- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.