Monday, May 11, 2009

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins

Plot: A young officer accidentally makes a pass at a visiting princess. To avoid an international incident, he marries the smitten princess but pines for his girlfriend.

Thoughts: While I loved Lubitsch's The Love Parade (pardon the pun), I wasn't as impressed with this film. The derivative plot had a couple of details changed to make an entirely new story. Once again, Chevalier plays a military officer who marries into royalty. Like The Love Parade, innuendo is abundant and the songs are delightful.

Based on Hans Müller’s short story, "Nux der Prinzgemahl" (Nux, the Prince Consort), which was adapted for the operetta, "Ein Walzertraum" (A Waltz Dream), The Smiling Lieutenant was apparently a troubled production. According to film historian Michael Koresky, Lubitsch was in the process of divorce, Chevalier's beloved mother had recently died, and Colbert and Hopkins were rather diva-esque. The end product is good, but in my not so humble opinion, not as good as The Love Parade.

Once limited to the occasional TV screening (no VHS or laserdisc release), 2008 saw The Smiling Lieutenant released on DVD as part of the Lubitsch Musicals box set. This box set is part of Criterion's Eclipse series and includes The Love Parade and One Hour with You (coming in a forthcoming review soon). If you'd like to see the film online, you can view it on YouTube.

The Smiling Lieutenant only received a nomination for Best Picture for the 5th Academy Awards. Interestingly, Lubitsch's One Hour with You also received the nomination that very same year. Both would lose to Irving Thalberg's Grand Hotel.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Almost Back to Full Power

In case you hadn't noticed, the Derby crashed and burned as we entered the last week of March. After work on the huge project suspended things, I was laid off from my job. What ensued was a rather frustrating search for work for the next five weeks. Almost every day involved 12-13 hours of sitting at a computer screen sifting through job ads, customizing resumes, and making phone calls. Thankfully, the end of April bore fruit in this lousy economy and I began working again this week.

The plan this weekend is to at least post the long-delayed entry for The Smiling Lieutenant. Hopefully, this journey through cinematic history can pick up again next week.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sheesh - Yet Another Admin Post

We are down to the wire with a system delivery at work, which has been eating up much of my free time. Obviously, this has caused a backlog of entries. The plan is to have the review of Ernst Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant up tonight. The three remaining 5th Academy Award nominees (One Hour with You, Shanghai Express, and Grand Hotel) are now tentatively planned for next week.

I sincerely apologize for all the delays. I do hate it when life gets in the way of the important stuff ;-)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Five Star Final (1931)

Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Edward G. Robinson and Marian Marsh

Plot: A newspaper decides to dig up an older murder case with tragic consequences.

Thoughts: This was a really good film. People complain about tabloid (or yellow) journalism now, but it was appearently a problem back in the 1930s also. An aspect portrayed in this film was how not letting go of a scandal could end up hurting people who had nothing to do with it. The purpose of dredging up old, lurid news was solely to increase circulation and make money. The "Five Star Final" was the final issue of a newspaper for the day—this was back when multiple editions would be published, usually a morning and evening but sometimes one or two "extras" during the day.

Five Star Final would be Mervyn LeRoy's first shot at a Best Picture. The film was based on Louis Weitzenkorn's play and adapted by Byron Morgan. One of my favorite aspects was the appearance of Boris Karloff as a creepy reporter. It's odd how much he still looked like Frankenstein's Monster without the makeup. Although Edward G. Robinson shined as the newspaper editor attempting to gain respect, I felt he was slightly miscast. It's probably because of the gangster roles he later played.

The newspaper, The Gazette, was based on The New York Evening Graphic. The Graphic (nicknamed The Porno-Graphic by others in the press) was one of the most sensational papers of the day and had indeed been losing circulation at the time. It eventually folded in 1932 when, I guess, the public had grown tired of reading tabloid material day after day.

This film is not available on DVD and wasn't released on VHS or laserdisc either. The only place to see it is when it shows up on the Turner Classic Movies schedule rotation. So far, there are no plans to bring it to DVD.

Five Star Final only earned the sole nominated for Best Motion Picture, which is a shame. LeRoy's direction was certainly more interesting than Frank Borzage's work in Bad Girl and should have at least earned a Best Director nod.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bad Girl (1931)

Directed by: Frank Borzage

Starring: Sally Eilers and James Dunn

Plot: A young couple rushes into marriage unsure about the other's feelings regarding children.

Thoughts: Bad Girl was a bit of a misnomer. Unless the "bad girl" was the young woman rushing into marriage, there wasn't really a bad girl to be found. That said, I didn't think this particular film was worthy of nomination. It was an okay film, but it was hardly a compelling story nor did it contain particularly remarkable direction.

Based on Vina Delmar's novel and the subsequent play, Fox billed this film as the "greatest love story since Seventh Heaven" (which Borzage also directed). Not sure if I'd go that far, but it wasn't a terrible way to while away an hour and a half. I really don't have much to say about this film; it was just kind of there. The acting was competent, the character relationships were portrayed well, and the dialogue was good. However, the film just felt ordinary to me. Perhaps that was the point; I don't know.

Like Seventh Heaven, Bad Girl was a film rarely seen outside of academia until December when Fox released the Murnau, Borzage, and Fox Collection. It was never released on VHS or laserdisc.

Inexplicably, Frank Borzage won Best Director, beating out King Vidor for The Champ and Josef von Sternberg for Shanghai Express (which we'll cover next week). Bad Girl also won Best Writing, Adaptation, for Edwin J. Burke's screenplay. Considering it was up against Arrowsmith and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I guess the win shouldn't be terribly surprising.

