On screen 90 years ago
January 12, 2022 4:09 AM   Subscribe

"A small handful of filmmakers mastered the 'talkies' and made movies that look and sound as if they could have been made years later...It’s full of familiar classics, with a film or two that will probably be unknown to many." The ten best films of 1931.

JustWatch links for each film where available:
M
Le Million
Arrowsmith
Kameradschaft
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
La Chienne
Tokyo Chorus
City Lights
Odna (Alone) [Letterboxd]
La Petite Lise [Letterboxd]
Previously: Best of 1929 | Best of 1928
posted by youarenothere (31 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Le Million is delightful! I watched it a couple years back for my blog and strongly recommend.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:28 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Thank you, I was planning on posting this and forgot.
posted by octothorpe at 5:06 AM on January 12


M is easily a top twenty movie of all time for me and probably in the top 10. It's really the model for all serial killer and police procedural films to come and Peter Lorre is so amazing in it.
posted by octothorpe at 5:18 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


No Waterloo Bridge? No Limite? No Mädchen in Uniform? I'm outraged!
(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Okay, not outraged, I'm mostly joking, but the list does reflect the attitude that a great director is the thing worth noting in some of the choices a bit that maybe could be viewed a different way. Mädchen in Uniform, for example, is a key queer film about lesbianism in a girl's boarding school directed by Leontine Sagan, a woman who didn't get the same kinds of chances to develop a style as Ford or Renoir, and Limite is a lovely quasi-experimental film from Brazil, the sole film from Mário Peixoto, who directed it at 22 years of age, and Waterloo Bridge is one of James Whale's wonderful examples of a queer sensibility brought to mainstream fare.

There are others too of course, popular movies like Public Enemy with one of the great abrupt endings of movie history or the sheer extravagance of von Sternberg's Dishonored with a top notch ending of its own, or the more lurid excess in the story of Svengali, or a more character driven story in something like Alexander Korda's Marius and so on, that derive their interest from elements that aren't so purely formal or dependant on the director's later body of work. But these are all fine choices, at least the eight I've seen, so no real upset, just wanted to provide another way of thinking about such a list. I appreciate the post in any case.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:18 AM on January 12 [12 favorites]


Frankenstein was that year too.
posted by octothorpe at 5:33 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Frankenstein was that year too.

As was Tod Browning's Dracula, but I guess pretty much everyone who's a film buff is aware of those movies, so I'm glad to get suggestions for some deeper cuts. I've only seen 2 of the 10 listed, namely M and City Lights, which tend to show up on a LOT of all-time lists.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:06 AM on January 12


Frankenstein was that year too.

Looking up the dates, it struck me that the 1931 Frankenstein film is almost as far removed from the publication of the original novel (1818) as that movie is from today.
posted by star gentle uterus at 6:19 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


Geez. One review of Mädchen I found claims early 1930' Berlin had "more than fifty Damenklub lesbian bars in Berlin alone", and we're currently down to about 20 in the USA.
posted by Jacen at 6:21 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


M is easily a top twenty movie of all time for me and probably in the top 10.

It's a bit of a shame that M is so overshadowed by its earlier, more showy sibling, Metropolis in today's culture. I love Metropolis, but M is far and away the superior, more engaging, film.

I think Metropolis is such a touchstone for today's viewers largely due to it being a sci-fi SFX spectacle. It dovetails neatly with geek culture. M, though, is more a tour-de-force of mature, confident, film making and story telling.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:18 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Frankenstein was that year too. Ah no, Frankenstein is the doctor. It was Frankenstein’s Movie.
posted by condour75 at 7:39 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I love both M and Metropolis. But, I wonder how much of the latter's fame is really just because of the striking images on posters. I suspect very few of us have read the novel. I certainly haven't and don't plan to. (Though, the idea reminds me that it's been a very long time since I've read A Story of the Days To Come. I should see if I still like it.) Like Dr. Calegari, the important part isn't the plot. The plot mostly just gets in the way. Even the version with the restored bits is boring nonsense. I often wish it was possible to make films anybody who isn't a museum-goer or art student actually sees without needing to add a plot. I guess music videos sometimes achieve that.

