Trivial Matters #3

To date, five people (and two honorable mentions) have won Oscars for acting and something else:

  • Laurence Olivier: Producer of Hamlet (Best Picture, 1948); Best Actor for the same film.
  • Barbra Streisand: Best Actress, Funny Girl (1968); Best Song, A Star is Born (1977).
  • Michael Douglas: Producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Best Picture, 1975); Best Actor, Wall Street (1987).
  • Emma Thompson: Best Actress, Howards End (1992); Best Adapted Screenplay, Sense and Sensibility (1995).
  • George Clooney: Best Supporting Actor, Syriana (2005); Producer of Argo (Best Picture, 2012).

The honorable mentions are:

  • Harold Russell, who won Best Supporting Actor and an honorary Oscar for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
  • Roberto Benigni, who won Best Actor for Life is Beautiful (1998), and who, as the film’s director, accepted the award for Best Foreign Language Film on its behalf (technically an award for the country, not any individual filmmaker).
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5th Academy Awards (1931/32)

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  • Grand Hotel, Edmund Goulding
  • Arrowsmith, John Ford
  • Bad Girl, Frank Borzage*
  • The Champ, King Vidor
  • Five Star Final, Mervyn LeRoy
  • One Hour with You, Ernst Lubitsch
  • Shanghai Express, Josef von Sternberg
  • The Smiling Lieutenant, Ernst Lubitsch

Now we’ll see just how committed I am to this project, as the next decade or so will see the nominees grow first to eight and soon to twelve every year. To kick it off, the fifth Academy Awards offers an eclectic bunch that includes two films in the “Maurice Chevalier sleeps around” genre (if he’d made any more I’m sure they’d have just given him his own category). And yet, despite eight nominees for Best Picture, there were only three for Best Director, a very curious situation. The Academy was still figuring out just how these awards were supposed to work.

Nothing underlines the confusion more than their choice for the fifth Best Picture, Grand Hotel, which wasn’t nominated for any other award. Yes, the movie they deemed the best to come out between August 1, 1931 and July 31, 1932 just wasn’t exceptional enough to earn individual recognition for its writing, acting, cinematography, directing, or even its sound. Its sound, for heaven’s sake, and this was a technician who had to make Greta Garbo intelligible. It’s the only Best Picture winner in Academy history to be nominated only in that category. And yet, given what I’ve seen—what we’ve seen, if I’m being optimistic about my readership—thus far, it’s less surprising than it looks if taken as an isolated fact.

This year more than any other so far reveals a curious aspect of these early years when the awards were so spread around, and that is that the Academy seemed to view Best Picture as an isolated category. Perhaps they reasoned that, if a film won Best Picture, it wasn’t necessary to recognize its individual achievements, since it was inherently understood that a Best Picture winner was axiomatically the best in the other categories, or at least the best confluence of all other categories. Perhaps they preferred to give the other, more specialized awards to films that exhibited mastery of that category in particular. While the Best Picture winners so far have been nominated in other categories, this seems to be the philosophy they were adhering to early on. Anyone familiar with the awards nowadays knows that a dramatic paradigm shift is coming.

Anyway, let’s get to it.

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First, Bad Girl, which won Frank Borzage (he of Seventh Heaven) his second Best Director award (and which features a poster that is much, much more provocative than the film itself). It is the story of a girl looking for something which is never quite made clear, but anyway she finds a man and after a series of painfully un-comic misadventures they end up married with child. It contains such classic dialogue as this:

Random man: “Hey beautiful, doing anything tonight?”

Our heroine, who takes no guff: “I’m taking my two pet fishes for a drive. There’ll be room for one more if you’d care to go.”

This exchange comes right after she brags to her friend about how good she is at deflecting unwanted romantic overtures. I’m no professional but I think the screenwriters could have topped that.

Now, it may be the direction—Frank Borzage has not impressed me thus far—or the writing, but this girl is not worth the effort. Nowhere in the film does it show her as having any discernable personality. I suppose back then, women did not have to have those in movies; they were just “nice girls” in need of rescuing by the charismatic guy. I hate to say it but it’s true: this girl has no redeeming value other than being young, pretty, and ultimately helpless on her own, which is brought out by the man. The whole first act is her “I don’t need a man” façade crumbling and showing the audience that yes, yes, for the love of Christ yes, she does need a man; what’s more, she needs a man who doesn’t need a woman, who has no reason whatsoever for falling in love with her. He, unlike her, has his own thing going on.

