We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade.
Part One, in which we cover the era of silent movies.
Part Two, The Thirties, 1930 – ’33.
Part Three, 1934 – ’37.
Okay, time to wrap up the glorious 30’s.
16. Test Pilot, 1938.
Jim Lane, Clark Gable, is a daring test pilot, irresponsible and carefree. His mechanic, Gunner Morse, Spencer Tracy, does all he can to keep Gable from plunging out of the sky. Tracy is anxious mother to an overgrown adolescent.
Enter Ann Barton, Myrna Loy, a farm girl from Kansas, who recognizes Gable—with her ironic if affectionate delivery—as her prince charming from the clouds. She understands that Gable loves the danger of test flight more than anything. But against her best Midwestern common sense, falls in love with the lug. It’s a dangerous, giddy romance. Together, they’re an explosive combination, trading quips with machine gun delivery while eyeing each other like hungry animals.
Confession: The dynamics of the Gable-Loy realtionship, he with his head in the clouds and she, a practical no-nonsense lady, reminds me of my relationship with Karen. Karen adores Gable—Her professional diagnosis: “A real man, rugged and dependable.”—so I’m hopeful that my analysis works.
Most critics view the film as a love triangle, with Gunnar and Ann maneuvering for Gable’s attention. But that’s a shallow misreading of the film. In fact, director Victor Fleming—a former race car driver and a pilot—understood that the true rival to Gunner and Ann is the thin air above the clouds.
This is a very American and masculine film. Gable is hugely attracted to Loy when they first meet, but he truly falls in love with her at a baseball game when she displays lunatic fanaticism and later, at a movie, when she mocks a sappy love scene.
Once together, Loy discovers that life with Gable and Tracy is nothing short of chaos and she realizes just how hard it is to live with your feet on the ground when the man you love prefers speeding through heaven.
At first, both Gable and Loy were lukewarm about the project. Gable didn’t understand the point of the story, and Loy thought the dialogue stilted. Fleming, one of the most important if underrated directors in movie history, had a clear vision and patiently explained it to the two hesitant stars.
Spencer Tracy, just off an Oscar win for his performance—one of those hey-I-can-do-a-dopey-accent roles—in Captains Courageous ’37, directed by, you guessed it, Victor Fleming, and agreed to appear with Gable and Loy. This performance might be the best of his fine if troubled—he was a nasty, violent drunk—career. It’s the only time these three legends appeared together in a film.
Ultimately, there were nine writers on Test Pilot, including director Howard Hawks, but it was probably John Lee Mahin, Fleming’s most frequent collaborator, who pulled the script together.
In her finely observed autobiography, Being and Becoming, Myrna Loy declared Test Pilot as “… a personal favorite of mine.”
Most memorable dialogue, Loy to Gable when they meet cute: “I know you, you’re the prince, a nice charming prince right out of the sky, a young girl’s dream, and I’ve been waiting for you all my life. That’s why no other man touched the tip of my finger. I’ve lived for a prince.”
Shockingly, Test Pilot is not available on DVD. You can get a VHS copy or catch it on TCM. Let’s hope that a DVD will soon be available.
17. Gunga Din, 1939.
There was a time when war was, um, fun. And Gunga Din is a prime example of this very unPC genre. Three British sergeants, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen and their native water carrier, Sam Jaffe, fight the Thuggees, a fanatic cult of murderous Indians in colonial British India.
This is an epic, mostly comic, which turns deadly serious at just the right moments. At the core, the film is not about ideology, rather it’s a loving look at the bonds that tie men to one another when they count on each other every day in life and death decisions.
So influential is this film that Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is based on Gunga Din.
There were countless writers on this script, including the uncredited William Faulkner, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols and Anthony Veiller.
But Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s original footprint is unmistakable. The main plot point is the same as their hit play and movie The Front Page. Fairbanks’ character wants to leave the army in order to get married. But Cary Grant, playing essentially the same fast talking character he played a year later in His Girl Friday, a remake of The Front Page, schemes to keep his buddy from making such a horrible mistake.
Throughout his career, director George Stevens displayed great aptitude for comedy—he started out as a cameraman on Laurel and Hardy shorts—and drama. But during the Second World War, in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Stevens’ unit shot footage documenting the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. The horror Stevens encountered at Dachau profoundly effected him. George Stevens never again made a comedy.
Most memorable quote, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Ballantine to thousands of Thugees: “Now you’re all under arrest. Her Majesty’s very touchy about having her subjects strangled.”
A DVD of Gunga Din is available.
