1938

I kept adding titles until I realized I wouldn’t feel right exiting the year without deciphering all the movies worth seeing. I did this by culling every ‘Best Of’ list I could find and mentally averaging them down to a list of about 10-20 (adding in a film or two that may not be the best, but piqued my personal interest).

1938 selections: Alexander Nevsky, Bringing Up BabyLa Béte Humaine, Pygmalion, Port of ShadowsAngels With Dirty FacesHolidayJezebelThe Adventures of Robin Hood, The Lady Vanishes, You Can’t Take It With You

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

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  • directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev
  • starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Andrei Abrikosov, Nikolai Okhlopkov
  • A Russian prince leads an army to battle an invading force of Teutonic knights

“I won’t let those dogs set one foot on Russian soil.”

There was a time as I was organizing my titles from 1938 that I realized I might not want to give Alexander Nevsky a chance. I knew nothing of the Russian statesman nor the conflict that elevated him to hero status. Furthermore, many accounts I read on the film seem to confirm that there was something of an updated WWII propagandistic bent on the 13th century tale. Maybe that’s putting it lightly. Let’s just say that the film is presented through a pair of thick-lensed Stalin Goggles.

But then I read about the way composer Sergei Prokofiev scored the film, writing notes on the page to match perfectly to the physical motion on screen—a billowing cloud of smoke, or a stampeding mass of warriors–and the epic scale in which Eisenstein and Vasilyev filmed the Battle of the Ice and, well, this is something of a movie blog after all.

The abridged crash course I put myself through prior to watching has Nevsky being banished from his home of Novrogod due to a clash with the Boyars, the bourgeois, high-ranking members of the feudal class. This despite Nevsky’s important victory in the Neva Battle of 1240, which resulted in his political star rising and his reputation among the townspeople beginning to soar to almost mythical levels. A year or so later he was summoned to defend Novrogod from the crusading Livonian Knights, aka in this film, the Teutonic Order, aka the allegorical Nazi Germany. Yes, a whole other level of the film is it entirely being a thinly veiled account of the threat that Russia faced at the onset of WWII. Add in a few anti-catholic sentiments and a theme of the importance of the common people above all else and you basically have “What the Russian Government Wants You to Think: The Movie.” If there was ever any doubt how in the pocket this film was, I’ll just point out that a year or so after it was released, it was eliminated completely from all distribution channels after Stalin and Hitler signed a non aggression treaty. When Hitler broke the treaty, as Hitler tended to do, the film reemerged with its hero unscathed and even more ready for his shiny legacy.

The film picks up with Nevsky in banishment, still contemplating the threats that face his beloved Novrogod, a town that has turned its back on him. To get a sense of the nuance at work here, if there was ever any doubt as to who the villains of this movie were, you need look no further than the shady group of German knights that we first meet overseeing the throwing of Pskovian children and babies into a raging firepit. To spot our hero, just glance at Nikolai Cherkasov, who plays Nevsky as if he were posing for a monument at every moment—puffed-out chest, arms constantly akimbo, and a serene gaze upon the horizon, even while indoors.

Funny enough, the best sequence of the film does involve a horizon. With Prokofiev’s score complementing the action gloriously, we sit gradually watching an expanse of land go from barren to filled with a truly impressive army that races to clash with the waiting Novrogod forces. Aside from a few clunky moments during the battle itself, this whole 30 or 40 minutes, especially the advancing of the enemy sequence, is just a great feat of filmmaking—music, horses, flailing swords, pain, glory–all working as one big mass of energy. No wonder it’s been the decades-long inspiration for many a future cinema battle scene.

In the end…well anybody could guess how it ends. A 2008 public poll commissioned by a leading Russian newspaper had Alexander Nevsky being named the most important person in Russia’s history.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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  • directed by Howard Hawks
  • starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, May Robson
  • While trying to secure a donation for his museum, a befuddled paleontologist is pursued by a flighty heiress and her pet leopard.

