Film / Film Reviews / The Story of Film

The Story Of Film: An Odyssey – Chapter 4: “The Great American Movie Genres and the Brilliance of European Film (The 1930s)”

Here at The Moviola, we continue covering Mark Cousins’ 15-part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey every week, providing an overview of each episode of The Story of Film as well as a closer look at some of the accompanying movies set to air on TCM. Today, we examine the fourth installment, “The Great American Movie Genres and the Brilliance of European Film,” (The 1930s) which premieres September 23rd, at 10PM EST.

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The advent of sound was probably the single most foundation altering occurrence to happen to film in its entire history, including color, widescreen, 3-D and computer graphics. The 1930s, when sound came into its own, was one of the most prodigious decades for movies, culminating in the greatest year of American cinema, 1939. So it naturally follows that this episode of The Story of Film should be one of the strongest. Sadly, I think the opposite. Of course, it doesn’t help that the 30s is my favorite decade. So maybe I’m a little obsessive. Let’s see…

The series’ style, to sometimes forcefully map trends and patterns, this episode ends up digressing into unusual detours. In order for an episode to keep to its theme, it sacrifices films and filmmakers if they do not fit into Mark Cousins’ predetermined shapes.

Cousins sets the scene well: by the end of the 1920s, the world was changing faster than at any other time. By 1929, the Wall Street crash initiated the Great Depression, which lasted 12 long years. Political and social unrest was galvanizing Europe, and prohibition would still fight its losing battle for three more years. Yet, in the midst of this financial upheaval, tickets to movies were selling 10 million a week.

While more people than ever were going to the movies, Cousins maintains that, at least in the first half of the 1930s, moviemaking took a huge step backwards: filmmakers had, during the Golden Age of Silent Cinema, learned to take their productions outside. But with real locations offering up audio challenges (construction, traffic, noise) filmmakers were forced back into buildings, now named sound stages.

The technology was moving fast, but the resourcefulness of the directors trying to deal with the big clunky boxes that sound cameras were housed in, and the limitations of the microphones, were not able to keep up.

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Cousins example is Her Dilemma (1931), a musical nonesuch with Bing Crosby. Since sound was the focus, the visual became secondary. We see Bing crooning to a roomful of dancers, we cut to his close-up, and he is awkwardly framed with a violinist over his shoulder, in the same position as the wide. Because recording sound was the objective, the director chose to cover the scene with 2 cameras rolling simultaneously, much like today’s live television. The lighting, then, was similar to today’s TV sets, with harsh overheads used to cover the wide shot, offering unflattering close-ups, which were cluttered because they weren’t staged and lit separately. Cinema, then, became far less cinematic.

Cousins interjects, however, that the Story of Film’s main thesis is about inventive people who overcame these technical limitations.

He chooses Love Me Tonight (1932) by director Rouben Mamoulian as an example of a director who was not hampered by technology, but instead, excelled because it forced him to think outside these constraints. The film’s opening depicts Paris in the morning as a symphony of emerging noises, synchronized and designed to take the meticulously familiar and reinvigorate it as a mash-up of sound and self-made music. We then meet our main character, a plucky sailor (Maurice Chevalier) who will fall in love. Dressing in a clothing store, he sings “Isn’t it Romantic,” overheard by a customer who steps outside of the shop singing in the street, passing a composer stepping into a taxi, who hears his humming and writes it down as sheet music. The composer gets on a train, and his song is heard by soldiers and turned into a march, overheard by a fiddler who takes it to his gypsy caravan, where their rollicking rendition of the song over a night bonfire finally reaches the ears of a stranded princess (Jeannette MacDonald). Sound, then, has been effectively used as a metaphor for travel, as a unifying sequence of events where the sound leads and the image follows.

Mamoulian’s further melding of audio and visual in Love Me Tonight extends to sound design beyond music. He lays the audio of yapping dogs under a gaggle of yelping old ladies as a way to mock them, substituting real for metaphorical sound. In doing so, Cousins argues that Mamoulian had freed directors from sonic literalness.

Sound, voluntarily or by force, brought new styles to cinema, and helped standardize films into specific “types” with recognizable stories, trappings and styles, that can be defined as six successful genres, which were the staples for decades to come:

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1. Horror – one of several genres originated in the silent era, goes all the way back to 1899, but the first to set forward many of the horror tropes and make use of German Expressionism is The Golem (1920) the third in a series about the Jewish mythological clay figure brought to life. The first great horror film of the sound era would have to be Frankenstein, made at Universal in 1931 by James Whale, borrowed heavily from The Golem. Whale realized that the look of German expressionism would give Hollywood horror a mood, and that mood would become Universal’s trademark. The studio would be known as the home of horror for over 50 years.

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2. The Gangster film is a pure American original, and unlike horror, had no European roots. Born during the 13 year Prohibition era when crime offered a viable alternative, Italian and Irish mobs ran the cities and controlled bootleg liquor. The Public Enemy (1931) by gritty filmmaker William A. Wellman, made 2 years after sound, tells the story of bootlegger James Cagney, who makes his fortune running liquor. Cagney, a former dancer, oozed charm and elegance, which motivated various church organizations and the Censor Board to denounce the film for exhibiting how thrilling the gangster life could be, stirring a debate that continues today.

