Going to California

All the way back in 2014 when I was covering the 4th Academy Awards, I ran into a problem: one of the nominees, East Lynne, a Frank Lloyd melodrama, was nowhere to be found. It is so scarce, it is only available for viewing at the UCLA film archive in Los Angeles, CA. Since I live in New York, this presented a bit of an obstacle, but I soldiered on, confident that I would one day make it out to the “other” coast.

Then just three Oscars later, it happened again. 1934’s The White Parade, despite being considered amongst the best 12 films of its year, similarly exists solely in Pacific Standard Time. These two films are among three Best Picture nominees that have never been released on home video in any format. (The other, 1928’s The Patriot, is missing and presumed lost.) And finally, 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn, despite starring heavyweights Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland (who was nominated for Best Actress), proved impossible to track down using conventional methods. But UCLA had it.

The idea of claiming to have a complete picture of the first twenty years of the Academy Awards while having not seen three of the nominated films being, of course, ludicrous, last weekend I made the great trek out to JFK International Airport and boarded the 4:30 autogyro to that famous land of broken dreams and shattered hopes, Los Angeles. The trip was quite illuminating.

Sunset_Blvd.jpgFor example, I wasn’t aware the city existed in color.

I’ve come back with a new appreciation for California, for Los Angeles (though truth be told, I much prefer San Francisco, which I also visited), and for New York City’s public transit system. I also now have a clearer understanding of just what people are complaining about when they talk of LA traffic…in the 72 hours I was there, I traversed the I-405 between LAX and Huntington Beach six times and found that it can turn into a parking lot at little or no provocation at any time of the day or night. It’s really quite remarkable.

Most of all, though, through watching these three films I really came to appreciate the huge leaps forward American cinema made in a relatively short time. Now that I’m up to 1947, by jumping back to 1931, then to 1934 and 1941, I shall look back on these three films as defining the strengths and shortcomings of their respective years. So let’s not waste any more time…

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It’s hard to imagine from the perspective of 1947, but I do remember a time in Oscar history when Frank Lloyd was a legitimate force in Hollywood. And this film, East Lynne, had taken on almost mythic proportions in my mind, as it was the “missing” film from the justly maligned 4th Academy Awards, the year of CimarronSkippy, and the ridiculous Trader Horn. The only saving grace of the year was The Front Page, which also was terrible but at least starred Adolph Menjou.

So East Lynne represented hope that perhaps the year wasn’t a complete waste of time, that there was a single movie amongst the nominees that could explain why they didn’t just cancel the whole thing to give filmmakers a chance to get their shit together for 1932. But, alas…it was merely another mediocre film in a mediocre year. Easily the second best of the lot, but that’s not saying a great deal.

The film deals melodramatically with the upper classes of Edwardian British society, with an elaborate and unlikely narrative that relies heavily on stiff-upper-lip stereotypes and misunderstandings. Ann Harding gives a respectable if stilted performance as the bored trophy wife of a stuffy rich bastard (Conrad Nagel), who may or may not have been unfaithful and is thus divorced and vilified by “proper” society. Typical of Frank Lloyd’s oeuvre there is very little ambiguity in either the plot or the characters…the plot stumbles from one contrivance to the next to achieve maximum bathos, and the characters are either sympathetic and relatable or cartoonishly priggish and reactionary. One gets the feeling Lloyd was trying for social significance, but the whole effort comes across as vain and condescending.

Like its fellow nominees, East Lynne feels like a giant step backwards after 1929/30, when the winner was All Quiet on the Western Front, which felt ahead of its time both in a narrative and technical sense, alongside The Love Parade, the first true movie musical, and the 90%-brilliant The Divorcee (which, unlike this film, actually dealt with contemporary issues in a compelling and worthwhile manner). Watching it reminded me of the thankfully bygone confusion of the early Academy Awards, when they reflected the general uncertainty as to just what cinema was supposed to be in the sound era (this was the year that City Lights didn’t receive a single nomination). Sometimes it’s good to remember those days.


The last time I was in Los Angeles, I was 15 years old, and I just hated it. But that was (quite literally) half a lifetime ago, and upon revisiting it I was able to keep a slightly more open mind. Sure, as an adoptive New Yorker I am generally required to despise it, with its jammed-up freeways and earthquakes and perpetually clement weather, but when you get past those drawbacks it’s not a bad place.

It’s an even better place if you are a film nerd, of course, and being one I found things to keep me busy outside the time spent watching rare old films at UCLA. When I left the film archive, I had the romantic notion to drive along Sunset Boulevard and visit the old Griffith Observatory, from which I could see the famous HOLLYWOOD sign and the site of such classics as Flash Gordon and Tobor the Great.

