Favorite Films of 1934

I watched 53 films that were released in 1934.  A complete list can be found here:  http://www.imdb.com/list/fmXidXs5FOE/?publish=save.  These were my ten favorites.

Note:  I was unable to get a copy of The Merry Widow (1934), directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier for viewing this time around.  I loved the film when I saw it several years ago and am fairly confident it would have placed in the top five if I had seen it.

1. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra):The Academy got it right when it made this film the first to win all five major awards.  It has rarely been equalled and never bettered as a romantic comedy. (#86 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

It Happened One Night

2.  L’Atalante (Jean Vigo) – Vigo captures the intensity of young love in images and sound in this masterpiece.  (#83 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

L'Atalante

3.  The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke):  The mystery is just an excuse to showcase the fantastic repartee of Myrna Loy and William Powell, the best screen couple of all time.  (#87 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

The Third Man

4.  The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich):  Add snappy dialogue to the elegance of Astaire and Rogers and you have a timeless entertainment.

The Gay Divorcee

5.  Les Misérables (Raymond Bernard):  Harry Bauer’s unforgettable performance as Jean Valjean is the highlight of this sumptuous and comprehensive adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel.

Les Miserables 6

6.  A Story of Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu):  A look at what it means to be a father through the story of an actor who has always hidden his identity from his son.

A Story of Floating Weeds

7.  Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell):  This sad story of a cripple’s obsession with a manipulative tart made Bette Davis a star.  Leslie Howard is no slouch in it either. I didn’t imagine that this film would make my Top 10 list after I viewed it but now see that it was exceptional, one of the very best of the year.

Of-Human-Bondage

8.  The Scarlet Pimpernel (Harold Young):  Leslie Howard is fantastic as the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney and the daring Scarlet Pimpernel in this entertaining adventure.

Scarlet Pimpernel 9.  Treasure Island (Victor Fleming): Fun adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel with some of the vilest pirates around and a good performance by Jackie Cooper as the young hero.

Treasure Island 2

10.  Imitation of Life (John Stahl):  One of the first studio films to portray African-Americans as complex characters with emotional lives of their own, the performances of Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington are must-sees.

imitation-of-life-3

Honorable Mentions:  La mujer del puerto  and, as previously mentioned, The Merry Widow

My rankings of 1934 films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list:

1.  It Happened One Night

2.  L’Atalante

3.  The Thin Man

15.  The Black Cat (after The Scarlet Empress)

37.  It’s a Gift (after Manhattan Melodrama)

39.  Judge Priest (after A Mother Should Be Loved)

I will review Triumph of the Will as part of my 1935 viewing.

La mujer del puerto (1934)

La Mujer del Puerto (“The Woman of the Port”) (1934)la-mujer-del-puerto DVD
Directed by Arcady Boytler and Raphael J. Sevilla
1934/Mexico
Eurindia Films

First viewing

 

 

You just never know when you are going to find that special film!  I had never heard of this one until I was gathering films for this exercise.  Rosario (Andrea Palma) lives in poverty with her aging father and is in love with a neighbor who says he will marry her when he has more money.  Her father dies and her lover proves unfaithful so Rosario becomes a prostitute on the docks in another town.  One night she meets a client who defends her from a drunk and her fate takes an even more tragic turn.  (I will not spoil the ending but I was shocked.)

La Mujer del Puerto 1

The plot and acting in this are secondary to some exceptionally beautiful images.  In terms of the story, the film is uneven with certain parts moving at a very leisurely pace and the final fifteen minutes unnaturally rushed.  Some of the acting is a bit overdone.  However, the composition of the shots and some of the editing are just masterful.  There is a scene where Rosario is escorting her father’s coffin through a group of carnival revelers that is breathtaking.  The whole movie is bathed in gorgeous expressionist lighting.  Well, well worth seeing.

Director Arcady Boytler was born in Moscow and directed silent films in the USSR and Europe before arriving in Mexico and meeting Sergei Eisenstein at the time of the filming of Qué viva Mexico! (1932).  He made several other films during Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema but it looks like this is the one that is most readily available on DVD.

