Friday, January 29, 2010

Cavalcade: Upstairs, Downstairs, But the Monkey Should Have Won

Cavalcade (1933)

Director: Frank Lloyd

Starring: Diana Wynward, Clive Brook, Herbert Mundin, Una O’Connor

Studio: 20th Century Fox

I have to admit, I’m probably being unfair to Cavalcade. I watched the film about three months ago, around the time I watched Wings. Like Wings, Cavalcade is only available on VHS (and thanks to the awesome 2 for 1 on Wednesday’s promotion at Seattle’s Scarecrow Video I picked up both films at the same time). Unlike Wings—which I was blown away by—it’s easy to see why Cavalcade is only available in the old format; the film isn’t very impressive. Personally, if the film was great, I’d have more to say about it.

Cavalcade isn’t terrible in the way that Transformers 2 or Twilight are. The film is adapted from an acclaimed Noel Coward play, but I think this is a classic case of what works well on the stage doesn’t exactly translate well to film. The story follows two London families: the upper-class, stiff upper lip Marryots (Diana Wynward and Clive Brook) and their servants, the Bridges (Herbert Mundin and Una O’Connor). Both families experience mostly hardship and tragedy during the years 1899 to 1933 (which would be the present day when the film was released).

Where the film fails is in the execution of the storytelling. Director Frank Lloyd and screenwriters Reginald Lloyd and Sonya Levien seem more concerned with taking the two families and the audience on a greatest hits tour of turn of the (20th) century England. We are given a grocery list, and the filmmakers are all too eager to check items off. Death of Queen Victoria? Check. Boer War? Check. Sinking of the Titanic? Check. WWI? Check. So much history is being presented so quickly that I never felt a connection to the characters. When tragedy strikes, as a viewer, I felt no personal or emotional investment. Worse, the far more interesting of the clans—the Bridges—is given the short shift and the most interesting character—Mundin’s patriarch—is killed a third of the way into the film.

In many ways, Cavalcade is alike Cimarron in that a chunk of history about a specific region is presented to an audience in a short amount of time. I also thought Wesley Ruggles’ film sprinted through history, and in spite of the racism in Cimarron (one benefit of Cavalcade is that it is sensitively staged—in one scene, if you are an astute viewer, a homosexual male couple can clearly be seen) the characters kept my attention and the script made a point to get the audience invested in the growth of Osage. Unless one has a huge fondness of Coward, studying the time period presented in the film, or a huge Anglophile, I don’t see how Cavalcade can earn the interest of a general audience. I don’t care what the subject of a film is. It could be early 20th Century London, rural Oklahoma, or outer-fucking-space, but if the filmmakers don’t make a case for me to make an emotional investment, than why should I, or any audience, be interested?

That said, I think this is a perfect opportunity to start talking about one of the issues I wanted to bring up when I started this project: If a film didn’t deserve to win Best Picture in the year it won, than what should have? (I’m also going to look at some shoulda been a contenders from 1931 and 1932.)

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, King Kong (1933) (dir—Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack). King Kong remains one of the most popular and influential movies ever made (interestingly, the film was a favorite of Adolf Hitler—go figure). Peter Jackson—whose Lord of the Rings saga was collectively nominated for thirty Oscars and won seventeen—has cited viewing King Kong as his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker (and in 2005, he had the balls to remake the film). Where would the Godzilla films—or any movie or TV show with a giant monster be—if Kong hadn’t come first? And of all the hundreds of films that have used New York as a setting is there any film more closely associated with New York than King Kong? Hell, the movie made the Empire State Building iconic.

Aside from the obvious reasons, many people don’t know that King Kong is credited as having the first true all-original film score (by Max Steiner, who won three Oscars, most famously for the music from Gone With the Wind). What is a film nowadays without a score to accentuate it? Kong himself is also the first completely animated central character in a film. The stop-motion work is essentially the great-grandfather of the intricate CGI work now seen in films like Avatar.

How many Oscars was King Kong nominated for? Zero.

What about Duck Soup (dir—Leo McCarey), the most famous film from the Marx Brothers? This political satire was so offensive, so on target that Benito Mussolini had it banned in Italy (a gesture which thrilled the Marx Brothers). It also showcases some of the finest physical comedy ever put to film—look no further than the mirror sequence where Harpo mimics Groucho. The film is a forefather of such works as Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H, or any film satirizing politics and war.

How many Oscars was Duck Soup nominated for? Zero. (The Marx Brothers themselves were also never nominated for a competitive Oscar.)

As far as comedies go, Charlie Chaplin was also an Oscar bridesmaid two years earlier. His City Lights—whose various admirers include Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and Albert Einstein—was also snubbed by the Academy. When the American Film Institute revised its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, Chaplin’s film jumped from #76 to #11—the highest jump of any film on the list, suggesting that it has gained appreciation over time. (AFI also named City Lights the #1 romantic comedy of all time.) Not that the Academy cared to notice, as the silent City Nights was seen as inferior to the talking films that replaced them. (Though when dialogue is used to point out the presence of watermelons to a black child in the Best Picture of 1931, perhaps silence should have been golden.)

Chaplin’s total career competitive Oscar nominations—complicated. (His 1927 film The Circus was in official competition but since Chaplin did the directing, acting, producing and writing, the Academy pulled the film from competition and awarded Chaplin a special Oscar. Collectively, his films received seven nominations, with his only win coming for the score to Limelight in 1973—twenty-one years after that film was released. Chaplin has also received the Academy’s Honorary Award, and he came out of exile to receive it. He was greeted with a five-minute standing ovation, which still holds the record for applause at the Oscar ceremony.)

