Review/Commentaries by Dave Smith

These will be films personally selected from those made in the 1930's and 1940's. We apologize in advance if your favorite thirties film is not featured here. Quite obviously it is impossible to put together a list of great films of the 30's and 40's without omitting someone's favorite.

The 1930's and the 1940's have been described as "The Golden Age of Motion Pictures". The industry was still young and growing. The greatest growth however was in America. Hollywood quickly became the world capital of motion pictures. Factors ,like World War II which sent many European film makers to America, made Hollywood in the thirties and the forties indeed unique. No matter where you were in the world, if you wanted to make movies, you came to Hollywood. For sheer concentration of genius, Hollywood at that time had no equal.

For these and many other reasons, the 30's and 40's were great years for making motion pictures. How fitting that this decade culminated with the most extraordinary year in motion picture history...1939. Never in the history of film has there been a year which produced so many great motion pictures. When we think of 1939, we immediately think of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz but one can only gasp in awe at the list of other greats created that same year...Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Goodby Mr. Chips, The Women, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, Ninotchka, The Old Maid, Stagecoach and the list goes on!

The thirties closed with this remarkable year serving as a last gasp of innocence before the dark clouds of war descended. This then, is a feeble attempt to pay homage to the great directors, stars, photographers, writers and others who made the 1930's and 1940's truly golden years.


1931 and 1935 Universal Studios

It was the greatest entrance any actor could hope for. Henry Frankenstein raises his creation through the roof of the tower laboratory during the height of a storm. The body is bathed in lightning. The table is lowered; one hand raises slowly: "It's alive! It's alive!" Then the screen fades to black. Master director James Whale makes us wait through some light scenes while the tension increases as we anticipate the entrance of the monster. At last it comes. The set is darkened. There is dead silence except for the sound of heavy footfalls. A door opens and the Monster comes out of the darkness...but he comes in backwards! Whale then cuts to a close-up of the back of his head. The Monster slowly turns, moving his face into the light. Then Whale cuts and cuts again, each time getting closer to that magnificent face.

Carl Laemmle had found his new Lon Chaney and Universal, with "Dracula" already a hit, was on it's way toward establishing a new and profitable film genre. At first Universal didn't know what they had in Karloff. At the premiere of the film, he was nowhere in sight. After all Colin Clive and Mae Clarke were the stars. It didn't take them long to discover the public wanted the Monster. Who was that magnificent actor who could bring terror and pathos together in one portrayal? An actor who could drown a child and still make the audience feel sorry for him? This moving scene was cut from the original because it was thought too violent. But it was later restored and we see the Monster and the little girl playing by a lake. They throw flowers in the water. When the flowers are gone, the Monster throws the little girl in. He then staggers away beginning to understand what he had done. Ivan Butler in his book, "The Horror Film" says, "Karloff's final departure, wringing his hands in an agony of dawning comprehension is as moving a moment as any on the screen."

We have in this film a fortunate coupling of a great director and an unknown actor on the brink of greatness. James Whale auditioned several actors for the role of the Monster but he said, "Karloff's face fascinated me. I made drawings of his head, added sharp bony rdiges where I imagine the skull might have joined. His physique was weaker than I could wish, but that queer, penetrating personality of his, I felt, was more important than his shape, which could easily be altered." Altered it was by none other than Jack Pierce, Universal's head make-up man.

How did Pierce do it? He said, "There are six ways a surgeon can cut the skull and I figured Dr. Frankenstein, who was not a practicing surgeon, would take the easiest. That is, he would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and clamp it tight. That's the reason I decided to make the Monster's head square and flat like a box and dig that big scar across his forehead and have two metal clamps hold it gogether. The two metal studs that stick out the sides of his neck are inlets for electricity...plugs. Don't forget the Monster is an electrical gadget and that lightning is his life force...

"The lizard eyes were made of rubber, as was his false head. I made his arms look longer by shortening the sleeves of his coat. His legs were stiffened by steel struts and two pairs of pants. His large feet were the boots asphalt-spreaders wear. His fingernails were blackened with shoe polish. His face was coated with blue-green grease paint, which photographs gray." Pierce's make-up was so striking, Universal copyrighted it. Other studios who wanted to make a picture based on the Frankenstein story, had to come up with their own version of the Monster.

"Frankenstein" reportedly grossed $12,000,000 on a $250,000 investment. Lugosi and Karloff became two of Universal's most valuable actors. They began to appear in a wide range of horror films over the next few years. In 1935 Universal produced "The Bride of Frankenstein" which many film devotees and critics feel is the best of the Frankenstein films. James Whale again directed and he infused the film with expressionistic touches and black humor. It was funny and at the same time, terrifying. The Monster was more articulate and more sympathetic. The greatly underrated Ernest Thesinger was magnificent as Dr. Praetorius who convinced Dr. Frankenstein to create a mate for the Monster. "Alone you have created a man. Now together we will create his mate!"

