Top Ten 1931

1. City Lights
2. Bad Girl
3. Frankenstein
4. Little Caesar
5. The Public Enemy
6. M
7. Monkey Business
8. Possessed
9. Working Girls
10. Tabu


I know I should go for Chaplin on this one; he accomplishes the pitch-perfect pathos and comedy of City Lights as effectively in his role as actor as he does directing it. But I’m already giving him a Best Pic and Best Director selection, so for male lead I’m going with a long-forgotten performer who really gives an early talkie its verve. Platinum Blonde is mainly remembered as a starring vehicle for the legendary Jean Harlow, but it’s the genius of Robert Williams that is noticeable while you’re watching it and, sadly, more was not made of what he gives here.

Honour Roll: Charles Chaplin, City Lights; Ronald Colman, Arrowsmith; James Dunn, Bad Girl


Legends don’t just come from just anywhere, they usually have to earn their status.  It’s interesting, however, to watch early films of Barbara Stanwyck and note that some legends are just born with it.  Bette Davis may not have been as grounded in her 30s cheesecake movies, nor Olivia deHavilland as sensitive in her earliest pictures as she later became, but Stanwyck had grit enough to power a steam engine from the get-go.  The effortless stance and confident growl still had a ways to come, but in Night Nurse there’s a lot of dramatic power in her delivery, while in The Miracle Woman she stuns as a fictionalized Aimee Semple McPherson who has difficulty paying the moral price for her God-given talent.

Honour Roll: Tallulah Bankhead, The Cheat; Joan Crawford, Possessed; Sally Eilers, Bad Girl


Fritz Lang’s most popular movie is about Peter Lorre’s character but doesn’t spend the majority of its time focusing on him, but is it possible to think about anyone else when it is over.  Lang’s M is fascinating for how harshly it judges its child-murderer while at the same time giving him the opportunity to present himself as a victim to his own desires.  Lorre was taking on quite the dangerous challenge in playing a role that dares to make the least sympathetic person sympathetic, even daring to criticize his accusers for turning into an angry mob even if the deeds justify them doing so.  It’s still a film that challenges ideas, and benefits greatly from Lorre’s unique personal appearance and performance manner.  No surprise it led to an unforgettable career as a character actor in Hollywood.


Between the glinty beauty of the best silent films and the later technical innovations of sound that would rise by the late thirties and early forties, there’s an awkward period from 1927 to 1934 of films that are hard to watch because of early microphone technology.  Actors in these films are often stilted and constrained by this, with even Buster Keaton coming off an amateur in his dialogue scenes in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath.  The breath of fresh air, then, is Charlotte Greenwood,who hilariously plays the desperate old maid type (the mark of her career to follow) with a lot of gusto and energy and steals the picture right out from under the entire cast.

Honour Roll: Minna Gombell, Bad Girl


It’s very rare that a brilliant comedy can make you laugh so hard and then end with a scene that makes you weep for hours.  There’s just no one like Charles Chaplin in the history of cinema, and City Lights is my absolute favourite of his films.

Honour Roll: John Ford, Arrowsmith; Frank Borzage, Bad Girl; Clarence Brown, Possessed