Monday, June 13, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1930

Anna Christie (1930)



My first Garbo film and she's very good in it. But as rough a life as her character has, the hardest thing for me to watch was her falling for a big bohunk as dumb and childish as Charles Bickford's Matt. She's committing herself to literally the first guy who's even vaguely nice to her.

Free and Easy (1930)



Buster Keaton's first talkie and that is not the voice I was expecting. It's better, actually, with a bit of a Southern accent and a tinge of Jimmy Stewart.

It's a fascinating movie just for getting to hear him talk. And it's fun for all the appearances by other MGM directors and stars (the movie takes place at MGM Studios as Keaton's trying to help a young woman break into the movie business). Robert Montgomery is always likable and recovers quickly from a caddish moment involving Keaton's protege. Keaton, on the other hand, is especially clumsy and even dumb, so I actually found myself hoping that the girl (Anita Page) would end up with Montgomery instead of our star.

I'll have more to say about the stupidity of Keaton's talking characters when I cover Allez Oop, one of his short talkies, but as much as I enjoy Keaton's voice, I don't think the sound format did his schtick any favors.

The Blue Angel (1930)



About halfway through The Blue Angel I wondered if Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola was the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She seems to exist mainly to draw stuffy Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) out of his shell.

But if that's the case, the film does something very different from the way the trope is commonly used today. It takes a super dark turn (unfortunately, as the result of some crazy bad decision-making by both Lola and Rath) and becomes a cautionary tale about marrying people you don't really know. It ends in a heartbreaking way that's also oddly lovely, so while I'll probably never watch it again, I'm glad to have seen it this once.

Murder! (1930)



Hitchcock moves closer to the genre he'd eventually settle into with this murder mystery, but it's not a good story. It's sort of like an episode of Law & Order that becomes 12 Angry Men before morphing into Murder Most Foul. It opens with a murder, shows a brief police investigation, then a woman is put on trial and quickly convicted. A member of her jury is a respected thespian who intuits that the defendant is not guilty, but lets himself be pressured into a guilty verdict. After the sentence is passed though, he reconsiders the case and sets out to prove the woman's innocence.

There are some great twists, including some very Hitchcockian moments, but the mystery is too easily pieced together once the woman's guilt is questioned. It's also a problem that the true murderer's motive is nothing that can be figured out based on any of the clues.

Animal Crackers (1930)



Not quite as memorable as The Cocoanuts, but still very funny. I have no idea what the title refers to, though, since the plot is (loosely) about shenanigans around a famous painting and a couple of copies. David noticed some similarities to What's Up, Doc? and he's right.

Madame Satan (1930)



This was pitched to me as a pulp story, so I was disappointed to learn it's actually a morality play that just happens to have some fun elements. There's a huge set piece with a zeppelin and a masked, mystery woman, but the focus of the movie is entirely on the woman's troubled marriage.

It tries hard to offer believable motives for the husband's cheating and the wife's methods in bringing him back, but those motives are ultimately trite and I ended up not really caring if they got back together or not. Some amusing bits throughout, though.

The Big Trail (1930)



Has a lot in common with The Covered Wagon in that it's about dissension in the leadership of a massive wagon train headed to Oregon. Both movies also have a plot about two men - one "civilized" and one a frontier scout - who are interested in the same woman who's a settler.

The Big Trail has young John Wayne as its frontiersman though and that's a big bonus. He's laid-back, charming, and easy to root for. He also has a cool side-plot in that he suspects a couple of the trail-bosses to have murdered one of his friends.

But while there's plenty to drive the story, the film gets sidetracked with long sequences that explain how difficult wagon train life was. Whether it's crossing a river, getting down a cliff, or navigating snowy mountains, the scenes are all educational and powerfully harrowing, but also extended and I began to resent their distraction from the characters' stories.

Morocco (1930)



I was all geared up to like this. I loved Gary Cooper in The Virginian and was encouraged about Marlene Dietrich's wounded-but-strong character early in the movie. Even when she inexplicably falls in love with Cooper's cad, I reminded myself that love often is inexplicable. And I even relished the complications around her feelings for Cooper and the millionaire played by Adolphe Menjou. The latter guy is debonair and much more stable, but sadly just doesn't do it for Dietrich like Cooper does.

Her having to choose between these two men (and the geographical location the movie takes place in) could make Morocco a spiritual companion to Casablanca, except that unlike Casablanca, I hate the ending. Dietrich and Cooper's characters are both so damaged that the only way they're going to get together is for one of them to drop their guard and trust the other. That's a great message and I applaud it, but I really wanted it to be Cooper who gives in first.

Dietrich's doing it makes sense with what the movie reveals about her, but it also shows that neither she nor Cooper have really learned anything. He's still a cowardly cad and she's still putting her trust in a man who doesn't deserve it. Fingers crossed that it works out for them, but there's not much in the movie to suggest that it will.
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