SASY Wrap #4 – The SASYs Take Wraphattan

And so we soldier on! We here at Fan With a Movie Yammer have now written up discussions on 40 films (40!) from the Sight & Sound list of the top 250 movies of all time. That’s a lot of verbiage, actually by my count we have now posted over 90,000 words of movie yammerin’ across 40+ entries — and as we move along these discussions have definitely gotten longer and more thoughtful. Hopefully that means we are providing extra insight and not extra tedium — but either way, we’re pretty darn pleased. This SASY Wrap will bring together films 31–40 so we can examine them as a group. Unlike previous blocs of 10, this time we really stuck to watching these films chronologically, with nine of the 10 coming from the 1930s and the one outsider coming from 1940. In this entry we should have some things to say about the genius of Jean Renoir, the rise of the American sound comedy, and how very much we are going to miss the 1930s on this blog. But as tradition demands, we begin with our respective rankings of the last 10 films discussed:

S.

J.

1. The Rules of the Game (1939) 1. The Rules of the Game (1939)
2. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) 2. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
3. La Grande Illusion (1937) 3. La Grande Illusion (1937)
4. Partie de Campagne (1936)
4. Partie de Campagne (1936)
5. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) 5. Duck Soup (1933)
6. King Kong (1933) 6. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
6. Trouble in Paradise (1932) 7. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
8. Duck Soup (1933) 8. King Kong (1933)
9. Modern Times (1936) 9. Modern Times (1936)
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939) 10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

S. – This was a very solid batch of films for me, I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up watching at least the top nine again at some point in the future and I could probably handle Oz redux if fresh popcorn and something chocolatey was on offer. I think I want to give a little hat-tip to director Ernst Lubitsch first up. We got to see two of his works in this set and they were both hugely enjoyable. The fusion of slickness, a slightly wacky story and some very smart characters create fantastic films. The glamour and sophistication of Trouble in Paradise add high polish to what is a substantial and genuinely funny film. What The Shop Around the Corner lacks in glitz it more than makes up for in depth while still maintaining a pace that sweeps you right along. With eight years elapsing between the two films it probably isn’t so strange that each piece has quite a different feel but the European sensibility blended into the tight Hollywood-style production is a winning combination either way.

J. – I think this is the strongest batch of films we have watched so far, at least in terms of general consistency. Previous chunks of 10 have perhaps had higher highs, but they’ve also had lower lows. Although, it looks like I enjoyed these pics a bit more than you did, S., as I tossed three of the films into my Top 10, whereas you only selected one.

But I’m not terribly surprised that I enjoyed these movies so much, as I am a big fan of 1930s cinema, and I had already seen eight of these movies previously, many of them multiple times. There is a movie-ness to the films of that period that appeals greatly to me. I’ll try to explain what I mean by that strange comment. Movies of the 1930s (and early 1940s), to my mind, are rather divorced from reality. I’ve heard people complain that the acting in old movies is too fake, but to me that is one of the great assets of the period. After World War II realism increasingly began creeping into film, particularly with regard to acting. What I adore about 1930s films is that the performances are all heightened — you’re not watching two people have a conversation; you’re watching two people have an impossibly perfect conversation. And I think that elevated feel is perfectly illustrated by the two Lubitsch films in this bunch, particularly Trouble in Paradise, which is so witty, so sharp, and so diamond-studded, that it dazzles. I feel like film lost a little something when it started to get too grounded in the real — I can find reality by going for a walk; I prefer to let the movies transport me not just to an alien place or situation, but another plane of experience. Sigh… But alas, reality intrudes even here, and I am saddened that we have now written up every 1930s film on the Sight & Sound list.

On a related note, I notice looking at our rankings above that we are mirror images of each other regarding Lubitsch. I put Trouble in Paradise at #2 and The Shop Around the Corner at #6, whereas you did the exact opposite. I know we enjoyed both movies a great deal, so this is perhaps splitting hairs, but I’d be curious to know why you ranked them that way.

S. – Saying farewell to the 1930’s is sad indeed. As you pointed out this batch of contenders did not make much change to my overall Top 10 list but the high quality was consistent. Like you, J., I also enjoy the concept of borrowing inspiration from real-life but unashamedly allowing for some movie-magic gloss to elevate them above the humdrum of everyday. This era seemed particularly good of striking a balance between snappy entertainment without straying too far into becoming formulaic and predictable. Perhaps part of the reason for the consistency is the presence of two contributions from Lubitsch and three from Renoir. And what a treat is Renoir! He manages to infuse complexity into characters so that they tell their stories by what they say and also by what they don’t say. Every interaction reveals something new and it is never a one-way street, the effects ripple in all directions. The acknowledgement that humans operate on a number of levels, with a public face concealing by varying degrees the central core of self preservation. All three of Renoir’s films have kept my mind restlessly contemplating the characters for days afterward.

