1936: Jesse Owens ran to victory in the Berlin Olympics, Beryl Markham became the first woman to complete an East to West flight over the Atlantic, Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, Edward VIII of England ascended and abdicated the throne, Hitler made the Hitler Youth mandatory, Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected for a second term, and an animator named Walt Disney was busy working on a foolhardy project called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here are the best films of the year.
This drama taken from the tragic novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, stars Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, and a very young Robert Taylor. It's one of the finest dramas Hollywood made in the 30s, as well as one of Garbo's best pictures. Garbo plays the courtesan Marguerite with whom Robert Taylor as the wealthy baron, Armand, falls madly in love. Class politics and sexual power dynamics, as well as the pleas and demands of Armand's father, are the hefty obstacles that threaten their genuine romance in a society that tolerates sexual misbehavior only as long as "pure" women are separated from "impure".
4. Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin's scathing criticism of industrialism and materialism and the vagaries of the society that embraces them was controversial for a number of reasons. First of all, Chaplin vetoed the idea of making this film as a talkie, at least partly because his Little Tramp character is so quintessentially pantomimed. Second of all, people in this movie use cocaine on screen, in direct opposition to the Production Code. Third of all, the film gleefully criticized the powers that be - industrialists, politicians, even the police. The first twenty minutes are riotously funny, with the Little Tramp going crazy after a long shift in the factory. There is also a brief and very charming sound sequence in which the Tramp sings a song in Italian-sounding gibberish.
3. The Story of a Cheat (Le roman d'un tricheur)
Sacha Guitry directs and stars in this adaptation of his own novel. Beginning with an unusual narrated credits sequence, the film tells the life story of a man, the cheat of the title, who discovers that cheating pays and honesty is a recipe for insolvency. Highly reminiscent of Thomas Mann's unfinished novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, Guitry's hero narrates this mostly silent film with quiet irony and philosophical self-possession. They could never have gotten this movie past the Breen Office, given the extra-marital sex, gambling, thievery, and a host of other vices deemed "smut."
2. My Man Godfrey
Gregory La Cava's superb screwball comedy stars Carole Lombard and William Powell, as a zany heiress and her butler. This was one of the few screwball comedies to portray the terrible conditions of the unemployed during the Great Depression. Lombard comes across William Powell in a dump during a scavenger hunt - she is looking for a "forgotten man." The heiress convinces him to become her butler and he soon finds out that there's a good reason this family can't keep servants. They are, every last one of them, absolutely bonkers. This was another movie to challenge the Production Code - Mama's "protege" is most obviously a gigolo.
1. A Day in the Country (Une partie de campagne)
Jean Renoir's unfinished film stands on its own as a lovely and bittersweet idyll. A bourgeois couple and their daughter go out to the country for a picnic where mother and daughter meet two young men only too happy to give them a good time. The day ends and the two women return to their husband and fiance. A year later, the daughter returns, now married, and reunites with her lover. It is difficult to convey the exquisite beauty and melancholy of this film, which equals Renoir's later masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. A rare perfect film.