Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The 100 Project: Top 10 Movies Released Before 1940

First, let's say Happy Birthday to...um...me. I'm throwing one helluva party and you're all invited...

I'm turning...uh...some number over 21.

Second, you're probably wondering "What's The 100 Project?"

It's simple. I'm working on creating the list of MY top 100 films. As you can see, emphasis on MY. Anyhoo, that list will be the end result, but I'm not just jumping willy-nilly into this. The 100 Project is an exercise to help me organize my thoughts. It's going to be a succession of lists of my top movies from different time periods. Early on, it will be broken into decades, or an even longer era in the case of this post. From the year of my birth on, 1971, lists will be yearly, but I will still also have a list for the best of the correlating decades. As I get into the years where I've seen lots of movies, the lists will be larger, but none bigger than 25. When I'm done, it will be all these lists that will guide me in creating MY top 100 films.

"Sounds cool, but how long will this take?"

I have no idea. I'm going to play it by ear. It helps that I already have some best of lists published on this site for the most recent years, at least through 2015. 2016 is coming soon. I hope to have this done by the end of the year, or at least my next birthday, but if I were you I wouldn't hold my breath.

Finally, I'm reserving the right to come back into these posts and update them as I see fit.

Some quick stats before we get started to let you know what I'm working with:

According to my letterbox account, I've watched over 3,600 movies, as of this writing. I've only counted movies I can remember watching for sure. I didn't necessarily have to remember anything about the movie other than seeing it. Regardless of what number is shown when you click on it, I think it's safe to say it's 100 or 200 short taking into consideration that I've seen a number of films I've either couldn't remember the title of, couldn't find on letterbox, or rarely, couldn't remember watching.

Throughout The 100 Project, I will give you stats on whatever time period is being discussed. Let's finally get started with today's topic...

My Top 10 Movies Released Before 1940

  • I've only seen a very small number of films released before 1940, 30.
  • Only 8 of these were released before 1930 which is why I lumped them in with the 1930s.

10. Nosferatu
(1922, F. W. Murnau)
This movie practically invented the horror genre. It's also the pinnacle of makeup work, as far as I'm concerned. The movie is nearly a century old and the titular character still looks unnervingly real.

9. Frankenstein
(1931, James Whale)
James Whale did F. W. Murnau one better by showing horror could be emotional and thought provoking. (My Full Review)

8. Scarface
(1932, Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson)
One of the earliest gangster talkies. It packs a ton of brutal violence into a compelling story.

7. King Kong
(1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)
The story has proved to be timeless. What impresses me most, though, is the special fx. The visuals in this movie stand up to most films made through the next three decades after its release.

6. The Public Enemy
(1931, William A. Wellman)
An even earlier gangster talkie than number 8 on this list, also depicting the rise and fall of its main character. The higher rank is due to James Cagney giving one of the best performances of all-time. He is the very definition of compelling.

5. The General
(1927, Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)
Story-wise, this film isn't really good enough to make this list. However, the stunt work is beyond insane and all done in a single take. Buster Keaton was a physical genius.

4. The Bride of Frankenstein
(1935, James Whale)
This time around, Whale betters himself by showing that horror could not only be emotional, but deeply so. Still one of the best sequels ever made. (My Full Review)

3. Metropolis
(1927, Fritz Lang)
Like with King Kong, the special fx stand up to movies many years its junior. However, it's the expertly told, harrowing, and apparently timeless, cautionary tale about classism and man's reliance on machines that puts it a few notches higher. (My Full Review)

2. The Wizard of Oz
(1939, Victor Fleming)
The timeless classic isn't often given enough credit for being the technical marvel that it is. Then again, that wouldn't matter at all if we didn't fall in love with Dorothy and all her friends.

1. M
(1931, Fritz Lang)
While the 30s were filled with crime dramas, this is the only film I've seen that qualifies as a crime thriller. And it's a brilliant one, not afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable and question their own sense of justice.

Honorable Mentions (alphabetically listed): Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dracula (1931), Gone With the Wind (1939), Little Caesar (1931), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Roaring Twenties

The Best Movies of...