Susan: Now, certainly you can’t think I did that intentionally!
David: Well, if I could think, I’d have run when I saw you!

If you’re going to go all out on a comedy, you might as well throw away any semblance of rules and commit so fully that your career is then in jeopardy because of it. That takes brass and, in the case of Katherine Hepburn and director Howard Hawks, it was the reality they faced after the release of Bringing Up Baby. Often credited with creating the screwball comedy with 1934’s Twentieth Century, it’s quite possible that here Howard Hawks had seen enough and set out to destroy it, firing off all tropes and stretching its limits nearing the point of outright parody. The movie flopped hard and on one hand I can see why, but on the other, this was Hepburn, Hawks, and Grant operating with the utmost confidence in their abilities, apparently taking not much else into consideration. Shoot fast and question later if ever had to have been the philosophy. Only after the movie had failed did they all questioned their choices. Hepburn specifically underwent extensive training when it came to physical comedy and timing for this role and said she never felt quite right in the process. But what she, her costar, her director, and the public didn’t see at the time was that on many different levels, especially the the way it loosely played around with typical 1930’s gender roles in film, it was all working.

Where to begin? Well, first off it seems important to note that Cary Grant’s David, our leading man, is essentially a 1930s version of Steve Urkel. As a paleontologist he obsesses over his latest clavicle bone delivery, his life is completely run by his colleague/fiance who allows him zero time outside of scientific pursuits, and he carries himself with an immense amount of social awkwardness. The way Grant plays him, you can literally hear David moaning and fidgeting through most of his scene partners’ speaking parts. Woe is him, and the women in his life–his fiance and now this new scatterbrained partner–lead him by the ear through nothing but trouble.

This may be some people’s version of a classic romantic comedy, but for me there was just not much room for romance in this film. The chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is immeasurable, but it might as well have been a buddy cop movie. They do impersonations through certain scenes, carry out dialogue in spontaneous song, and are obviously having a great time together. It’s infectious. But any sort of “will they” or “won’t they” get together in the end is completely besides the point.

How else can you describe a movie that mostly takes place in pursuit of a leopard that the couple lost…in Connecticut? Not just one leopard, mind you, but there are enough leopards in this movie that at the end there is the possibility that Susan will be mauled by the wrong leopard. Not the one she thought she was leading through the streets of New York on a leash, but a different, more-wild leopard acquired by mistake. Serious kudos to all involved for acting alongside such a wild animal. I don’t know how sophisticated training was back in the 30s, but even today, “trained” animals kill. To think we’d be robbed of The Philadelphia Story because Baby the cat decided to get snippy one day on set was a major gamble.

It’s really interesting that this movie was so repellant to audiences at the time. I will admit that Hepburn’s Susan and her fanciful sense of ignorance did get grating here and there, but it’s easy to see now that this was clearly an actress at the top of her game. Music, slapstick comedy,  and leading lady charm…what was the problem, exactly? She wore pants?

La Béte Humaine (1938)

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  • directed by Jean Renoir
  • starring Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux
  • Jacques Lantier lusts after Séverine Roubaud the wife of his co-worker Roubaud

“This haze fills my head and twists everything out of shape.”

Based on the novel by Emile Zola, Renoir’s La Béte Humaine is a bleak affair. It’s hard to believe that any semblance of romance or light could emerge from such a thick cloud of murder, yet Lantier and Séverine at one point reach such heights, although we never come close to believing that any future can come of it. Quite the opposite. I watched the whole film with the feeling of dread that comes from the awareness that this was not going to end well for any of these characters.

One of the first times we meet Lantier, out of nowhere he strangles his girlfriend to near-death, stopping just short and using an unexplained condition as an excuse for these fits of spontaneous violence. So, naturally when he witnesses the Roubauds in the middle of a murder plot involving her perverted godfather, he of course doesn’t rat them out when prompted by the authorities, let alone judge them for what they’ve done. Instead, he falls for her. We know that Lantier is capable of snapping at any point and Séverine herself comes with a murderous past. How else can we expect this doomed relationship to end but into a downward spiral of passion and rage?