18. Stagecoach, 1939
It has often been said that 1939 was Hollywood’s greatest year. I split this honor with 1929, also an astonishing year for movies, the closing curtain for silent films. Whatever the truth, 1939 was certainly John Ford’s greatest year. Between October 1938 and November 1939 Ford made four films, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath, the greatest run from a single director in the history of the movies. With these four films John Ford solidified his reputation as arguably the most important director in Hollywood, a man who could meld art with commerce.
Three of these films were studio projects made under the watchful eye of Twentieth Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck—the only studio mogul who was not Jewish. In fact, Zanuck was Protestant from Wahoo Nebraska. In any case, Zanuck passed on the Stagecoach script, seeing it as a money-loser. Ford pitched the project to MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Columbia—all passed. The studio moguls viewed Westerns as old fashioned, grist fit only for their B units.
Finally, Ford approached independant producer Walter Wanger, a sophisticated Ivy Leaguer with a reputation for honesty and good taste. Wanger had a deal to deliver a film to United Artists. After reading and liking the script, Wanger decided to go ahead and put together the financing—as long as Ford would take a cut in his fee and keep the budget to $392,000. This left, hold on to your hats, $65,000 for the entire cast. But Ford was able to assemble some of the best character actors in Hollywood at the right price. John Wayne would have worked for nothing. Claire Trevor was the highest paid actor in the film. At the time she was the best known star in the cast and received top billing.
Flashback to 1930 when John Wayne—real name Marion Morrison—starred in The Big Trail, a groundbreaking Western. However, in a perfect example of bad timing, the film was shot on 70mm. Movie theaters had just spent a fortune switching to sound equipment and they were not about to spend even more money to project the massive 70mm negative. The film bombed just at the moment when John Wayne was poised to become a huge Hollywood star. And for the next nine years Wayne labored in the relative obscurity of B films.
Until Stagecoach, Wayne’s 80th film.
This is the film that turned the scorned Western into a respectable genre. Director John Ford and ace screenwriter Dudley Nichols understood America and its people. It’s the quintessential tale of a group of strangers, social misfits thrown together—it’s Grand Hotel in Monument Valley—into extraordinary circumstances, and emerging as a family. And of course, it’s a deeply touching love story between the dashing outlaw, the Ringo Kid, John Wayne, and Claire Trevor’s Dallas, a saloon girl, code for prostitute. Scene by scene, Ford allows each major character to reveal an intrinsic nobility.
The Ringo Kid, is introduced with a stunning forward dolly shot that ends on Wayne standing like a Michelangelo sculpture—with clothing—grasping his rifle. It’s one of the most iconic images in the history of the movies. But pay attention, near the end, the movie brings forth another powerful close-up of Wayne, this time anguished in his attempt to revenge the murders of his father and brother at the same moment he tries to build a future with Dallas.
Stagecoach signaled the enduring partnership between Ford and Wayne. Together, they redefined the American Western and the legends which define us.
Orson Welles, while shooting Citizen Kane, screened Stagecoach over and over again. Welles understood that in his understated way John Ford was, using light and shadows, painting a uniquely American masterpiece.
Most memorable quote, John Wayne as the Ringo Kid: “Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.”
The Criterion DVD transfer of Stagecoach is dazzling. The film has not looked this good since it was first released.
19. Ninotchka, 1939
Ninotchka afforded Greta Garbo her best role and her very best film. It was a huge hit. The story is a classic Hollywood fish-out-of-water tale. Garbo, a Soviet envoy who carries a portrait of Lenin in her suitcase, arrives in decadent Paris and is swept off her feet by the charming Melvyn Douglas and Paris fashions as interpreted by Adrian.
The script, credited to Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch was, in fact, the work of at least ten Hollywood screenwriters. But it is a seamless production. Ernst Lubitsch’s assured hand brings a consistent tone to this near-perfect Hollywood classic.
Casual but razor-sharp lines nail the murderous and corrupt Soviet regime.
Says Garbo: “The last mass trials were a success: there will be fewer, but better Russians.”
This one piece of dialogue is more honest and accurate than Warren Beatty’s three-hour plus Reds, 1981.
Here, Melvyn Douglas is devoid of political convictions save a profound fondness for champagne and beautiful women. This, I suppose, is a way of indicating the American love of freedom in contrast to dreary and regimented Communism. When Douglas views the lights of Paris he sees beauty and romance. Garbo’s Ninotchka sees a waste of electricity—she’s already an insufferable environmentalist. Thus, Garbo’s transformation from Soviet drudge—wisely, Lubitsch keeps Garbo in medium shot emphasizing her chronically bad posture—to capitalist swan is deliriously romantic.