Posting Delays

The premise of this blog was that new entries would appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. However, work and life matters have interfered with the timely schedule of things but I am endeavoring to update at least three times a week. You may or may not see an entry for a given day, but it will usually appear either sometime the following day or that evening.

The next entry, Bad Girl, will be posted before 10pm (Eastern) tonight. After that, you can look forward to Five Star Final with The Smiling Lieutenant rounding out the week. We'll finish up the 5th Academy Awards next week and follow with an article about the Hays Code before wading into the 6th Academy Awards.

Lots of good stuff in store so join us, won't you?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Champ (1931)

Directed by: King Vidor

Starring: Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper

Plot: A washed-up ex-boxer tries to raise his son in Tijuana while struggling to set up a comeback bout.

Thoughts: Holy smokes, what a tearjerker. You can't help but feel sorry for the father-son pair, especially when the dad has really bad habits like drinking and gambling. Despite this, it's both amazing and touching that a son could be so devoted to such a person. This was a well-done drama starring two former Best Actor nominees and it's no wonder the Academy considered this for Best Motion Picture.

Frances Marion turned in another terrific script (she also wrote the screenplay for The Big House) full of heart and flawed yet likable characters. While the characters were likable, it seemed that life behind the scenes was anything but. According to Jackie Cooper's autobiography, his co-star, Wallace Beery, was "the most sadistic person [he's] ever known." Given such tension, it's quite a testament to both actors that the final product turned out so well.

The Champ was first remade in 1953 as The Clown with Red Skelton where Frances Marion dusted off this film's script and changed it slightly. Of course, the 1979 remake with Ricky Schroeder is famous for Schroeder's overreaching waterworks at the end.

The Champ took home a Best Actor award for Wallace Beery as the eponymous champ (interesting side note: Fredric March also won Best Actor that year for Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde due to peculiar voting rules) and also Best Writing, Original Story, for Frnaces Marion's terrific screenplay (her second award for writing). The film also earned a nomination for Best Director (his third for directing).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Arrowsmith (1931)

Directed by: John Ford

Starring: Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes

Plot: A medical researcher is sent to the West Indies to halt a plague.

Thoughts: This film had a lot of potential. We're allowed into the scientific world for a little while to see that there's more to it than test tubes and microscopes. However, this same world can often be cruel. In the 1930s, the practices seen in the film probably weren't unusual but would be considered criminal now. What puzzles me is just how much this film falls apart toward the end, but was still considered for Best Motion Picture. The ending alone feels like it was written as quickly as possible to beat the traffic home (a little more on what the real reason might have been below). It wouldn't surprise me if there were some peculiar politicking responsible for Arrowsmith being considered by the Academy.

Based on the 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith was rumored to be Samuel Goldwyn's way of keeping John Ford from drinking. Ford allegedly was quite the alcoholic, but needed money. Supposedly, one of Goldwyn's conditions was that Ford could not have a single drop during production. Another rumor (purportedly from actress Helen Hayes) was that Ford wanted to get the film over and done with and discarded script pages and soon, entire scenes, in order to get back to drinking. I'm not sure what degree of truth these rumors had, but the finished product does feel a bit rushed, especially toward the end.

Despite its flaws, Arrowsmith does have a number of interesting aspects. One of these is that this film was the first to portray an African-American in a non-servile, non-stereotypical role. The character in question was Dr. Oliver Marchand, as played by Clarence Brooks. Dr. Arrowsmith considered him his equal and had planned to leave him in charge of the plague research. Unfortunately, whatever ground was broken would be shoveled back in again as Brooks took on familiar roles later in his career. One other aspect was a short scene straight out of the German Expressionist handbook with Helen Hayes sitting in a chair. Although earlier events had already painted the character's fate for us, it was still a very interesting visual.

Arrowsmith was nominated for four awards, including Best Motion Picture. The other three were:
  • Best Art Direction for Richard Day's ability to go from rural town to big city to jungle without using standing sets;

  • Best Cinematography for Ray June's mood setting framework; and

  • Best Writing, Adaptation, for Sidney Howard's condensing of the novel into a screenplay.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cimarron (1931)

Winner, 4th Academy Awards

Directed by: Wesley Ruggles

Starring: Richard Dix and Irene Dunne

Plot: An adventuring lawyer/newspaper editor settles down in an Oklahoma boom town.

Thoughts: It's not difficult to see why Cimarron beat out its competition for the Best Motion Picture award. It was the most polished out of the nominees and had that epic feel to it that the Academy likes so much. I enjoyed the film despite it being a bit long. Richard Dix was a bit bombastic with his acting, compared to his capable but subdued co-stars. The film's most famous sequence easily remains its best: the Oklahoma land rush scene is huge and starts things off with an energy that wasn't matched by the rest of the film. But that's okay, it's still an enjoyable way to waste a couple of hours.

Based on Edna Ferber's 1929 decade-spanning novel, Cimarron has the distinction of being a Best Picture winner that didn't make a profit during its initial theatrical run. Although liked by audiences and critics, the film was released during one of the worst periods of the Great Depression. Movies were a popular form of entertainment during the Depression, but 1931 was a particularly turbulent year for many Americans. The cost of making Cimarron made it one of the most expensive films produced at the time ($125,000 was paid for the novel rights alone).

Cimarron was released on DVD in 2006. The film was remade starring Glenn Ford in 1960 and is also available on DVD. According to IMDB, yet another remake is coming in 2010 but information on it is pretty scarce as of this writing. The 1960 remake was not nominated for Best Picture but earned Academy nods for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Sound.

