Friday, February 12, 2010

1936: Les bas-fonds (Jean Renoir)

1936: Les bas-fonds (Jean Renoir)

I put this as my third favorite when I recently did my "Favorites of My Favorites" post on Jean Renoir.  It's yet another one of these gritty and very moody early works from Renoir.  I also remember it having at its core one of the most wonderful stories of friendship I've ever seen (this time it's between Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet).  If there's anything I'm a sucker for on screen (maybe even more than a great love affair), it's a great friendship.  We'll come back to this interest of mine, at least another couple of times, as we count down this list.  

One thing I love so much about Renoir is the tone he's able to strike in these early films.  He manages to be an extraordinary humanist without ever becoming overly sentimental.  Not an easy balance to strike, and I think Renoir does it as well as anyone.  

Akira Kurosawa re-made the film in 1957, and I haven't seen it yet.  But this is one I can't wait to re-visit.  It's also exciting for me to think about people, who have only seen The Rules of the Game and La grande illusion, discovering these early Renoir films for the first time.  It's almost like going back in time and getting to watch your wise grandfather in his rough, and sometimes dangerous, early youth.

Other contenders for 1936: As with previous years, I have some things from this year I still need to see.  These include Howard Hawks' The Road to Glory, Sacha Guitry's The Story of a Cheat, James Whale's Show Boat, John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island, Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent and Sabotage, Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, Douglas Sirk's Schlusakkord, Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy.  I also need to re-watch Modern Times at some point.  I think I've only seen it once, and for some reason, it didn't have the impact on me of City Lights, or even The Kid.  I would have two fairly close runner-ups.  George Stevens' Swing Time might be my second favorite musical.  And Jean Renoir's 40 minute Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) is my favorite short film of all time, and probably the most poetic film Renoir ever made.  

2/13/10 Another runner-up for me this year that I forgot to add would be Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion.  I still have much to see by this great director.  But this is one of my favorites of what I've seen so far.  

6/20/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent.  It's staggering to see Hitch's modernism and genius already on display in such an early work.  Peter Lorre in an incredibly entertaining role and some of the most psychologically disturbing scenes I've ever seen from Hitch, particularly the early murder in the mountains inter-cut with the disturbed dog.  And Hitchcock is already doing so much with sound. This is very close to top-tier Hitch in my book.  

7/1/10 I watched Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey.  The zaniness of it all wasn't always up my alley.  But there's a real original tone and sentiment here that makes this pretty damn original.  Powell and Lombard have great chemistry, and there are some fantastic moments, including Lombard's impulsive engagement and shower scene. 

7/1/10 I watched Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  There's some real greatness here.  But Capra can't always stay out of his way and his heavy-handed sentimentality.  Regardless, this one boasts terrific performances from both Cooper and Arthur.  And it's clear that Capra during this period was working at a very impressive level.  

7/2/10 I watched Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy.  Although I don't think it's Mizoguchi at his absolute greatest, it's still a fantastic film. The composition of many of the shots is staggering and Mizoguchi creates a lasting impression with the character of Ayako.  A great final minute or two and humanity, truth, and a very casual naturalism as Mizoguchi could do so well.  

7/5/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage.  It kinda dragged a little for me towards the end.   But the celebrated set piece with the little boy and the bomb is rightly so, and Hitch's experimental touches and narrative mastery are already well on display.  Minor Hitch but still well worth watching.  

7/5/10 I watched John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island.  Although Ford's tremendous humanism is on display yet again, this one lacked a little depth and urgency for me.  But as always, chez Ford, it is extremely well-acted and extremely well-told.  

10/21/11 I watched Sacha Guitry's The Story of a Cheat.  It's playful and in the first-person, and so I can see why it was meaningful to the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague.  But now it's a little bit of a bore.  

2/12/17 I rewatched George Stevens' Swing Time.  Long time considered one of my favorite musicals since I first saw it in 1995, Astaire and Rogers still impress with their amazing chemistry and both their fast and elegantly slow numbers.  

3/3/18 I watched Jack Conway's Libeled Lady.  There are some fantastic scenes, certainly, including the scene when William Powell first has dinner with Myrna Loy and Walter Connolly and really every moment with Powell is top shelf.  But some of the other scenes just seem to sag a little.  

1/16/22 I rewatched Sacha Guitry's Le Roman d'un tricheur.  There should be a name for a work of art that was significant in the development of another artist one greatly admires but for which the power is greatly diminished when consumed in a much different context and historical moment.  I can see why Guitry's film would have such an influence on early Godard and Truffaut.  It is liberated and playful in ways that no other film at that moment that I know of had been and it's told almost entirely in voiceover and first person.  

2/13/22 I watched John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island.  The more John Ford I watch the more I feel that, as much as any American director of his generation, he explored the issue of race relations among blacks and whites in this country.  Here, already in the 1930s, he gives us a story with black heroes and once again a scenario where our white lead needs his black friend in order to overcome the obstacles in front of him.  

