Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.
Beginning this month and going through November, we will be taking our monthly Top Ten lists and doing something special, looking at the best films of a particular decade. Starting off, we’re looking at the films from 1939 and earlier, which is a large time period, so we’ll be looking at the top twenty instead.
After skipping last month’s Top Ten list due to the close proximity of the Ocsars, we’ve committed to a full array of lists for the rest of the year covering every subsequent decade. Here are the results of our Top Twenty of the 1930s and Prior.
Comparing our lists, the amount of overlap wasn’t surprising. One film made it onto all of our lists: The Wizard of Oz while nine others showed up on three lists (All Quiet on the Western Front, City Lights, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, M, Make Way for Tomorrow, Metropolis, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Sunrise, and The Passion of Joan of Arc). A further nine films were on at least two lists. That leaves 32 films that weren’t duplicated.
On the director side, Frank Capra is responsible for four different titles on the list (It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take It With You). Charles Chaplin and James Whale were represented by three titles (Chaplin had City Lights, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times. Whale had Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, and Show Boat). Directors with two titles each on the list are D.W. Griffith, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, John Ford, Leo McCarey, Sam Wood, and Victor Fleming.
After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.
Wesley Lovell: There’s a reason the 1930s are considered the Golden Age of cinema. The advent of sound on film and talkies helped develop one of the most creative and interesting periods in film history and narrowing down to just ten titles was going to be a problem, especially when pulling in films prior to the 1930s. In a top 20 list, it was much easier to narrow, though a few films did get dropped from my list before I fianlized this broad-ranging list covering various genres and eras.
Peter J. Patrick: It’s difficult to compare films of the silent era, most of which have been lost, to those of the first decade of the sound era, but to give each its due, I have selected ten from the silent era and ten from the first decade of the sound era which translates to nine made prior to 1930 and eleven from the 1930s because Chaplin’s City Lights, although a silent film, was not made until 1931. The oldest films on my list are D.W. Griffith’s much maligned 1915 masterwork The Birth of a Nation and his 1916 apology for that film Intolerance. They are the only films on my list made prior to 1920, the next oldest being F.W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic,Nosferatu.
Tripp Burton: (no introduction provided)
Thomas LaTourrette: When I first set out to work on this, I thought it would be difficult to come up with many films from the 1920s or earlier that could be listed in a top ten format. The longer I worked on it, the more older films I have found that I have liked and am probably giving short shrift to some of the films of the 1930s as I feel a need to write more about some from the teens and twenties. The oldest film on my list is from 1902, though it is not the shortest. The latest is from 1939. I am sorry not to have room for so many films like the early work of Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton or Mack Sennett, or films like Dodsworth, Sunrise, or The Broadway Melody, but there just is not room for all of them. It was also hard to track down some of them, which limited which ones to use.
7th Heaven (1927)
(dir. Frank Borzage) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Janet Gaynor became history’s first Oscar winner for Best Actress. Her victory was for three films, Street Angel, Sunrise, and this film. A soulful and mournful drama about love between a street cleaner (Charles Farrell) and a young woman (Gaynor). It is a beautiful tale.
The 39 Steps (1935)
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This is an early Alfred Hitchcock film, and shows his already deft touch with both drama and comedy. An everyman is dragged into a conspiracy by a shooting in a theater. Unjustly accused of murder he flees to Scotland and drags an unwilling woman into the fray. Handcuffs, shootings, and betrayals keep the action flowing quickly. A lively cast led by Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll stays active. And it is a treat to see the great stage actress Peggy Ashcroft in a small role as a crofter’s wife. Along with The Lady Vanishes, this stands as one of Hitchcock’s best British films.
