Movie Monday: 1931 – 4th Academy Awards

THE 4TH ACADEMY AWARDS

Well, unfortunately this week we have another film that’s not available for home viewing in any way, shape or form.  The movie, East Lynne, is described below.

And the nominees are….

East Lynne
1931
Starring: Ann Hardy, Clive Brook and Conrad Nagel
Directed by: Frank Lloyd

What’s the story?  Based on the novel by Ellen Wood, it’s the story of Lady Carlisle (Ann Hardy) a society woman who leaves her family. When her son falls ill, she returns home.  Despite being nearly blind from a bomb explosion, she is able to see her son one last time before he dies.

What makes it special?  There is only one copy of the film that’s known to exist.  It’s at UCLA’s Instructional Media Lab, and it can be viewed by appointment.  (I’ll meet you there!)

The Front Page
1931
Starring: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian
Directed by: Lewis Mileston

Where did I find it? I was supremely tickled to find this movie on Netflix Instant Watch! The sound and picture both leave something to be desired, but I’d give this one an extra point for convenience!

What’s the story? Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is a newspaper reporter: fast-talking but good at heart. Hildy is engaged to pretty Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and planning to move to New York for a higher paying advertising job. While Hildy runs around tying up loose ends, his mirthful but callous colleagues are hanging out in the press pool, waiting to cover the execution of Earl Williams (George E. Stone). Rumors of Williams’ innocence abound, and when the incompetent sheriff lets Williams escape, a feeding frenzy erupts. Caught up in the excitement, Hildy gives an informant the $260 savings that he and Peggy have been hoarding.

Hildy is confident that the boss, Mr. Burns (Adolphe Menjou), will reimburse him when he gets the scoop, but he’s wrong – Burns gives him the runaround. Things look bleak: Peggy is waiting at the train station and the clock is ticking. Then Hildy’s luck turns around: Williams finds him and wants to surrender. Now Hildy is looking at a $10,000 reward. Burns gets wind of it, and convinces Hildy that this is the chance for him to make is big break as a reporter. Together with Molly Malloy (Mae Clark), the woman of ill repute who has been maintaining Williams’s innocence all along, they stash the escaped con in a roll-top desk. Hildy and Burns are trying to coordinate his surrender while at the same time writing the front-page article that they’re sure will put them on the map.

The story changes quickly, however, when they find out that the governor has granted Williams a last-minute pardon – and that the sheriff and mayor both knew about it, and were going to have him executed anyway! Why? Because there’s an election coming up. So Williams is set free, and while there’s no reward, there’s definitely a story. But Hildy has decided that his newspapering days are over. He and Burns have a sentimental farewell, Burns gives Hildy his pocket watch. When Hildy and Peggy have gone, however, he calls the police in the next town (one up on the train tracks), and ask them to have Hildy arrested. “That son of a bitch stole my watch!” he says.

What makes it special?  This movie was based on the popular stage play of the same name, and although it’s billed as a comedy, it has some very dark and cynical moments. There’s a scene where the press pool boys have decided that Molly Malloy knows where Williams is hiding, and she’s their ticket to fame and fortune. They advance on her like jackals, backing her up against the window. Desperate to get away from them, she climbs out onto the ledge and falls to the street below. Although she survives, we’re left with the powerful impression of the press as a pack of wild animals, preying on a frightened deer. In this day and age, it’s a widely-accepted concept that the media are opportunistic and that some even take a fiendish delight on exploiting the misery of others, but it was interesting to see this put forth in a film from the 1930s.

Skippy
1931
Starring: Jackie Cooper, Robert Coogan, Mitzi Green
Directed by: Norman Taurog

Where did I find it?  This one is not yet available on DVD, but it was recently broadcast on the Turner Classic Movie channel.

What’s the story?  Based on a popular comic strip, Skippy (Jackie Cooper) is a precocious little boy who puts most of his considerable smarts to getting out of the things his parents ask him to do.  He befriends Sooky (Robert Coogan), a young boy from Shantytown across the tracks.  When Sooky’s dog Penny is taken by the the local dogcatcher, the boys work like mad to earn the three dollars they need to get Penny back.  But by the time they’ve earned most of the money, the cruel dogcatcher has already disposed of poor Penny.  To make matters worse, Skippy’s father is the head of the local Health Department, and he’s the one who signed the order for all the strays to be rounded up.  Dad redeems himself, however, by saving Shantytown from demolition.  And by the end of the film, Sooky has not one, but two new dogs.

What makes it special? At nine years old, Jackie Cooper was the youngest person every nominated for Best Actor.  He went on to have a long and prosperous career, including playing Perry White in the four Superman films of the late 1970s/early 1980s.  At the 1931 ceremony, Cooper reportedly fell asleep on the shoulder of Best Actress nominee Marie Dressler. When Dressler was announced as the winner, Cooper had to be eased onto his mother’s lap. How adorable is that?

