Continuing from last week
, here's my list of the Ten Best Classic Hollywood Movies I screened during the past year. I realize that this list seems a bit, er, obscure and maybe even esoteric, but in truth, every film is hugely entertaining and suitable for most everyone.
It is sad that so few contemporary movie lovers are familiar with classic Hollywood movies in general and silent films in particular. Imagine if the history of music was suddenly swept clean of the work by Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.
Well, it's the same with classic Hollywood movies.
You are missing some works of genius and numerous gems.
Here are my top five films.
5. The Kid Brother
, 1927, starring Harold Lloyd, and Jobyna Ralston. Writers: John Grey, Ted Wilde, Thomas J. Crizer, Lex Neal, Howard J. Green. Directed by Ted Wilde, J.A. Howe (co-director), Harold Lloyd (uncredited) Lewis Milestone (uncredited).
Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston in The Kid Brother, 1927. Ralston was Lloyd's leading lady in six of his most important films. She was probably his best leading lady.
The great silent comedians were Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Chaplin's Little Tramp was, perhaps the most popular and poignant in all film history. Keaton, the great stone face, was technically the most bold. Even today, film students worship Keaton's technical innovations. But Lloyd, in his horn rimmed glasses, was the most ordinary of the great comedians. His trademark character, always named Harold, was eager, brash, clever and eternally optimistic. In short, Harold Lloyd was the most American of the legendary triumvirate.
In The Kid Brother, Harold Hickory, the Sheriff's youngest son, is a weakling who always defers to his hulking big brothers. But Harold must recover stolen money and win the love of Mary Powers, Jobyna Ralston, a performer in a traveling medicine show.
This is a male Cinderella story, with Harold as the household slave.
In the opening scene Harold washes clothes in the butter churn and then using a string, runs the wash through a wringer, and finally attaches the string to a kite which floats in the air as a dryer. It's a lyrical and effortless way of establishing Harold's clever character and his low rank in the alpha male family.
The Kid Brother has, to my mind, the most romantic scene ever filmed.
After meeting and spending time with Mary in the woods, she departs, making her way over hill and dale.
Harold is so reluctant to part from her he climbs a tree to keep her in sight. The camera cranes up with Harold as he climbs.
He calls out to her: “What's your name?”
She calls back: “Mary.”
As she continues along, Harold loses sight of her.
Harold climbs higher so he can follow Mary's progress. The camera continues craning with him.
“Where do you live?”
“In the medicine tent.”
Mary strolls along.
The camera cranes even higher.
“Goodbye,” cries Harold.
She waves and walks away. Now, she's just a dot in the landscape.
Harold is way up in the tree, but he's so enraptured that he loses his balance, falls, bumping into one branch and the next, until he hits the ground. Dazed, he plucks a flower and tears off petals: She loves me, she loves me not.
It's a breath taking sequence where movie technique perfectly expresses the inner longings of the main character.
Harold Lloyd is often accused of being cold and mechanical. But in truth, he was a great American romantic, and The Kid Brother might be his greatest achievement.
4. Souls for Sale
, 1923 starring Eleanor Boardman, Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr, Richard Dix and Lew Cody. Written and Directed by Rupert Hughes based on his own novel.
Eleanor Boardman in Souls for Sale, her first starring role. She went on to star in King Vidor's classic—she was Mrs. Vidor for a while—The Crowd.
Hollywood has always had a deep fascination with, um, Hollywood. Narcissism, a away of life in tinsel town, has given us an entire genre of movies in which Hollywood ponders its own meaning. Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is the quintessential Hollywood story: bitter and corrosive, it views an existential pond where big fish eat the little fish in a vicious Darwinian struggle.
It's easy to see Hollywood as a wicked place filled with phonies, sinners and broken people.
That's why Souls for Sale is such an unexpected delight. This is a film that looks at Hollywood and discovers a world of hard work—the best kept secret in Hollywood—generosity, and warm camaraderie.
