The Great Ziegfeld (1936)


Public Domain photo, from WikiMedia Commons

Plot: This is a standard biopic when it comes to plot, about the life of Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld. If you’ve ever heard of “Ziegfeld’s Follies,” this movie is a fictionalized account of how this show came to be, as well as Ziegfeld’s failures and successes, both in his personal relationships and shows he produced.

Best Moment: Oh, the musical numbers were just gorgeous. I loved all of them, even the one that was a mishmash of Strauss, Verdi, Gershwin, and one other composer I couldn’t place. The costumes were lush, and Wikipedia tells me that it took “250 tailors and seamstresses six months to prepare them using 50 pounds (23 kg) of silver sequins and 12 yards (11 m) of white ostrich plumes.” The musical numbers are definitely wonderful to watch, and a couple are written by some heavy hitters: Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. The scene where Ziegfeld and his buddies sing “Look for the Silver Lining” reminded me how much of a sucker I am for musicals. (Here’s Judy Garland singing it.)

Worst Moment: An utterly heartbreaking moment where Fannie Brice (playing herself) realizes that just because Ziegfeld hired her didn’t mean that he saw her as a woman worthy of gorgeous costumes. As she says, “So, to work for Mr. Ziegfeld, I gotta be an urchin. Even in burlesque I was middle class.” Also devastating: when the 1929 stock market crash wipes him out financially and all his shows close.

Fun Facts: Well, aside from Fannie Brice playing herself, Ray Bolger plays a stagehand whom Ziegfeld hires to perform in his show. Who is Ray Bolger, you ask?


This guy.

The film won Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Dance Direction.

Recommendation: The film runs nearly three hours, and I didn’t watch it all in one sitting. It took me a while to really get into it, but the second half moves pretty quickly. The final 10 minutes are so melancholy, though, so you’ve been warned.

A Night At The Opera (1935)


Public Domain photo from WikiMedia Commons. 

Plot: Well, I’m not entirely sure. Hijinks? See, this is a Marx Brothers movie, and I had two problems as I watched. Problem 1: I was so far behind on work that I tried to do some tasks while watching. Problem 2: Marx Brothers movies can move at a quick pace that require full attention and multiple viewings. But here’s what I think happened: The Marx Brothers are in Italy. They somehow become involved in the life of an opera singer. They go to New York and muscle their way into a production of Il Travatore.

Best Moment: There’s a good 10ish minutes of Chico Marx playing the piano while immigrant children watch, fascinated. Harpo follows him by playing the harp. These two scenes are mesmerizing. Also fun: when the opera’s pit orchestra starts playing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” instead of Verdi. And the opera singing. All the musical numbers were thoroughly enjoyable.

Worst Moment: Not a moment I can pinpoint, but I don’t like that I couldn’t follow a clear plot line. Maybe I need to watch it again? The jokes are just so fast in this film that I had a hard time keeping up. Then again, if I was around in 1935 and everything around me was bleak, I’m sure a film like this would’ve been a welcome escape…

Fun Facts: This film ranks #85 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies.

But it’s the stateroom scene that has had the most impact on American Popular Culture. According to the Wikipedias: Cyndi Lauper, Sting, Animaniacs, Seinfeld, Suite Life of Zack and Cody all paid homage to this gag of cramming too many people in too small a space.

Recommendation: I think everyone should see at least one Marx Brothers movie. I’ve seen three now: Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and now A Night at the Opera. Culturally, I’m glad I watched them. But I couldn’t really tell you what any of them are about, other than providing a medium to watch Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s musicianship, and Harpo’s pratfalls. And they are each worthwhile to see. So if you haven’t seen a Marx Brothers film, you should. I might watch this one again, if for no other reason than to try and nail down a three sentence plot summary.


Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)


Clark Gable. Franchot Tone. Gallivanting about Tahiti. By Trailer screenshot – Mutiny on the Bounty trailer, Public Domain,

Plot: A film version somewhat based on historical events in which part of the crew of the HMS Bounty decide to mutiny, casting adrift British vice-admiral William Bligh with those who were loyal to him. Bligh was known for being tyrannical, and the ship’s lieutnant, Fletcher Christian, loses his ability to defend Bligh’s harsh treatment of the hired hands who actually sail the ship and starts the mutiny. The film covers what I’m guessing is close to five years of time, from the voyage to Tahiti and back to England, as well as the court martial for the mutinous men. Spoiler alert: Fletcher Christian evades Bligh and never sees England again, and therefore never has to face his court martial.

Best Moment: The speech given by Roger Byam after being court martialed. During the mutiny, Byam was essentially taken prisoner by Christian, despite the two being good friends. Because he didn’t do more to resist the mutiny, Bligh omits key details from his testimony to ensure Byam is found guilty. Once Byam faces his conviction, he explains that while mutiny is never a solution, Bligh was not innocent.

