Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why 1931 is the new 1939


There's this rumour going around that the greatest year ever for movies was 1939.

True, there were huge numbers of brilliant films made in that otherwise doom-laden year, and of course at all other points throughout the thirties.
But when it comes to the best year of them all, I have my own suggestion...
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In a series of linked posts beginning here and continuing below, I'm going to be putting the case for 1931.
As I explain in my post on Dracula, 1931 is a year that held an almost magical glamour for me throughout my childhood purely because of that one film. Because of it, I always took notice when another film came along made in the same year.
And the odd thing is that, in the years of film watching that followed, I found that I noticed it a lot.
Time and again, when a film really impressed me, and especially if it impressed me in a way that took me by surprise, it would turn out to have been made in 1931. .
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1931 was well-placed to be a milestone year.
It was the year Al Capone went to prison, the Empire State Building was completed and The Star Spangled Banner officially became the American national anthem. It was the year of Edward Hopper's Hotel Room.
And at the movies it was the middle of the pre-Code era, and all of Hollywood was turning out cinema of matchless vivacity and allure. The mood was for those tangy society dramas, schizophrenically informed by the frivolities of the roaring twenties on one hand and the social conscience of the Depression on the other, that help define pre-Code not merely as an era, but almost as a genre.
Talkie technology had settled in, got over its teething troubles, and was safe in the hands of masters like Mamoulian, Arzner and Cukor. The new stars were in place, Broadway had been plundered for writers and personalities, and the dialogue and performances had real bite and sophistication.
So, there are good reasons. But still - so many amazing films in just one little year!
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The book illustrated at the head of this post is Who's Who In Filmland 1931 and it's one of my most prized possessions. It never leaves my house and it's so fragile that nobody is allowed to touch it without written permission and videotaped surveillance.
Contained inside is exactly what the (British) film industry was in 1931; how it worked, how it saw itself, how it envisaged its future, its attitudes to new technologies and to emerging trends in popular cinema narrative. It is a living document, entirely in the present tense. Even more than immersing oneself in the movies themselves, it gives you a feeling of being absolutely as one with its moment.
A series of articles at the beginning of the book convey such a powerful sense of immediacy that, for as long as you are reading them, it really is 1931. It's also very, very British and frequently hilarious.
John Maxwell, Chairman of British International Pictures asks Have the "Talkies" Helped British Pictures? and answers himself thus:
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I have no hesitation in saying that dialogue pictures offer the British producer new and great opportunities, and if the alliance between the pantomimic and elocutionary arts continues, as assuredly it will, that we shall have to drastically revise that ancient adage, "Speech is silvern, but silence if golden," and give it an opposite meaning - that is to say, with respect to British motion pictures.
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You try saying that with no hesitation and you'll realise just why they made him Chairman of British International Pictures.
Maurice Elvey, ruminating on the same question, notices that:
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... since the screen became articulate, pictures of international appeal have almost ceased to exist. This is largely due to the fact that the great mass of the people, in any country, do not understand foreign idiom, nor is it possible to translate it, except in rare instances, without losing the point or confusing the issue. And so, as American idiom on the British screen is never translated, the public find it difficult to understand what the characters are saying.
For example, they see and hear a girl in an American picture asking for crackers in a chemist's shop in July, and naturally wonder how it is that these Christmastide commodities are on sale in such an establishment and at such a season, whereas anyone acquainted with both countries would know that a chemist's shop, or drug store, in America approximates somewhat to a grocer's shop in Great Britain, and that "crackers" is Americanese for biscuits.

