Five films from the 1930s that I watched in the last twelve months

Hello. Here are some films made in the 1930s that I watched over the last twelve months or so and that I think you might be interested in too because they are good or (in one case) interesting or (in some cases) both.

King Kong

We all know the story – big monkey, goes to New York, fucks around, finds out – but how many of us have actually watched the film? I hadn’t. I thought I had, until I watched it last year and all the dinosaurs turned up (btw, spoiler, some dinosaurs turn up) and I realised I had just seen loads of clips and remakes and parodies.

Arguably, there is more spectacle than plot, and most of the film only exists to set up the ending, but the spectacle is a lot of fun and, oh my, what an ending. How does a model of a giant gorilla break your heart so deeply? Poor big guy. Poor massive dude. He didn’t know. He didn’t understand.

Gold Diggers of 1933

The film starts with Ginger Rogers, dressed as a coin, singing “We’re in the Money” in pig latin and ends with a solemn song inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s speech about the forgotten man. Between the two, four actors try to find work and love in depression-era New York. The songs and the jokes are great and there are some brilliant performances but it’s really obvious that the songs were written first and then a story was built around them, probably in less than half an hour. They don’t even bother connecting the last song to the narrative. It is simultaneously a complete mess and the perfect musical. I loved it.

Bringing Up Baby

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and a leopard. What more do you want? Blood?

Music Hath Charms

Music Hath Charms was made as a vehicle for Henry Hall who, as the bandleader of the BBC Dance Orchestra, was kind of a big deal at the time. It’s an odd film, with about five narratives that are loosely connected by the fact that everyone in them is listening to Henry Hall on the radio.

Some of it, for example the plot involving two colonial officials living in Africa, has aged badly. Other parts, such as the storyline involving the wife of one of those officials flirting with a passenger on a cruise ship and not giving a shit who knows about it, feel incredibly modern. It is probably too far removed by time to analyse fairly.

Think of it as the distant ancestor of the Spice Girls movie (and specifically think about how much sense those celebrity cameos will make in another seventy years) and you have a fair idea of what it is like; a bit of a mess but not without its charms. I spent a good half of the film thinking one of the actors, W. H. Berry (whose character is perpetually catching himself making double entendres, staring lustfully at servants, and mixing up words and phrases in a boring and unfocussed way) wasn’t very a good actor before I realised that he was actually brilliant at what he was doing, but that what he was doing was shit.

This is the only film of the five I wouldn’t go as far as recommending. It’s quite short though, and as I said, the stuff on the cruise ship is pretty good.

Look Up and Laugh

The opening scene of Look Up and Laugh is Gracie Fields pretending to drive a car while singing the title song of the movie. The car, for no reason, has two little Union Jacks flying on its bonnet. The camera is too close to her so we can see very little of the car and even the top of her head is only just in shot. Despite that the artificiality of the background scrolling past is painfully obvious. Fields is singing at someone slightly left of the camera but every time any of the lyrics could even vaguely be construed as being about sex, she honks the car’s horn and winks at the audience. Within a minute she has done this four times. It is, and I can’t stress this enough, one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema.

The plot of Look Up and Laugh is centred around saving a market from being closed by a local businessman, but the plot isn’t really the point. The point is Gracie. It’s hard to describe quite how the film works because it doesn’t really follow the rules we’re now used to seeing. But if you can imagine a Rushmore-era Wes Anderson directing a black-and-white comedy set in a small working class town in Northern England, and the lead is played by a riffing, 1980s, peak Eddie Murphy you get a glimpse of at least the vibe of it. Oh, and it’s a musical too. It’s Eddie Murphy doing a Wes Anderson musical set in Burnley.

Actually forget that. That doesn’t describe it well at all. Imagine a…

Or just watch the movie. Gracie Fields is well overdue a reappraisal imo. Get on the ground floor why don’t you? You can get The Gracie Fields Collection for less than a fiver on ebay. Treat yourself why don’t you?

King Kong and Bringing Up Baby are both available on the BBC iplayer.


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