Has there ever been an American director who more consistently grappled with our country's past or who more often employed songs like "Taps" and "Dixie" that immediately call to mind our wars and our history?

Not to mention it is hard to overlook the deep humanism at work in this film, a quality of Ford I've read about but have only begun to appreciate.


  1. "One thing I love so much about Renoir is the tone he's able to strike in these early films. He manages to be an extraordinary humanist without ever becoming overly sentimental. Not an easy balance to strike, and I think Renoir does it as well as anyone."

    Indeed Jeffrey, I quite agree. I like this Renoir, but for me it's lost in the shuffle, as other Renoirs have dominated more with me. The Criterion DVD set with the later Kurosawa re-make you mention is a revered item in my collection, and at some point-based on your deep and abiding love, I will re-visit it. For me there are three top level masterpieces from this year, and a number of others that push close.

    Charles Chaplin made three feature length masterpieces in his career, CITY LIGHTS, THE GOLD RUSH and MODERN TIMES, the last of which I select as the best film of 1936, and in fact one of the best films of the entire decade. I recently was fortunate to see this brilliant work at the Loews Jersey Movie Palace in Jersey City New Jersey as I reported at our Monday Morning Diary a few months back, and it was a most successful introduction of the peerless Little Tramp to my five kids. This latest viewing after a lifetime of veneration only accentuated it's mastery --the conveyor belt scenes, the food taster, the society party, the use of the song "Smile" that Chaplin wrote - one of the greatest songs penned in the 20th Century and the poignant underpinning of this deeply emotional and lasting film. The exceedingly poetic Renoir film that you note, UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE is surely -I agree- one of the greatest short films ever made, certainly on a level with Resnais's NIGHT AND FOG and Lamorisee's THE RED BALLOON. Anatole Litvak's ravishing romance, MAYERLING - recently released on a Criterion DVD is the third irrefutable masterpiece for me.

    My Own #1 Film of 1936:

    Modern Times (Chaplin)


    Une Partie de Campagne (Renoir)
    Mayerling (Litvak)
    Osaka Elegy (Mizoguchi)
    My Man Godfrey (La Cava)
    Mr. Thank You (Shimizu)
    Rembrandt (Korda)
    Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra)
    Swing Time (Stevens)
    Show Boat (Whale)
    Cesar (Pagnol)
    Desire (Borzage)
    Dodsworth (Wyler)

    Another stellar annual recap!!!

  2. Sam, thanks so much for the excellent comments! If you re-visit this Renoir, I'd love to hear about it. It's one of my favorite Gabin performances (and the guy's extraordinary, I think) and the most I've ever liked Jouvet.

    I haven't seen MAYERLING either but just added it to the queue.

    Your recent experience with MODERN TIMES definitely sounds tremendous. I will re-visit the film very soon as it could certainly be one that just missed me for some reason the first time around. And I do really love some of the other Chaplins.

    Thanks again, Sam, for the tremendous expertise here! It's very much appreciated and extremely helpful.

  3. I still need to see this one, along with a lot of other Renoirs. But you've certainly given me yet another nudge towards delving into Renoir further; I love Grand Illusion and admire Rules of the Game and Boudu Saved from Drowning quite a bit, so I definitely need to explore this great director more.

    As for your to-see picks, it seems to be a year for minor works: Road to Glory is enjoyable but kind of a patchwork of earlier Hawks successes rather than anything truly fresh or original. Likewise, Secret Agent and Sabotage are both relatively minor Hitchcocks, not quite the peak of his British period.

  4. Ed, thanks so much for the great comments! Yes, to me, this Renoir period ranks up there as one of the finest in the history of film. I'd put it up there with other great director's periods like Godard in the early sixties, Wenders in the late seventies/early eighties, Coppola in the seventies, Kiarostami in the nineties, etc. I highly recommend almost everything from Renoir at this time.

    I hate that I haven't seen this early Hawks. I definitely will rectify that soon and look forward to seeing those Hitchcock films, too.

    Thanks again, Ed, for the great perspective! Always good to see you here.

  5. No doubter for me again this year - Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. It's my favorite Chaplin film and I will always cherish the memories of watching this in a college film class, where no one had any interest in a "silent film" and then watching as everyone was rolling in laughter. A great, great movie that I love.

    I haven't seen your selection, Jeffrey, but as I said earlier I need to make time to get through some more Renoir than just The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.

  6. Wow, that sounds like an incredible experience you had with the Chaplin. I definitely need to revisit it, and plan to very soon.

    I have a good feeling about you and some of these early Renoirs. They're very noir and even gritty. I could see you really digging some of them. Let me know if you ever catch one of them. I'd love to hear about it.