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Mike’s Top Ten of 1937

1937 is a peaks and valleys kind of year. There’s a lot of really solid stuff there, but the very top of the list has some really heavy hitters. Particularly the big one, which was a landmark in the history of cinema and still holds up as one of the greatest accomplishments ever put to the screen.

Otherwise, a lot of cool things here. Like 1936, I’m gonna be doing some talking up of a film that I don’t think gets its proper regard as one of the greatest films ever made. Besides those — some classic comedies, iconic screen stories and another film generally regarded as one of the 50 greatest films ever made.

Another fun fact: this top ten list features the first full Technicolor entry thus far. To this point, only two full color films have appeared as top ten films, and both were two-strip Technicolor.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1937

The Awful Truth

Captains Courageous

Grand Illusion

It’s Love I’m After

The Life of Emile Zola

Lost Horizon

Make Way for Tomorrow

Shall We Dance

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

A Star Is Born

11-20: Black Legion, Dead End, Double Wedding, Easy Living, The Good Earth, Nothing Sacred, Stage Door, Stella Dallas, Topper, Wee Willie Winkie

Tier two: The Hurricane, I Met Him in Paris, In Old Chicago, Kid Galahad, Non-Stop New York, San Quentin, The Prisoner of Zenda, Saratoga, Swing High Swing Low, They Won’t Forget

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1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

“Some day my prince will come
Some day I’ll find my love
And how thrilling that moment will be
When the prince of my dreams comes to me”

1937 pretty much begins and ends with Snow White. If you really boiled the history of cinema down to the biggest essentials, the ones that changed the course of cinema history, this is one of them. This is Jazz Singer-level important.

I use the term ‘game changer’ derisively to poke fun at — some particular incident which we don’t need to get into right now — but this movie is an actual game changer. You don’t have Disney without this movie.

It’s also a film that all of us watch as children. That’s just how it goes. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t see this movie before the age of like, 7. It’s just one of those things you watched. I have vague memories of going to see this in a theater. The closest I can figure is that it was during the 1993 re-issue. Which would make sense. I was about 5 and my sister was 2.

This movie is primitive next to what they can do in today’s animated films. But how many animated films made today are as lasting as this one is? Not many. Hell, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” has become a jazz standard.

I could go on for hours about all the different aspects of this movie. We all know it’s perfect. And it’s pretty much the most important movie of 1937, and the film I have to put #1, since its importance to my childhood cannot be underestimated.

2. Grand Illusion

“For me it’s simple. A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.”

This is a masterpiece. It’s one of the greatest films ever made. This movie is so good it was actually nominated for Best Picture. The first foreign film to hold that distinction. And something that’s only happened like eight times ever.

Directed by Jean Renoir, it’s a film about differences. War is the ultimate conflict, and that’s the overarching one of the film. But within the war — and it’s World War I we’re dealing with — there are differences of nationality, language, class and religion.

Two pilots, one upper class, one working class, are captured and sent to a German prison camp. The camp’s commandant, Erich von Stroheim, invites the upper class officer to his quarters, whereupon they engage in philosophical discussions. Meanwhile, the working class officer is thrown in with the rest of the men. And you get both sides of the conflict. The regular, men in a POW camp, trying to escape film, as well as one where the upper class men engage in a sort of formal discussion about all the things that both separate them and unite them.

It’s easy to boil the message of a war film down to a simple “war is bad.” But here, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about humans and how they interact with one another, and an attempt to use the simple theme of ‘war is bad’ to get to something more — that true humanity transcends all the differences we may have.

Oh, and did I mention? The movie’s really fucking good, too.

3. Make Way for Tomorrow

“Why don’t you face facts, Grandma?”
“Oh, Rhoda. When you’re seventeen and the world’s beautiful, facing facts is just as slick fun as dancing or going to parties, but when you’re seventy… well, you don’t care about dancing, you don’t think about parties anymore, and about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain’t any facts to face, so would you mind if I just went on pretending?”

This is one of the greatest films ever made and it’s a damn shame people barely know what this is.

