Five Cool 1930s Movies and a Sixth

For the month of April, I decided that my theme should be movies made in the 1930s. Actually, my original plan was to do the 1940s but after watching several gangster movies made in the ’30s last month and realizing that I’d only seen a handful of films from that decade, I made the switch.

The 1930s were a fascinating time for film. The Jazz Singer, made in 1927, became the first financially successful “talking” picture. This created a rush in the production of other sound pictures, but the technology was still in development and most theaters were not yet capable of showing them. By 1929, sound pictures became the dominant force but silents were still being made into the early 1930s.

Throughout the 1920s, Hollywood was plagued by various scandals and there was rising concerns over the morals of the industry both on screen and off. With mounting pressure from Congress, the Motion Picture Association agreed to self-censorship over government involvement. Officially, they adapted Motion Picture Production Code (or The Hays Code as it is often called) in 1930 but it wasn’t truly enforced until 1934. Films made before then are called Pre-Code and it is fascinating to see the difference in what movies were able to show before and after the Code was enforced. Though tame by modern standards, Pre-Code films are often quite risque for their times. There were plenty of other changes the movies went through within the 1930s, making it a really interesting period in which to study.

Here are some films from the 1930s that I found really interesting this past month.

Grand Hotel (1932)

A star-studded, ensemble picture set in a luxurious hotel (you thought I was gonna write “grand,” didn’t you?) in Berlin. It interweaves multiple storylines that ultimately cross together. Greta Garbo is a world-famous dancer whose career is on the wane but her prima donna instincts remain intact. John Barrymore is a down-on-his-luck Baron who’s been tasked with stealing Garbo’s jewels to pay back a debt he owes to a gangster. Lionel Barrymore is a working-class stiff with a terminal disease who has decided to live his last days in luxury. Wallace Beery is his uncaring industrialist boss. And Joan Crawford is the stenographer hired by the industrialist to help him win a big contract.

All of the stories are interesting and filled with both humor and pathos. Director Edmund Goulding moves things along rather swiftly but allows each character to have their moments. The hotel itself is gorgeously designed and he uses it with great success. Garbo gets top billing but it is Crawford who steals the show. She is electrifying in every scene.

I can’t recommend this one enough. It is exactly the type of grand (ah, I did slip that word in there eventually) film classic Hollywood is known for.

Mata Hari (1931)

Loosely adapted from the real exploits of an exotic dancer/courtesan who was executed in 1917 by the French during World War I for espionage. Greta Garbo plays Mata Hari in the months leading up to her execution. The plot is too crammed packed with espionage, exotic dancing, and romance to be any good, but Garbo is great in it. As is Roman Navarro as the love interest and Lionel Barrymore as the General who is also smitten with her (pretty much everyone who see her lusts after her).

It is worth watching just for the costumes they put Garbo into. Costume designer Adrian put her in lavish costumes that feature jeweled skull caps, Oriental embroidery, and all sorts of amazingly looking fabrics that I know nothing about.

The original film contained a number of risque scenes including a dance sequence in which Mata Hari strips down to near-nudity and a sex scene that has Garbo wearing a thin negligee and plenty of lovemaking. When the Hayes Code came into effect a few years later, those scenes were severely cut, making the dancing sequence really lame and the sex scene confusing. The cut footage has now been lost to time.

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite writers. I love his distinctive style, and how his stories are able to say so much by saying so little. I’d been wanting to watch this Gary Cooper film based upon the Hemingway novel for some time and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

It has been far too long since I read the novel for me to remember how closely the film follows the original story, but I think it is fair to say it takes more than a few liberties. Hemingway’s prose was as economical as it was unromantic or emotional. This adaptation is full of sweeping sentiment and romanticism. Cooper plays Lt. Frederic Henry, an American driving an ambulance for the Italians during World War I. He falls in love with a nurse (Helen Hayes). The film follows their love affair throughout the war and during a long separation in which she has a baby and he rushes back, through many a battle, to be with her.

It is as melodramatic as they come but both leads are quite good and the battle scenes quite effective. The film has been chopped up and edited numerous times (due to censors and the copyright changing hands) so it is hard to know how complete any version is, but it is well worth seeking out if you can find it.

Holiday (1938)

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn star in this delightful romantic comedy from George Cukor. Grant plays a self-made man who has worked hard all of his life but wants nothing more than to earn enough money to allow him to retire for a few years and figure life out. He meets a woman (Julia Seaton) while on holiday and they get engaged without knowing much about each other or their families. It turns out she’s rich and has plans for Grant to take over the family business as soon as possible. Hepburn is the girl’s much more free-thinking sister.

It is obvious from the start that Grant and Hepburn are going to wind up together but the getting there is an absolute smash. The script is smart, funny, and romantic in all the best ways. The supporting cast, including Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as Grant’s offbeat friends are terrific. But the film belongs to Grant and Hepburn who are, as always, brilliant.

The Clairvoyant (1935)

It is easy to think that all old movies are classics. The passage of time tends to erase the bad ones from our collective memories and from their availability in various home-viewing formats. The cream, as they say, rises to the top while the crap films tend to disappear altogether. Except that now, with more and more streaming formats looking for cheap films to fill their lineups and niche companies creating collector’s editions of all those forgotten films, it’s easier to watch all sorts of films from every era, including the not-so-good ones.

Enter The Clairvoyant. Claude Rains stars as Maximus a fake mind reader who packs theaters with his tricks. Fay Wray plays his wife who wanders through the audience asking members to show her some items in their purse or pockets. She uses innocuous hand gestures and verbal clues to tell Rain’s character what she’s looking at, and simply ignores the items that are too obscure for that method to work.

One night, he spies Jane Baxter and suddenly the fakery becomes reality. He’s now a real clairvoyant, able to see various events from the future (but only things that move the plot along). Soon, he’s raking in the dough announcing horse-race winners and such for the newspaper. But when he starts seeing disasters happen, things get crazy.

At barely over 60 minutes, the film feels both overpacked and undercooked. There’s a lot of plotting going on but very little of it is developed well. Rains and Wray are decent but the film’s saving grace is a scene involving a mine shaft caving in. The effects there are quite good for a 1930s picture.

Internes Can’t Take Money (1937)

Kino Lorber is soon to be releasing a three-film collection of films starring Barbara Stanwyck. The best of the bunch is Internes Can’t Take Money. It is the very first film to be based on the popular Dr. Kildare stories. Stanwyck plays a woman whose gangster husband stole her daughter away when she left him. Joel McCrae is Kildare, a surgical intern who gets into the good graces of a mob boss when he fixes the man up after a knife wound. Naturally, the two characters collide to find the lost child and fall in love.

It’s filled with some great noirish lighting and some terrific set design. The story is a lot of hooey, but Stanwyck and McCray hold it together with some fine performances. I’ll have a full review of the entire set up soon.

Mat Brewster

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