So, this was a big moment for the Classixquest–my first Renoir. Not my last by a longshot as, according to many, I still have two of his greatest films left to see, along with the rest of his catalog to pick through. Here, he uses the backdrop of powerful locomotives and grease-stained engineers and the harsh sounds of the train clanging along the track to complement his powerful and uncontrollable characters. The film was in production just when Hitler’s shadow was starting to cast over much of Europe and it displayed all of the cynicism and absence of morals that should fit right into that time. The Human Beast…does it allow for actual love? Where does its darkness come from? What are its limits? In Lantier’s case, I think we only got the answer to the first of those questions.

Pygmalion (1938)

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  • directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard
  • starring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfred Lawson, Scott Sunderland, Jean Cadell
  • Shaw’s play in which a Victorian dialect expert bets that he can teach a lower-class girl to speak proper English and thus be taken for a lady.

“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

This light-hearted indictment on the British class structure of the times was the first of many of George Bernard Shaw’s plays to hit the big screen and the introduction for many to his classic character Eliza Doolittle who I’ll later see in 1964’s My Fair Lady. Shaw handpicked the unknown Wendy Hiller for the film and she wore her many hats very well. She was so convincing as the cockneyed flower girl that I could only make out about 10 percent of what she was saying. Between that and Higgins’ lightning-fast quips, I regretted that I didn’t have a subtitle option at points.

The relationship between Eliza and Professor Henry Higgins throughout Pygmalion takes on many forms: scholar and street urchin, scientist and sample, teacher and student, friends, and finally, perhaps something more. I’ve learned since watching that there are more than a couple of different endings to Shaw’s play that have at one time or another floated around the stage and screen. I think I would’ve preferred the less-than happy ending option. There is so clearly a tacked-on scene at the end that exists only to put a shiny bow on top. It wasn’t needed and I’d say ruined much of Eliza’s journey into her own woman on her own terms.

Through these different iterations of Eliza and ‘Enry ‘Iggins, there is a constant balancing act at work between smart dialogue, comedy, and drama. Shaw obviously had an expert hand at providing humor just as the story was approaching its darkest points, often due to a mispronounced word or language confusion by Eliza. There was one point at the very culmination of an argument, though, where Higgins delivered a particularly searing insult to Eliza, took a swing at her, and just when it spelled certain doom for their relationship, he turns and trips up the stairs heels over head. Whether it was the sheer Britishisms of the stuffy, tea-time class, Mr. Doolittle’s travels through the social strata, or the two leads’ excellent and subtle physical comedy abilities, there was always some kind of a light touch nearby ready to employ.

Port of Shadows – Le Quai des Brumes (1938)

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  • directed by Marcel Carné
  • starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michéle Morgan
  • A military deserter finds love and trouble (and a small dog) in a smoky French port city.

Le Peintre: Some people go fishing or hunting or go to war. Others commit crimes of passion. Some commit suicide. You have to kill someone.

Quart Vittel:That’s life.

This was my first dip of the toe into the moody waters of French poetic realism, a genre that began in the 1930s by directors, such as Duvivier, Carné, and Renoir. Now, I know the definitions of the words poetic and realism as much as the next guy but the tenets of the genre still seem a bit foggy to me, no pun intended. Pun being that fog is actually one of the predominant tenets.

Anyway, I’ve discovered through some online browsing that the aspects dealt with in poetic realism are any number of the following: long takes and long shots, the use of imagery to convey social commentary, doomed romance, fog, and the depiction of town outskirts and social outcasts. To that, keeping in mind I’m a full-on newbie, I would add a style of narrative and dialogue that differed greatly from the handful of Hollywood efforts I’ve seen so far. The characters in Port of Shadows aren’t spewing plot points and they definitely aren’t grandstanding in any dramatic way. The dialogue paints a picture, sometimes in generalities, but often lets us in on a whole host of things about the film’s universe that we wouldn’t have gotten from any kind of Hollywood zinger-type comeback. The many side characters of Le Havré that we meet are all flawed but are fully realized no matter how much we’ve heard from them.

