Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat

For the women the kiss, for the men the sword! American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) comes to London to star in a show produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). He meets and attempts to impress model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to win her affection, but she mistakes him for Horace. Jerry pursues her to Venice where she is promoting the work of Jerry’s love rival, fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) and visiting her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) who is Horace’s wife … My dear, when you’re as old as I am, you take your men as you find them – if you can find them. With a score by Max Steiner and songs by Irving Berlin, who couldn’t love this arch, witty treatise on love? And there are also all those extra tasty treats for connoisseurs of the period – particularly our favourite, Eric Blore as Bates, Hardwick’s fussy valet; incredible gowns designed by Bernard Newman; and the high Art Deco production design typical of the era’s screwball romances but specifically the Big White Set by Van Nest Polglase constructed for the Astaire/Rogers musicals. It’s probably the best loved of the duo’s ten pairings and with good reason, the combination of song and dance reaching peaks of sheer perfection in this the fourth time they co-starred. In fact, it’s Heaven. Swoonsome, amusing entertainment in the smooth classical style. Written specifically for Astaire and Rogers by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, adapted from a stage play, this was RKO’s most profitable film of the decade. Directed by Mark Sandrich. In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934

Let that be a lesson to you. Never have any children. On a family holiday in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best), become friendly with Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) who is staying in their hotel. He is assassinated in their presence, but as he is dying manages to passes along a secret to Jill, asking her to contact the British consulate. To keep the pair silent, a band of foreign assassins kidnaps their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Offered no help by the police, Bob and Jill hunt for their daughter back in London as they try to understand the information that they have before tracing the kidnappers and once again encountering the cunning Abbott (Peter Lorre) in very compromising circumstances while an assassination is due to take place during a concert at the Albert HallYou must learn to control your fatherly feelings. Providing a template for much of director Alfred Hitchcock’s subsequent career, this is written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham Lewis with a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson (and additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams) and it’s a gripping and blackly comic suspenser with a simple lesson – if a gun goes off in the first act it’s bound to go off again in the third, in order to bring things to a pleasingly grim conclusion in an extended siege and shootout. Hitchcock’s experience in German cinema is telling in terms of editing and design (for which Alfred Junge is responsible) and it moves quickly and effectively, suiting his talents far better than the slow-moving melodramas he made after the coming of sound, with nary a moment to contemplate some of the zingers which particularly work for Lorre’s sly delivery. Above all it’s a fascinating portrait of subversives in the seedier parts of London, influenced by the 1911 Sidney Street siege, a Conradian subject of anarchy to which Hitchcock would soon return. You’ll be agog at the gathering at the Tabernacle of the Sun and amused by Banks and his mate Clive (Hugh Wakefield) singing out instructions to each other to the tune of a hymn. Hitchcock’s future assistant and producer Joan Harrison has a small uncredited role as a secretary but it’s Best you’ll remember as the brilliant sharpshooting mother – you don’t want to mess with the woman. Don’t breathe a word!

A Christmas Carol (1938)

A Christmas Carol 1938.jpg

Keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). The deceased partner was as mean and miserly as Scrooge is now and he warns him to change his ways or face the consequences in the afterlife… Humbug, I tell you. Humbug! Charles Dickens’ sentimental novella gets a fine adaptation by Hugo Butler and a delicate, sprightly production by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and director Edwin Marin. Everything is beautifully staged and nicely played by a very apposite cast. There is a deal of magic with the ghosts (Lionel Brabham, Ann Rutherford and D’Arcy Corrigan) and some excellent scene-setting and romance between Fred (Barry MacKay) and Bess (Lynne Carver). The atmosphere is well sustained and it’s a very enjoyable rendition that tugs at the heartstrings even if the 1951 British adaptation is a personal favourite. The countdown begins… It’s the only time when human beings open their hearts freely

King Kong (1933)

King Kong.jpg

Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.This is notable for the first proper original Hollywood movie score, composed by Max Steiner.  It was beauty killed the beast

Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey

Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

The Spy in Black (1939)

The Spy in Black.png

Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Only Yesterday (1933)

Only Yesterday 1933.jpg

Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga Din.jpg

You will never leave here. Already your graves are dug! British army sergeants Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) and Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) serve in India on the North West Frontier during the 1880s, along with their native water-bearer, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). While completing a dangerous telegraph-repair mission, they unearth evidence of the suppressed Thuggee cult. When Gunga Din tells the sergeants about a secret temple made of gold, the fortune-hunting Cutter is captured by the Thuggees, and it’s up to his friends to rescue him before the Thuggees run rampage across the territory... Ever since time began, they’ve called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem and his short story collection Soldiers Three, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s story has a central conflict closely related to their play The Front Page. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with uncredited additions by Anthony Veiller, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Dudley Nichols, Vincent Lawrence and William Faulkner (if only we knew!) is a ripping yarn, classical Hollywood at its finest, with George Stevens at the helm. Redolent with wit, fun, danger and charm – Grant even has a way with an elephant! – and his and McLaglen’s reactions to Fairbanks’ marriage to Joan Fontaine are highly amusing. This is a marvellous action adventure, reeking of camaraderie and derring-do and good old-fashioned brio. Reginald Sheffield appears uncredited as Kipling. Lone Pine CA and Yuma AZ stand in for India! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din 

Jamaica Inn (1939)

jamaica inn film

Bah, stop crying! Stop it, you little fool! Be beautiful! Oh, ply those tears if you like, but you must be beautiful. Well, you have to be hard now. The Age of Chivalry is gone! England in 1819, the reign of George IV.  After the death of her mother, young orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) travels from Ireland to the Cornish coast to live with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney). Stranded on a windswept, isolated road, Mary meets the bumptious Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who escorts her to Jamaica Inn. There, Mary meets her aunt and bullying uncle, Merlyn Joss (Leslie Banks) – who secretly leads a band of pirates that pilfers the goods from wrecked ships. Suspicious, Mary turns to Pengallan for help, only to discover another dark secret… Why not a toast to beauty, Sir Humphrey?  Written by Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestley, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about wreckers still has some of that book’s atmospherics despite too much staginess and the overt theatricality of Laughton’s performance. O’Hara is luminous in her first major role and along with the gripping opening wrecking scene, it’s her scenes with Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) that give this its tinge of excitement.  It’s disappointing in many production respects and Du Maurier reportedly wasn’t happy with the result.  It’s not really a Hitchcock picture – even he realised that, since it was produced by Laughton’s company – but it still has some touches of gallows humour and bright moments of dark humanity. That’s women for you – save your life one minute, frightened of you the next. I guess I’m not a very pretty sight at the moment, but I don’t bite, you know

Nurse Edith Cavell (1939)

Nurse Edith Cavell.jpeg

How can we stop? British nurse Edith Cavell (Anna Neagle) is stationed at a private hospital in Brussels during World War I. When the son of a former patient escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp, she helps him escape to Holland. Outraged at the number of soldiers detained in the camps, Edith, along with a group of sympathisers, devises a plan to help the prisoners escape, assisting hundreds of men. As the group works to free the soldiers, Edith must keep her activities secret from the Germans but the investigation closes in… The law which is good enough for Germans is good enough for these people.  Adapted by Michael Hogan from Dawn by Reginald Berkeley, this is straightforwardly filmed but no less affecting for that. The true story of a nurse tried by secret German military tribunal, refused legal counsel and condemned to death on the word of a child is another instance of German treachery in wartime. A key film in the career of Anna Neagle, she is directed here by future husband Herbert Wilcox (who had previously directed a version of this starring Sybil Thorndike) alongside George Sanders as Captain Heinrichs, Edna May Oliver as local noblewoman Madame Rappard and Zasu Pitts as Madame Moulin.  An impressive production, nicely photographed by Freddie Young. I have seen death so often it is no longer strange or fearful to me