster. And then you get Gable and MacDonald having their romance, but him being the controlling businessman boyfriend who wants her to sing and make him money seemingly more than he wants her to be his woman. And all this plays out for like 80 minutes, until disaster strikes. Disaster being the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Which leads to one of the great sequences in early visual effects. It’s impressive how they managed to shoot it.
The first 2/3 of the film is solid, but the disaster sequence is great. And that’s really what I love about this movie. The effects and direction are so good I’ll put those above pretty much every film left for this year.
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Anthony Adverse — Another one of those prestige historical novel adaptations the studios cranked out between 1935 and 1939. It’s based on the first half of the novel (since in the second half, the main character becomes an asshole), about an orphaned boy whose cruel stepfather who killed his mother and abandoned him tries to swindle him out of his fortune. Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who made about a dozen great movies.
The Charge of the Light Brigade — Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Michael Curtiz. The band is back together again after Captain Blood. I really like this epic historical romances Flynn did. You’ll see a handful more pop up over the next decade.
Come and Get It — Howard Hawks movie about lumberjacks. Now generally known for two reasons: first because it won Walter Brennan his first Supporting Actor Oscar, and second because it co-stars Frances Farmer, who
will have her revenge on Seattle has a bit of a cult reputation now and was the subject of a Jessica Lange biopic in the 80s. Still, it’s Hawks, and that means quality. And it’s a really engaging drama with Edward Arnold as a leading man. Most people know him as a supporting character actor.
The Ex-Mrs. Bradford — This is one of those movies that I can sell to people so easily. Ready? William Powell and Jean Arthur as a divorced couple investigating a murder at a racetrack. Screwball comedy of remarriage. That not enough? She’s a mystery writer and he’s a doctor. He divorced her because she kept involving him in all her cases. And she does so once more, but also uses the case to get him to remarry her. You know that sounds fun as shit. Don’t deny it.
The Prisoner of Shark Island — John Ford. Cool movie about the (real) doctor who treats John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s assassination. He knew nothing about Booth and was just treating an injured man. And for that he gets thrown into a tropical prison. The rest of the film becomes a prison film, which, as I always say, are always interesting. He gets treated badly, tries to escape, and eventually saves a bunch of people from an epidemic.
The Story of Louis Pasteur — A Paul Muni biopic, similar to the Emile Zola one that won Best Picture in 1937. He plays Pasteur as he tries to prove that diseases are caused by bacteria when no one believes him and also cures an anthrax outbreak with his revolutionary pasteurization method (which is so important that it’s become a verb that doesn’t even require capitalization.). Standard, but solid, biopic fare.
Theodora Goes Wild — Fun rom com with Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas. She’s a teacher who secretly writes romantic novels on the side. So she’s both the upright, proper member of society and also the person who writes books that have the “right’ in a fervor, saying it should be banned. So it’s about her trying to navigate both lives, on a book tour and falling in love with Douglas while also trying to keep her day-to-day life in tact. Great premise.
Things to Come — This is notable for being one of the very first sci-fi films in the sound era. Silent film has a bunch of sci fi, but once sound happened, there really weren’t many. Technically you can count King Kong, but not by the generally assumed definition of the genre. This might be the benchmark early science fiction film. Based on H.G. Wells, about a World War that leaves the planet in ruins and shows an alternate future with space travel.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine — This has the distinction of being the second film shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor, after Becky Sharp. Another fun fact: the novel was published in 1908 and was adapted four times before this. It’s about a Romeo and Juliet feud between families out in the woods, and a romance that ensues Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. And Fred MacMurray for good measure. Much of the interest here is in the Technicolor. It looks gorgeous.
Wife vs. Secretary — Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow and Jimmy Stewart. I can pretty much end it there. That’s really all you need to check this one out. It’s about Gable as a businessman who is married to Myrna Loy. She thinks his secretary, Harlow, is so beautiful that he has to be sleeping with her, and feels threatened by her.
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- The Devil Doll
- Follow the Fleet
- The Gorgeous Hussy
- The Plainsman
- The Princess Comes Across
- Reefer Madness
- The Road to Glory
- The Texas Rangers
- These Three
- Three Smart Girls
Follow the Fleet is a Fred and Ginger movie that I describe as some of their best dancing with one of their worst plots. Still, a Fred and Ginger movie is better than most movies. These Three is the first screen version of The Children’s Hour. Three Smart Girls is a story that’s very reminiscent of The Parent Trap, and launched the film career of Deanna Durbin. The Devil Doll is one of the few movies Tod Browning got to make after Freaks and features Lionel Barrymore in drag. The Road to Glory is a Howard Hawks movie about trench warfare in World War I. The Texas Rangers is a fun adventure with Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie as two guys without much else going on who join the rangers and end up having to actually take it seriously. The Princess Comes Across is another Lombard/MacMurray film. She plays a woman who pretends to be a princess so she can get on a boat in order to secure a role in a movie. On board, she runs into MacMurray, a musician with a criminal past. They’re both discovered and blackmailed by a man who is soon murdered, leaving the two of them as the prime suspects. The Plainsman is a Cecil B. DeMille film about the adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane and Custer. And Reefer Madness is a cautionary tale, warning parents about the dangers of those evil marijuana cigarettes. 420 No.
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