If you’re familiar with the movie Tokyo Story, that film was inspired by the plot of this one. It’s about an elderly couple who lose their house because the husband is too old to find work. (This movie was made 80 years ago, by the way. Just in case it sounded relevant.) They go to their children and try to find a place to stay. The only situation that they can work out for the time being is that one parent stays with one child and the other stays with another. Though pretty quickly, each family starts to become annoyed with the parent staying with them. And they start plotting to get the parent out of the house.

This film is absolutely beautiful and one of those movies that absolutely earns every ounce of emotion it elicits. The beauty of this movie is that it does not flinch for a second with its ending. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s so, so touching.

You owe it to yourself to see if this you haven’t. Truly a treasure of American cinema.

4. A Star Is Born

“Tragedy is a test of courage. If you can meet it bravely, it will leave you bigger than it found you. If not than you will have to live all you life as a coward, because no matter where you may run you can never run away from yourself.”

A story so classic they made it five times. It first appeared as What Price, Hollywood? and then this became the classic version. Judy Garland starred in the 1954 musical version, then Barbra Streisand remade it in 1976 and now the Lady Gaga version is coming out next year. The story translates.

Janet Gaynor plays a woman named Esther Blodgett, who comes to Hollywood from the midwest to make it as an actress. She comes across Norman Maine, played by Fredric March, a major movie star whose career is on the downswing. He’s also an alcoholic. They meet and fall in love. He gets her a screen test and soon she is made over by the studio and rechristened as Vicki Lester. She starts to become a major star, all while his career falls into the toilet.

It’s a classic romance and one of those stories that you can keep remaking forever. This version and the 1954 version are the two best.

5. The Awful Truth

“What did you tell him?”
“I told him the truth, and strange enough, he believed me.”

Leo McCarey’s second film in the top five of this year. He won Best Director for this film, even though it’s clear Make Way for Tomorrow is the masterpiece of the two. This is more a comedic gem.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are a married couple. He returns home from a supposed trip to Florida and finds that she isn’t home. Once she gets home, it comes out that he really wasn’t in Florida, and he finds out she wasn’t really at her friend’s house like she said, but was instead staying with her piano teacher. They both suspect the other of infidelity and divorce. Thus begins the comedy of remarriage. She starts being courted by Ralph Bellamy, a nice man with oil money. Grant shows up and ruins it all, partially on purpose and partially in that screwball fashion where things just happen at the exact wrong time. Meanwhile, Grant is dating an heiress and is trying to get engaged to her. Dunne, to both get revenge and because she still has feelings for him, shows up to a dinner party pretending to be Grant’s sister. His uncouth, showgirl sister. And proceeds to ruin his chances at another marriage.

The movie is hilarious. Not the best screwball comedy ever made, but it’s in the top ten.

6. Shall We Dance

“You say either and I say either
You say neither and I say neither
Either, either, neither, neither
Let’s call the whole thing off”

Fred and Ginger. Could it be a top ten list without a Fred and Ginger movie? This is four years in a row for them.

Fred and Ginger are both dancers who meet on a ship and start to fall in love. However, the press get a hold of a story that says they’re already married to one another. This causes complications. They decide to get married and then divorce, since no one seems to believe they’re not actually married. Though once they marry, she actually begins to fall in love with him. But, being a screwball, complications ensue.

This movie features three classic songs. The major one is “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” But there’s also “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and also “They All Laughed.” It features one of their great musical numbers, where they dance on roller skates.

These two are one of the greatest screen pairings in cinema history, and anything they did together is worthwhile.

7. Captains Courageous

“Manuel and his little fish, they beat everybody. We make fisherman out of you, huh, little fish?”

Such a great movie. You know a movie works when you find yourself truly giving a shit when it gets to the emotional stuff at the end.

It’s about a spoiled rich kid who falls overboard on a cruise and gets picked up by a fishing boat. The problem for him is, the boat’s out to see for the next month. They’re off fishing. They’re not going back. So he’s stuck with them for the time being. And, if he’s gonna be on the boat… he’s gotta work. Something he’s never done before. Part of the film is about him learning to do an honest day’s work and stop being such a brat, and the other part is him starting a friendship with one of the fisherman, who starts to become a surrogate father to him.