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After suffering through a “realistic” relationship, it was nice to follow it up with One Hour with You, a wonderful reunion of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. This film picks up where The Love Parade ended, except the King and Queen have renounced their titles and are living as socialites in Paris or wherever. Ernst Lubitsch continues to innovate the musical form, and here the action leads into the songs more “naturally” than in The Love Parade, with the characters beginning to speak to one another in rhyme and rhythm before the song begins, which is something I’d like to have in my real life.

A damn fun romp, with great songs and very funny Chevalier moments. Overall, it’s a more cynical film than The Love Parade, perfectly encapsulating the odd place sex holds in relationships. As Peter Cook pointed out in Bedazzled, couples will forgive everything but “a bit of harmless fun.” Here, they even forgive that—although with the caveat that he doesn’t really think she was unfaithful, for, as we’ve seen in The Divorcee, a man can’t stand for that…although perhaps Maurice Chevalier would. He’s a very modern gentleman.

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Following this raucous comedy I watched The Champ, which starred the kid from Skippy (who, I was disappointed to learn, is Jackie Cooper, not Jackie Coogan, i.e. Uncle Fester). It tells the tale of a washed-up boxer (Wallace Beery) who continually mucks up his life and that of his adoring son. The boy’s mother, who abandoned them before he was born to marry some rich guy, suddenly returns and self-righteously demands full custody, because plot points, only to shrug and say “Oh, that Skippy” (probably) when the kid absconds and returns to Mexico to be with his father again. The film rolls out as if it were written in one sitting, with an ending that suggests the screenwriter just really wanted to go to the pub and would do anything to make that happen. It does feature a tour-de-force performance by Beery, or at least what passed for tour-de-force before Marlon Brando, but overall it’s pretty weak. I would call it the weakest of the eight nominees, if it weren’t for what I watched next.

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Shanghai Express. Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, directed by Josef von Sternberg…this should have been great. And, cinematographically speaking, it was quite beautiful. But narratively speaking? I don’t know, maybe it’s watching all these films in quick succession that has caused this build-up of vitriol, but I have to say, this repeated trope in Hollywood that love is something that is just there, and despite mountains of evidence against your partner’s character you should just keep on loving them and assume the best, always, is driving me absolutely bonkers. Even if, as is the case with most of these films, the evidence is wrong and they can put their partner’s mind at ease with a simple explanation, they withhold it to “test” their love and faith in them. This is, of course, utter bollocks and a dangerous and manipulative basis for love. I’d rather have the kind of relationship in One Hour with You, where they are open and honest with one another and yet still love each other in spite of all their faults, as opposed to torturing one’s love interest for the sake of some vague and ultimately stupid idea of love based purely on faith.

“Oh, darling, forgive me for the completely logical and reasonable belief I had that you betrayed and once again made a fool out of me. How wrong I was for not passing the test you put me through years ago when you slept with another man in the hopes that my forgiveness would prove, and thereby strengthen, our love. I don’t deserve you, but I promise to put up with all the horrible abuse you’ll doubtless put me through if you take me back.” Ah, true Hollywood love. It really makes me a little sick.

Sigh. Okay.

It was a timely picture, though, one that probably introduced Americans to the trouble brewing in China at the time, but with that immediacy gone, we’re not left with much today.

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Again, Maurice Chevalier saved me. The Smiling Lieutenant features more of his impish antics, this time with Claudette Colbert, as he falls in love with one girl, accidentally makes a pass at a princess, and marries the latter while reserving his energies for the former. The ending is about as ridiculous as any I’ve seen, and in the hands of anyone but Ernst Lubitsch would have been cringeworthingly sexist, but wouldn’t life be wonderful if relationship troubles were solved with such ease, and such catchy tunes? It’s the sense of irony and whimsy that makes this film work, just as it made One Hour with You and The Love Parade work.

Incidentally, it was released on August 1, 1931, the first day of eligibility for this year’s awards. Imagine a film released on January 1 ever being considered for Best Picture nowadays; it says a lot about the changes in Hollywood in the past eighty years.

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Then, I came to Five Star Final, which, despite what the poster suggests, is not about a voyeur who lives in a paper bag. I tried not to be prejudiced against it due to the long and tedious process of obtaining it from the New York Public Library (which adopts a somewhat laissez faire attitude towards alphabetization of its DVDs), and it turned out to be well worth the wait, a brief return to the social-mindedness of the 3rd Academy Awards amidst the escapism that pervades this year’s slate. It is the story of a yellow newspaper manufacturing headlines, and although it takes a serious turn for the melodramatic (as pictures from this era were wont to do), it is a great picture, the best of the nominees by a long way.

