The Complete IMDB Top 250, Part Two (1931-1939)

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The Complete IMDB Top 250, Part Two (1931-1939)

Postby Luhks on Wed Nov 04, 2009 10:24 pm
For Part One, click the following link:

Frankenstein (1931)

“You have created a monster and it will destroy you.”

Director James Whale’s version of Frankenstein no longer scares audiences, but his experiment still achieves immortality. Mary Shelley's landmark science fiction novel, even when reduced to its most basic elements, retains a considerable degree of power. The visionary art direction proves essential to the film's condensed storytelling. The misty graveyard where Frankenstein collects his raw materials; the dungeon laboratory where he conducts his experiments; and the hilltop windmill where master confronts his creation all create the proper gothic atmosphere. The alchemy between Boris Karloff's performance and the outstanding makeup department brings the iconic character to life. Frankenstein’s monster might be the grandfather of all of cinema's living dead: the slow-moving, groaning, cold, gray, decaying embodiment of human mortality.

Luhks Rating: *****

King Kong (1933)

“Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

A few characters drive the plot of King Kong forward: the beautiful actress Ann Darrow, the lavish filmmaker Carl Denham, and the gallant hero John Driscoll. However, the human drama serves only as a sideshow for the main attraction. The title speaks the truth: Kong is the king of his own movie, a tragedy with a 25-foot gorilla as its hero. The visual effects used to animate Kong are not impressive because they look realistic, but because they add enough life to his movements and reactions to make him a sympathetic creature. After fixating on his pet human female, Kong rescues her from danger three times. He conquers his jungle foes from land (the tyrannosaurus rex, royalty among dinosaurs), from water (a massive snake-like reptile), and through the air (a giant pterodactyl). The context of these scenes conditions the audience to revel in each of his chest-pounding triumph, so that his ultimate battle against man becomes a heartbreaking one. Kong earns his crown, but not his queen.

Luhks Rating: *****

Duck Soup (1933)

”Here are the plans of war. They're as valuable as your life. And that's putting them pretty cheap. Watch them like a cat watched her kittens. Have you ever had kittens? No, of course not, you're too busy running around playing bridge. Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you? I love you.”

The mustachioed screen persona of Groucho Marx might invite comparisons to Charlie Chaplin, but Groucho’s brand of comedy is anything but silent. Only an all-sound picture could communicate his genius, which relies on his complete mastery of every facet of spoken English. Furthermore, Groucho is downright funnier than any other comedian in his time, and perhaps any other time. Most comedies settle into a steady rhythm of setup and payoff. The Marx Brothers effortlessly manage to go a step further: the payoff of one gag doubles as setup for another one. When everyone else fires jokes from a musket, the Marxes use a machine gun. Groucho delivers the rapid-fire zingers, Harpo executes a perfect pantomime, and Chico blends both styles (with Zeppo playing a supporting role). Both their verbal and physical humor carries a nasty edge to it that is rare to find in other American classics. Groucho’s subversive insults are every bit as sharp as the dangerous pair of scissors that Harpo uses for constant vandalism. Duck Soup also features a story that involves politics, diplomacy, espionage, and war. These plot elements serve the same function as all of the straight-man characters in the film: to provide more targets for the Marx Brothers to knock down.

Luhks Rating: *****

It Happened One Night (1934)

”I want to see what love looks like when it's triumphant. I haven't had a good laugh in a week.”

With the benefit of hindsight, It Happened One Night seems as if it were always destined for greatness. Any romantic comedy made today must be envious of its collection of A-list talent; director Frank Capra, screenwriter Robert Riskin, lead actor Clark Gable, lead actress Claudette Colbert all won Oscars for their work, and the film also earned Best Picture. At the time it was made, though, Columbia Studios was on poverty row, struggling to make B-pictures at best. Perhaps some of that professional angst, as well as the struggling nation’s class resentments, became the fuel for Capra’s creative fire. Somehow, this little love story, about a savvy reporter sharing a bus trip with a pampered heiress, stumbled upon the formula for the beloved screwball comedy sub-genre. As is often the case, the original template avoids the flaws of its later imitations. The witty motor-mouth dialogue and the farcical situations never become so ridiculous as to detract from the storytelling core. In public, circumstances force the two to play the part of husband and wife; in private, they go to great lengths to conceal their affection from one another. The sustained romantic tension between the two leads always takes place behind a curtain (and in a few inspired scenes, a literal one).

