Steamboat Willie (1928). 8 minutes. Directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Voices by Walt Disney. Music by Wilfred Jackson and Bert Lewis.
Steamboat Willie is a black-and-white animated Disney short that was the first cartoon of any kind to use completely synchronized sound. It draws thematically from both the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and the 1928 silent Buster Keaton comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr., but it was also inspired by the technological revolution launched by The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length movie to use partially synchronized sound. Steamboat Willie is notable today for its historical achievement and for being the first widely successful cartoon to feature Mickey Mouse, but in addition to these accomplishments, it remains extremely silly and a good example of how charming early animation could be.
The story follows the iconic rodent protagonist as he works on a riverboat. A large cat (Pete) orders Mickey around and banishes him from the ship’s bridge. Mickey … Read the rest
L’Atalante (1934). 89 minutes. Directed by Jean Vigo. Starring Dita Parlo (as Juliette), Jean Dasté (as Jean), Michel Simon (as Père Jules), Gilles Margaritis (as peddler), Louis Lefebvre (as cabin boy), Maurice Gilles (as manager), and Raphaël Diligent (as Raspoutine).
L’Atalante’s 1962 appearance on Sight and Sound’s decennial poll of the ten greatest films of all time, alongside such classics as Citizen Kane (1941) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), solidified its status as a cineaste favorite and required arthouse fare. François Truffaut and others have advocated for its brilliance, lyricism, and admirable earthiness. Yet the film community’s insistence on L’Atalante’s greatness has distanced some modern critics from it, including David Kamp and Lawrence Levi, who fail to see profundity in its artful shots and poetic sequences. While it is not clear to me that it belongs alongside Kane or Potemkin, or that it outranks other French films of its era such as The Grand Illusion (1937), L’Atalante is nevertheless … Read the rest
Director, screenwriter, producer, and actor Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was considered by film luminaries such as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and Billy Wilder to be among the greatest of directors. Over the course of 36 years and 69 films, Lubitsch’s career survived two major transitions: the industry-wide shift from silent film to sound and the director’s own migration from Europe to the United States. He worked with some of the most brilliant screen performers of his time—including Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, James Stewart, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins, among many others—in films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Along the way, he perfected the romantic comedy, infusing it with sophistication and wit, and with a sexual humor that seems both cutting edge for its time and a breath of fresh air in our present film culture.
Why then … Read the rest
Flowers and Trees (1932). 8 minutes. Directed by Burt Gillett. Produced by Walt Disney.
Flowers and Trees broke new ground in 1932 as the first animated short to use three-strip Technicolor. Its producer Walt Disney had exclusive rights to the three-strip process until 1935, which meant that during this period, other animators had to use the two-strip process with its more limited color palette or else continue to rely on black-and-white techniques. The use of cutting-edge Technicolor in Flowers and Trees, while perhaps not as revolutionary as the use of sound in Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), was nevertheless a considerable achievement and was undoubtedly one of the reasons that Flowers and Trees won the first Academy Award for Animated Short Subjects, the first color production of any kind to win an Academy Award.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Flowers and Trees follows the antics of two leafy green trees, one male and one female. A dried-out stump tries … Read the rest
The Devil-Doll (1936). 79 minutes. Directed by Tod Browning. Starring Lionel Barrymore (as Paul Lavond), Maureen O’Sullivan (as Lorraine Lavond), Frank Lauton (as Toto), Rafaela Ottiano (as Malita), Robert Greig (as Emil Coulvet), Lucy Beaumont (as Madame Lavond), Henry B. Walthall (as Marcel), Grace Ford (as Lachna), Pedro de Cordoba (as Charles Matin), Arthur Hohl (as Victor Radin), Juanita Quigley (as Marguerite Coulvet), Claire Du Brey (as Madame Coulvet), and Rollo Lloyd (as Detective Maurice).
The Devil-Doll is a horror movie written and directed by Tod Browning, who brought us Freaks (1932), the controversial pre-Code film that effectively triggered the beginning of the end of his career. Thus one reason to view The Devil-Doll is to see Browning’s penchant for lurid plots in its final throes. In some regards, Freaks and The Devil-Doll share much in common, including depictions of deformity, little people (broadly defined), and a revenge plot: the 1936 movie offers us miniature human killers, hypnotically controlled … Read the rest
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). 97 minutes. Directed by Alexander Korda. Starring Charles Laughton (as Henry VIII), Merle Oberon (as Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (as Jane Seymour), Elsa Lanchester (as Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (as Catherine Howard), Everley Gregg (as Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (as Thomas Culpepper), Franklin Dyall (as Thomas Cromwell), and Lady Tree (as the king’s nurse).
