- 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.
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.
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).
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.