Edward G. Robinson’s character is a complex, thoroughly unlikeable protagonist who consciously makes the worst decisions possible for his soul, which ultimately leads to the suicide of an innocent person. The fact that he quits at the end doesn’t absolve him at all, and the newspaper will continue its horrible practices without him. The ending is extremely dark, though it plays like a triumph, emphasizing his personal victory over the bleak objective truth: the paper won’t replace him with a more conscientious editor, they’ll get someone exactly like him, because he was damned good at his job and chose to bury his scruples.

I imagine that this film lost because it depicted a situation that just hit too close to home in the thick of the Depression: people had to do whatever it took to earn their keep, even if it meant betraying their own values. Honestly, even the personal triumph I mentioned a minute ago is unlikely to last. In that economic climate, what will happen to our hero? Likely as not he’ll get a job at a competing newspaper and continue ruining lives for the sake of circulation.

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Arrowsmith is similar to Cimarron, except it’s good. It unfolds over a long period of time, following the exploits of young doctor Ronald Colman and his wife Helen Hayes. The story is not bad—a doctor rises from country doc to research specialist trying to stem an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Caribbean—but it’s the sure hand of John Ford that really impressed me. I knew this already, but watching all of these old films, especially those by people such as Ford and King Vidor, and naturally the German expressionists, one really sees that Citizen Kane didn’t appear out of a vacuum in 1941. This film is a clear forerunner of the kind of things that Orson Welles would bring together ten years later, such as playful use of light and shadow and cinematography that exploits space for maximum visual and symbolic value.

For instance, there’s a shot where Dr. Arrowsmith enters a massive lobby that looks like it’s about a hundred yards long, completely empty save for a small receptionist’s desk at the far end. He starts across, and we fade to his arrival at the desk. It is not as ambitious a shot as we’d see from Orson Welles (he would have let us watch the character walk all the way across the room before cutting), but for 1931, it’s nice to see directors and cinematographers start thinking of different ways of approaching the medium. John Ford should have taken Best Director for this film.

Finally, Grand Hotel. While I suppose it was slightly innovative in its ensemble portrayal of the extreme melodrama that apparently goes on in high-class European hotels, it never really finds its tone and thus oscillates wildly depending which MGM star the story is presently following. It is, if anything, a slightly more sophisticated version of The Hollywood Revue of 1929, insofar as the studio decided to hang a very loose narrative around a gathering of prominent feature players. The story veers abruptly into absurdity about seventy-five minutes in—like The Champ, it seems like the writers suddenly remembered they needed to add drama and didn’t bother rewriting the previous pages to actually build to it—and the anticlimactic ending would work fine in a film by Antonioni but instead just putters across the finish line and leaves the hotel largely as we found it. The final shot features the arrival of a busload of people who aren’t famous enough to have their stories told.

Still, there is an otherworldly feel to the film, which never ventures outside the foyer of the omnipresent Hotel. Dr. Otternschlag, a minor character who patiently observes the chaotic proceedings, at the end of it all says sagely, “The Grand Hotel. People come, people go, nothing ever happens.” If we assume, as I see no reason not to, that David Byrne is a time-traveling entity upon which the foundation of life is built, this means that the Hotel is heaven. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

Trivial Matters #2

The acting category most likely to receive multiple nominations for a single film is Best Supporting Actress; to date, 32 films have had two nominations in that category (and one, Tom Jones, received three!). The first such film was Gone with the Wind (1939), for Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel, and most recently was The Help (2011), for Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer.

Least likely is Best Actress; there have only been five double nominees in that category:

  • Anne Baxter and Bette Davis, All About Eve (1950)
  • Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
  • Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, The Turning Point (1977)
  • Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment (1983)
  • Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, Thelma and Louise (1991)

Of those, only Shirley MacLaine won (for Terms of Endearment).

4th Academy Awards (1930/31)

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  • Cimarron, Wesley Ruggles
  • East Lynne, Frank Lloyd
  • The Front Page, Lewis Milestone
  • Skippy, Norman Taurog*
  • Trader Horn, W.S. Van Dyke

Well, that didn’t last long. The socially conscious Oscars I saw last week were swept away in a rush of tepid mediocrity, replaced with snotty children, pseudo-witty reporters, ridiculous African stereotypes, and Richard Dix abandoning his racist family for two hours. It must have been a terribly weak 12-month period…except, of course, for an unimportant little film they forgot to nominate called City Lights.