Unfortunately, there’s also a much less adorable story about this film: when Cooper was unable to conjure up tears for an emotional scene, the director threatened to have Jackie’s dog shot if he couldn’t cry.  Well, cry he did, and the scene where Skippy’s father tries to comfort his son after Penny has been killed will tear your heart out.

In this film you can see seeds of many other kids movies to come, from A Christmas Story to Goonies and beyond.

Trader Horn
1931
Starring: Harry Carrey, Edwina Booth, Duncan Renaldo
Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke

Where did I find it? This one is not yet available on DVD, but I was able to find the VHS tape on eBay.  The sound quality was unfortunately quite distorted, but the picture was fine.

What’s the story? While on safari in an uncharged realm of Africa, Aloysius “Trader” Horn (Harry Carey) and his protegee Peru (Duncan Renaldo) find the body of a missionary, Edna Trent, who had been killed by natives. Trent was searching for her daughter, who had been lost as a baby and was rumored to have been seen alive, raised by the indigenous peoples.

After much searching, they find the girl, who is living in a small village and has been raised almost as a goddess on account of her fair skin and blond hair. She is shocked and confused by the appearance of these people whose skin is the same color as hers. The tribesmen are set to kill Horn, Peru, and their faithful native guide Ranchero, but the girl, who has become enthralled by Peru’s good looks and courage, orders the natives to release the men. They’re not happy about it, but they do it. It looks like they’re about to walk right out of camp, but then the natives decide they can’t let the men take their goddess. Our intrepid heroes barely escape with their lives, and now they’re left to make their way across the African plains.

What makes it special? The filmmakers (including cast and crew) spent a year in uncharted Africa filming this movie.  It was the first film about that continent that was not a documentary.

and the winner is….

Cimarron
1931
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, Edna May Oliver
Directed by:  Wesley Ruggles

Where did I find it? I got the DVD from Netflix.  The picture and sound are in great shape.

What’s the story? This is a tale that spans four decades – from 1889 to 1929. It’s the story of a changing country, as well as that of a troubled family. Yancey Cravat is a Renaissance man: attorney, newspaperman, adventurer, outspoken supporter of the rights of Native Americans. In 1889, in wake of the the frenzied Oklahoma land grab, Yancey brings his wife Sabra and their young son Cimarron to the frontier town of Osage, Oklahoma. They brave the perils of the savage land (which comes mostly from the savage white folks who live there!) and help to build the town into a thriving community.

In five years, they have a successful newspaper and a new baby girl. But Yancey is restless, and takes off for more adventure. Left on her own, Sabra runs the newspaper (the Oklahoma Wigwam) and brings up the children. After five years, Yancey returns to his wife and family. He stays for as long as he can, his wanderlust is incurable. He drifts away again, into the wildcatting life of the oil-man, leaving Sabra to carry on alone once more. In his absence, the children marry: Cim to a Native American girl (much to his mother’s dismay), and the newspaper grows ever bigger. In 1929, the Wigwam is celebrating forty years in business. Sabra hasn’t heard her husband in many years, but she holds out a hope that he is still alive. And she has never taken his name off the header of the newspaper: Yancey Cravat, Owner and Editor.

Sabra is a woman of stature in her own right, having been elected to the Oklahoma State Congress. As she’s returning home from her celebratory banquet, she hears that an oil rig has nearly exploded, and that if weren’t for the actions of one old man, many people would have been killed. “He’s in bad shape, chest crushed,” the messenger says. “Don’t know his name…some of the fellas call him ‘Old Yance.’” Realizing that the man must be her husband, Sabra rushes to her the scene of the accident. She finds Yancey near death, and she gathers him into her arms. “Sleep, my boy,” she whispers softly, as he slips away from her for the last time.

What makes it special? From an ethical perspective, the film is a paradox.  Yancey is a hardworking man who fights for the rights of Native Americans and welcomes Jews into the town’s religious services. And although he remains faithful to his wife (or so we’re led to believe), he abandons his family for the wild call of adventure.  And Sabra, although she is the true iron backbone of the family, making her way in the world of men with her head held high, is blatantly bigoted against the Native Americans.

If that weren’t enough, the stereotypical portrayal of the family’s young African American servant, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), is enough to make the modern viewer cringe.  I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that Isaiah shines shoes, eats watermelon, and his happy antics cause the family much racist merriment.  He proves his own nobility, however, when lays down his life to protect two young children.

Cimarron derives its name from the Cimarron Territory, an unsettled area of the West and Midwest.  The film was the first western ever to win Best Picture, and it held that record until 1990, when Dances with Wolves won.
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NEXT WEEK: Arrowsmith and a Bad Girl! It must’ve been one heck of an awards ceremony!

See more of Misha’s Movie Blogs.

Movie Monday: 1930 (November) – 3rd Academy Awards

By the end of the 1930s, things seem grim.  On the world scene, Nazis become the second-largest party in Germany over communists; Hitler claims he would scrap Versailles treaty if he were in charge.  A giant meteorite lands deep in the Amazon rain forest; the explosion is the equivalent of 10 Hiroshima bombs.