Karloff appeared as the Monster just once more. In 1938 he starred in "The Son of Frankenstein." It was a big budget film with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone supporting Karloff. This time however, the film was without the genius of James Whale. Rowland V. Lee directed. Although it was not as good as the first two, it's success launched a second horror cycle for Universal. Karloff however, decided he would never play the Monster again, and he didn't.


1933 Warner Brothers

"Sawyer, you're going out there a chorus girl...but you have to come back a star!" So said Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler and by George, he was right! "42nd Street" was a film which started a genre all by itself... the backstage musical. Prior to this film most musicals were simply copies of what appeared on the Broadway stage. In film after film, chorus girls danced in single file in front of uninspired cameras. It got so bad that theatres put out signs stating, "This is NOT a musical."

Small wonder then that Warner Brothers began production on "42nd Street" with a good deal of trepidation. They were fortunate to have several things going for them. One was a choreographer by the name of Busby Berkeley. Berkeley had made seven musicals before "42nd Street" when he finally figured out what was wrong. He decided in order to bring a fresh, new approach to musicals, he would let the audience see things they could not possibly see on a stage. He would create massive song and dance sequences much too lavish for the stage and he would shoot the numbers from all angles with mobile cameras.

Another happy event was the teaming of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as the young leads. Keeler wasn't a very good actress, she wasn't a very good singer and she wasn't a very good dancer. However there was something about her that appealed to depression day audiences. For years people have been trying to figure out what that appeal was. Perhaps it was her teaming with Powell. They made several hit films after "42nd Street" but after she and Powell split, Keeler's appeal diminished. Powell on the other hand, had a long and successful career and eventually became a powerful executive in the television industry.

But perhaps the biggest contributor to the success of this film was the team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin who wrote all the songs. Warren wrote a lot more songs with Dubin over the years but teamed with several other lyricists in an amazing career. Warren has often been described as "Mr. Hollywood Musical" because he, more than Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers or Kern wrote hit after hit in movie after movie for twenty years...1932 to 1952. All four of the Warren-Dubin songs in "42nd Street" became popular hits with "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me" becoming a standard.

Warren wrote for more than 60 film musicals. He won three academy awards for best song. A few of his hits include, "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby", "I Only Have Eyes For You", "Lullaby of Broadway", "You'll Never Know", "Chatanooga Choo Choo", "I've Got a Gal In Kalamazoo", "I Had the Craziest Dream", "Serenade in Blue", "Jeepers Creepers" and on and on. If you look close you can see Warren and Dubin playing themselves in this film.

Other people in other places made movie musicals, but the pattern was set and developed from "42nd Street." Darryl Zanuck who was running Warner Brothers at the time, made all the right decisions on this film. This film moved the movie musical to a new plateau in creativity. It became a distinctly American form of film. Musicals have declined in popularity since the 1950's but every once in awhile one comes along which brings forth hope that this unique type of film will be renewed. Frequently the latter-day hit musicals have been film adaptations of Broadway musicals. Grease, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and more recently Chicago, come to mind. Other film adaptations have failed. Annie and Evita are examples. Phantom of the Opera was not the hit it was supposed to be. Mel Brooks' The Producers was transformed from a comedy into a musical. It was a smash on Broadway but didn't set any records as a film musical.

Perhaps the time is right for another "breakthrough" film to re-establish the movie musical. Don't hold your breath.


1938 J. Arthur Rank

So how did Alfred Hitchcock get to America? This is the film that did it. Hitchcock was already getting Hollywood's attention with films like "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934) and "The 39 Steps" (1935) but when "The Lady Vanishes" was released in 1938, it was so successful that David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock to America to direct his production of Rebecca. The golden years of Hitchcockian films followed.

Hitchcock won the New York film critics award for best director for this film. He received his first oscar nomination for best director for Rebecca in 1940. He lost to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Hitchcock never put a great deal of emphasis on actors or actresses. Instead he uses motion and sound, rather than speech, to make his point. His films are pictorial story-telling. He always felt that if the sound went off, the audience should still be able to follow the plot. One exception to this occurs in "The Lady Vanishes." Hitchcock loved humor and in this film he gives us an excellent taste of British humor. Veteran English actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne play two men on the train who are intensely preoccupied with the British national pastime, soccer. Much is made of their reserved English manner and their love of the game. Later in the film when one of them is shot, we see a very good example of British stoicism.