42nd Street (1933)
(dir. Lloyd Bacon) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – While Lloyd Bacon may have been the actual director of this film, what is most remembered are the musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. It is difficult to picture how the numbers could fit into any logical musical, they are a joy to watch with hundreds of tap dancing feet and jaunty numbers. Naive and young Peggy Sawyer gets cast in the next Julian Marsh show. When the leading lady breaks her ankle the day before the opening, Peggy is forced to learn all her numbers so she can lead the show. She may go out as a chorus girl, but she must come back as a star. And indeed, Ruby Keeler does just that. In some ways it may not be great cinema, but it certainly is fun.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
(dir. Michael Curtiz, William Keighley) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – There have been myriad tales over the years that explored the lives of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, but few have matched the spectacle, the adventurous spirit, and quality of this Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland version.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
(dir. Lewis Milestone) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Based on the anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front takes audiences behind enemy lines as young soldiers face the specter of the Great War with disillusionment and fear. It is the greatest anti-war film ever made.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the first anti-war classic, that would be King Vidor’s 1925 silent masterpiece, The Big Parade, nor the most devastating film about Germany during the Great War, that would be G.W. Pabst’s contemporaneous Westfront 1918, but this is the one that has had a continuing impact on audiences for generations. The German home-front is sentimentalized beyond credulity and the ending is softened by the reaching out for the butterfly, but its message comes through loud and clear.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – A group of eager young recruits finds that fighting for their homeland is not as glamorous as it seemed. The group is killed off and generally grows disheartened with the seemingly endless battles. While it is stylistically all over the place, it is a strongly felt film about the horrors of war. It has epic battle scenes and personal drama, with memorable performances by Lew Ayres as one of the young recruits and Louis Wolheim as the older and jaded Kat. It is not a perfect movie, but it is powerful.
(dir. Jean Vigo) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Jean Vigo died much too young, and left us with only a couple of films, but his masterpiece L’Atalante remains as proof of what we could have gotten more of had he survived longer. This brief masterpiece is a lovely romance with every moment perfectly crafted. It can’t really be described, and its greatness can’t really be explained, but it must be experienced and loved.
The Awful Truth (1937)
(dir. Leo McCarey) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Another screwball comedy, this time pairing Cary Grant and the peerless Irene Dunne. They play a couple who may not be perfect for each other, but who find life without the other awfully dull. The film was probably a bit racy for 1937, with hints of marital infidelity, but that didn’t stop it from winning one Oscar and being nominated for five more. Not being sure how the other feels about them, Grant and Dunne separate and try to see other people, though they do have joint custody of their dog. The awful truth is that they do care for each other and all ends up good at the end.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
(dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – While mostly known for the justly famous Odessa steps sequence, this is also a very exciting film. Set during a 1905 uprising on a battleship due to mistreatment by the officers and the poor food they are given, the sailors revolt. They sail into Odessa harbor and are welcomed by the populace. All seems pretty good until a division of Cossacks starts firing on the citizens on the steps. The unarmed citizens try to flee, but the Cossacks are relentless as they continue advancing and firing down the steps. The navy is called in to quiet the revolt and the sailors do not know how the rest of the fleet will treat them. The fleet will not fire on their own, and all ends well. The film can feel a bit like a propaganda film put out by the communist Soviet government, but it is also a strong piece of filmmaking.
The Big Parade (1925)
(dir. King Vidor) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Both one of the best war and anti-war films ever made, this was, in fact, the first anti-war film to come out of Hollywood. John Gilbert had his greatest role here as the callow son of a wealthy businessman who enlists as a foot-soldier rather than as an officer and experiences first-hand the horrors of war. Renée Adorée is equally effective as the French farm girl he falls in love with on his way to the front, while Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien provide strong support as his working-class buddies. Treated as an “event” film, it stayed in first-run theatres for years.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
(dir. D.W. Griffith) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – D.W. Griffith had made over 400 films before this, but his epic film of two families living through the Civil War and Reconstruction has rightly been called “the birth of the movies” because of its innovative use of film grammar and syntax. Many scenes, from the Civil War battle scenes to the quieter moments, stay in the memory, but Griffith’s efforts to be fair to both sides in the conflict between the states result in blatant racism that was denounced at the time, but is even more noticeable now, overshadowing the film’s otherwise considerable merits.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This was the first feature film ever made. Incredibly racist by today’s standards and maybe even those of when it was first filmed in 1915, it also is quite the saga. It was three hours long and cost $5 million, both impressive for the time. Parts of it are uncomfortable to watch now, but this saga of life through the Civil War and the Reconstruction era is quite impressively done. There is some fine acting from Lillian Gish among others. Of course, when the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save the beleaguered white people at the end of the film, it is hard not to cringe. But one can still be impressed by what D.W. Griffith made. Griffith liked to do things on a grand scale, and while his career was fairly short-lived once he was making features, he left an indelible mark on films.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
(dir. James Whale) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The Universal Horror films of the 1930s were the original cinematic universe, and they certainly gave us some of the most memorable characters and images of Hollywood history. None is more memorable than Bride of Frankenstein, however. The film deepens the legend of Frankenstein’s monster that Frankenstein had started, giving us the classic sequence with the blind man, the image of the shrieking bride that is indelible to cinema, and a film that is in many ways funnier, scarier, and weirder than most anything else Hollywood was giving us at the time.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
(dir. Howard Hawks) Commentary By Tripp Burton – In my mind, Hollywood may have never make a funnier film than Bringing Up Baby. With a cast that is all in top form — not only stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but wonderful character actors galore — and a pace that feels breakneck even by modern standards, this is a film so full of belly laughs, quotable quips, and memorable characters and set pieces and is probably the best example of the screwball comedies of the 1930s.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This is perhaps the classic screwball comedy. Director Howard Hawks has a field day with his cast. Katharine Hepburn plays an heiress who falls in love with a paleontologist played by Cary Grant. Add a couple leopards, a bone stealing dog, a torn lamé gown and a visit to the county jail and you have the makings of one of the funniest films ever made. The production was troubled and ran over budget, and the film was a commercial flop when first released. Hawks was not really known for his comedies at the time, but those have easily stood out as some of his best films over time, and this one tops them all.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
(dir. Robert Wiene) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – When one thinks of German expressionist cinema, this is the film that comes to mind. The striking visual style with distinctly disjointed forms and strong shadows is instantly recognizable. Many of the shadows are painted into the set, so not even done with lighting. The story is seemingly about a mysterious doctor who uses a somnambulist at fairs but then also uses him to commit murders. The storyline may get a bit muddled at times, but the eeriness of the film keeps one intrigued. This is often listed as the first true horror film.