Here in the States, the country is consumed with drought, unemployment and the re-legalization of liquor.  During July and August, Arkansas receives only 35% the amount of rainfall it had in 1929; the country-wide drought cuts corn bushel output by 690 million bushels; the Federal Government allocates $121.1 million for drought relief.  Secretary of Labor Doak begins plans to address the U.S. Labor void by deporting Mexican-Americans.  Franklin Roosevelt (who at the time was Governor of New York) takes a stand for dry law repeal as New York Labor Union leaders demand legal beer to help create jobs.  At the same time, auto plants in Detroit re-open, creating 150,000 jobs, and construction begins on the Boulder Dam. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that there are 30,000 miniature golf courses in operation, many of which earn a 300 percent return each month.  In aviation, the first east-west crossing of the Atlantic is achieved; TWA is formed through a merger of three airlines. 

In pop-culture, comic strip Blondie is introduced.  The Chrysler Building opens to the public for the first time.  On the radio are songs such as Embraceable You by George Gershwin; On the Sunny Side of the Street by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh; and Georgia on my Mind by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell. 

THE 3RD ACADEMY AWARDS

The 3rd Academy Awards ceremony was held on Wednesday, November 5, 1930 in the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Wanting to make the ceremony closer to the period of time the movies were eligible for the awards (August 1, 1929 through July 31, 1930), the 3rd Academy Awards ceremony was held in November, only seven months after the second Academy Awards ceremony.

THE NOMINEES

The movies honored in this ceremony reflect the changing times: infidelity, war and the burgeoning power of women are repeating themes.  It’s a very interesting and diverse group of films, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

And the nominees are…

The Big House
1930
Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery
Directed by: George W. Hill

Where did I find it? I bought the dvd on ebay.  The movie has been fully restored; it looks and sounds wonderful.

What’s it about?  The movie opens with a scared young man named Kent (Robert Montgomery) being routed into prison. His crime: manslaughter. On New Year’s Eve, he was drunk and ran over somebody with his car.  It was a mistake he’s going to pay for.  Three thousand men are crammed into this prison built for 1800, and Kent is put in a cell with two of the most hardcore cons: Butch (Wallace Beery), also known as Machine Gun, is a hulking brute who’s not afraid to use his fists.  Convicted forger Morgan (Chester Morris) is slicker and more refined, as we see him stare down Butch we get the feeling that he could be the toughest con in the joint.

Scared and frustrated, Kent is a primed to become a snitch.  A fellow inmate tells him that if he “gets the goods” on somebody they’ll knock some time off his sentence.  And when Morgan is about to get early release for good behavior, Kent plants a knife in his bunk.  Morgan loses his early release and gets some time in solitary confinement.  He knows it was Kent who betrayed him, and he promises revenge.

When Morgan gets out of solitary confinement, he manages to escape.  He looks up Kent’s sister Anne, and although we suspect that he’s going to hurt her, instead he falls for her sweetness and beauty.  He tries to go straight.  Through Anne he meets the rest of Kent’s family, and they befriend him as if he were one of his own.  The police catch up with Morgan, and he goes back to prison, where he learns that his old friends are planning a big escape.  Kent has managed to convince the boys that it was a Russian prisoner who planted the knife on Morgan, and he’s been taken in on their plan to escape.  Morgan urges Kent not to do anything that will cause his family any more grief.  The gang gets the idea that maybe Morgan has gone soft after his time on the outside. 

They try to break out, but the guards are ready for them.  The cons are convinced that Morgan has turned on them.  A standoff occurs.  The cons threaten to kill all the guards that they are holding hostage.  In the ensuing firefight, Morgan and Butch are both shot.  Kent gets caught in the crossfire.  As Butch lies dying, he finds out that it was actually Kent who turned them in.  He apologizes to Morgan for shooting him, saying “I was only kiddn.’ I didn’t mean it.”

The riot ends.  Morgan is rightfully credited as the man who ended the bloodbath, and the rest of his sentence is suspended.  He is bandaged and limping, but he is a free man.  He walks out of the prison gates, and into Anne’s loving arms.

What makes it special? All the conventions we’ve come to expect from prison-life pictures can be seen here: racing beetles to ward off boredom, messhall riots, solitary confinement (which they refer to as “the dungeon”).  Although the plot meanders and is at times very unrealistic (specifically the love story between Morgan and Anne), the strength of the characters makes this a total classic, and one that I will definitely watch again.

Disraeli
1929
Starring: George Arliss, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss
Directed by: Alfred E. Green

Where did I find it?  I bought the VHS tape on ebay.  Considering that it’s a used VHS, the picture is not bad, but I admit I’ve been spoiled by the fabulous quality of all the restored dvds I’ve seen lately!

