Thursday, February 11, 2010

1935: The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)

1935: The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)

This next pick probably illustrates, as much as any year, my distinction on this list of "favorites" versus "best".  I personally like the distinction, as some of the "best films" haven't always moved me, and some of my favorite films aren't necessarily considered the best.  This Hitchcock is considered by no one I've ever read as his best.  And, I'll admit that it's not near as depthful and artful as some of his later work.  However, it is, along with Rear Window, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Marnie, one of my favorites by the director.  

Hitchcock has always had a playful streak, and it's in full bloom here. The 39 Steps is sexy, full of twists and turns, and just a purely fun romp. I'll admit, I usually need my mind engaged to fully embrace a film.  But, for some reason, I find this one so well-directed, the story so well-told, that I'm satisfied shutting off my brain and just letting one of the masters entertain me.  

Other contenders for 1935: As with other years, there are still some things I need to see.  These include: Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap, James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett, Howard Hawks' Ceiling Zero, Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose, John Ford's The Informer, Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood, and Richard Boleslawski's Les Miserables.  There are two films I have seen that are strong runner-ups for my top pick.  Jean Renoir's Le crime de Monsieur Lange is another one of my very favorite by the director.  And, Mark Sandrich's Top Hat may very well be my favorite musical of all time.  I finally though gave the spot to the Hitchcock as I think it's one of the most fun and purely entertaining films of this entire era.  

5/1/10 I watched James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.  I know that I'm in the minority on this one, but I definitely much preferred Whale's original Frankenstein film.  I found the original's direction to be more powerful and overall there seemed to be a little more heart in the first film.  But, the scene between Frankenstein and the blind man is a classic and fully felt.  

6/6/10 I watched Howard Hawks' Ceiling Zero. A tremendous performance by Cagney and one of the most incredible scenes of sustained tension I have ever seen as Texas navigates the skies.  Tough to find but so glad I finally got to see it.  Absolutely top tier Hawks. 

6/10/10 I watched Richard Boleslawski's Les Miserables.  Though probably the type of film the Turks of the New Wave would have rejected, as it does perhaps lack a little personality, it is extremely well-made.  March and Laughton are fantastic, and it doesn't hurt that they have the great Gregg Toland along for the ride.

6/21/10 I watched John Ford's The Informer.  The older I get, the more I realize how much depth the "masters" were able to achieve in some of their work.  I saw it recently when I watched Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But..., and it certainly is evident in Ford's thematic treatment of Jippo's betrayal of Frankie.  Ford is able to achieve such universality with such simplicity.  And there's a sophistication to his concerns and characters that elevates him among most of his peers.  

6/25/10 I watched Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood.  I can't say I'm a natural fan of the swashbuckler genre or of Curtiz's campy style (I struggled even a little with his version of Robin Hood.)  But the charm and appeal of Flynn is hard to resist here, and he makes a very convincing hero.  Enjoyable although at times hard to take it for any more than that.  

7/9/10 I watched George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett.  It's a real offbeat film for the time and didn't always hold together for me.  But when it's great, in the first few scenes between Hepburn and the painter, and the deliberation between the two on the train near the end, it's downright classic.  An awesome location, in the painter's home, and a few very fine Hepburn moments.  

3/1/12 I watched Henry Hathaway's Peter Ibbetson.  An unusually esoteric film that starts out normal enough but devolves into something far more elusive.  I'm not sure exactly what Hathaway is up to - it is unique but so strange as to lose interest for me by a certain point.

8/5/13 I watched Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap.  The Hollywood happy ending has become an almost absolute, an artificial emotional high that a filmmaker must provide the audience before turning the lights back on.  It is troubling and says as much about the American psyche as McDonald's or Hummers.  But what if there was a time when it is was not obligatory, when instead it was the optimal way to bring a story to a close.  I have seen my fair share of movies, and most of my favorites tend to eschew the happy ending for something else altogether.  Rarely, if ever, have I seen a movie like Ruggles, that without its happy ending, would simply lose everything, its reason for being, its internal logic, and its deeply lasting effect.  Of all I have seen, I put this one up as the quintessential happy ending.  If Hollywood were only taking its lessons from Ruggles, we may still be at the center of the most important and profound artistic medium of the last 150 years.   

9/22/13 I watched Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey:  1918-1935:  The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World.  Highlights for me included the parts on Gance, Ozu, and China's cinema at this time that is entirely unknown to me.  I look forward to seeing La Roue, The Goddess, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  

1/11/17 I rewatched Mark Sandrich's Top Hat.  I think I haven't seen it since I saw it for the first time in '94-'95 and it quickly became my favorite musical.  It is a little more corny than I remember and a little more loose but Astaire's elegance and grace are a sight to behold and the music (courtesy of Berlin and Steiner) is catchy and moving.

