1931 in Movies

Movie reviews for movies released theatrically in 1931.

1. M, directed by Fritz Lang (10/10)

This is a toughy. Here we have a mostly great movie which is perhaps one of the most influential movies ever made, certainly one of the most important pre-WWII films. The direction is flat out incredible for 1931 (love those Germans). There are more neat shots than I could count. There are also more moments that have become cliche in modern “thrillers” than I could count. It feels like 75% of thriller cliches originated with this film. I exaggerate, but only slightly. On the other hand, the script is weak. This view of the underworld is about as naive as it gets. Worse, the end is so contrived I don’t even know where to begin. These are glaring defects. So glaring I almost bumped the rating down. But I can’t. This film is beyond important. So I figured I’d get over the naive script and recognize that it was 1931.

2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian (9/10)

Perhaps the greatest monster movie ever made (excepting, I guess, the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera). And this is coming from someone who doesn’t really have a high regard for monster movies.

3. The Public Enemy, directed by William A. Wellman (9/10)

This film posits a totally discredited view of the criminal (made much worse by the studio’s decision to put a “moral” at the end, probably to appease outrage over what was then a very violent movie) but is nonetheless one of the better Hollywood films of the ’30s. Cagney is great and iconic, and there are numerous iconic scenes. Some of the film techniques are pretty out-there for American cinema at the time (the camera literally in the driveway, for example) and it is just all-around well made.

4. Frankenstein, directed by James Whale (8/10)

A near classic; more iconic than great.

5. City Lights, directed by Charles Chaplin (8/10*)

I saw this at the same time as The Gold Rush, likely over 15 years ago. It began my love affair with Chaplin, but I can’t say that this rating is fair because I honestly didn’t have a grasp of the historical context at the time. I had just started using imdb when I rated it, and I have no idea if it is correct. I need to re-watch it.

6. A Nous la Liberte, directed by Rene Clair (8/10)

Unfortunately I did not record my thoughts at the time. The humour has dated but the message is still obvious and the thing is well-made.

7. Dracula, directed by Tod Browning (7/10*)

Haven’t seen it in ages: classic but with some flaws.

8. The Maltese Falcon, directed by Roy Del Ruth (7/10)

The less famous of the two versions is remarkably similar in some ways – in some scenes the script is identical – and very different in others – the characterizations are all different and some scenes have changed. Everything about the Huston version is superior, but that may have as much to do with the improvements in movie technology and standards in the ensuing decade as the talent involved in the later film.

This original version isn’t bad by any means; it’s good for its day. But it suffers from many things that early ’30s Hollywood films suffer from:

  • actors are playing types not characters,
  • they still haven’t gotten used to the idea that they don’t have to mug,
  • the audience is assumed to be very dumb,
  • and so forth.

9. Waterloo Bridge, directed by James Whale (7/10)

From the very opening shot, it’s obvious that Whale is a better filmmaker than the average director of his era. His opening shot is not framed how a normal person would – Whale is missing half the stage and half the audience. Why does he do this? Well, there could be several interpretations, but I’m not interested in that at the moment. I just wanted to point out that the degree of artistry in this film – buoyed by the fact that this was a play first, so it’s not just some hack job script about a “fallen” woman – is much higher than most of the other “forbidden” features of old Hollywood.

Whale does a good job of making us forget it’s a play, even if the film relies on sets instead of actual London locations. It is still relatively technically advanced for an American talkie. It’s a decent film; it’s hardly a landmark but there’s really nothing about this film that is mediocre, and it’s a shame that idiots thought this was too scandalous.

Why this film was later banned is yet another indication of the prudish nature of American studios (and some of their audience) – the lead female role is a prostitute, shock! horror! And there are women in their underclothes for a few seconds, shock, horror!

10. Little Caesar, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (6/10)

This movie sets up tens (hundreds?) of gangster cliches, and for that it’s no doubt very important. I must have seen about 30 or 40 different imitations of Rico over the years (if not more). But this is not a great movie. So many times, we catch characters saying out loud “this is why I’m doing this.” So much of the dialogue feels unnatural, purely for the plot. The presentation of the tale as some kind of moral also comes off as pretty ridiculous.

11. Rich and Strange, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (4/10*)

I haven’t seen this film in ages, but remember be shocked by how bored I was (I watched in the middle of my Hitchcock phase). I used to have it on VHS (who knows why) but I have lost or given away the copy.

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