#183 (tie) – The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), dir. Mizoguchi Kenji

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Journey to the end of the night. Otoko (played by Kakuko Mori) prays beneath the stage, hoping her husband will finally put on the performance that will redeem him, in Mizoguchi Kazuo’s exquisitely shot tale of devotion in the face of social rigidity.

We finally get a little break from 1930s French and American movies to tackle the oldest Japanese sound film on the Sight & Sound list, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari, 1939). Japanese cinema didn’t get much international recognition prior to the Second World War, but it roared into the global consciousness in the 1950s, in no small part due to the work of director Mizoguchi Kenji. A prolific filmmaker, Mizoguchi produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 films in his career (many of which, sadly, are lost), but The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is considered to be the moment his style fully crystallized. The movie follows the career trajectory of a kabuki actor in the late 19th century. The adopted son of a famous Tokyo stage actor, Kikunosuke is a bad performer coasting on the coattails of his father’s name. Otoko, the wet nurse of his infant brother, is the first person to be honest about his poor acting and urges him to really focus on his craft. Bolstered by Otoko’s encouragement and love, Kikunosuke disobeys his parents and heads off to make his own name on the stage — but that path is destined to be arduous, if not tragic. Though leisurely paced and restrained in mood, Last Chrysanthemums is a bravura exercise in lighting, choreography, and camera movement that never fails to impress. (143 min.) Continue reading

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#73 (tie) – La Grande Illusion (1937), dir. Jean Renoir

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La grande fuite. Jean Gabin, France’s biggest box office star of the day, waits for his moment in Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war drama La Grande Illusion, an exploration of, well, a lot of things about pre-WWII Europe.

French director, critic, and future yammer subject Francois Truffaut once noted that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because the very act of depicting war inevitably glamorizes the combat or glorifies the soldiers involved. Truffaut is probably right concerning most war pics, but it is doubtful his maxim could apply to director Jean Renoir’s prisoner-of-war film La Grande Illusion (1937). Set during World War I, the film follows two French officers, the aristocratic Captain de Boldieu (Pierre Fresney) and the working class pilot Lieutenant Maréchel (Jean Gabin), as they deal with being POWs in German custody. The film establishes a number of prisoner-of-war movie archetypes that would be copied by numerous later films (with one prominent scene being lifted pretty much wholesale for Casablanca). But it is a distinctly unusual war movie, in that there is no combat and no bad guys. Even the attempts at escape serve more as backdrops for character studies and observations about the absurdities of nationalism and class divisions or the way that fate has of undoing even our best laid plans. Most anti-war films look to man’s brutality to make their point; La Grande Illusion instead chooses to showcase our common humanity. (114 min.) Continue reading

#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir

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Unnecessary roughness. Farce and tragedy collide head on in director Jean Renoir’s cynical take on pre-WWII French society — both high and low. In this shot, a marquis and the man trying to steal his wife carry the marquis’ mistress after she falls into hysterics — a taste of the complicated relationships woven throughout the film.

We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

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And your little blog too! Dorothy’s adventure with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion represents one of the most enduring children’s classics to ever come out of Hollywood. But how does The Wizard of Oz hold up to adult eyes?

It’s very difficult to open a yammer on The Wizard of Oz (1939) without resorting to lame jokes about not being in Kansas or otherwise heading somewhere over the rainbow — so we’ll just skip that and get to it. Now a beloved musical and children’s film, The Wizard of Oz was actually a tumultuous production that burned through a number of directors and stars before largely failing at the box office upon its initial release. But the movie slowly gained traction through airings on television, moving from cult status to bona fide classic in subsequent decades. As you likely know, the movie tells the adventures of farmgirl Dorothy Gale, who travels through the magical land of Oz with a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion as they seek the assistance of the titular wizard. Of course, there’s a wicked witch and some flying monkeys to contend with along the way. The movie is an unusual one for the Sight & Sound list, which is often so vigorously serious and adult with regard to its selections. The Wizard of Oz is very much a children’s film, abounding with broad performances, outrageously vibrant costumes and sets, goofy (but unshakable) songs, and a decided lack of nuance or subtlety. But there is a definite charm and energy to the film that makes it worthy of the declaration in its opening credits: “to the Young in Heart …we dedicate this picture.” (101 min.) Continue reading

#63 (tie) – Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Motormouth. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets a taste of the latest technology in Modern Times, the comedian’s slapstick satire of industry and the plight of the working man.

