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.