The Five Best Films You've Never Seen
(After writing my comments on the following films, I notice these great, unappreciated films all have one thing in common. No, it's not that they're old (though they are)--it's that they all have terrific, unforgettable endings. Perhaps it would be wise for screenwriters to carefully consider how a film will end before they even get started)
1. The Crowd (1928--Directed by King Vidor)
A tremendously powerful film about an ordinary, unexceptional couple, that strikes as close to home today as it did when it was released. This is the story of a young, cocky man, John, who realizes that he's destined for great things, and goes to New York City to make his fortune. As he takes the boat into the city, a fellow passenger remarks to him that it's "tough to beat the crowd." Johnny meets a girl, gets married, and struggles to get ahead, but as the movie progresses we see, and he finally sees, that he's not exceptionalhe's just a part of the crowd.
If you are unfamiliar with the best of Silent film, this will convince you that it consists of a lot more than pie fights and speeded up action--this movie will hit you as hard as anything you'll see today. The performances are incredibly realistic and believable, but director Vidor goes one step farther, making judicious use of exaggerated sets, so that the film is not so much about reality as we know it, but reality as we feel it. For example, when John's father dies when he is a boy, the staircase he must walk up to see his dead father is bizarrely long, as it must have felt like an eternity for a boy in his place to have to walk up those stairs. Similarly, in the city, John works in a virtual sea of desks, in a huge building, and the camera must do a lot of searching to find him in the crowd.
The final sequences, when Johnny wants to kill himself, reminds me of the similar scenes in It's a Wonderful Life. Don't miss this one!
2. Lady For a Day (1933--Directed by Frank Capra)
Many people who adore the great Capra films--It's a Wonderful Life,
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night--have never even heard of this film, which definitely belongs in the same class, despite its obscurity. Partially, that's because Capra remade this for his final film, A Pocketful of Miracles, and this inferior version of the story is far more frequently shown than Lady for a Day. A Pocketful of Miracles is not a bad film, simply mediocre, and doesn't really get rolling in the true Capra style until the second half (Capra had all kinds of trouble getting the movie done his way, and quit directing films as a result).
The beauty of Lady for a Day is that it's essentially a fairy tale, though it's set in the rough urban setting of depression-era New York. Tough, grouchy gangster Dave "the Dude" (Warren William, in a wonderful performance, much superior to Glenn Ford's in the remake) relies on a poor beggar woman named "Apple Annie" to give him luck by selling him one of her apples. Unfortunately, Annie (May Robson, who is herself much superior to Bette Davis in the remake) has gotten herself into a lot of trouble. She has a daughter whom she has had raised in a convent in Spain, and her daughter is about to marry the son of a Count! That's the good news. The bad news is that Annie hasn't seen her daughter in many years, and has only communicated with her through letters, and she's told some whopping lies--i.e., that she remarried a wealthy man (Annie is a widow) and that she is in the elite of New York society. The latest letter from her daughter in Spain has been held up (the glamorous Park Avenue Hotel where Annie collects her letters has finally discovered what's going on!) and Annie learns that her daughter, her fiancé, and the Count will be arriving for a visit in a few days!
Annie is crushed and despondent, and Dave "the Dude," despite being an unsentimental tough guy, decides he'd better help her out (after all, he needs those lucky apples). He has an out-of-town friend who owns a high-class apartment--maybe they can "doll" Annie up and pretend that's where she lives. This idea doesn't go over at all with the Dude's partner, "Happy," who's perhaps the gloomiest and most pessimistic character in film history (played hilariously by Ned Sparks)--"Happy" does relent and agrees to go along with the scheme, but can't resist spouting off negative predictions at every opportunity. Indeed, things do get ever more complicated, until finally things look completely hopeless--but it's at that point where director Capra, the master at pushing the emotional envelope without ever going too far, provides us with a beautiful, unforgettable ending.
I'm always offended when Capra is falsely accused of being corny. A corny film would lose the audience's sympathy, but Capra has us firmly in the palm of his hand from beginning to end. This is a brilliant film from a master filmmaker.
3. The Last Command (1928--Directed by Joseph Von Sternberg)
Once more I must recommend a silent drama, which is a type of film most people can't even imagine, let alone would consider seeing. Rather than a festival of ham-acting as many people might expect, this film is as powerful and real today as I'm sure it was the day it was released. Perhaps some of the film's realism is due to the fact that it is based, incredibly, on a true story.
