By John H. Foote
The first of a nine-part series exploring the greatest ten films of each decade over the last ninety years, I have agonized over my choices for the films to be included, and (Alan will be pleased) did not slip up to 15 as I often do. Discipline kept me at 10 films, something my cousin has taught me. I hope I have taught him something in this film website journey we are on.
Sound had come to cinema in 1927, but it would take nearly 13 years before the artists and technicians had learned to master the new addition to the art form. Since their beginning in 1895, the moving image – “Movies” – had been silent, and in 1927 Al Jolson sang to the audience and thus sound became integral to cinema. But at the beginning I do not think creators of films understood entirely what this all meant. Beyond dialogue there was background noise, basic sounds, sounds under the words, music could be added as a track, there could be singing, thus musicals, sound altered the shape of cinema in every way.
In the beginning, as with anything new, there was a sense that sound would not work for movies. I simply cannot understand that way of thinking, but it existed. But once introduced sound was everywhere within a year. Some of the greatest films of the silent era remained silent – The Kid (1920), The Gold Rush (1925) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927) continued to play to audiences around the globe. But new films, with the exception of anything Chaplin made were created with sound. It took some tinkering but gradually the makers of movies mastered actors speaking and the other aspects of sound, making silent films unthinkable after 1940.
As films were unspooling onto movie screens through the thirties, a new art form was being created, and it would ease into existence as the most important of the century.
10. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) — The first truly great romantic comedy, beautifully directed by Frank Capra, who understood “by meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” to perfection. But more importantly he understood chemistry between his actors was an essential need for such a film. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert crackled with such sexual chemistry on the screen it was nearly afire, and each was very funny in this comedy that was also a love story. The film was the first to sweep the Academy Awards with awards for best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Only two others can lay claim to this.
9. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) — Much more daring than audiences have realized over the years. Based on the famous book about German soldiers fighting WWI, the makers of the film shot it as that, portraying German fighters, therefore the enemy as we move through the horrors of war with them. War had never been like this on film before because now in addition to seeing it, we could hear it, and it added nuances that the silent films lacked. Lew Ayres gave a haunting performance as the young man we watch go through the war, and director Lewis Milestone filled the screen with powerful images that to this day are haunting in their raw power. Dated for sure, but still a blistering work of art. This set the template for all war films to follow.
8. MODERN TIMES (1936) —Though Chaplin did not speak in this film, there were sound effects on the track, but it is still classed as a silent film and among the greatest ever made. It is often not included in books about silent cinema because it was made nine years after the advent of sound, bit I consider it a silent film in every way. As with Chaplin he made a statement about the coming of the machine age replacing common men in factories and the manner in which machines were swallowing up the industries. Most famously Chaplin’s tramp falls into the belly of a machine and is literally swallowed by the machine, though he escapes. Beautifully directed and as always, impeccable performances dominated, especially Chaplin.
7. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1938) — Who said a feature length animated film would not work? Walt Disney had created the beloved cartoon character Mickey Mouse and stunned audiences with his many short animated films, but being a visionary Disney believe he could go further. Sinking every dime he had into this film, he took an enormous risk in creating a feature length animated film that was adored by audiences of the time and has remained such for eighty plus years. Animated with remarkable beauty the film has everything, comedy, love, horrors, loyalty, and heartache in it, and a new art form and movie genre was born. Narrow minded thinking saw to it the film was not a Best Picture nominee. 1938’s Best Picture, by far.
6. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) — Before Marlon Brando brought his intense, raw realism to stage and screen, I think cinema’s finest actor was lanky James Stewart. Though his finest performance came seven years later in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) when he returned from the war, scarred by what he had done and seen, he gave a remarkable performance in this 1939 Frank Capra film about an idealistic young senator who takes Congress and Washington by storm. Finding corruption among men he idolizes young Smith lashes back, taking the floor of the senate, refusing to yield as he conducts a filibuster. Exhausted, on the brink of collapse he speaks directly to the crooked men about what they once were and what serving in government meant of him. And finally he faints, his words ending the corruption within the senate. Like all Capra films in the decade the central theme was “love thy neighbour” and Stewart brought that glowing inner beauty to his character. The New York Film Critics awarded him Best Actor of 1939, the Academy blew it.
