Category Archives: 1930s

The Song of Songs (1933)

Poster - Song of Songs, The (1933)_03This is my contribution to the Pre-Code Blogathon, organised by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Please take a look at the other postings – there’s a wide range of films being covered.

Marlene Dietrich’s series of films made with Josef von Sternberg are her most famous pre-Codes. As a result, The Song of Songs, made by another great director, Rouben Mamoulian, tends to be overlooked. However, here too she gives a powerful and varied performance, in a film which is packed with pre-Code content and really pushes the boundaries. I was lucky enough to see this film during the recent pre-Code season at the BFI in London, and Victor Milner’s cinematography makes a powerful impression on the big screen. It’s also available to watch on DVD – I have the standard DVD from Universal in the UK/region 2, which doesn’t feature any extras. In region 1 it’s been issued on a more expensive DVD-R from Universal and TCM.

The excellent cast includes Brian Aherne and Lionel Atwill as the two men in Dietrich’s life, but this is her film all the way, giving her a chance to put several different spins on her screen persona. She also sings two great songs, which encapsulate those different versions of her personality.

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Anna Sten

This is my contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently. Please take a look at the great range of posts on films, stars and directors with Russian links.

Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website

Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website

She’s known as ‘Goldwyn’s Folly’ – if she gets a mention at all, that is. But, after seeing a few of her films, I feel that actress Anna Sten deserves more recognition. The Russian star  was a victim of over-hype by the studio – with failed attempts to turn her into the “new” Garbo or Dietrich, rather than creating an image around her own screen personality. She was also advertised as the “Passionate Peasant”, which didn’t sit well with the glamorous photos used to celebrate her beauty.

Either because of too much publicity, the studio’s choice of roles or for some other reason, Sten failed to set the box office alight. That’s not in doubt… but I do get fed up with the claims in reviews of some of her films that she “couldn’t act” or “lacked talent”. Her success before arriving in the US surely proves the opposite – and her acting ability also shines through in the films she did make in Hollywood.

Born in Kiev, probably in 1908 though records vary, Anna was half Ukrainian and half-Swedish. She attended theatre school and, after being discovered by legendary theatre director Stanislavsky, appeared on stage and in a number of Russian and German silent films. She went on to star in German talkies, including an acclaimed production of The Brothers Karamazov made in 1931 – I’ve just seen this and it’s a forgotten gem.

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Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935)

This is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, which is running from January 22 to 25. Please do visit and read the other postings!

Poster - Becky Sharp_01 I’ll admit I expected a lot from Becky Sharp. It has a great star, Miriam Hopkins, in a powerful role giving her plenty of scope, and a great director – Mamoulian, who made such classic pre-Codes as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Love Me Tonight. It’s adapted from one of the best-known Victorian novels, Thackeray’s glittering satire Vanity Fair, set around the Battle of Waterloo. And, what’s more, it was the first full-length feature ever made in glorious three-strip Technicolor. What’s not to love?

The movie didn’t quite live up to my expectations, though it certainly has its moments and I’m very glad to have seen it. One problem is that it seems to be hard to get hold of a decent print. This film has fallen into the public domain, so many versions around on the net and on DVD are almost unwatchable – very sad, since early Technicolor can look fantastic if properly restored. There is a version restored by UCLA, but this isn’t available on DVD, although it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.

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Take Five: Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all readers of my blog, and thanks very much for your support, visits, comments and ‘likes’ during 2014. I’m hoping to post a bit more regularly here over the coming 12 months, so watch this space.

A while back, I launched a series of mini-reviews mentioning 5 films on a particular theme – I’m now resurrecting the idea for a quick look at some movies about New Year, in no particular order.

Cavalcade 81. Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933): I’ve just got round to watching this pre-Code, an adaptation of a stage play by Noel Coward which revolves around a series of tableaux centred on momentous events in British life. It begins with New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 20th century, and runs through to New Year’s Eve 1933.  The way it blends together the story of two families above and below stairs clearly shows the way forward to TV series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, while the intensely-felt central performance of Diana Wynyard as an aristocratic mother at times reminded me of Celia Johnson in Coward’s later classic, Brief Encounter. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that many people don’t. Anyway, yes, it is episodic, but what great episodes. Also, the music is excellent, especially Ursula Jeans’ performance of Coward’s song Twentieth Century Blues – even if you don’t want to see the whole film, just treat yourself to this clip!

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Gold Diggers of 1937 (Lloyd Bacon, 1936)

gold diggers 37 1 As usual with films which have dates in the title, Gold Diggers of 1937 was actually made the previous year. It stars Joan Blondell, one of my favourite actresses, opposite her real-life husband of the time, Dick Powell. There is a lot of chemistry between them, not surprisingly, and I  found that I warmed to Powell in this more than usual. Maybe I’m starting to get his appeal, which had previously been a mystery to me, or maybe it’s because his character in this one is easy to like – a bored, hard-up insurance salesman who dreams of making it as a singer.

Up to now, the only Busby Berkeley musicals I’d seen were his famous three from 1933. Coming to this later offering, I wondered if it would feel insipid compared to his pre-Code work. However, despite bearing that certificate at the start, the film still packs quite a punch – as well as being fun much of the time. It’s just a shame that it only has one massive musical number worked up in Berkeley’s trademark lavish style, with the film’s other songs being  staged in a more modest way. (The subject matter of that one number, All’s Fair in Love and War, is pretty jaw-dropping, even by Berkeley’s own standards.) The songs themselves are great – written by the top teams Harry Warren and Al Dubin and Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg.

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Busby Berkeley musicals

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Hi to all those visiting my blog! I haven’t been around here much lately, and I’m afraid my projected themes fell by the wayside… though I might still resurrect them. But, anyway, I intend to get the show back on the road with some postings about musicals and then see where the spirit takes me. I’ve been enjoying the great Busby Berkeley movies in recent months, especially as I had the opportunity to see Footlight Parade during the pre-Code festival at the BFI in London earlier this year. This was also the first opportunity I’ve ever had to see a James Cagney film on the big screen – I’ve seen just about all his films, bar a couple of TV productions. but only on the small screen ( in many cases on Youtube). It was a revelation to see those spectacular Berkeley numbers as they should be seen – and I have more big-screen joy coming up next month, when Ipswich Film Society plans a screening of Gold Diggers of 1933. 

In the meantime, I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on an imported TCM mini set in their Greatest Classic Films series, thanks to my daughter who gave it to me for my birthday. On two double-sided discs, it contains the aforementioned Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, and two lesser-known Berkeley films, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1937.  Some films in this TCM series are coded for region 1 only, while others are region free – but luckily, although I’m in the UK, I do have the ability to watch multi-region. A big bonus is that these DVDs have lots of special features, including trailers and featurettes. too. Just wondering, what are anyone’s favourite Berkeley musicals? I especially love 42nd Street, but am looking forward to discovering some of his lesser-known offerings. Watch this space for a review of Gold Diggers of 1937 coming up in the next couple of days.