What’s it about? England, 1874. Benjamin Disraeli has just begun his second period serving as Prime Minister, and the object most upward in his mind is securing the Suez Canal for England.  With Germany and France both exhausted from war, Russia’s influence is beginning to creep over the globe.  Disraeli sees the Canal as the only way for England to maintain her power and security.

As a man born of Italian-Jewish descent, Disraeli already has two strikes against him.  Moreover, as the movie opens he has powerful enemies arrayed against him: in addition to the Russian interests, the head of the Bank of England is determined to support Disraeli’s biggest political rival.  Disraeli’s own clerk, Mr. Foljambe, is working as a Russian spy, and is secretly married to another spy, Mrs. Travers, who poses as a society woman with a husband abroad.

But Disraeli is not a man without friends.  His biggest ally is his wife, Lady Mary (Florence Arliss, George Arliss’ real-life wife).  And there’s the bright young Lady Clarissa (Joan Bennett).  Clarissa’s beau, Charles Deerfort (Anthony Bushell) is at first in fiery opposition to everything Disraeli stands for.  But Disraeli engages the young man as a secretary and the two quickly become great allies.

Disraeli receives word that the time is ripe for England to purchase the Canal.  He goes to Lord Michael Probert, head of the Bank of England, and asks for a loan.  Probert refuses, so Disraeli turns to an old friend, Sir Hugh Myers, a private banker, who agrees to lend England the money.  Foljambe and Mrs. Travers catch wind of the deal, and Foljambe flees to Egypt to disclose the information.  Disraeli sends the young Deerfort after him, to overtake him and bargain on England’s behalf.

At first it seems as if the plan will be successful: Disraeli receives a coded telegram that the deal had been made and Myers’ check has been accepted by Egypt.  But then tragedy strikes: Myers arrives and tells Disraeli that the ship which carried the gold bullion intended to secure England’s loan has been sunk: deliberately scuttled to prevent England from making good on her financial promise.  Not to be outdone, Disraeli calls for Lord Michael Probert and forces him to sign the note guaranteeing the loan.  The Bank of England operates under the permissions of Parliament, and Disraeli is not exactly without influence there. 

Probert signs the guarantee, and England becomes the owner of the Suez Canal.  Lady Mary falls ill, but she harnesses her strength and joins her husband at a ball in his honor.  They go to greet the Queen together.

What makes it special?  George Arliss won the Best Actor Oscar for this role.  He had played Disraeli several times in his acting career: at least twice on stage, and in a 1921 silent version of this film.  He portrays the Parlimentarian as a man of great charisma and intelligence, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a keen insight into human nature.  I think that above all else, it’s really Arliss’ performance that makes this a great film.

The Divorcee
1930
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard

Where did I find it? It’s on Netflix as a Norma Shearer double-feature, paired with A Free Soul.  This disc also includes a wonderful commentary of The Divorcee which is too good to miss!

What’s it about?  The movie opens in 1925, when Ted (Chester Morris) and Jerry (Norma Shearer) become engaged at a house party.  Their joy is marred, first by the brooding unhappiness of Paul (Conrad Nagel), Jerry’s former boyfriend, and second by a tragic car crash: Paul, having tried to drown his sorrows, causes an accident which leaves their giddy, pretty friend Dorothy permanently disfigured.  Paul marries Dorothy while she’s still in the hospital, while Ted and Jerry marry in a lavish church ceremony.

Three years later, Jerry and Ted are still happily married with careers of their own.  But in a moment of drunken weakness, Ted is unfaithful.  Jerry finds out, and although she tries to be modern and put the whole thing behind her, she has a drunken, weak moment of her own with their friend Don (Robert Montgomery).  In a rush of guilt, Jerry confesses to Ted, “I’ve balanced our accounts.”  Ted and Jerry find that their relationship can’t stand their mutual infidelity.  In an emotional scene, Jerry watches Ted pack his bags, and says, “Don’t let’s talk of men and women.  They do all sorts of things.  We’ve got to live our own life, dear, there’s so much of it ahead.”  And later, when she knows that reconciliation is hopeless, she throws clothes into his open suitcase utters a famous line: “So look for me in the future where the primroses grow, and pack your man’s pride with the rest.  And from now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”

They get divorced.  Jerry is now officially The Divorcee, and she and Ted embark on their own voyages of promiscuity…and pain.  For Jerry this comes to a head when she is unexpectedly reunited with Paul on a train.  She breaks down and realizes how tired and unhappy she is.  She and Paul begin a committed – if adulterous (Paul is still married to Dorothy) – relationship.  Paul has been offered a job in the Far East and Jerry’s company is willing to transfer her to the overseas office.  They decide to marry; Paul has told Jerry that Dorothy is very willing to divorce him. 