5. KING KONG (1933) — One of the most extraordinary, awe-inspiring films ever made, King Kong advanced the art of visual effects with its mastery, and imagination. Imagine seeing it for the first time??!! It might have been akin to seeing The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings (2001-02-03) films, even Avatar (1999) for the first time. Smitten by Anne (Fay Wray) the giant ape takes her into the jungle as a play toy, then chases the men when they take her back. Rendered unconscious when they fumigate the ape with gas, he is taken back to New York, where he escapes into the streets, finds Anne and climbs the Empire State Building, her in hand. High atop the city he fights the biplanes that buzz like mosquitoes at home, filling him full of bullets, leading to a long, fatal fall. Deeply moving, heartbreaking and filled with adventure and excitement it is a movie masterpiece. Incredibly not nominated for a single Academy Award, one of the great injustices in movie history. Remade terribly in 1976, and brilliantly again by Peter Jackson in 2005, the epic scope of the film was captured, and Kong, at daybreak high above New York, was delirious movie making. Like the first, the remake left me giddy.
4. TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935) — The greatest documentary ever made is also an unapologetic work of propaganda from director Leni Riefenstahl who was asked by Hitler himself to create this picture. The film explores the rise of Hitler, the adoration of the man by the German people, all the while painting him like a God with the use of the cinematic language. The plane descends from the clouds, and we see Hitler come down to the ground like a God with thousands there for him. The camera often shoots him up so he appears larger than life, God-like as he moves among the throngs of German people. No wonder the German people fell in love with him!! This was an extraordinary example of the power of cinema and precisely what film could do. Emotionally charged, but undeniably dangerous as we see an evil man as he wants to be seen by the masses, as a saviour, as a God. Watching the film today, it remains terrifying.
3. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) — A romance set against the backdrop of a great historical event was the premise of Gone with the Wind, but it was so beautifully created and acted it took one’s breath away. Based on the best-selling novel, every major and minor actress in Hollywood read or did a screen test for Scarlett O’Hara, the lead role opposite Clark Gable in the film. In the end British actress Vivien Leigh got the part and gave the performance of several lifetimes, making clear that a woman could indeed carry a major film. Her performance is timeless, still among the greatest ever given as a spitfire of a southern belle trying to save her beloved plantation, Tara. A vicious schemer, she will stop at nothing to get ahead and when the south falls, she fights back, finally marrying Rhett Butler (Gable) for his money. She does not expect to fall in love or lust with him, but she does. Yet she still longs for the weak Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), married to her cousin Melanie (Olivia de Haviland). Only after Melanie dies does Scarlett realize the depth of her love for Rhett, but he rebuffs her, answering her profession of love with “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.” The performances of Gable, De Haviland, Thomas Mitchell, Howard and the great Hattie McDaniel are superb but towering over them is Leigh with as astounding piece of acting as Scarlett. I still get chills watching her. Breathtaking cinematography is a highlight and that spectacular score, but Leigh in a performance for the ages, soars above them all.
2. CITY LIGHTS (1931) — Arguably the greatest silent film ever made, a fact more so impressive because it came after the advent of sound! Chaplin did not feel audiences needed or wanted to hear actors, especially his Tramp, and having started the film as a silent he did not wish to shoot sound sequences. Never before had Chaplin merged heartbreak, wonder and love with such breathtaking poignancy. His tramp loves a blind flower girl from afar and sets out to help get her sight restored. He does everything to make this happen, and she remains oblivious to his efforts. In fact, given the sounds she hears each morning she thinks she has a wealthy benefactor. Sight restored she is working in a flower shop when he sees her. He approaches tentatively and she passes him a flower for his lapel. Their fingers touch and she knows at once it is he who saw her sight restored. They speak, he asking her if now she can see? She sees so much now and answers him bringing to his face the most astonishing, beatific smile in film history. Never before was Chaplin’s genius so pure, so perfect. Miraculous in every way, and not a single Academy Award nomination.
1. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) — Though a box office failure on release, through re-release and annual television broadcasts, The Wizard of Oz became what it always had been, a soaring work of art, directed by Victor Fleming, who also directed Gone with the Wind, for which he won an Oscar as Best Director. No need to describe the plot of the young girl from Kansas, Dorothy (Judy Garland) swept up in a cyclone and over the rainbow to a magical land called Oz. A lost young child, too much in her head, she learns what is most important, journeying with three fiercely loyal friends to see the great Wizard, all the while trying to avoid a nasty Witch (Margaret Hamilton). Have the performances in the film ever been given their due? I think not. Hamilton was the stuff of nightmares as the Witch of the West, a truly vile woman just because she could be. One of the greatest supporting actress performances ever given, and one that four-year-old me bolting from the room in pure terror. Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion is pure magic, Jack Haley’s Tin Man an emotional mess, and Ray Bolger’s rubber limbed Scarecrow an absolute delight, all superb, inhabiting their characters in every way. And yes, Judy Garland’s young dreamer, seeking more without ever realizing to be loved as she was in Kansas was all she would ever need. The early scenes in the film, in Kansas were shot in a sepia tone but when Dorothy opens her door in Oz, glorious colour is revealed, which she steps into, taking the audience with her on her extraordinary journey. Pure perfect movie magic.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.