CITY LIGHTS (Charles Chaplin)
So often in art, the finest accomplishments turn out to be the hardest to achieve. Serendipity and circumstance are often major players. A little brilliance always helps, of course. So it was with Charlie Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS. In addition to all the usual logistical problems that come with making any motion picture, Chaplin had a few other questions to address. During the planning for CITY LIGHTS, sound had arrived. Chaplin didn’t believe the craze would last, and never intended to make the film as anything but a silent. He maintained that position right up to its premiere. (And even after, as we would later learn). Still, he had to contend with the obvious popularity of the “talkies”. Then there was his “Little Tramp” character. Would it still resonate with audiences? By this time in his career, Chaplin was his own boss. He would make the decisions. He would call the shots. He even composed the musical score. After sinking a considerable amount of his own money in the project, the gamble was all his.
Chaplin was wrong about sound and cinema, but he was right about CITY LIGHTS. Looking at the film today it is clear that he is the only one who could have gotten away with it. And it is his masterpiece. A stand-alone classic, it is Chaplin’s funniest, most definitive, best realized of all his works. Chaplin had a history of two-reelers that are golden. But even if you unfortunately never have the chance to see any of them, and only have time for CITY LIGHTS, you will “get” Chaplin.
CITY LIGHTS became and remained Chaplin’s own personal favorite. In the early films, the little tramp is a rascal, a rogue, a trouble maker. And we loved the mischief and the havoc he created. By the time of CITY LIGHTS, he had become much more sympathetic, more human. What makes the film so wonderful is how Chaplin was able to evolve the tramp’s character without sacrificing any of the elements that had endeared him to us before.
Chaplin chose a non-actor, Virginia Cherrill for the role of the blind girl, partly because she looked like she was blind. (Her gaze was allegedly due to being severely near-sighted.) She seems perfect for the part and plays beautifully with Chaplin, even though he derided her as an “amateur”, and even tried to replace her at one point with his former leading lady, Georgia Hale. “Chaplin never liked me and I never liked him”, Cherrill said. Amazing. Further proof that cinema exists in a universe separate from the one we call “reality”.
Chaplin’s gamble with CITY LIGHTS paid off immediately. He had further invested in all the advertising for the premieres. They were huge successes. Chaplin invited Albert Einstein to the LA premiere and was seated next to Chaplin. At the conclusion of the film, Chaplin noticed Einstein wiping a tear from his eye. Theaters in New York booked screenings from 9am to Midnight to accommodate the crowds. This sort of thing happened to Chaplin……in his prime. His films would come out years apart and become major events. They were worth the wait. CITY LIGHTS can be seen as a high point. But Charles Chaplin was certainly not done yet………
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (Rouben Mamoulian)
This, the second major adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel may be the best. In this one, it is clearly sexual frustration that propels Jekyll’s transformation and defines Hyde’s evil. Jekyll’s anxiety in the delay of his marriage to his fiance is explicit and palpable, ably demonstrated in Fredric March’s performance. But it is March’s portrayal of Mr. Hyde that won him the Oscar (and the very first Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival.) Under all that makeup, and with very different body language, March truly transforms. You have to remind yourself that it really is Fredric March. His persecution of Miriam Hopkins’ poor Ivy is truly disturbing.
The sets are awesome and Mamoulian, always the innovator, used no optical effects for Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde. Rather he used the removal of certain filters at appropriate moments to reveal makeup on March’s face that was already there.
DRACULA (Tod Browning)
The year 1931 had barely begun when this classic was released. Universal jump-started the horror genre, and it damn near saved the studio. Based more on the play than the Bram Stoker novel, it is often stiff and stagey. But those early scenes in the castle and the sheer strangeness of it all makes this a mesmerizing masterpiece. I have probably seen (or just listened to the soundtrack of) this film more than any other in my life. I am not the only one with that claim.
FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale)
It’s unlikely that when Universal embarked on the project to bring Mary Shelley’s novel to the screen that the studio intended to create a franchise, a studio-defining enterprise, and visual icons that would last for generations. But that is exactly what happened. Looking at the film today, it’s not hard to imagine the impact it had on audiences of the day. Like its predecessor DRACULA, earlier in the year, it simply delivers. Despite straying considerably from its literary source, the film deals directly with the essential (and most disturbing) aspects of its story. Is it moral to create human life? And if you do, how could it go wrong? And would we even care about these issues if we didn’t have James Whale’s careful direction, Jack Pierce’s revolutionary makeup enveloping Boris Karloff’s complicated monster, and Colin Clive’s intensely anguished doctor?
Boris Karloff was one of the oddest-looking actors in his early days. He had already played smaller parts in a ton of movies before FRANKENSTEIN and had always added a creepy vibe. With his lisp and hard-to-disguise British accent, he just seemed other-worldly. With the success of FRANKENSTEIN, he was able to utilize all of it in a long and wonderful career.
Whale’s decision to give audiences their first look at the monster in three successive, ever-closer shots was duplicated by Hitchcock over 30 years later in revealing the face of the first victim of THE BIRDS.
PRIVATE LIVES (Sidney Franklin)
In 1931, Hollywood was buying up every stage play they could get their hands on to satisfy a talkie-hungry audience. The results were decidedly mixed. Many of them were stodgy and leaden, completely uncinematic. Norma Shearer had been in her share, such as the interminable THE TRIAL OF MARY DUGAN (1929). Maybe that’s why she knew a good thing when she saw it. And when Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES opened on the London stage, Shearer pushed M-G-M to buy the screen rights. It didn’t take much persuading since her husband was wonder-boy producer at the studio, Irving Thalberg. Shearer herself had just won the Best Actress Oscar for THE DIVORCEE. For her co-star she chose Robert Montgomery with whom she had shared the bill with less worthy productions (STRANGERS MAY KISS, anyone?) Back then, the studio required their actors to be in 6 or 7 movies a year. Montgomery had served admirably with everyone from Buster Keaton to Greta Garbo. Perhaps getting this part was his reward for enduring such drivel as OUR BLUSHING BRIDES with Joan Crawford.