Although the story of this film is based on a novel entitled, "The Wheel Spins", Hitchcock said variations on this theme had been filmed many times. The whole thing apparently started with an old yarn about an elderly woman who visited Paris to see her daughter in the late 1800's. They go to a hotel where the mother is taken ill. They call a doctor. The doctor tells the daughter that her mother needs a certain medication and she is sent to the other end of Paris in a horse-drawn cab to get it. When she returns, she asks the hotel manager how her mother is. He replies, "What mother?" She goes to the room and finds it occupied by other people. The furniture, even the wallpaper is changed.

The story is supposed to be true. It took place during the great Paris Exposition the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. The mother had come from India and the doctor discovered she had bubonic plaque. He didn't want the news to get out or the Exposition would be in a panic. Anyway true or not, it's an interesting story. "The Lady Vanishes" is very similar to this story. It is essentially a spy story peppered with all kinds of interesting characters.

As most Hitchcock fans know, there is always a "MacGuffin" in a Hitchcock film. He maintains that it doesn't have to be much. It doesn't even have to be important. At least not to the audience. But it does have to be important to the characters. "The Lady Vanishes" features of one Hitchock's most unusual "MacGuffins." It's a simple little tune which that great old character actress Dame May Whitty has memorized. In additiion to Whitty, we get to see other notable English actors in this film...Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa and Lynn) and Margaret Lockwood. Paul Lukas may be more familiar to us because he made more American movies than the others.

Although Ms. Lockwood is not a blonde, Hitchcock is known to have a fascination for blonde heroines. He used Madeline Carroll, Priscilla Lane, Carole Lombard, Doris Day, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, among others. He also had a fascination for trains. He used trains in "The 39 Steps", "Saboteur", "Strangers on a Train" and "North by Northwest." "The Lady Vanishes" was shot on a set 90 feet long, using one train coach. As was his custom, he used a lot of miniatures, transparencies and magnified props. He uses two king-sized glasses, shooting through them so the audience can see the couple all the time although they don't touch their drinks until the very end of the scene.

It's a pity we don't see this film as much as other Hitchcock films. Many critics, including this one, feel it is the best of his career.


1939 MGM

"I don't like stories with people dying in the end. It's a tragedy". So said Samuel Goldwyn to William Wyler who was trying to convince Goldwyn to let him film Emily Bronte's classic story. Thanks to Wyler's persistence, Goldwyn finally relented. Wyler also convinced Goldwyn that an all-British cast was mandatory. Merle Oberon and David Niven were already under contract to MGM. Ben Hecht, who fashioned the screenplay along with Charles MacArthur, suggested Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. Wyler was convinced that Olivier was ideal for the part, but could not convince Olivier. Olivier had a bitter experience with an American film earlier. He was originally cast as Greta Garbo's lover in "Queen Christina" but after just two days of shooting he was replaced by John Gilbert.

Olivier himself has admitted that at that time he was a stage actor and had not been able to properly adjust to the screen. Besides he was busy carrying on a love affair with Vivien Leigh while they were married to other people. However he stated he would play Heathcliff if Leigh were cast as Isabella. When the role was offered to Leigh, she refused. She said if she couldn't play Cathy, she had no interest. Infuriated, Wyler told her she would never get another role as good as Isabella. Six months later she was cast as Scarlett O' Hara in Gone With the Wind. Olivier's friend, Ralph Richardson, finally convinced Olivier to accept the Heathcliff role.

Olivier was at odds with Wyler all during the filming and was miserable. Wyler was giving all his attention to Oberon. Samuel Goldwyn didn't like Oliver's acting style and wanted to shut down the film. Finally Wyler worked with Olivier to help him develop a film acting technique. Goldwyn still didn't like the ending and wanted to add a happier one. Wyler refused. Goldwyn suspended him and added a shot of Cathy and Heathcliff walking together on white clouds into eternity. Wyler called it, "A horrible shot" but there was nothing he could do.

Olivier gave credit to Wyler for making him a better film actor. "He made me a good film actor by teaching me in an extremely rough and insulting way". The film made Olivier an international star. It received eight oscar nominations, winning only cinematography by Gregg Toland. It was named best film of 1939 by the New York Film Critics over Gone With the Wind. Olivier went on to be nominated for seven oscars, more than any other actor except Spencer Tracy. He won only one, in 1948 for Hamlet.

The film has an unabashed romanticism which has virtually disappeared from the screens today. However because of it's dark brooding tone, it was not popular with audiences of it's day. As with many films, the years have been kinder to it and it's now considered one of the great classic films. There have been many other film versions of this classic tale, but the rich and polished Goldwyn version most likely will never be topped.

You Only Live Once (1937)


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All contents of this website 2000-2013 by David L. Smith

"When Movies Were Movies" and "Hoosiers in Hollywood" are  registered trademarks, fully protected under U.S. and International law. Use without permission is strictly prohibited.


Home |Silents Please! |The Golden Age |Current Films |Hoosiers in Hollywood |Movie Music | |About Me |Links |Linking to the Site |Guestbook |Contact Dave