Category Archives: 1930’s

9. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director:   Robert Z. Leonard

Alex – 8.1   Elliot – 7.8   IMDB 6.9   Rotten Tomatoes 6.0

Alex’s Commentary:

The Great Ziegfeld is a great movie. Produced just four years after the death of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the film is a cinematic spectacle that is a tribute to the life of one of the greatest Broadway producers in history. In fact, many of the original performers from the Ziegfeld Follies appear in the film including Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice. 8Great Ziegfeld.jpgThe movie stages musical numbers that even by today’s standards are astounding in their extravagant costuming, dancing, and stage construction. In addition to winning Best Picture for 1936, the film also earned Seymour Felix the Best Dance Direction Oscar for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Ray Bolger (pre-Wizard of Oz scarecrow) performs an amazing tap dance and Harriet Hoctor dances a ballet that is jaw dropping. The movie at 183 minutes is long and in the style of Broadway shows of its era, begins with an overture, has an intermission and then concludes with exit music. Despite its running time, I certainly was not bored and found myself hoping for yet another over-the-top musical production.

Next, on to the acting. William Powell provides an excellent portrayal of Flo Ziegfeld and I was surprised that he did not receive an Oscar nomination for his role. I especially liked Frank Morgan’s role as Flo’s good friend, Jack Billings, although I could not stop thinking that Flo was speaking to the Wizard of Oz. Luise Rainer plays the role of Flo’s first wife, Anna Held, and presents a performance that earned her Best Actress Oscar. I did enjoy Ranier’s characterization of Anna but was surprised by the Oscar win. Myrna Loy plays Flo’s second wife, Billie Burke, and continues the strong acting displayed throughout the movie.ziegfeld-px.1-195-252

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this film. It was a visual feast for the eyes, had more familiar songs than I expected, and was an interesting biography of a man I only knew by name. Of the musicals we have viewed thus far, this one is my favorite as I am a sucker for big production numbers with that “wow” factor. The sound and film quality continue to improve and many of the scenes are beautifully filmed – not only the musicals but also the quiet apartment scenes. The closing scene of Flo’s last evening, seated in his chair, flower in his hand, is especially moving. If you haven’t seen this film and enjoy musicals from the 1930’s, this should be on your must see list.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld was our longest film that we have seen at this point, but this biopic on the life of the eccentric Florenz Ziegfeld warrants nothing less than the 185 minutes I committed to viewing this film. A great improvement over the previous year’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld mixes the whirlwind life of the musical theater pioneer with elaborate musical numbers that Ziegfeld would have been proud of.  Made four years after his death, the film is as much about entertainment as it is about paying tribute to the legend that Ziegfeld personified.  While there were some liberties taken in the depiction of his life for its translation into film, MGM created a sentimental homage to Ziegfeld’s professional and private life that spanned the 40 years from the 1893 Chicago World Fair to his death in the early 1930’s.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is the set design and how it is used to augment the cinematography.  The Great Ziegfeld uses elaborate sets for the musical numbers and long shots to make the film audience feel as though we are actually seeing clips of the Ziegfeld Follies as a theater audience.  Complete with shots framed using the dimensions of the stage as reference points; the film shows the towering, elaborate staircases and moving set pieces that truly cemented Ziegfeld as a musical impresario.  While I found some of the actual songs in the musical numbers a bit drab, center piece numbers like “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” still were very catchy.  image2Also, the tap-dancing in this film is sensational.  I’m a sucker for well-choreographed tap numbers and this film brings the art of tap to life in a way that only a 1930’s era musical can do.  This movie had two elements that were spliced together to form this epic tale of Ziegfeld’s life: the biopic, and the musical.  Neither segment could really stand on its own, because Ziegfeld’s life would have felt incomplete without showcasing his professional life.

The film was our first biopic of the winners that we have viewed thus far, and makes a decisive entry into the Academy’s history.  The only reason I feel as though it is not as well known as other winners has to do with its length and the liberties it has taken in its deviance from reality.  The movie does have some filmic aspects that translate to modern audiences as a bit cliché, but overly harsh criticism of the film would ignore the fact that this is still set in depression-era America.  In this pre-WWII setting, escapist cinema was what the movie-going audiences thirsted for, and its tribute to the glitz and glamour of the early days of Broadway were exactly what the audience ordered.  Rather than fixating on historical inaccuracies or slight melodramatic tendencies, the audience would have left the theater pleased with the caliber of entertainment they received for their ticket price.  The choices the film made for entertainment purposes do not detract from the well-made movie with spectacular sets and interesting plot twists that comprise our 1936 winner.   While you won’t see this film on many AFI top 100 lists, it is hard to ignore the charm of this joyful spectacle of a tribute to one of Broadway’s most ground-breaking producers.