For a while there was a free, weekly noir film screening projected onto the outside wall of a museum in San Francisco. They stretched the definition a little bit and showed M. Watching it with a crowd and the sounds of traffic was exactly the right way to experience it for the first time. (I've seen it since, but it's never been as good.)

There are several films in this list and in comments I've not seen or even heard of. I'm adding them to my list. Thanks!
posted by eotvos at 7:42 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Interesting to compare with Jesse Walker's 1931 list. Some overlaps, some differences. Frankenstein stands out for me.
posted by doctornemo at 7:48 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Metropolis has brilliant set design and special effects and many of the sequences are amazing but the story doesn't really make much sense.
posted by octothorpe at 7:49 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


This post and conversation are giving me happy goosebumps and good memories and seeding plans to watch things! Thank you!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 8:18 AM on January 12


but the list does reflect the attitude that a great director is the thing worth noting in some of the choices a bit that maybe could be viewed a different way.

I'm in agreement on this point along with Gus' cited missing films. As much as I've enjoyed that blog post in particular (all of these films are great films - though I've only read about Petite Lise & Alone) and the blog in general, there is still an emphasis on an auteur rather than an individual film. That's likely not a fair criticism I suppose... but I just feel sometimes criticism can neglect key works for the sake of grander statements on individual artists and broader trends.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:47 AM on January 12


The list author, Kristin Thompson is the co-author with David Bordwell, of multiple seminal texts on film history so I would expect her to pick films that she feels advanced the art and influenced works to come.
posted by octothorpe at 8:55 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


M is on my short list of "early" Hollywood films I recommend to people who think any movie made before WWII is not worth watching.* It's incredible how modern the film seems with its dialogue, characterization, and cinematography. In particular, the little girl's disappearance at the beginning and the trial scene with the criminals at the movie's climax are masterfully done.

*Two others would be It Happened One Night and the Passion of Joan of Arc, the latter being easily one of the greatest films ever made. Watch it - you won't be disappointed.
posted by fortitude25 at 9:23 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Has there ever been a major film so utterly different from its source material than Frankenstein? Frankenstein wasn't a doctor, (he was a student), he wasn't a baron, he didn't have a castle, he didn't have a special laboratory (I guess you could say laboratory in the sense that he used his apartment room for experiments), he didn't have an Igor, his creature was intelligent, he ran off to the Arctic pursued by his creature.

As for fortitude's list, Trouble In Paradise is delightful for most anyone. I'd add in a couple of Marx Brothers movies to that, Safety Last, The General, and those are just the comedies.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:31 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Yah, Thompson and Bordwell have indeed written the book about a lot of film history, their contributions to certain aspects of it are immense particularly in understanding the development of film language, how movies came to be the way they are, but that isn't the only way to see movie history and there is a current trend towards asking different kinds of questions that aren't so "great man" centered. None of that should diminish the work the two have done, but open the way to a broader understanding of film appreciation.

While one can think about how movies developed, there is also the pleasures to be had in seeing movies as they were in the moment, where genres were either just getting their footing in the sound era, gangster films primarily with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar basically becoming foundational texts and Frankenstein and Dracula being the same for horror films. At the same time the studios were developing their house styles, MGM heading towards their glossy bigger than life look, while Warners and Paramount were more down to earth/slice of life invested.

Movies from those latter studios might be seen as the more defining of the moment, at least from today's vantage point, as they reveled a bit more in the pre-code possibilities of the era, where the brisk run times led to punchier, sometimes almost brutal character interactions or situations, often across class lines. Something like, say, Night Nurse stands out for Barbara Stanwyck's role and portrayal by not being as refined as later movie making would be, abetted by William Wellman's nothing wasted style of directing. Dorothy Azner's Working Girls would be another that doesn't really fit a history of movies well because that history was aborted by refinements in style and method that became more routinized as Hollywood developed. It's not that these films are inartistic, just that they were of the time while the trends developed in different directions, some for reason of what can be said via film and others for what people wanted to hear as trends.