City Lights (1931)
(dir. Charles Chaplin) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Chaplin’s favorite of his own films and that of just about everyone else. Despite considerable pressure to make the film with sound, Chaplin had the clout to make and release it with recorded music but no spoken dialogue. Still one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time, Chaplin is at his best as the dewy-eyed tramp who, with the help of a wealthy friend who only recognizes him when drunk, pays for the operation that will restore the vision of the blind flower-girl he loves. Even Albert Einstein, invited to the film’s premiere by Chaplin, wept at the powerful heart-rending ending.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – Charlie Chaplin made funnier films than City Lights, which could have easily made this list, but nothing is as complete a work of art as City Lights is. In the film, Chaplin turns his Tramp character into a full fledged human being, falling in love with a blind flower girl and taking us on a romantic journey that becomes as heartbreakingly touching as any love story in Hollywood history. Watching City Lights is watching one of cinema’s greatest creators working at the top of his form.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp grows up. It includes requisite comic pieces like Charlie eating a piece of a streamer with his spaghetti, but also has a more mature story line as well. The Little Tramp had met a young blind girl that he tries to take care of and see that she gets an operation to restore her sight. She gets it but does not know who her benefactor really was until a chance encounter when she recognizes his touch. It is comic and sad.
Dinner at Eight (1933)
(dir. George Cukor) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the first all-star cast film, that would be the prior year’s Grand Hotel, nor the first all-talking adaptation of a hit Broadway comedy, Holiday and The Royal Family of Broadway got there three years earlier, but this is the one that demands more than one viewing. Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and Billie Burke lead the perfect cast with Dressler as the faded Broadway star and Burke as the supercilious party-giver the standouts.
(dir. William Wyler) Commentary By Tripp Burton – There is something so modern about Dodsworth that makes it feel both like a relic of a bygone era of filmmaking and something that is necessary viewing today. Taken from the Sinclair Lewis novel and anchored by a central performance by Walter Huston, the acting in the film is so honest and the direction so particular that it resonates off the screen and creates an indelible image of a type of Depression-era America.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
(dir. Rouben Mamoulian) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Among classic horror cinema, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is one of the best. Starring Fredric March in one of his most rich, terrifying, and excellent performances, the film uses filmmaking techniques that are creative and impressive still today.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the first film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal classic, John Barrymore got there first in a still highly regarded 1920 silent, but this not only tops that one but remains the best of the many subsequent versions. Viewers are still scratching their heads over Fredric March’s on-screen transformation from Jekyll to Hyde and those seeing the film for the first time are still shocked over the pre-code March-Miriam Hopkins sex scenes, restored for home video after decades of being censored.
Four Sons (1928)
(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Arguably Ford’s first great film, its expressionistic style was inspired by Muranu’s Sunrise shooting on another Fox soundstage at the same time. The New York street sets in the film’s final scenes were, in fact, from that film. Non-professional Margaret Mann is heartbreaking as the mother, three of whose sons are killed fighting for the Kaiser in World War I while her fourth, having emigrated to America, fights for the other side. The reunion of the mother and her last son makes for a powerful conclusion to this extraordinary film.