What about this pair from 1931: Dracula (dir—Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (dir—James Whale)? Dracula isn’t the best adaptation of the Bram Stoker’s novel (that would be F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1925), which pre-dated the Oscars), but Bela Lugosi’s performance helped popularize the modern image of the vampire—characters whose popularity hasn’t abated in the slightest. Whale’s film is considered to be the finest early horror film—if not the finest in the genre. One walks away with enormous sympathy for the monster (give a huge portion of the credit to Boris Karloff for that one) when watching the film, and the makeup techniques used to create him set a standard for decades to come.

Total nominations for The Count and Frank? Zero.

Finally, how about Scarface (dir—Howard Hawks)? Many excellent gangster pictures were made in the 1930’s, but this one from 1932, with the fantastic Paul Muni in the lead role, is a thinly veiled look portrait of Al Capone. Hawks’ film uses cinematography to fantastic effect, and Muni’s character is filled with moral complications (and homosexual undertones). In many ways, Scarface helped to set the template for the gangster film that alternately glorifies but ultimately condemns its subject. What would Scorsese be without this film? Or Coppola? Or gangster-rap for that matter (thanks in no small part to Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake with Al Pacino)?

How many Oscars was Scarface nominated for? Zero.

Observing the trend, it is clear what types of films the Academy finds worthy of its Best Picture honor. A stuffy, sensitive, inoffensive film coming from a respected pedigree—in this case an award winning play (and to Noel Coward fans out there, I mean no offense) is almost always going to win the Oscar over a picture that frightens, thrills, makes an audience laugh, makes an audience think, or is so controversial it offends. Cavalcade is exactly the type of film that the Academy wishes to represent itself with—it is seen as something serious, it is seen as high class, it is seen as art. However, the film is so unremarkable it hasn’t been released on DVD. All of the other films I mentioned continue to endure, influence, and attract audiences seven decades after they have been released. Certainly, hindsight is 20/20, and not always is the entertaining picture a better film than the “serious” picture, but history is often unforgiving in weeding out greatness, and Cavalcade is a mere artifact.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Grand Hotel: Ocean's 1932

Grand Hotel (1932)

Director: Edmund Goulding

Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

After the heavy All Quiet on the Western Front and the thorny racial issues found in Cimarron, it was nice to kick back and watch a relatively light melodrama carried by an all-star cast. In the 1930’s, films were the brainchildren of the studio system that had tried and true formulas for delivering entertainment to the masses. No studio perfected their system better than MGM—led by the legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg. (You know that boring segment where a lifetime achievement award that is sometimes given out during the Oscar telecast? They named it after this guy.) Where Grand Hotel broke the mold is the sheer star power represented in the cast.

Usually, a film was built around a star (be it leading man or lady), a pairing that proved to have exceptional chemistry (like William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles), or a group of performers like the Marx Brothers. It was also seen as highly cost-prohibitive to have more than two stars headlining a film. Not to mention the stars themselves often had massive egos that required some sensitive wrangling (which becomes more understandable considering that a movie star was under contract to a studio—and the competition to be the most favorite star of a studio often had the actors at odds with one another). So when MGM lined up five big stars—the exotic Greta Garbo, the Oscar-winning heavyweight Wallace Beery, brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, part of what was essentially the royal acting family in Hollywood (and Lionel himself also being a Best Actor winner), and ingénue Joan Crawford—the success of the picture was indeed a gamble.

In fact, the producers did take certain precautions to ensure the production sailed smoothly. Garbo and Crawford never share a scene; for there was great fear that one actress would continually be upstaging the other. The attitude was certainly sexist—but there are conflicting stories of Crawford’s immense jealousy of the Swedish star. One story from the set tells that Crawford knew of Garbo’s hatred of Marlene Dietrich, and she would play Dietrich’s records when Garbo was in earshot. However, another story has Crawford being very respectful to her female co-star, addressing her as “Miss Garbo” and having her feelings hurt when Garbo did not reciprocate her friendliness. Garbo and John Barrymore were also very wary of working together, but eventually became dear friends. Beery didn’t like his part at first, and demanded that he be the only actor to speak in a German accent in the film (Grand Hotel is set in Berlin).

Ultimately though, the film ended up being MGM’s biggest success yet. This is largely due to the strength of the script—adapted from the novel by Vicki Baum—which gives each character a complete arc, plenty of substantial scenes, and a sophisticated plot that nicely threads each story line together.