The Private Life of Henry VIII is a historical film starring Charles Laughton as Tudor King Henry VIII, who lived from 1491 to 1547. As a light and at times comic treatment of the tyrant king’s notorious romantic life, the movie is decidedly strange: both more amusing than a history lesson and more troubling because it is at times so distant from facts. Yet weirdly, its levity remains one of its strongest selling points. Those who are less inclined to watch period pieces due to their perceived stodginess will be entertained by the often racy components of this … Read the rest
Piccadilly (1929). 109 minutes. Directed by E. A. Dupont. Starring Gilda Gray (as Mabel Greenfield), Anna May Wong (as Shosho), Jameson Thomas (as Valentine Wilmot), King Hou Chang (as Jim), Hannah Jones (as Bessie), Cyril Ritchard (as Victor Smiles), and Charles Laughton (as nightclub diner).
Piccadilly is an impressive silent film. From its dazzling camera work, to its invigorating jazz-era atmosphere, to its use of stunning lead actress Anna May Wong, the movie infuses its scenes with beauty and a keen artistic sensibility. Piccadilly provides Wong—a Chinese American actress who left the United States for more meaningful parts in Europe—with a role of substance, and her work as the nightclub dancer Shosho overshadows the performances of her colleagues, including dancer Gilda Gray, who was at one point a well-known Ziegfeld girl. In the end, the movie, while perhaps less clichéd than Wong’s American projects, still relies on stereotypes to get its points across and concludes Shosho’s narrative in what feels … Read the rest
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). 97 minutes. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring James Cagney (as William “Rocky” Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (as Father Jerry Connolly), the Dead End Kids (as Soapy, Swing, Bim, Pasty, Crab, and Hunky), Humphrey Bogart (as Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (as Laury Martin), and George Bancroft (as Mac Keefer).
Angels with Dirty Faces was famously parodied in the Home Alone franchise as Angels with Filthy Souls, an old violent crime film with an outrageous title that the young protagonist Kevin McCallister watches when his parents are out of town. If you have seen one of the Home Alone movies, you might think that violence and the glorification of the gangster are the defining features of the parody noir’s source material. Yet while Angels with Dirty Faces does depict violence and crime, the movie nevertheless features a complex ending that undermines its gangster protagonist’s rebellious, law-breaking streak, making him appear cowardly and weak. It is an essential … Read the rest
Maniac (1934). 51 minutes. Directed by Dwain Esper. Starring Bill Woods (as Don Maxwell), Horace B. Carpenter (as Dr. Meirschultz), Ted Edwards (as Buckley), Phyllis Diller (as Mrs. Buckley), Thea Ramsey (as Alice Maxwell), Jenny Dark (as Maizie), Marvel Andre (as Marvel), Celia McCann (as Jo), and John P. Wade (as embalmer).
Maniac is spectacularly bad—pretentious, gross, offensive, and unbearably confusing. I became aware of it because of Michael Adams’s book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astrozombies, in which he details how he spent a year watching the worst movies ever made. To Adams, Maniac is one of the very worst that he screened and by far the worst film director Dwain Esper ever was involved in, even worse than his Reefer Madness (1936). Compared to Reefer Madness, which is a propaganda film, Maniac is not obviously on a mission to persuade us politically through preposterous means, and accordingly, it actually made my head hurt less. But at … Read the rest
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). 90 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Charles Laughton (as Ruggles), Mary Boland (as Effie Floud), Charlie Ruggles (as Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (as Mrs. Judson), Roland Young (as the Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (as Nell Kenner), Lucien Littlefield (as Charles Belknap-Jackson), and Maude Eburne (as Ma Pettingill).
Ruggles of Red Gap is a delightful comedy about a stuffy English valet who is won in a card game by a pair of nouveau-riche Americans and relocates to their small Western town. With the help of American principles of political and social equality, the valet (Ruggles) embarks on a project of freeing himself from servitude and establishing himself as an independent man. In that regard, the movie reminds me of Born Yesterday (1950), which similarly posits that American institutions can be a force for personal (as well as political) liberation. Ruggles of Red Gap lacks the hard edge of Born Yesterday, but it uses … Read the rest