Monday, July 04, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1931 - Comedy, Drama, and Adventure

Monkey Business (1931)

As we get into the '30s, there are going to be enough movies to talk about from each year that I'm going to split them into genre groups. This week I'll talk about comedies, dramas, and adventure movies from 1931, then next week I'll cover mysteries and horror.

In Monkey Business, the Marx Brothers play a group of stowaways on an ocean liner. The twist is that there are also warring gangsters on board, so one of them hires half of the Brothers to assassinate the other, who's in turn hired the other Brothers as bodyguards. And all this is going on while all four Brothers are being hunted and chased by the ship's crew.

The Marx Brothers' movies are having diminishing returns for me as the same recurring gags continue from film to film, but they're still clever and a lot of fun.

Windy Riley Goes Hollywood (1931)

This is a goofy, not-that-funny comedy about a wise guy from New York who gets mixed up in the movie biz and almost ruins the career of a young actress. Louise Brooks plays the actress and this short talkie is mostly memorable for giving her a chance to be heard. Sadly, her delivery isn't great, but then neither is anyone else's. Like many early sound films, Windy Riley was made by people who are clearly struggling to figure out the best way to use the new technology. I get the feeling that this was meant to launch a series of Windy Riley shorts, but it apparently didn't catch on. I can see why.

The Front Page (1931)

It was tough for me to figure out how to take this one. It's got some dark elements, but is clearly meant to be funny. The problem is that the humor isn't derived from the dark subject matter; it's in spite of it. That makes for a tonally inconsistent movie that also fits with Adolphe Menjou's character, who's absolutely despicable for most of the movie until suddenly he's supposed to be rather charming. I hated him in The Front Page, but for truly charming Menjou, check out Morocco.

I'm curious to see the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau remake of The Front Page to see if it fixes anything. I love both those guys, so at the very least I expect I'll be more forgiving.

Mata Hari (1931)

I thought that the fictionalized story of Mata Hari was at least going to be a spy movie, but it's just a horrible, unbelievable, melodramatic romance. Greta Garbo plays the title character who inexplicably decides to give up spycraft out of her unconvincing love of a Russian pilot. There are plenty of opportunities for Garbo to ham it up with overboard drama, but I'm not in.

The Skin Game (1931)

I have a hard time with Hitchcock's early, non-thriller movies, but that's all on me for wanting them to be more like North by Northwest instead of accepting them on their own terms. The Skin Game is a pretty great movie on its own, showing the tragedy when two families go to war against each other.

It's a lot like Romeo and Juliet in that way (and is even based on a play). In fact, the first characters we meet from the two families are a son and daughter who like each other, even if they don't like each others' relatives. Unlike Romeo and Juliet though, the story doesn't focus on the kids. It's all about the parents and the depths of nastiness that they'll sink to in order to gain power over their enemies.

I actually kind of hate Romeo and Juliet and The Skin Game fixes my biggest problems with it. To begin with, it very clearly defines the source of animosity between the two families. The Hillcrists are old money and the Hornblowers are new, but the real clash is over their visions for the rural community in which they both live. The conservative Hillcrists want to preserve the country while the self-described "progressive" Hornblowers want to develop it with factories.

I get the sense that the story isn't really choosing sides; enough characters comment on how nasty both families are being. But it's tough for me not to side with the Hillcrists. That's a surprising place to find myself in because they're so conservative and entitled, but their conservation extends to preserving the land and protecting the tenants who live on it; people whom Hornblower is perfectly happy to evict in order to have cottages for his workers.

In fact, the simmering feud is brought to a sloppy, overflowing boil exactly because Hornblower is tossing out an old couple that he'd promised could keep their home. Hillcrist had sold some land to Hornblower under those conditions, but Hornblower reneges with the explanation that he'd made that promise under the assumption that he'd be able to get some other land that he hasn't been able to acquire. Since those plans fell through, he doesn't feel bound by any assurances he made based on them.

As far as I'm concerned, Hornblower fires the first shot, so it's tough for me to feel badly for his clan, no matter how ruthless the Hilcrists get in fighting him. The script tries to increase the Hilcrists' culpability by having Mr. Hilcrest say at the end that he'd forgotten all about the old tenants. The implication is that he got caught up in hatred for its own sake. But even if he forgot his reasons for going to war, I never did.

It's not that I feel that the justness of the Hillcrests' cause also justifies all their actions. But it does put me on a particular side early in the movie and nothing happens to pull me off of it. The Hillcrests' ruthlessness takes the form of their learning a nasty secret about a member of the Hornblower family and being willing to use it to extort good behavior from the Hornblowers. There's some debate to be had here, but my feeling in the movie is that the Hornblowers are acting so dishonorably that if they're going to have nasty secrets, then those can be used against them to make them do what they should have been doing in the first place. The movie doesn't think so though, and I imagine that there are viewers who agree with it. It's a great topic for discussion.

I also love that the film ends as it begins, on the son and daughter who like each other. The story doesn't focus on them as it unfolds, but it does check in on them a couple of times and their friendship has been tested through these events. The final shot is of their reaction to the tragedy that's been done: they grab each other's hand.

In Romeo and Juliet the tragedy happens to the young people and makes the old folks put aside their differences in response. In The Skin Game the old people more directly suffer the consequences of their deeds while the young people promise that things are going to change in their generation. I much prefer the strength and hope of the latter message.

Sea Devils (1931)

Super low budget movie about an escaped convict who stows aboard a ship with mutinous treasure-hunters in order to find the ones who framed him for murder. It's complicated a little by the presence of the captain's daughter, but mostly it's a straightforward plot and told simply. It's short though and I enjoyed it.

Corsair (1931)

Great concept about a disgruntled stock broker who takes to piracy to hurt his former boss' extra-curricular bootlegging operation. But it ends up in this weird place where our "hero" - having taken down his enemy - rejoins him in business and renews a romantic relationship with the boss' awful, manipulative daughter. Instead of giving them their comeuppance, he validates that they were just fine all along. Ugh.

Rich and Strange (1931)

I'm always nervous when adultery plays a major role in a movie, because I hate when it's glamorized. That's not the case here though in this early Hitchcock story about a couple who take a long, ocean voyage and are both tempted to be unfaithful. Both spouses make mistakes - one way more than the other - but the movie is honest and serious about exploring the consequences of those actions.

It reminds me some of the theme of Gone Girl, about the masks that we wear, even in marriage. But unlike Gone Girl, Rich and Strange deals with the unmasking in a real, human way and I love it for that. Joan Barry is especially powerful in her role and I'm sad that she retired from filmmaking a few years after this.

Not an easy movie to watch, but worth it in the end. I'll probably enjoy it even more next time.

Law of the Sea (1931)

This made a cool double-feature with Rich and Strange since both are about infidelity and life at sea. Rich and Strange more closely connects the two by testing the commitment of a married couple on a long, ocean voyage. In Law of the Sea, a young sailor is tempted by the cousin of his fiancée.

This happens on shore, but sea life is very much part of the movie, especially since the young sailor still struggles with a tragic incident that occurred at sea 20 years earlier. Unfortunately, it's just as he's trying to come to terms with his feelings about the two women that he's also forced to confront the instigator of his childhood tragedy. That's a lot to deal with and the movie handles it well, up to a point. That point is the last scene, which wraps things up more quickly and neatly than I'd like, but Law of the Sea is still an interesting movie.

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