  1. Like your list but I could never just keep it to a top 10. I would add All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Parade, Mr. smith Goes to Washington, Fury, Pandora's Box, Top Hat, Stagecoach, Duck Soup, The Women

    1. Of those, I have only seen Duck Soup, which I hated. The Marx Bros. just don't do it for me. I do want to see the rest.

  2. M is something I definitely want to watch. I've got it on my proposed 2018 Blind Spot list at the moment.

    Happy Birthday! I can't wait to see what else you post in this series. :)

    1. I think M is definitely one to add.

      Thanks! Looking forward to it myself.

  3. I can second the vast majority of Birgit's list, especially Pandora's Box and All Quiet on the Western Front. Here's a few more worth looking into:

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    The Phantom Carriage
    Sherlock Jr.
    The Great White Silence
    The Battleship Potemkin
    The Gold Rush
    The Adventures of Prince Achmed (You really need to see this if you like animation even a little)
    The Unknown
    Safety Last!
    The Passion of Joan of Arc
    City Lights
    I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
    It Happened One Night
    The Thin Man
    Captain Blood
    Make Way for Tomorrow
    Grand Illusion (Seriously perhaps the best movie pre-1940 ever made)
    Stella Dallas
    The Adventures of Robin Hood
    The Rules of the Game

    You could, by the way, just about do a top-10 list from pre-1940 and not really leave 1939. It was such a good year!

    1. Wow,thanks for all those suggestions. I've been meaning to see a number of them already. Glad to see you recommend them.

      I have seen The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn is amazing, but the movie as a whole didn't quite work for me. It wasn't bad, just nothing I'm in a rush to see again.

      I will be watching City Lights shortly.

      Haven't heard of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but you have me intrigued.

    2. Do yourself a favor and Google search for images from that movie and know that what you're seeing are, more or less, animated shadow puppets.

      The story, honestly, is no great shakes, but it's one of the most beautiful animated movies you will ever see.

    3. I just did that. The shots I saw look fantastic. Thanks for bringing this film to my attention.

  4. With the exception of The Public Enemy (Haven't seen it yet), I can definitely stand behind this list as I have Metropolis on DVD in its nearly-complete restored edition. A list like this would take months for me to perfect as 10 wouldn't be enough as I have to include films by Yasujiro Ozu during his silent era, the films of Jean Vigo, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and many others.

    1. Obviously, I'm a big fan of The Public Enemy so I am recommending that one.

  5. First of all Happy Birthday Dell! Sorry a bit late.

    ONLY 10!! Impossible! All of yours are solid choices though. M is such a disturbing film but Peter Lorre is magnificent in it.

    Here’s a rough listing of mine though I could add dozens more. My initial post felt thin so I had to pull it and add a bit of texture and now of course I have to split it!!

    All Quiet on the Western Front-A great, great film

    Angels with Dirty Faces-Cagney and Pat O’Brien as childhood friends who grow up and follow very different paths.

    The Awful Truth-Zany comedy of misunderstandings with Cary Grant & Irene Dunne tearing it up with Ralph Bellamy playing the poor snook once again.

    Baby Face-Pretty much any film with Barbara Stanwyck in it is worth seeing for her alone but this is one wild pre-code and she’s transcendent.

    The Big Parade-Tremendous silent on the futility of war.

    The Bitter Tea of General Yen-Odd pre-code has Barbara Stanwyck being taking prisoner by the title character in China and the strange relationship, soon forbidden by the code that develops between them.

    Bombshell-Comedy of the chaotic off-screen life of a glamorous star becomes even more fascinating if you are aware that the film mirrors its star’s-Jean Harlow-actual real life.

    Bringing Up Baby-Screwball comedy as Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant chase her pet leopard through the countryside in search of his dinosaur bone!

    Call Her Savage-Another wild pre-code that I’ve mentioned before.

    City Lights-Along with Modern Times one of Chaplin’s best

    David Copperfield-Excellent version of the Dickins tale with W. C. Fields playing it straight (more or less) as Micawber.

    Dead End-Hard edged drama of tenement life with an amazing cast including a villainous Humphrey Bogart.

    Design for Living-Risqué Ernst Lubitsch comedy, unsurprisingly pre-code, of a ménage à trois.

    Diary of a Lost Girl-Silent of the fall of a wild child in Germany. Lesser known collaboration between Louise Brooks and G.W. Pabst who also made Pandora’s Box.