(dir. James Whale) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – One of the most famous horror classics, James Whale’s exploration of Mary Shelley’s legendary novel gives us iconic images and situations that have been mimicked and duplicated ever since. It’s a treatise on how to weave genre elements into a film without making the whole affair feel out of place in a traditional movie house.
Frankenstein (1931) / Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
(dir. James Whale) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – These two films by James Whale are well directed but also leave themselves open for parody. The close-ups of angry or frightened villagers are now a common feature in horror films, but was fairly innovative for the time. The monster, played by Boris Karloff, is more a creature to be pitied than feared as he does not always understand what he does. When playing with a little girl who throws flowers into a lake to float, he does not realize that he cannot throw her out just the same. There is a definite humanity to the monster and the whole productions of these two films that make them stand out among the many horror films that were produced both then and over the years.
The General (1926)
(dir. Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Buster Keaton was one of the great innovators of early Hollywood, and The General shows off so many of the bells and whistles of filmmaking. He does it in the context of a thrilling adventure, a touching dramatic story, and a hilarious series of gags all thrown together into one of the great films of silent Hollywood.
The Gold Rush (1925)
(dir. Charles Chaplin) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Charlie Chaplin was a great physical comedian, and he is in prime form when the little tramp goes to Alaska during the gold rush. A scene where strong winds keep blowing people straight through a house still stands as a brilliant set piece. Certain parts may not hold up as well, but it stands as one of his triumphs as actor, writer, and director. Chaplin was always a strong comedian, but he never went for the cheap or mean laugh in his work. His films are still sweet to watch one hundred years later.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
(dir. Victor Fleming) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – However you feel about the latent racism of the film, Gone With the Wind is still one of the most important, significant, and seminal films from history. The most popular film in cinema history, topping all others in inflation-adjusted dollars, the film is a compelling epic exploring one woman’s attempt to cast off social mores and survive on her own during the tumultuous Civil War and the years after. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable have never been more iconic than here with wonderful production values that have withstood the test of time.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the greatest movie ever made, but the greatest example of what Hollywood could do in its day in transferring a mammoth novel to the screen. There are many reasons why audiences have sat through the film’s nearly four hours, time and time again. There’s the spectacle, highlighted by the burning of Atlanta and the rows and rows of injured soldiers. There’s the smart dialogue, there’s Max Steiner’s magnificent score and, above all, there are Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel, and the rest of a great cast.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
(dir. Sam Wood) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the first nor the last film about inspirational schoolteachers, but despite such superlative follow-ups as To Sir, with Love and Blackboard Jungle, it remains the best. There are many reasons for this, beginning with James Hilton’s source novel, a tribute to his old classics master, H.R. Balgarnie, but what keeps viewers transfixed are the exquisite performances of Robert Donat as the dedicated Mr. Chipping and Greer Garson as his beloved wife who gave him the nickname of Chips.
Grand Illusion (1937)
(dir. Jean Renoir) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Set in World War I, Jean Renoir’s classic war film explores socio-economic issues within the framework of war. Two French soldiers form a quick bond as they are moved from one prison camp to another. While the film sometimes feels like a dark comedy about war, it’s largely a serious exploration of camaraderie and obligation in a time of conflict.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This French film is about life in a POW camp for officers in Germany during World War I. Though it is almost more a treatise on class, prejudice, the changing of class structure, and the duty that makes the officers keep trying to escape even though that means they will return to war. Jean Renoir creates a thoughtful picture, and one that stays with you. Similar to All Quiet on the Western Front, it makes one wonder about the use of war, though this was made just on the eve of WWII. Writer/director Renoir felt that universal humanity should transcend national and racial boundaries and that should be more important than things like war. A noble sentiment that comes across in the film, but one that sadly does not hold up in general life.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
(dir. William Dieterle) Commentary By Tripp Burton – William Dieterle’s adaptation of the sprawling Victor Hugo classic is one of the greatest examples of a certain type of Hollywood filmmaking that doesn’t exist anymore: thrilling adaptations of great novels that treat the subject matter with intelligence and grace, and fill the screen with exquisite casts, sets, and costumes. With Charles Laughton at his greatest as Quasimodo, alongside some of the great actors of the studio system, and a virtuoso score by Alfred Newman, this is Hollywood filmmaking at its smartest and best.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
(dir. Mervyn LeRoy) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Paul Muni plays a man wrongly convicted of a crime and shipped off to a southern chain gang where the horrendous and inhumane conditions embitter him. While he’s unable to convince anyone that he is innocent, he plots his escape from the chain gang. The film presents to the audience an intolerable situation and asks them to question whether the legal system is just if those who do not commit a crime can be subjected to horrific conditions and why even hardened criminals would deserve such treatment.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the only film of its era to deal with social injustice, but it was certainly the most influential. Its success resulted in the release of many unjustly imprisoned chain gang inmates across the U.S. Paul Muni’s performance was the finest of his career, topping not only his work in the then recently released Scarface, but his future award-winning performances in The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. The film’s fade-to-black ending was the result of a happy accident when power was lost during filming.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – There is one reason to watch I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and that is Paul Muni. He gives one of the most authentic and exhilarating performances of the pre-method era, and one of the great performances in cinematic history. The film around it is also wonderful, although at times it feels like Muni is doing all the lifting, and builds up to an ending that remains one of the all-time best.