Excerpts with song “Vendo Placer” (Pleasure I Sell) as background

Judge Priest (1934)

Judge Priest Judge Priest Poster
Directed by John Ford
1934/USA
Fox Film Corporation

First viewing
#85 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Opening crawl: The figures in this story are familiar ghosts of my own boyhood. The War between the States was over, but its tragedies and comedies haunted every grown man’s mind, and the stories that were swapped took deep root in my memory.

This is essentially a love letter to a simpler time – in this case 1890’s Kentucky, where folks still remember the glories of the antebellum South vividly.  Judge Priest (Will Rogers) presides over the court in his small town dispensing justice and folksy wisdom.  His nephew returns to town, having just graduated from law school, and is courting a local belle.  His mother objects due to the girl’s lack of breeding; her father’s identity is unknown.  The nephew’s first client is a mysterious loner who is charged with assault for defending the girl’s honor.  Judge Priest is forced to recuse himself from the case, which enables him to assist his nephew at the trial.  With Hattie McDaniel as Judge Priest’s cook/maid and Stepin Fetchit as his errand boy.

Judge Priest 2

Well, I have to admit that this was much better than Doctor Bull, the 1933 Will Rogers/John Ford movie I saw.  There is a sort of small town charm to the storytelling.  On the other hand, there is also much too much of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known in his Stepin Fetchit persona.  His shtick just makes my skin crawl.  I can’t help it. Many people would also be offended by Hattie McDaniel’s character but that does not rub me so much the wrong way.

Setting the racial stereotyping questions aside, I do not understand why this pleasant but unremarkable film should be rated a “must see.” It is an introduction to Will Rogers, who I suppose is a major personality of early 20th Century American pop culture but not more than some others we don’t meet in our journey through The List.  Will Rogers worked with Stepin Fetchit many times so it may be hard to pick a decent Rogers film that doesn’t include that character.

Clip – Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel

Baby Take a Bow (1934)

Baby Take a Bowbaby-take-a-bow poster
Directed by Harry Lachman
1934/USA
Fox Film Corporation

Second viewing?

 

Trigger Stone: So you’re Eddie Ellison’s kid.

Shirley Ellison: I’m not a kid, I’m a girl, and today is my birthday.

Kay (Claire Trevor) is waiting for her sweetheart Eddie Ellison (James Dunn) to be released from Sing Sing.  Eddie goes straight and they marry and have an adorable little girl, Shirley (Shirley Temple), who they love dearly.  Fast forward to six years later and Eddie is working as a chauffeur for a wealthy family.  Fellow ex-con Trigger Stone shows up and wants Eddie to fence some stolen property.  Eddie refuses.  A valuable pearl necklace is stolen from Eddie’s employer and insurance inspector Welch, who has long had it in for Eddie, tries to pin the blame on him.  Shirley helps clear her father’s name.

Baby Take a Bow 2

Shirley is irresistible, to those of us who love her, in this film, released when she had just turned six years old.  James Dunn is her ideal Daddy and Claire Trevor turns in a good performance as her mother.  This is part prison film, part gangster film, and part musical.  It all works in that 1930’s studio alternative reality.  No masterpiece but I enjoyed it.

Clip “On a Account-a I Love You” – unfortunately colorized

The Scarlet Letter (1934)

The Scarlet LetterScarlet Letter Poster
Directed by Robert G. Vignola
1934/USA
Larry Darmour Productions

First Viewing

 

 

“It [the scarlet letter] had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

This poverty-row adaptation of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel stars Colleen Moore as Hester Prynne, Hardie Albright as Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, Henry B. Walthall as Roger Chillingworth, and Alan Hale as comic relief.  In 17th century Massachusetts, a woman whose husband was thought to be lost at sea is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her breast as punishment for adultery that resulted in the birth of a child.  She refuses to reveal the father of the girl but her husband returns incognito, determined to hound both parties to the affair for the rest of his days.

Scarlet Letter 1

It is hard to find anything good to say about this movie.  The first strike against it is that the makers felt compelled to lighten the dark story of the novel with copious amounts of comic relief, mostly supplied by Alan Hale and William Kent as sort of a Mutt and Jeff team.  Their bits are really jarring and not all that funny.  All the beards look obviously fake.  Then you get the principals posturing as if they were making a silent movie.  Colleen Moore is the worst and also seems years too old for her part, though she would have only been 35 in 1934.  This was the last film Moore ever made.