As realistic as the dialogue was, the violence skewed in the opposite direction with extreme acts being presented in quite a casual way. Jean at one point legit bashes Zabel’s face in with a vase or candlestick type of item but it’s presented in such a way that it might as well have been a flick of the earlobe. It was the same story for punches and gunshots. We know Jean has a history of no holds barred behavior, and it is precisely those horrors that he’s running away from, but aside from insinuating the gruesome side of humanity, we end up seeing very little of it. I wonder what level of edgy content you could have gotten away with back then. Apparently not too much.

Jean Gabin was strong here and I’ll be seeing him one more time before 1938 is over. We aren’t clued in on the complete backstory of Jean, but we know he is anxious for an escape from war and France altogether yet is eventually weighed down by his romance with Nelly. I would say he was also weighed down by the dog that followed him around the whole movie (a dog that had to have been at least a little bit of an inspiration for The Artist‘s Uggie), but at the end of the day it seemed like Jean could have taken him or left him. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but he had two shifting high priorities, Nelly and that ship to Venezuela. The dog, however, cared. Oh, in the end it breaks your heart how much that dog cares.

I enjoyed my foray into French cinema so much that I’ve decided to take small breaks from my year-by-year watching schedule to pepper in a title from before 1938 here and there. Not only are there major American efforts to take in, but I now realize the very beginnings of this strong period in French film are worth the deviation from my up until now chronologically planned quest.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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  • directed by Michael Curtiz
  • starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, the Dead End Kids
  • a priest tries to stop a gangster from corrupting a group of street kids.

“What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy?”

Hands down the funniest thing about this movie was that at one time the acting collective known as The Dead End Kids existed. The group was made up of New York street-tough teens that were recruited for a play and then brought to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. They then starred in six major Warner Bros. productions in the couple of years surrounding 1938, completely ran amok vandalizing sets, and had such a penchant for improvising dialogue to throw opposing actors off that James Cagney actually resorted to a slap in the face to set them straight. Much like in the movie itself, the kids may have felt they had free range to pry other actors, but in Cagney they saw an authority with plenty of 30s-style street cred, and they dare not pry further.

Hands down the most depressing part of the movie was trying to keep up with the psyche of Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, a career criminal that was raised in juvie for street crimes and was never able to escape the lifestyle. Did he even want to? He eventually met the Dead End Kids and took on a mentor role, alternating between teaching them manners and showing them the “way it’s done” when it comes to crime. There was a great basketball scene in which Rocky referees the kids as they carry out a game that features 1000% more tripping, punching, and smack talking as it does dribbling. It soon becomes clear that with a complete lack of positive role models in their lives the kids look up to Rocky, who can easily steer them into safer territory, yet fails, as his shady dealings eventually catch up to him. The one thing he can do for them, at the urging of his old partner in crime and now priest Jerry Connolly, is break down moments before his execution and show remorse.

It was surprising to read about the ending and see that there’s been debate about if Rocky truly broke down at the end, or if it was to show the kids that any road beats the one that leads to capital punishment. Well, obviously it was a calculated move, but taken either way it puts on display the same character trait. After an entire life of deviance and delinquency, Rocky Sullivan cared bout something/anything all along. There was a core of decency to him that we rarely got to see. Whether you believe it was compassion for the future of the kids or a legitimate desire to continue living in any fashion possible, it didn’t matter in the end. He wished it would’ve ended differently, yet he lost control and the lights were out.

Special shout out to Ann Sheridan, who didn’t have too much to work with here but was a commanding presence. Also, if you were making a movie around this era and needed a convincing death scene, you could have done a lot worse than Humphrey Bogart, who sold the hell out of those couple of bullets. First lesson of movie death scene 101, if you’re standing near a bar and get shot, you god damn better take down a few bottles and glasses with you as you plummet to the ground clutching your chest.