But this is proved to be false when Dorothy shows up at the apartment that Jerry and Paul have been sharing.  Wearing a black veil to hide her disfigurement, Dorothy asks Paul not to leave her; he has been the only happiness that she’s known in her life. Jerry realizes that she’s been missing her own happiness: Ted. And regardless of whether Paul and Dorothy stay together or not, she will never be happy again unless she reunites with her ex-husband.

She goes to Paris in search of Ted.  She finds him at a New Year’s Eve party.  She tells him she’s been miserable without him and wants to him back.  Ted says, “Are you sure, Jerry? Because I’d give my right arm for a second chance.” And she replies, “I’m awfully fond of that arm. How about putting it around me?”

What makes it special?  This film was based on the novel Ex-Wife, which was so scandelous on its release that it was published under the name Anonymous.  The author, Ursula Parrot, couldn’t reveal her name until the book had achieved best-seller status.  That says a lot about the subject matter, and the times in which this film was released.  For all that, this is a startlingly modern film, with sophisticated themes and a timeless dilemma.  It handles the subject of infidelity with delicacy and grace and gives a peek into 1930s life that we don’t usually get to see.

The Love Parade
1929
Starring: Maruice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, Lupino Lane
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

Where did I find it? I rented the dvd from Netflix.

What’s it about? Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) is living in Paris on a diplomatic assignment from the mythical country of Sylvania. He has developed a reputation for amorous exploits; but when he romances the wrong Lord’s wife, he is sent packing back to his home country. Queen Louise (Jeanette McDonald) is a young and headstrong ruler. Her royal cabinet have been trying to marry her off so she can produce an heir, but Louise is having none of that. When she meets the handsome, charismatic Count Renard, however, everything changes.

They marry. Renard is blissful at first, but he quickly becomes bored with his role as “first husband.” While his wife is always off on affairs of state, he is relegated to playing tennis and being fitted for uniforms. Things come to a head when Renard bursts in on a meeting that Louise is having with her cabinet. They are discussing Sylvania’s finances, and arranging to borrow money from another country. Renard insists he has worked out a way that Sylvania can increase its industry and therefore not have to go into debt. Louise orders him out of the room but he refuses to go. Finally she tells him that there is an affair of state that evening at the Opera House. It’s vital for him to be there with a smile on his face. But after that, he can do as he pleases – he can even return to Paris if he wants.

Renard packs his bags and leaves the palace. Who does Louise think he is, to be ordered around in such a manner? But his love for his wife and his home country win in the end, and he appears at the Opera House as requested. Afterwards, Louise and Renard reconcile. She promises to include him in all parts of her life – including her duties as a ruler.

What makes it special? This is widely considered to be the first muscial in which the songs were integrated with the story. It was also the first big hit for Maurice Chevalier, whose songs Thank Heaven for Little Girls and I Remember it Well from the 1958 movie Gigi cemented his place in our culture as the ultimate Frenchman.

All of this is well and good, but the thing that made this the most special to me was the song-and-dance work of Lupino Lane, who plays Renard’s valet Jacques, and Lillian Roth, who plays Lulu, a palace maid.  I found a clip from their best number on YouTube.  The really great dancing starts around 3 minutes 45 seconds.

And the winner is….

All Quiet on the Western Front
1930
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray
Directed by: Lewis Milestone

Where did I find it? I rented the dvd from Netflix.

What’s it about? Based on one of the most famous anti-war novels of all time, this movie follows a group of young German students who volunteer to be soldiers during World War One.

As the movie opens, we see a classroom full of young men who are on the receiving end of what amounts to a high-pressure sales pitch, as their teacher extols the virtues of soldiering, and urges them all to join up and fight for their country. When the boys’ unofficial leader, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) hesitantly agrees to join, the others enthusiastically follow suite.

What follows is a story we’ve seen many times since this tale was first brought to film: innocent youth, gung-ho and sure they’re going to enjoy the glory of war, is gradually exposed to the horrific reality of warfare: hunger, and pain, and death. In one memorable scene, Baumer is trapped in a foxhole with enemy troops swarming in. He watches them jump over his hiding place, and he prays that they don’t look down and find him. When he is finally seen and someone comes to kill him, Baumer wounds his would-be assassin, incapacitating him. The two of them are trapped together for hours, and Baumer ends up taking care of the man who tried to kill him. The soldier eventually dies of his wounds, leaving Baumer shaken and stricken with grief, making desperate promises to care for the dead man’s family.

The misery doesn’t end on the battlefield. When Baumer goes home on leave after being wounded, he finds that he no longer fits at home, in this place that’s been relatively untouched by war. His father’s friends pull out a map and argue over battle tactics, telling Baumer that he and his fellow soldiers must be strong and stick it out. It’s just a game to them; they haven’t seen what he’s seen. In his old classroom, the teacher who once urged him to join the army and defend his country, now asks him to speak to a new class of young men, and share with them the glory of being a war hero. He tries to explain that there’s nothing glorious about being a soldier. All of his friends are dead; where’s the glory in that? But he merely ends up confusing the students and infuriating his former teacher.

