Friday 22 November 2019

Japanese cinema of the 1930s, very briefly

Spending so much time with the 1930s for several months has been very rewarding, at least when it comes to watching films. (It has been less rewarding reading about it.) It is time to end this special focus for now, with some brief words about Japanese cinema of the 1930s. They have to be brief because I have seen very little, but I have seen enough to know that it was a rich and exciting period of filmmaking. There was a lot of experimentation, and popular, mainstream Japanese films played with conventions and tried new approaches and angles. Maybe less so than in the 1920s, but still noticeable. You could take risks and surprise the audience because with millions of cinema visits made in Japan every year, it was a profitable and safe business, and a lot of films were made, 400 - 500 per year. But while being experimental and playful, it took a long time for sound film to break through. There had been occasional efforts but it was not until 1931, with The Neighbour's Wife and Mine (Madamu to nyōbō, Heinosuke Gosho), that sound broke through successfully. The following year only about 10% of the recorded films were with sound. As late as 1937, silent films were still being made. One explanation for this is the Japanese tradition of having a person, a so-called benshi, in the screening room who narrated, interpreted and translated the films, and who also gave voice to foreign actors. Benshis was a tradition that they were unwilling to give up, and their unions fought against sound, as it was something that would make the benshi superfluous. But it was inevitable that sound would take over.

But while thousands of films were made in Japan during the 1930s, few are preserved. According to one estimate, less than 5% remain. It is a great cultural treasure that has been lost, due to disinterest, fire, natural disasters and wars. Japan was becoming increasingly fascist in nature (historians debate whether it is accurate to call it a Fascist state, but probably not), and with increasing censorship, during the 1930s. Of those films that remain, few are known or seen, but much of what is preserved and available is very good. Given that the overwhelming majority of all films from the period are lost, we cannot draw too many conclusions from the high quality of what remains. It is reasonable to assume that they have been saved partly because they were outstanding, and not reflective of the average film. But either way, we can still watch and marvel at the 1930s films of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse. There are also many interesting filmmakers I have seen nothing of but who, judging by what I have read, are major artists. Teinosuke Kinugasa, Hiroshi Inagaki, Mansaku Itami, Hiroshi Shimizu (whom Mizoguchi called "a genius"), Yasujiro Shimazu (whose films Japanese critics in the 1930s referred to as "neorealism") and Tomu Uchida. Many of the great Japanese actors in the postwar era debuted in the 1930s, such as Setsuko Hara, best known for her collaboration with Ozu, Hideko Takamine, who often collaborated with Naruse, and Takashi Shimura, who is best known for his later collaboration with Akira Kurosawa. The big production companies, or studios, that have dominated Japanese cinema were in place in the 1930s: Toho, Nikkatsu (the oldest one, founded in 1912) and Shochiku (founded in 1895, but they began making films long after Nikkatsu was founded).

One special case is the filmmaker Sadao Yamanaka, from whose oeuvre of 26 films only three remain, and who died at a young age, only 28 years old. They are jidaigeki, the Japanese term for films in a historical setting, and they are blending comedy and tragedy, naturalism and Kabuki, and are filled with passion and sensuality, with striking compositions. The first two are called The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo 1935) and Priest of Darkness (Kōchiyama Sōshun 1936), both fine films. But the most notable is his last film, the beautiful named Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjō Kami Fūsen) from 1937. It is about a poor and lonely samurai, a ronin, and his struggle to preserve his dignity. Slowly and meticulously, it builds up to its tragic and poetic ending, with a tight script and a closed, but varied and detailed, set with great depth of field and extravagant compositions, with several planes of interest in a given shot. The script is written by Mimura Shintaro, and the various themes of pride, humiliation and dignity are addressed in many forms, and it is also occasionally witty. The balloons that signify the ronin is quite remarkably handled. The one single balloon drifting away in the ditch in the last shot is one of the finest, most poetic, endings I know.


