1937 Ten Best Movies

The fact that it is possible to debate the nature of the “grand illusion” in La Grande Illusion is a measure of the film’s greatness; and far from being a dusty classic, fit only to represent the arthouse apogee for people of Woody Allen’s generation, the movie ripples with wit and subtlety and suspense. It’s one of those obvious choices for a #1 slot in a year that is somewhat underwhelming in classics, but don’t hold that against it. Tracing Jean Renoir’s films in the 1930s is like watching a train gathering awesome speed, a trajectory that comes crashing to a halt with the outbreak of World War II.

The #2 movie is by a director whose trajectory had already been diverted from Europe to Hollywood: Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, which takes off from the Bonnie and Clyde case but creates its own brand of poetical Thirties realism. It was a big year for Leo McCarey, who won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth but famously stated he should have won it for Make Way for Tomorrow. The latter film, now enshrined in the Criterion Collection and likely to find a whole new audience, is a masterpiece of sympathy and behavior – and timing, too. The ten best movies of 1937:

1. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)

2. You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang)

3. Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey)

4. The Edge of the World (Michael Powell)

5. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey)

6. Stella Dallas (King Vidor)

7. Angel (Ernst Lubitsch)

8. The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell)

9. Young and Innocent (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen)

Barbara Stanwyck reigns supreme in Stella Dallas, Young and Innocent is a fun pre-Hollywood Hitchcock, and Angel is kind of underrated in Lubitsch’s output. Everything comes together just exactly right in Zenda, which ought to be more of a classic. Another Ronald Colman picture, Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, is among the also-rans, and I also like Frank Borzage’s History is Made at Night, Gregory LaCava’s Stage Door, and William Wyler’s Dead End. Pepe le Moko is pretty good, too, and helped define a certain tendency in French “black” films (black is English for “noir,” you know). Also a vote for the Best Picture Oscar winner, William Dieterle’s Life of Emile Zola, which is generally dismissed as hopelessly square and sober and probably Oscar-mongering. It’s guilty on some counts, but the social-message piece about governments whitewashing the truth is remarkably forceful (even if the film backs away from emphasizing the importance of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus case); somebody should’ve remade it in 2004.

The year also had Shall We Dance, not the best Astaire-Rogers picture but the one with the Gershwin songs. And I need to see The Hurricane again, because it’s been about thirty years; it’s even longer for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which I understand is significant but which I somehow never got around to re-seeing in adulthood. Sorry, animation.