The 39 Steps
Ever since there were movie stars there have been star product endorsements.
Corporations and their advertising companies were quick to understand that those larger than life figures floating like angels on the silver screen were potent persuaders. Thus, the synergistic relationship between one product, the movie star, and a consumer product—cigarettes, perfume, makeup, whatever—was born, and continues with increasing power and sophistication to this very day.
The idea is simplicity itself: Buy me, be me.
We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of each decade.
For The Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s, click here.
For The Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s, click here.
For The Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940’s, click here.
11. Twentieth Century, 1934.
Oscar Jaffe, John Barrymore, a stubborn, hyperkinetic Broadway producer, is in a professional downward spiral. He cooks up a scheme to get his former protege and girlfriend, Lily Garland, Carole Lombard—Jaffe discovered her as a lingerie model named Mildred Plotkin—now a Hollywood diva, to resurrect his declining career.
This is one of the great Hollywood comedies with the larger than life Barrymore playing a larger than life character. The essential ingredients of screwball comedy are all present:
a) A beautiful but dizzy dame.
b) The male hero, charming but conniving.
c) Brilliant, rapid fire dialogue.
d) A dash of slapstick humor.
Carole Lombard was not the studios first choice to play Lily Garland. Columbia boss Harry Cohn considered Gloria Swanson, Miriam Hopkins, Ina Claire, Tallulah Bankhead, Ruth Chatterton, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Kay Francis and Joan Crawford. But director Howard Hawks had a gut instinct that Lombard was a brilliant comedienne whose talents had not yet flourished in the right role. But during rehearsals, Lombard seemed to be sleepwalking through the role, turning in a listless performance. Hawks took Lombard aside and asked her what she would if a fellow actor bad-mouthed her behind her back. “I’d kick him in the balls,” Lombard replied. Hawks said: “Well, go kick Barrymore.” Lombard was energized by Hawk’s lie, and her performance is, perhaps, the very best of her short but brilliant career.
Most memorable quote, John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe: I never thought I should sink so low as to become an actor.
You can get a DVD of this film for amazon.com.
12. The 39 Steps, 1935.
Alfred Hitchcock was a revolutionary storyteller and film stylist who defined and perfected the thriller genre. His major preoccupations are all here: an affable, innocent man on the run, useless police, and an icy blond who wants to turn him in. The hero must overcome enormous odds in order to prove his innocence, solve the crime, and, of course win the love of the girl. Hitchcock also unleashed a wonderful sense of droll humor that served as a safety valve for the narrative tension. In the clip, notice how Madeleine Carroll removes her wet stockings as she’s manacled to Robert Donat. It’s highly erotic but also very funny. This is classic Hitchcock, an effortless blend of suspence, action, adventure and romance.
In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock introduces the concept of the MacGuffin. This is a device which kicks off the plot, but as he explained to Dick Cavett, is an object to which the audience is, ultimately, quite indifferent. In the days of Rudyard Kipling, the MacGuffin would have been the plans of a frontier fort. If Hitch were making films today it would be a flash drive containing state secrets. Here’s how Hitchcock explained the MacGuffin to Francois Truffaut:
There are two men sitting in a train going to Scotland and one man says to the other, “Excuse me, sir, but what is that strange parcel you have on the luggage rack above you?”, “Oh”, says the other, “that’s a Macguffin.” “Well,” says the first man, “what’s a Macguffin?” The other answers, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” “But,” says the first man, “there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.” “Well,” says the other, “then that’s no Macguffin.”
More than plot, a classic Hitchcock film is a way of observing ordinary characters thrust into extraordinary situations and exploring the means by which trust is established between the hero and heroine.
Most memorable quote, Robert Donat to Madeleine Carroll: There are 20 million women in this island and I get to be chained to you.
The Criterion DVD of The 39 Steps is a fine transfer.
13. Desire, 1936.
Marlene Dietrich is the phony Countess Madeleine de Beaupré, a devious grifter and jewel thief who steals a valuable pearl necklace and flees Paris. On the road, she meets naive American Gary Cooper, Tom Bradley, who is on vacation. Madeleine slips the necklace into Bradley’s pocket to avoid a customs inspector.
From this simple premise Desire slips into high romantic gear. Dietrich, against all her snake-like instincts, starts to fall for the unsophisticated American, and Cooper, discovering Dietrich’s con, throws caution to the wind and decides to turn her into an honest woman. It’s a compelling brew: American optimism vs. European decadence. Director Frank Borzage’s sincere lyricism has an edge over the famous Lubitsch touch.
This was the second pairing of Dietrich and Cooper. They burned up the screen in Morocco, 1930 a classic Josef von Sternberg dream tale of love between a bar girl and a Foreign Legionnaire. But here, Dietrich is a more believable character. She’s not just posing for the effects of chiaroscuro lighting, but acting and reacting to Cooper’s hunky charms.