Unknown.jpegThe Citizen Kane of its day.

The thrill of being on that venerated boulevard was quickly strangled by the stopped-dead traffic of Hollywood rush hour…it took me about 90 minutes to drive the eleven miles to the observatory, by which time it had grown quite dark and the sign was invisible in the smoggy LA darkness. Turns out they don’t light it at night…or at the very least, they didn’t light it that night.

Still, it was a lovely spot to look down on the City of Angels, and it didn’t stop me from getting a few great pictures with my traveling owl Mortimer (whom you’ve met) and seizing the opportunity for a great film-related pun.

IMG_0569.jpgOwl without a cause.

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1934 represented a huge leap forward in Hollywood filmmaking, with classics such as It Happened One Night and The Thin Man heralding a new era that would culminate in the emergence of the Golden Age about six years later. Still, as I pointed out in my review at the time, it was a mostly tepid year at the Oscars. The field was expanded from ten to twelve nominees, and the difference between the best (the winner, I’d say) and the worst (probably Here Comes the Navy, though Flirtation Walk and One Night of Love were abysmal, too) was the most marked I have seen thus far (except for 1943, of course). So, The White Parade had a lot of leeway.

In all the more-than-five-nominee years, it seems like there’s at least one film that, in terms of quality of narrative/technology, belongs a year or two before the rest of them. 1931/32 had Bad Girl, 1932/33 had Smilin’ Through and the winner, Cavalcade, representing the anachronistic set. Here, the token 1931-style nominee was The White Parade, and watching it I got the feeling the Academy threw it in just to remind everyone that filmmaking was moving forward by contrasting the innovators with…this.

It’s the story of nursing cadets as they go from their first day to graduation–it’s also about how career and womanhood are mutually exclusive concepts. Loretta Young stars as June Arden, an uncommonly bubbly nursing student who comes closest amongst her peers to having a personality, and who must choose between her profession and the chance to be a real woman by marrying a bored rich guy…and if I’ve neglected to mention his name it’s only because Bored Rich Guy is really all you need to understand his role in the narrative. He alternates line-by-line between “you are a good nurse” and “quit this hobby and be my wife, silly female,” and she obligingly oscillates between wanting one or the other for little or no reason.

I said it was 1931-style for a reason, because 1931 saw another film that celebrated the utter helplessness of women, their inability to look after themselves, and their cloying need for a man to guide them. I’m speaking, of course, of that classic Trader Horn, and that link goes to my original review of it. The White Parade is more progressive only insofar as, in the end, Loretta Young stays on as a nurse despite the temptations of marriage…but she does so so reluctantly, and the film implies so heavily that she will eventually “come around,” that I can’t believe she doesn’t abandon her profession at some point, possibly sixteen seconds after the credits.

In the end, it’s solidly middle-of-the-road by 1934 nominee standards, but of all the three films I saw, The White Parade has earned its scarcity.


My visit to San Francisco was the first time I have ever stayed in a hotel room alone, and as luck would have it I was staying at a place that looked exactly as I pictured The Shining in my dreams. Naturally I commemorated this providence with a couple martinis at the hotel bar, but this combined with the high ceilings and general spookiness led to a bit of paranoia when I tried to call it a night.

Fortunately, without my input the hotel staff had had the foresight to give me two beds, so I was able to bunch the pillows up under the covers of the one nearest the door so as to fool my enemies should they decide to break down the door while I slept. I thus reposed on the far bed, the better to get the jump on any potential marauder while they, in their frenzied bloodlust, blindly stabbed and dismembered the innocent eiderdown.

I choose to imagine that it was this preparedness that saved me that night, in the same way it never seems to rain when one remembers one’s umbrella.

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The best film of the three I watched that sunny day at UCLA was Hold Back the Dawn, a wild and crazy romance about a unscrupulous European gigolo, Charles Boyer, attempting to seduce and marry Olivia de Havilland (they played themselves in the film) so that he can obtain American citizenship. He is planning to abandon her the second he’s across the Mexican border and join his similarly-unscrupled paramour in New York, but since this is Hollywood–and since she is, after all, Olivia de Havilland–he ends up falling genuinely in love with her and hijinks ensue.

This is, like The White Parade, the “throwback” film of its year…it would have felt right at home in 1938, when its style of narrative and acting would have at least been current, if not particularly revolutionary. But in 1941, a year that also saw Citizen KaneThe Maltese Falcon, and The Little Foxes–and hell, Blossoms in the Dust and Suspicion–this is Hollywood on autopilot. It is an odd mixture of romance and screwball comedy, and doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it wants to be…and by 1941, this equivocation was unacceptable.