Remember Steddon—yup, that's her name—the daughter of a small town minister who rails against the evils of Hollywood, impulsively marries Owen Scudder—great name—played by Lew Cody. But when he kisses her hand she's gripped by a deep sense of revulsion. Terrified, Remember slips off the train, escaping her honeymoon night. Trekking through the desert, the runaway bride stumbles across a motion picture company shooting a film.
Before you know it—that's how things happen in the movies—Remember becomes a wildly successful actress. But fame, fortune and true love are threatened when her husband oozes back into her life bent on revenge.
In her very first starring role, Eleanor Boardman plays Remember—I kept waiting for her parents to say: “Hey, do you remember why we named her Remember?” But no, there's never any explanation for the name. She's a sweet and virtuous small town girl who arrives clueless in Hollywood and rather than becoming a drug addicted nymphomaniac—the obvious
choice—Remember flourishes in the loyal fellowship of movie folks.
It's refreshing take on tinsel town and the film is suffused with sly and affectionate tributes to movies and the people who make them.
Boardman delivers a shrewd comic performance that anticipates screwball comedy by twenty years. But in her quiet moments Boardman allows her mask to drop and she lets us see Remember's fears and insecurities. Boardman is hugely appealing and she's got wonderful energy. It's a shame that she retired so early, 1935.
There is rare footage of directors King Vidor, Fred Niblo, and Marshall Neilan. We see Charlie Chaplin directing A Woman of Paris
and Erich von Stroheim preparing a scene for Greed
. There are wonderful shots of early Los Angeles when orange groves dotted the landscape. It's the Los Angeles of my dreams and Souls for Sale
is the movie business that we all wish existed.
, 1929, starring Gilda Gray, Anna May Wong, Jameson Thomas, Charles Laughton, Cyril Ritchard, King Ho-Chang, Hannah Jones. Written by Arnold Bennett. Directed by E.A. Dupont.
Anna May Wong, as Shosho, the dancing scullery maid in Piccadilly.
Gilda Gray—famous for popularizing the shimmy—is billed above Anna May Wong as the star of this fine movie, but it's Anna May who dominates just as she supplants Gray in the story.
Anna May plays Shosho, a scullery maid in Piccadilly, a popular London night club. One night, Wilmot, the owner of the club steps into the kitchen where he discovers Shosho entertaining the other dishwashers by performing a dance. Wilmot fires Shosho. A customer—Charles Laughton in his first screen appearance—complained of a dirty plate and the fun-loving Shosho pays the price.
Featured dancer Mabel, Gilda Gray, romantically involved with Wilmot, bombs in her solo dance—her lack of grace is shocking and I was unsure if this was intentional or just a sad commentary on Gray's, lumbering talent—when her male partner, Cyril Ritchard—the future Captain Hook—departs for Hollywood. Desperate, Wilmot hires Shosho to perform an “authentic Chinese dance.”
I'm no expert but Shosho's dance looks more Balinese, but hey, my knowledge of dance is limited to begging my wife not to watch So You Think You Can Dance while I'm within 100 feet of the TV.
Anna May Wong, (1905 – 1961) America's very first American Chinese movie star—she was born and raised in Los Angeles, and her cousin was the great cinematographer James Wong Howe—spent time in the late 1920's in Europe trying to get better roles when she grew frustrated by the limited parts offered her by Hollywood.
Anna May grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. She used her lunch money to attend local nickelodeons, and at home, she spent hours in front of the mirror practicing pantomime and acting out scenes she saw in the movies. Dropping out of high school in 1921, the determined young woman pursued a career in the movies.
Anna May Wong, the first and still greatest American Chinese movie star, studio portrait by Hurrell.
Anna May did become an American movie star but she was always limited in her roles by anti-miscegenation laws. Never allowed to kiss a white man, romantic roles were denied her and more often than not, the characters she played were doomed to grim deaths.