Cimarron earned an unprecedented seven award nomination's, beating out The Love Parade's six nods from the previous year. In addition to Best Motion Picture, Cimarron also won Best Art Direction for Max Ree's convincing work on making the town of Osage, Oklahoma come to life and won Best Writing, Adaptation, for Howard Estabrook's screenplay. The film was also nominated for the following:
  • Best Actor for Richard Dix's enthusiastic performance as Yancey Cravat;
  • Best Actress for Irene Dunne's performance as Sabra Cravat;
  • Best Cinematography for Edward Cronjager's work; and
  • Best Director.

Friday, February 20, 2009

What's This? Another Delay?

I'm afraid time got away from me to the point where I wasn't able to finish today's article. The plan is to have it finished and posted sometime today. But, if work should interfere once again, we'll finish up the 4th Academy Awards with Cimarron over the weekend. Then, it's on to the 5th Academy Awards beginning with Arrowsmith next week.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

East Lynne (1931)

Directed by: Frank Lloyd

Starring: Ann Harding and Clive Brook

Plot: The trophy wife of a stodgy man of wealth yearns for a more interesting life.

Thoughts: While this film isn't lost like The Patriot, it is kept under lock and key at the UCLA Film Archive where only a recommendation and an appointment will let you look at it.

East Lynne was based on the 1861 Ellen Wood novel and portrayed Victorian mores of power and class. Some say the film is a powerful drama of a woman's struggle to find her way in society while others say it's an overwrought melodrama. Not having seen it, I can't comment either way.

As mentioned, the film is unavailable to the general public. While the novel was adapted several times for silent films, there wouldn't be another attempt to adapt the novel until 1976 when the BBC turned it into a miniseries and then a TV movie in 1982. No word on any plans to restore the film or produce a DVD.

East Lynne received a sole nomination, that for Best Motion Picture. It lost that night to the sweeping epic of the western frontier,Cimarron.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Barnes & Noble Oscar Winners Sale

This week, Barnes & Noble is having a sale, both in-store and online, where you can save 40% off of list price on Oscar-winning films. If you have their membership card, you save 50%. Check it out by clicking the title above.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Trader Horn (1931)

Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke

Starring: Harry Carey, Duncan Renaldo, Mutia Omoolu, and Edwina Booth

Plot: Alfred Aloysius "Trader" Horn searches for a missionary's daughter amid the dangers of the African veldt.

Thoughts: My feelings on this film are a bit mixed. As an adventure, many parts of this film are quite exciting and have you glued to what's happening. However, there are many parts in this film that are overly long, such as several safari scenes that essentially function as a travelogue as Horn explains the assorted species of animals encountered. Several scenes are also rather uncomfortable to watch, for example, Horn casually throws out racial epithets and calls the local peoples "savages" repeatedly. It wouldn't surprise me if the memoirs the film was based on were replete with this sort of language, but regardless of the possible historical accuracy, it's still damn uncomfortable.

Based on the ivory trader's 1927 memoirs, Trader Horn's production was rather sordid. The sound recorded in Africa was of rather poor quality so MGM had additional footage shot (with two of the African nationals brought to the US - more on that in a moment) on their backlot, which gave rise to rumors of the location shooting being fake. Mutia Omoolu and Riano Tindama were denied entry to the Hollywood Hotel because they were black. Many of the animal scenes were later learned to have actually been filmed in Mexico where animal rights laws could be skirted to film under controlled, and sometimes brutal, situations. Many of the cast and crew contracted malaria and Edwina Booth managed to come down with a near-fatal neurological disorder. Despite all of this, Trader Horn went over huge with audiences. Many of the animal shots saw subsequent use in many of MGM's Tarzan movies.

The film is not available on DVD. It was released on VHS on 1994, but not on laserdisc. Possibly due to the objectionable content, Trader Horn isn't seen very often on Turner Classic Movies. While I'm no fan of censorship, I can certainly see why TCM might be reluctant to show it. Trader Horn was remade under less harrowing circumstances in 1973 and starred Rod Taylor. However, the remake is difficult to find.

Trader Horn was only nominated for Best Motion Picture, but it, and the rest of the nominees, lost to the epic western Cimarron.

The Front Page (1931)

Directed by: Lewis Milestone

Starring: Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien

Plot: A newspaper reporter, hoping to leave the business, stumbles into the story of a lifetime.

Thoughts: All Quiet on the Western Front was easily Lewis Milestone's magnum opus. Topping it would be difficult, if not impossible. So Milestone didn't even try, he just concentrated on making a good film. In this case, The Front Page mostly delivered. Considered the progenitor of the "newspaper" genre, the film was a rapid-fire roller coaster ride of humor and drama. This isn't the sort of film you can follow while surfing the Web and talking to your pal on the phone.

The Front Page was a direct adaptation of the 1928 Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The characters were based on actual personnel at the City News Bureau of Chicago where Hecht and MacArthur worked for a time. Milestone's reliable standard bearer, Louis Wolheim, was intended to play newspaper magnate Walter Burns but died before he could be cast. Adolphe Menjou had been a veteran of the silent era and one of the few who made the transition to sound films.

Over the years, several other adaptations would be produced, including a one-hour radio version in 1948 for Academy Award Theater starring Menjou and O'Brien. The Front Page is available via DVD-R on-demand publishing that essentially uses the master made for the 1997 VHS release. With this film being a Howard Hughes production, it occasionally turns up in the Turner Classic Movies schedule rotation.