Oh well. They can’t all be as strong as the 3rd Awards, I suppose, but it’s still a letdown. (I apologize in advance for what has become a wordy entry, but there’s a lot wrong with these films.)

Unfortunately, and hopefully for the last time, I am again unable to see all of the nominees, as the sole surviving complete copy of East Lynne is only available to view by appointment at UCLA. Next time I’m in Los Angeles I will be sure to watch it and update this entry [Update 1/26/16: I did it! Read about East Lynne here.], but until then I’ll have to make do with the other four. I don’t think any films from there on out will be as difficult to obtain, in particular American studio films of consequence (e.g., films nominated for the increasingly-important Academy Awards).

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The first film I watched was Skippy, which is about as good as you’d expect a film adapted from a comic strip that is best remembered today as a brand of peanut butter to be. It tells the story of the titular Skippy and his ragamuffin friends as they scheme to save a dog from being put down. Rather bleak, and the fact that they don’t succeed seems to me a bit dark for a proto-Dennis the Menace film, but that just scratches the surface of this film’s cynicism. And by cynicism, I mean the kind that makes 1950s Peanuts look like tepid, saccharine bilge water (that is, 1990s Peanuts).

To give just one example: there’s a girl in the neighborhood who has recently lost her dog at the beginning of the film. She’s understandably heartbroken, to the point of writing poetry about it, but at the end of the film she gets a new dog and immediately trades it for a goddamn bicycle. This bicycle, by the way, was originally given to Skippy by his father in an unsettlingly easy ruse to buy his son’s love after years of cold neglect.

It’s not just Skippy’s domestic situation, either. The love that all the children of this world show toward their parents is predicated entirely on how many material goods they are given. These are some coldblooded rascals; every child in this neighborhood is headed for a life of sociopathic isolation and probably institutionalization. But if I’ve learned nothing else so far from this blog, it’s that filmmakers and audiences back then had a very different idea of what constituted a “happy ending.”

One last thing: This film won Norman Taurog the award for Best Director, presumably because he managed to get passable performances out of children who couldn’t act. He would later channel this ability when he directed Elvis Presley in the 1960s, but the Academy showed no recognition then.

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Then I had The Front Page, a passable satire of the newspaper business and the unreliability of “the law” in Depression-era America. It’s part of that great “let’s film a play” genre, set in real time and almost exclusively on a single set (except for the occasional gratuitous cutaway just to show you that they could use the advantages inherent in film if they wanted…they just choose not to). Not to say this genre never works (this parenthetical will be a link to my article about the 30th Academy Awards when I get that far), and maybe I’ve still got the bad taste of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in my mind-mouth, but this one just doesn’t hold up. Come to think of it, not holding up is the theme of this year’s awards. There’s some clever banter, sure, and some servable slapstick, but the end result is badly paced—the last scene in particular is about seven times longer than it should be—and unsatisfying.

I did enjoy the witty dialogue, though, which elevates this film to the level of, shall we say, proto-Screwball Comedy. It displays a much stronger and more appropriate grasp of worldly cynicism than Skippy, and there’s a nice anti-hero feeling to the whole thing: The law is corrupt, but the film doesn’t hide the fact that the press is, too, just in a different and more irreverent way. They’re all engaged in a power struggle that neither can win, and the newspapermen are a bit more cynical and nihilistic about it, so they have more fun. It’s the best of the nominees, sure, but this year that’s not saying much.

Incidentally, the source material was remade, and much more successfully, in 1940 as His Girl Friday, which surpasses this film in every way except the very, very end. I won’t spoil it, but The Front Page boasts one of the best final lines I’ve ever seen, while His Girl Friday ends like any Code-era film has to end. Watch them both and you’ll see what I mean.

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Again, the waning popularity of the VHS format meant a long and arduous process of procuring and watching Trader Horn. This was easily one of the most uncomfortable movie-watching experiences of my life, and I’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust. From a technical standpoint, this film was a big deal: it was filmed on location in Africa, and thrilled audiences with footage of wild animals in their native habitat, and overall I was pretty impressed with the camerawork considering the conditions. When there is no interaction with Africans going on, the shots are well-constructed and the film is a delight to watch. Unfortunately, being a movie, it had to have a story, and that’s where things start to get weird, even for 1931.