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Sir Gordon Craig, Chairman and Managing Director of New Era National Pictures has been having similar difficulties, and sees in them good grounds for envisaging London As The Film Capital Of The World!:
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London as the film capital of the world! Why not?..
The British public, in which I include that of the Dominions, is thoroughly weary of most American "talkies," particularly those of the revue and underworld type, expressed through voices that not only sound unpleasantly nasal and shrill to British ears, but speak a lingo that is often incomprehensible and which the Continental and South American countries cannot understand at all.
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Perhaps for Maurice and Gordon's benefit, or else in tacit acknowledgement that the shrill and nasal Hollywood talkie was here to stay, the editors of Who's Who In Filmland 1931 have equipped their directory with a delightful glossary of its strange new terms of reference, as supplied by Universal Pictures Ltd.
Here are some of my favourites, and note how in many cases the British translations are every bit as charming and of their times as the incomprehensible "Americanese" they are intended to clarify:
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Weenies/Janes/Dames/Broads: Girls.
Classiest Mammas in town: Smartest women in town.
He's phooey/He's crackers/He's blooey: He's mad.
A dim bulb/A banana/A sap/An oil can/A sucker/A dumb-bell: A fool.
The parrot's cracker/The bunk/Boloney: Nonsense.
Okay: All right.
Raspberries: Cat-calls.
Dope/Snow/Coke: Cocaine.
A cap pistol/A cannon/A gat/A rod/ A shooting iron: A revolver.

A weisenheimer: A smart fellow.
Punk-hoofer: Bad dancer.
Peeved up: Annoyed.
Roll over: Stop talking nonsense.
The Homicide Squad: A police department dealing exclusively with murder cases.
To tie on the nose bag: To have a meal.
Ditch that rod: Put that pistol in your pocket.
Sugar daddies: Men who "protect" girls.
Shoot: Go on with what you have to say.
Automat: A cheap restaurant where the clients help themselves to dishes from a kind of slot machine.
Right through the old pump: Right through the heart.
Gimme a drag on that weed: Give me a puff at that cigarette.
Give the little girl a big hand: A form of cabaret introduction popularised by Texas Guinan in her night club.
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Thus armed, you need never be confused by an American movie again.

