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80 years ago...

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The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Director: William Dieterle
Country: United States
Length: 116 minutes
Type: Drama, Political

I confess I didn't know too much about 19th Century French writer/journalist Emile Zola before watching this film but I knew the rough outline of the legal case that this dramatises. The film is not the simple biopic that the title suggests but mostly focuses on the final (and arguably defining) chapter of Zola's life. The first 30-minutes is devoted to showing us glimpses from his earlier life, all of them important (in retrospect) in informing how and why he acted as he did during "The Dreyfus Affair", employing much clever foreshadowing.

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There is a spy at the top of the French military and it's decided that he must be Captain Alfred Dreyfus, simply because he was Jewish. He is swiftly convicted and imprisoned but later when the real spy is discovered the top-brass cover it up to hide their incompetence and prejudice. Zola intervenes in the case by deliberately provoking the military into suing him for libel when he denounces them in an incendiary front-page letter to the French President (Called "J'Accuse...!").

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Curiously no mention of antisemitism is made in the dialogue, although the implication is absolutely clear. Whether this is to make the film a more universal representation of a gross miscarriage of justice, or Warner Brothers being reluctant to address the issue head-on in the pre-Holocaust years, is unclear.  If I hadn't read it was Paul "Scarface" Muni in the title role I wouldn't have realised. He completely disappears into the character, giving a full-body performance of Zola as he slowly ages (aided by excellent hair and makeup). Muni delivers several fiery speeches, culminating in his final summing up at the libel case, consisting mostly of one powerful 4.5-minute long take:



Next up is a film that Orson Welles said "would make a stone cry".
80 years ago...

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Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Director: Leo McCarey
Country: United States
Length: 92 minutes
Type: Drama, Romance

This was the 3rd or 4th time I've watched 'Make Way for Tomorrow' and it gets better every time. An hour and half slips by, with well written scene, after scene. An elderly and very much in love couple (Bark and Lucy) lose their house and have to stay separately with their children's families. They all try to make it work but can't and the couple slowly fear that they won't ever be together again. There are devastatingly heartbreaking yet subtle moments but it's also full of kindness and love. The sympathetic friendship Bark has with the elderly shopkeeper Mr Rubens is charming and also touching when we see how Bark's plight makes him appreciate his own wife all the more. The final scene makes me well up each time I see it (spoilers):





Next up is the first animated feature film and the first film from the list in Technicolor.
80 years ago...

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Director: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce & Ben Sharpsteen
Country: United States
Length: 83 minutes
Type: Animated, Romance, Musical, Fantasy

According to a little Wikipedia research, Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' is one of the first ten-or-so features to use the full Technicolor 3-strip process (the first colour film in the book too). There are many films before it that used partial 2-strip, or tinted methods, in whole, or in part to reproduce colour on screen and there were also several experimental shorts (some by Disney) but this is definitively the moment when full lustrous colour had arrived at the Cinema. 80-years later and Technicolor's process has never been improved upon in my opinion.

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Disney's trademark animation style is mostly here for the Dwarfs and animals but Snow White and the other humans appear noticeably rotoscoped and less smooth. The characterisation is almost nil, the Prince being the worst off with barely a line. Snow White is just a vacuous pretty girl who likes washing, cleaning and cooking for the men. If the Disney writing team want to do a new live-action version, they are going to have some serious work bringing this one up to date for modern audiences! In fact this might be a rare case were a remake would be welcome and interesting.

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The songs are of course memorable but they are sung in that horribly dated warbling white 1930s style. 20% of the movie is plot and 80% is d*cking about in the Dwarf house. As the first animated film it's a mighty technical achievement for 1937 and looks beautiful in HD but it does nothing for my heartstrings in 2018. I expect a compelling story, dramatic stakes and strong characters in my animated movies these days. Pixar and the 1990s "Disney Renaissance" have clearly spoiled me Big Grin .



(01.00 - "...and Grumpy who thinks he's a confirmed woman hater". They really knew how to market movies in 1944! Wink )

Another Leo McCarey film next (a 'Best Picture' infact).
80 years ago...

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The Awful Truth (1937)
Director: Leo McCarey
Country: United States
Length: 90 minutes
Type: Comedy, Romance

When Leo McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for this light-comedy, he quipped "I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award... but you gave it to me for the wrong picture!". He was referring to his other 1937 film, the much more serious 'Make Way for Tomorrow' and I have to agree with him. 'The Awful Truth' is a comparatively unremarkable film, other than the back-and-forth insulting banter between Irene Dunne and Cary Grant being totally delightful and since that makes up 95% of the run-time it's very good fun. They play a married couple who suspect each other of infidelity, so hastily arrange a divorce then spend the rest of the movie falling back in love. The dense comedic dialogue is often very clever, take this exchange playing with the myriad interpretations that can be placed on the words "Same" and "Different" (Oscar Wilde would be impressed):

Quote:Jerry: In a half an hour, we'll no longer be Mr. and Mrs.... funny, isn't it?