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8. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Director:  Frank Lloyd

 Alex – 7.5   Elliot – 6.8  IMDB 7.9      Rotten Tomatoes 8.2

Alex’s Commentary:

Mutiny on the Bounty is a historical tale of one of the most infamous mutinies in naval history. It portrays life in the British navy at a time when men could be conscripted into service against their wishes. Had first officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) been in charge, the voyage to Tahiti to obtain a cargo of breadfruit plants may have been uneventful; however, under the command of the tyrannical Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), morale quickly erodes. 142678885915Idealistic midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) is on his maiden voyage and is torn between his friendship with Mr. Christian and his duty to follow his Captain’s orders even though he often finds them cruel and despicable.

An interesting side note to this film is the fact that all three actors were nominated for Best Actor (though none won). The Academy introduced the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories the next year to prevent such a reoccurrence. I thought the acting was good but not superb. Having just seen Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, it was a little difficult envisioning him as an 18th century naval officer after his excellent portrayal of the 20th century newspaper reporter. Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh seemed a bit over exaggerated but one clearly despises the character as the film progresses.

Technically, we continue to see improvement film production. The scenes of the HMS Bounty sailing through stormy seas are impressive and felt very realistic. The location scenes on Tahiti inFrench Polynesiapresent our first venture to a far off land for filming and provide a wonderful picture of the island and its people (even if some of the actors are clearly not natives). In fact, at a cost of almost $2 million, the film was MGM’s most expensive production at the time.

Although I had seen this film previously, I still enjoyed revisiting the seafaring adventure.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Mutiny on the Bounty showed a completely different side of filmmaking compared to the previous year’s It Happened One Night.  As a viewer, it is hard not to acknowledge that I felt like Hollywood back-pedaled between these two films. I understand that this film was made in 1935 and Hollywood provided escapism for an America still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.  However, I notice that a production is dated significantly more when the scale of the film is larger.  The film was also our second film to be directed by Frank Lloyd, the first of which being the equally large scale production of Cavalcade.  Lloyd often prefers shots from long distances that illustrate the scope of a scene,  which while impressive and necessary for his subject matter,  do not present the same polished nature of the closer shots exhibited by films like It Happened One Night.  Clark Gable’s performance in this film did earn him a second Oscar nomination for best actor, but unlike It Happened One Night, he was not honored for his performance.

Based on the novel by the same name, Mutiny on the Bounty depicts the breaking point of Fletcher Christian (Gable) and the rest of the HMS Bounty sailors who are overly disciplined by the heartless Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton).   cd294f4dabd61d7b73bc5cd859b0092b--mutiny-on-the-bounty-oscar-winnersCaptain Bligh is presented as a man who derives sadistic pleasure from watching his crew be disciplined, and views any objection to his cruel means of punishment as insubordination.  The film introduces Captain Bligh in a scene where an offender, guilty of striking an officer, is set to be punished in front of the crew.   Already having received a lashing, as indicated by his shredded back, the offender is pronounced dead before the punishment has even begun.   Rather than accept that the deceased has received enough punishment, Captain Bligh insists that the additional two dozen lashes required by naval law be administered to the dead body.   This extreme example of corporal punishment sets the precedent for the impending two year long journey that the crew is about to embark on.

The first half of the trip is comprised of the rising tensions between Captain and Crew that were only temporarily alleviated by shore leave in Tahiti. By this point, the Captain’s strict and excessive punishments had claimed the lives of a couple of crew members; he also starved the ship while maintaining his own particularly gluttonous diet.  The series of increasingly brutal regiments of discipline, which included depriving some members of the crew of shore leave, caused an incensed Fletcher Christian to rally the lay people on the ship to mutiny against the Captain in order to survive the his heartless disciplining.  After the mutiny, Fletcher Christian sets adrift the Captain and his supporters with limited rations and a compass to fend for themselves in the mighty ocean.  The rest of the film can be summed up in three movements: 1). Fletcher Christian and the crew aboard the Bounty live in Tahiti for a year and then leave to start a settlement on an uncharted Island. 2). Captain Bligh and his supporters are in a tiny boat in the ocean for over 40 days and then board another boat to search for Fletcher.  3) A courtroom scene occurs where Bligh supporters, who were prisoners aboard the Bounty, are tried for mutiny after Bligh accuses them of collusion when they remain in Tahiti in hopes of returning to England.

The Best scenes in this film were those set inTahiti, and perhaps I would have preferred a movie with Clark Gable womanizing with the natives.   MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)I understand that this film is supposed to be painful to fit the sadism of Captain Bligh, but it also is not very compelling.  In the massive scope of the film, characterization is lost and the outcome of the crewmates and the captain is not an overarching concern for film viewers.  It’s hard not to like Gable’s character because of his presence on film alone, but Gable didn’t save this movie for me.  The overacted and severely dated period film may have won a second Oscar for Frank Lloyd, but it didn’t convince me that this film deserved the accolades awarded to it in 1935.


