Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Written by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde
Directed by Howard Hawks
Where It Happened One Night was a massive box office & critical success for Columbia Pictures; Bringing Up Baby was initially a bomb for RKO Pictures. It was a film explicitly written with Katharine Hepburn in mind and ended up being the culmination of a string of failures in her career at the time. For five years after winning her first Academy Award, the actress struggled to find work that connected with audiences. However, Hepburn would salvage her career three years later with The Philadelphia Story. As for Bringing Up Baby, it would find a new audience in the 1950s and is now revered as one of the great comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
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It Happened One Night (1934)
Written by Robert Riskin
Directed by Frank Capra
No genre in the arts is more subjective than comedy. Initially, comedy was considered performance pieces with a light-hearted tone. So essentially, anything with a happy ending. That has been the case if you look at most theatrical comedies from ancient Greece into our modern era. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy is named that because it delivers an upbeat ending despite some absolutely horrific Inferno sections. Because these stories often had more relatable moments than the more heightened & sadder tragedies, laughter was commonly heard from the audience. Thus, the connection between comedy & funny became a thing.
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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Written by John Wexley and Warren Duff
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Recently, American conservatives voiced faux outrage over a relatively tame Super Bowl Halftime performance. Their reasoning was that elderly rappers with criminal records were the focus and encouraged moral decline. While race clearly played a part in the current blast of hot air from the right, moral outrage has existed in America since its founding. You can always count on some subgroup of people in the United States to find something to clutch their pearls over and blame it for “juvenile delinquency.” In the 1930s, gangsters were one of these cultural touchstones. For some, the criminals were seen as folk heroes fighting against the banks & powerful, while for others, they were harbingers of chaos bringing destruction to innocent lives in their wake.
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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Written by Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller, and Rowland Leigh
Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
The Adventures of Robin Hood was unlike anything that had come before and would shape the type of films to come, even today. It was Warner Brothers’ most expensive movie with a $2 million budget. Additionally, it was shot using the first three-strip Technicolor process, a piece of technology that made it stand out against its box office competition. This film used all 11 Technicolor cameras that existed in 1938, which had never been attempted before. At the time, Warner had garnered a reputation for its social issue and low-budget gangster flicks, so something like Robin Hood felt incredibly ambitious for the studio. Once again, the film mimics a Douglas Fairbanks film from the silent era, continuing Errol Flynn’s track of reprising the roles of that actor.
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Captain Blood (1935)
Written by Casey Robinson
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Michael Curtiz was born Manó Kaminer in 1866 Hungary. His parents were Jews, his father a carpenter, and his mother an opera singer. They were lower-middle class and had times where it was a struggle to put food on the table. Curtiz loved the theater as a child and even constructed a tiny stage in his family’s basement when he was 8 years old. After high school, he joined a traveling theater troupe and performed throughout Europe. At age 26, Curtiz took his first theatrical directing gig and even fenced on the Hungarian Olympic Fencing team that year. Just a couple years later, World War I would pull young men into a brutal conflict, including Curtiz. From there, he was carried to a burgeoning film scene in Germany, where Curtiz truly learned the craft. In 1926, he came to the United States and began directing for Warner Brothers. That filmmaking partnership would span 28 years and 86 films, some of which are the most acclaimed films of the era. With 1935’s Captain Blood, Curtiz would see his star soar and the best work of his career just beginning.
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Bride of Frankenstein (1934)
Written by William Hurlbut & John L. Balderston
Directed by James Whale
The best Universal horror film, hands down. I will fight you on this. James Whale returns, but he was a hard sell at first, believing the story had been squeezed dry in the first picture. The success of The Invisible Man has Universal begging Whale to please do the sequel. Cleverly he used their desperation to get them to greenlight a more serious picture he wanted to make. When he sat down to figure out Bride, Whale decided to make it a “hoot,” as narratively there wasn’t much more to say. And then he completely blew all the competition out of the water with one of the wildest, most insane horror movies I have ever seen.
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The Invisible Man (1932)
Written by R.C. Sherriff
Directed by James Whale
As early as 1931, Universal was developing The Invisible Man as a film. It was based on the novel by H.G. Wells and was seen as an excellent follow-up to Dracula. Other projects sidetracked this one, but by 1933 the film debuted. Wells was alive at the time and demanded script approval while Universal incorporated elements from another invisible man short story they had also purchased the rights to. After Frankenstein’s fantastic performance and critical reception, James Whale seemed like the perfect fit for this project. It became a film that showed even more of the director’s wry, macabre sense of humor.
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The Mummy (1932)
Written by John L. Balderston
Directed by Karl Freund
Dracula and Frankenstein were massive hits for the former floundering Universal Pictures. Studio head Carl Laemelle Jr. decided to lean into horror as one of the film studio’s major products. That meant coming up with a film for the following year. This time it was three horror movies. Bela Lugosi starred in Murders at the Rue Morgue in February, adapted from the Edgar Allen Poe short story. In October, Boris Karloff played a creep in the horror-comedy The Old Dark House. The year came to a close just three days before Christmas with the release of The Mummy, who would become another iconic monster in the Universal tradition.
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Written by Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert Florey, and John Russell
Directed by James Whale
Universal Pictures exists today because of the monster movies. In 1930, Universal lost $2.2 million in revenues (over $36 million adjusted for inflation). Then, in February 1931, Dracula was released and made $700,000 in sales. It was clear to Universal producer Carl Laemmle Jr. that horror movies were what the public wanted. By November of that same year, Frankenstein was released. Bela Lugosi, who had shot to stardom at the studio following Dracula, assumed he would be playing the Monster. However, makeup tests showed the actor didn’t have the right look. Instead, the studio went with English actor Boris Karloff, and the rest is history.
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Written by Garrett Fort
Directed by Tod Browning
This was not the first vampire movie, but it was the first official adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. F.W. Murnau had made Nosferatu nine years earlier, leading to a copyright infringement lawsuit from Stoker’s widow. The jumpstart of the Universal Monster movies began here and came under the hand of Carl Laemmle Jr. Carl’s father had founded Universal, and at the age of twenty, Junior became the head of production at the studio. How’s that for some nepotism? Carl led Universal at the dawn of the “talkies” and had no qualms throwing piles of money at movies that had no chance of earning it back. He seemed to genuinely love films and wanted them to look fantastic.
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