In fairness, the racial and gender stereotypes displayed in the film are no worse than others of the period, but what makes Trader Horn unique is that in most films, these stereotypes lurk beneath the surface of the narrative, so their presence is easy to contextualize. In Trader Horn, the stereotypes are the narrative. The story hinges on rescuing a white girl, who has been raised her entire life by a native tribe, and returning her to “civilization” where she can be properly white. Listen:

When they find the girl, she is inexplicably in a position of power in the tribe, which makes absolutely no sense; the only explanation is that the filmmakers believed that black people just naturally kowtow to whites. Not unique for the period, sure, but for a tribe entirely cut off from European civilization to elevate a white girl to a position of power is patently absurd. But fine, she’s their leader. So, upon the arrival of our white heroes, she decides to spare them just because they are white. Again, nonsensical, but the message of the film is clear: white people stick together, no matter the circumstances.

And here it gets really weird: she uses a whip to keep her tribe in line, and at one point she whips the shit out of one of the white explorers (the young one with whom she inevitably develops a romantic interest in the third act), and he doesn’t react at all. It’s one of the most ridiculous scenes ever committed to celluloid: he just stares her down with an “It’s your own time you’re wasting” expression. It must have been one of those magical whips that only work on black people:

Then, as soon as she gets them away from the tribe, she immediately becomes a helpless and subservient female, unable to cope without her male protectors. Granted, this was again the Hollywood stereotype of the day, but at least in other movies they crafted a universe wherein it organically made sense. Not so here: this is a woman who has spent her entire fucking life not only in the wilds of Africa but as the leader of a whole tribe. To suddenly become weak and feeble just because she is around white men instead of black men is almost too ludicrous to even type. I can’t believe, I really just can’t believe that this was considered good storytelling in 1931 (you know what was good storytelling? City Lights. I will never let that go). Yet, here it is in all its Best Picture-nominated glory.

Much like Birth of a Nation, the film deserves credit for its technical innovation, but the story is terribly, terribly dated and, much unlike Birth of a Nation, not particularly well-crafted in any case. I hope this is the last of the “look what we can do with a movie camera!” nominees, but it’s still only 1931, so I doubt it.

And now, Cimarron. Even in a year destined to set the precedent for all future Academy disappointments, the decision to award Best Picture to this bloated travesty of a film is mind-boggling. It is a two-hour movie that took me three days to watch, because I had to stop every ten minutes to cheer myself up with a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film.

The opening of the film promises great things with its boisterous depiction of the Oklahoma land rush, leading me to believe I was about to witness the struggle of one man, or one family perhaps, against the unforgiving reality of settling the wilderness. Instead, nothing ever really goes wrong for our dashing frontiersman/lawyer/preacher/publisher, as he breezes along with the wind perpetually at his back and no thought for others unless they are in need of a dashing and overtly progressive rescue. That’s right, Cimarron actually gives progress a bad name.

Aside from destroying my ability to love, the worst thing about this sprawling, pointless mess is that there is not a single character with whom one can identify or empathize. Sure, I felt bad for the guy’s wife, what with his constant abandonment and stubborn insistence on destroying everything she tries to do, but she is such a backwards harridan that she defies any attempt to actually like her. For example, for the first fourteen hours or so of the film’s running time, she hates Indians, thinks they’re horrible. Just before the merciful final sequence, he defies her by publishing a clarion call for the rights of Indians and says that one day she’ll be proud of him for taking a stand for them. Smash cut to 1929, twenty-two years later, and she’s suddenly big in the Progressive Party, a member of Congress, and proud as hell of him, even though he cut loose again (off-screen) in 1907. Character development? Who needs it?

The Academy Awards so far have followed a strict good-bad-good-bad pattern. This year was such a huge come-down from the previous one; I would not watch a single one of these nominees a second time, and I would only recommend them to people I hoped to alienate. Okay, The Front Page wasn’t horrible, but only compared to the rest. Perhaps when I find myself in southern California and I watch East Lynne, I’ll love it…but that will only make my disdain for this year all the worse because it, too, lost to Cimarron. This was a dark year, indeed.

But enough of this bitterly forgettable bunch. Now I must get serious, because I’m entering a 12-year era in which there are more nominees than days in the week. The 5th Academy Awards had eight; in 1932/33 the list grows to ten, and for 1934 there’s bloody twelve films I’ll be watching. A furious pace, but I intend to maintain my Wednesday night update schedule. Here goes!