And to answer your Lubitsch question, I would say that Trouble in Paradise was a slick, witty and elegant film that I thoroughly enjoyed but The Shop Around the Corner had a few extra layers that really got under my skin. While in Trouble in Paradise the side stories provided comic distraction, The Shop Around the Corner felt like a group of real people that weren’t just filler to move along the romantic plot. The performance of Frank Morgan in particular brought some pathos to the latter film that left a deeper impression on me than the luxe Parisian crowd.

J. – Renoir is a very powerful filmmaker, and it was great to survey a number of his movies in a relatively short period of time. I had first seen The Rules of the Game and La Grande Illusion in either my late teens or very early 20s, and I really think I was too green to adequately appreciate either film. And in that regard I mean both inexperienced with films, but more so with just life in general. There is a world-weariness to Renoir’s films that (even if you don’t share his cynicism) almost requires a decent measure of true life experience to absorb them properly. This time around I felt better armed for the encounter, and was rewarded with a wonderful series of evenings. Though I thought it was the least of the three Renoir films we discussed, La Partie de Campagne probably contained the most emotionally resonant moment of any of the films in this bloc of 10. The nearly wordless final moments of that movie are terribly affecting, but I imagine only to those who have lived long enough and deep enough to know real passion and real disappointment. I am in awe of Renoir’s ability to make truly adult entertainment that manages to be quite blithe and energetic but stupendously serious and often downright melancholy (sometimes at the same time). It is a heady mix, and one that I think would feel unfocused or tone deaf in the hands of most filmmakers.

I can totally see where you are coming from with regard to Lubitsch’s films, and I also appreciate the lived-in quality of The Shop Around the Corner, which does do a wonderful job of making rounded individuals of its cast. And Frank Morgan is particularly excellent in that regard, creating a very human character of bluster and woe. But I think what I admire so much about Trouble in Paradise is that it never plays it safe. There is something immensely appealing in its adult-ness and the perverse honesty it has, whereas all too many Hollywood comedies tone it down for the censors — and this includes The Shop Around the Corner. But above all, Trouble in Paradise is funny — outrageously funny — and that it can pair those laughs with such a sophisticated, nuanced tale of romance and betrayal is what does it for me.

But I am equally pleased that this batch had quite a few films that wholly lack even a drop of subtlety. Two of them manage to succeed fantastically on their own truly boisterous terms (Duck Soup and King Kong); while the other two didn’t really play out as well as we hoped or remembered (Modern Times and The Wizard of Oz).

S. – King Kong asks for so little and gives you so much, it really is a strap yourself in and just enjoy the ride kind of experience. It is so much fun and satisfied both in terms of kitsch value and special effects, that while clearly dated are still respectable. You are left feeling that movies really turned a corner enabling the imaginary to occupy the realms of possibility with that enormous ape. The Wizard of Oz also served up some fantastic visuals but was let down by its garbled moralising. The production was burdened with a multitude of behind the scenes problems that may have impacted on the cohesion of the actual storyline. Despite its flaws there is no denying the visual spectacle and lasting Technicolor impression left by the Land of Oz. With Duck Soup we are treated to some raw anarchy, film has truly arrived when the movie form can provide the substance for feature-length mockery. And even Chaplin roller-skated across the boundary of the old form into the new with the creative use of sound. All in all a damn fine batch of movie watching was had.

J. – I feel like movies opened themselves up to a whole new world of possibilities during the 1930s, and the Sight & Sound list really gave us a great opportunity to explore a very interesting cross-section of that experimentation. I appreciate that the critics who selected this list let Groucho Marx and a giant ape sit alongside the more stridently serious stuff like Last Chrysanthemums or La Grande Illusion. Because these popcorn movies are important too (and wonderfully entertaining). In fact, they may be more important. I mean, Partie de Campagne might be the better movie, but one brief look at the summer movie season can tell you that King Kong is the more influential. I think you’re dead on, S., about these four films asking very little of the viewer at the time you are watching them — at least in terms of mental gymnastics — but it has been very rewarding to take that extra bit of time to think back on them and discuss their merits and demerits. I’ve loved Duck Soup since I was probably 9 years old, but never have I really had to sit down and think about why I adore it so.

It will be very interesting to see how things move forward, as the amount of Hollywood product is going to skyrocket in our next batch of 10 films. With the rest of the world at war, America was left as pretty much the only player in classic film production in the early 1940s. If we keep moving ahead chronologically (which is likely), then the next nine entries on Fan With a Movie Yammer will be Hollywood productions. I am very curious to see how these American films of 1940-1942 will compare with pre-war and post-war cinema, so as much I am going to miss the 1930s, I’m excited to keep steamrolling ahead!

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