Lucy: Yes, it's funny that everything's the way it is on account of the way you feel.

Jerry: Huh?

Lucy: Well, what I mean is, if you didn't feel the way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.

Jerry: But things are the way you made them.

Lucy: Oh, no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.

Lucy: You're all confused, aren't you?

Jerry: Aren't you?

Lucy: No.

Jerry: Well you should be, because you're wrong about things being different because they're not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You're still the same, only I've been a fool... but I'm not now.

Lucy: Oh.

Jerry: So long as I'm different don't you think that... well maybe things could be the same again... only a little different, huh?



Next is another film starring the excellent French actor Jean Gabin.
81 years ago...

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Pépé le Moko (1937)
Director: Julien Duvivier
Country: France
Length: 94 minutes
Type: Drama, Crime

There are a lot of '30s Hollywood films in this list, so the stark difference in style of this French-made film is obvious. Gritty social realism, a free roaming camera, stylish angles, sharp atmospheric lighting and naturalistic acting are all things you associate with Hollywood's "Film Noir" period of the 40s/50s. In 1937 at least and judging by 'Pépé le Moko', the French are ahead of the curve and operating on a different level. Jean Gabin (in the title role) is superb as a French gangster, king of the Casbah but trapped like a rat in it's maze like streets, surrounded by police.

Look at the Scorsese-like brilliance of this violent scene showing the murder of a traitor to the gang. The way the camera stalks the victim, the use of loud happy music is unsettling and the intercutting of comic imagery all serve to maximise it's horror. POV shots are used to make us the viewer simultaneously experience killing and being killed. It should also be noted that this slaying immediately follows a romantic/sexual scene, making it more physiologically shocking.



I noticed Hollywood did a near shot-for-shot remake a year later called "Algiers", although typically they sanitised the ending. I haven't watched it all but scrubbing through, scenes/shots look almost identical.

The next movie is an early Bette Davis role.
80 years ago...

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Jezebel (1938)
Director: William Wyler
Country: United States
Length: 103 minutes
Type: Drama

'Jezebel' could easily play in a double-bill with 'Gone with the Wind' as this is another Deep-South/Plantation film, set before that era (thankfully) ended. The main character Julie (Bette Davis) is also a spoiled rich girl much like Scarlett O'Hara, except here we are not expected to sympathise so much. At first Julie comes off as refreshingly head-strong in the face of stuffy high-society but it soon becomes clear she is petulant, vain and callous. A central plot point rests on the colour of a dress, one red dress in a sea of white would have been a striking image in Technicolor but here, in monochrome, it doesn't really work.

An unlikable central character I can deal with but the constant racism prevented me from engaging with, or enjoying the film. I'm sure all the black servant/slave characters (there are many) say "Yasum" about five hundred times in the screenplay and the actors are forced to do those horrible smiling minstrel performances. Even Julie's final "redemption" speech has her saying she knows "How to talk to a sullen, overworked black boy and make him fear you". There is one brief glimmer of hope when Henry Fonda's character, fresh from a trip to the more enlightened North, asks the black Butler "Uncle" Cato to have a Mint Julep with him... but Cato gives him a kindly smile and tells him "T'aint hardly proper but I'll kindly take one out in the pantry". It's still amazing to me that within living memory of the 13th Amendment, Hollywood was making films portraying slavery as totally fine. F*ck you movie! Angry



Some Errol Flynn swashbuckling next... in Colour!
79 years ago...

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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Director: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
Country: United States
Length: 102 minutes
Type: Adventure, Romance

To be honest, I'm not sure what parts of the Robin Hood myth were original, or invented for this first hit talkie adventure but this has all the scenes you'd expect. The fight with Little John, the Archery competition (and the splitting of the arrow), the rescue from the hangman, the unveiling of King Richard, the badinage with Maid Marian and lots of swashbuckling up and down stairwells. I've watched 1938's 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' quite a few times and it sits alongside 1991's 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' and Disney's animated version in my perfect Robin Hood trifecta.

The script and direction are amazingly efficient, cramming everything into 102-minutes. All the major characters are fully introduced and Robin Hood is already fermenting an insurrection by the 15-minute mark. What's more, we already love Robin Hood, hate Sir Guy of Gisbourne and love-to-hate Prince John. The all-star cast includes Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains. It boasts a thrilling score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and the Technicolor process is exploited to full effect with costumes and images recalling colourful medieval paintings. By the way, I read that Olivia de Havilland is still alive today and will be 102 in July!



Next up is another Michael Curtiz film but on a totally different subject, New York Gangsters.
79 years ago...

