Category Archives: 1930s

#313 The 39 Steps

(1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

“I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel”

Hitchcock was an awesome director, as we’ve already established here on SvTM, but I find that much of his best work came during his later years as a filmmaker, and I’ve found it harder to get into some of his earlier British work. But I’m not giving up, as today we’ll be looking at another of his early British works and seeing how well it holds up today. Let’s examine The 39 Steps.

In typical Hitchcock style, The 39 Steps is about a man who ends up wrongfully accused of something he doesn’t fully understand. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on holiday in London, attends a performance by Mr Memory, a performer who claims he can remember all manner of facts. During the performance, shots are fired, and Hannay finds himself trying to help a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who reveals herself to be a spy, prompting Hannay to end up in an adventure of espionage and mystery.

The 39 Steps is a movie from Britain made before 1990. As a result, it suffers the same problem as every other pre-1990 British movie suffers from – it’s incredibly stiff and awkward. Character interactions are persistently marred by an insistent politeness and an obsessive fear of showing any kind of emotion. This, of course, affects the film before it even begins. It’s most notable in Hannay’s rather flat response to a random woman following him home and announcing that she’s a spy, which feels like a big thing that would elicit more questions than he seems willing to ask.

Fortunately, Hitchcock managed to tap through it a little. Just a little, mind, but it’s something. Some of the dry wit does feel dry in a way that’s genuinely amusing, there’s a sense of attraction between Hannay and his unwitting partner, Pamela (Madeline Carroll), and there are plenty of action-packed moments to hold the film together.

That said, The 39 Steps is a confused movie. While it’s not hard to follow by any means, there’s a feeling that things don’t piece together nearly as well as they do in later Hitchcock movies. Pamela is introduced quite late in the movie, an encounter with a mysterious professor seems to happen too soon, and generally moving from one scene to another feels slightly haphazard, as if it was all made up on the fly.

I think part of the reason the movie flows as well as it does despite these issues is because Hannay is a likeable protagonist. A witty and sarcastic chap, Hannay faces up to a lot of the weirdness he ends up wrapped up in with humour and quips. He clearly isn’t too pleased by what’s happened, but he seems to take it in his stride, and the audience ends up coasting along with him. At times his reactions can feel a little unrealistic and silly, but he’s so likeable that you really don’t care.

I also felt that much of the movie’s set pieces were hugely entertaining, from Hannay sliding across a train carriage to escape pursuers to a scene where he’s forced to give a political speech because he ducked through the wrong door at the wrong time. The central mystery is also intriguing enough that it keeps the film moving even when the film seems determined to not give you a direct answer.

The conclusion was also immensely satisfying, bringing everything full circle and wrapping things up nicely enough, leaving some ambiguities to keep us thinking even after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t answer everything but it concludes things nicely enough.

Overall, The 39 Steps is a good movie, but suffers from British stiffness that prevents it from being a great one. Makes for a good career starter for Hitchcock though.

Starring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Lucie Mannheim & Godfrey Tearle
Written by John Buchan (novel) and Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Produced by Michael Balcon
Music by Jack Beaver & Louis Levy
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist

Favourite Scene: The scene where Hannay finds himself mistaken for a political candidate is hugely entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: A gunshot being stopped by a book continues to be implausible.

Watch it if: You want to see some of Hitchcock’s history
Avoid it if: You need the title explained to you immediately

#271 Sons Of The Desert

(1933, William A. Seiter)

“Well, here’s another mess you’ve gotten me into”

This review was originally intended to posted on Tuesday, April Fool’s Day, but I never got around to it. That’s why there are references throughout to the day despite today being, well…not April Fool’s Day. Normal service will be resumed next week.

Laurel & Hardy are considered one of the greatest comedy acts of all time, with a vast library of films stretching from the silent era and on into the early 50s. So it seems fitting that today, on April Fool’s Day, we take a look at Sons Of The Desert, the only film from the duo on the 1001 Movies list.

As members of the fraternal lodge Sons Of The Desert, Stanley and Oliver find out there is to be a conference where the various chapters of the lodge from around the country are to meet up and have a huge party. The problem is, they need to convince their wives to let them go, with Oliver trying to convince his wife that he’s too ill to go on a trip to the hills with her, and that he should go to Honolulu to recuperate (giving him a cover story that prevents his wife from following him). Shenanigans ensue.

Sons Of The Desert is a product of its time. The storyline is largely based around the idea that wives don’t let their husbands have any fun and like to nag a lot. Men should be men and not allow themselves to be hen-pecked because a man who meekly does everything his wife says isn’t a real man.