The Dramatis Personae:

Grusinskaya (Garbo): Is a temperamental ballerina whose shows have been victimized by declining audiences. While the word “depression” is never used to describe Grusinskaya, the character is obviously suffering from some sort of mental breakdown (these sorts of things were never outright mentioned in films from the 1930’s). She has a whole team of handlers that ensure her moods never sway too far out of control; her maid, Suzette, and her manager try their best to keep her happy. Ultimately though, Grusinskaya says: “I want to be alone.” (This line would come to encapsulate Garbo’s image, as the star actually did live alone and was reclusive.) However, she changes after she meets and falls in love with—

Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore): Von Geigern has lost his fortune due to a gambling addiction (again, the word “addiction” is never used and the extent of his problem is only implied). He is living on the last of his fortune when he and his dachshund come to reside at the Grand Hotel. Initially, he intends to steal a string of pearls from Grusinskaya, but upon seeing her, he is enchanted by her beauty. Von Geigern has several other opportunities to steal substantial amounts of money from residents of the hotel, but he ends up passing several opportunities and he befriends who should be his easiest target—

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore): Kringelein is dying of a never-named but terminal disease which will kill him in a few months. He has wisely saved his wages, and intends to live out the remainder of his days in the opulence of the Grand Hotel. Despite being meek in nature, Kringelein manages to befriend several residents, including the Baron. He is a former employee of—

General Director Preysing (Beery): Is an industrialist intent on closing a large business deal while at the Grand Hotel. Preysing is revealed to be crooked. In one scene, Kringelein confronts his former employer and publicly reveals his swindling. Preysing is so detached he does not even recognize his former employee. He hires—

Flaemmchen (Crawford): A stenographer. Preysing intends on making Flaemmchen his mistress, but her affections are misguidedly directed towards the Baron. She will be a witness to a crime committed in the final act of the film.

Other characters include Senf, the head porter (played by Hersholt, who also has an honorary Oscar—given to those who engage in humanitarian efforts—named after him), who is anxiously waiting for the birth of his first child, and Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), an alcoholic permanent resident of the hotel who was injured in WWI. It is the doctor who says, ironically, that the Grand Hotel is a place where “people come, people go, and nothing ever happens.” Of course, things do indeed happen, and the story is wrapped up in a very satisfying manner.

Aside from the excellent acting and script, Grand Hotel, is a triumph of production design. Fans of Art Deco architecture will thrill at the design for the hotel. The lobby is especially awesome, with a front desk that makes a full 360-degree revolution, allowing director Edmund Goulding to set up several shots allowing different characters smooth and realistic transitions in and out of the action. Unlike the staging in Wings or The Broadway Melody—films that essentially were staged in what is obviously a set (save for the spectacular aerial photography in Wings, of course)—Grand Hotel is a film that incorporates the organic movement of what its setting would actually be like. There are also several scenes showing the porters and switchboard operators at work (the phones become significant in the third act). This is crucial for the audience; watching the picture, one feels as if they were a fly buzzing about in the hotel.

Unfortunately, the film is overlooked when discussing great Best Picture winners. Notably, Grand Hotel is the only film to be nominated—and win—the Best Picture Oscar without being nominated in any other category. The film doesn’t have the impact or the message of the historically based All Quiet on the Western Front, and its use of star power would be eclipsed by far more famous films. In a way, Dr. Otternschlag is right in assessing Grand Hotel—nothing much happens, and certainly nothing as monumental as WWI, the Civil War, a chariot race, the consolidation of power in a mafia family, the Vietnam War, the sinking of the Titanic, or a battle pitting good against evil in a fantasy world. Nor does the film profile some of history’s most famous people. There are no Gandhi’s, T.E. Lawrence’s, Pu Yi's, or anyone of that nature.

What the film does do well is present well-rounded, articulate, adult characters, each of whom has a dilemma that is overcome within a two-hour time frame. Not every film needs to be monumental to be great, and I certainly do think that Grand Hotel paved the way for films that use multiple main characters. Robert Altman’s films—though to a far more complex degree—are the offspring of Grand Hotel. And look at Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake—it is centered around three main characters, has a strong supporting cast, and is crucially set at the Bellagio at Las Vegas, a grand hotel if there ever was one. Take away the caper element of the plot and what we have is Grand Hotel remade for modern audiences. The 1932 picture may be a bit forgotten, but the formula proved to be a winner.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cimarron: The Good, the Bad, and the (very) Ugly

Cimarron (1931)

Director: Wesley Ruggles

Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor

Studio: RKO

First things first: Cimarron was the first western to win the Best Picture Oscar. (Fifty-nine years would pass before Dances With Wolves—Kevin Costner’s 1990 western—would be similarly honored with the Best Picture Oscar.) One of the weaknesses of the Academy Awards is that is tends to overlook genre specific films. Big time dramas, musicals, biopics, epic adventures, any film that will make Academy members feel good to vote for it (usually message pictures) and any film which is strongly sentimental or looks like it has its entire budget up on the screen usually stand excellent chances of winning Best Picture. Very rarely—if it all, in some cases—do films with a specific genre (the comedies, the fantasy films, science-fiction, animation, and yes, the western) even capture a nomination. Cimarron is in exclusive company.

So, with Cimarron being a western and seeing as how I had some complicated reactions to the film, I will use the title of the Sergio Leone directed/Clint Eastwood starring 1966 masterpiece to break this film down for you.

The Good: The best part about Cimarron is the first ten minutes, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the opening of the film is what clinched the Oscar. The film opens on April 22nd, 1889, and it depicts the first Oklahoma Land Rush, where homesteaders raced out on horses and carriages to stake their claim to acreage. Director Wesley Ruggles assembled over 5,000 extras using hundreds of horses and carriages, used twenty-eight cameras to capture the action, and created an awesome spectacle. I immediately thought of the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when the Roan army charges into the Battle of Pell nor Fields. Although the quality of the print captured on the DVD for Cimarron is not great, I still felt the rumble of humanity racing across the plains, and was immediately drawn into the picture.