It’s a really great film. Victor Fleming directs it. The cast has Spencer Tracy (who won an Oscar for his role), Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Mickey Rooney and John Carradine. It’s basically hanging out with the crew of a fishing boat for most of the film. Which is awesome.

8. Lost Horizon

“Age is a limit we impose upon ourselves. You know, each time you Westerners celebrate your birthday, you build another fence around your minds.”

It’s weird that this is a Frank Capra movie. It just doesn’t fit with the style we recognize from him. I can kind of see it. But do you know who this feels more in line with? Spielberg. It’s that kind of narrative.

A plane full of passengers is hijacked and crashed in the Himalayans. The survivors walk to safety, and come upon the paradise of Shangri-La. So there’s a lot of them seeing the wonders of the place, integrating into the society, and then all the character stuff — which ones want to stay forever, which ones want to go home.

It’s a very well-made fantasy. Not a classic like other Capra movies, but still a classic in its own right. The most unfortunate part about this movie is that there are small scenes that don’t exist anymore, so most prints show stills with the dialogue playing over it.

I think my favorite review of this movie was when Colin saw it for the first time and texted me:

“I love the brother’s death. ‘I almost fucked an old bitch!’ *jumps to icy death in ravine*”

9. The Life of Emile Zola

“What does it matter if an individual is shattered – if only justice is resurrected?”

One in a line of historical biopics starring Paul Muni. He made about four in a five year span. He won an Oscar for The Story of Louis Pasteur the year before this and this movie won Best Picture.

It’s about (insert title here), from his early days as a muckraking journalist, writing books about the seedy underbelly of French society the upper class wanted to ignore, to his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, where a Jewish soldier was accused of treason pretty much only because he was Jewish and thrown in prison.

It’s just a solid, classy film. And it turns into a trial movie. Which — what’s one of the golden rules of this site? Trial movies are always interesting.

10. It’s Love I’m After

“I say, Digges, you don’t suppose I’ve aroused her slap-me-again-I-love-it complex?”

Really fun comedy. Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are an acting couple who are incredible on stage… and fight incredibly off stage. They’ve been supposed to marry for about ten years, but somehow it just hasn’t happened. Meanwhile, Olivia de Havilland shows up, as a huge fan of Howard’s. She’s so enamored with him that it’s starting to border on obsession. Howard works to convince her that he’s not worth the effort. He’s gonna act like a huge asshole around her and drive her back to her fiancé. In order to do this, he delays the latest attempt at marriage with Davis, which pisses her off. And then he finds out that no matter how awful he acts toward de Havilland, she doesn’t care. And all sorts of romance and comedy ensue.

These types of comedies always appeal to me, and you get three great actors to go with it.

– – – – – – – – – –

11-20:

Black Legion — This was fun. About a secret KKK-like group that targets immigrants. Bogie plays a dude who loses a job to a foreign co-worker, and joins an anti-immigrant group. They go around in black robes and burn people’s houses down and intimidate them. It’s unfortunately scarily similar to the current climate as it relates to foreigners.

Dead End — Great little film. One of those films that takes place over the course of a day. Half of it is the Dead End Kids (who are the ones in Angels with Dirty Faces) doing their thing, but the other half is the goings-on of a slum (or neighborhood, depending on your socio-economic background). Particularly one of the kids’ sisters and a budding romance as well as Humphrey Bogart as a gangster on the run coming back to visit his mother and girlfriend, who has, in his absence, become a prostitute. Also directed by William Wyler.

Double Wedding — William Powell and Myrna Loy. He’s a bohemian artist and she’s an uptight businesswoman. Powell convinces Loy’s sister to become an actress, while Loy is trying to get her to settle down with a stable man she picked out for her. Of course all sorts of romantic entanglements ensue, in classic screwball fashion.