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7. It Happened One Night (1934)

Director:  Frank Capra


Alex – 9.0   Elliot – 9.0    IMDB 8.3   Rotten Tomatoes 8.9

Alex’s Commentary:

I love It Happened One Night. Of the films we have seen, this is the first film that I have seen on numerous occasions (although this is the first time on a large screen HD television). In fact, I never previous appreciated the beautiful cinematography. The elegant black and white scenes reminded me of Ansel Adams photographs. There are scenes of moonlight and daylight, urban city and rural county, people at parties and people on buses, and lots of rain.1416087532_5 I also never realized how attractive Claudette Colbert was.  Especially with the moonlight streaming onto her face through a cabin window as she laid thinking of Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on the other side of the blanket separating their beds.

The story has been retold in various guises through films of every decade. The spoiled rich girl, Ellie Andrews, escapes from her millionaire father (Walter Connolly) who wants to stop her from marrying a worthless playboy, only to be befriended by out-of-work newspaper man, Peter Warne. Naturally, their initial icy relationship blossoms into love as they travel together toNew York. The movie is often considered the first screwball romantic comedy to win the Oscar for best picture.

The story and the acting are first-rate. It Happened One Night was the first film to win the “big five” Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Frank Capra) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin). The story is warm and engaging. The characters are wonderfully detailed and developed. Even the minor characters are memorable from the fast taking bus rider, Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), to Ellie’s father, to the cottage owners, to the thieving highway man. Although the film is a comedy, it is still a depression era movie that does an excellent job of depicting multiple facets of American life in the 1930’s: both from the perspective of the wealthy, King Westley arriving to his wedding in an autogyro, to those who must chose between spending money on a bus ticket versus eating a meal.

It Happened One Night is a delightful timeless film that all lovers of romantic comedies should include on their must-see list.

Elliot’s Commentary:

I don’t think it is that much of a stretch to say that It Happened One Night is my favorite Oscar Winner that we’ve seen thus far.   First, let me start with two words that sum up my feelings about the film: Clark Gable.  Directed by the very talented Frank Capra, of It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fame among countless other classics, It Happened One Night is the first glimpse we have had of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is hard to do anything but gush in response to this film, but I will try to maintain some sense of decorum in this commentary.  From the classic backlighting, to the acting, to the production value, to the story, there is something timeless about this film that we haven’t really witnessed thus far in our journey through the best picture winners.  Even the sound quality and sound mixing make this picture a standout in comparison to its more dated predecessors.

An aspect of films like It Happened One Night that one has to take into account, is the fact that what may seem cliché to us now was still an original plot motif when the film was made.  The beautiful Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled rich girl, who runs away from her overbearing father to taste freedom for the first time.  While originally Ellen Andrews (Colbert) flees her father to join her new husband, it quickly becomes apparent that she did not marry “King” Westley for love.   However, Ms. Andrews faces many trials and tribulations as the sheltered debutante attempts to take to the lengthy voyage fromMiami toNew York.  Luckily for both Andrews and viewers alike, the suave newspaper man Peter Warne (Clark Gable) is there to serve as Sherpa for her life-changing journey.  Convinced that the overnight bus fromMiami toNew York won’t leave without her, Ellen takes her time during a brief break only to discover no bus. Suddenly she is met with the stunning realization that the world doesn’t revolve around her.  Peter Warne however, noticed that she had left her ticket on the bus and was waiting to greet the shocked Ellen Andrews.

Through their tumultuous journey together that includes their luggage being stolen, private investigators searching for the missing heiress, being broke and hungry, forging streams, sleeping in hay bales, stealing cars, as well as a myriad of other instances of lovable shenanigans, they discovered that they could quite possibly be in love with each other.   7448b0ad8aae9e38ab8d5aedb58d6f21My favorite scene in the film is one in which Clark Gable shows Colbert how to hitchhike.  He goes on a long spiel illustrating the three different kinds of gesticulations he uses to hail passing cars, and then attempts to demonstrate them.   As he furiously goes through the three options, he fails to elicit a single response from the passing stream of automobiles.  Colbert then steps up to the plate, and asks for a try.  Gable relents to prove to her how difficult the task actually can be.  Colbert then hikes up her dress revealing an amount of leg that was the 1930’s equivalent of a Janet Jackson super bowl performance, and immediately gets them a ride.

While I could write 5000 words on why I love this movie, I think it would be best for me to just endorse that anybody who enjoys classic films, romantic comedies, or just film in general should really see the film It Happened One Night.  *Spoiler Alert* Runaway Bride  totally copied its premise from a scene at the end of this film, and I would take Claudette Colbert over Julia Roberts any day.

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