(dir. D.W. Griffith) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Griffith was so shocked by the cries of bigotry leveled at The Birth of a Nation that he put himself into debt that lasted the rest of his life to make this three-hour film about a poor woman (Lillian Gish) separated from her husband and baby through modern injustice and prejudice, and in flashback, three epic examples of prejudice in world history. The film’s influence can be seen in everything from Soviet cinema of the 1920s to Cecil B. DeMille’s epics from the 1920s through the 1950s.
It Happened One Night (1934)
(dir. Frank Capra) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – One of the greatest comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Era, Frank Capra’s film is about a rich socialite (Claudette Colbert) who has run away from her family and gets mixed up with a journalist (Clark Gable) while on the lam. Career-topping performances and an incredibly rich and humorous screenplay make this one of cinema history’s greats.
King Kong (1933)
(dir. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack) Commentary By Tripp Burton – There is a lot in King Kong that sets the stage for what we expect an action/adventure film to be, but the film remains thrilling to watch today just the same. The visual effects are remarkable, the story brisk and clever, and the film builds to a final sequence that is worthy of its iconic status.
Lost Horizon (1937)
(dir. Frank Capra) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – After their plane crashes in the Himalayas, a disparate group of passengers find refuge in the mysterious valley of Shangri-La where they can be protected from the bitter cold. As the new residents begin to learn more about their mysterious surroundings, one man, Ronald Colman, decides leaving is the best option. A wonderful script filled with fascinating characters and gorgeous scenery makes for one of the best films of the decade and of all-time.
(dir. Fritz Lang) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – As a German city reels from the failure of police to capture a child serial killer, the city’s criminals join in the hunt. Fritz Lang was one of the finest directors working in America during this period and M was one of his absolute best, a harrowing look at how even hardened criminals are disdainful of crimes against children. It was Lang’s first sound film and employed techniques that have become staples of the medium.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – M is among the creepiest films of the early sound era, one which uses silence and sound to put you in a terrifying world and lets Peter Lorre dig into a role much more complex and human than most of what Hollywood would offer him later in his career. This is pure psychological horror and remains scarier than most anything made today.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This was Fritz Lang’s first non-silent film. He is great at creating tension. A little girl disappears early on in the film and we know she will be murdered. We never see what happens, but a vacant chair waiting for her return, a balloon caught in wires and a ball bouncing away set the scene. Soon both the police and the criminals of the underworld are trying to find this child killer. The police keep raiding the criminal gangs, so the underworld wants to find the killer so this will stop. Watching both groups trying to find the killer could almost be humorous as the film cuts back and forth between them, but is played seriously. Peter Lorre, in his first major role, plays a memorable villain who feels he must kill. It’s a startlingly good film, and Lang considered it his best one.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
(dir. Leo McCarey) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi beautifully play an elderly couple far older than they were who are forced out of their home in a Depression Era economy. Their children are either unwilling or unable to house both parents, forcing them to live apart for the first time in their lives. It’s a gut-wrenching humanistic affair that continues to rise as a historical touchstone. This is one of the most important films any true cineaste must see before they can take on that mantle.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not what audiences were expecting from the director of the comedy classics Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap, but a heartrending masterpiece in the days before Social Security benefits took effect, the film chronicles the plight of an elderly couple who lose their home to foreclosure and must be split up, he going to live with a married daughter and she going to live with a married son. Family dynamics are explored from all sides with Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore providing acting nirvana as the elderly couple.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – When Leo McCarey won the Oscar for The Awful Truth, he said that he won it for the wrong film he made that year, and he was probably right. Make Way for Tomorrow, McCarey’s “other” 1937 film, is a perfectly crafted, devastating drama, with an ensemble of actors who were never better and a script that manages to give real honesty to every moment the actors have to wrap their hands around. This is not an easy film, but it is a necessary film, with a central idea that has never been matched.