Piccadilly, directed by E.A. Dupont, is one of Anna May's greatest roles. Her power as an actress was always her ability to project intelligence coupled with sensuality through slow, elegant gestures. Watch her with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. Dietrich preens and poses, consciously hitting her key light, while Anna May blows her off-screen—they were actually good friends—as she plays a hand of solitaire and delivers her lines with a silken purr.
In Piccadilly, Anna May acts with her fingertips, with the inviting but scornful sway of her hips. She uses a lace shawl as a screen through which she studies and dominates the hapless Wilmot. The taut line of Anna May's body—think of a bow under tremendous pressure—allows us to read Shosho's conflicted inner life.
Anna May Wong as Shosho. The very line of her body reveals the inner life of the character.
Dupont planned to shoot a scene of Anna May kissing Wilmot, but the scene was cut. It must have been a devastating blow to Anna May. Europe, she discovered, was no refuge, and no better than Hollywood.
Anna May's greatest disappointment took place after her return to Hollywood when she was denied the role—she was never seriously considered—of O-lan, the lead character in MGM's version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, 1937. The coveted role went to the Viennese Louise Rainer, who works, like the rest of the starring players, in yellow-face. Rainier, a highly competent if tediously sincere actress, won an Oscar for her performance. This was the year in which the following films were released: Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor, Stella Dallas, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Nothing Sacred, starring Carole Lombard, Topper, starring Constance Bennett and The Awful Truth, starring—big sigh from yours truly—the very great Irene Dunne. Hollywood often gets it wrong. However, do take note, my astute friend Self-Styled Siren has a far more generous view of Rainer's work.
Piccadilly, a lost film for many years, was recently rediscovered and restored, and with it Anna May Wong's reputation as one of Hollywood's greatest actresses should also be established.
2. Madeleine, 1950, starring Ann Todd, Ivan Desny, Norman Wooland and Leslie Banks. Written by Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps. Directed by David Lean.
Madeleine, 1950, one of a trilogy of films in which Ann Todd served as inspiration and muse for husband David Lean.
“There is something unnatural about you, Madeleine.”
So says James Smith, Madeleine's authoritarian father early in the film as she sits at her father's feet, and as she does every night, and pulls off his boots.
David Lean, best known for such fine epics as, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and The Bridge Over the River Kwai, directed three incredibly powerful films starring his wife—one of six wives—the British actress Ann Todd. The Lean/Todd trilogy—The Passionate Friends, 1949, Madeleine, 1950, The Sound Barrier, 1952—are each, in their own way, small masterpieces that are, unfortunately, too often neglected by movie lovers.
Madeleine, based on a notorious murder and subsequent trial in Glasgow, Scotland, 1857, stars Ann Todd as Madeleine Smith, the dutiful daughter who is, in fact, not so dutiful. She refuses to marry the fine upstanding man her father favors. Instead, she is obsessed with and meets her impoverished, laudanum addicted French lover in the basement of their Victorian home—she is drawn to the basement in the opening scene as if pulled by a sexual magnet.
Madeleine's lover—wonderfully played by Ivan Desny—is an oily rogue, a manipulative bohemian who yearns to take his rightful place in the Smith household. Whereas Madeleine is an unbridled romantic who wants to run away, escape the shackles of class and her family.
The irony is that Madeleine's tyrannical father is right. The young man he has chosen for Madeleine is upstanding, honest, sensitive and warm. But Madeleine is too deeply in love with her wild romantic side to realize that the bad boy for whom she lusts is, well, poisonous.
From her basement, Madeleine, Ann Todd, arranges to meet her forbidden lover.
Ann Todd often gets a bad rap as a glacial beauty—she's the ultimate Hitchcockian cool blond; he used her in The Paradine Case—with little acting ability. But the Lean/Todd trilogy should put this nonsense to rest.
After Ann Todd retired from the screen, she became a successful producer and host of wildly popular travel documentaries.