Friday 8 November 2019

John Ford in the 1930s

To have seen all of Ford's sound films has long been a goal, as he is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and worthy of such a commitment. Lately the focus of my research in general has been the 1930s, and as that was also the decade from where I had several Ford films left to watch, I have spent the last ten days or so exclusively on Ford's 30s. Now I have finally seen all of them too, with one exception; I have not been able to get hold of an acceptable version of The Brat (1931). But that is the only sound film of his that remains unseen. A satisfying feeling.

These are the films he directed then, including one from 1929 as it was his first feature-length talkie:

The Black Watch (1929), an adventure in British India during World War 1.
Men Without Women (1930), a World War 1 drama in the Navy.
Born Reckless (1930), a gangster drama with a section during World War 1.
Up the River (1930), a prison comedy.
Seas Beneath (1931), a World War 1 drama in the Navy.
The Brat (1931), a comedy about an unexpected guest in a rich family.
Arrowsmith (1931), a drama about a country doctor.
Air Mail (1932), an aviation drama.
Flesh (1932), a melodrama.
Pilgrimage (1933), a World War 1 drama.
Doctor Bull (1933), a comedy about a country doctor.
The Lost Patrol (1934), a World War 1 drama in the Sahara Desert.
The World Moves On (1934), a tale about a rich family and their business 1914-1934.
Judge Priest (1934), a human comedy.
The Whole Town's Talking (1935), a gangster/journalist comedy.
The Informer (1935), an Irish political drama.
Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), a comedy/drama set in the 1890s.
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), a post-Civil War drama.
Mary of Scotland (1936), a historic drama.
The Plough and the Stars (1936), an Irish political drama.
Wee Willie Winkie (1937), an adventure in British India.
The Hurricane (1937), a South Sea adventure.
Four Men and a Prayer (1938), a globe-trotting whodunit.
Submarine Patrol (1938), a World War 1 drama/comedy in the Navy.
Stagecoach (1939), an epochal Western.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), a biopic and pre-Civil War drama.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), an American Revolution drama.

As you can see there were all kinds of films but with several recurring themes, and almost half are set in the past and deal with war. He made films for most studios and some independent producers, but usually with a recurring crew and cast. The cinematographer Joseph H. August shot nine of the films above, (their collaboration peaked later, with They Were Expendable (1945)), George Schneiderman shot five and Bert Glennon five more. Dudley Nichols wrote or co-wrote at least twelve of them. Most of them are good, a couple are bad and a few lack Ford's distinct personality. But the three great ones were all made in 1939; something happened there, and from 1939 onwards almost all of his films are either great or magnificent. There is the odd misfire here and there, but I think the only bad one after 1938 is What Price Glory? (1952).

Of the earlier ones, The Informer is the most famous one I imagine, and it is a fine film, although somewhat overwhelming in its solemn artfulness. Also fine, but in a lighter mood, are two with Will Rogers, Judge Priest and Steamboat Around the Bend. I am less keen on Ford and Rogers's first film together, Doctor Bull.

Ford did several submarine-related films in the 1930s, the first was Men Without Women, which was also his first film written by Nichols. I do not care much for that one, the construction is off and, like many other early ones, there is a problem with the acting. But the next year they did the fine Seas Beneath, which admittedly also has terrible acting but is otherwise solid.

Seas Beneath

Seas Beneath is about a battle between the American Navy and the German Navy in 1918, but both sides respect and admire one another. There is even a death scene with an American sailor dying in the arms of two concerned German sailors. And it is bilingual, all Germans speak German.

Arrowsmith is a film where no one feels right for their part (except John Qualen) and it is all talk and no conviction. But visually it is spectacular. Epic set design, breathtaking lighting (Ray June was cinematographer) and imaginative staging in depth. It is one of Ford's most distinguished films, visually.