And so Baumer goes back to the battlefield, back to the only world he understands. In a foxhole, he sees a butterfly land on a clump of dirt. His smiles. His hand reaches out for it…reaches…then a shot rings out, and the hand goes slack.

What makes it special? Germany banned this picture in December of 1930.  In retrospect, this is a chilling gesture, hinting at the infamous propaganda and harrowing years of war that would come from that country soon after.  In a way it’s also complimentary of this movie, in as much as banning the picture validates its power to communicate an anti-war message.

Lew Ayres, the star of this film, was himself hugely influenced by this message.  Although in 1929 Ayres starred opposite Greta Garbo in The Kiss, playing Paul Baumer in 1930 was his big break. The actor was deeply affected by content of the film, and when World War Two broke out, he served as a conscientious objector. In 1938 he had starred in The Young Dr. Kildare, and since then he had made over half a dozen more Kildare films. He was well on his way to super-stardom, but his objector status reportedly “outraged” America, and movie theatres refused to run his films. He served as a medic under fire in the South Pacific, and later as a chaplain’s assisant in New Guinea and the Phillipines. When he returned home he found that roles for him were scarce, until Olivia de Haviland asked him to co-star in her 1946 film The Dark Mirror. After that, movie roles for him were still hard to find, but he managed to work steadily. He never lost his willingness to go against the status quo, either: an opportunity to play Dr. Kildare on television was lost when Ayres requested that there be no cigarette sponsorship for the show.

Aside from the fascinating story of its star, All Quiet on the Western Front is a movie that stayed with me for quite some time after I watched it. It’s a stark, gritty film that doesn’t shy away from the brutality of its subject. And in many ways, it’s the grandfather of all the great war epics that came after it.

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Movie Monday: 1930 (April) – 2nd Academy Awards

Well, we’re only two weeks into this cinematic adventure, and I’m already learning a lot!  In 1930, there were actually two – that’s right, two – Academy Award ceremonies!  The first ceremony (and the one on which this week’s blog focuses) honored films released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929. 

1930 (January – June): A BRIEF RECAP

Seeing as how there were two Oscar ceremonies in 1930, we’ll split our recap into two parts.  After all, it’s only fair!  Here are a few things that happened in just the first six months of 1930:

Charles Lindbergh arrives in New York, setting the cross country flyig record of 14.75 hours.  Anna Christie, Greta Garbo’s first talking picture, opens in the United States.  Her first line in the film? “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don’ be stingy, baby.”  In March, Mahatma Ghandi and a group of followers begin the Salt March, a trek to the sea where they intend to manufacture salt in defiance of the British government’s monopoly on salt production.  Ghandi is arrested by the British in May. President Hoover assures the public that the worst effects of the Depression will be over within 90 days: “Prosperity is just around the corner,” he says.  Scientists report the discovery of a ninth planet (Pluto) at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (also knowns as the Hays Code) is adopted by the film industry. Movie ticket prices began to decline after the stock market crash of October 1929; in March 1930 they are around 27 cents each.

THE 1930 ACADEMY AWARDS

The 2nd Academy Awards were presented on April 3, 1930.  Unlike the 1929 Oscars, the winners were not announced in advance.  The ceremony was broadcast live on the radio; it honored films released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929.  Since these awards were given out more than eight months after the end of the eligibility period, it was decided that the next ceremony would be held only a few months later, in November.  As a result, 1930 became the only year in which two Academy Awards celebrations were held. 

Another notable (and mysterious!) thing about the second Oscar celebration is that it’s the only year in which there was no official list of nominees!  Later research by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would result in an unofficial list of nominees, based on records of which films were evaluated by the judges.  And these are the films that I watched this week.

THE NOMINEES

Included with this list is a movie which I couldn’t see: The Patriot (1928).  Unfortunately it’s one of those films that’s never been released on home video, probably because they don’t have a film print that’s complete enough to restore.  The movie is listed below, with a little bit of info.

And the nominees are….

The Patriot
1928
Starring: Emil Jannings, Lewis Stone and Florence Vidor
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

What’s it about?  In 18th-century Russia, Czar Paul I (Emil Jannings) is a brutal yet pathetic dictator, who holds the mighty country tightly in his tyrannical grasp.  His friend, Count Pahlen (Lewis Stone), begins to question whether the Czar should be allowed to rule.  The Count joins a plot to assasinate his friend – a plot hampered by the beautiful Countess Osterman (Florence Vidor, former wife of the great King Vidor, who directed films from 1913 to 1980).

What makes it special?  It was the last silent film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar; it won the award for Best Writing Achievement.  You can read more about it in this article by Gabriel Ruzin.  And although the film itself is lost to history, the trailer remains.  I’ve included it here:

The Hollywood Revue of 1929
1929
Starring: Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, and a whole slew of MGM contract players.
Directed by: Charles Reisner

Where did I find it? I bought the DVD on eBay.  The quality of sound and picture was excellent.