Elsewhere in Who's Who In Filmland 1931 we sense that innocent idealism so characteristic of the Roaring Twenties, such as was still not quite crushed by the Depression but would be, for all time, by Hitler. The Progress myth is still flowering here, as is the notion that communications technology would prove socially cohesive rather than destructive.
Douglas Fairbanks writes on Speed - The Secret of Life with an advertiser's zeal: "Speed's the keynote of this age; it's the principal ingredient in the success formula."
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There's no cause for alarm. It's not a question of morality. This younger generation is just as fine and decent as any generation ever was. They're living ten jumps ahead of their parents and instructors, and they're deserving of our respect and admiration... The oldsters say that the youngsters scoff at authority and standards. Well, perhaps the old rules and the old standards don't fit...
Fundamentalism and modernism aren't confined to religion. They're battling all along the line. And it's always a speed dash... The dark ages were dark because they were slow as well as wicked...
Speed improves conditions of living. With swift transportation we don't have to live so close. Congestion is relieved. Cities spread out, as witness Los Angeles. Slums and skyscrapers disappear. Traffic and police problems are relieved. So morality and health both step up.
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(Is it just me who hears Thora Birch in Ghost World at this point, saying "Yeah... that'll definitely happen!")
Norma Talmadge is even more touchingly plaintive in The Mission of Motion Pictures:
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We live in the Age of the Dawn of Understanding. And one of the most potent factors in bringing about understanding among the various scattered nations of the earth is the motion picture... Misunderstanding breeds intolerance, and this is the most fruitful cause of war, and of minor dissensions, too...
When nations comprehend the motives back of another nation's procedure, they cease to be intolerant... (The motion picture) is bringing about that understanding and tolerance that will eventually mean world-wide peace. For, in my opinion, wars will cease when the nations of the world really understand each other.
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Naïve, of course, but given that it was written in 1931, very poignant too.
But how's this for making a year come alive? This is again from Doug's paean to speed, and be prepared to be smacked up sharp by its concluding observation:
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The increased tempo of modern life has been a priceless boon to women. The speed they're able to show since they rid themselves of their corsets and half their skirts has developed them into interesting partners as well as charming companions. They live faster, better, longer and more usefully. A few years ago, the average human being lived to be thirty-nine or forty. Now he gets to fifty-six.
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And look who else we have here - Mr Alfred Hitchcock, no less, already something of a celebrity ("the famous producer of British International Pictures"), already writing in his instantly familiar, lugubrious voice, already being invited to ruminate on How I Choose My Heroines, and already explaining that they should be (as well as a "thoroughly nice girl" and ideally no more than five feet tall) "the kind of girl I can mould into the heroine of my imagination."
Hitchcock, incidentally, made Rich and Strange in 1931, a film that was both those things yet remains, unfairly, one of the least seen and discussed, as well as least typical, of all his British productions. Easy to overlook, though, in the light of that profusion of cinematic riches with which it shared its year.
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What a year to be alive and going to the movies!
To hear Gloria Swanson sing in Indiscreet, while rejecting the advances of Monroe Owsley, my favourite pre-Code cad, neither of them guessing for a minute that theirs were careers running out of time. (If you don't know Monroe Owsley - or think you don't - first go to his filmography, where you may well surprise yourself at the number of his films you've seen, then look out for him whenever you rewatch them: he takes the thirties art of shiny-pated, slick-mannered high society untrustworthiness to its ultimate heights. I could watch him forever: even Cary Grant didn't have this much effortless style!)
To see and hear John Gilbert, having an eccentric final fling in The Phantom of Paris at MGM, where Norma Shearer is trying open marriage in Strangers May Kiss and Joan Crawford is everywhere, sometimes blonde, sometimes brunette, sometimes dancing, often the poor girl making good in the big city, and frequently paired with Clark Gable, at this point as often as not a heavy: Dance, Fools, Dance, This Modern Age, Possessed, Laughing Sinners.
It's a great year for Stanwyck; she's The Miracle Woman for Capra, living unmarried and Illicit in a story latter rejigged for Bette as Ex-Lady, the Night Nurse who saves the day, with the help of a friendly bootlegger and a sassy Joan Blondell, and the spirit of the age indeed in Ten Cents a Dance, directed by Lionel Barrymore. Universal invent the horror film, and cast the lovely Sidney Fox as Bette Davis's Bad Sister. At Paramount, morals are loose, everyone is languid and it's all terribly European. Kay Francis is The False Madonna, pretending to be an orphan's mother so she can carve off his inheritance, one of the Girls About Town for Cukor, and one point in a sleazy love triangle (with Carole Lombard and William Powell) in Ladies' Man.
The love of Fay Wray is enough to reform notorious criminal Ronald Colman in The Unholy Garden, somehow emanating from the acerbic pens of Hecht and MacArthur.
Clara Bow is fun in No Limit with Stuart Erwin and Harry Green, and serious and impressive in Kick-In.
Dietrich is Dishonored.
Dorothy Arzner has her hands full juggling Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charlie Ruggles and Ginger Rogers in the frothy society cocktail Honor Among Lovers while Rouben Mamoulian's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde sets a new benchmark for cinematic artistry while still coming up with an artistically valid excuse for Miriam Hopkins to do a slow striptease to camera.
At Columbia, Capra makes Platinum Blonde, Harlow leaps justly to the front rank of stars, and nobody notices the wonderful performance of Loretta Young, or the great support of Halliwell Hobbes, Reginald Owen or Walter Catlett.
The Marx Brothers (Monkey Business), Laurel & Hardy (Pardon Us and lots of great shorts), Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, Chaplin (City Lights), Charlie Chan and Betty Boop are all at the top of their game.
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True, these are far from all well-known, widely celebrated classics. But they are all sources of sheer delight from America's most concentratedly inventive era of great film-making, and only respect for your patience prevents from me celebrating them all in detail.
And the list is far from exhausted. In the next four posts, I shall look at some more.