It’s also heavily reliant on slapstick, a form of comedy that I’m not particularly fond of at the best of times. It’s a relic from the silent era that Laurel & Hardy carried over to the “talkies” with very little to change it up. I’m a fan of wordplay more than physical comedy, so something centred so heavily on the latter concerns me a little bit.

There is also an unnecessary musical number in the middle because all 1930s comedies apparently needed to bring one in to justify their light entertainment roles. And you know how I feel about musical numbers in general.

So, with all this working against the movie, why on earth did I find it so damn funny? I hate slapstick, and I tend to be very twitchy around outdated gender stereotypes such as “women like to nag a lot” and yet I enjoyed every minute of Sons Of The Desert. That took some skill, and I honestly don’t know how these two did it.

Everything about Sons Of The Desert is a mark of a great comedy. Every scene is meticulously pieced together with expert comic timing, with the slapstick being so over the top and absurd that it’s impossible not to laugh. Yes, it’s dated and you could never make a film like this now, but it somehow holds up as a brilliantly fun movie.

Even the negative aspects of the nagging wife trope are negated by the fact that the duo themselves are portrayed as ridiculous man-children anyway, and much of the humour comes from the fact that Oliver acts like the cool, smart one, when in fact he’s just a bumbling oaf. He criticises Stanley for being hen-pecked by his wife, but in fact Stan and his wife seem to have a pretty stable and relaxed marriage and Oliver feels that he has to sneak around his wife to do what he likes.

The absurdity of the plot also keeps things going. It doesn’t really make sense as a serious plot, but it’s not even trying to do that, and instead is determined to just ramp up the silliness at every turn and see how far it can go, until we reach a point where the wives think the duo died in a shipwreck, and as such the duo have to hide in the attic to avoid the fallout that would ensue from their deception being obviously discovered.

Sons Of The Desert is a live-action cartoon, and it works so damn well. Watching this single movie has convinced me that Laurel & Hardy’s enduring popularity is well-deserved. This is a fantastic comedy that has stood the test of time to the point where even its more dated elements don’t hold it back. A genuine comedy classic.

Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase & Mae Busch
Written by Byron Morgan
Produced by Hal Roach
Music by William Axt
Cinematography by Kenneth Peach
Edited by Frank Terry

Favourite Scene: The attempts to help cure Oliver’s “illness” were pretty damn hilarious.
Scene That Bugged Me: There’s a joke involving wax fruit that kind of runs a little too long for my liking.

Watch it if: You appreciate classic comedy
Avoid it if: You’re a Friedberg & Seltzer fan

#267 Gone With The Wind

(1939, Victor Fleming)
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”

Gone With The Wind is one of those classic movies that inevitably ends up on Movies You Must See lists, so it was inevitable that I’d end up reviewing it one day. It was the highest-grossing movie of its time, and depicted the American Civil War from the perspective of white Southerners. But how well does it hold up today?

Gone With The Wind centres on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a young Southern socialite living in Georgia on the cusp of Civil War. Romantically interested in a man named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), she tries to seduce him despite him being engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), while she simultaneously catches the attention of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). As civil war rages, Scarlett manipulates and deceives her way towards winning Ashley’s attentions before eventually marrying Rhett in a tortured marriage. Basically, lots of things happen here.

It’s easy to see why people love Gone With The Wind. It’s an ambitious project which covers a lot of ground story-wise, with excellent costume design and cinematography, and some really great moments that cement its place in cinema history.

Clark Gable is a fantastic example of this. The man has charm coming out of his pores, and is easily the best thing about the whole movie. Rhett Butler is an inherently awful person for the most part, but Gable makes him likeable and I don’t know how he did it. It’s a shame that for much of the first half of the movie he tends to disappear offscreen for long periods, since he’s always missed when he’s not around.

There are also some hugely effective scenes running throughout. The scenes of war are always powerful, feeling difficult to watch and sometimes being downright terrifying. I’m not someone who normally buys into “war is hell” imagery (simply because it’s so overdone it’s become cliché) but these scenes were extremely effective. But the scenes of the war’s effects hit even harder than the war itself, especially a scene where Scarlett’s father has clearly lost his mind following the loss of his wife in the hostilities, which was incredibly moving.

But Gone With The Wind is far from a perfect movie. For a start, it’s over three hours long, and me and films of that length don’t get along too well. What’s more, there are times when it definitely feels that long, especially in the second half of the movie where things like to drag on longer than they need to. There are also plenty of instances where a scene that really should be urgent simply isn’t.