Trivial Matters #1

This section will be irregularly updated, whenever I feel like posting a bit of favorite Academy Awards trivia. To kick it off:

Only two films have ever won Best Picture and two acting Oscars without taking home Best Director. They are:

  • All the King’s Men (1949); Best Actor, Broderick Crawford; Best Supporting Actress, Mercedes McCambridge
    • Directed by Robert Rossen, lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives
  • Shakespeare in Love (1998); Best Actress, Gwyneth Paltrow; Best Supporting Actress, Judi Dench
    • Directed by John Madden, lost to Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan

How these films managed to be the best of the year AND have two Oscar-worthy performances without the benefit of the year’s best direction is puzzling…

3rd Academy Awards (1929/30)

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  • All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone*
  • The Big House, George W. Hill
  • Disraeli, Alfred E. Green
  • The Divorcee, Robert Z. Leonard
  • The Love Parade, Ernst Lubitsch

About ten or eleven years ago, I took a course called “Introduction to Film” or something, and the professor said something I’ll never forget, in which context I can’t quite recall and the exact wording of which escapes me. But anyway, it was to the effect that, when the Academy Awards were first proposed, it was agreed that the award for Best Picture would “rotate” amongst the six major studios: RKO, Paramount, Universal, MGM, Columbia, and Fox. I haven’t found this little factoid verified in any source, but it occurred to me while watching and evaluating the five nominees this year, because the film that won is a huge departure from the kind of winners that preceded and immediately followed it.

Actually, the whole year is something of an anomaly in that regard. With the exception of The Love Parade, the field of nominees bears little resemblance to those in the previous years. The balance is the opposite of the year before, when only one of the films, Alibi, wasn’t a musical extravaganza (and even that had some singing breaks). The nominees here tackle grim issues like divorce, war, loss of innocence (in several forms), kinship, incarceration, and Victorian parliamentary squabbles with realism and admirable disregard for the fact that there was a Depression going on. It’s like a sneak preview of the post-World War II years, not to get too far ahead of myself.

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The Love Parade would have trounced The Broadway Melody if it had been released in the same eligibility period (as it happened, it came out on November 19, 1929), being better scripted, acted, directed, choreographed, and scored, and if all that weren’t enough it introduced America to Maurice Chevalier. The film may be 1929, but it feels ahead of its time, almost like it came out in 1932. It tells the story of a gallivanting courtier who manages to catch the eye of his country’s flirtatious but flighty queen, only to find himself emasculated after marrying her and being reduced to “prince consort.” Naturally, this will not stand and he reasserts himself by the end. It was the first musical to incorporate songs into the narrative—i.e., the characters pause and start singing exposition while all around somehow harmonize on their presumably improvised lyrical advice. While the songs were unforgettable, I can’t now recall any of the tunes or lyrics. It’s a light and enjoyable feature typical of a Best Picture nominee to this point, and the filmmakers must have liked their chances.

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I saw Disraeli last of the nominees, thanks to a long and difficult process of procuring a used VHS and then finding a working player on which to watch it, and it is easily the lightest of the nominees this year. By that, I mean it proceeds at a respectable pace, presents its subjects in a respectable way, and comes to a respectable conclusion without any kind of disrespectable drama. Even if you don’t know the history of Benjamin Disraeli’s struggle to purchase the Suez Canal, the film’s conclusion is obvious from its opening frame. From a production standpoint it is the most dated of all the nominees: the whole thing has a very amateurish feel, and half the shots cut off the top of an actor’s head, or bisect their face (this style of filmmaking would be revisited eighty years later with The Kids are Alright). George Arliss’ billygoat beard won Best Actor for this film, which he accepted on its behalf.

While Alibi was the token serious picture in 1928/29, The Love Parade and Disraeli were the token happy films this year; the rest of the nominees are quite dark.

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The Divorcee stars Norma Shearer and Chester Morris as a married couple “dealing” with infidelity. I use the quotation marks because the film is as realistic a portrayal of marital trouble as The Dark Knight is of carp fishing, and at least The Dark Knight doesn’t pretend to be about that. In a nutshell, it goes like this: man cheats but it means nothing; woman cheats and it means she’s unworthy of marriage; woman fucks off from hypocritical shithead; woman finds a man who loves her; woman rejects man who loves her to return to aforementioned shithead.

This is actually portrayed as a happy ending. I mean, I applaud Norma Shearer for a great performance (which won her Best Actress), but damn, Hollywood had (has) a very warped concept of what constitutes a stable, loving relationship. This film is Soren Kierkegaard’s wet dream, the triumph of two people putting each other through hell in the name of “testing” their love, as everyone knows that love isn’t earned but springs up involuntarily and can never go away no matter what manipulative horrors they inflict on one another. They reunite in the end with the prospect of further perdition awaiting them until they fucking die.

