4th Academy Awards (1930/31)

225px-Cimarron_(1931_film)_poster

  • 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!

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13 thoughts on “4th Academy Awards (1930/31)

  1. I actually I feel somewhat compelled to see “The Trader Horn” because it sounds so unbelievable – is it enough to be campy?
    Anyway, suggest list of nominees at top and ending with “and the winner was”, since most people now wouldn’t know.

    Like

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