What’s it about?  It’s a good, old-fashioned singing and dancing variety show.  Co-hosts were Conrad Nagel (the handsome leading man who would go on to star in at least one more Best Picture Nominee, 1930′s The Divorcee) and funnyman Jack Benny, whose television show The Jack Benny Program ran for fifteen years.  There were over a dozen acts in this one, and it would be a bit difficult to give you a summary of each one.  But for me, some of the highlights were these:

A young and incredibly elegant Joan Crawford does a musical number – singing, dancing and showing off her gorgeous legs.  Comedienne Marion Davies, who was W.R. Hurst’s longtime romantic companion, does a perky tapdance number.  And Laurel and Hardy do a bit that ends up with Hardy slipping on a banana peel and falling face-first into a giant cake covered with whipped cream. 

One of my favorite segments was a scene where Norma Shearer and John Gilbert do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.  Then someone yells cut, and they walk “off camera” and have a talk with the director, played by Lionel Barrymore, who says that the studio has re-written the script.  “The kids don’t like this Shakespeare stuff,” says Barrymore.  “The studio wants the scene to be more modern.”  So back Norma and John go to the balcony, where the re-do the scene…in 1929-modern teenage slang!  I must admit that I laughed out loud.  And you know what makes this segment extra-amazing?  It was done in color!

What makes it special?  I’m actually not a huge fan of musicals, but in spite of that, and regardless of the fact that the jokes were corny (which is natural, considering that they were old even when this one was filmed!), this is a real treasure.  To think that all of these great stars were captured together, on the same piece of moviemaking. If you’re a fan of musical variety shows, you should definitely look this one up if you get the chance!
….

Alibi
1929
Starring:  Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Eleanor Griffith
Directed by: Roland West

Where did I find it? This was the first of my Movie Monday films that I was able to find on Netflix!  The picture quality was good, but the sound went in and out.  However, considering the age of the movie I was very happy with it.

What’s it about?  Handsome prohibition gangster Chick Williams (Chester Morris) has just gotten out of prison and returned to the loving arms of his mob family.  With his new-found freedom and a gorgeous gal on his arm, he seems to have the world at his fingertips.  His new girl, Joan Manning (Eleanor Griffith), is the daughter of a police sergeant, but that doesn’t prevent her from being a wide-eyed innocent who fully believes Chick when he says he was framed by the “coppers.”  

During a warehouse robbery, a policeman is killed.  Chick is suspected, but Joan gives him an alibi, saying that he was at the theatre with her when the robbery took place.  And then, in an act of defiance against her father, she drops one more bombshell: she and Chick have gotten married.

During a taut, terrifying interrogation of a petty crook, police secure testimony that Chick is the shooter.  Fearful that Joan’s alibi may not be able to hold, Chick and his cronies attempt to secure another “witness” on his behalf, but they make their biggest mistake in soliciting the help of an affable drunk who is actually undercover police officer Danny McGann (Regis Toomey). Joan knows that McGann is a cop.  She wants to keep his secret but accidentally gives him away. 

McGann is killed.  Joan doesn’t want to believe in Chick’s guilt, but when she threatens to defy him, he shows his true colors.  “I killed that cop,” he tells her, taking joy in watching Joan’s faith disappear.  “You’re my wife and you’ll do what I tell you.”

At that moment the cops bust in.  They take Chick prisoner, but he escapes, making his way up to the roof.  He tries to jump from one building to the next, but he misses, and plunges to his death in the alley below.

What makes it special?  This flick was what’s known as a “transitional talkie.” It was filmed both with sound and as a silent picture.  It’s also credited as being the first Impressionist gangster film, which means (as near as I can tell!) that it has a kind of avant gard aesthetic quality.  The exterior night backgrounds are hand-drawn in what I call the “comic book style.” 

Lines between good and bad are blurred in this film.  The criminals are definitely portrayed as villians, but the police aren’t much better.  The scene where they force an implication of Chick out of a petty criminal, by threatening to shoot him, is pretty brutal.  Of course we’ve seen that kind of scene a million times in movies since then, but at the time it must have seemed especially shocking and gritty, and it still packs a heavy punch today.

Chester Morris, who plays Chick Williams, is definitely the standout actor in this picture.  (We’ll see him again in the 3rd Academy awards with the movie The Divorcee.)  On screen he goes from urbane young man wrongly accused of criminal activity, to tough-guy mobster as he plots his alibi with his cronies, to smirking villian as he confesses his crimes to his wife, and ends up as just another cowering, pathetic crook as he bargains with the police for his life then tries to make a getaway.  In the hands of a lesser actor these transitions would have been impossible, but he pulls it off.  He was nominated for Best Actor (he lost to Warner Baxter, star of In Old Arizona). 

The seeds of many future gangster flicks, most notably The Departed, can be seen in this movie.  On its own merits it drags a bit, but anyone interested in early crime pictures will definitely want to check this one out!