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Thanks a lot, Soren.

At least, I assume it’s his wet dream. I’m basing this on my knowledge of Kierkegaard gleaned not from having read his works but from hearing them described by my sister who has also not read his works but has overheard conversations between two people who have. I trust them.

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Compared to that, The Big House, which also stars Chester Morris and launched the “escaped convict with a marshmallow heart waiting to fall for a bored spinster” genre, is a heartwarming tale of friendship enduring through hard times. Sure, one of the friends shoots the other before being killed himself, but at least there’s some kind of honor at play here. The only innocent man in the Big House is Robert Montgomery, and he’s a dirty, conniving little rat, while Chester Morris and Wallace Beery are violent criminals who are not only more complex but more sympathetic (ah, the pre-Code days). Chester Morris escapes and gets with Montgomery’s sister, who protects him from the police because she of all people should know what a dirty, conniving rat her brother is. But the real relationship of the film is between Morris and Beery, and anyone who’s had a friend they’ve had to talk out of murdering them as a result of some misunderstanding can identify fully with them (it’s not just me, right?).

All this builds quite nicely on the scale from Maurice Chevalier to the soul-crushing existential malaise of All Quiet on the Western Front. Two years before, the Academy awarded Best Picture to another World War I film, Wings, and that is all the two films have in common. Wings was a patriotic ejaculation about becoming a man, saving the country, and sleeping with Clara Bow; All Quiet on the Western Front is about something called war, which involves none of those things and instead leaves its participants cynical, broken, and traumatized for life at best (fortunately, all of the film’s protagonists escape this fate, because they are the lucky ones who get murdered). The two scenes in the classroom encapsulate, better than any fictional representation of war I have seen, the high emotional and psychological cost of not only war itself but in finding out the truth of it after being convinced that it is the highest duty one can perform. I’m glad Lewis Milestone turned around so quickly after The Racket.

I am surprised they awarded Best Picture to a film like this on the heels of Wings and The Broadway Melody, but of course it completely deserved it. Well done, Academy. Lets see how long it takes before I say that again.

2nd Academy Awards (1928/29)

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  • The Broadway Melody, Harry Beaumont
  • Alibi, Roland West
  • The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Charles Reisner
  • In Old Arizona, Irving Cummings & Raoul Walsh
  • The Patriot, Ernst Lubitsch

If the 1st Academy Awards were all about audience-pleasing, the second were about even more audience pleasing, only this time with sound! Synchronized sound! It was all the rage in 1929; just look at the poster for The Broadway Melody, which, to save you the trouble of checking, contains exactly zero characters or scenes from the film, choosing instead to emphasize the fact that there is talking and singing throughout the film.

The common theme of the films nominated for Best Picture here (at least, the four that have survived) is “Look, Timmy, they sing and talk! We can hear them!” Granted, The Patriot was silent, but it is lost, so no one can say if it was a genuinely good film, or a pity nod to a bygone era.

There was serious consideration given to dividing all the awards into “silent” and “talkies,” but despite some comments to the contrary, the Academy leadership knew that silent films would soon be left behind by everyone whose name wasn’t Charlie Chaplin, and they didn’t want the 2nd Academy Awards to seem dated. So, they made sure to honor the films that, to their mind, best exemplified this New Era of Filmmaking, a more expensive, less internationally-friendly era. An era, too, of strange characters who all sang, no matter what their vocation, upbringing, or station.

Interestingly, the film that won Best Director, Frank Lloyd’s The Divine Lady, was a silent film not nominated for Best Picture. This occasion is unique in Oscar history,* and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened in 1929, during the transition period. The Academy recognized that Lloyd’s direction was noteworthy, but chose a slate of Best Picture nominees that consciously emphasized the coming of the Sound Era. Even at the time, though, they must have realized that The Divine Lady was far superior to at least two of the nominees for the top award.

The four nominated films that have survived are The Hollywood Revue of 1929, In Old Arizona, Alibi, and the winner, The Broadway Melody. And, as I said above, all four emphasize, to varying degrees, how swell synchronized sound is.

