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1940: Rebecca

[] [IMDB] [Wikipedia]

This movie definitely has a different flavour then the others I've watched so far, being more of a psychological movie than the previous ones. It is based on a book by one Daphne du Maurier, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and produced by David O. Selznick, who had also produced the previous years winner, Gone With The Wind.

The young unnamed narrator, on a trip to Monte Carlo as a companion to Ms. Van Hopper, a wealthy but unpleasant American, meets the widower Maxim de Winter, and falls in love with him over the next few weeks, while Ms. Van Hopper is laid up in bed with the flu.

Ms. Van Hopper receives a letter that her daughter is engaged, and makes haste to travel to New York. The narrator is distraught about leaving, and the aritocratic Maxim proposes to her, which she accepts, and becomes the new Mrs. de Winter.

Mrs. de Winter moves in with Maxim at his Estate, Manderly, and the main part of the story unfolds. The title character, Rebecca, is Maxim's late wife, and her memory pervades the estate, and begins to colour her interactions in the house, with the staff, family, and Maxim.

More intrigue unfolds, and I found the movie quite fascinating. The extent to which Rebecca has influence while never actually appearing in the movie and being quite dead is fantastic, and never feels force. The ending is not happy, but does offer a strange sense of closure to the film. All in all, I quite enjoyed it, and though it is not spectacular in any way, I feel it is one of stronger films in this collection to date.
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1936: The Great Ziegfeld

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Another somewhat fictionalized autobiographical film, this is a musical (rather long &emdash; three hours) chronicling the life of Florenz Ziegfeld from his start exhibiting the strongman Sandow in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 to his very successful runs of extravagant musicals, Ziegfeld Follies, and his veentual death in 1932, just a few short years before this movie was produced.

He is depicted as a talented producer, alternating between wealth and near-bankruptcy, and as quite a ladies man, and his relationships with Anna Held and Billie Burke.

The film itself is mostly a display of many of his famous musical productions, which are quite impressive for the time. As I was watching it, I was struck by how lavish and over-the-top these productions were, and how they've been parodied ever since. For example, there's a number closing out the first half of the film which shows a slowly rotating spiraling staircase, with men in top hats standing on the stairs, and dozens of dancing women, which I suppose is now a bit of a trope and object of parody, but this may have been where it started.

All in all, very glamorous, but I found it somewhat boring as the focus is not the plot, but the musical productions. The second half with the intrigue of his breakup with Anna Held and his subsequent relationship with Billie Burke, and the failure of his shows during the Great Depression and his death add some plot and excitement and help bring the movie together.
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1937: The Life of Emile Zola

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As a somewhat fictionalized biographical film, this film starts out somewhat slowly and weakly, chronicling the life of French author Émile Zola, in the latter half of the 19th century.

Starting out as a starving author in Paris, with his flatmate Paul Cézanne, his rise to fame is depicted, becoming a wealthy, respected, and influential author.

The latter half of the film centers on Zola's involvement in the Dreyfuss Affair, a political scandal involving the military and the wrongful imprisonment of a certain Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of treason sentenced to solitary life imprisonment off the coast of French Guiana for allegedly leaking military secrets.

Zola goes onto condemn the French Government in his famous open letter J'accuse in a newspaper, and is then tried for libel.

Without giving away the entire movie, the latter half of the movie is quite good, centering on the miscarriages of justice and showing the corruption of the military and french government around the turn of the 20th century. The acting, in particular, is quite believable, and the actor chosen to play Zola bears a striking resemblance to the real Zola. This portion of the movie also appears to fairly true to reality in terms of the events, and makes for a an interesting pseudo-documentary of the times.
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1934: It Happened One Night

[] [IMDB] [Wikipedia]

This one might be the least flashy of the movies I've watched so far, but still quite entertaining. The basic plot is a romantic comedy, and follows the pampered daughter, Ellie, as she tries to escape from her father to be with her love, King, who her father does not approve of.

