Call Her Savage. Directed by John Francis Dillon. Clara Bow, born in Brooklyn in the summer of 1905, made her first film when she was 16 and made her last when she was 28. In a career rife with scandal, Bow made her mark as the “It Girl,” exuding her own unique brand of sex appeal that epitomized the Jazz Age. By 1932, however, Bow was floundering in films with mediocre scripts – a far cry from Wings, the 1927 drama about WWI she starred in that won Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony. Call Her Savage was probably not intended by studio execs to be a great film, but in actuality it’s a pre-Code masterpiece. (The Hays Code, used to oversee and edit films for the morality of their content, was started in 1930 and enforced by law from 1934-1968, after which point the MPAA was created and films had ratings.) Bow’s voice, which was supposedly hampered by a Brooklyn accent, sounds fine to me. Her naturalistic acting works beautifully and her ability to switch between lightheartedness and somber drama is convincing. I urge you to discover (or rediscover) Clara Bow; she was more than a pretty face.
Horse Feathers. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The Marx Brothers were one of my first big influences. Their wacky, zany antics appealed to my young brain in the same way that the first film I can remember seeing, the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, also did. I am a firm believer in movies as entertainment. Whether you laugh, cry or vomit, film is a medium designed to make you think. I don’t care if it’s The Virgin Spring or Independence Day – somehow, whether the level is deep or not, you need to care or else the movie wasn’t worth it. Horse Feathers is an example of great entertainment. It may not be “high art” in the most pretentious sense of the word (and yes, many of the films I love are considered pretentious), but I love it all the same. Groucho Marx is, along with Woody Allen, my childhood comedy icon and he will always have a special place in my Jewish (and Jewish humor-loving) heart. Out of all the hilarious gags in the film, my favorite is probably when Connie Bailey (the always-joyous Thelma Todd, who also appeared in the aforementioned Call Her Savage) falls overboard during a “romantic” canoe ride with Groucho and says, “Throw me the lifesaver!” Groucho, in his infinite wisdom, tosses her the candy of the same name.
Love Me Tonight. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Truly one of the most lyrical musicals of the early 30s, Love Me Tonight stars two of the greatest entertainers of the period, Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The film is clearly influenced by Ernst Lubitsch, who had previously made The Love Parade (1929) with Chevalier and MacDonald (they would later star in Lubitsch’s frothy 1934 adaptation of The Merry Widow). Its editing, use of montage (adding to the continental flair), cinematography and sound look and feel revolutionary. The “Isn’t It Romantic?” sequence, which is sung by Chevalier, then many minor characters – the customer in Chevalier’s tailor shop, a carriage driver, etc. – in a journey to get to MacDonald’s rendition on her castle balcony, is unlike any other musical number I have ever seen. It is a charming use of the concept of the “erotic carousel” (which I first read about it in reference to the films of Max Ophüls). In addition to the wonderful Rodgers & Hart songs used, the acting is terrific (especially Charles Butterworth) and the film is altogether a sheer delight.
Red Dust. Directed by Victor Fleming. Most people probably best remember Jean Harlow as the platinum blonde bombshell who died in 1937 when she was only 26. In truth, she was really an excellent actress who could handle bright comedy or heavy melodrama (especially the scene in 1933’s Hold Your Man when she plays piano and sings the title song). Red Dust, one of Harlow’s absolute best, is a classic drama about rough-and-ready Dennis (or “Denny”) Carson (Clark Gable), who runs a rubber plantation in Indochina and must choose between two women, the hooker Vantine (Harlow) or an employee’s wife, prim and proper Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). You can really feel the steam and sticky heat of the tropics as the three battle it out. Gable is a tough, sexy antihero and Harlow cracks jokes with a sparkling wit that contrasts nicely with the torrid jungle setting. My favorite image in the film is during a wild storm when Astor, hair soaked and straightened by the rain, finally submits to Gable’s virile (and volatile) embrace. Red Dust benefits from the expert direction of Fleming, who helmed such classics as The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (both in 1939). Red Dust, while not a fairytale love story, is a real firecracker.
Trouble in Paradise. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. One of Lubitsch’s many Europe-flavored treasures, Trouble in Paradise examines a romantic triangle involving two con artists (the divine Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) and their wealthy mark (one of my favorite strong women of the 30s, Kay Francis). Marshall and Hopkins are supposed to steal from Francis and then leave, but Marshall and Francis are hopelessly attracted to one another. The sexual tension is remarkably pronounced; there is a great scene in which Francis and Marshall, posing as Francis’s business secretary and living in her house, reluctantly say good night to one another. Neither wants to leave the other’s side and they slowly back into their respective rooms, sadly saying good night to each other a few more times before retiring to their own beds alone. It is just one of many moments in a film that perfectly expresses the famed “Lubitsch touch” – lushly romantic, stylishly European and distinctly elegant, even in the strangest circumstances.