In 1927 Hollywood, an émigré Russian director is casting for a film about the Russian Revolution, which took place ten years earlier. The extras are shoved along like cattle, and one of them, an old man, looks lost and out of place, shuffling through as if he's shell-shocked. Because of his age, he is picked to play an extra part as a Russian general. Later on the Director recognizes the man--he's not just playing a general, he was a general! In fact he was one of the Tsar's top generals. The story then proceeds on two tracks--the Hollywood section, where the old General, now just a movie extra, is treated like a mere cog in a machine, and the flashback story that takes place during the Revolution, where the General is a proud, arrogant man with thousands of lives at the mercy of his orders. During this section, he encounters two actors who have been arrested (forgive me if my memory is hazy), one of whom is the future Director, and the other is a beautiful woman. The woman is a communist sympathizer, and means to assassinate him, but when she overhears the General refusing to waste his men's lives on a futile battle, simply to please the Tsar, and overhears his expressions of true Russian patriotism, she can't go through with it. She seems to actually be attracted to the General, and when the situation breaks down on the front, and the communists are taking over, she offers to help him. She likes him...or is she just pretending to like him to turn him over to the communists? Hmmm
In the modern-day finale the movie set is ready for a dramatic battle scene, where the wavering Russian troops, inspired by the fiery oratory of communists, throw down their arms and revolt! However, as the scene starts to roll, the General, broken and disoriented though he is, hears the communists making their appeal, and roused with righteous fury, suddenly springs to life, summoning up every last bit of his strength...
Emil Jannings, the actor who plays the General, won the very first Best Actor award for his performance in this film and The Way of All Flesh (the Academy did not limit the award to a single-film performance in this first year). His performance is powerfully understated, and the movie constantly surprises us with its irony and insight. Although the focus is on character rather than ideology, it is also a great anti-communist film.
4. The Freshman (1925--Directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)
No, this is not the Matthew Broderick film. I can hear you as clearly as if you're standing right beside me: "Not another silent film recommendation!" Yes, I'm afraid so. This time however, the film is a comedy, and apparently not as obscure as I thought, for this film stunningly (considering the bias toward more recent films) actually made it onto the AFI's list of the best 100 comedies of all time (all the way up to number 79). This is perhaps the greatest film of Harold Lloyd, one of the "Big Three" of silent comedy (along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton), who has unfairly been given the bronze medal in our perception of silent comedy, mostly by people who have never seen one of his films. If Lloyd is known by the general public at all today, it's as the man who hangs from a big clock at the side of a building in a famous silent film still picture (from the great Safety Last). Lloyd, in fact, was the most popular of the three during the 1920's, and if we were to organize a silent film comedy competition, with each participant allowed two shorts and two features for comparison, I have a strong feeling that a typical cross-section of the American public would declare him the winner. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Charlie Chaplin, great as he is, would come in third.
There are several reasons why Lloyd has been largely ignored, while Chaplin and Keaton are feted. The first reason is cultural, namely that Lloyd was a conservative, right-wing Republican type, and was an optimistic, individualistic go-getter, much like the character he would play in his films. Lloyd's special Academy Award, handed out in 1952, during the height of the Red Scare, takes specific note of Lloyd's patriotism during a time when many in the film industry had flirted with communism. Chaplin on the other hand was an avowed left-winger who was essentially kicked out of the country, which made him the darling of liberals everywhere, who were quick to over look his monumental arrogance, self-absorption, and fondness for teenage girls (gamely portrayed in the largely inaccurate and hagiographic movie Chaplin as a romantic foible brought on by a youthful lost love). Essentially, then, Lloyd gets the belittling Frank Capra-treatment, who critics are always loath to categorize as a great Director, although they will grant him the status of "Popular Entertainer".
Another reason behind the lack of respect shown Lloyd is that Hollywood types in his day resented his spectacular success. Lloyd originally wanted to be a dramatic actor on the stage, but when his family moved to Southern California he got some jobs as a bit-player in movies, and then got his big break when his friend Hal Roach inherited some money and started a small-time movie company that made short comedy films. He wanted Lloyd to be his star, and though their first efforts weren't very good, Lloyd and Roach persevered, and after 5 years Roach had the most successful comedy studio in Hollywood (supplanting Mack Sennett) and the hard-working, enthusiastic Lloyd was a huge star. Because of their friendship, Roach and Lloyd didn't really have a boss-employee relationship, and Lloyd had unusual control over all the films he made with Roach. Except for taking directorial credit on some early shorts, Lloyd never took directing or writing credit on his films, because he wanted to encourage his co-workers and collaborators and make them feel an important part of the team. In fact, Lloyd was the uncredited co-director of all his films, and after 1923 (when he parted from Roach to form his own studio) he had complete control over every aspect of all his films, almost all of which were wildly successful at the box office. Ironically, because he had complete control over his films, he was hesitant to release them to television, because they would be edited for commercials, and so he himself is partially responsible for his films remaining far more out of the public's eye than Chaplin's or Keaton's.
