I’ve gotten great entertainment from watching several movies from the 1930s recently. They are so dated yet so different that they’re cool in a unique way. Sometimes it feels like kitsch, sometimes it feels like art, sometimes it feels like someone has let me in on a not-so-obvious secret. But they never feel like today’s Marvel or Star Wars or Bourne movies. I struggle to decide what’s at the center of their difference.
I watched Gold Diggers of 1933, a fabulous Busby Berkeley movie of dazzling scale and visuals and sound. The art direction seems pure Art Deco. The musical numbers are huge with armies of dancing girls naturally bouncing about—“naturally” because breast implants weren’t a 1930s possibility. The musical numbers are literally sensational and yet the music is simple and catchy. The language is phony but simple; lots of things are “Swell!” and many sentences begin, “Say….” I found myself looking at the scenery, sets, and clothes in wonder…they aren’t synthetics or plastics—the lingerie is silk and the suits are wool and the sets are crystal and brass and real, crafted things.
I watched Blonde Venus starring Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich is a strong-willed showgirl trying to make it as a single mother…a daring storyline in 1932. All the same wonder fell on me: the sets, the clothes, the language. The drama is melodrama: Dietrich, despite her strong masculine look, plays a great vulnerability…being “just a woman,” even though she acts and imbues the character with great strength.
I watched Grand Hotel, 1932’s Best Picture winner, with Greta Garbo (she speaks her famous line: “I want to be alone”), John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford. The art direction and cinematography—the look of the movie—are incredible. The perspective of the camera is magic: the camera swoops through hotel spaces to give the multiple storylines a solid place to play and makes the hotel itself a central character. There is a sensational murder, and yet some elements feel very naïve. It creates for me an “other world” feel of the 1930s—even though they are just like me, they aren’t just like me.
I watched It Happened One Night—the first film to win Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress…and for good reason. Clark Gable is funny, strong, and vulnerable…his is a very stereotypical character that he plays very real: a news reporter with the world in the palm of his hand and a tiger by the tail. Claudette Colbert is the spoiled rich girl…and we all know how the movie will end, but the movie succeeds on its characters and charm.
Finally, my favorites: Astaire and Rogers in The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat. I must be honest, the movies are so alike that I remember them as a unit…but the lightness of the stories, the funny ease of the characters, and the dripping style of elegance are all wonderful. Cole Porter’s songs are romantic and poetic. The dancing is graceful and expressive. I don’t think we could produce such a dream world today, even with our pyrotechnics and computer-generated images. In The Gay Divorcee, watch the romance of Rogers falling in love with Astaire by the end of the “Night and Day” sequence…her starry-eyed look at the end of the dance is the romantic power that 1930s movie-making created.
In the “Cheek to Cheek” dance sequence from 1935’s Top Hat, Thirties’ artistry may be at its finest. The first two minutes of the sequence are all one take…acting, singing, dancing, hitting their mark across the set…all in one take! Then they glide and swirl around the veranda…effortless, elegant movement in one 1:15 take! And finally, the music builds to a passionate crescendo and Rogers falls back in Astaire’s arm until you think her back will break! Then gracefully, rhythmically, he raises her with just that one arm: the only “special effect” is their artistry.
They have a secret difference I can feel but can’t define.