The main character, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), is tricked out of his favored claim by a headstrong prostitute, Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor). Dejected but not beaten, he returns to his home in Kansas, collecting up his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne), his son Cim (short for Cimarron), and an black boy named Isaiah who is in servitude to the Cravat family. Despite Sabra being terrified of the new community, Yancey uproots them all to the town of Osage, Oklahoma, where Yancey establishes a newspaper.

Osage, in fact, is the central character of the film, and the film follows the town for nearly forty years. The production design of the film is excellent in showing how Osage transforms from a town where storefronts are in tents to a city with multi-story buildings. Although the film speeds through the decades, I was left with an urge to learn more about this period in American history. I think anytime a film can make its viewers wishing to do their own follow-up research, it has presented a compelling story.

The Bad: I think that the characters make several developments that are ill defined in the screenplay. Being an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s large novel, it isn’t surprising that there are gaps in the histories of the characters. The most frustrating depiction is that of Yancey. The script presents him as a true renaissance man. When he arrives in Osage, he is not only the proprietor of the newspaper, but he also becomes the chief lawman, the head of the town church, and, later in the film, a lawyer then an oil worker. Yancey is also presented as a consummate adventurer afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust. About halfway through the film, Yancey leaves his family and adopted town—attracted by the pull of another (and even larger) land rush. The script provides a motivation for his leaving, but it builds Yancey up as such a crucial figure in Osage that it was hard for me to buy that he would leave his family and business on a whim.

The changes Sabra Cravat makes are more believable—after Yancey leaves she is forced to become less of a nag and more responsible for the welfare of her family and her business. By the end of the film, she is elected to Congress. What was hard for me to buy though (and this will become a crucial problem for me in “The Ugly” section of this review), was the change in her racist attitudes. In particular, Sabra has an extreme fear of the Native Americans that populate Osage. On more than one occasion, she calls them “savages” and in one nasty scene, will not let her son accept a gift of a feather from a chief. As Cim grows older, he marries a Native woman, whom Sabra disapproves of. But in the scene where there is a party thrown in her honor for being elected to congress, Sabra is accepting of her daughter-in-law. The script never shows us just what made Sabra change her attitudes; it is just assumed that she reverses her feelings.

The script also short shifts certain characters and is extremely cliché addled. The script never really capitalizes on the relationship between Yancey and Dixie Lee despite the sizzling confrontation they have in the opening scene. Instead, Dixie Lee’s profession serves to stir the ire of Sabra, who tries every means at her disposal to run her out of Osage. Eventually, she is put on trial, and it is Yancey who rides in like a white knight, coming to her defense in a courtroom scene that is very out of place. Speaking of white knights, Yancey is almost always dressed in a white ten-gallon cowboy hat, and in the first act of the film, he tussles with a gang of menacing cowboys—each wearing black hats. The film spells out the lines of good and evil to its audience, when we are perfectly capable of determining that ourselves.

The Ugly: Cimarron is racist. The black character in the film, a young boy named Isaiah, has many uncomfortable scenes when viewed in a modern context. He is introduced fanning Sabra’s wealthy family from a chandelier during dinner, with shoe shining his next act. His mother is the typical “Mammy” figure (My wife asked me why are all Mammies big fat black women? I said I had no clue and also wondered why Mammies even needed to be in a film like Cimarron). Isaiah is always shown as subservient to the Cravats (though to be fair, Yancey never outright mistreats him or smacks him). Worst of all is a scene when the Cravats first arrive in Osage and Yancey points out a fruit stand and tells the boy, “Look, Isaiah, a bunch of watermelons.” I almost stopped watching the film right then.

The Native Americans fare no better. The girl Cim eventually marries is first employed by Sabra as a housekeeper when Yancey leaves on a sojourn. Sabra is blithely ignorant to the fact that the girl is the daughter of the chief, and is considered royalty amongst her tribe. Even after Cim takes her as his wife, Sabra continues to refer to the Native Americans in the picture as savages, further reinforcing the long-held stereotype of the native as a wild, stupid race incapable of civilization (when in fact the tribes of the Oklahoma plains were likely more civilized than the white men who settled on their stolen land). As a cherry on top, the native roles look to be played by white actors.

I had an awfully difficult time reconciling the message of equality Cimarron tries to pass of when the film is filled with racist stereotypes. To be fair, not every minority character in the film is stereotyped, and even Isaiah is allowed a hero’s death. Nor is every white character ignorant. Yancey is always shown as being accepting of all people, his son is absolutely color blind (though the daughter, born in Osage, is worse than her mother), and even Sabra comes around at the end of the film (but again, the script fails to show us exactly how or why she changed).

It is often shocking to modern audiences to find such startling racism in a film that was named Best Picture. Something like a Mammy—while of course awful—doesn’t shock me as much as the watermelon scene, which the filmmakers intended to be humorous. I know that attitudes seventy years ago were far less progressive than they are today, and of course, the film can never change (nor do I feel it is right to censor such material, offensive though it may be). So how then, can we approach Cimarron, which also has much to appreciate (the opening sequence, the story is fascinating, and Richard Dix makes Yancey a character that we want to know more about)?

