Following the great success of “Grand Hotel” in the previous year, “Dinner at Eight” is another remarkable gathering of film stars: Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery, among the big names of that era. This production of the MGM studios was directed by George Cukor, known for working best with women. David O. Selznick had also a great importance in the making of this film, and “Dinner at Eight” obviously has some charm and a sense of perfection that one could see in most of the productions under Selznick’s signature, the best of them being, of course, “Gone With the Wind”.
The film’s budget was estimated at $435,000 and it grossed over $2,000,000, being a box office hit. “Dinner at Eight” is full of glamour, splendid costumes, of exquisite taste, and luxurious settings. It is considered a comedy of manners and, even if it wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award (which is really surprising), the film is an excellent screen adaptation of the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. You will certainly enjoy this motion picture of the early 30s, with its witty dialogue and memorable scenes.
One of the best performances of Barbara Stanwyck and certainly one of the greatest pre-code productions, with a still important significance, “Baby Face” tells the story of a beautiful, but poor girl who changes radically her destiny, as she moves from a modest bar to the luxurious metropolitan world. In her attempt to get a better job step by step, she seduces each of her bosses, reaching the top – an old bank manager, who gets killed by one of one of Lily’s former lovers, the latter killing himself in the same room right after the murder. Lily is the kind of beautiful, but cold-blooded woman (some sort of “femme fatale” in film noir). She has no regrets about the killing of two people who were attracted to her and who even loved her very much. The pursuit for wealth is the only thing that matters to her, and she can take all the risks, if necessary. But in the end she discovers that the true love for a man is the one that really counts and she is no longer interested in expensive clothes and jewels. Barbara Stanwyck is exceptional throughout the entire film. Her co-star, George Brent, was good, too, in the role of the last lover. I highly recommend you to watch this extraordinary film, even more because of its modern message: pretty, young girls who make a compromise in order to become rich and powerful, even if, in the end, they are the ones who lose everything – decency, respect, love, and sometimes even their own life.
A delightful and extremely fashionable comedy in the unforgettable style of Ernst Lubitsch, “Design for Living” is one of the most appreciated comedies in the pre-code Hollywood era. The story involves a romantic triangle between a woman and two men. In the leading roles you will find the beautiful Miriam Hopkins and the talented actors Fredric March and Gary Cooper. Owing to its controversial plot, with sexual discussions and innuendos, the film was almost banned by the Hays Office in 1934, but eventually it was successfully released. In the initial version, it was 105 minutes long, and 15 minutes were cut in the final version. The film is based on the homonymous play by Noel Coward, and Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay, kept only one line from the original play: “For the good of our immortal souls”. I had a wonderful time watching this comedy and it is so modern even for present-day.
A film that impressed me very much from the beginning, “Lady for a Day” tells the story of a very poor woman who deceives her daughter living in Spain. She pretends to be a wealthy lady of New York’s high society. She usually receives correspondence form her daughter at a luxurious hotel, without ever having stayed there. One day, her daughter decides to pay her a visit with her fiancé and his father, a member of the Spanish aristocracy. The possibility of an awkward, shameful reunion with her daughter after so many years becomes a source of great pain to Apple Annie, and thus she is forced by circumstances to accept the help of an infamous gangster. He pays her to stay at the hotel and he also makes all the necessary arrangements to make her look like an aristocrat. Even if things get more and more complicated when her daughter arrives, the truth never comes to surface and Annie sees her dream come true. She didn’t embarass her daughter and she played her role with dignity and distinction. May Robson, the great actress who was in the leading role, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, becoming the earliest-born actress to receive an Oscar nomination. “Lady for a Day” was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Adaptation. Frank Capra did a wonderful job again, and this film, just like the rest of his productions, manages to impress the viewer with its simple, direct, and significant message: that everybody, no matter the class and the age, has the right to be happy, even if sometimes it is necessary to pretend, to lie, to create an illusion just like in fairy tales with happy endings.