7/24/18 I watched George Cukor's David Copperfield.  Some of the moments with young David rank as some of the greatest ever put on screen by a child actor.  But the film just feels a bit jumbled, as though Cukor didn't have the funds or focus to capture things the way he would have liked.


  1. Hard to argue with this choice. Yeah, it's narratively sloppy and maybe not one of Hitch's absolute best, but it is so much fun, so thrilling to watch. It's like the distilled essence of Hitch with the finer points stripped away: just the raw energy of the set pieces and the sexual frisson remain. I love Young and Innocent, another fun British Hitchcock, for similar reasons.

    I'm also so happy to see Ceiling Zero on your contenders list. I consider that one of Hawks' best early works, a pivotal film that looks forward to both the aviation thrills and the aura of death hanging over Only Angels Have Wings, and the crackling dialogue of Hawks' later screwball comedies. It's kind of like His Girl Friday playing out in the setting of Only Angels. Such a great movie. The plane crash scene, where the actual crash plays out almost entirely offscreen, is harrowing.

  2. Ed, great comments! I love this sentence, in particular:

    "It's like the distilled essence of Hitch with the finer points stripped away: just the raw energy of the set pieces and the sexual frisson remain."

    Obviously, I couldn't agree more. I've never seen YOUNG AND INNOCENT but will definitely track it down.

    And CEILING ZERO sounds awesome. How were you able to track down so many of these early Hawks? I know that they're not terribly easy to find.

    Thanks again, Ed!

  3. Oops, I just noticed that those were things you still needed to see rather than runners-up. Ceiling Zero really is great. Its one weakness is a slight staginess — it was adapted from a play and obviously had a pretty minimal budget, so it's a very claustrophobic film mostly shot on one set. Hawks turns it into a virtue through some typically sharp dialogue. I've seen it, along with most of Hawks' other early films, through downloaded copies mostly ripped off of TCM showings and such. A lot of stuff not available on DVD is readily available online if you know where to look. Drop me an email if you want some more info...

    Anyway, I just saw Sylvia Scarlet is on your to-see list too. I like that one as well; it's not a perfect film by any means but there are SO many interesting sexual tensions and ideas in that film. It's pretty startling for a Hollywood film of that era to deal so openly with cross-dressing and hints of gay desire, even if in the end everything's naturally restored to the "norm."

  4. Ed, no problem! Both these sound great and will be seen in short order. I will write you at some point, as I hate that I haven't seen many of these early Hawks, one of my favorite directors, too.

    Thanks again for the excellent comments!

  5. With the possible exception of NORTH BY NORTHWEST no other Hitchcock film boasts such irresistible set pieces,a fact that was underscored by the recent staging of the property on Broadway, which was well-received critically and at the box-office. I personally found it utterly delightful and enjoyed humorous transcription. In any case, the 1935 film could rightfully be seen as a model for all future romantic thrillers from Hitch, and it's doubtful that there's ever been a more stimulating relationship in such a tame and repressed setting. Certainly this film vies with THE LADY VANISHES as Hitch's finest film of the early British period, but I guess it would all depend on what day of the week I was asked the question. Ah, then there's Robert Donat, the actor who may have the most wonderful voice in movie history. In this and his later GOODBYE MR. CHIPS he's utterly divine.

    Again, like the previous year, your top choice comes within a breath of my own, but there's no comparing here, as both - and a few others - are unquestioned masterworks.

    My own top film of 1935 may well be the most obscure of all my annual first-place finishers, but as of late it has gained in exposure and reputation. It's Mikio Naruse's WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE! and I first saw it four years ago at the Film Forum's exhaustive and highly-successful Naruse Film Festival in Manhattan, which showcased this film and 30 odd others. This study of familial divergences and reassessment perfectly wedded austerity with lyric stoicism, and the resuly was a sublime work of art, that certainly rates with this great director's best works: FLOATING WEEDS, LATE CHRYSANTHEMUM, WOMAN WHO ASCENDS THE STAIRS, REPAST, THE WANDERER'S NOTEBOOK and FLOWING. But I think this is the first time Naruse achieved cinematic unity in style and narrative in navigating psychological issues in the traditional family prism. It's a striking work with deep emotional resonance too.

    The other seemingly certain masterworks for this year would include (of course) THE 39 STEPS, John Ford's expressionistic, THE INFORMER, James Whales' delightfully imaginative THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN - the best of the Universal horrors - Leo McCarey's classic comedy with Charles Laughton - RUGGLES OF RED GAP, and the Marx brothers gem, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. But the others that I list after these can surely be thought of in the same company.