Worst Moment: Bligh’s treatment of the men on his ship is truly heinous. His character is the definition of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Fun Facts: I had seen the 1962 remake of this film, starring Marlon Brando, and much of what I wrote in 2005 applies to this 1935 version. It truly is a masterclass of how not to be a leader.

It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and three of the actors in the film were nominated for Best Actor. As a result, the next year the Academy created the category “Best Supporting Actor.”

Epiphany: After Christian takes the Bounty, he heads back to Tahiti. Once there, he tells the men they are staying. Some of the men have families in England, but Christian knows if he goes back, he is dead. Eventually they have to leave Tahiti to evade a British ship, so they sail until he feels it is safe to land somewhere they won’t be found. None of the sailors with him have a choice–they are subject to Christian’s whims.

So my question is this: is Fletcher Christian really any better than Bligh? A benevolent dictator is still a dictator.

Recommendation: If you like movies about sailing, see it. Some of the shots on the ship are pretty cool. But I can take or leave this one. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I probably won’t watch it again.

42nd Street (1933)


Lobby card from the 1933 film 42nd Street. Pictured are Ruby Keeler, George Brent and Bebe Daniels.  Public Domain Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Plot: Julian Marsh is coming off a nervous breakdown to direct one last Broadway musical. He needs financing, though, and is able to secure what he needs from Abner Dillon–so long as Dorothy Brock is the star (and his trophy gal around town. Peggy Sawyer is fresh off the bus and looking to land a role in a show, and when Marsh is one girl down, she gets her shot, though she was cut in earlier auditions. Brock breaks her ankle before opening night, and Sawyer fills in. It’s a true American Dream story.

Best Moment: BUSBY BERKELEY CHOREOGRAPHY! And if you don’t know what that means, then you need to watch this movie STAT because he is a genius. Also, Ginger Rogers in a small role. GINGER ROGERS! And she is hilarious. There was also a fun little moment with the playwright quibbling over a line of dialogue that reminded me of stories I’ve heard about Aaron Sorkin doing the same thing.

Worst Moment: The way Abner Dillon reacts to Dorothy Brock finally kicking him to the curb. Just prime sexism. He is the worst.

Fun Facts: I I laughed out loud multiple times during the rehearsal scenes because they were mostly on brand from what happens in the musical rehearsals I’ve been part of. I’d seen the stage musical my sophomore year of high school, but I don’t remember a single thing about it. I knew Jerry Orbach played a role in the initial stage show, but I have no idea how or why or where I learned that, nor have I listened to the Broadway cast recording (which includes several additional songs to what’s in the film). So watching the film was really a new experience with the content.

When the American Film Institute put together a list of the best American musicals, “42nd Street” ranked 13th. One of my all-time favorite American standards is from this film, so to hear it throughout as part of the score made me quite happy. Here’s Diana Krall singing it…just love it.

Recommendation: If you are into musicals, this is a must-see. I would’ve loved more songs, but that’s because I’m a musical theatre nerd and am accustomed to pretty much nonstop music that we tend to get in current shows. Plus, did I mention Ginger Rogers is in it?

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel

Garbo and Barrymore pre-Hays code affection. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Plot: The Grand Hotel is a posh hotel in Berlin where, as one the regulars says, “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” We are introduced to a cast of characters: a man who is dying and has decided to use his final savings to die in poshness, a corporate titan with anger and harassment issues, a cynical stenographer, an emotionally distraught dancer, and a broke baron-turned-thief. Their lives intersect throughout the film. The first 90 minutes are lighthearted and fun, but then a shift happens and the film’s final moments are quite sad.

Best Moment: I’m not sure I can narrow it down to just one. John Barrymore is captivating, so I’ll just say whenever he is on screen was a best moment. There is the scene where Greta Garbo says “I want to be alone”–which ranked 30th on AFI’s 100 greatest movie quotes list.  So that should count for something.

Worst Moment: When the film ends. I fell in love with most of the characters and wanted to know what happened to them next!

Fun Facts: The movie was adapted from a play, which was adapted from a book written by Vicki Baum. Seriously, check out that bio. I loved that the film retained a play-like feel. It reminded me of the recent film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences”–I felt like I was watching a play, but I was watching a movie. It takes a certain kind of artistry to achieve that.

That might explain why “Grand Hotel” won the Oscar for Best Picture. According to the internets, it is the only film to win Best Picture with no nominations in any other categories.

Recommendation: See it! You get Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford and two Barrymores. There is a melancholy about the line “people come, people go. Nothing happens.” It reminded me of the book “Slaughterhouse Five,” and the phrase “So it goes.” Life is life, and when people leave, life continues to roll on. When people leave the Grand Hotel, the hotel hums along.