Of this film, Dietrich said:
The only film I need not be ashamed of is Desire, directed by Frank Borzage and based on a script by Ernst Lubitsch. I found Gary Cooper a little less monosyllabic than before. He was finally rid of Lupe Velez, who had been at his heels constantly throughout the shooting of Morocco. Desire became a good film and, moreover, also proved to be a bo
Most memorable quote, Gary Cooper to Marlene Dietrich: All I know about you is… you stole my car and I’m insane about you.
It looks like the only DVD available is Non USA format from Sweden. But Desire does show up on TCM every once in a while so check their schedule.
14. Swing Time, 1936.
This is the only Astaire Rogers film directed by the great George Stevens. Hence, the performances by Fred and Ginger are the most down to earth of all their films. Which is not to say that the movie is not an over-the-top fantasy—it is—but there is a naturalistic ease in their non-dance performances that elevates this film even above Top Hat, another masterpiece.
Fred plays Lucky Garnett, a dancer/gambler—a combination found exclusively in Hollywood—trying to earn enough money to marry his fiance. Ginger is Penny, a dance instructor with whom he falls in love instead. Like the Marx Brothers, plots for Astaire and Rogers were paper-thin, premises to get the dancers dancing. But the Astaire-Rogers dance numbers were more than just window-dressing, they moved the story forward, in contrast to the dazzling spectacles served up by Busby Berkeley. Dance brought Fred and Ginger together as a couple, their doubts and hesitations are lovingly chronicled, and then, as the plot moves forward, their love emerges triumphant in a final heart-stopping number.
Is it any wonder that Dancing with the Stars is such a hit with the American public? Audiences can no longer find romance and glamour in Hollywood movies. Thus, D-list celebrities paired with professional dancers—clad in drop-dead ugly, ersatz glamor costumes—feed the insatiable need.
Fred Astaire—real name Frederick Austerlitz—insisted that, when technically possible, the camera film the routines in a single take using a wide, full shot. Said Astaire: “Either the camera will dance, or I will.”
Most memorable quote, Rogers to Astaire: Listen. No one could teach you to dance in a million years. Take my advice and save your money!
Swing Time is available on DVD.
15. The Awful Truth, 1937.
In the following clip, Cary Grant as Paul Wariner meets with his socialite fiance and her stuffy, upper class family. Lucy Wariner, Irene Dunne, shows up disguised as Grant’s sister, presumably to rescue Grant from a lie, but in truth, to undermine his new love interest. Great film acting is reacting so keep an eye on Grant as he expresses surprise, bafflement, frustration, humiliation and then, finally, delight as he realizes that the woman he’s divorcing is his perfect match.
Irene Dunne—a devout Roman Catholic, an activist Republican, married to one man all her life, and never involved in a single scandal—was one of Hollywood’s greatest dramatic actresses and comediennes. Naturally, she was never honored with an Oscar.
Here is a sublime example of the screwball comedy, a Hollywood genre that reached its zenith during the thirties when the American economy was crippled by the Great Depression.
The sets for screwball comedies are massive Art Deco rooms, floor to ceiling drapes, and miles of marble floors. Men dress in tuxedos, and ladies dash about in bias-cut gowns, trailing streams of mink and chinchilla. Every household boasts a know-it-all British butler and perfectly uniformed maids who curtsy as they serve caviar from silver trays. Best of all, no one seems to work for a living. The pursuit of love, while sipping endless cocktails, is a full time occupation.
Indeed, the fantasy world of Depression era screwball comedies provided a safe haven for millions of down-at-the heels, entertainment-hungry Americans.
The storyline for The Awful Truth is a comedy of remarriage—Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is the original model. Here, Jerry and Lucy Wariner impulsively decide to divorce though obviously made for each other. They pair off with inappropriate partners, Grant with a spoiled heiress and Dunne with a dose of Thorazine, played, naturally, by Ralph Bellamy. The bulk of the film chronicles the couple’s whacky attempts to ruin each other’s romances and find a way of getting back together.
Grant and Dunne co-starred in two spectacular screwball comedies: The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, 1940. Both are near perfect films, hilarious and profoundly wise about human nature. Leo McCarey was the guiding force behind both films. It’s a shame that this fine producer-director’s output wasn’t greater—he also directed Duck Soup, another of our greatest—but he was a serious alcoholic who, sadly, retreated to corners of darkness for long periods between pictures.
The Awful Truth launched the unique and beloved Cary Grant persona that was, in part, based on Leo McCarey’s mannerisms. Said Peter Bogdanovich: “After The Awful Truth, when it came to light comedy, there was Cary Grant and then everyone else was an also-ran.”
Most memorable dialogue in a film overflowing with brilliant exchanges is between Cary Grant as Jerry and Irene Dunne as Lucy:
Jerry: In a half an hour, we’ll no longer be Mr. and Mrs. Funny, isn’t it?
Lucy: Yes, it’s funny that everything’s the way it is on account of the way you feel.
Lucy: Well, I mean, if you didn’t feel that way you do, things wouldn’t be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.
Jerry: But things are the way you made them.
Lucy: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn’t make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.
The Awful Truth is available on DVD from Amazon.com.