1930 Ten Best Movies

Movie year 1930 ought to belong to Josef von Sternberg, who made two of the top three pictures and was off and running on the string of fascinating films made with Marlene Dietrich. But I am compelled to go with something else at #1 this year, a movie that gets close to the essential joys of the cinema. (Sternberg got burned by the Crop Duster in 1934 and 1935, too, coming in at #2 both years. Sorry.)

The #1 is Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a movie that probably sounds like a film-school chore but actually is a beautiful film-for-film’s sake demonstration. It could sound deadly in synopsis: peasant humor, collectivist message meant to illustrate great glory of Soviet state, sequence hinging on the arrival of a tractor. But the movie is infused with human and bodily pleasures, leaving behind any narrowly ideological or propagandistic limits. And when a man dances alone on a road in the moonlight, you know why movies were invented.

Sternberg and Dietrich merely turned out The Blue Angel (in two versions, German and English) and their first Hollywood collaboration, Morocco. The director turned his actress into a figure of film style, draped his images in nets and laces and melancholy, and confronted audiences with a worldly attitude about the charged romances he was depicting. And then there’s the rest of the best films of 1930:

1. Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko)

2. Das Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg)

3. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)

4. L’age d’or (Luis Bunuel)

5. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)

6. City Girl (F.W. Murnau)

7. The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)

8. Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra)

9. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks)

10. The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau)

The Capra title is a favorite, a strange, forceful low-budget title with a blazing performance by Barbara Stanwyck. The Big Trail is an early widescreen experiment that gave John Wayne an early lead role; if the movie hadn’t been a box-office disappointment, the Duke might’ve been an A-movie star much earlier than it turned out. But the movie is gorgeous.

Other nice things: The Bat Whispers, a delightful mystery-comedy directed by Roland West (and another widescreen experiment), Hitchcock’s Murder!, Rene Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris, and the neo-realist People on Sunday, a German “indie” made by a gang that would become a nucleus of Hollywood emigre talent in the decade to come: Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugene Schufftan, Curt Siodmak. Also the Marx brothers had Animal Crackers, an urgent study of the hunting of African animals in pajamas.