New York’s Film Forum—one of the most enterprising movie theaters in the city—has been throwing a most elaborate eightieth birthday party, comprising sixty-six feature films, and a wealth of selected extras, from the year 1933—a year elsewhere commemorated by recollections of the ascension to power, in January, of Adolf Hitler as German chancellor, and the swearing-in, in March, of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in the midst of economic disaster. The disaster had by then spread to the previously invulnerable movie industry, which was beset by bankruptcies and operating mostly in the red.
Yet though signposts of unease—a sense of slippery collapse and the apprehension of worse to come—are all over the place in these movies, what emerges more forcefully is a raucous counterforce of defiant assertion, if only of the right to have fun and make a little noise. Often the life on screen seems like a hyper-energetic paradise of flagrancy. Whatever else American films of that moment may have been, they were overt, keyed-up, ready to start on a dime when the stage manager barked: “All right, girls, snap into it.”
There was a discernible kick just in letting the eye run down the titles on the program—Broadway Thru a Keyhole, Footlight Parade, Roman Scandals, Wild Boys of the Road, Island of Lost Souls, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Sin of Nora Moran, Laughter in Hell—especially after coming to appreciate how hard they work to fulfill their sensational promises. Whether the promise is to realize the ultimate fantasy of a chorus line of desirable chorus girls shuffling off to Buffalo in 42nd Street or to wallow in the seductive temptations and exotic cruelties of a thoroughly imaginary Orient in The Bitter Tea of General Yen or to plot a harsh vicarious journey into the heart of the economic crisis itself in Heroes for Sale, it is done with no holding back.
Even the most silken nuance—and there is plenty of that, a good deal of it pilfered from the luminous textures of Josef von Sternberg—is laid down hard. The newly emerged stars of the early 1930s—James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Mae West, the Marx Brothers—were in different ways emblems of a frankness that had no time to waste. (RKO’s King Kong, tearing the city apart the way the audience might have felt like doing, could be added to the list.) “You don’t say so,” says Harlow when Gable tries out a tired line on her in Hold Your Man, “aren’t you the bright little thing.” It’s a love scene for a moment when hardboiled sarcasm is the language of dalliance.
The 1933 program was only the most recent of a series of retrospectives in which Film Forum’s repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein has refined our sense of …