Bordwell and Thompson are great film historians, but their method is one of neo-formalism, cognitive based formal appreciation that has some serious albeit debatable limitations that, at least, shouldn't be wholly accepted as what movies are about. That's well beyond the point of this post though, so I won't dig into it beyond that. (And it isn't to say the pair would entirely dismiss something like Night Nurse, just that their approach lends itself favoring a particular set of film values. That was just a quick alternate example to the list from the year.)
posted by gusottertrout at 9:51 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


I think Metropolis is such a touchstone for today's viewers largely due to it being a sci-fi SFX spectacle. It dovetails neatly with geek culture.

It also enjoyed a weird renaissance in the MTV era - Madonna lifted the plot for the video (and a lot of the visuals) for Express Yourself from it, and Queen just lifted clips of it for their video for Radio Gaga. There was also a recut done by Giorgio Moroder in 1984, aimed at luring in younger viewers by giving it a whole new soundtrack done by people like Queen, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler. So that may have cemented it in people's minds a bit more.

Has there ever been a major film so utterly different from its source material than Frankenstein?

Yeah, how about Bride of Frankenstein? It starts with a little vignette set in the 1800s with Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, suggesting that the previous movie had been only half the story and that Mary Shelley is going to keep going - and further suggesting it is going to follow the plot of the novel again. But then it goes completely another direction in terms of plot and theme. It doesn't even stick to time line - unless Mary Shelly was somehow talking about telephones in her original novel and I somehow missed that.

The story there, though, is that Bride of Frankenstein went through a whole assload of rewrites with different writers who all put their own spins on the project; Frank Whaley originally wasn't going to direct, and the studio was trying to bring him back in, and finally they convinced him to and he basically did an a la carte rewrite of his own because he thought all of them sucked - but he ended up taking bits from one persons' script and bits from another one's, throwing in a little of his own stuff, and came up with what we see. It's more of a Frank Whaley Personal Testimony than it is an adaptation of Shelly's work.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:35 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


It also enjoyed a weird renaissance in the MTV era - Madonna lifted the plot for the video (and a lot of the visuals) for Express Yourself from it,

Directed by young video director by the name of David Fincher.
posted by octothorpe at 11:16 AM on January 12


Has there ever been a major film so utterly different from its source material than Frankenstein?


Different era and genre, but To Have and Have Not comes to mind. (Or, I guess, Ran and O. But they were doing it loudly.)
posted by eotvos at 11:17 AM on January 12


Bordwell and Thompson are great film historians, but their method is one of neo-formalism, cognitive based formal appreciation that has some serious albeit debatable limitations that, at least, shouldn't be wholly accepted as what movies are about. That's well beyond the point of this post though, so I won't dig into it beyond that.

I think I'm way out of my depth here, given that I don't know what any of that means.
posted by octothorpe at 11:19 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I think I'm way out of my depth here, given that I don't know what any of that means.

Sorry about that, I can get carried away on such things that are only important within a narrow band of interest. A glib short answer is their interest is the science and mechanics of/around the arts more than other types of context or interpretative understanding.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:26 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Just dropping in to say I always appreciate your very insightful and well-informed comments on arts/culture topics, gusottertrout -- thanks for taking the time to contribute!
posted by RGD at 1:01 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Oh, no criticism of you intended gusottertrout. I just know nothing about that subject. I'll admit that I've never gotten very far into their books; they're a little too dense for me but I do like their talks on the Criterion Channel and their blog posts.
posted by octothorpe at 1:17 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


gusottertrout, I am reminded of your recent post on Nollywood, and thinking about movies just as they appear to people who go to see them - in that time, of that place -

I love, love, LOVE thinking about Filums in more formal/art-history-like ways (though with *no* formal training, just generous friends who do), but it’s also such a delight to just sit back and try to take it in as a Movie without thinking about its technical details. It’s a kind of meditation in itself, to let go of whatever drive I have to play how-does-this-fit-in-with-what-I-know with art.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:59 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


It's almost always interesting to look at an art form before the genres have congealed. Same is true of the English novel. Sometimes older works seem startlingly modern because they come before or at the same time as the conventions modern art smashes up.

people who think any movie made before WWII is not worth watching.*

How many people do you know like this??? Not many, I hope!
posted by praemunire at 4:17 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


How many people do you know like this??? Not many, I hope!