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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Country: United States
Length: 97 minutes
Type: Gangster, Drama

Another Jimmy Cagney gangster film but the twist here is that he isn't an outright villain like Scarface, or The Public Enemy. He's got honour and kindness beneath the anger and criminality. The actor that plays the young Cagney is so convincing in appearance and voice, that at first I thought it was Cagney. Humphrey Bogart appears in an early supporting role, which felt very weird to me as I kept expecting the film to be about him. The opening crane shots exploring the bustle of the New York slums is a definite stylistic influence on the period gangster films of Scorsese, Coppola and Leone, however, much of the rest of the film looks very set-bound. The genius last shot makes up for it, when the light and shadow cast from a drain, combined with the choir on the soundtrack make it appear as rays of heaven.



While watching, I couldn't get the brilliant Sham 69 tune of the same name out of my head... Big Grin



Next is a documentary about the Nazi Olympics.
79 years ago...

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Olympia (1938)
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Country: Germany
Length: 228 minutes (3 3/4 hours)
Type: Documentary

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I got 'Olympia' on DVD a couple of years ago (a copy from the Baltimore Public Library that had found it's way on to eBay?) in what my research led me to believe was the best available source. It turned out to be unwatchably bad, so it sat on the shelf. Fortunately, just in time for me reaching this point in the book, Criterion and the Olympic Committee have scanned the film in 4K and it looks fantastic. Director Leni Riefenstahl is again given full reign and limitless resources to document a major event for the Third Reich, the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Every type of camera is placed in every conceivable position to capture the events in incredibly dramatic detail. She spent two years sculpting the 1.2 million feet of film shot, reportedly just screening the dailies took 2.5 months! I'm not really a sports fan but if sports footage was presented at this level of film-making, I'm sure I would be.

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'Olympia' is divided into two films, 'Part 1: Festival of Nations' and 'Part 2: Festival of Beauty'. The opening 18-minutes of Pt1 is a wordless and elegant continuous montage set to triumphant music, taking us from the ruins of ancient Greece, then it's statues, then the statue-like naked bodies of male and female athletes in super slow-mo and finally a fantastical flight across the map of Europe from Greece to Germany, incorporating many effects, animations and paintings. Pt2 begins with Riefenstahl creating a 20-minute ballet in the edit using gravity-defying gymnastics footage. Pt1 focuses almost exclusively on the 'track and field' competition within the amphitheater, then Pt2 ventures out to follow the various other events, equestrian trials, sailing, swimming, cycling and distance running. The star of Pt1 is famously the black US quadruple Gold medalist  Jesse Owens and the star of Pt2 is the steely-eyed Glenn Morris (also from the US team). I found myself really cheering him on as he competes in the grueling Decathlon. He went on to take the lead role in 1938's 'Tarzan's Revenge'... so maybe Tarzan-fan is familiar with him?

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The bulk of the movie is a relatively straight-forward sports Documentary highlights-package, very much like we get today, although edited to a high artistic standard. Some sequences and moments really set this apart as a unique piece of film art. Riefenstahl is often less interested in who is competing and winning and is more focused on how the human body works. The pole vaulting is a super slow-motion exploration of the specific rapid and dexterous moves required to actually perform a vault. The diving sequence is perhaps the most famous part of the film, featuring a beautiful montage of divers, at various speeds, running the film forward and back to create an aerial ballet in the edit. The sequence includes a clever match-cut that makes it appear that a diver disappears into the surface of the water and out the other side into the sky. It ends with cruciform bodies floating in air silhouetted against the clouds like angels ascending to heaven. A more general technique of interest is the occasional cutting to very long/wide shots, to show the athletes racing ant-like in the vast stadium. Effort was clearly put in to shoot, edit and present each event in a unique way.

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Apart from the German commentator using the word "Negros" a couple of times (not in a negative way, just mentioning them in the vernacular of the day), the odd Nazi flag and many enthusiastic Nazi salutes, the film is generally free from propaganda. It's oddly an almost anti-Nazi celebration of the human body and spirit, in all it's races, shapes and genders. There is no attempt that I could detect to favour the white German athletes, over the black or Asian competitors from other nations in the way it's shot, or edited. Watching 'Olympia' is a much more pleasant experience than horrifically racist Hollywood films like 'Jezebel' (from the same year) or John Ford's 1934 'Judge Priest'. Apparently Owens received a congratulatory wave, handshake and signed-photo from Hitler. Owens stayed in unsegregated hotels in Germany and received the first ever sponsorship for a male African American athlete from German shoe maker Adidas. In contrast, on his return to the USA he was made to use the servant's entrance to his own New York celebration and received no congratulation from the President, or invitation to the White House. Things were clearly pretty bad in America in the '30s, when they make the Nazi state look less racist.





Next is a French Comedy.
(04-15-2018, 10:08 AM)TM2YC Wrote: [ -> ]Fortunately, just in time for me reaching this point in the book, Criterion and the Olympic Committee have scanned the film in 4K and it looks fantastic. 

Did you buy the complete Criterion boxset?
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