In college, I once wrote a paper on William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which is unapologetically anti-Semitic (Ever hear the word shylock? He’s the Jewish villain of the play.) My thesis stated that the only responsible thing for a modern reader to do would be to not consider The Merchant of Venice canonical. I think perhaps, I overreacted. The play cannot be erased. Cimarron cannot be unfilmed. Maybe though, it is important to look at these works for exactly what they are—pieces of art that while containing brilliance, also contain unforgivably racist attitudes. They are diamonds with a flaw that cannot be hidden, covered up, or looked around.

Cimarron has also paid a price. Many critics consider it to be one of the weakest Best Picture winners, citing the many stereotypes and the script with holes. And when you look at a film like Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture-winning Unforgiven, one can easily see the potential for greatness in the Western genre. I certainly think the story of Cimarron, at its core, is worthy of film, and perhaps would work excellently if it were remade reflecting modern attitudes toward its minority characters. I think in 1931, the filmmakers wanted to do justice to Edna Ferber’s novel, but there is a reason why when books are turned into a movie, it is called an adaptation. Ultimately though, I think Cimarron is best seen as a window into the attitudes of filmmakers in 1931, rather than a classic that will endure for all time.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): Entertainment+Activism=Art (when all too often it doesn't...)

The first time I encountered Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, I was in Brooke Thompson’s 8th Grade Accelerated English class. The novel was the centerpiece of a unit on World War I, but I think if you polled my classmates, what we remembered most was probably thinking that a man named Kat was quite odd and endlessly laughing at the portmanteau “starshellfire”. Mind you, we also convinced Mrs. Thompson to let us view Strange Brew, claiming it was “a Civil War movie”, so it is easy to understand why a group of fourteen year olds would find a silly word and a man with a girl’s name the pinnacle of hilarity. We did, ultimately, read the novel, and were shown the 1979 made for TV version of the film. Sometime later, when I was expanding my knowledge of film, I learned that the 1930 original won the Best Picture Oscar, and two weeks ago, I finally got around to viewing Lewis Milestone’s film.

All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lewis Wolheim, Lew Ayres
Studio: Universal

While Wings, released three years earlier, also was technically a “war film”, All Quiet on the Western Front is the first film to win Best Picture to examine the psychological and sociological effects of war on human beings. The characters in Wings, while suffering losses of their own, are afforded a happy ending, and there is no direct condemnation of WWI. From the first act of the film, Milestone establishes an arc that inevitably leads to tragedy and ultimate loss. So powerful and profound was the impact of All Quiet on the Western Front, that Variety (Hollywood’s insider magazine of record) heaped this unique praise on the film: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.”

Also, while the film was a hit in the United States, it was banned in Germany—for obvious reasons—(and in the brief time the film was shown in German cinemas, the Nazis took to releasing rats during some of the screenings of the film) but also in Austria, Italy, Australia and France (who in the film are villains). Oscar, for the most part, does not like to flirt with controversy, but the Academy will sometimes make a political statement with the films and performances choose to honor. With All Quiet on the Western Front, the quality of the film has endured far longer than the controversy it caused upon release. The early Academy voters did right here.

In the opening of the film, young German teenage boys are in a classroom, where their teacher essentially propagandizes all of them into joining the war effort for the glory of the “Fatherland” (and schools today get in an uproar when military recruiters hang out in a cafeteria, just imagine the outrage today if educators were part of the recruitment effort, as shown here). Each boy buys into the teacher's pitch, and these young men are soon off to the western front to fight for the Kaiser.

What follows is standard war movie fare. The recruits are tyrannized by a drill sergeant. When they finally do get to the front, total chaos ensues—there are shells exploding in every direction, the weather is shitty, men are injured and dying, the veteran soldiers could care less about them, and basic necessities like food always seem to be in short supply. Paul Baumer (Ayres), the main character, is soon taken under the wing of a wily veteran with a keen aptitude for survival. His name is Stanislaus Katczinsky—“Kat” for short (played by Louis Wolheim, who very much reminds me of Ernest Borgnine, who played the role in the 1979 version of the film)—and their friendship forms the primary relationship in the film.

Milestone is especially interested in the camaraderie amongst the soldiers. There are several subplots that show the inner workings of men at war. One excellent detail is there is a soldier who wears fancy boots when he arrives at the front. This soldier eventually has his legs amputated, and another soldier tactlessly remarks that his feet are the same size, implying that he is going to steal the boots. The boots are then passed on from soldier to soldier, with new owners for the boots coming after another man has succumbed to casualty.

Another subplot highlights some of the ridiculous military policies. After a major battle in the film, the company returns to camp very hungry. The cook has made enough for 150 men, but only 80 have returned (which gives the audience a very tangible way to show the human cost of the conflict). The cook claims he is under strict orders to give the men a lone portion, but the battle-weary soldiers demand a feast, also pointing out the pointlessness of wasting the food. The cook blithely sticks to his orders, and a near riot ensues before an officer arrives and orders the cook to feed the men until the food is gone. The soldiers fight not only in the trenches, but also against inane policy.

The script offers time for the men to reflect on their situation. They hold nearly unanimous animosity to their superiors and to the war itself. (Interestingly, none of the soldiers outright blame their French enemies.) None of them can even point out a reason as to why they are fighting. Some say that the war is simply happening to keep the munitions manufacturers in business. Others simply say the government is greedy. Kat, when asked, says that the best way to solve the conflict would be to rope off a section of a battlefield, line of the heads of government on either side, then have them fight it out. This is where the script most directly deals with criticisms of war, but instead of it feeling as if the filmmakers are lecturing the audience, we have come to care enough about Paul, Kat, and the rest of the company to know what their perspective on the conflict is.