The Front Page garnered three award nominations. Aside from Best Motion Picture, it also earned a Best Director nod and a Best Actor consideration for Adolphe Menjou's portrayal of the weaselly Water Burns.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Unfortunate Delay

Time for more excuses I'm afraid. Lots of work plus a bit of travel have eaten into my blogging time. My plan is to have what should have been Friday's post up by Sunday evening (or before if I can swing it).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Skippy (1931)

Directed by: Norman Taurog

Starring: Jackie Cooper and Robert Coogan

Plot: A young lad makes trouble both in his well-to-do neighborhood and the shantytown where he likes to play.

Thoughts: I'm not entirely sure why the Academy considered Skippy to be Best Motion Picture material. It's a little more polished than Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts (commonly referred to as The Little Rascals), but feels a bit empty after seeing a film like All Quiet on the Western Front.

The film is based on the Skippy comic strip that ran in newspapers from 1923 to 1945. It was the prototype for strips like Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes. Playing the eponymous role was Jackie Cooper, who was already becoming a rising star in Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts. This film catapulted the young Cooper to the forefront, where he would be the go-to child actor for years. Despite the film's success, Percy Crosby, the comic strip's creator hated the film (not unlike Alan Moore's dislike of V for Vendetta and the rest of the films based on his works).

Seeing Skippy is somewhat difficult. Although Paramount owns the film, Universal holds the television broadcasting rights. IMDB notes legal complications keeping the film from being shown for several years, which would also explain why it was never issued on home video. The recording I have was from one of the Starz channels. To my knowledge, Turner Classic Movies has never shown it.

Skippy garnered a Best Director award for Norman Taurog. Jackie Cooper received a nomination for Best Actor and remains the youngest nominee for that category. The film's screenplay earned it a nomination for Best Writing, Adaptation, for Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sam Mintz's work in bringing the comic strip to life.

Monday, February 9, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Winner, 3rd Academy Awards

Directed by:
Lewis Milestone

Starring: Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim

Plot: During a wave of patriotism, a young man enlists in the army and is visited time and again by horror and despair during World War I.

Thoughts: Lewis Milestone's second Academy entry (his first being the pioneering gangster film The Racket) was easily the director's magnum opus. In a year with a number of good films, it's easy to see why All Quiet on the Western Front stood out. This was, without a doubt, the Saving Private Ryan of its time. Never before had the horrors of war, both on and off of the battlefield, been portrayed in such an unrelenting fashion.

This film was, of course, based on the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Some sequences were changed from the novel, most notably the ending. However, the impact was just as powerful. The film's only failings were some soft acting at times and bouts of preachiness that worked fine in prose but fell flat on film. Despite its faults, All Quiet on the Western Front was certainly deserving of Best Picture.

The widely circulated version we have now resulted from a major restoration effort by the Library of Congress. A silent version was also produced for theaters that hadn't made the transition to sound just yet. Being a controversial film, All Quiet on the Western Front was cut down to 90 minutes when it was re-released in 1934 due to the strict Hayes Codes. In 1939, newsreel footage was spliced in decrying the Nazi rise in Europe. 1950 saw the addition of swing music to the ending. The film was banned in a number of countries due to the anti-war message and perceived anti-German sentiment; the ban in Austria remained until the 1980s.

Aside from taking home Best Production, All Quiet on the Western Front also earned a Best Director award. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography for Arthur Edeson's terrific camera work (the battle sequences remain pretty jarring to this day). It also received a nomination for Best Writing, Achievement, for the screenplay's adaptation of the novel by the trio of George Abbot, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Disraeli (1929)

Directed by: Alfred E. Green

Starring: George Arliss

Plot: British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli navigates through treachery at home and abroad to purchase the Suez Canal.

Thoughts: As far as biographical films go, this is okay. This is pretty much a vehicle for George Arliss to do his thing, which he does well. Dialogue is written well, but the production just felt a bit flat to me. I can't quite figure out why.

Disraeli is a remake of the 1921 silent film that also starred George Arliss. Benjamin Disraeli was Britain's prime minister from 1874-1880 (and also served in the office in 1868) and has been generally regarded well in the eyes of history. He was, and still is, the only ethnically Jewish prime minister ever to serve in the office.

The film that survives today is from a 1933 version, which is cropped on the left because it had been mastered to incorporate the sound-on-film track. Previously, the soundtrack was played through the old, record-based Vitaphone system. So far, Disraeli has only been released on VHS (back in 1994) and no DVD release is currently planned. Occasionally, it does show up in the Turner Classic Movies schedule rotation.

George Arliss took home a Best Actor award that night. The film was also nominated for Best Writing, Achievement, for Julien Josephson's screenplay.

Posting Delay

No, I haven't abandoned the project. Friday's post is coming soon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Love Parade (1929)

Directed by: Ernst Lubistch

Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Lupino Lane, and Lillian Roth

Plot: A womanizing diplomat returns home and settles down with the queen of his country.

Thoughts: Overall, this film was a lot of fun. I was expecting a fairly dry musical about royalty and such only to be pleasantly surprised to see a fairly brilliant comedy with some very delightfully catchy songs. That's not to say it doesn't have its flaws, like MacDonald's operatic solos and the last 15 minutes where we veer into rather sexist territory. Still, this film is worth a look if only for the musical number about a couple describing how they'd beat the crap out of each other.

The Love Parade is based on the play, The Prince Consort, by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof. The film is styled like a play, only with a much bigger scope. The sets are quite elaborate, not to mention huge, and a metric ton of extras are present (mostly as soldiers). While many a critic claims The Broadway Melody as the first musical, I'm with the side that thinks that honor goes to The Love Parade. The songs are actually part of the story whereas that was only done once in The Broadway Melody.