    Dinner at Eight-Social comedy of an assortment of people from various strata invited to the title event. Classic closing line.

    Dodge City-Vivid western is one of the best of the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland pairings.

    Faust-Mephisto makes a bet with God that he can corrupt any man’s soul.

    Flesh and the Devil-Silent of an illicit love affair. Parts of it are absurd but it gives a great view of why Garbo is so venerated. She’s mesmerizing.

    Freaks-One of a kind film which is cast mostly with circus performers who extract their own brand of vengeance when one of their own is threatened.

    Gold Diggers of 1933-Busby Berkeley musical with two of the most famous of his numbers-“We’re in the Money” which Ginger Rogers sings in pig Latin! And the sober “Remember My Forgotten Man”.

    Gone with the Wind-What more can be said about this?

    Grand Hotel- Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens. Says the desk clerk at the beginning of this Best Picture winner but of course it’s a hot bed of drama with Joan Crawford’s best early performance.

    Grand Illusion-Jean Renoir directed anti-war masterpiece.

    Haxan-Silent fictionalized documentary of the evolution of witchcraft through the ages.

    Heroes for Sale-Hard eyed view of the damage WWI wrought on its returning servicemen who found themselves displaced.

    I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang-An amazing film with a brilliant Paul Muni performance.

    In Name Only-High class drama of true love thwarted by a vindictive rapacious woman with two wonderful performances by Cary Grant and Carole Lombard and a knockout one from Kay Francis.

    Jezebel-Bette Davis’s first Oscar win as a southern belle who is her own worst enemy.

  6. Ladies of Leisure-The film that made a star of Barbara Stanwyck as a woman of loose morals.

    The Lady Vanishes-Fun, if imperfect, Hitchcock mystery of a train ride full of adventure, spies and a missing lady.

    The Last Command-Silent heartbreaker of the fall of a proud Russian general.

    The Last Laugh-Expressionistic silent of a venerated doorman who loses his position and the litany of misfortunes that befall him because of it.

    Laugh, Clown Laugh-Lon Chaney silent of a clown and nobleman who are rivals for the same woman.

    Libeled Lady-Daffy comedy with four expert comic actors-William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy-working at full steam as a newspaper reporter tries to compromise a rich girl to get out of a libel suit using any means necessary.

    Little Caesar-Since your list includes both Scarface and The Public Enemy you really must see this tale of a small time crook who becomes a crime czar only to fall starring Edward G. Robinson.

    The Mad Miss Manton-Comic murder mystery where socialite Barbara Stanwyck (with the unusual name of Melsa Manton) recruits her other society girlfriends to help detective Henry Fonda solve the crime.

    Make Way for Tomorrow-Beautifully acted story of an older couple separated by economic hard times.

    Marie Antoinette-Lavish tale of the French queen’s rise and fall.

    The Miracle Woman-Barbara Stanwyck again as a confidence woman who sets herself up as a faith healer. Based on Aimee Semple McPherson.

    Modern Times-Charlie Chaplin masterwork of how industry is taking over modern life.

    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-Capra directed comedy/drama that shows the corrupting influence of politics and one man’s struggle against it.

    Mutiny on the Bounty-Robust version of the story with Charles Laughton chewing the scenery as Captain Bligh going up against Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian.

    Night Must Fall-Creepy murder mystery set in the English countryside.

    Of Human Bondage-Florid version of Somerset Maugham’s tale of moral degradation with a volcanic Bette Davis.

    Of Mice and Men-Fine take of Steinbeck’s small story of itinerant workers George and the feeble minded Lenny.

    One Way Passage-Two people, both doomed, meet and fall in love on an ocean liner. What should be just another sudsy drama turns out to be much more thanks to skillful direction and acting.

    Pandora’s Box-Provides a fascinating expressionist view of pre Hitler Germany.

    The Phantom of the Opera-Another Lon Chaney classic.

    Port of Shadows-French film that is a sort of a proto noir with many signatures of the genre, foggy streets, convenient shadows, a sense of doom, years before they became expected elements.

    The Private Life of Henry VIII-Charles Laughton has a blast as the much married monarch.