Boyer and de Havilland are charming, and the supporting cast is quite capable. It’s at least entertaining, which is more than can be said for the other two films I watched, but that’s as far as I’m prepared to praise it. De Havilland in particular had better things on the horizon, and her role here is basically the same as her supporting turn in Gone with the Wind, so it’s easy to regard HBTD as something they did on a dare.


And there we have it! I have now, at long last, seen every one of the 162 extant films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in the first 20 years of their existence. I now feel as ready as I can ever be to wrap up those first two decades (coming soon!) and jump into the third. Who knows, perhaps another trip to the sunnier climes will be necessary to finish the job, or maybe to rescue an office party from German white-collar thieves or something. Onward!

 

 

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Trivial Matters #28 – Most nominations for a non-Best Picture nominee

While I was writing the last trivia entry, I got to Carol‘s six nominations without one for Best Picture, and I got to wondering which non-Best Picture nominated films in Academy history have received the most. Here, then, are the 18 films with at least seven nominations but no love in the Best Picture category, with number of wins in brackets:

  • 21st (1948) – Joan of Arc – 7 (2)
  • 22nd (1949) – Come to the Stable – 7 (0)
  • 37th (1964) – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte – 7 (0)
  • 39th (1966) – Hawaii – 7 (0)
  • 40th (1967) – Thoroughly Modern Millie – 7 (1)
  • 41st (1968) – Star! – 7 (0)
  • 42nd (1969) – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – 9 (1) – The record!
  • 45th (1972) – The Poseidon Adventure – 8 (1)
  • 50th (1977) – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – 8 (2)
  • 54th (1981) – Ragtime – 8 (0)
  • 55th (1982) – Victor/Victoria – 7 (1)
  • 59th (1986) – Aliens – 7 (2)
  • 61st (1988) – Who Framed Roger Rabbit – 7 (4)
  • 63rd (1990) – Dick Tracy – 7 (3)
  • 67th (1994) – Bullets Over Broadway – 7 (1)
  • 76th (2003) – Cold Mountain – 7 (1)
  • 79th (2006) – Dreamgirls – 8 (2)
    • This is the only time in Academy history that the film with the most nominations of the year did not receive one for Best Picture.
  • 81st (2008) – The Dark Knight – 8 (2)

Incidentally, there have been three years in which two films not nominated for Best Picture received more nominations than the winner:

  • 5th Academy Awards (1931/32)
    • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (3); The Guardsman (2)
    • Winner: Grand Hotel (1)
  • 25th Academy Awards (1952)
    • The Bad and the Beautiful (6); Hans Christian Andersen (6)
    • Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth (5)
  • 79th Academy Awards (2006)
    • Dreamgirls (8); Pan’s Labyrinth (6)
    • Winner: The Departed (5)

Trivial Matters #27 – Regarding the Nominees

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards were announced yesterday, and as I was traveling to California all day I didn’t get a chance to post my usual trivia entry. So a bit late, here’s what I noticed:

  • Star Wars received five nominations but is not up for Best Picture…or anything else major. If it sweeps (which it stands a good chance of doing, what with four of the five being technical categories and Academy darling John Williams nominated for his score), it will tie The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) for most Oscars won by a film not nominated for Best Picture.
  • Kate Winslet, one of only five previous winners amongst the acting nominees (along with Eddie Redmayne, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, and Cate Blanchett), could become the thirteenth person to win Oscars in both lead and supporting categories.
  • It’s been 39 years since Sylvester Stallone was last nominated for an Oscar (he got two nominations for Rocky, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, losing both to Network). If he wins Best Supporting Actor for Creed, he will join Harold Russell and Haing S. Ngor as the only non-actors to win the award.
  • All kidding aside, Stallone is the sixth performer to be nominated twice for playing the same character in different films. The other five are (* = win):
    • Bing Crosby as Father Charles O’Malley
      • Going my Way (1944) – Best Actor*
      • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) – Best Actor
    • Peter O’Toole as King Henry II of England
      • Becket (1964) – Best Actor
      • The Lion in Winter (1968) – Best Actor
    • Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
      • The Godfather (1972) – Best Supporting Actor
      • The Godfather Part II (1974) – Best Actor
    • Paul Newman as “Fast Eddie” Felson
      • The Hustler (1961) – Best Actor
      • The Color of Money (1986) – Best Actor*
    • Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I
      • Elizabeth (1998) – Best Actress
      • Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – Best Actress
  • If Alejandro G. Iñárritu wins Best Director for The Revenant, which seems a distinct possibility, he will be the third director to win the award two years in a row.
    • John Ford won for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green was my Valley (1941)–and two other times besides.
    • Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).
    • It’s worth noting that in each case only the second film won Best Picture, so Iñárritu could also earn the distinction of being the first person to direct two consecutive Best Picture winners.
  • This is the first time since the 81st Academy Awards that every acting category’s field of nominees features at least one previous winner, and the first since the 79th that no film received more than two acting nominations.
  • The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road lead the nominations with 12 and 10, respectively, but neither scored a nomination for their screenplays, which as I’ve said before has historically been a bad sign for a Best Picture contender.
    • In addition, Mad Max did not receive any acting nominations, so if it wins, it will be just the twelfth such film to do so, and the third (after Wings [1st] and Grand Hotel [5th]) to win without nominations for acting or screenwriting.
  • Finally, Carol is the 47th film to receive nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress but not Best Picture. The last such film to win either award was Boys Don’t Cry (1999) (Best Actress, Hilary Swank), and the last to win both was The Miracle Worker (1962) (Best Actress, Anne Bancroft; Best Supporting Actress, Patty Duke). The last film to win two acting Oscars without a Best Picture nomination was Hud (1963) – Best Actress, Patricia Neal; Best Supporting Actor, Melvyn Douglas.
    • Carol received six nominations, the most for a non-Best Picture nominee since the expansion from five nominees in 2009. The record for most nominations without one for Best Picture is nine, set by They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969).

19th Academy Awards (1946) – Part II

(Part I.)

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It’s been ten years since we’ve seen a Shakespeare adaptation amongst the nominees, the most recent being the critical and commercial failure Romeo and Juliet in 1936. After that age-inappropriate bomb, coupled with the previous year’s ridiculous A Midsummer Night’s Dream–and say what you will about R&J, at least Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard could perform credible Shakespeare, unlike Dick Powell and James Cagney–the bard was box office poison. And just like so much in life, it took Laurence Olivier to save the day.

Henry V was actually produced and released in the United Kingdom in 1944,  personally commissioned by Winston Churchill–presumably right after he saw Wilson and was so depressed he needed to be reminded why his side had to win. So he turned to Olivier, who was hot off his triumph as a French-Canadian fur trapper in the otherwise-not-at-all-silly 49th Parallel


Never forget.

And while Hollywood, as I pointed out, was foundering badly in the “morale-boosting war films” department (considering they thought of Since You Went AwayGoing my Way, and the aforementioned Wilson as their “best” that year), Olivier took the PM’s directive seriously and produced, adapted, directed, and starred in Henry V, simultaneously reclaiming Shakespeare for England and ensuring no one on the street ever shouted “Mon dieu!” at him again.

Unknown.jpegBuying himself a few years of peace before “Is it safe?” came along.

Until this point, it was commonly accepted that Shakespeare was not only unprofitable, but that film could not do justice to his work. Henry V is a delightfully inventive film, and it makes sense that it was Laurence Olivier, not only a genius but well-versed in Shakespeare and someone with a keen instinct as to what made his plays great, who showed how to successfully translate 16th-century theatre to this upstart 20th-century art form. This film was one of a handful from the period that marked a shift in how people thought about moving pictures, a major contribution to the idea that they could be both entertainment and works of art.

The structure of the film is whimsical and, like the climactic musical number of 1933’s 42nd Street, utilizes to the fullest the potential of movies to seamlessly transport the audience to any time and place they can imagine. We open in 1599 with a performance of Shakespeare’s latest at the Globe Theatre, complete with a rowdy and appreciative audience, an inconvenient spell of stormy weather, and, most entertainingly, histrionic performances by actors in heavy make-up. There are even several shots of the actors backstage, adjusting their costumes and silently rehearsing their lines before going on and taking a bow.

I won’t go into too much detail as to how Olivier structures the film, because–and I may be speaking only for myself here, but no matter–half the fun of watching this movie is seeing how he playfully moves from one level of cinematic immersion to the next, gliding between layers of reality as the story of Henry’s successful campaign to claim the throne of France unfolds. Throughout it all he commands the screen in the title role, much as he did as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights back in 1939, and as Maximilian in Rebecca in 1940.

It’s definitely an outlier amongst the nominees, as it would have been in just about any other year. I would say it’s the first “art film” I’ve come across in this project…which makes sense given it’s Shakespeare, but then again I would never class the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream as art films. Those were grim reminders of the limits of the Hollywood formula–Henry V is a rousing affirmation of the limitless potential of cinema, when the film industries of other nations were beginning to come into their own and seriously challenge the Hollywood ideal. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the award for Best Foreign Language Film (read: Best Artsy Film) showed up the year after this.