The level of effort in this film was so apparent, that it garnered an unprecedented six Award nominations but sadly, won none. Aside from Best Picture, The Love Parade was also nominated for:
  • Best Actor for Maurice Chevalier's amazing performance as Count Alfred Renard;
  • Best Art Direction for Hans Dreier's epic sets;
  • Best Cinematography for Victor Milner's capable eye;
  • Best Director; and
  • Best Sound, Recording for Franklin Hansen's relatively polished (at the time) soundtrack.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Divorcee (1930)

Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, and Conrad Nagel

Plot: A husband's infidelity shatters a promising marriage, but the ex-wife learns that being single again isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Thoughts: The Divorcee's subject matter really surprised me. The topics of divorce and infidelity weren't the sorts of things I would have imagined would be generally talked about in the "more civilized age" (as my grandmother puts it). The subject is handled reasonably well, and is certainly the first talking film to deal with the matter. These two items, combined with a bit of artful direction are probably what attracted the Academy's attention.

The film is based on Ursula Parrot's novel, The Ex-Wife, which was considered both scandalous and sensational at the time. It remained a bestseller for a good, long while and, like any bestseller (especially then), was optioned to be a film. In typical Hollywood fashion, the finished product barely resembles its source material. However, the changes work and make the film a bit more accessible, especially in more conservative parts of the country.

You might remember Chester Morris from The Big House. Well, he was one of the few male actors left over from MGM's silent era who could carry a film. Also appearing in this film was Morris' semi-nemesis from The Big House, Robert Montgomery. Norma Shearer was the wife of MGM studio head Irving Thalberg and petitioned to get the part as she was fearful of being typecast as a goody two-shoes. Thalberg reluctantly agreed and good thing too, because this role catapulted Shearer's career until the Hayes Codes put big restrictions on women's role for close to 30 years.

Norma Shearer took home a deserved Best Actress award that night. The Divorcee was also nominated for Best Director and Best Writing, Achievement, for John Meehan's adaptation of Parrot's novel.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Big House (1930)

Directed by: George W. Hill

Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, and Robert Montgomery

Plot: A reckless young man convicted for manslaughter learns about prison life the hard way.

Thoughts: After being somewhat disappointed with the 1928-1929 nominees, along comes The Big House. I do have a soft spot for prison movies, probably because of The Shawshank Redemption, but this film is pretty good aside from being set in prison.

The fairly accurate (accurate for 1929 anyway) look at prison life, coupled with decent acting, and an interesting story is what likely got it the Oscar nod. Chester Morris, who played an unrepentant ex-con in Alibi, returns as a robbery convict here. He's not quite the crook with a heart of gold, but he's certainly a likable guy. Allegedly, George Hill threatened to fire anyone who was "acting" and did not allow makeup to be used.

All the things we've learned about prison are pretty much in this film: bad food, violent discipline, the prison code about talking to the guards, etc. However, I did find one aspect somewhat disturbing, which was the presence of prisoners who were clearly mentally ill (in this case, quite delusional and possibly mentally retarded). I don't doubt that was commonplace at the time, but I don't recall seeing that sort of thing in other mainstream prison films (other than the obligatory psychopath). Lots of great stuff in here, even if the story is somewhat hokey at times.

The Big House was released on VHS back in 1994 and occasionally shows up in the Turner Classic Movies schedule rotation. Oddly, there was no laserdisc release and there's no current DVD release planned.

While the film didn't take home Best Motion Picture at the 3rd Academy Awards, it did win Best Writing, Achievement, for Frances Marion's terrific script and Best Sound, Recording, for Douglas Shearer's great work (listen to the rhythmic foot shuffling in the crowd scenes). The Big House was also nominated for Best Actor for Wallace Beery's portrayal of "Machine Gun" Butch - a role originally meant for Lon Chaney, who had unfortunately died before he could be cast.

Today's Entry Will Be Posted This Afternoon

A number of factors have kept today's entry from being posted this morning, but rest assured that the 3rd Academy Awards (1929-1930) will begin today with The Big House (1930).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Broadway Melody (1929)


Directed by: Harry Beaumont

Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, and Bessie Love

Plot: A pair of Midwest Vaudeville performers look to get their big break on Broadway.

Thoughts: This film is often considered the first modern musical despite only three occasions of spontaneous song, two of those being somewhat functional. This was apparently the best the 1928-1929 consideration period had to offer, according to the Academy. Given the other nominees, I would have to agree.

Of all the films nominated, The Broadway Melody does stand out as being the most polished out of the nominees that year. It's not a vehicle for a single actor like In Old Arizona or Alibi nor does it rely on spectacle like The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Since The Patriot was essentially a silent, that means a talking film would have an edge.

As for the film itself, it's okay. It had a fairly predictable story and decent characters. It's certainly not a terrible way to waste 90 minutes, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. Whereas in 1929, this would have been awesome. The technical achievement for the era was unmistakable. So successful was this film, that it spawned four "sequels" of sorts and was parodied in dog form as The Dogway Melody (which you can see on the 2005 DVD release).

While Best Motion Picture was the only statuette The Broadway Melody took home, the film was also nominated for Best Actress (Bessie Love) and Best Director. Best Actress that year went to Mary Pickford in Coquette while Frank Lloyd received the Best Director nod for the silent The Divine Lady (one of the few times the Best Director did not direct a Best Picture nominee).

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

Directed by: Charles Reisner

Starring: Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, and almost everyone from MGM's parade of stars

Plot: None really, just a showcase of various acts to show off this new thing in film called sound.

Thoughts: As I've mentioned in previous reviews, sound was the big thing in film at the time and studios really wanted to cash in. And what better way than to put together a giant production involving almost all of a studios talent? Many of whom would be seen speaking nationally for the first time?