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The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is…I guess I can say that it…sorry, I can’t finish this sentence in a positive way. There’s just no reason for this film to exist. When I think that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of films have been lost over time and this one has survived, it makes me a little nauseated. It’s a film of a stage production of MGM’s best and brightest (read: the ones the studio thought sounded good enough to still have jobs after The Jazz Singer) singing and dancing, with some comedy relief from Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy…and they did not bring their A-game. All the studios did this kind of movie at the birth of sound, so it must have been slightly more exciting for audiences to listen to these people speak without context or purpose than to, say, watch grass grow or their stocks fail. Forget trying to get through this labored attempt at joviality 85 years later, this must have felt dated within three months.

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In Old Arizona is the story of an outlaw on the run from a very incompetent ranger, both of whom are played like a balalaika by the outlaw’s flighty lover. It’s a fun film with a great ending, but it’s horribly paced and I have to give it demerits for introducing the “singing cowboy” trope. Part of the problem is certainly technical; it was the first film to attempt to record sound outside, which might account for the awkward pacing and clumsy delivery of the dialogue (it was also the belief of Roy Pomeroy, who at the time had a monopoly on sound recording, that actors should leave several seconds of silence between their lines, or else the audiences would become confused—evidently Mr. Pomeroy had never seen a play or engaged in conversation with a human being).

All in all, I’m afraid that this film is rather forgettable. In fact what I remember most about it has nothing to do with the film at all. It’s the fact that lead actor Warner Baxter (who won the Best Actor award, against very little competition) later in life invented and patented a radio device that allowed emergency crews to safely pass through intersections by changing traffic signals from two blocks away. Crazy to think of that while listening to his Spanish accent.

Of all four films, Alibi seems the least dated now, perhaps because it is the only one that really boasts strong characters and a compelling story that, for the most part, resists melodrama (rare for the period).

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It also boasts the most ridiculously incongruous poster of the year.

It’s a solid noir centering on a recently paroled convict who is accused of murder, and the measures the police take to destroy his alibi. It’s a neat little experiment in playing on audience expectations, as the first half of the film paints the police as corrupt and untrustworthy, only to show (surprise?) that Our Hero the Ex-Con was guilty all along. The trouble with the film is that it doesn’t slowly and carefully reveal this twist; rather, about halfway through the film, the policemen suddenly begin acting heroic and the hoods begin acting shady. You can tell when characters from this period are shady, ‘cause they say “yeah?” and “see” a whole lot more than a law-abiding citizen would.

Despite the very cut-and-dry switch, there is a very clever sequence towards the end featuring the two sides playing cat-and-mouse, each believing they are manipulating the other without realizing how much their opponent knows. This scene alone makes the film worthwhile, even if it is followed by an over-the-top four-minute death scene that only serves to murder the momentum. Also, it introduced me to Chester Morris, a very “yeah?-see” actor whom I’d never heard of but who, I see from imdb.com, will come up again soon when I tackle next year’s Awards. This one gets my vote for the best film out of the (surviving) nominees.

The Broadway Melody was a pleasant surprise, especially watching it after In Old Arizona and The Hollywood Revue destroyed my expectations of anything technologically fluent or narratively interesting being nominated in the first year of sound. Its story is rather barebones and, frankly, a bit disturbing, but as a musical and a prototype of the genre, it plays reasonably well. Anyone familiar with the Golden Age of Hollywood (which I am anxious to get to) will recognize the seeds of greatness contained in this film.

I’m not surprised it was awarded Best Picture; like Wings in 1927, Melody had everything audiences wanted to see in a film in 1929: musical numbers, snappy dialogue (though nothing approaching what snappy dialogue would become in just a few years), comic misunderstandings, and two swell kids finding love…sort of. Actually, it’s kind of creepy…though nothing approaching what creepy would become in just a few years.

The precedent set by Wings continues here, with the feel-good musical winning out while Alibi rounds out the nominees with a hint towards later focus on darker themes, social issues, and stronger storytelling. I think The Divine Lady was better than all four, even if, as a Blackadder fan, it is impossible for me to take a film about Lady Hamilton remotely seriously.

It’s definitely a stronger crop of films than the previous year, but that’s to be expected in this era when there was still so much to explore with this new art form. How long will this last, I wonder? I’m not going to be on the lookout for the flatlining of American cinematic innovation or anything so cynical as that, but it’s a question that has started haunting me in the thirty seconds since I thought of it and wrote it down here. Only time will tell…


* Except for the first ceremony, which awarded Best Director in the categories of both Comedy and Drama; the former, won by Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights, went the way of Unique and Artistic Production.

All images from www.wikipedia.com.