In Old Arizona
1928
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess
Directed by: Irving Cummings

Where did I find it?  I rented the dvd from Netflix.  The picture was good – especially the wide shots of the Arizona landscape.  The sound had undergone restoration and is in great shape.

What’s it about?  The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) is the “Robin Hood of the Old West.”  With a $5000 price on his head, he could be the most wanted man in Arizona.  But this is no callous badman, no ruthless villian: he’s a gallant and gracious thief.  While holding up a stagecoach at the beginning of the film, he assures the occupants that he never steals from passengers; all he wants is the Wells Fargo gold.  He even goes so far as to buy a brooch from one of the young ladies riding in the stagecoach before riding off with his good manners intact, and the stolen gold tucked into his saddlebags.

Army Sergeant Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) is dispatched to bring the Kid to justice.  The two meet in a barber shop, where the Kid is getting himself all cleaned up to go and visit his lady love.  Of course, the Cisco Kid is well aware that Dunn is hunting him, but the good Sergeant doesn’t realize that this affable Mexican gentleman is actually the bandit he’s looking for until after his prey had ridden away.

The Kid goes to visit Tonia Maria, the girl he loves best.  Not realizing that she’s been unfaithful to him in his absence, he showers her with gifts and affection.  As a favor to him, she goes to take a message to Mickey Dunn, and she and Dunn hit it off.  They conspire together to capture the Cisco Kid.  But he gets wind of the plan, and executes a complex revenge, tricking Dunn into shooting Tonia Maria.

What makes it special?  Warner Baxter won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in this picture, and he does seem to hit all the right notes as the charasmatic anti-hero.  He’s a dead-eye shot, a generous tipper, and he can carry a tune like nobody’s business.  Baxter manages to balance the Kid’s borderline-buffoon quality with the dark underbelly of the man betrayed.

Another interesting thing about this film is that it’s apparently the first all-sound Western (although it’s really more of a tragic love story than a shoot-’em-up cowboy flick).  One sound effect in particular, that of ham and eggs sizzling on a stove, must have caused quite a sensation.  It was a real techical achievement.

And I can’t leave this film without mentioning again the extraordinary footage of the America Southwest.  They are clear and beautiful and altogether remarkable – what a wonderful job of photography and restoration!

And the winner is…

The Broadway Melody
1929
Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love
Directed by: Harry Beaumont

Where did I find it? Netflix

What’s it about?  Feisty and ambitious Harriet “Hank” Mahoney (Bessie Love) and her shy, beautiful sister Queenie (Anita Page) bring their sister act to New York with dreams of making it big on Broadway. Hank’s boyfriend Eddie Kerns (Charles King) has a job in a Broadway revue called the Zanfield Follies. Although Hank and Eddie have been together for awhile, when Eddie and Queenie see each other it’s love at first sight.  But they don’t breathe a word about their feelings. 

Eddie manages to bring the girls into the show, but things don’t stay rosy very long.  Hank’s stage time is reduced, while Queenie’s is increased.  In an effort to keep her feelings for Eddie at bay, Queenie allows a rich investor, Jock Warriner, to court her.  Hank watches with horror as Queenie descends from young innocent toward kept woman.  She struggles to keep Queenie the same girl she’s always been, but Queenie fights her every step of the way.

Jock has gifted Queenie with a luxurious new apartment.  On the night that she’s supposed to move in, he throws her a party.  Hank and Eddie try to keep her from leaving the theatre and going to the soiree.  There’s a terrible fight, and Hank realizes that Eddie is in love with her sister.

Queenie escapes and runs off to the party.  Hank tells Eddie, “If I were in love with someone the way you are with Queenie, I’d go after them and do whatever I had to to get them back.”  Eddie hugs her and runs out the door to be with the girl he loves.  He arrives at the party just as Jock is about to force himself on Queenie.  Eddie saves her, getting himself pretty well beaten up in the process, and they leave together.

Months later, Hank is pacing anxiously in her apartment.  Eddie and Queenie rush in, freshly back from their honeymoon.  The reunion is awkward but happy.  And Hank can’t stay long – after all, she has a new partner and they’re about to leave for a brand new tour.  But Hank is sure she’ll be back on Broadway before too long.  “It’s cream in the can, baby,” she says pluckily. 

What makes it special?  This was MGM’s first all-talking musical feature.  It was also the first musical to spawn sequals: Broadway Melody of 1938 (which will appear on our blog in a few weeks) and Broadway Melody of 1940. 

Of all the movies I’ve seen so far for this blog, Broadway Melody was the most modern, and that made it – for me, at least – the most enjoyable.  It’s a story about sisterly devotion (Hank and Queenie are both willing to give up the man they love so that the other can be happy), and it’s a story about the kind of courage that’s needed to follow your dreams and still maintain your integrity.  I thought it was great!
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Next week: war, infidelity and the ultimate Frenchman!  (How’s that for a teaser?)

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