It was famously said of Lloyd (by Hal Roach) that he was not a comedian, but an actor who played the part of a comedian. Perhaps this is true, but if it is it must be conceded that he was a brilliant actor. His films are sometimes accused of being mechanical and heartless, because every gag and every situation seem so carefully calculated. People who make this accusation have not watched the Lloyd films very carefully, because they're full of beautiful emotional touches, and what is described as calculated is simply brilliant filmmaking. Perhaps no film embodies all that Lloyd has to offer than The Freshman.
The film is about a naïve young man (Harold) who has big dreams about going to college--unfortunately, he's gotten all his ideas about college out of corny novels and magazines, and his sanguine dreams of being a Big Man on Campus are certain to be crushed by reality. However, when Harold arrives at college (the subtitle says something like, "It was a typical American college--a large football stadium surrounded by several other buildings") he is so naïve and so optimistic that he doesn't know that everyone is laughing at him behind his back. Everyone, that is, except for the girl who works at the boarding house where he stays--she sees his inherent goodness, and enjoys his cheery optimism, and doesn't have the heart to tell him that he's a laughingstock. When Harold tries out for the football team he is pummeled mercilessly (and hilariously), and even the coach doesn't have the heart to tell him he didn't make the team, but keeps him on as the waterboy (although Harold is led to believe he's an actual member of the team). When Harold is forced to host an extravagant party (because he's "so popular") his suit starts falling apart on him, and many other antics ensue, when suddenly the story turns serious. A drunken partygoer is molesting the boarding-house girl, but Harold sees what's going on and knocks him down. The bitter partygoer tells Harold that he's the joke of the campus, and that everybody's laughing at him. Harold is left alone with the girl, and the moment is painfully awkward, until suddenly Harold breaks down in tears. But then he rises again, his never-say-die optimism rising to the surface: "I'll show them. I'll show them what I'm made of this Saturday at the big football game versus State." Of course, the girl knows that he's not really on the football team, but she can't bear to tell him the truth.
At the big game, the "State" team is pretty rough, and members of the home squad are continually carried out on stretchers, until only Harold is left. When yet another player is injured, Harold gamely starts to head onto the field, but the coach finally tells him that he's not part of the team. It was all a joke--he's just the waterboy and that's all. For a moment Harold is crushed again, but then the old optimism fires itself to the surface, and he tells the coach, "You've got to let me into the game!" The coach reluctantly relents, and Harold heads out for the classic football-game finale.
What makes the game sequence great is not the suspense of it (by now, we figure Harold will be a hero and will be very funny doing it), nor the gags themselves (though they're terrific). The artistic power of the scene comes from the fact that Lloyd and his collaborators have carefully built our sympathy for the hero, letting us really feel for him (while still maintaining a high quota of gags), so that we don't just enjoy watching Harold be a hero in the football game--we're eager for him to be a hero. The audience is fully engaged, and at the touching final moment Lloyd has us eating out of the palm of his hand. The film's careful crafting explains why the football sequence, when shown at the beginning of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock 21 years later, is funny but not nearly as funny as we remember it from The Freshman (one final aside about the football scene in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock--at the end a new locker room scene is inserted, and Lloyd matches his appearance from 21 years before--the man apparently aged very slowly!).
Do yourself a favor and see this movie, or any Lloyd movie, as soon as you can. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
5. Freaks (1932--Directed by Tod Browning)
This is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. It's perhaps the most personal, idiosyncratic, and grotesque film of the 1930's, and it's incredible to think that it was distributed by the glossy MGM. Browning directed many of Lon Chaney's classic silent films, and the original Dracula. He was called upon by Irving Thalberg to come up with something equally horrific, and drew on his own experiences living with circus people to come up with this film, which was banned in many places and essentially destroyed his career.
The film, despite its notoriety, actually has at its core some very moral questions: Who are the normal people, and who are the freaks? Who is truly beautiful, and who is truly a monster?
The film takes place in a circus with an elaborate freak show, and the actors are actual circus freaks: midgets, pin heads, Siamese twins, and other odd, disturbing-to-look-at characters. The freaks all live together in a happy bond, and rely on each other. When a midget inherits a fortune, one of the normal people, the beautiful trapeze artist, pretends to fall in love with him, though she's actually having an affair with the Strong Man. The midget dumps his midget-girlfriend and marries the trapeze artist, who is cheerfully inducted as one of the freaks. When the freaks discover that the marriage is a sham and a murderous plot against their friend, they come to his aid (in a driving rainstorm) and enact a fitting revenge in a horrifying finale (that is cut on some prints).
Though the film has some corny aspects, the images of the freaks and the lessons the story imparts are hard to forget (even if you want to).