There is also the fact that the movie suffers from some particularly offensive period drama floofiness early on, with Southern Belles and gentlemen wandering around chortling about their life and how the South will never be beaten. It’s a little bit tiresome, at least until Rhett comes in and tells them all how dumb they all are. Fortunately, this doesn’t last, but this combined with the movie’s tendency to drag at times, it threatens to derail the movie before it’s even begun.

However, while the period drama floofiness eventually disappears, Scarlett O’Hara never stops being intensely unlikeable. She’s a manipulative, shallow, selfish, irredeemable bitch. Vivien Leigh does a great job playing her, but man is it difficult having this person as a protagonist. She’s impossible to identify with, and more often than not, you simply want her to fail at everything.

It’s also really hard to tell exactly what the attraction between her and Rhett is. Quite often, he will pursue her and attempt to seduce her, all while openly admitting she’s a terrible human being. I never found the romance particularly convincing. Perhaps this was the point, since they hardly have a perfect marriage in the second half of the movie, but it’s still really bizarre.

And then of course, the most common complaint about Gone With The Wind by modern reviewers is one that I agree with. Set in The South, the movie naturally features a number of black slave characters, all of whom are portrayed as amusingly stupid and absolutely happy to be in slavery. Their portrayal is meant to be laughed at, as if those silly brown people are an amusing sideshow, and these days it’s just uncomfortable.

And yet, despite all of these faults, Gone With The Wind somehow manages to hold together as a solid, watchable package and it’s easy to see why it’s such a classic, albeit a hugely flawed classic.

Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard & Olivia de Havilland
Written by Margaret Mitchell (novel) and Sidney Howard
Produced by David O. Selznick
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Ernest Haller
Edited by Hal C. Kern & James E. Newcorn

Favourite Scene: Rhett ultimately realising how tired he is of Scarlett’s crap and tells her that most famous of movie lines (see page quote).
Scene That Bugged Me: While escaping from Georgia in the midst of war and fires, they sure do take their sweet time.

Watch it if: You like sprawling period dramas with excellent acting
Avoid it if: Its absurd length is far too much for you

#251 The Adventures Of Robin Hood

(1938, Michael Curtiz & William Keighley)

“It’s injustice I hate, not the Normans”

Robin Hood is a great British legend, putting the city of Nottingham on the map before it became the mugging capital of Europe. Many interpretations of the Robin Hood legend have been committed to film over the years, from Russell Crowe’s moody portrayal to the glitzy Hollywood sheen of Prince Of Thieves to Disney’s 1950s anthropomorphic adventure.

But only one of these made it onto the Movies You Must See list – the original movie that cemented Errol Flynn’s star status, The Adventures Of Robin Hood.

The movie follows the basic structure of the Robin Hood legend. King Richard The Lionheart is busy fighting off the Assassin Order in the Crusades, leading his evil brother Prince John to claim the throne in his absence. The Earl of Loxley, a man named Robin (Flynn), doesn’t take kindly to John’s crippling taxes on the Saxon people and vows to fight back, forming a team of bandits in the forest to lead a revolution against the false king, while simultaneously trying to get into the britches of the fair Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland).

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#246 The Wizard Of Oz

(1939, Victor Fleming)

“There’s no place like home”

It’s Christmas Eve! You know what that means, right? Yes, of course, it’s time to take a look at an appropriately Christmassy movie! But wait, there aren’t actually that many actual Christmas movies on the must-see list (It’s A Wonderful Life was the main one of only two), so like last year, when I reviewed Babe, I’ll instead be pulling up a family-friendly movie.

In other words, the kind of thing you’re likely to stick on when you’re full of turkey and unable to move. The kind of thing that tends to get added to Christmas programming for that very reason. This year, we’ll be looking at The Wizard Of Oz.

You should all know what The Wizard Of Oz is, surely? Judy Garland plays Dorothy, a young girl living on a farm in Kansas. After a run-in with a grumpy neighbour (Margaret Hamilton), Dorothy runs away from home and ends up caught in a tornado, waking up in the mysterious Land Of Oz. Here she is instructed to find the Wizard who will be able to return her home, and along the way she gathers a rag-tag team of friends in the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), who wants a brain, the Tin Man (Jack Haley), who wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), who lacks courage. Throughout their journey they have to watch out for the Wicked Witch Of The West (Hamilton again), who likes to keep trolling them as they move through the land.

