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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 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 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
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.

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
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
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
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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