Luhks Rating: *****

Modern Times (1936)

“Don't stop for lunch: be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead.”

The stylistic similarities across Charlie Chaplin’s body of work are easy to recognize, but the recurring themes of poverty and wealth are just as important a feature. This film retains its silent roots, but Chaplin definitely had something important to say. Modern Times expands upon those earlier experiments to become his most overtly political film to date. The Tramp suffers through a dangerous and dehumanizing ordeal that sends him from the factory assembly line to the sanitarium to the streets. He and his homeless female counterpart, played by the beautiful Paulette Goddard, spend the rest of the film stealing food to survive, trying to stay out of (or sometimes get back into) prison, and working low-paying jobs with little success. Their search for a real home leads them only to false ones: breaking into a department store, squatting in a rundown single-room shack, and imagining a comfortable place in the suburbs. The film’s most inspired and self-aware gag involves Chaplin’s arrest for accidentally leading a workers’ protest march. The House Un-American Activities Committee, apparently lacking a sense of humor, later accused him of holding Communist loyalties. Although much of the film could be interpreted as a call for political change, Modern Times also reflects a deeper dissatisfaction with technological progress. The film ends at dawn, with Chaplin walking into the sunset of his artistic era.

Luhks Rating: *****

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

“Now it isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you, but - well, there haven't been any quiet moments.”

After a disappointing commercial release, director Howard Hawks surmised that his screwball comedy failed because his characters were so madcap that the film lost its grounding. Decades later, Bringing Up Baby is regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made, and perhaps the greatest entry into the screwball subgenre. Actually, all the zaniness of this movie can be attributed to one center of gravity, socialite Susan Vance, played to perfection by Katharine Hepburn. Every other character in the film, exemplified the scientist played by Cary Grant, serves the role of straight man. Hepburn’s character simply overpowers their seemingly firm grip on sanity and normalcy through her infectious lunacy. No actress has ever delivered a stronger comedic performance; Hepburn was fearless enough to embrace a dangerous leopard on the set as if it were just another co-star. The visual gags designed around the massive wildcat (the titular Baby) work every bit as well as the script’s constant wordplay and situational hi-jinks. In a story filled with instances of human dominance over nature (hunting, domestication of animals, paleontology), Kate Hepburn reminds us that some forces are too wild for any man to tame.

Luhks Rating: *****

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

"My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother."

Before Alfred Hitchcock mastered Hollywood, he first thrilled audiences with the most successful British movie of his time. The Lady Vanishes allows Hitchcock to create a few signature stylish moments, and to engage a few of his obsessions: passenger trains, the MacGuffin, the ordinary person wrongfully accused (here, in fact, wrongfully accused of making wrongful accusations). Hitchcock's three-act structure resembles any magician's vanishing trick (which, not coincidentally, can be found aboard the train). The Pledge first introduces the range of characters as a railroad delay forces them to stay overnight at a quaint inn. Next, The Turn transforms into a mystery within the confinement of the train-cars: the disappearance of an elderly lady whose existence is confirmed only by a protagonist with a head injury. The final segment, The Prestige, reveals the twisted truth, and then accelerates into nonstop action. Unlike some of his most famous works, this film relies on more of an ensemble cast, a colorful group of British travelers returning home from a fictitious country to the east. In some ways, the master of suspense exploits the fear of foreign dangers, but he also finds plenty of comic relief usually at the expense of the British caricatures. The most memorable running joke involves Charters and Caldicott, two men so fixated on a cricket match that they remain oblivious to the intrigue around them. Always a great showman, Hitchcock earns as many laughs and gasps, to keep his audience entertained.

Luhks Rating: *****

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

”I'll organize revolt, exact a death for a death, and I'll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.”