Flesh is about a big-hearted German wrestler and a frail, conflicted American woman in a tragic melodrama of its time. First 50 minutes are fine but then things start to get a bit out of hand, script-wise. It has a great, moody look all the way through though.

Pilgrimage is, like The Informer, self-consciously artistic. The opening 30 minutes is like a long tribute to Murnau. But then it changes gear and takes on more the tone of Henry King, and then changes again to be more Fordian. A serious drama with moments of greatness, but it suffers from stiff/awkward acting.


The Hurricane (co-directed with Stuart Heisler) is a lavish production where the highlight is the hurricane sequence, which take up the last part of the film. It is incredible, one of the greatest natural disaster sequences I have seen, and genuinely scary. James Basevi was in charge of creating it and he was a master of these kinds of special effects. The earthquake in San Francisco (W.S. van Dyke 1936) is another one of his creations, as is the storm in China Seas (Tay Garnett 1935). He also did spectacular set designs, such as on Wilson (Henry King 1944). Basevi was art director for many of Ford's films up until The Searchers (1956), which was the last film he worked on.

Four Men and a Prayer is, despite George Sanders in a leading role, a lame, anonymous anomaly in Ford's career, expect for the brief appearance of Barry Fitzgerald in a good scene. The rest might as well have been directed by someone else.

Submarine Patrol from the same year is also a minor film, and the first 15 minutes or so are tiresome, but then it gets it together and here you really feel Ford's presence. At the same time, the film reminded me of Hathaway's You're in the Navy Now (1951), which I prefer.

The scene in Wee Willie Winkie where Shirley Temple is singing for Victor McLaglen, not understanding that he is dying, is one of the most moving scenes in Ford's career. The rest of the film is not as good, but amiable enough. But of the two films Temple did with Ford, the later Fort Apache (1948) is superior in every way. What is interesting is that they have a lot in common, but the differences (such as in acting, visuals and maturity) are what makes Fort Apache superior; one of Ford's best.

One film Ford wanted to do but never did was a remake La Grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937). Darryl F. Zanuck talked him out of it, and maybe that was a good thing. But that Ford wanted to remake it is not surprising since the sentiment of Renoir's film can be found in Ford's films too, before and after 1937. Consider for example how in the films about World War 1, the Americans, French and Germans do not hate each other but treat each other with respect and concern. They fight and kill because they have to, but they do not celebrate their victories. They salute the falling soldiers regardless of which side they were on, and mourn the loss of life. "Do we cheer?" asks a newly recruited sailor after his ship has sank a German U-boat. "No." says the more experienced sailor next to him.

Drums Along the Mohawk

Spending so much time with a filmmaker during a short period of time is a rewarding experience, as you notice connections, links, references and recurrences that you might not think of, or remember, if you are watching an oeuvre during a long stretch of time. It is also enlightening to watch Ford try things out, enrich his cinema by experimenting with sound, visuals and eventually colour. He was of course not a newcomer, he had been making films since the late 1910s, and several good ones, but the 1930s meant many new challenges, technically and structurally, for his as for everybody else. He struggled a lot during the decade, with producers and actors mostly, and many films were severely compromised in one way or another. But almost all of them are filled with the specific scenes, moments, jokes, visual touches and sentiments that are the essence of Ford's art. Then, as he moved into the 1940s, he got more freedom, more certainty and more depth, and his art grew. It would eventually reach such beauty, clarity and confidence that it has almost no equals.

From 1934 to 1940, Frank S. Nugent was film critic at The New York Times and there he was a champion of Ford's films. Perhaps it was inevitable that, beginning with Fort Apache (1948), Nugent would become one of Ford's most important creative partners as scriptwriter. When Wagon Master (1950) was finished, Ford told Nugent "I liked your script. In fact, I actually shot a few pages of it." according to an article from 1949 in his former paper.

Wagon Master

(Initially I briefly mentioned Frank Tuttle in the article, but I removed his name to keep things in perspective. He will instead appear in a future post. There is always more to write about.)