Not that there weren’t plenty of Hollywood films of the period that were works of art, because there were. (Just as I would argue that not all “art films” are necessarily “works of art.” It’s a genre, just like “Golden Age Hollywood” is.) And that’s as good a segue as any to move on to this year’s winner…

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The last time we saw William Wyler was in 1942, when his film Mrs. Miniver won Best Picture, Best Director, and two acting awards. Then, much like Capra, he joined the armed forces and produced/directed war documentaries, but despite this shared experience they returned to Hollywood with mutually exclusive ideas of what a postwar film should be. Capra came back a broken man and a worse director with nothing to left to contribute except saccharine spirituality and trite aphorisms.

QS_721df1361d4f40c0919955c4fd8e091b.jpgI can think of few statements as demonstrably untrue as this.

Wyler, on the other hand, chose not to talk down to his audience and instead made a deeply personal and stirring film about the home front, and for the first time in Academy history, they awarded Best Picture to the year’s actual best picture two years in a row. The Best Years of Our Lives is a timely, poignant, and meticulously well-made bit of postwar cinema, the story of three returning soldiers to their small town home in Indiana and their (ultimately successful) attempts to readjust to civilian life and a country that doesn’t seem to need them anymore.

First_blood_poster.jpgIt was also the first film to get the now-standard “gritty reboot” treatment.

The stories of the three servicemen (played by Fredric March, Harold Russell, and Dana Andrews, the first two of whom won Oscars for their performances) are intertwined seamlessly throughout the nearly-three-hour film, and their paths continue to cross at various stages of their reintegration. Al Stephenson (March) is the oldest of the three and the best off financially/socially, a bank manager in civilian life; Fred Derry (Andrews) was a soda jerk before the war, but amongst the trio has attained the highest rank in military service; and Homer Parrish (Russell) was a football player in college, and returns with prosthetic hooks in place of the hands he lost in combat. Their three stories examine whether these are “the best years of their lives,” or whether those best years might already be behind them.

(Spoiler: It’s the former. This is still Hollywood.)

One of the major themes of the film is the blending and breakdown of social strata that comes with their shared experiences; having never met before their flight home, and coming from sections of society that do not overlap, they still find themselves closer to one another than their own friends and family. The support and encouragement they get from one another is largely what drives the first two-thirds of the film, until they begin to work out their place in the new world…but, crucially, they never drift apart.

This movie, like The Lost Weekend before it, is a great example of how serious, downbeat issues can be addressed within the Hollywood formula. It faithfully follows the three-act structure and includes the standard love story subplot, but in a way that is utterly unforced and serves the story perfectly. And even though it ends with all of the characters (relatively) happy and well-adjusted, it never falls into the Wonderful Life trap of simply telling us that everything is fine and will continue to be so because reasons…Wyler takes his time in order to show us their journeys, and therefore the feeling of optimism at the end is truly earned.

March and Andrews, not to mention Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, are phenomenal; one of Wyler’s great strengths was his ability to draw out deep and complex performances. The emotional center of the film, though, is Harold Russell as Homer Parrish, the youngest of the trio. Russell was not an actor, but rather a veteran who had lost both hands in an explosives accident; Wyler cast him as Parrish, after seeing him in a documentary. And even when sharing the screen with Fredric March, Russell steals every scene he’s in with his understated and unaffected portrayal…the whole film is worth it for the scene in which he bares his soul to his fiancée-to-be, which I won’t spoil.

The result is a film that, as I mentioned above, is nearly three hours long but never feels slow, drawn-out, or forced, and the Academy responded enthusiastically. March and Russell both won Oscars (and in fact, Russell received two, as he won Best Supporting Actor and also was given an Honorary Award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”), and Wyler took home his second Best Director award. We’re right in the midst of the Academy Awards’ first Golden Age, and there’s so much to be excited about as I move on to the 20th Awards.

Before I close out the Oscars’ second decade, however, I’m going to take a brief interlude and step back in time. I am finally going to California, and the UCLA Film Archive, to catch up on those rare nominees from years past. Specifically, I’m talking about East Lynne (1932), The White Parade (1934), and Hold Back the Dawn (1941), films that eluded me due to their scarcity (the latter two, as I mentioned only survive in the archive). My next entry therefore will be a special one, reviewing those films–and trying hard not to view them from the context of 1946/47–and moving into the Third Decade finally caught up on the first two. Onward!