Colleen_bobbed

 

Colleen Moore was a silent film star.  She is most famous for “flapper” roles such as in  classic Flaming Youth (1923), in which she played Patricia Fentriss. By 1927 she was the top box-office draw in the US.  She invested her motion picture earnings wisely and remained wealthy until her death in 1988 at age 88.

Excerpt – oh, those wacky Puritans!

 

 

 

 

Zouzou (1934)

ZouzouZouzou Poster
Directed by Marc Allégret
1934/France
Les Films H. Roussillon/Productions Arys

First viewing

 

Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes. — Josephine Baker

Zouzou (Josephine Baker) and Jean (Jean Gabin) performed in the circus as “twins” as children and grew up as brother and sister.  Zouzou is in love with Jean.  When he is falsely arrested, she enters show business to get the money to defend him.  Will Jean see the light?

Zouzou 2

This is the French equivalent of a backstage musical and very charming, if not as polished as a Hollywood production.  I have read about Josephine Baker for years and was excited to be able to see her in something.  Jean Gabin is a major heart throb of mine and it was nice to see him in a different kind of role and singing a bit no less!

Jean Gabin sings “Viens Fifine”

Josephine Baker sings “Haiti”

 

The Marines Are Coming (1934)

The Marines Are ComingThe Marines Are Coming DVD
Directed by David Howard
1934/USA
Mascot Pictures

First viewing

 

Lt. William “Wild Bill” Traylor: Anybody can obey orders. It takes genius to win a war!

 

Poverty row comedy about wise-cracking Marine Corps Officer Bill Traylor (William Haines), who is always in trouble with the brass.  When Traylor arrives in San Diego, he assigned to duty under his nemesis Captain Benton (Conrad Nagle).  He promptly latches on to Benton’s girlfriend (Esther Ralston), while avoiding the advances of Rosita, a stereotypical Latin spitfire who has been following him from post to post insisting he marry her.  When Traylor is forced to resign his commission, he returns as an enlisted man and the shenanigans continue in an unnamed Latin American country where the Marines are fighting bandits.The Marines Are Coming 2

This film is notable mostly for being the last film William Haines ever made.  I didn’t like it much.  All the principals seem to have been instructed to plaster a big grin on their face and give it their all.  Everybody complied but that didn’t make the film amusing to me.

William_Haines_1930

William Haines in 1930

The film, however, did inspire me to look up Haines’s biography.  He was a very popular silent star, regularly named #1 male box-office draw at the end of the silent era.  He was released by MGM in the early thirties, reportedly due to a fight with Louis B. Mayer, who wanted Haines to end his relationship with his lover Jimmie Shields and marry a woman.  Haines and Shields went on to be a couple for over 50 years and Haines had a very successful 40-year career as an interior designer.

Clip: Opening

Broadway Bill (1934)

Broadway Billbroadway-bill-poster
Directed by Frank Capra
1934/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation

First viewing

 

Dan Brooks: Doesn’t anything ever change in this mausoleum?

Alice Higgins: Yes. Bedspreads and underwear.

Frank Capra made this pleasant comedy between It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  Higginsville is a one-man town; all the business are owned by J.L. Higgins (Walter Connelly) and run by his various sons-in-law.  Dan Brooks (Warner Baxter) is married to eldest daughter Margaret (Helen Vinson) and is reluctantly managing a paper box business but his passion is his race horse Broadway Bill.  The youngest Higgins daughter, Alice (Myrna Loy), is a free spirit like Dan and is secretly in love with him.  Dan, however, treats Alice like a kid.  One fine day, Dan decides he can take no more of Higginsville and sets out with no money to enter Broadway Bill in an important Derby race with the support of faithful groom Whitey (Clarence Muse) and Alice.  The rest of the picture follows their trials and tribulations on the way to the big race.  With Margaret Hamilton in a small role as a landlady and Frankie Darro as a jocky.