You would think that such an undertaking would be a delight to watch. Unfortunately, it's not. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was actually a bit of a bore to watch. Much of the comedy wasn't very funny and a lot of the dancing and music left me scratching my head while asking how this film performed so well let alone earn an Oscar nod. You have to remember that the late 1920's were a different era where Vaudeville and live entertainment were considered just as viable as cinema. Also, the culture then wasn't as saturated in celebrity news as we are now. So, when an opportunity came to see your favorite stars sing, dance, and talk, it was a no-brainer that you would want to check it out.

While there were some interesting acts and musical numbers, most of it felt like amateur night on the MGM lot. Evidently, many parts of this film were produced after hours so as not to interfere with the studio's production schedule. The film also underwent several direction and director changes and didn't finish production until nine days before its debut.

According to several sources, there are no complete copies in existence. Also, the film was only released on laserdisc as part of the pricey Dawn of Sound box set and there are currently no plans for it to be released on DVD. There is a fairly low-resolution version available to view at Google Video if you'd like to see it.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 only received the one nomination for Best Production that year. It lost to another MGM film, The Broadway Melody, which I'll look at on Wednesday.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Patriot (1928)

Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Emil Jannings, Florence Vidor, and Lewis Stone

Plot: An epic portrayal of political intrigue in Russia during the reign of Paul I.

Thoughts: Unfortunately, I can offer no thoughts on this film because I've never seen it. No one else in recent history has seen it either because The Patriot is more or less a lost film. The only parts left are a trailer and one reel (about six minutes of footage) that was found in Portugal back in 2001.

The story is an adaptation of three different plays: Paul I by Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Der Patriot by Alfred Neumann, and The Patriot by Ashley Dukes. Again, since there is no reference available (neither the film nor the plays), I have no idea which parts were lifted from where. Attempting to find detailed information has proven somewhat frustrating.

Based on some notes I found, evidently The Patriot was technically the last silent film nominated for Best Picture. Paramount added music, sound, and limited voices (mainly screams) to the film in post-production without Lubitsch's knowledge. This was done because talking and sound films were the new trend in film at the time. Despite the studios tampering, the finished product was still regarded as one of the best films of 1928.

If you want to see the trailer, it can be found on the More Treasures from the American Film Archives: 1894-1931. The set is a bit pricy, but contains a ton of forgotten film history.

The Patriot took home the Best Writing, Achievement award for Hanns Kraly's epic screenplay. Other nominations earned were Best Actor for Lewis Stone's portrayal of Count Pahlen, Best Art Direction for Hans Dreier (who had previously worked on Wings the previous year), and a Best Director nod for Lubitsch himself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alibi (1929)

Directed by: Roland West

Starring: Chester Morris, Eleanore Griffith, and Regis Toomey

Plot: A strident police captain investigates a murder whose main suspect is an ex-gangster with a seemingly airtight alibi.

Thoughts: Last time we looked at the first talking Western, now we'll see one of the earliest, if not the earliest, talking gangster film. It's a decent film that initially plays into ambiguities. You're not sure who committed the murder and you're not entirely sure to trust the police either. However, by the last half hour, it was very clear who was who as the stereotypes were trotted out.

Based on the play "Nightstick", Alibi borrowed a bit from the German expressionism found in many of the latter day silents (particularly in the beginning of the film) before delving into the gangster genre. While the aforementioned stereotypes were present, they're portrayed very well. The acting in Alibi was good, with Chester Morris chewing some serious scenery toward the end of the film. It wouldn't surprise me if James Cagney based his gangster characters after Morris' performance here.

One of the more interesting aspects about this film is that both a talking and a silent version were produced and released. However, it was the talking version (using Fox's Movietone process) that earned the Outstanding Picture (eventually to become Best Picture) nomination. The film was released on VHS and is available on DVD, but the opening credits had to be digitally recreated; my guess is that they've been lost. As with other early talking films, dialogue can be a bit difficult to discern at times. Whereas the DVD for In Old Arizona had a subtitle option, there was no such option with this DVD.

Alibi did not take home the 2nd Academy Award ceremony's Outstanding Production award or any other award that night. Chester Morris was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Warner Baxter for In Old Arizona. Also, William Cameron Menzies was nominated for Best Art Direction, but lost to Cedric Gibbons for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which was not nominated for Outstanding Picture).

Wednesday's Post Coming This Evening

The inauguration is finally over and yours truly is quite exhausted. This should end the late-ish entries (I still update on schedule; they just haven't been posted by morning) for a while. Tonight, I look at Alibi. Join me won't you?

Monday, January 19, 2009

In Old Arizona (1928)

Directed by: Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings

Starring: Warner Baxter, Dorothy Burgess, and Edmund Lowe

Plot: A duplicitous woman comes between a bandit and the Army man sent to catch him.

Thoughts: We begin our tour of the 2nd Academy Awards with the first talking Western. Westerns were a staple of the Silent Era so it only made sense for the genre to make the transition to talking films. Technically, In Old Arizona was considered a marvel at the time for being the first talking film photographed outdoors as having its entire soundtrack, talking and all, on film.

The film was based on the 1907 story, "The Caballero Way", which was the first of O. Henry's myriad Cisco Kid stories. "The Caballero Way" had already been adapted as a silent film in 1914, so this iteration could be considered one of the first remakes (a trend that continues today for better or worse).

