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.
For 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…
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 Cimarron, Skippy, 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.
The 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.
Owl without a cause.
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.
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 Kane, The 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!