The director would be Sidney Franklin, perhaps the most urbane gentleman on the lot. Franklin had worked with Shearer on THE LAST OF MRS CHENEY (1929), another filmed play with its own share of stinging one-liners.
What makes PRIVATE LIVES so remarkable is what it both does and does not do. Respectful of the fact that the play is a witty gab-fest, there isn’t much of an attempt to “open it up” for the screen. The sets by the ubiquitous Cedric Gibbons are striking, but always complimentary to all the verbal sparring. The chemistry between Shearer and Montgomery is obvious as they square off as the exes Amanda and Elliot. Noel Coward’s dialogue is delivered crisply, sharply, without any of the pauses for laughter so necessary for the theater crowd. To my mind, this makes the film version the best version, over any stage version, and I’ve seen excerpts of many. There’s a reference to the characters being British, but there are no attempts at phony English accents. When things get physical in Act 2, the knockabout fight scenes are some of the best ever staged, worthy of any comedy two-reeler of the day.
PRIVATE LIVES is an under-seen, under-appreciated gem, head and shoulders above most of the offerings of its day. Its wit and sophistication is rivaled only by a certain gentleman from another studio who went by the name of Lubitsch.
CITY STREETS (Rouben Mamoulian)
1931 was a good year for Rouben Mamoulian. Before his JEKYLL AND HYDE was released came this adaptation of a Dashiel Hammet story. It’s a love story, but one where love and morality are challenged and tested by unsavory elements of the underworld. Always the innovator, Mamoulian had helped free the early sound camera from its restrictive box-like cage on his last film, and here takes it to the seashore at night for great effect. Mamoulian loved to experiment with visual metaphors and sound montages. Some of them are showy and obvious, but many are striking. Most impressive is the camera placement and Mamoulian’s thoughtful staging of a scene.
First and foremost (as with all of his best films) is how Mamoulian brings out the best in his actors. The under-appreciated Sylvia Sidney gives perhaps her best performance. Usually the doe-eyed innocent, here she gets a chance to show some street savvy. Mamoulian is credited (by Sidney herself) to having insisted that she would become a star. See how his camera lingers on her face in the prison bed scene, as she carries the moral weight of the film. Likewise, Gary Cooper gets to flesh out his part, while still sticking to his gangly aw-shucks persona. While Von Sternberg had used that persona the year before in MOROCCO (to great effect), Mamoulian utilizes and expands on it.
GUILTY HANDS (W.S. Van Dyke)
A cracker- jack little crime drama clocking in at 69 minutes, hard to find but worth the effort. Lionel Barrymore is a former D.A., now in private practice who muses about the possibility of a perfect murder committed for justifiable reasons. It isn’t long before he gets a chance to test his theory. Director Van Dyke (“One-take Woody”) keeps things moving and all of the leads shine. Kay Francis shows a dimension to her skills in a role that would prove to be unusual for her image. Another pre-code find.
MURDER BY THE CLOCK (Edward Sloman)
I’m not sure what genre this film would fall into, but if I had to create one for it, it would be something like the horror/murder mystery/comedy/old house with secret passageways genre. You know, that one. I suppose James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) would be in this category too. I actually prefer this lesser-known (and lower-budgeted) effort from Paramount. Creepy, yet good-humored in a kind of Charles Addams way, MURDER BY THE CLOCK is almost gleeful in its gallows humor. Everybody just seems to be having a good time, even while the proceedings continue to be quite morbid. You might find yourself chuckling with the film, rather than at it. A rarity for a film this dated. And check out Irving Pichel! He might be having the most fun of all.
THE SECRET SIX (George Hill)
He started in the movie business as a stagehand at the age of 13. He became a cameraman and then a director in the silent era. When sound came, George Hill (not to be confused with the later George Roy Hill) effortlessly transitioned to the talkies. THE BIG HOUSE (1930) set the standard for countless prison movies to come. Working for a prestigious studio (MGM) and married to an ace screenwriter (Frances Marion), Hill directed a succession of films that stand the test of time. Many of his characters are hard-boiled, stealing a bit of the thunder from Warner Brothers and its reputation for gangster films and working-class themes. Wallace Beery appeared in every one of his films until Hill’s untimely death in 1934. He guided Marie Dressler to an Oscar in MIN AND BILL (1930).
THE SECRET SIX shows Hill at his best. There are tough guys on both sides of the law, showing depth for their characters rare for the era. In fact, it is character that seems to interest Hill above all, and that is what elevates his films. In this one, there’s Beery and Clark Gable; one actor firmly established and the other making his stamp. And there’s Lewis Stone in a departure from his sugardaddy roles and a far cry from his fatherly Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series to come. Ralph Bellamy makes a big impression in his film debut.
Hill infused his films with a personal touch that brings to mind the early films of Howard Hawks. We’ll never know how his films might have evolved. He committed suicide in 1934, attributed to a debilitating car accident from which he was never able to fully recover. Details are hard to ascertain. Hill was in pre-production for THE GOOD EARTH, his most ambitious project. It was eventually directed by Sidney Franklin, to great acclaim. (See 1937)