In fact, Todd was a respected theater actress who suffered a disfiguring car accident early in her career and her face had to be rebuilt.
Todd plays a role that can easily slip into a programmed performance: the young and proper Victorian woman who yearns to break free. It's a difficult role because Todd has to maintain a mask of propriety, yet at the same time hint at the volcanic passion that motivates her every breath. But Todd delivers with just the slightest of movements: the arch of a brow, her fingers clenching and unclenching, her palms nervously smoothing her hair. It's restraint within layers of restraint.
Lean's camera placement is, as always, perfection. Here, with great subtlety, Lean suggests Madeleine's almost sadomasochistic side by twice using POV shots of her lover gazing at her feet as she lies on the ground awaiting his embrace.
There are countless shots of Madeleine making deep curtsies to her father, superbly played by Leslie Banks. These repeated shots are Kabuki theater in Victorian Britain. Todd appears as her father's subservient daughter but look at her eyes, she's making a mockery of the ritual, she's challenging her father and he hasn't a clue. It's subtle film acting, filled with quiet moments that are too often overlooked. For me, this Lean/Todd collaboration is a glorious if deeply muted masterpiece.
1. The Goddess 1934, starring, Lingyu Ruan, Tian Jian, Zhizhi Zhang, Keng Li, and Junpan Li. Written and directed by Yonggang Wu.
Lingyu Ruan, as The Goddess, 1934, the pinnacle of silent Chinese cinema.
Lingyu Ruan (1910-1935) was the greatest star of silent Chinese movies—lack of capital delayed China's move to sound.
Lingyu Ruan is often dubbed the Asian Garbo. Which does a huge injustice to Lingyu Ruan, a far better actress. With no formal training, Lingyu Ruan instinctively broke from the highly stylized performances of Chinese opera and films. Instead, she brought a graceful, sincere, and refreshingly realistic style to her roles.
Lingyu Ruan's father, an impoverished machinist, died when she was just five-years-old. She lived with her mother, a housemaid for a wealthy family. As soon as Lingyu Ruan finished primary school, she looked for work in order to help her mother. Spotting an ad for film actors, she went to a casting session and at age of sixteen, Lingyu Ruan got her first role in Husband and Wife in Name Only, 1927.
Throughout her short career, Lingyu Ruan created unforgettable images of traditional Chinese women: impoverished girls who lived under the heel of an oppressive feudal code; prostitutes exploited by tyrannical men; innocent girls seduced by wealthy sons; young women struggling in the bonds of marriage; and modern women who yearned for a more equitable place in traditional Chinese society.
In The Goddess, her deeply sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute trying to raise a young son, is the pinnacle of classic Chinese cinema. Ruan's performance is deeply nuanced and disciplined. There's a touching moment when Ruan watches her son in a school play. She smiles with such pride and love that your heart just breaks. It's a haunting scene—so simple it could be overlooked—that it has imprinted itself in my memory as one of the great moments in movie history.
Tragically, Ruan's unhappy private life was fodder for the merciless Chinese tabloids. In 1935, during production of her last film, a divorce suit and ugly newspaper stories caused her intense public embarrassment and private anguish. Her life unraveled in the public eye as her vindictive ex-husband slandered her through the tabloids.
Portrait of the great Chinese actress, Lingyu Ruan.
Out of shame, Ruan took an overdose of barbiturates. In her suicide note she wrote: "Gossip Is a fearful thing."
She was twenty-four years old.
Her funeral procession was three miles long, attended by tens of thousands of fans. Three women committed suicide out of despair. Lingyu Ruan was a star for just ten years. She left behind a dozen movies. Her tragic heroines, free of false nobility, fed the romantic fantasies of an entire nation.
When I was in China my extremely cute Chinese Communist spy almost wept with joy when I expressed admiration for Lingyu Ruan's work.
This great actress is practically unknown in the West and that is a pity.
Robert J. Avrech