Ninotchka is like a Soviet versions of What Not to Wear—and you thought I only watch classic Hollywood movies—with free market American males rescuing Bolshevik beauties from the unspeakable horrors of Communist shmattes. Like the notorious East German athletes of uncertain genre, the Communist female is decidedly, er, not, until the all American male effects a fierce make-over, thereby freeing up natural feminine impulses.
Satire is, perhaps, the most potent weapon in Hollywood’s arsenal, and Ninotchka, more than any film I have ever seen, exposes and ridicules the evils of Communism.
Ninotchka takes it for granted that Stalin’s regime
was a monstrous killing machine liquidating vast swaths of its people. Lubitsch and his writers—many were Jewish European exiles—are properly repelled by utopian collectivism.
In contrast, Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for praising Stalin and defending the brutality of the Communist purges. The Soviet-manufactured mass starvation in the Ukraine never happened in the expert opinion of this Communist hack. Predictably, Duranty never recanted his noxious opinions—a true Stalinist—and the New York Times never returned their blood-soaked Pulitzer.
With Ninotchka, an elegant and fluffy romance, Hollywood righteously skewers totalitarian Soviet Communism. Indeed, for a brief and shining moment tinsel town was on the side of the angels.
In a film overflowing with memorable quotes I’m going with this very Jewish observation by Ninotchka: “I’m so happy, I’m so happy! Nobody can be so happy without being punished.”
A DVD of Ninotchka is widely available.
20. Only Angels have Wings, 1939
In this pivotal scene, early in Howard Hawk’s masterpiece, after one of the fliers, Joe, has been killed, Cary Grant and all the other aviators act as if he never existed. Grant even chows down on the steak beng kept hot for Joe. Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee, miscast as a showgirl, perceives the men as unfeeling brutes, not realizing that it’s the only way the men—who defy death every time they fly—can cope with the shattering loss of their comrade.
This sequence neatly sums up the world view of director Howard Hawks: when men are professionals sentimentality has no place, especially in a dangerous world. Famously, Hawks intensely disliked High Noon 1952. He complained, quite correctly, that Gary Cooper as town Sheriff, was hired to do a job and as a professional that’s what he should have done. Begging townspeople, amateurs, for help against hired guns, was a betrayal of professional standards and honor. And then, being saved in the final shootout by the pacifist Quaker Grace Kelly was, for Hawks, the final indignity.
With a plot bearing an uncanny resemblance to Red Dust, another of our greatest films of the 30’s, Only Angels Have Wings takes place in the mythical Banana Republic of Barranca.
Cary Grant as Geoff Carter—hard boiled Grant is a wonder to behold—runs a business flying mail over the Andes in planes that are rust-buckets. Jean Arthur shows up, is baffled by the closed society of the fliers, but, naturally, falls in love with Carter. Things get really interesting when Carter’s old flame, a dazzling Rita Hayworth in her first important role, arrives as the wife of a new aviator, Richard Barthelmess, who also happens to be responsible for the death of a beloved comrade.
The film explores notions of guilt, loyalty, love, honor and courage with powerful understatement. There are no Shakesperian monologues, just simple glances and exchanges that articulate a particularly male American ethos which has all but disappeared in an increasingly feminized, multi-cultured, ethically neutered Hollywood.
Kenneth Hawks, Howard’s brother, was a promising young director in Hollywood. Like his older brother, Kenneth was an enthusiastic aviator. But in 1930, Kenneth was killed on location, while flying a stunt plane at the age of 31. Howard Hawks mourned his brother in private and then went on to direct a handful of superb movies that celebrate aviation: The Dawn Patrol, 1930 Ceiling Zero, 1936 Only Angels Have Wings, 1939 and Air Force, 1943.
Most memorable quote in a film where almost every scene has a memorable exchange is between Jean Arthur and Cary Grant:
Bonnie Lee: What was she like, anyway?
Geoff Carter: Who?
Bonnie Lee: That girl that made you act the way you do.
Geoff Carter: A whole lot like you. Just as nice, almost as smart.
Bonnie Lee: Chorus girl?
Geoff Carter: Only by temperament.
Only Angels Have Wings is available on DVD.
There might be a delay in posting my Twenty Greatest Films of the 1940’s due to the birth of Lielle Meital, but I am working on the list—oh, the anguish of being forced to choose only twenty—and it will be published as soon as possible.