Figuring out that movies had authors – that many movies bore the mark of a single guiding personality, which could actually be seen in that person’s various films – was made much easier one summer in the early 1970s when somebody (the Canadian station, or PBS?) broadcast all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature films, in chronological order, once a week.
Along with catching Hitchcock movies whenever they were on TV (and then discovering Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock interview book), the Chaplin movies were an ideal way for an adolescent to realize this concept of movie authorship. With Chaplin it was easy: he didn’t just write and direct his films, he also played the central character and produced them on his own studio lot. Duh. So you had a model for how a director’s style and vision would carry over through different movies and different eras.
There was also the revelation that Chaplin - who had been a vaguely olde timey figure seen in silent movies projected in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors and other such peripheral sources (sometimes when I see a scratchy old clip of ancient silent slapstick I get a strong sense-memory of pepperoni and root beer) – Chaplin was really funny. Smart funny, not stupid funny. And the funny was wrapped in a way of looking at the world, complicated by a surprising amount of non-funny.
So, 1936: Modern Times wins out in a somewhat less-than-great year, although things were going well in France. As I write this, Criterion’s Eclipse collection is about to bring out a four-film collection of works by Sacha Guitry (who, like Chaplin, was the absolute author-star of his projects), including The Story of a Cheat. If you have never seen The Story of a Cheat, make it a priority; it is a joy. The ten best movies of 1936:
1. Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin)
2. The Crime of M. Lange (Jean Renoir)
3. Partie de Campagne (Jean Renoir)
4. The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry)
5. The Only Son (Yasujiro Ozu)
6. Dodsworth (William Wyler)
7. Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
8. Fury (Fritz Lang)
9. Come and Get It (Howard Hawks/William Wyler)
10. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)
Come and Get It is a real Hawks picture, with Frances Farmer in her greatest chance on screen; Dodsworth is a curiously unsung classic about Americans abroad; The Only Son is a devastating Ozu masterpiece. And speaking of the Japanese, I will have to re-consider someday Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, both from this year; I have seen the films but enough time has passed that I couldn’t describe either one.
The year also had: Swing Time (George Stevens), one of the best of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava), The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford), These Three (Wyler). If you want to see studio production lines moving at full golden-age capacity, behold the blockbusters San Francisco (W.S. Van Dyke) and The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard), the latter the Best Picture Oscar winner. Among the oddities, Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies) is an early example of science fiction on screen. And fond childhood memories of The Plainsman (Cecil B. DeMille) earn at least a mention.