Throughout the film, the soldiers are subjected to horrors. They suffer nightmares, uncontrollable shaking, rats have plagued their camps, many soldiers are opportunistic and steal from one another, they die in one another’s arms and more than anything, there is no place where it is truly safe or somewhere to go to feel relief. Constantly being on guard forces the men to live in a heightened state of despair. Paul though, becomes ultimately disillusioned when he has to kill a French soldier face to face in a trench. He immediately tries to save him, but is obviously unsuccessful, and begs the dead man for forgiveness. It is at this point in the film where the war goes from being a global conflict to an intensely personal one. Paul knows he could have very easily been the slain soldier, and Ayres’ performance takes on a haunted quality thereafter. He slouches, mumbles, loses his composure—it is as if Ayres knows that Paul has irrevocably lost a piece of his soul after he is forced to kill the French soldier. Ayres plays Paul as a shell of a man from that scene forward.

The final act of All Quiet on the Western Front has Paul return to his village on furlough. Throughout his stay, he is recalcitrant to warm up to anyone—even his own mother—and longs to return to the battlefield with Kat and the other men in the company. Paul happens to walk by the classroom of his old teacher, giving the same recruitment spiel to an entirely new batch of young men. The teacher is eager to have Paul speak to the boys, thinking Paul will help to win the boys over to the cause of the Fatherland, but Paul speaks the truth. He says there is no glory in the war, and he wishes he could go back and tell himself, sitting in the classroom, to not enlist. The boys decry Paul, calling him a coward to his face, when Paul is anything but cowardly. I thought that was especially powerful, because Milestone shows the soldiers doing many things—good and awful—but the soldiers at the front are never cowardly. I felt sorry for the young men Paul was speaking to—he is telling them the truth, but they are so deluded by the teacher’s propaganda that they can’t see how brave Paul truly is. They will simply become the next batch of recruits to become disillusioned, and there is another batch that will follow them.

The final shot—which I won’t spoil here—is the most famous image from the film. In one moment, Milestone is able to capture the loss of innocence.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a remarkable achievement. The battle sequences are amazingly advanced and realistic looking—despite the film being seven decades old. If the battle scenes were spliced into say—Saving Private Ryan (and Steven Spielberg said himself that Milestone’s film was an enormous influence on his acclaimed WWII picture)—they wouldn’t look out of place. Even one of the current Oscar frontrunners—The Hurt Locker—owes a serious debt to Milestone’s film, especially in the modern films focus on the day-today life of the soldiers in Iraq, and how the characters in that film emerge just as shaken from their conflict as Paul Baumer does from WWII.

I also really appreciated that All Quiet on the Western Front told its story from the German side of the war. All too often, the Germans are depicted as villains or Nazis on film (and many times cartoonishly so), and while I’ll be the first to admit that Nazis and Germans make fantastic film villains (would the Indiana Jones pictures or Inglourious Basterds be nearly as entertaining without them?), audiences are rarely reminded that Germany paid a human toll in their conflicts. I don’t think Milestone is out to sympathize with Germany in WWI, but to show that the German soldiers paid just as dear of a cost as the French, Americans, or any other nation in the conflict.

I think Variety’s praise of All Quiet on the Western Front (“The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.”), while an utterly noble sentiment, is also a fallacy. I don’t think any single film is so powerful it could eliminate war. Nor do I really think that human beings have the capacity to eliminate war and conflict on our planet. I also think that often, when a feature film tries too hard to hammer home a moral agenda, a political ideal, or the point of view of an activist it is doomed to fail as entertainment.

With All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone and especially Lew Ayres (who subsequently became a conscientious objector to WWII and had his acting career suffer for it) successfully merge entertainment and activism into art. That is a rare quality indeed, and I’m sure this important film will lose none of its potency in the next 70 years. I’m glad I have evolved past being an immature fourteen year-old and can truly appreciate this picture.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Broadway Melody: Avatar 80 years earlier?

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Directed By: Harry Beaumont

Starring: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The Broadway Melody is notable for being the first talking musical. As the poster advertises—it is “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing”. The Broadway Melody also featured the first-ever Technicolor sequence (during the “Wedding of the Painted Doll” number) which now, unfortunately, is lost. The film, in 1929, was a technical marvel, and offered moviegoers an attraction the likes of which they had never seen before. The technical innovations of the film—not the story—allowed The Broadway Melody to walk away with the Best Picture Oscar. Technology and innovation versus quality story and filmmaking is a conflict that has always provoked debate amongst cinephiles, and the Academy more often than not is wowed by the film which advances the technology of the medium.

The story of the film is very simple. Two sisters have a vaudeville act that they are bringing to New York City in hopes of making it big. Hank (yes, Hank is a woman’s name in the film, believed to be short for Henrietta, but never mentioned) is the veteran of the pair—older, wiser, and generally responsible for the well being of the younger and naïve Queenie (Page). Of the pair, Queenie is considered more beautiful, but it is Hank who has a relationship with Eddie Kearns (King), a singer-songwriter. The Mahoney sisters hitch onto Eddie’s wagon, but Eddie falls for Queenie in a big way. Queenie brushes his advances off at first, not wanting to hurt her sister, and she is pursued by a wealthy “stage-door Johnny”. Eventually, Hank realizes that Eddie and Queenie are meant for one another, and she steps aside, and recruits another girl to be part of her act.