Everyone knows about The Wizard Of Oz. It’s cemented its place in pop culture over the years, and has been the subject of many homages and parodies over the years, but has it stood the test of time?

First off, visually it certainly does stand up. Being one of very few movies from the 1930s in full colour, The Wizard Of Oz made great use of its colour palette, presenting a great contrast between the drab sepia of Kansas and the vibrant world of Oz. The transition from sepia to colour was also superb and seamless, performed entirely through a doorway as Dorothy steps out into her new world, and I was genuinely impressed by it.

Some of the effects look a little ropey today, but it’s a movie from the thirties, what do you expect? Despite the obvious man behind the curtain for most of the effects (see what I did there? EH?!?), they do still look pretty impressive, and it’s hard to fault the makeup jobs of Dorothy’s trio of friends, which are a real highlight.

But beyond the visuals, how well does the movie stack up in terms of plot and characterisation? Well, I’m going to be brutally honest here – the plot is ridiculous. Dorothy doesn’t really have much motivation to do anything and her entire job is to stare vacuously at things in amazement. The Good Witch is a persistent Deus Ex Machina that conveniently solves every problem Dorothy encounters. The ultimate meeting with the Wizard results in them getting cop-out rewards for their efforts, and a realisation that none of the movie really needed to happen. And don’t get me started on the logistical issues surrounding the Wicked Witch’s final demise.

But that’s OK. The Wizard Of Oz isn’t even pretending to take itself seriously. The comic performances of the trio prove as much, since they’re all campy and over the top. One liners are thrown about all over the place, including some that still hold up today – I’ll admit I enjoyed the Scarecrow’s “some people without brains do an awful lot of talking” line a little too much. The entire movie just feels too much fun to discredit the plot issues too much, since it’s likely that no one involved particularly cared all that much.

Instead, the awkward plotting and general silliness of the whole thing are the movie’s real charm. It’s a delightful romp of a film that wants to do nothing more than keep you entertained, and does so in a way that so unashamedly happy.

Plus it’s Christmas, so bitching about the movie and saying it’s terrible wouldn’t be in the spirit of the holiday. Instead, it’s a great choice for this time of year, since it’s feel-good silliness which remains charming and lovely and entertaining, even to this day. But you probably watch it every time it’s on TV anyway, so I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walshe and Terry the dog
Written by L. Frank Baum (novel – The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz) and Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Music by Herbert Stothart (score) and Harold Arlen (songs)
Cinematography by Harold Rosson
Edited by Blanche Sewell

Favourite Scene: The aforementioned joke about stupid people talking a lot.
Scene That Bugged Me: “Only bad witches are ugly” What a great message for the kids! Ugly people are vicious monsters that want to murder your pets! Wonderful!

Watch it if: It’s on telly. Which it will be.
Avoid it if: You have a severe phobia of whimsy

#220 Captain Blood

(1935, Michael Curtiz)

“Desperate men, we go to seek a desperate fortune”

YARR! It be International Talk Like A Pirate Day and we be celebratin’ today with a motion picture about the greatest scurvy dogs on the seven seas. We be lookin’ at Captain Blood and decidin’ whether or not he should be walking the plank.

Captain Blood be the name of the main character, a doctor in ol’ England named Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) who gets sent to Port Royal on the word of that land lubber King James. He be sold as a slave to a wench named Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), and forced to serve her uncle, Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill). But he be a fightin’ man, and he escapes with a motley crew and begins a life of piracy. YARRRRR!

When me and me crew first started watching Captain Blood we be disappointed by the lack of piracy. It were a lotta people talkin’ in big words that we uneducated swabs don’t understand. The chattin’ felt like nothing a real man would say, and it was also odd that they be talkin’ to themselves at times. No real pirate would be philosophisin’ when he could be plunderin’.

Also, we pirates love a good tale but this tale be as lost as a ship without a compass. It takes far too long to get to the piracy we came here for and it be more a series of things happenin’ than a simple tale o’ plunderin’. The story could do with being keelhauled.

I almost felt like throwing the movie overboard but me crew kept me focused. And I be pleased I did, for this was a rip-roarin’ piratey romp.

The tale may be a troubled one, but once the crew set sail, there be lots of high seas action that’ll make any pirate proud. Errol Flynn be a fine captain, commanding his ship and his crew with charm and swagger, and proves himself to be a cunning and wily adversary to his foes. He’s the kind of fella you wanna drink some grog and sing shanties with and I won’t hear a bad word about him. He’s a stellar captain.

