1936 Ten Best Movies

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.

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2 Responses

  1. Even as 1936 was “a somewhat less-than-great year,” there was no shortage of lively movie entertainment. A lot of folks esteem Libeled Lady (Jack Conway), with its four-count-’em-4 big MGM stars — Powell-Loy-Harlow-Tracy — as a peak screwball comedy; I haven’t seen it in much too long to sign on to that, but memories are fond. Speaking of fond, I’ve always been enchanted by Trail of the Lonesome Pine (Henry Hathaway), the first 3-strip Technicolor feature shot outdoors; partly my attachment is regional and familial, but this is also a solid specimen of golden-age moviemaking (now gorgeously available on DVD). The General Died at Dawn is ersatz-Sternberg oriental melodrama by way of Lewis Milestone, but weirdly charming even as (and because) its ornate, enthusiastic reach exceeds its grasp. Before ankling Come and Get It in mid-production, Hawks made a strong WWI tale, Road to Glory (which managed to recycle elements of both his own Dawn Patrol and the French movie Wooden Crosses), and Ceiling Zero, an aviation drama that pretty much dropped off the radar decades ago (copyright issues?) — and is reportedly the source of much in the three-years-later Only Angels Have Wings. Texan King Vidor’s The Texas Rangers is a crisp Western whose breeziness doesn’t keep the deaths in the movie from being stark and painful. Michael Curtiz made a thrillingly spectacular, comparatively unsung historical adventure, The Charge of the Light Brigade (neglected because of all its terrible horsefalls?). The rather dark Marlene Dietrich-Gary Cooper comedy Desire boasted not one but two Pantheon auteurs, setting off an ongoing debate whether to classify it under producer Lubitsch or director Borzage. Over in England, Alexander Korda directed Laughton as Rembrandt and greenlighted Rene Clair’s delightful Scottish whimsy The Ghost Goes West. This was also the year of which the best-directed film was, according to the New York Film Critics, Rouben Mamoulian’s soon-forgotten The Gay Desperado. I’ve never seen that one, but with such a title, how has it escaped archival presentation at SIFF?

    • Continuing the fondness, I will also throw in Wife vs. Secretary, an appealing marital merry-go-round with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and James Stewart, directed by Clarence Brown, who I guess needed something to do because Greta Garbo was off making Camille with George Cukor (also a 1936 title).

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