Unfortunately, I didn't feel it held up very well as I felt the majority of the acting was on par with maybe a high school drama club. Warner Baxter as the Cisco Kid exuded charm and charisma in each of his scenes. Unfortunately, there are several scenes where he was not present and were instead "treated" to Edmund Lowe's bad Brooklyn accent while he mugged for the camera or the shrill Dorothy Burgess who never convinced me she was worth the attention of one of these guys let alone both of them. As I mentioned, Baxter was fun to watch and I have to admit that I liked the ending a lot.

Although nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year, In Old Arizona only took home a Best Performance by an Actor Award for Warner Baxter. The film also earned nominations for Irving Cummings (Raoul Walsh had to cede the chair for nearly all of the film after a traffic accident) for Achievement in Direction, Tom Barry's script adaptation for Best Writing, and Arthur Edeson for Achievement in Cinematography.

Monday's Entry Will Be Posted Tonight

With the inauguration of the 44th US President set to begin tomorrow, life in the DC area has been relatively crazy this past week, including last night. Tonight, I'll be looking at the first Western to be nominated: 1928's In Old Arizona. Join us won't you?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wings (1927)

Winner: Best Production

Directed by: William A. Wellman

Starring: Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, and Clara Bow

Plot: Two young from the opposite sides of the tracks come of age as pilots during World War I.

Thoughts: It's easy to see why the Academy chose this as Best Production; because it's one ginormous production. This film begins the Academy's adoration with epics. While tastes would certainly change over time, epics seem to almost certainly wind up in the nominee lists. The popularity of Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight the previous year certainly helped (Lindbergh was the biggest non-Hollywood celebrity at the time).

William Wellman based Wings on his own experiences as a World War I pilot. He had fought in the war and flew as a barnstormer (local daredevil pilot) before moving on to the world of motion pictures.

The massive scale of warfare is captured incredibly well given the technology at the time. Wartime footage is combined with model shots and studio footage almost seamlessly. The $2 million budget ($23.7 million in 2007 dollars) for a production of this size would be impossible today. While the story is as old as time itself, it's one that's put together fairly well here. However, some of the romantic subplot I felt detracted from the film and helped make it a bit long. That said, there's a ton of great stuff here.

So far, Wings has only been released on VHS and laserdisc. The various DVDs you see on eBay have been mastered from the laserdisc, so caveat emptor. Paramount is allegedly in the process of restoring the film for some kind of release, be it DVD or Blu-Ray.

Although Wings took home Best Production (it is often, erroneously, called the only silent film to win Best Picture; see Sunrise), it was only nominated for one other category, that being Best Engineering Effects for Roy Pomeroy's amazing work with models and animation effects.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Short Delay for Today's Entry

The plan last night was to watch Wings (1927) and have an entry written for today. However, a very late night at work put the kibosh on that. So, it may be this evening before or possibly even Saturday afternoon (depending on work) before I can have the entry ready.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Winner: Best Unique and Artistic Presentation

Directed by: F.W. Murnau

Starring: George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor

Plot: A philandering husband rediscovers his love for his wife.

Thoughts: I have a distinct feeling that the Academy pretty much made this award so Sunrise could win it. The film certainly embodied the phrase "artistic presentation" and was rather unique in American cinema at the time.

F.W. Murnau had produced a number of films in Germany before William Fox brought him to America after being impressed with The Man Who Laughs (one of the original inspirations for the Joker of recent Dark Knight fame. Fox wanted a decidedly different film than what audiences were used to at the time. Well, he got what he wanted and then some.

Almost every shot in Sunrise was a deliberate crafting of symbolism and emotion. Forced perspectives on the sets and effective use of lighting set the tone of each scene quite well. This style was quite evocative of what has become known as the German Expressionist movement in film. The aforementioned symbolism and use of sets in a deliberate fashion (sometimes called mise en scene to add additional depth to a story became the preferred style in German films after World War I when monetary issues forced many a filmmaker to be more creative.

Runners-up Chang and The Crowd were both well made and works of art in their own right but the Best Unique and Artistic Presentation award rightfully went to Sunrise. As mentioned in other entries, this award was folded into the Best Motion Picture category for the second Academy Awards. Janet Gaynor took home Best Actress (which also reflected her work on Seventh Heaven). Also won was the Best Cinematography award by Charles Strosser and Karl Struss. Although nominated for Interior Decoration (eventually to become Best Art Direction) for Rochus Gliese's artsy sets, it and Seventh Heaven lost to William Cameron's work on The Dove and Tempest.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Racket (1928)

Directed by: Lewis Milestone

Starring: Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim

Plot: A battle of wits between a police captain and a mob boss in the backdrop of a corrupt city.

Thoughts: We have all seen the stereotypes of gangster movies: fedoras, pinstripe suits, square jaws, etc. These were all a product of the 1920s when national alcohol prohibition became responsible for the rise in organized crime. Despite the headlines, theatrical films on the subject weren't very common. When this film was released, it was barred from Chicago theaters due to the city's prominence as the center of the mob.

Lewis Milestone made an interesting film here, which was based on the 1927 play. The acting lent itself more to a talking film than a silent. Speaking of talking, there was much more dialogue here than in any of the silent films I've viewed thus far (on title cards of course). The Racket's strength was its good use of editing to move the story along without making it feel rushed.

Probably the prototypical film of the gangster genre that would go on to be very popular in the 1930s, The Racket was believed lost for a long time. However, a search through the vaults of Howard Hughes produced a single print, believed to be complete (given the late Mr. Hughes' obsessive nature, it's a pretty safe bet the print is complete). The film was restored in 2004 by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas using the best resources available to them at the time. Turner Classic Movies airs it every once in a while, but it has yet to be made available to the masses on any medium. The Racket was remade in 1951 and starred Robert Mitchum as the stalwart police captain McQueeg.