    My Own #1 Film of 1935:

    Wife! Be Like A Rose! (Naruse)


    The 39 Steps (Hitchcock)
    The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale)
    The Informer (Ford)
    Ruggles of Red Gap (McCarey)
    A Night at the Opera (Wood)
    Man on the Flying Trapeze (Bruckman)
    An Inn in Tokyo (Ozu)
    The Band Concert (Jackson)
    The Good Fairy (Wyler)
    Top Hat (Sandrich)
    A Tale of Two Cities (Conway)
    La Kermesse Heroique (Feyder)
    Les Miserables (Boleslawski)
    Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl)

    Jeffrey: Since the matter has been broached I would also like to let you know that I have thousands of titles, including virtually every film I've listed on this countdown and all those to come. You are certainly welcome at any time to these. My e mail addtress is

    The theatrical SYLVIA SCARLET is definitely noteworthy for the transvesite suggestions, but I am counting the film for 1936.

    As always a wonderful presentation here.

  6. While I do think The 39 Steps is kind of a mixed bag, and wouldn't rank it as high as you and Ed (unlike 1938's The Lady Vanishes, which I consider as good as anything Hitch ever made), the scenes in which Robert Donat and Madeliene Carroll are handcuffed are some of the most playful and joyous in all of Hitchcock. I really really love those scenes. I like Ceiling Zero, although I agree with Ed that it's stagy. My pick is Whale's The Bride Of Frankenstein, a film you really need to see. Whale is one of the great directors, and this and Frankenstein and 1936's Show Boat are some of the most wonderful movies of the thirties, or any decade.

  7. Oh, and The Informer of course, which I don't rank as one of Ford's best but which is very enjoyable (if heavy-handed). McLaglen is great.

  8. I own The 39 Steps as part of that box set of 20 films from Hitchcock's early years- I basically treasure that film along with The Lodger and The Lady Vanishes, even when I've forgotten the specifics of the plot. What sticks in my mind most of all is that ending when Donat approaches the Mr. Memory character. In Francois Truffaut's book Hitchcock, he and the Master of Suspense have a jolly conversation about just how brilliant of an idea it was to have a "Mr. Memory" character in that film.

    My personal favorite from 1935, which Sam listed among his favorites, is Triumph of the Will. I never thought I'd live to see the day when somebody would call me an anti-Semite because of my appreciation for Riefenstahl's filmmaking, but that's exactly what happened a couple weeks ago when I started arguing with this person in charge of a blog called "Media Sickness", and I was baffled at the accusation.

  9. Sam:

    I love what you have to say about THE 39 STEPS. This part rang particularly true for me, "'s doubtful that there's ever been a more stimulating relationship in such a tame and repressed setting."

    I hate to admit that I've never seen THE LADY VANISHES, but I'll rectify that soon.

    I also hate to admit that I've never seen any films from Mikio Naruse. It sounds right up my alley though, and I can't wait to see some of his work.

    That is incredibly nice of you to offer to share some titles with me. Let me work my way through the couple of hundred I can acquire and then I might definitely take you up on the offer. I find it always a somewhat frustrating thing when you keep hearing about a film but can't get your hands on it.

    Thanks, Sam, for the excellent comments, and wonderful perspective!

  10. Doniphon:

    I can't wait to see THE LADY VANISHES. It's one some way, somehow I've missed all these years. But I'll take care of that very soon.

    And I actually haven't seen any of the three Whale films. But I've already got the two FRANKENSTEINs on my queue and will add SHOW BOAT, as well.

    I also plan on watching THE INFORMER soon.

    Thanks, Doniphon, you're exposing some gaps, but it's great to have your knowledge here!

  11. Adam:

    Thanks so much for the comments! I had actually forgotten about the Mr. Memory character. But I agree, he is such a fun and inventive part of the film.

    And, believe it or not, I have never seen TRIUMPH OF THE WILL in its entirety. But I will rectify that soon, too.

    Thanks, Adam!

  12. In my countdown I went with Boleslawski's Les Miserables and probably will stick with that one now. That being said, this is another year that I don't find to be as strong as others in the decade, so it really is a three-way toss up for me. The other two that contend have already been mentioned - your own choice of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein. All three are very close, but I'll stick with my original choice on the strength of great performances from Charles Laughton and Fredric March

  13. Dave, thanks for the great comments! I'm looking forward to seeing your top pick. It's one I've unfortunately missed up to this point.

    Really enjoying your noir countdown! Like this countdown, it's making me well aware of how much I still need to see.

  14. Well, I hadn't seen this until now. I'm a sucker for this sort of thing... I'll be back.

    (This refers to the list, not the movie, btw)

  15. Thanks, MovieMan! Will be great to have you here.