Dude, I know people who won't watch movies made before 1990! To them, a 1990s movie is ancient. Recently a much younger co-worker described "The Doom Generation" (Rose McGowan, 1995) as a "really old cult classic." I died inside a little, hearing that.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 8:16 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


It's almost always interesting to look at an art form before the genres have congealed. Same is true of the English novel. Sometimes older works seem startlingly modern because they come before or at the same time as the conventions modern art smashes up.

Yeah, in part, I think, because the awareness of working in a new form leads creators to feel the need to guide the audience through the concepts they're working with, addressing the audience with how to view the work, which leads to playing with audience awareness once the basics have taken hold as that method of address keeps the works open to seeing them as constructions rather than as established patterns of story. So you get the "Dear reader" openings or movies that have characters breaking the fourth wall early on as a acknowledgement that this is something new.

One of the things that people who like this era of Hollywood really respond to is that it was such a brief window of possibilities being explored before the Production Code, convention, and standardization of industry practices took hold. The pre-Code sound era only existed for five or so years, during which time there was a birth of something different matched by limitations on what could be done, leading to a singular moment of film history. Dialogue drove an interest in playing with situation and theme in news ways. If it was more difficult to shoot big conflicts of action, then the excitement would come from conflict of character and values. You get these repeated clashes between the upper and lower classes and exploration of themes that would be buried for decades to come, but are revealed in this era in all their problematic vitality. For people who get into old movies, this era stands out for its boldness in that aspect more than the production values or artistry much of the time, although those things certainly still were felt and noted as well.

Watching something like, say, Cimarron now is to see it as a "western", which it was, but it was also this broad canvas history of a time just 40 years prior, like a movie about the Clinton era would be now, that used a notion of genre tied to history to make a prestige picture. Arrowsmith came from Sinclair Lewis' Pulitizer prize winning novel that explored medical ethics in the time of a pandemic, hmm, but the movie altered and arguably watered down a good portion of the book to fit its prestige picture status, in modern terms we might think of it as award bait for that and argue over its "meaning" more than its artistry, while something like Trader Horn, another attempt at a prestige film of sorts, is riddled with objectionable elements and foolishness that plays more like a lot of big budget commercial films do.

Somewhat amusingly perhaps, one of the Academy Award nominees that might be hardest to watch today is Skippy, based on a popular comic strip of the era. It's difficulty coming from how notions of light entertainment, kids, and popular culture have such a narrow range of acceptability before becoming cringe, and in this case the lighthearted story is about a pair of lower class kids with shitty parents who have their dog unjustly taken, held for cash, then killed before lessons are learned and a new dog acquired. Haha what fun! (It was written in part by Joseph Mankiewicz of All About Eve fame among other things).

What a lot of people really get into though are the "gritty" Warners films and the more "risque" or adult leaning Paramount stuff, movies, whether Lubitsch musical or Wellman drama, where sex is discussed in frank terms that wouldn't be heard again until the sixties, punches are thrown among all parties, women and men belting each other with reckless abandon, and conflicts over money are fit into arguments over class and even occasionally race in ways that would also fade considerably over the next few decades or be sublimated into more symbolic forms like the so-called noirs.

There's a sense of excitement from the path not followed, seeing what was left behind that doesn't fit where movies went and because of that often doesn't fit popular concepts of history for being so often based on the conventions of Hollywood stories under the Production Code. There is an implicit challenge to modern understanding and values that can be deeply compelling in ways that go beyond formal considerations, which can sometimes seem to actively tame that sense of immediacy by instilling a more distanced sense of appreciation, the play of forms blunting the play of character by sapping it a bit of its place in a specific time by the assertion of a more singular artist's perspective as mediating influence.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:04 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]


people who think any movie made before WWII is not worth watching.*

HBOMax has No Country for Old Men and The Aviator in the Classics Section.
posted by octothorpe at 5:03 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


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