Broadway Bill 1

Although the ending is weak and the story is a bit sentimental, I enjoyed this a lot.  Frank Capra seems to get good performances from all his actors. Warner Baxter, who is generally ultra-intense, is as relaxed as I have ever seen him and even funny at times.  Myrna Loy is great as always.  I was also pleased with the treatment of the character of the African-American groom.  Although there is some stereotyping of course, he is portrayed as a real member of the team.  It was so refreshing after a couple of Stepin Fetchin films in a row!

I read that Capra was not a big fan of this film because Warner Baxter was afraid of horses and Capra thought it showed.  I didn’t notice.  Capra remade the story in 1950 as Riding High with Bing Crosby and Colleen Gray.

See the re-release trailer at tcm.com:  http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/275916/Broadway-Bill-1992-Re-release-Trailer-.html

Les Misérables (1934)

Les MisérablesLes Miserables Poster
Directed by Raymond Bernard
1934/France
Pathé-Natan

First viewing

 

Jean Valjean to Inspector Javert: Each man has his own notion of duty.
Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean

“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

This excellent four-and-a-half hour adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, noted as being the most complete rendering of the story, was released as three films. I watched one film a day over three days. Part One: “Une tempête sous un crâne” (Tempest in a Skull) covers Jean Valjean’s release from prison and redemption in the encounter with the Bishop through the death of Fantine.  Part Two: “Les Thénardier”(The Thenardiers) covers little Cosette’s treatment at the hands of the Thenardiers and her rescue then flash forwards eight years to Paris to relate Cosette’s romance with Marius and the Thenardiers’ threats against Jean Valjean.  Part Three: Liberté, liberté chérie (Freedom, dear Freedom) covers the Uprising of 1832 and the conflict at the barricades through the end of the novel.  There is certainly enough plot to justify the long running time!

Les Miserables 2

The highlight of the film is Harry Baur’s portrayal of Jean Valjean.  He is a powerful, taciturn, and unassuming man, equally convincing as a convict and as a gentleman.  Baur is one of those actors that can express a world of emotion with a glance and is superb.  Charles Vanel plays Javert as a relentless enforcer of the law, there is no evil posturing here.  The other performances are not quite up to these two but are quite adequate.

The film is filled with beautiful expressionist lighting and interesting camera angles.  Little Cosette’s trek to fetch water in the dark is unforgettable and reminiscent of Snow White’s adventures with its scary faces seen in every tree.  Although the filming was all done on the back lot, the set design and costuming are lavish and evocative of 19th Century France.  Finally, there is a fabulous score by Arthur Honegger.  Very highly recommended.

Jean Valjean and the Bishop

Stand Up and Cheer! (1934)

Stand Up and Cheer!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Directed by Hamilton MacFadden
1934/USA
Fox Film Corporation

First viewing?

 

The President decides to improve morale during the Depression by creating a Department of Amusement headed by Secretary Lawrence Cromwell (Warner Baxter).  Cromwell selects Mary Adams (Madge Evans) to run the Children’s Division, and they promptly fall in love.  Meanwhile, some wicked industrialists are trying to sabotage Cromwell’s efforts to cheer up the nation.

Stand Up and Cheer 1

Dig those hats!

The plot is an excuse for a variety review and , aside from the “Baby Take a Bow” number with Shirley Temple and James Dunn, this movie is a godawful mess. The routines progressively grow worse and worse until we are left with “Broadway’s Gone Hill-Billy”, a truly awful sketch involving Stepin Fetchit and a live penguin voiced by a Jimmy Durante impersonator (!!!), and the “We’re Out of the Red” finale.  Yes, these are every bit as bad as they sound.

James Dunn

The ability of James Dunn to overcome this dreadful material led me to look up his biography. I really thought he was wonderful in 1931’s Bad Girl and was wondering what became of him. It turns out that it was the old story of alcoholism rendering a talented actor unemployable. Dunn did have a comeback in 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar but he retreated again into obscurity.

Website dedicated to James Dunn:  http://rememberingjimmy.com/about-james-dunn/biography/

Excerpts from Stand Up and Cheer! – Scenes with Shirley Temple  – “Baby, Take a Bow” starts at 4:43