“The Bitter Tea of General Yen” must be, in my opinion, one of the greatest films of the early 30s. I was very much impressed by the performance of Nils Asther, a Danish actor who is very little known today and who had a remarkable career in the silent era. He appeared in several movies with such fine actresses like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, and Loretta Young. In “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”, his co-star was another great actress, Barbara Stanwyck, though I have to admit that Nils Asther is the one who simply steals the scene. I can’t think of anyone else better than him in the role of General Yen. This outstanding film reminds me of one of my favourites, “The Journey”, with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The story is quite similar. An officer or general, in this case, who falls desperately in love with a woman that he could never have completely, and in the end he loses everything because of this relationship. Both movies were made after homonymous novels. “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is a book published by Grace Zaring Stone. She also wrote another great novel turned into a film, “Escape”, with Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, and Conrad Veidt. The persona of the General in both movies is fascinating, but, of course, Nils Asther’s Chinese General is different from Conrad Veidt’s Nazi General. Still, they have the same powerful presence, which electrifies the audiences, and the same strong will in their performances. The same happens with Yul Brynner’s Major Surov in “The Journey”. If “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” had been remade, Yul Brynner would have been the perfect choice for the leading role. As for Barbara Stanwyck, she is good, but not memorable in the role of a Christian missionary who finds herself trapped in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War from the late 20s. A better choice would have been, to me, Loretta Young, Fay Wray or Joan Crawford. I was surprised to read that “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” was a failure at the box-office, especially because of the relationship between a Chinaman and an American woman. This idea was rejected at its time by the audiences and by the film critics, but nowadays, this film is considered a superior production of the old Hollywood, and I perfectly agree with this. I liked very much this motion picture of the Columbia Studios, directed by the famous Frank Capra (best known for his screwball comedies), and I also liked the idea of turning the love scenes between the General and the American missionary into a dream. The ending is sad, just like in “The Journey”, but very significant. I recommend you to watch “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”. You will certainly like it very much.
This review was published by me on my Conrad Veidt website, http://conradveidtforever.wordpress.com/.
“This is the film that defined Conrad’t quintessential role – the monocled, dangerous officer, who puts duty above everything, including love. I wouldn’t say he is a villain, but he is a character that exudes tension and a mix of passion and cold-blooded attitude. His “victim” here is the beautiful blonde and fine actress Madeleine Carroll (best known for Hitchcock’s 39 Steps and for The Prisoner of Zenda). Connie looks impeccable in elegant uniform and wearing monocle – obviously his trademark. My regret is that he hasn’t got here the leading role, but Herbert Marshall. As the title says, this is a spy film, one of the first of this genre in which Connie appeared over the next 10 years. This was also his first motion picture made in England as an immigrant from Germany. “I Was a Spy” has a few memorable scenes (such as the scene where the Commandant is trying to seduce the nurse) and is directed by Victor Saville (who also directed “Dark Journey”). It was very successful, even if what bothered me was the lack of musical score and of impressive sets. Unfortunately, several sequences were deleted, such as the one where the Commander is having a drink with Marthe at a café. It would be nice if the cut footage would be put back where it belonged, so we could trully enjoy this complex and very realistic film about the difficult times of World War I.”
Perhaps the most fascinating role in Greta Garbo’s entire career, “Queen Christina” tells the story of the legendary royal figure in the Swedish history (1626-1689). Garbo, a Swedish herself, was perfect for the part. There are plenty of magnificent shots that emphasize the rare beauty and the strangeness of the soul and mind of this remarkable woman, who became an idol to millions and millions of people around the world. Her co-star was her former lover, John Gilbert, who, obviously, was very much in love with Garbo, even more because they had previously appeared in some iconic silent films. The direction of Rouben Mamoulian is excellent, and the sets and costumes are really outstanding. “Queen Christina” is a perfect historical film, and the script contains some very good lines, such as one of the heroine’s lines, “I have imagined happiness. But happiness you cannot imagine. Happiness you must feel! Joy, you must feel!”. Seeing Garbo portray her own persona (because she was a real-life character), as both a woman and a man, switching from one mood to another, imposing her own will and demonstrating that she could be a monarch, but also a human being, is something really unique. The film should be a special experience to any viewer, and it will always be remembered as an exquisite piece of artistry from the old Hollywood era.
“42nd Street” is one of the most successful musicals ever produced in Hollywood. It was made at the Warner Bros. Studios and its cast includes some impressive names: Bebe Daniels (looking outstandingly beautiful and charming), Ruby Keeler (famous singer and dancer), Ginger Rogers (in a sophisticated and elegant role, with monocle and all!), Warner Baxter (as the ambitious Broadway producer who wants to fulfill his dream of making a remarkable musical), George Brent (very young, dashing, and without a moustache), and Dick Powell (one of the most appreciated actors in Hollywood). The musical numbers are really great, with lots of visual effects. “42nd Street”, just like “Gold Diggers of 1933”, is one of the most beloved musicals filmed in the early sound era in Hollywood. I find both of them very enjoyable and you will certainly spend a wonderful evening watching them. But, returning to “42nd Street”, you will certainly observe that it’s very realistic when it comes to starlets. Young, beautiful girls, with nice faces and nice legs, who must work very hard, who must strive to earn a living in entertainment — some of them preferring the easiest way, that is to sleep with an old producer in order to get the better part and to become “the star of the show”. So, “42nd Street” is not an idealistic musical (like the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire classics). It reveals facts of life in showbiz and I find it all the more fascinating. I highly recommend you to watch this film because you will find it very interesting and very representative for those difficult years of economic crisis that affected the late 20s and the early 30s. “42nd Street” also earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and Best Sound, Recording, and it’s one of the most treasured musicals in Hollywood, just like “Yankee Doodle Danding”.