Jessie Matthews (1907-1981) was Britain’s first and greatest international movie star.
Known as the Dancing Divinity, Matthew’s tragic and scandal-ridden life was more akin to hell on earth.
Born above a butcher shop in London’s Soho district, the seventh of eleven children, George, Jessie’s father was illiterate, a harsh and distant drunk. In contrast, Jessie’s mother, Jane, was warm and loving, but Jenny lived under the thumb of her tyrannical husband and so her unconditional love for Jessie was severely blunted by her husband’s drunken rages and frequent physical abuse.
We continue our decade-by-decade survey of The Twenty Greatest Movies. Last week we examined the 1920’s, the era of silent movies where a particular American vitality found expression in images that were, at once, highly stylized, yet strangely realistic. In short, silent movies perfected the illusion of glamour—originally the word meant a literal magic spell. Movie makers quickly discovered that, more than anything, their audiences craved a good story channeled through beautiful faces, fantastic wardrobes, dazzling sets, and of course, larger than life passions. Thus, it is glamour that sustains the world’s bottomless appetite for Hollywood movies.
To see our list of The Greatest Movies of the 1920’s, please click here.
This week we move into the 30’s, a particularly rich era in which Hollywood quickly mastered the new medium of talking pictures. Tragically, hundreds of silent stars and ordinary working actors, were unable to make the transition and scores of careers were abruptly euthanized by the new technology.
Compiling this list was particularly difficult. The 30’s are my very favorite decade and arguably Hollywood’s greatest movies were produced during this era.
The gangster movie reached its apogee with such movies as Scarface, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar. The delightful genre of screwball comedy was born with such classics as Bombshell, The Thin Man, and Twentieth Century. And wicked Pre-Code dramas such as The Blue Angel, Baby Face, and Safe in Hell, spoon-fed the audience a diet rich in sex, sin and (sometimes) redemption.
Of course the 30’s also gave us the Hollywood musical, the lavish, military-inspired Busby Berkeley—a field artillery lieutenant in WW I—spectacles, and the glamorous but intimate Astaire-Rogers musicals where song and dance is the language of love.
There are notable absences in my list: Gone with the Wind, King Kong, and The Wizard of Oz to name just three classics. But I’ve decided to concentrate on less familiar titles, in order to introduce the Seraphic Secret audience to some wonderful movies of which they might not be aware.
Instead of just throwing up a bare list of films with clips, this time around, in order to hint at the richness of each production, I’ve added a bit of commentary, some random Hollywood factoids, and my pick for the most memorable dialogue.
I realize that some movie lovers will be appalled that I haven’t included their favorites, but be aware that at this time next year, my list of greatest films might be very different. As I grow older, my tastes expand, change, and I trust, become richer.
Okay, let’s roll:
1. City Lights, 1931.
Silent movies were dead by 1931, but Charlie Chaplin begged to differ. He released City Lights as a silent film enhanced with synchronized music and a few sound effects. The plot of is elegant and simple; the tramp falls in love with a beautiful blind girl, Virginia Cherrill—Mrs. Cary Grant from 1934-35—and tries to get the money for an operation to restore her sight.
City Lights does not have the memorable comic set pieces of The Gold Rush or Modern Times, but in terms of narrative velocity, City Lights is Chaplin’s most accomplished film. The ending, in this screenwriter’s not-so-humble opinion, is the most coherent and touching in the history of film.
During production, Chaplin fired Virginia Cherrill and planned to reshoot her scenes with Georgia Hale, his co-star in The Gold Rush. But Chaplin decided that reshooting would be too expensive and asked Cherrill to come back. On the clever advice of her good friend, actress Marion Davies, Cherrill refused to return unless Chaplin gave her a raise.
Most memorable line of dialogue, Virginia Cherrill as The Blind Girl: You?