She escapes from their yacht in Miami, and attempts to head home to new York to be with King, which she does by taking a Greyhound, and evading his detectives on the way. At the beginning of her trip, she meets up with an out-of-work newspaper reporter, Peter, who helps her stay hidden in exchange for the story. They end up falling in love, antics and hardships occur, things almost fall apart, etc. etc.

This was the first movie to win all of the big 5 Academy Awards (Best Actor, Actress, Picture, Director, Screenplay), which is actually quite amazing given the conditions it was made under. It wasn't a huge budget film, and it was filmed in only a month as Claudette Colbert (Ellie) had a vacation planned. She also thought the movie was terrible, but a great chemistry between Claudette and Clark Gable (Peter) develops, and despite the limited budget, they do really well with what they have. Apparently it wasn't originally a huge critical success either.

There are parts that are hilariously funny (the mock old-married-couple-fight in the cottage, the hitchhiking scenes). Quite entertaining!

Interestingly, a movie I watched just recently, Changeling, which takes place in 1934 mentions this film, and it was interestingly coincidental that this was the film sent me next.

Next up is 1936's 3 hour musical, The Great Ziegfeld, which might stretch my attention span. :)
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1935: Mutiny On The Bounty

[] [IMDB] [Wikipedia]

I watched this several weeks ago, and put off writing about it. This is in a heat with Cimmaron for the weakest Best Picture so far. However, as this movie is based on a true story, it is neat from a historical perspective.

It is indeed about a mutiny that occurs on the ship The Bounty in the late 18th century. A ship is sent to Tahiti (shown to be a wondrous paradise) to retrieve breadfruit trees to be planted in the Carribean, to be fed to slaves, apparently. The Captain, William Bligh, is shown to be unjust and cruel, and on the way back Fletcher Christian (played by Clark Gable) leads a mutiny against him, and he is sent floating in a life boat far away from any Port of Call. The mutineers can't go home (they'll be killed), so they settle in Tahiti.

Miraculously, Captain Bligh survives and makes it back to England, and leads an expedition back to Tahiti to capture the mutineers. They see him coming, and hightail it out of there in the night, and end up scuttling their boat and settling on the remote and nearly inaccessible Pitcairn Island.

The neat thing is that the mutineers descendants still live on Pitcairn Island, and because of it's remoteness, they are somewhat inbred, have a unique language, and tourism is nearly nonexistent (there are no airports, and there is no sea port either, goods are brought in by longboat).

So, the story is interesting historically, although the events portrayed in the film are highly fictionalized, the basic events (trip to tahiti for trees, mutiny, settling of pitcairn island) are real.

I found the story does drag on somewhat in the interests of characterization and development, but that's true of a lot of the 30s films, which are richer (but slower) than many current films are.

Again, the film is good, but I would not say excellent, and interesting historically, but still I wouldn't recommend running out of one's way to go see it,
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1932: Grand Hotel

[] [IMDB] [Wikipedia]

People coming, going. Nothing ever happens declares the doctor at the beginning of this film. But that wouldn't be much of a movie, would it?

This movie appears to have popularized two different things: one, the plot device of having several unrelated characters in one setting and exploring the antics that befall them, and two, having an ensemble all-star cast.

Apparently, they were quite successful at the time, having won an academy award and bringing in oodles of money, and have been replicated over and over, so it doesn't seem original to modern eyes (my personal favourite of the unrelated characters being brought together device is Magnolia...). And because I've never seen them before, it doesn't have the star power for me that it had then (but it stars Drew Barrymore's grandfather, John. Heh!) Because of this, this movie doesn't seem to hold up quite as well as the other films I've reviewed thus far.

There's nothing really negative to say about the movie. The actors all have good performances (although, in a very 30s way; I quite enjoyed Joan Crawford as the stenographer, and John Barrymore as The Baron), the plot is interesting enough not to be boring and not too predictable, and the music is typical for the time. I laughed at the appropriate times, but otherwise there wasn't a large emotional pull or excitement to really pull it together to make it fantastic.