The Racket received a sole nomination, that for Best Production (which would become the Best Motion Picture award the following year). It and Seventh Heaven lost to Wings that year.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Crowd (1928)

Directed by: King Vidor

Starring: James Murray and Eleanor Boardman

Plot: A man allegedly destined for greatness finds he's not.

Thoughts: The themes of this film remain timeless even if the film's setting is not. We all know someone with big dreams but never seems to make them happen. It's always something or someone else at fault and never that person. This is experienced firsthand through the life of one John Sims (as played by James Murray). Emotionally, this film is a roller coaster. We're presented with happiness only to visit tragedy shortly thereafter and then back again.

Vidor really used a number of long camera shots to convey the sheer scope of New York City and, in the process, made the everyman seem so insignificant. Silent films were truly visual exercises and it fell on the director and cinematographer to convey emotion and move the story along without any sound. Remember, orchestral scores were played live at the theater. Like Seventh Heaven, we're spared the histrionic flail acting which silent films are typically associated.

Turner Classic Movies was kind enough to show The Crowd earlier this week. It has not been released on DVD yet, but it was released on VHS (in 1989) and laserdisc (in 1991). A sequel of sorts was the film Our Daily Bread (also directed by Vidor), featuring an idealistic John Sims-esque character in a Depression-era farm community.

The Crowd was up against Chang and Sunrise for Best Production, Unique and Artistic Production and lost to Sunrise. King Vidor was nominated for Best Director, Dramatic Picture but lost to Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927)

Directed by: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring: Kru, Chantui, Nah, Ladah, and Bimbo the Gibbon

Plot: A Siamese family struggles to survive against the wildlife of the jungle.

Thoughts: When I first watched the film, my admittedly liberal sensibilities immediately came to the fore. My initial reaction was this was an exercise in exploitation; one of those "Look how different these people are - not civilized like us" types of films that littered news reels and short films in the 1930s and 1940s. After a bit of research and a second viewing, I began to appreciate the film much much more.

You might recognize the names Cooper and Schoedsack from a little film they put together for RKO Pictures in 1933 called King Kong. The pair got their start making what were called "travel films" back in the day. "Travel films" were pretty much the Discovery Channel/Animal Planet of their time, providing a taste of exotic locales or different cultures. Before Chang, the directors put together a film called Grass, which was about nomadic farmers in Iran (then called Persia).

According to the commentary and the publicity material included in the DVD, filming Chang was grueling and often dangerous. Many of the scenes were filmed using actual wild animals, often caged and then set free to be filmed with rifles at the ready. Although the story was rather simplistic, the technical achievement was nothing short of astounding. Add in some clever editing and you have a final product that definitely would have wowed audiences and critics alike back in 1927.

Chang was only nominated for Best Artistic Quality of Production (which would be folded along with the Best Production category into the Best Motion Picture category for the next ceremony) that year. It and King Vidor's The Crowd (which will be covered Friday) both lost out to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Seventh Heaven (1927)

Directed by: Frank Borzage

Starring: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell

Plot: Based on the 1922 play by Austin Strong, a French sewer cleaner saves a street urchin from her cruel sister. Over time, he falls in love with her and it's their love for each other that sees them through the horror of the first World War.

Thoughts: This was the first silent film I had ever seen that was any longer then 20 minutes and it was a good one. The characters were interesting and there wasn't too much of the overwrought physical acting normally found in silent films. Frank Borzage's use of multiple camera techniques and subtle symbolism enhanced Benjamin Glazer's screenplay, making it easy to see why it was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece at the time. I haven't been able to find much about the play the film was based on, so I couldn't verify if it was an accurate adaptation or not.

While the story centered mainly on the romance between Chico and Diane, there were several bits of humor as well as a few scenes of intensity (though relatively tame compared to the stuff of today). The still gallery and the screenplay on the DVD hint at a number of additional scenes that may have been filmed. Back in the day, it wasn't uncommon for a theater owner to cut a film in order to have more showings per day or excise material deemed unsuitable. Because of this, it's very difficult to verify on some films if a copy is complete or not.

Before last month, Seventh Heaven was rarely shown outside of scholarly circles. Fox brought the film to DVD as part of the Murnau, Borzage, and Fox collection on December 9, 2008. The film was remade 10 years later starring Jimmy Stewart as Chico, but good luck finding a copy of that.

While Seventh Heaven didn't take home Best Picture that night, it did help earn Janet Gaynor the first Best Actress award as well as Best Director, Dramatic Picture for Frank Borzage and Best Writing, Adaptation for Benjamin Glazer. Although nominated for Interior Decoration (the category that became Best Art Direction) for Harry Oliver's terrific set designs, that award went to William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and Tempest.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Envelope Please...

Welcome to what will be the most ambitious blog project I've ever undertaken. Like the description says, the plan is to watch every single Best Picture nominee since the first Academy Awards in 1929. That first ceremony gave awards for films released between August 1927 and July 1928. Even the most mathematically-challenged will realize there are a lot of films to see.

Over time I've realized that I've seen a lot of movies, but despite seeing a number of classics over the years, I'm very much ignorant about a large measure of film history. This project's aim is to both entertain and educate. Hopefully you'll take this journey with me and I look forward to the conversations that will likely ensue. If you click on my profile, you'll notice my name is not Roger Ebert or Robert Osborne. I'm no film scholar; just a regular guy who likes movies.

The plan is to update this blog every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Sometimes, the updates will happen more frequently when time permits. I wish all of you a terrific weekend and hope to see you Monday for Seventh Heaven.