2. The Champ, 1931.
Avrech’s first rule of movie narrative is: Every great movie is a love story. This is a love story between father and son. Jackie Cooper plays Dink Purcell, a child who worships his father, Wallace Beery, a broken down boxer, gambler and alcoholic. But Beery, a former heavy weight champ, seems determined to destroy any hope for a stable future. Into the combustible emotional mix is a long-lost mother, a racing horse, and a final scene—the camera is thrust into Dink’s weeping face—that is guaranteed to break your heart.
Wallace Beery, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Champ, gives the impression of an easy going slob. But in reality he was a violent, abusive drunk. Gloria Swanson eloped with Beery in 1916, on her 17th birthday, an innocent virgin. In her very fine autobiography, Swanson reports that Beery got drunk on their wedding night and brutally raped her. Later, Beery impregnated Swanson. Unwilling to have a child, Beery tricked her into drinking a concoction that induced an abortion.
Most memorable line of dialogue, Jackie Cooper as Dink: I want the champ! I want the champ!
3. Possessed, 1931.
A train slides along the tracks and presents a hard-scrabble factory girl with a vision of America that fires her ambitions. It’s one of the most audacious and specific sequences ever filmed, far more effective than Italian neorealism, a favorite of film school elites.
This is Joan Crawford’s best film of the 1930’s. She was not yet playing every single scene at a jaw-clenching emotional pitch. Her lips not yet magnified by a Goya-like slash of lipstick, and her eyebrows did not yet resemble caterpillars. Here, with great skill and subtlety, Crawford makes substantial the hopes, dreams and anxieties of her Depression-era audience. But it’s her vulnerability that grabs us by the throat. As a small town girl with big dreams, Crawford makes her way to New York where she meets, yup, Clark Gable. Hey, isn’t that what happens to every female runaway?
Crawford and Gable, both married, were having an affair during production. They arrived early on set and hooked up in a dressing room. Their heat is evident in every scene. In fact, Crawford and Gable carried on a passionate, on-and-off affair for the next thirty years.
Most memorable line of dialogue, Joan Crawford as Marian Martin: I left school when I was only 12… never learned how to spell “regret.”
4. Shanghai Express, 1932
Marlene Dietrich is Shanghai Lily. Her name says it all. In war torn China, the passengers on the Shanghai Express are held hostage by a cruel warlord. Dietrich, at her most beautiful, and Anna May Wong, the great American-Chinese actress, are fallen women—with really great wardrobes, who, in this highly stylized world, are the agents of redemption for clueless men and a hypocritical society.
Director Josef von Sternberg—real name Jonas Sternberg—was desperately in love with Dietrich. Dietrich was desperately in love with, well, Dietrich. He made her career, she busted his heart. Every frame attests to von Sternberg’s helplessness in the face of Dietrich’s cool disdain. They don’t make romances like this anymore.
In her not-so-reliable autobiography, Marlene Dietrich claimed that von Sternberg directed most of the cinematography, instead of Lee Garmes who won an Oscar for his work on the film. This actually has the ring of truth; von Sternberg was known as a control freak and a master of lighting. In the seven films he made with Dietrich, the exquisite architecture of her face was transformed into the iconic image of Hollywood beauty and glamour.
Most memorable line of dialogue, Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily: When I needed your faith, you withheld it; and now, when I don’t need it and don’t deserve it, you give it to me.
5. Trouble in Paradise, 1932.
Miriam Hopkins is a pickpocket posing as a Countess. Herbert Marshall is a suave international thief posing as a Baron. They meet cute, fall in lust, and together, set their larcenous sights on a new victim, the lovely Kay Francis, who wore bias cut gowns with such elegance that her female audience waited breathlessly for each wardrobe change. Naturally, a delicious love triangle ensues.
Directed by Ernst Lubitch with a script by Samson Raphaelson—in his old age Raphaelson kindly met with yours truly and brilliantly critiqued one of my scripts—this is a world where men wear tuxedos for breakfast, and beautiful, rail-thin women swan around massive Deco rooms with dazzling jewels at their throats and a dry Martini at their lips. Lubitch produced elegant, sophisticated comedy where the battle of the sexes is a lovely, low-intensity conflict.