This is the raciest film of the early Academy Awards I've seen to date, and probably on the last for quite a while, as not long after Hollywood adopted the The Motion Picture Production Code, a set of self-imposed censorship guidelines, apparently to dodge government censorship. There's drunkenness, glamorization of gambling and thievery, lewdness, and suggestions of adultery, and these themes won't be seen much until the 60s, when the code is dropped in favour of the MPAA rating system.

So, summarized: good film, but wouldn't suggest going out of one's way to see it.
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1939: Gone With The Wind

[] [IMDB] [Wikipedia]

I really don't knwo what to say about this film, other than it's fantastic. Apparently the winner of 10 Academy Awards in 1939, and depending on the calculation, the highest-grossing film to date.

This movie is seriously epic, and is just short of four hours long. It took us three nights to watch it, due to not having that much time all in one go. Surprisingly, up to this point, I had not seen the movie, and was only vaguely aware what it was about (I probbaly could have told you it involved Scarlett O'Hara, the South, and 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" and that's about it).

Generally, the story is just about the life of Scarlett O'Hara and her friends and family, starting just before the American Civil War as a young southern belle with quite the charisma, and her experiences before, during, and after the war, and how her ambition and deviousness helps carry her through, but also the consequences of her manipulation.

The acting is fantastic, despite the style of speech they use in the movie. By the end of the movie, I was completely engrossed in the characters, and felt their joy, sorrow, and heartbreak.

Despite the movie being as old as my grandparents, the cinematography is excellent. The film comes across as grainy and the colors are somewhat mute, being an early color film, but I think this helps just to add to the charm.

All in all, a great film, and it holds up well after 70 years.
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As part of both my 1001 in 101 days project, and to become more familiar with older cinema, I've taken it upon myself to watch all the Best Picture Academy Award winning films, starting with the oldest. There's a couple not available, but I got my first one last week, which I just watched last night.

1931: Cimarron
[] [IMDB] [Wikipedia]
In general, I didn't find Cimarron to be gripping or exciting, but it was certainly interesting, especially seeing the late 1800s through 1930 eyes through my 2009 eyes. Apparently it was quite the high budget film for the time ($1.5M!)

The story roughly chronicles one family through the development of Oklahoma. It opens in 1889 with Yancey Cravat trying to stake a claim during the first Land Rush, but he is not successful, and returns back to Wichita where his wife Sabra, and his young son, Cim are waiting with her family. Sabra comes from a well-to-do family[1] who are quite resistant to the idea of Sabra going out to such uncivilized areas. Yancey's background isn't explored much, but he's portrayed as an extremely charismatic character, with a severe case of wanderlust, and a lawyer background.

They shortly move to an up-and-coming boomtown (Osage, said to have a population of 10,000 already) and he sets up a newspaper, and they seem to make a reasonably good go of it.

There's a bit of traditional western shooting it up, as there's some unsavory elements in the town.

What makes the film more interesting is the exploration of their lives it goes from there: Sabra is shown to be conservative, a bit racist, and very image conscious, and she gains status with other well-to-do women in the town (Mrs. Wyatt in particular is a hilarious stereotype of the snooty woman[2]). Yancey however, afflicted by his wanderlust, runs off to participate in the 1893 land rush, leaving her and his now two children behind, and is not seen for several years.

Generalities about the rest of the film here, slightly spoilerish )

So, there was definitely more to the film than I expected out of a Western, and it's definitely interesting to see how filmmaking has changed (there were short flavor scenes included that in a modern movie I'm sure would have been left on the cutting room floor), and even more, the change in attitudes. When this film was made, the land rushes were still recent memory, and the themes of racism I imagine were quite pervasive...

[1] There's a scene shown in her parents house, where they have a... ceiling fan. It's shown to be a young black boy servant, with stereo-typical grammar and mannerisms, on a small bench suspended from the ceiling, waving something like a palm leaf. It was so unexpected my brain asploded a little.
[2] In one scene, Mrs Wyatt is talking to a man who has just bought himself a new automobile, and she invites herself for a ride.
Mrs. Wyatt: "Is this a three cylinder?"
Man: "(slightly sheepish) No, it's a two cylinder."
Mrs. Wyatt: "Oh, I've just ordered a four-cylinder, myself."
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