(dir. Fritz Lang) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Lang’s science fiction masterpiece examines class struggles in a dystopian future as the wealthy mayor’s son falls in love with a lower class woman. Filled with stunning imagery and forward-thinking themes, the film stands handily at or near the top of any register of cinema’s greatest sci-fi films.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Set in 2026, Lang’s futuristic masterpiece was lost for many years. Thought to exist only in fragments, it was pieced together from prints in Argentina, Chile, and elsewhere in the 1970s. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of the film with its elaborate sets was estimated to be $200 million in 2007 dollars. Much to his dismay, Hitler and Goebbels were big fans of the film. Legend has it that Goebbels told Lang in a meeting that he could be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish heritage, causing him to get on a train to Paris that night.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Fritz Lang created one of the first dystopian futuristic movies with his 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. The visuals are still striking, and it is impressive what he created at the time. The sets are striking, borrowing from futuristic, cubist, and Bauhaus styles. It is also a story of the haves (the industrialists) and the have nots (the workers), as well as a love story. The story lines can get a little convoluted, especially when you add a hallucination of Moloch and a robot made to look like the lead female. But with floods, fires, and stampeding crowds it is quite stunning to watch. Lang and his designers used miniatures for many of the sets and mirrors to make it look like actors were in those sets, a big innovation at the time. It stands as the first true science fiction epic filmed.
Modern Times (1936)
(dir. Charles Chaplin) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Charlie Chaplin is one of film history’s greatest comics, his early silent films became the influence of countless comedians over the years. Alongside Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, Chaplin helped define an era. Modern Times was one of his final silent pictures, an exploration of the plight of the working class during the Great Depression as modernization and industrialization threaten the public’s livelihood. It’s one of his most blatantly political films and that is one of the reasons it resonates so much still today.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
(dir. Frank Capra) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – James Stewart delivers an iconic performance in Frank Capra’s look at politics in America, its steady shift away from citizen politicians, and how one man can make a difference with enough courage and conviction to stand up to monied interests. As the film approaches its 80th anniversary, its relevance has become more significant and more important than ever.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the awards grabber it might have been, factions within the New York Film Critics Circle splitting the vote between this exposé of political corruption and Gone with the Wind, gave their award to compromise candidate Wuthering Heights. James Stewart’s performance as the idealistic junior senator from his state was the first of many great ones the actor delivered over the course of his lengthy career with Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, and Harry Carey all offering fine support.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – Frank Capra made a very specific type of film in the 1930s and 1940s, and he never made them any better than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. With an idealism that would have been grating in anyone else’s hands, Capra walks a very fine line between the trite and the profound, which he smartly puts in the hands of an expert group of actors and manages to conduct perfectly. This is Hollywood at its best: making us want to be better people, making us understand the brutal honesty of part of our world, and making us laugh and cry in buckets.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
(dir. Gregory La Cava) Commentary By Tripp Burton – 1930s Hollywood was a golden age of the screwball comedy, and My Man Godfrey is one of the shiniest of them all. The first film to be nominated for Oscars in all four acting categories, director Gregory La Cava’s satire on class and depression-era America fills the screen with wonderful actors delivering wonderful gags one after another. It is a parade of the wonders of the studio system, and still one of the funniest films in Hollywood history.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
(dir. Sam Wood) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The Marx Brothers were ubiquitous in 1930s films, and it can be hard to pinpoint just one great film from them. A Night in the Opera is among their funniest films, and contains more classic Marx brothers gags than any of their other films, including the stateroom scene that has become one of the most indelible comedic set pieces ever. This isn’t the Marx Brothers at their most anarchic, but it is them in top form and is one of their many masterpieces.
(dir. Ernst Lubitsch) Commentary By Tripp Burton – The combination of director Ernst Lubitsch and writer Billy Wilder can seem too good to be true, especially when you throw in actress Greta Garbo in a rare comedic turn, but Ninotchka manages to live up to everything you could dream for with this match up. It is a brilliant political satire, a lovely romantic comedy, a riotous farce, and one of the great Hollywood films of the 1930s.
