the REEL WORLD: 1930

All Quiet on the Western Front

This is one of the most famous pacifist movies ever made, and with good reason. It covers four years of World War I, from the perspective of a group of initially enthusiastic German (!) recruits. Much has been written about this film; in his review, Brian Koller calls it "the first great film of the sound era" and "the greatest anti-war film ever made." The depictions of the trench warfare, the brutality of humans toward each other, the utter hopelessness -- all are harrowing and powerful. The film has been banned in many countries preparing for war. It's hard to watch, but important and moving. Recommended.


Animal Crackers

I can't think of a film more different from All Quiet on the Western Front. This one is a typical Marx Brothers screwball comedy, with their trademark situational humor, slapstick physicality, and Groucho's nonstop one-liners. Animal Crackers is about a Captain Spaulding, played by Groucho, who has just returned from an expedition to Africa. A Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont, who I understand didn't realize that the Marx movies were farces, and played her roles utterly straight) throws him a party, and the famous painting she has brought in for the occasion is stolen. Mayhem ensues. This one contains Groucho's great one-liner, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

What strikes me particularly about Marx Brothers films is their music. All the brothers were accomplished musicians, and it's very common for the action to stop all of a sudden for a long musical number that has little or nothing to do with the frenzied plot. Most of their films contain a long harp solo by Harpo; Animal Crackers includes a chorus from a Verdi opera.

This isn't the very best of the Marx Bros.' work, but it's certainly worth watching, especially on a VCR where you can pause the tape every now and then to catch your breath.


Feet First

This is an early Harold Lloyd talkie. Lloyd is probably most famous for the scene in his silent Safety Last, where he's dangling from the hands of a large clock face. He's one of the great silent comedians, but today, he is sadly far less known than Chaplin and Keaton.

Feet First is an odd film, one that feels like an uncomfortable hybrid of a vaudeville act, a silent film, and a standup comedy routine. Leonard Maltin suggests that Lloyd was trying to recapture the spirit of his silents, and I think that Feet First might have worked better without spoken dialogue.

Lloyd plays Harold Horne, a stockboy in a Tanner shoe store in 1930 Honolulu, making $18 a week. He wants to become a salesman, and his supervisors constantly find him practicing his patter while he ignores his real job. He meets Mr. Tanner's daughter, Barbara, and becomes smitten. Once he has fallen for her, he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to convince people he isn't just a lowly shoe store employee -- to see Barbara again, he lies his way into an exclusive club, and ends up being introduced to John Tanner, the shoe store's owner, as a wealthy figure "in the leather business." Back at the store, Harold, newly promoted to salesman, finds himself waiting on Mrs. Tanner, and everything goes wrong, leaving him flustered and Mrs. Tanner with her foot on fire. Later, trying to deliver some shoes to a ship departing for the mainland, Harold finds himself stranded on board as the ship leaves port, and runs into the Tanners. Barbara is thrilled to have extra time to spend with him, but Mrs. Tanner is convinced she recognizes Harold and vows to figure out who he is.

There is a lot of vaudeville comedy in the sequences on the ship, from a running gag involving Harold's shabby treatment of a deckhand to the standard fall on a banana peel. Harold is found to be a stowaway, and to impress Mr. Tanner and keep from being caught by the incensed crew, Harold takes some of Tanner's papers that need to be delivered to Los Angeles, and climbs into a mail bag that is loaded onto a small plane. Arriving in LA, Harold climbs out of the bag only to find that it has fallen onto a painters' platform that is being hauled up the side of a tall building. What follows is one of Lloyd's famous "high and dizzy" sequences, as he gets dragged up and down, yelling for help. His stuntwork is really breathtaking, but the sequence is greatly hindered by the lack of music -- had this been a silent film, the piano or theater organ would have been thundering dramatically, but here Lloyd's antics and struggles are accompanied by an almost eerie silence.

I understand this film exists as a silent, made for a European market. I'd love to see that version. As a talkie, it's not bad, but it could have been so much better if it had known what it wanted to be.


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Emily Way (emily@vex.net)
Last updated October 20, 1998