Warner Brothers' 1938 Robin Hood movie is neither the first nor the last Hollywood re-telling of the English legend, but it might be the definitive version. The film’s surface aspects remain its primary attraction: the charisma of Errol Flynn, the porcelain beauty of Olivia de Havilland, the whimsical musical score, the extravagant medieval sets and costumes, and the spectacular action set-pieces. Director Michael Curtiz pushes the heavily-saturated three-strip Technicolor process to its limits. Color proves to be essential to the Robin Hood character, the English variation on the green-man myths found across cultures, whose clothing signals his harmony with natural law rather than the order imposed by man. However, the most impressive visual moment, a climactic sword-fight that casts giant shadows on the castle walls, would succeed in black-and-white. This particular adaptation prioritizes escapist fun over other creative goals. Sherwood Forest and Nottingham Castle serve as one giant playground where Robin can dress up, have fun with his toys (swords and arrows), hang out with his buddies (the Merry Men), impress the pretty girl next door (Marion), and defeat the mean neighborhood bully (Prince John), all before dad (King Richard) comes home from work (the Crusades) to stop the game before dinner. Its innocence makes even the 1973 Disney version seem bleak by comparison. Like the other famous British green man, Peter Pan, The Adventures of Robin Hood refuses to grow up.

Luhks Rating: *****

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

”Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”

An artist’s personal expression can produce greatness, but sometimes market competition can achieve the same result. After Disney made history with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature, MGM responded by investing heavily into a family film one of its own literary properties. Despite marginal success upon its initial release, The Wizard of Oz might be the most watched movie in history. Two key creative decisions transformed this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel into a classic that would be revisited by each generation. The first idea was an unqualified stroke of genius: to film Dorothy’s Kansas home in sepia-tones before transitioning to Oz with brilliant Technicolor in all the shades of the rainbow. For children today, who have never seen a black-and-white film before Oz, the Gale’s Dust Bowl farm even takes on a dream-like quality of its own, every bit as alien as the fantasy land of Oz. Even seventy years later, there might not be any film that benefits more from the use of color to define locations, characters, and events. Second, converting children’s literature into a musical was quite a gamble. Songwriters Arlen and Harburg managed to avoid the fatal flaw of the musical genre, tacked-on songs that interrupt and prolong the story rather than enhance it. Judy Garland’s performance of “Over the Rainbow” so deeply conveys a sense of childhood longing, both gloomy and cheerful, that it deserves its reputation as the greatest original song ever on film.

Luhks Rating: *****

Gone with the Wind (1939)

“Take a good look my dear. It's an historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about - how you watched the Old South fall one night.”

On multiple levels, Gone with the Wind represents a triumph of American excess. Begin with the Old South, a culture so decadent that its weekend barbecue rituals required a midday nap. Throw in a crushing defeat in the Civil War that burns their society to the ground. Introduce Scarlett O’Hara, a vortex of self-absorption from which no one can escape. Add romantic hero Rhett Butler, the captain of cool; and the Wilkeses, the pinnacle of gentility. Combine those elements into Margaret Mitchell’s thousand-page, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel. Hand the story over to producer David O’Selznick, who spared no expense in tracking down the perfect cast, multiple screen-writers and directors, hundreds of crew members, and thousands of extras. Shoot over a half a million feet of film with every color camera in Hollywood, and then trim it to a four-hour epic. Watch it become the biggest box-office success of all-time, and then set records at the Academy Awards in a legendary field of competitors. Everything about this film is larger than life, but especially the melodrama. Although the film’s racial politics are regressive and the sexual politics are progressive, there is no grand message behind it all. To quote Sunset Blvd., it is “just a story,” but it would be foolish to dismiss such a compelling one. The result still equals the sum of its parts.

Luhks Rating: *****

Note: Frankenstein and Bringing Up Baby are no longer on the official list.
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Re: The Complete IMDB Top 250, Part Two (1931-1939)

Postby Finli Otego on Fri Nov 06, 2009 6:11 am

Ah, thanks for keeping us updated Luhks. I havn't seen all of these, but my favorite of the ones I have seen would be "Bringing Up Baby". Great movie. :thumbup:

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Re: The Complete IMDB Top 250, Part Two (1931-1939)

Postby zeek on Fri Nov 06, 2009 4:43 pm

I've actually seen quite a few of these movies :) I agree with a lot of your ratings but Frankenstein so low? :( I love almost all of the old monster movies!

I'm gonna try to catch It Happened One Night, to catch up to you :P
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