We’ve previously mentioned on this blog that Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights very much went against the grain by being a silent picture at a time when sound had become all the rage in Hollywood. By that measure, the comedian’s next feature — Modern Times (1936) — is positively reactionary. Modern Times was meant to be Chaplin’s first foray into the all-talking movie, but he felt (and rightly so) that his Little Tramp character was essentially a vehicle for silent expression. Modern Times technically isn’t a silent film (we’ll get into that), but in most of the essential ways it is a product of the silent era. “Reactionary” isn’t just applicable to the film’s style, but also potentially its content. Modern Times doesn’t offer a story so much as a satirical broadside against the industrialized world — particularly the dehumanization of mechanized production and the pain and poverty experienced by large swathes of society. So, the film can be seen as reactionary in its insistence on the good old ways in a disturbing new world, but its sympathy for the little man and the worker made it revolutionary enough for Chaplin to be branded a Communist in 1950s Red Scare America. Whatever your take, Modern Times absolutely was the last silent film made in Hollywood, and it is appropriate that the Little Tramp would provide the final word — or intertitle — on the form. (87 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – King Kong (1933), dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

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Knock. Knock. The mighty ape bursts through the barred gate of Skull Island’s protective wall to retrieve his blonde in King Kong, the special effects-driven spectacular that revolutionized adventure/fantasy cinema.

If there’s one Sight & Sound film of which everyone knows at least the basic story, it’s King Kong (1933). Giant ape, blonde, airplanes, and the Empire State Building. It is one of the great enduring creations of Hollywood and has filtered across the global cultural lexicon through countless references, parodies, and remakes for 80 years — so we won’t trouble you with a lengthy recap. King Kong was the brainchild of filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose sparse filmographies belie their influence. Cooper was a real-life adventurer — and the inspiration for King Kong‘s Carl Denham — and he and Schoedsack had previously collaborated on some well received silent docu-dramas filmed in Persia and Siam (elephant stampede footage from their 1927 film Chang is actually used in Duck Soup). But however much adventure and exoticism Cooper and Schoedsack brought to the proceedings, the bulk of the genius behind King Kong probably came from Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animation pioneer who brought Kong and the film’s menagerie of prehistoric beasts to life. Kong was a special effects marvel in its day, and still has the power to awe with its inventiveness and visual splendor. Combine that with some killer action set pieces, frenetic pacing, and Max Steiner’s influential (and supremely bombastic) score, and you have a film that rivals the titular ape in scale and power. (104 min.) Continue reading

#90 (tie) – Partie de Campagne (1936), dir. Jean Renoir

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Upswings & downpours. Young innocent Henriette attracts the attention of the locals (and grips the camera’s eye) as she exuberantly takes to a swing set in Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne — a short film in which it is the provincials who teach the city folk a thing or two about being jaded.

It’s a lovely day for a picnic, but the weather is liable to turn. Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by renowned French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and strangely enough it is a film he never actually finished. Edited together by friends after World War II, the short film follows a family of Parisians as they spend a day out in the countryside sometime in the 1860s. A pair of local men take notice of the Dufour family, and decide to make a play for the attractive daughter, Henriette (and perhaps her mother too). While the know-it-all father and Henriette’s hapless fiancé do a bit of fishing, the women go off on a boating trip with the two men. Before long, the journey down the river turns amorous, until a storm intrudes. Comical and romantic, but pained and ambiguous, Partie de campagne is a deceptive film that manages to pack a whole lot into its brief running time. Renoir would go on to make fuller, grander statements about the human condition — notably list film #4 The Rules of the Game (1939) — but his humanity (and cynicism) are on full display in this beautiful, if incomplete, teaser. (40 min.) Continue reading