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.