This is the time of year when people roll out their Ten Best Movie Lists. I have to tell you, the best movies I saw in 2007 were made in the 1930’s. But just for the record, my very favorite movie of 2007 was 3:10 to Yuma. It’s a classic western, beautifully constructed with three acts, there’s great drama, non-stop action, and wonderful performances from Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. For me, this was easily the best film of ’07. No other film even comes close.
Now, for the movies you probably never saw, never even heard of, but should definitely screen—and thank G-d for Turner Classic Movies.
10. Purchase Price, 1932, Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Directed by William Wellman. Wonderful tale of a, er, showgirl who pretends to be a rural mail-order bride in order to escape a nasty gangster boyfriend. Stanwyck is amazing. And you can see that she actually does her own fire stunts in the very last shots of the film. No wonder directors just adored this actress.
9. Virtue 1931, with Carole Lombard and George Brent, great script by Robert Riskin. Pre-code film about a prostitute with a heart of gold and her relationship with a cynical New York cabbie. Lombard is just luminous. This film is gonna make many of you cry. Not that I cried. Oh, no, not moi.
8. Frisco Jenny, 1933, Ruth Chatterton as, what else, a fallen woman who ends up being prosecuted by her long lost son for murder. Directed by William Wellman. Chatterton is amazing. And the ending, well, let’s just say it’s somewhat unexpected.
7. Man Wanted, 1932, Kay Francis stars with David Manners. Directed by William Dieterle. The script is a clever take on the ambitious career woman and her male secretary. This film is really charming. Kay Francis was a huge star for a fleeting moment. This is one of her best roles. She had a slight speech impediment so her r’s came out as w’s. So adorable. And what a great clothes horse. You should definitely catch Francis in the Marx Bros. film The Cocoanuts, and her very best film and finest performance is in the Ernst Lubitch classic with script by the great Samson Raphaelson Trouble in Paradise.
6. Lilly Turner, 1933, starring Ruth Chatterton, and George Brent, directed by William Wellman. Another amazing pre-code film about, you guessed it, a noble but fallen woman. Chatterton had great technique and lovely upper-class tones. Here she plays a lowly side show carnival worker. It’s a stretch, but hey, that’s Hollywood.
5. Ladies They Talk About, 1933, Barbara Stanwyck, and Preston Foster. Babes in prison. Stanwyck has such acting chops. Lillian Roth is in this film and she even gets to sing. The prison cells are decorated just beautifully. The glamorous femme prisoners are always fixing their makeup, rolling up silk stockings, and gabbing away about the lousy men they love. Prison looks just swell. Why would any of them want to leave? Oh yeah, there’s a neat plot that’s just spinning away.
4. Prisoner of Shark Island, 1936, Directed by John Ford. Great script by Nunnally Johnson. Starring Warner Baxter, and Gloria Stuart, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, unjustly accused of conspiring to murder President Lincoln, suffers on an American Devi’s Island. Powerful film that nobody knows about. Gloria Stewart is radiant. Her most recent role is as the old Rose in Titanic.
3. Midnight Mary, 1933, starring the 20-year-old Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez, and Franco Tone, from a story by Anita Loos, Script by Gene Markey, directed by William Wellman. An MGM pre-code film about an underworld girl on trial for murder. Great use of flashbacks. Brilliant structure. One great transition after another. Loretta Young is radiant.
2. Cimarron, 1931, Irene Dunne and Richard Dix. This is pretty remarkable film, the only western I’ve even seen that has an identifiably Jewish character in a strong supporting role. From the novel by Edna Ferber. The story of a gun-toting newspaper editor in an Oklahoma boom town with his reluctant wife as the westward expansion continues with one great final burst.
1. Pilgrimage, 1933, Henrietta Crosman, Heather Angel, directed by John Ford. A backwoods matriarch sends her son off to World War I rather than allow him to marry the woman he loves. This film is brilliant. It concerns one of the most difficult characters I have ever encountered in a feature film. A woman who is proud, selfish, obstinate, and vain. But wait, the film kicks into moral gear in the second act and just when you think that all is lost, redemption shines through. Henrietta Crosman was a well known stage actress already in her 70’s when she starred in this film. She’s all but forgotten now, but her performance in this film is fearless and one of the best I have ever seen. I love this film. It’s about family war, love, memory and reconciliation. It’s a masterpiece.
My choices for the Best Film Books of 2007 are Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel and Kevin Brownlow, Preface by Martin Scorsese.
From Publishers Weekly:
For decades, silent films have been disintegrating in warehouses or lost to indifference. Director Martin Scorsese, who wrote the foreword to this book, has spearheaded the preservation movement, warning with every foot of film that is lost, we lose a link to our culture. Kobel, longtime writer about movies, demonstrates the power of silent movies in this spectacular compilation of stills, promo materials and breathtaking posters from the Library of Congress’s memorabilia collection. The visual artistry is stunning. Kobel uses these evocative images as a found
ation to examine the international film industry from 1893 to 1927. Instead of a chronological treatment, he examines genres such as horror, westerns and comedy, while paying homage to the superb work of art directors, cinematographers and directors. Understandably, a significant section is devoted to actors. As Norma Desmond neatly observes in Sunset Boulevard, We had faces then. Although early producers were loath to highlight specific actors, fearing their popularity would translate into higher salaries, fans were hungry for information about them. In this treasure trove for film buffs, Kobel details the press campaigns that created stars like Theda Bara and Rudolph Valentino, while fan magazines and newspapers deemed them American royalty.
And for a lucid and invaluable look at the Hollywood studio system The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger.
Amazon Book Description:
Jeanine Basinger gives us an immensely entertaining look into the “star machine,” examining how, at the height of the studio system, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the studios worked to manufacture star actors and actresses. With revelatory insights and delightful asides, she shows us how the machine worked when it worked, how it failed when it didn’t, and how irrelevant it could sometimes be. She gives us the “human factor,” case studies focusing on big stars groomed into the system: the “awesomely beautiful” (and disillusioned) Tyrone Power; the seductive, disobedient Lana Turner; and a dazzling cast of others—Loretta Young, Errol Flynn, Irene Dunne, Deanna Durbin. She anatomizes their careers, showing how their fame happened, and what happened to them as a result. (Both Lana Turner and Errol Flynn, for instance, were involved in notorious court cases.) In her trenchantly observed conclusion, she explains what has become of the star machine and why the studios’ practice of “making” stars is no longer relevant.
My buddy Dirty Harry lists the Ten Films He Hated in 2007 over at Libertas. I’m just amazed that Dirt Harry was able to get the list down to ten. That’s discipline.
Enjoy and a Happy New Year to all our Seraphic Friends.