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1930) by Howard Hawks, turned the gangster genre into Greek tragedy. In 1983, Oliver Stone wrote, and Brian DePalma directed the update, which again exhibited the fast and furiously intoxicating power of gangster life. Cousins believes De Palma’s update is the more successful film; I strongly disagree. As maudlin as the original is, there’s a quaintness and charm that it displays, delivering a greater irony today, with an eye turned to modern society’s attraction to crime’s exoticism, where DePalma’s version hits you over the head with its heavy-handed symbolism. The sign on the building in the original displays the message: “The World is Yours,” and doesn’t carry the snickering tongue in cheek flashiness of the blimp flying over Tony Montana in the remake.

Not only was the gangster film an oft imitated genre for filmmakers, it was a successful one with audiences, as reflected by the staggering 70 gangster films made in the first 3 years since sound. And more often than not, influenced the style and tone for films across the globe.

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3. The Musical was the most thrilling genre brought about by the advent of sound, and probably, holds up the least well today. Examples given include Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. Berkeley, who loved military marching patterns and theatrically, also claims to have sourced his ideas from his bathroom. He would take morning baths, meditating on the look and geometry of the bathroom and thought up dance routines.

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4. Westerns came from the very first decade of cinema, and were mostly set within just 40 short years; 1860 – 1900. Cousins chooses, unusually, to compare the western to the gangster film. John Ford was the great master and arbiter of the western, going as far back as The Iron Horse (1924) . This silent epic established many elements of the genre, significantly, the chase. While the gangster films didn’t typically use a moving camera, The Iron Horse established the need for speed. Ford filmed from a moving train, using it as a dolly. Just 20 years later, Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1945) reflected that many of the best westerns are about lawmakers in an idealistic age, a time when society was just being born for white people. Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp surveys the scene as if it’s virgin territory, all clean and white. In gangster films, the town and city are dying, the world is dark, and no one remembers “law” being made at all.

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5. Comedy, the greatest genre of the silent era, changed its course entirely with sound; it became dialogue driven, and Cousins asserts; feminized. Howard Hawks’ again is represented with Twentieth Century (1934) arguably the first true screwball comedy, pitting two styles of acting against one another. John Barrymore, the silent, posturing ham, goes toe to toe with Carol Lombard, playing his ex-wife, who is more than his match. She is preternaturally faster and more real. Hawks supposedly told her if she “acted,” he would fire her.

Speed was new in cinema. Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) took the speed and mayhem further, again pitting a feeble man (Cary Grant) against a “brassy” dame (Katherine Hepburn). The actors purposely overlap each other to keep the mayhem flying and the interactions more realistic. This had never been done so emphatically before; “realism” sparking between “surrealism” in sound, thanks again to Hawks, who created not just screwball comedies, but crime dramas (The Big Sleep) and buddy films spanning all genres, most pronounced in westerns such as Rio Bravo and Red River. He was, according to Cousins, the “maker and baker of rich and beautiful character westerns.”

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6. The Cartoon, the final Cousins “genre,” follows animated films from their inception in 1906, to Walt Disney, who in the 1930s, turned animation into a world wide popular art form. With cartoonist Ub Iwerks, Disney created Mickey Mouse and later the first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a 1937 box office hit around the world. According to Cousins, part of Snow White’s charm was its tonal change from the surrealistic cartoon characters of the silent and early sound period, to a fantasy world with a foot planted in reality, as there was no mistaking Snow White was human. A real woman was filmed in costume and transcribed on paper. This was the first motion capture character. She was a revelation, a cartoon character dancing gracefully, without the traditional herky-jerky action or distortion. The result got standing ovations, and rave reviews. Cousins asserts that gradually Disney’s work, assembly-line driven, became less innovative and more conservative, reflecting the creator’s own ultra-conservative views. After World War II, Disney testified against communism at the HUAC, “naming names,” and by 1961, his drawings were cheaply xeroxed onto film.

From this point, Cousins abandons the American genres for international influences. Since this is a history of worldwide cinema, it’s an expected and smart maneuver. But this is the entirety of 1930s American cinema as reflected in the series, and so we miss Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch (except for a final comment on Ninotchka), the early work of Preston Sturges, and William Wyler, the magic of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, the birth of the sound comedy geniuses like the W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers, and singularly iconic producers like Irving Thalberg. Granted, Cousins, in his labyrinthine storytelling style, will find a way to “circle back,” but for an episode dedicated to the iconic elements of Hollywood in the 30s; this is a misstep.

In France, there were standardized films too, but the best directors extended cinema in both the magical direction of George Melies as well as the realism of the Lumieres brothers.