Captain Blood also be a great source of merriment that can while away the long hours at sea. It produced some good belly laughs, it did, and the battles at sea and the sword fights got me blood racin’ and desperate to get out plunderin’. I weren’t too sure about the sword fight between Blood and fellow pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone), because there be points where it looks like they’re just hitting each other’s swords, which I can confirm ain’t no way to kill a man.

I also weren’t too keen on the romantic part of the tale. Aye, Arabella be a fine wench, but no pirate worth his salt would be as attached to a maiden as that. A pirate’s first love be the sea, although they do make a fine couple o’ lovers when they’re seen together.

Captain Blood weren’t the best movie I ever seen, but it be a fine romp which will keep ye merry, and what more could a good pirate need? The movie gets a hearty YARRRRR from me.

Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone & Ross Alexander
Written by Rafael Sabatini (novel) and Casey Robinson
Produced by Harry Joe Brown & Gordon Hollingshead
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cinematography by Ernest Haller & Hal Mohr
Edited by George Amy

Favourite Scene: Once the crew escape and steal the ship, the movie gets a lot more fun.
Scene That Bugged Me: When Blood fights Lavasseur, there are points where Blood will be giving a big speech and Lavasseur would just whack his sword against Blood’s. It looked so silly.

Watch it if: Ye like pirates and want to watch pirates do pirate things. YARRRR!
Avoid it if: You’re a ninja

#206 Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

(1937, David Hand)

“Who’s the fairest of them all?”

It’s Disney again! This time, it’s the film that started it all. Movie #1 in the Disney Animated Canon. Walt Disney’s pet project designed to show the world that animation could be turned into full length features. But how well does it hold up today?

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs is based on the famous Grimm fairy tale. Every day, an evil queen (voiced by Lucille La Verne) asks her magic mirror “who is the fairest of them all?”, expecting the mirror to inform her that she is the fairest. She is content until the mirror one day says that a young maiden named Snow White (v/b Adriana Caselotti) is the fairest. In a fit of jealousy, the queen orders a huntsman to take Snow White into the woods and murder her. However, he can’t do it, and Snow White flees and takes refuge with a group of dwarves (note the spelling, Disney!), leading the queen to try and devise an even more gruesome fate for the girl.

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#189 King Kong

(1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)

“It was beauty killed the beast”

It was inevitable that at least one giant monster movie would end up on my list. For a time you couldn’t move for giant monster movies, whether it was Universal chucking increasingly silly prehistoric monsters at New York or the nuclear monsters that stomped all over Tokyo in the Japanese kaiju genre. But they all owe a debt of gratitude to the original giant monster, the one and only monkey man, King Kong.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a famous director who likes to make movies in the jungle. For his latest big picture, he plans to travel to an uncharted island, and for the first time he plans on using an actress in a prominent role. However, no big-name actresses are willing to make the long journey, so Denham goes out on the streets to find someone, and ends up hiring an unemployed woman named Ann (Fay Wray). When Denham and his crew reach the island, they find that the natives worship a creature named Kong, who turns out to be a giant prehistoric ape who takes a shine to Ann.

And then at that point the plot drops out so we can watch creaky puppets fight each other until Kong gets taken to New York and decides to climb the Empire State Building in a fit of rage. Your average Thursday, then.

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#183 M

(1931, Fritz Lang)

“I have no control over this evil thing inside of me”

M is one of those old films I’d vaguely heard of in the past. I knew it was the first sound movie by Metropolis director Fritz Lang, and I knew it had Peter Lorre in it, a German actor well-known for his many roles alongside Humphrey Bogart. But that was all I knew, so it’ll be interesting to see what I think of this.

M is set in an unnamed city where children are being abducted and killed, and the police are at a complete loss about what to do due to lack of clues. To combat this, they put the entire city on lockdown, conducting random searches and treating everyone as a possible suspect. The criminal underworld naturally don’t like this as it gets in the way of their “business transactions”, leading them to start an investigation of their own, creating a lynch mob in the process. And shenanigans happen.

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#174 The Thin Man

(1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

“Can you tell us anything about the case?”
“Yes, it’s putting me way behind on my drinking”

I’d never heard of The Thin Man franchise before. Research tells me that this was a particularly big series of detective movies starring the married couple of Nick and Nora Charles. The names sounded familiar, although I didn’t know why. So I came into this first movie in the series completely unaware of the success the series had, so let’s see if it lives up to the hype it received in the 1930s.

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