Easy Living — Screwball. A rich banker throws away an expensive coat his wife boat. It lands on Jean Arthur, a poor woman. She brings it back to him, and he tells her to keep it, and replaces her broken hat as well. This causes people to think she’s his mistress, and causes the people she works for to think she has money… and comedy ensues.

The Good Earth — One of the greatest novels ever written, and a very solid film adaptation. It’s 1937, so you can’t show O-Lan going out back to give birth out in the rice paddy, but it gets the job done.

Nothing Sacred — The quintessential Carole Lombard screwball. Lombard is a woman who thinks she’s dying. She then finds out she’s not dying. But by then it’s too late. A reporter has been tasked with covering her story and the town is rallying around her. So she keeps pretending to be sick. Comedy ensues. An all-time classic.

Stage Door — This is a film all about women, which I love. It’s not quite The Women, there are some men in it, but still, it works. It’s about a bunch of women living in the same boarding house, trying to achieve their hopes and dreams. Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, even Lucille Ball. Andrea Leeds steals the show with her performance as an actress who had a major hit and hasn’t been able to find work since, and is becoming desperate.

Stella Dallas — This always struck me as the quintessential melodrama. Everything I think of when I think of this genre is in this movie. Honestly all it’s missing is Bette Davis instead of Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck plays a woman of modest background who is determined to make something of herself. She eventually marries the head of a factory where her brother works. And eventually, after having a child, she shifts all her attentions to her, making sure her daughter has every opportunity she possibly can, even if it eventually means giving up the child and watching her live from afar, at great sacrifice.

Topper — Great comedy. The original ghost comedy. Cary Grant and Constance Bennett die in a car crash after a night of partying. They discover they aren’t gonna be allowed up to heaven until they do a good deed. So they haunt their friend, an uptight banker, to try to get him to enjoy life while he’s still got it. Comedy ensues. It’s great. Fantastic

Wee Willie Winkie — Shirley Temple again. And directed by John Ford! She’s a young girl at a military outpost in India. So it’s a lot of her along with the soldiers and essentially ending armed combat. As you do when you’re cute.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • The Hurricane
  • I Met Him in Paris
  • In Old Chicago
  • Kid Galahad
  • Non-Stop New York
  • San Quentin
  • The Prisoner of Zenda
  • Saratoga
  • Swing High Swing Low
  • They Won’t Forget

In Old Chicago is basically the follow-up to San Francisco. Drama gives way to a disaster, this time the Great Chicago Fire. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and all that. The Hurricane is a John Ford drama/disaster movie. A tropical version on the same theme. Non-Stop New York is a proto-noir about a woman who can clear the name of an innocent man who is followed onto a flying boat by some gangsters who intend to kill her. Saratoga is a Clark Gable/Jean Harlow romantic comedy. Swing High Swing Low is another Carole Lombard/Fred MacMurray pairing. The Prisoner of Zenda is a fun action film in the vein of Robin Hood and the Prince and the Pauper. A guy on vacation has to pretend to be the king, who looks just like him and is kidnapped. So it’s like Robin Hood meets Dave. San Quentin is a fun prison film with Bogart as the villain. Kid Galahad is Edward G. Robinson as a boxing trainer whose new protege falls for his sister. They Won’t Forget is an interesting film. The kind we’d see now as a “message” movie. A young girl (Lana Turner, in her first role) is murdered, and between the media coverage, the local D.A. having senate ambitions, and an undercurrent of racism, the girl’s teacher is put on trial for the crime, despite all evidence against him being purely circumstantial. And the rest of the film is about all of this playing out, despite no one having any real idea whether or not this guy actually did it. It hits pretty heavy for 1937, ending on a note of, “Did this guy actually do it or not?” Which is one of those endings that is meant to leave the audience angry about a potential miscarriage of justice and the broken system that allowed it. My kinda movie.

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One response

  1. Well, Snow White isn’t QUITE perfect (its biggest flaws are all the filler scenes and some aspects which were due to their limited abilities in animation, but Disney was able to create the movie around the limitations), but it is along with Fantasia, Bambi, Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast one of the most remarkable and important movies Disney ever did.

    July 12, 2017 at 1:56 pm

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