    Private Lives-Early adaptation of the Noel Coward comedy of marital shuffling.

    The Rains Came-Solid drama of sin and redemption set in a changing India during the rainy season. Won the first Oscar for special effects.

    Red Dust-Clark Gable & Jean Harlow exude tremendous sexual heat in this racy pre-code set on an Indochina rubber plantation.

    Remember Last Night?-Something that could never be made now, a saucy comic murder mystery where all the guests were so drunk they can’t recall who murdered their host!

    The Roaring Twenties-Snappy drama of three men who become friends during WWI but take different paths once Prohibition starts. Great cast lead by James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George and Priscilla Lane.

    Ruggles of Red Gap-Comedy of an English valet brought to the Wild West by a nouveau riche couple who finds himself adapting far easier than he thought.

  7. She Done Him Wrong-The comedy where Mae West invited Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime, Big Boy!

    The Sidewalks of London-Vivien Leigh & Charles Laughton team in her last film before GWTW as street entertainers. Wonderful film.

    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-I don’t think description is necessary!

    Stage Door-The ups and downs of a group of aspiring Broadway actresses who all live at the Footlights Club including Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and a very young Lucille Ball.

    A Star is Born-Original non-musical version of a young actress discovered and loved by a great star. As her star rises his falls fast in a sea of booze and tragedy.

    Stella Dallas-Ultimate story of mother love and sacrifice with a great Barbara Stanwyck performance. The final scene will slay you.

    The Story of Temple Drake-Lurid film of sexual enslavement and degradation was considered so wanton that it was taken out of distribution for over 50 years.

    Street Scene-24 hours in the life of a Hell’s Kitchen melting pot neighborhood during a heat wave.

    Sunrise-Beautiful mood piece of good vs. evil in the form of a sweet country girl and the flashy city dame who tempts a simple farmer.

    Swing Time-All the Astaire/Rogers musicals are worth seeing, Top Hat is considered their best but I prefer this breezy number.

    A Tale of Two Cities-Substantial take on Dickins story of the French Revolution with a very fine Ronald Colman.

    The Front Page-Frequently filmed story (including one with a gender switch called His Girl Friday with Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell though that missed the cutoff coming out in 1940) of an unscrupulous newspaper editor who will pull any trick in the book to bring his prize reporter back to the fold.

    The Thin Man-Trim murder mystery with a comic twist of rich couple Nick & Nora Charles who solve crimes in between martinis. Made special by the chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the leads.

    The 39 Steps-English set early Hitchcock espionage thriller. One of the films that established his reputation.

    Topper-Sprightly supernatural comedy of staid, quiet Roland Young who somehow holds the key that will help ghosts Cary Grant & Constance Bennett head to heaven.

    Trouble in Paradise-A man & woman, a couple of confidence hucksters, team up to fleece a rich businesswoman but romantic complications intrude. Another light Lubitsch comedy.

    The Unknown-Weird, wild and a bit freaky silent of an armless knife thrower (Lon Chaney) with a secret, his assistant who has a fear of hands (Joan Crawford) and the circus strongman who loves her. To say it’s odd is an understatement.

    Wings-The first best picture winner is a long but engrossing story of men in war and its aftermath.

    The Wizard of Oz-You know the story!

    The Women-Completely inhabited by women, even the animals used in the film are female, this story of friendship and backstabbing is great fun with a vicious Joan Crawford and a comic gold Rosalind Russell among others.

    I feel like I’m forgetting so many but I must stop! I’m heading over to see if I can find your Letterboxd account.

    1. Thanks for this wonderful comment! I love it! I will say that a few of the films you mentioned are either on the list or are honorable mentions. Aside from that, this is perfect. A number of these are films were already on my watchlist. I hope to start making a dent in that thing. Feel free to keep the suggestions coming as this project rolls along.

      My Letterboxd account: https://letterboxd.com/dellonmovies/films/

  8. Great list. Many of these would be my list as well, and M would damn near be at the top, if not at the top. Love that film.

  9. I'd give VAMPYR (1932) a crack if you've seen Nosferatu. I watched it only recently and visually it's an amazing film. great idea for a series, can't wait to see what else you come up with!

  10. Haven't seen that one yet. Thanks for the recommendation.