Saturday, November 23, 2013

6 Great Movies Set in the Jazz Age

Continued obsession with The Great Gatsby and fairly regular attempts to make it into a decent film (notably, with little success) have led to a pop-culture love for the Roaring Twenties and all it's come to represent - illegal booze, jazz music, flappers, the rise of free love, and pre-code cinema. Here are six great films set in the 1920s to keep your appetite whetted for that elusive and seemingly unattainable great adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Auntie Mame (1958)
Based on the bestselling novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame stars Rosalind Russell, in a deliciously funny role tailor-made for her, as the madcap aunt. The film opens in her luxurious Manhattan apartment on Beekman Place in the Roaring Twenties, where newly orphaned nephew Patrick meets his aunt for the first time, and where Mame first informs him that "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" A lush and memorable score by Bronislau Kaper is the icing on the cake. 

Bad Girl (1931)
Frank Borzage, though not terribly famous today, was one of the great directors of the twenties and thirties and his films were major players in the first Oscars ceremonies. His Bad Girl, despite its title, is about a perfectly decent couple (Sally Eilers and James Dunn), ordinary people doing their best to deal with marriage, careers, and an unexpected pregnancy. The film is surprisingly moving and one of the few Hollywood films of its time that gives a realistic portrayal of working class people. Some of Borzage's other great films include Seventh Heaven, a heartrending World War I drama set in Paris, and The Mortal Storm, one of the earliest Hollywood films to address the atrocities committed by Nazis against Jews.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks, in her most iconic performance, stars as Lulu in Georg W. Pabst's silent masterpiece. Lulu is a force to be reckoned with, so sexually alluring to both men and women that they are ready to commit any act, no matter how reckless, for the chance to possess her. Whether you interpret the film as a misogynistic expose of the dangerous excesses of female sexuality or as a feminist parable about the impossibility of containing female sexuality within patriarchal constraints, Pandora's Box is one of the essential films of silent cinema. The Criterion release includes four scores, two orchestral, one improvised on piano, and one cabaret-style. 

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Certainly a top contender for the best musical of all time, this fabulously entertaining film stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and the glorious and hilarious Jean Hagen. Kelly and Hagen are popular silent film stars, who suddenly have to adjust to making talkies, the only problem being that Hagen's tones are less than dulcet. The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed are great fun and the performances of them are iconic and remain fresh, despite frequent imitation. 

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are down-on-their-luck musicians who witness the St. Valentine's Day massacre and, in a desperate bid to save their skins, dress up as women and join an all-female band, whose singing star is Marilyn Monroe, wearing an ever-diminishing series of sexy gowns. Things get complicated when Spats Columbo (George Raft) shows up for a convention of gangsters, calling themselves the Friends of Italian Opera, at the same hotel where the band is playing. Billy Wilder's film is often and justifiably cited as the greatest comedy of all time. 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
William Inge's Oscar-winning screenplay tells the story of Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty), a teenage couple, whose desperation to sleep with each other attains ever more melodramatic proportions as their parents and teachers attempt to pressure, wheedle, and terrify them into abstinence, even as Bud's sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), becomes the epitome of the flapper. Splendor in the Grass is one of the most painfully raw depictions of adolescent love and desire ever put on film, aided by splendid performances all round and brilliant direction by Elia Kazan.

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