Of the actors, only Bessie Love really comes of well in her role as Hank (she was the only member of the cast to be nominated for an Oscar, in this case Best Actress). Love not only sings, dances, and plays the ukulele; she has by far the most complex emotional role. In contrast, Anita Page is simply a pretty face—though she does look ravishing in a shimmery dress. None of the men are standouts.

As for the direction by Harry Beaumont, it is very basic, as filmmakers of the time had to make a transition in style from silents to talkies. Many of the shots are mid-range, basic, with no major camera movements. It is in many ways, like in the style of a sitcom. Also, Beaumont allows the actors to over-gesture instead of letting the dialogue and the emotions on the actors’ faces tell the story. Actors in silent films needed to exaggerate their movements to convey the story, and The Broadway Melody suffers from this transition. That said, the musical set pieces are well-staged. Beaumont certainly knew what the main attraction of his film would be. However, those expecting Busby Berkeley-style choreography, the grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or the spectacle of the musicals from the 1950’s and 60’s are going to be disappointed. The Broadway Melody represents the movie musical in its infancy.

Weaknesses in the story aside, it must have been thrilling to be in a theater in 1929 and see and hear a musical come to life on screen. What once could only be experienced live in a theater could now be reasonably replicated on film for all to see. The innovations of sound and color must have left audiences breathless.

To bring the film into modern discussion one might think a pair of vaudeville sisters and ten foot tall blue aliens may not seem like they have much in common, but I think it is very fair to compare The Broadway Melody to the current Avatar from James Cameron. Many Oscar prognosticators believe Avatar is a sure-fire Best Picture nominee—if not the outright favorite to win the Oscar and global audiences are being thrilled by the use of motion capture technology and the most realistic use of 3-D yet. It is as if the viewers themselves are being transported to the planet Pandora. Once again, filmmaking innovations have enchanted audiences, so much so that the story of the actual film itself is being overlooked. Cameron himself has said Avatar certainly resembles another Best Picture winner—1990’s Dances With Wolves—and he has said that it is also similar to 1991’s At Play In the Fields of the Lord. He’s also ripped off his own Aliens in more than one instance, and there are similarities with The Matrix. A friend of mine also pointed out that Cameron seems to have borrowed elements from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern novel series, and almost any message board discussing Avatar is finding Cameron’s film to have influences from all across many mediums of entertainment. Aside from the borrowing, I didn’t feel Avatar’s plot was anything new either and the performances as a whole were to be expected. Which begs the question: are we as moviegoers so willing to be enraptured by technical innovation that we ignore the quality of the story?

I don’t think that either Avatar (which to be fair, I enjoyed very much) or The Broadway Melody (which was charming in places but is dated) are terrible films. An awful film wouldn’t appeal to the massive audiences these films have attracted. I do think they represent films where innovation has trumped story. Both films have artistry, but is it right to call a film Best Picture simply because a new technology was advanced forth, or should story and acting count for something too?

We will see what Oscar has in store for Avatar but The Broadway Melody is the first of many choices the Academy has made where bigger, better, and newer (which “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing” is code for) means Best Picture.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wings (1927)--Best Picture #1

Okay—I need to be less of a procrastinator. I promised this a day after my first blog post, but that stretched out into 2010 (blame UPS). I definitely need to update this more often if I am to reach my goal of completing the Best Picture reviews before the next Oscar ceremony. Which likely won’t happen, but I am going to try and get through as many films as I can.

Before I delve into the review, I'm going to spell out the criteria that I'm going to judge the films by. As I go, these criteria may change, but for now I'm going to factor five areas in reviewing the Best Pictures:

  1. Acting—This is pretty straightforward. I will judge the acting in each feature. I'm not going to differentiate between styles--dramatic performances will be right up against comedic performances and performances that are more physical or technical (like say, in a musical or something like Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Christy Brown in My Left Foot). Ultimately, the biggest factor is how the performances make the film better (or worse...)

  1. Direction—Again, this is pretty straightforward. I will make a judgment on how well the director conceived the picture and brought it to life.

  1. Technical—All the other filmmaking aspects--screenplay, production design, costumes, score, art direction, cinematography, editing--will be taken into account.

  1. How Well Does the Film Hold Up?—I think that a film named "Best Picture" ought to have some sort of lasting appeal that makes it fresh or relevant to any audience in any time. For the older films, I will certainly asking the question: Would a modern audience enjoy and appreciate the film? For the newer releases I'm going to do a bit of prognostication: How well will the film hold up over time. Ultimately, which of these films are going to be the Hamlets, still being appreciated and studied 400 years from now?

  1. Etcetera—Anything not directly related to the technical aspects of the filmmaking or speculation on the endurance of the film will be covered here. If there is a film with a special historical significance, I will factor that in. If there was a milestone achieved, I'll consider it. If the film is so special or so beloved it has infused itself into the popular culture I'll look at that. If a film is based on a novel, how well is the film adapted? If the film is based on history, how historically accurate is it? (And please note, a film doesn't necessarily have to be historically accurate or a close adaptation to be considered great.) If there is anything special or unique about a certain film I will make sure and mention it.