Carefully observe Herbert Marshall when he’s walking. You just might detect a slight limp. Marshall served in the London Scottish Regiment during World War I and lost a leg in combat. He wore a wooden prosthetic, but his disability is practically invisible. Fellow actors Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, and Claude Rains all served in the same regiment, which helps explain why the Hollywood British colony was such a close-knit institution.
Most memorable line of dialogue, Kay Francis as Mariette Colet: I have a confession to make to you: You like me. In fact, you’re crazy about me.
6. Red Dust, 1932.
Clark Gable manages a rubber plantation in Indochina. It’s the monsoon season with ferocious heat and Biblical rain making every day hell on earth, until Harlow as Vantine, a prostitute—with gowns by Adrian—on the lam from the law, shows up. Gable knows what she is but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Things get messy when Mary Astor arrives with her husband, a surveyor for the plantation, who is ill with malaria. Astor is a lady with a capital L, refined and helpless, but beneath that cool exterior she’s a woman on the make. Her scenes with Gable melt the screen. But it’s Gable’s easy relationship with the physically and emotionally courageous Harlow—genuine affection and respect—that defines true romance for director Victor Fleming and screenwriter John Lee Mahin.
Harlow’s husband, MGM executive Paul Bern—real name Paul Levy—mysteriously committed suicide during production of Red Dust. Harlow’s grief and bafflement is nowhere evident; that’s a Hollywood pro.
Most memorable line of dialogue, Harlow’s Vantine to Gable’s Dennis Carson when he shows her to a room: I’m willing to pay rent—if you ask nicely.
7. Bombshell, 1933.
Harlow plays Harlow. That’s what this film is really about. Harlow, all wisecracks and fed-up with Hollywood’s insanity, is Lola Burns, a Hollywood sexpot. Her father and brother are always looking for handouts, and the studio publicity flack cooks up outrageous publicity stunts to add heat to an already overheated reputation as a smoldering blonde bombshell. Harlow, a hugely appealing and gifted comedienne, delivers the best, most energized performance of her tragically short career. In truth, like Lola, Harlow yearned for a normal life, a husband and children, but was thwarted by bad judgment in men and a monstrously overbearing mother who controlled every aspect of her daughter’s life and career.
Director Victor Fleming—he also helmed Red Dust, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—with ace screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman cooked up this Hollywood tale as a thinly disguised look at Fleming’s former lover, silent film star Clara Bow. Fleming observed that Bow’s life, on the surface was Hollywood glamorous, but when Bow went home at night, her mansion was filled with dog droppings and her deeply unstable family soaked her for every penny she earned. Fleming was two-timing his wife, but Bow was two-timing Fleming with Gary Cooper.
Most memorable exchange of dialogue is between Harlow as Lola and Louise Beavers as Loretta her maid:
Lola: I didn’t give you that for a negligee, that’s an evening wrap!
Loretta: I know, Miss Lola, but the negligee you gave me got all tore up night before last.
Lola: Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.
8. Duck Soup, 1933.
Hard to believe but Duck Soup was a box office bomb when it was first released and caused The Marx Brothers to leave Paramount and hang their shingle at MGM. Duck Soup is not just anarchic comedy, it’s positively surrealistic. The gags and wisecracks come so fast and furious that I wheeze like an asthmatic.
Plots for the Marx Brothers are just convenient situations on which to hang their remarkable brand of comedy. But pay attention, Duck Soup satirizes not just war but the insanity of taxes, financial deficits and borrowing.
Thankfully, Zeppo makes his last appearance as a boring straight man in this film; he went on to become a highly successful agent. Sadly, Margaret Dumont, the perfect foil for Groucho, was replaced by the sexy and glamorous Thelma Todd in Monkey Business, 1931 and Horse Feathers, 1932. Todd mysteriously died in 1935 of smoke inhalation. Rumors of a mob hit persist. But Seraphic Secret believes that Todd was drunk when she pulled into her garage, and fell asleep at the wheel before turning off the motor.