(dir. F.W. Murnau) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Premier German filmmaker F.W. Murnau took Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire work Dracula and turned it into an unauthorized film adaptation. In the central role of Count Orlok, Max Schreck looms over the landscape with menace and terror against the backdrop of a fascinating expressionistic set. It is one of history’s finest horror films.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Murnau’s expressionistic masterpiece was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. To avoid a lawsuit, Murnau changed Dracula’s name to Orlok and his disposition from vampire to Nosferatu, another name for the same thing. Stoker’s widow sued anyway and won, the disposition of the court in 1925 being that all copies of the film be destroyed. Fortunately for movie lovers, this only applied to prints within Germany. The film made its way slowly around the world, not opening in the U.S. until 1929.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
(dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – As silent film reached its peak and talkies began to dominate, Dreyer’s seminal French silent explores the life of Joan of Arc as she’s burned at the stake for heresy, a politically-motivated charge meant to embarrass her and the French after her help in their bid for independence from the British. It’s a stylized picture of rich texture and emotional resonance that covers one of history’s most compelling stories with aplomb.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Dreyer’s undisputed masterpiece is taken from the transcripts of Joan of Arc’s 1431 trial released in 1922, two years after the Maid of Orleans was made a saint nearly 500 years after her martyrdom. The original negative was destroyed in a fire in 1928 almost preventing the film’s release around the world. Another negative with alternate takes was used to reconstruct the film. The second version was subsequently destroyed, making the film unavailable for decades until a print of the original negative was found in the estate of an Italian priest in 1978.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Filmed in almost grotesque close-ups with Spartan sets, this French film follows the trial of Joan of Arc taken from the actual records of the trial. It is a powerful film, and even shocking by today’s standards. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer did not allow his actors to wear make-up and shot them in harsh lighting, which added to the grotesqueness of their scenes as her interrogators. Actress Renee Falconetti as Joan was filmed in softer light to make her more human. Falconetti never made another film, but her Joan is remembered as one of the highlights of the silent era.
Rules of the Game (1939)
(dir. Jean Renoir) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Like Citizen Kane in the next decade, Rules of the Game is a film most remembered for the rules it broke and the new cinematic language it created. But like Kane, that innovation only works if it is in service of a wonderful film, and Rules of the Game is funny, charming, intelligent, and incisive on top of changing all the rules of the game of cinema.
Show Boat (1936)
(dir. James Whale) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the first nor the last film version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical classic fromm Edna Ferber’s novel, but far and away the best, this version superbly directed by horror maestro Whale gathered together a stellar cast, most of whom previously played their roles in stage productions across the country. There have never been a finer Magnolia than Irene Dunne, a finer Gaylord Ravenal than Allan Jones, a finer Cap’n Andy than Charles Winninger, a finer Joe than Paul Robeson, a finer Julie than Helen Morgan, or a finer Queenie than Hattie McDaniel.
The Skeleton Dance (1929)
(dir. Walt Disney) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Disney produced the Silly Symphony series from 1929 until 1939, and this was the first one of them. Disney was quick to use music in his films and this was the first of 75 shorts he made. A group of four skeletons come to life and dance and make music one night. The animation is both humorous and surprisingly eerie for the time. I can imagine that when the skeleton’s mouths came towards the screen at the time, it was probably frightening. It is an inventive film and can still make one smile.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
(dir. David Hand, supervising director) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This was the first feature-length animated film that Walt Disney produced, after producing a series of short Silly Symphony cartoons. His wife and brother and most of Hollywood tried to talk him out of it, dubbing it “Disney’s folly.” It went on to make $8 million which was the highest gross for a sound film to that point. It was also the first American film to have a soundtrack album released in conjunction with the film. The animation, the music, and the wicked witch have all stayed part of the American psyche through the years. Disney was a true innovator.
(dir. John Ford) Commentary By Tripp Burton – John Ford may be the greatest Hollywood director in history, and a lot of that stems from Stagecoach, the film in which he reinvented what a Western could be and set the table for a new kind of filmmaking that he would help pioneer. This is an exciting, modern film, which blurs the line of good and evil and finds depth and meaning behind every thrilling action sequence it creates.
(dir. F.W. Muranu) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Murnau emigrated to the United States in 1926 where he went to work for Fox Studios on the project that would come to define his career. Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans is the rich story of a farmer seduced by a woman from the city who struggles to reconcile with his wife after attempting to murder her at the city woman’s insistence. With stirring images, lush cinematography, and a romantic and heartbreaking story at its core, Sunrise is one of history’s greatest films and often tops my personal list of the absolute best.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The only film to win an Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture, which was discontinued after the first year of the awards, Murnau’s masterpiece was the first film with a Fox Movietone soundtrack, featuring a musical score but no dialogue. Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Academy Award for this and two other films as wife of the farmer (George O’Brien) who is torn between good, represented by his wife, and evil, represented by a woman form the city. The candlelit search on the lake still takes your breath away.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – Sunrise may be the most perfect movie ever made. F.W. Murnau doesn’t waste a frame of the film, making one of the most overwhelmingly emotional cinematic experiences I have ever encountered and a story of love gone wrong and right that is devastating and romantic at the same time. This is a film that was created to be loved and studied, often at the same time.