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The greatest magician of French Cinema, Jean Cocteau, exploded on the scene with The Blood of a Poet (1930). A statue explains to an artist that to get out of a studio, he must go through a mirror. We hear voices shout as he plunges in, not something that could’ve been done in silent cinema. Cocteau claimed he was inspired by Picasso and smoking opium. He rocked the set on its side, reversed the action, taking early techniques of surrealism and silent cinema and inspiring filmmakers all the way to 2010, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, whose set was built in a huge barrel and spun.

1930s French cinema also saw Zero de Conduite (1933) Jean Vigo’s astounding fantasies, where a pillow fight becomes an indoor snow scene. Like Cocteau, Vigo plays with sound. He wrote a piece of music to be played backwards, an “unheard of” sound innovation. In the film, school boys riot. So Zero de Conduite was seen as an attack on the French school system and was banned until the mid 1950s. It inspired British filmmaker Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) where he used Vigo radicalism and projected it onto the British Class system.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1946) French filmmaker Marcel Carne’s greatest achievement, was made during the Nazi Occupation, forcing Carne’s sharp political satire to only infer its theme of fascism.

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If Carne was a realist, Jean Renoir was the 1930s greatest “humanist.” His most famous film, The Rules of the Game (1939) illustrated aristocrats who know nothing of real life, and revealed Renoir’s greatest line of dialogue; “Everyone has his reasons, it’s not about good or bad.” Trapped under German rule, Renoir had the ability to see past politics and war to the concept that life is not black or white, but about the greys.

Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) is about human balance. A French officer and a German prison camp commander, portrayed by Erich von Stroheim, realize their likenesses, they are both cut from the same aristocrat (read: “dying”) class. They are shown in the same frame in the same size, equal respect between them.

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Germany also had a rich history of important filmmakers. The most infamous, of course, was Leni Riefenstahl. Talented, smart, innovative and beautiful, she created the dazzling and outrageous Triumph of the Will (1935) at the behest of Propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler. The “documentary” covers a Nazi party rally, the result depicting Hitler and the Nazi Party in almost mythic terms. Riefenstahl, given the resources that Griffith had for Intolerance, or Abel Gance for Napolean, created images that were geometric, epic, and bombastic. Her greatest and most enduring achievement was her two Olympiad films shot at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, using technology like cameras in balloons, zoom lenses, and operators and equipment dug into the ground, resulting in images that lose all earthly context and become sublime, foreign and beautiful.

If the Story of Film in the 30s is about genre versus innovation, then England offered up the first and greatest director interested in both genre and innovation, Alfred Hitchcock. Cousins’ believes he was the “greatest image maker of the 20th century.” He gives seven reasons, including Point of View, Life versus a contrived reality, understanding the difference between shock and suspense, his use of closeups and the God point of view, his mixing of establishing shots pushed later in a sequence in preference to starting scenes with extreme close-ups, and his understanding of silence and the power of whispered moments.

Finally, Cousins draws the decade to a close by comparing three of its most enduring female characters, all from 1939, and how they deal with reality versus escapist fantasy.

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Ninotchka , Lubitsch’s iconic, joyless Communist finds love in Paris, starts dressing like a princess, and believing in fairy tales. Her exclamation to suitor Melvyn Douglas: “Civilization will crumble, bombs will drop, but give us this moment,” is a conscious rejection of a world on the threshold of war.

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz lives in a grey reality, walks into a Technicolor world of fantasy, but unlike Ninotschka, learns to understand that there’s no place like home, questioning the very idea of 1930s escapism.

Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara is rich and spoiled, starting life in the bygone fantasy world of the deluded South, but steps into reality and war, its famous crane shot pulling back over the scourge of war, revealing to the audience and Scarlett the scale of trauma. Unlike the other two films, GWTW punishes Scarlett for her false ideals and denial. Cousins posits that while GWTW is the most famous of all escapist films, its content actually attacks escapism. Producer David O. Selznick and Director Victor Fleming created so vivid a universe, the film’s greater message of disillusionment offers a sugared but bitter pill.

Without doubt, Cousins’ series is captivating and powerful, and draws interesting parallels and theories generally reserved for academia. Sometimes, though, the message is buried deep in the filmmakers text, and forces a connection to a greater historic context that may not, ultimately, exist.

Following is the schedule of films and shorts that will accompany this fourth installment of the documentary (all times are Eastern).

Monday, September 23
8:00 PM Love Me Tonight (’32) (U.S.A.)
10:00 PM The Story of Film – Episode Four, 1930s
11:15 PM The Public Enemy (’31) (U.S.A.)
12:45 AM Frankenstein (’31) (U.S.A.)
2:00 AM Gold Diggers of 1933 (’33) (U.S.A.)
3:45 AM Twentieth Century (’34) (U.S.A.)
5:30 AM The Adventures of Prince Achmed (’27) (Germany)

Tuesday, September 24

8:00 PM Limite (’31) (Brazil)
10:00 PM Zero de Conduite (’33) (France)
11:00 PM L’Atalante (’34) (France)
12:45 AM Rules of the Game (’39) (France)
2:45 AM
 The Story of Film – Episode Four, 1930s
4:00 AM Grand Illusion (’37)
6:00 AM Le Quai de Brumes (’39) (France)

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