So, with that:

Wings (1927)

Directed By: William Wellman

Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralson, Gary Cooper

Studio (that distributed the film): Paramount Pictures

I'll make a confession about older films: I'm a bit prejudiced against them. In fact, I think the vast majority of modern film viewers are. I don't know the exact reason why for this. Perhaps, in the back of my head, black and white is too dull. Maybe I find the dialogue quaint, or the pacing too slow. I also tend to think that newer features have more sophisticated themes. Despite knowing full well that older features have dispelled those notions many times over, I'm always a bit leery to pop in an old picture.

Wings already had a couple of strikes against it, none of which had anything to do with the quality of the picture itself. First, not only is the film in black and white—it is also a silent picture (in fact, Wings is the only silent feature to win the Academy Award for Best Picture). Two hours plus and no dialogue? Oh boy, I thought. Getting through this would be a chore. Also, Wings is unavailable on DVD, which meant I had to track down a VHS copy of the film. I have nothing against my VHS player, but I'm trying to enjoy these features on the finest medium possible, and right now, that's DVD (or in some cases Blu-Ray, but I don't own a Blu-Ray player--somebody write Santa a letter for me). Instead of seeing the film on my 50-inch big-screen TV, it played on my wife's smaller TV/VHS combo.

I shouldn't have held any sorts of prejudices. Wings is delightful.

The story is quite simple. Two young men enlist as fighter pilots in World War I. Jack (Rogers) is middle class while David (Arlen) comes from the wealthiest family in town. Jack has a crush on Sylvia (Ralston) who gives him her locket before he goes off to war. It is not out of love though, rather kindness, for Sylvia doesn't wish to reveal to Jack that she has given her heart wholly to David, and thus break the young man's heart. Jack however, is oblivious to the affections of the girl-next-door (literally here), Mary (Bow), who loves him unconditionally. Mary also enlists as an ambulance driver, and the film follows how the war transforms the three main characters.

While the love triangle thrusts the plot forward in the first act of Wings, the primary relationship in the film is between Jack and David. Fraternal love is a subject that is often explored in many of the films that have won Best Picture, and Wings establishes an arc. Jack and David are first seen as competitive rivals (though not to an extreme level), and then an incident brings the two of them together. In this case, one of their tent mates (a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Gary Cooper) dies during a routine mission on the day Jack and David are scheduled to make their first flight into enemy territory--it's a crucial moment in the film, because it establishes that these men can die at any moment. Ultimately, the once rivals become the best of friends and each becomes the pilot the other depends the most upon.

The film's final act, depicting the Battle of Saint-Mihiel over France, provides a twist where a case of mistaken identity leads to the death of one of the men. I had recently finished Jon Krakauer's account of the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman, where Krakauer makes the point that despite the utterly preventable circumstances of Tillman's death, friendly fire is always an ugly truth in war. The death scene in Wings brought resonance to that point. The last bit of the film has the surviving man returning home and dealing with his guilt.

Where Wings has fantastic success is in the performances. Rogers and Arlen are both tough, physical guys (though Rogers does bear an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Kartheiser from Mad Men) who use body language and facial expressions to carry the emotional weight of their performances. In fact, because of the lack of dialogue, far greater importance is carried on movement and expression, and the men here are wholly unafraid to laugh, cry, act drunk, grieve--Rogers and Arlen even share the first on-screen kiss between two men on film.

Even better is Bow, who uses many of her It-Girl charms to great success. Her desperation for Jack is made achingly evident throughout the film, but especially in the first act then in an extended comedic sequence in Paris when the soldiers are on furlough and Bow has to out-vamp a coquette vying for a drunken Jack's affections. Bow provides a nice comedic counterpoint to the more dramatic story between the two men, but the script shows that she is equally capable in her role as an ambulance driver as the men are as pilots. The script has a nice balance between the main and sub plots; the story in Wings is never dull and is brought quite vividly to life by the lead actors.

Wellman does a superb job of bringing the action to life. Another advantage older films hold over new ones is that there is no cheating. Wellman really took a camera up into those biplanes and let it roll. Undoubtedly, if Wings were remade today, a good chunk of those shots would be computer generated and be using stunt performers whenever possible. It’s really Rogers and Arlen in those planes (along with Wellman and his crew filming the action), and the film creates a palpable sense of immediate danger whenever planes take to the skies. Audiences are inclined to go along with characters in their journeys on screen. When the actors themselves are flying the planes, there is no illusion—we buy into the world Wellman has created for us. Instead of nitpicking at details—the plane looks phony, he’s not really flying it, that’s gotta be a stunt double—Wellman opts for reality more often than not, allowing us to focus on the characters and the story.

That said, I think Wings holds up remarkably well, and far better than I was expecting. I look at a film like Top Gun, and clearly see it as a grandchild of Wellman’s film. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor lifts wholesale from Wings—and the older film does it much better. The film is also very much a standard bearer for the kind of films the Academy has honored over the years. It’s an epic, a love story, there is an historical context, the story is emotionally stirring, and there is a certain “wow” factor to the technical aspects of the filmmaking.

Wings is also a crowd pleaser. I don’t think a film needs to make audiences happy to be considered for the Best Picture Oscar (and there are plenty of films that have won the big prize that have challenged, puzzled, and depressed audiences), but it never hurts when a film provides solid entertainment to the people who watch them. More than anything, Wings entertained me, and splendidly so. Yes, it is an old, silent film from an era where movies were very different. Good entertainment never ages, and Wings is a film that should not go overlooked or be forgotten. I was glad I overcame my prejudices here.