The Thin Man (1934)
(dir. W.S. Van Dyke) Commentary By Tripp Burton – There are probably better films I left off this list, but none of them do I love as much as I love The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles, the married detectives who love each other, alcohol, and their dog in some order or another, are one of the great movie duos and the film is filled with witticisms galore and a mystery plot that, if lame, serves its duty as a way to let us spend some time with this wonderful couple.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
(dir. Georges Méliès) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Narrative filmmaking wouldn’t be what it is today without Georges Méliès and his fantastical journey to the moon. Film at the turn of the century predominantly featured short vignettes of real world situations captured on stationary cameras and shown to the public. A Trip to the Moon established that a narrative could be placed into a feature and it could be successful. Although the film was short (9 to 18 minutes depending on projection speed), its sense of wonder inspired countless others and provided a foundation for cinema as we know it today. It’s also a fascinating picture employing techniques that seem familiar now, but were jaw-dropping upon its release.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Georges Méliès’ short film from 1902 was a breakthrough in the art of film. A group of scientists decide to visit the moon and discover the alien tribe the Selenites there. They eventually return to earth and are hailed as heroes. For a short film, it packs a lot in and has effects that are simple but enjoyable. Using the substitution splice technique where the camera stops filming so that objects can be altered, added or taken away and seemingly appear or disappear dramatically. Using acrobats from the Folies Bergère as the Selenites added to the fantasy as they could contort themselves spectacularly before disappearing in a puff of smoke. The whole film was remarkable for its time and has held up well as an early masterpiece of cinematography.
(dir. William A. Wellman) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The first Academy Award winner for Best Picture (called Outstanding Production at the time), the film’s arresting aerial battle scenes were used as stock footage in other films for years. A war film with an emphasis on the futility of war, stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen flew their own planes. Jobyna Ralston, who is the girl the two actors fight over, ended up with Rogers in the films but Arlen in real life. Clara Bow, who chases Rogers to no avail later had a much-publicized real-life affair with Gary Cooper whose two-minute scene in the film made him a star.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
(dir. Victor Fleming) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – An eye-popping visual delight, The Wizard of Oz has delighted audiences for generations and in spite of being almost 90 years old, it still feels like it was made just yesterday. The effects have faded a bit since its release, but the sense of wonder, the creative energy, and the black-and-white to color shift are wondrous conventions that have seldom been successfully replicated. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming and sometimes terrifying glimpse into the fantastical journey of a little girl trapped in a world foreign from her own.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Not the first nor the last film version of L. Frank’s Baum’s masterwork, but not only has this one never been topped, it is unlikely ever to be. There are many magical moments, but the best, lost to early black-and-white TV viewers, is the change from black-and-white to color as Dorothy opens the door of her house which has just fallen on the Wicked Witch of the East. There will never be another cast like this one: Judy Garland as Dorothy, supported by the likes of Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, and Margaret Hamilton.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – There is perhaps no greater proof of the wonders of the Hollywood Studio System than The Wizard of Oz. The creation of the film looks haphazard in hindsight, but everything on screen feels perfectly calibrated and works like a masterpiece of popular art. No one who worked on this film ever did better work, and it led to a film that earns every ounce of its beloved status as an American treasure.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – The creation of this film was troubled, with multiple directors and pushes by the studio for different casting. Surprisingly it was not that successful when first released, but has now become a classic, especially on television, and one that has held up impressively well over time. The songs are tuneful, the characters memorable, and the transition from black and white to color once Dorothy has landed in Oz is still amazing. There is a reason it won two Oscars and received an honorary one as well. Many of the actors are best known for their performances in it, and deservedly so as they are all well cast and played.
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
(dir. Frank Capra) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Featuring a veritable who’s who of the 1930’s acting royalty (Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy Stewart among many others), this film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about a family that has decided to follow their dreams rather than doing what convention dictates. A luminous Jean Arthur as the daughter who bucks the trend and actually works for a living sets the scene when she becomes engaged and has to introduce her family to the staid Kirby family. Hilarity and fireworks literally ensue, but all works out in the end. The cast works wonderfully together and a crisp script and direction keep the movie rolling along. Frank Capra was good at the heartwarming drama and comedy, and he excelled here.