Most memorable exchange of dialogue in a movie brimming with brilliant exchanges is between Groucho as Rufus T.Firefly and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale.
Groucho: Not that I care, but where is your husband?
Dumont: Why, he’s dead.
Groucho: I’ll bet he’s just using that as an excuse.
Dumont: I was with him to the very end.
Groucho: No wonder he passed away.
Dumont: I held him in my arms and kissed him.
Groucho: I see, then it was murder.
9. Topaze, 1933.
Professor Topaze, John Barrymore, a naive but honest professor—in modern parlance, he’s totally Asperger’s—is fired from his job when he refuses to give passing grades to the aristocratic brat, Charlemagne de La Tour-La Tour, son of the corrupt Baron Philippe de La Tour-La Tour. Simultaneously, Professor Topaze is hired by Coco, Myrna Loy, the Baron’s sleek, heart-of-platinum mistress, as tutor for her nephew. Soon, the Baron and Coco use Topaze’s research and fine reputation in a crooked business scheme.
Written by the great Ben Hecht—an ardent Zionist and supporter of The Irgun—and based on a French film by Marcel Pagnon, Topaze was directed by the little known Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, who made only seven very fine films in his entire career. An Argentinian, d’Arrast was a master of understated comedy, but found it difficult to work in the rigid Hollywood studio system. The moguls decided that d’Arrast was more trouble than he was worth and quietly blacklisted him. He married Eleanor Boardman, the talented and beautiful silent film star—she failed to make the transition to sound—and moved to France.
Myrna Loy is best known and loved for her work with William Powell in The Thin Man series, but I have never found dipsomania amusing. In Topaze, her Coco has all the dry wit of Nora Charles but with the added kick of a heartless gold-digger redeemed by the love of a schlemiel. Repeat after me: Every great movie is a love story.
Most memorable exchange of dialogue is between Coco and the Baron as they plot to ensnare Professor Topaze.
Coco: But idiots are hard to find, I should think.
Baron: Oh no, not in the scientific world.
10. Bed of Roses, 1933.
Constance Bennett was an actress who specialized in playing diamond draped society girls. Here, in a witty and carefully structured script by Wanda Tuchock, Bennett is a gum chewing—though very well dressed—prostitute, who, in league with her sidekick Pert Kelton, get hapless men drunk before robbing them. The hard-boiled tone of the film is economically established in the first scene where, released from jail, the prison matron cautions Kelton: “Miss Brown, you’re much too impulsive.” Drawls Pert: “I ain’t got an impulse left.” Constance and Pert sashay around with hands resting langurously on their hips. They whistle at men and call them “big boy” before heartlessly taking them to the cleaners.
This is a Pre-Code stunner, with dialogue and narrative details that disappeared after The Motion Picture Code was enforced in 1934. It’s a moral fable deliciously soaked in sin and gin.
Constance Bennett meets and is mightily attracted to handsome and rugged Joel McCrea, the honest skipper of a cotton boat. But she chooses to score big by tricking a wealthy publisher into a sham marriage. Will Constance live a life of loveless luxury or will she choose true love as the wife of a river rat?
Pert Kelton, a talented actress who excelled in playing hard luck tramps, was cast as the original Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners, but Kelton was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and replaced by Audrey Meadows. In her later years, Kelton was featured in a series of Spic and Span commercials that fixed her image as a product pitcher.
Most memorable exchange of dialogue is between between Bennett as Lorry and Kelton’s Minnie:
Lorry: How good are you at walkin’ on water?
Minnie: Oh, just fair, but I could do a lot of thinkin’ on gin if I knew where to get some.
Next week, The Twenty Greatest Films of the 1930s, ’34-’39.
Jean Harlow was arguably the most glamorous and beloved star of the 30’s. Unlike, say, the tediously blank Garbo—more popular in Europe than in America—Harlow’s forthrightness and lack of pretense conjured an all-American girl. Tragically, her career was cut short at the age of 26 when she died of renal failure.