Sunday, October 31, 2010

CAVALCADE (1933)






CAVALCADE (DIR: FRANK LLOYD) (SCREENPLAY: REGINALD BERKLEY & SONYA LEVIEN, BASED ON THE PLAY BY NOEL COWARD)

Noel Coward's image, that of the immaculately dressed Englishman poised over a piano, talking- singing his way through a acidicly witty song,  is often more remembered today than his work as an actor and playwright.  This is probably because of the great success he had performing in Las Vegas  for the Hollywood elite late in his career.  But Coward wrote over fifty plays in his lifetime, and while many of them are comedies, such as BLITHE SPIRIT and PRIVATE LIVES, he was also capable of serious work, such as BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which was made in to a popular movie by David Lean in 1945 (and also had a recent successful revival on Broadway), and, of course, CAVALCADE, which opened in 1931.  It is a a serious, ambitious attempt to capture the people of England and the changes the country went through over decades of time, complete with wars and historical events; not surprisingly it was a massive undertaking with enormous sets and a large cast.
It is interesting to note that, for the second year in a row, the Academy rewarded an adaptation of a play that is set in Europe; but, whereas GRAND HOTEL was turned into a vehicle for several big stars, CAVALCADE had no big stars in its cast.  More importantly, CAVALCADE has none of the staginess that GRAND HOTEL does, indeed this film has a cast of thousands, and features many visuals (such as a Zeppelin attack on London)that, as big as the stage production was, could only be hinted at onstage.  Yes the Fox Film Corporation (later 20th. Century Fox) clearly saw this film as a high class production, giving director Lewis Milestone a budget of over $1.5 million, which was used not only for that huge cast, but also for the film's beautiful (and numerous)sets and costumes. There are also several musical numbers in the film, with songs written by Coward himself, and while they effectively show the passage of time, ranging from British music hall to jazz,  they often go on too long, and most are not very inspired, with the notable exception of the last number, the jazzy, "20th. Century Blues".
At times, the film almost feels too ambitious, with director Milestone cutting away to busy scenes of politicians giving big speeches and soldiers marching endlessly to war; it is pretty much impossible for one story to contain an entire country, and this attempt to show so much of what happened often becomes tiresome. Also, although this is a great looking film, Milestone makes one odd stylistic choice: there is not a single closeup in the film.  This is surprising considering how much importance glamorous star closeups were given at the time(even for a film without glamorous stars!), and it has a definite distancing feel, lessening the film's emotional impact, in my view.

The film begins on New Year's Eve, with the 20th century just about to begin, and ends in 1933; it focuses mainly on one attractive, well off English family, Robert and Jane Marryot(Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard), and their two sons Edward and Joseph (played as children by Dickie Henderson and Douglas Scott, and as adults by John Warburton and Frank Lawton).  Their married servants, maid Ellen (Una O'Conner) and butler Alfred (Herbert Mundin), also play large roles in the film.

 Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook

In the first scene, Robert and Jane arrive home from a new year's party and wake their children to celebrate the new century; although all appears well,  Robert and Alfred are both about to head off to fight in the Boer war, and both of their wives are nervous.  Immediately Coward contrasts the optimism about the war the men have with the fears of their wives, and, even though both men will return safely, he clearly is sympathetic to the women's  feelings ("What's the sense in the war?" asks Jane), and sees the men's gung ho attitude as foolish (Alfred proudly parades around in his new uniform, even though it looks ridiculous on him).  Right away, the film establishes itself as antiwar, and praises the strength of the women left behind to worry and watch over their children as the men go off to fight.  The opening is consciously repeated later in the film, when, once again, the men prepare to go off and fight, this time in WWI, and here their casual, positive attitude towards the war will prove tragically wrong.  The fact that Jane refuses to drink a toast to the start of the war shows how much more perceptive she is than the men.


The tragic couple

But this is not just a film about war, and its most famous scene is about another kind of big historical event.  Edward, the Marryot's eldest son, and his new wife, Edith (Margaret Lindsay) are on a honeymoon cruise, and while they gaze out at the water, they talk of their upcoming life together.  At first, she fears that his love for her will fade as the years go by, despite his protests to the contrary; finally, she concludes that she doesn't care about the future, because she "isn't afraid of anything."  The two of them walk off, and behind them we see a life preserver with one word written on it: TITANIC.  Another tragedy occurs when Joseph, Edward's brother, proposes to his dancer girlfriend just before returning to the battlefield; he is killed literally the day before armistice. 
While certainly a drama, there are some welcome traces of the trademark Coward wit on hand, especially in the earthy humor of the servants (Merle Tottenham as Annie, who also appeared in the role onstage, has such an  odd manner of speaking and mispronouncing words that she must be heard to be believed!), and when one character describes a young couple as "Romantic?  They're absolutely pathetic!", it's a classic example of Coward's sense of humor.
Despite the film's wealth of characters and stories, it always returns to Jane, who is not only the heart and soul of the film, but also a symbol of England's strength and determination in the face of war and strife.  As Jane, Wynyard is marvelous, totally believable as she ages from young mother to old woman.  Her Jane is lovable without being saintly, wise without being too smart, and Wynyard somehow  manages to underplay the scene where she is given the news of Joseph's death.  And her romantic chemistry with Brook as her husband Robert is wonderful, and we fully understand why they still adore each other at the end after so many years together,  (Jane calls their time together "a great adventure.") even if I have a little trouble with Jane's continuing optimism, given that both of her sons have been lost to tragedies. 
CAVALCADE tries to end on a positive note, as Jane and Robert celebrate the new year once again, and in a moving and well acted moment, Jane drinks a toast to England, hoping it will have "dignity, greatness, and peace again".  It is difficult to watch this scene without thinking of what lay in store for England; how tragically naive its characters are!

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Of all the movies that have been made of Coward's plays, BRIEF ENCOUNTER seems to be the best remembered and revered; perhaps CAVALCADE has fallen into such obscurity even after winning best picture because it is so specific in its time and place; it's the kind of story that dates almost immediately.  Given that, I can understand why the Academy awarded a distinguished and ambitious  film like this the best of the year, even though now it seems off by a long shot.   You see, 1933 was a very impressive year for Hollywood, perhaps because the difficult transition to sound was now behind it, and it would be another year before the  production code would be strictly enforced.  In any event DUCK SOUP, QUEEN CHRISTINA, DINNER AT EIGHT, 42ND STREET,  and, perhaps most influential of all, KING KONG, all opened that year, and all of them are still popular at revival houses and on cable today.  And I think any one of them would have been a superior best picture choice than CAVALCADE.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

GRAND HOTEL (1932)


GRAND HOTEL (Dir: Edmund Golding)(Screenplay: Bela Balazs & William A Drake, based on Drake's play, based on the novel and play "Menschen im Hotel" by Vicki Baum)

Formed in 1924, Metro Goldwyn Mayer quickly became the dominant film studio in Hollywood.  Their claim was that the studio contained "more stars than there are in heaven"; in GRAND HOTEL, five of the biggest of those stars came together for a major production that was both a commercial and critical success.  Not surprisingly, MGM would repeat the formula, with some of the same stars, a year later with George Cukor's DINNNER AT EIGHT, which I prefer to this film.
GRAND HOTEL began as Menschen im Hotel a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, who had worked as a chambermaid in two  hotels in Berlin.  Rights to the novel were bought by Irving Thalberg, and it was first produced as a Broadway play before being given to director Edmund Golding, who managed to control the various egos at play in the making of the film, and he gets mostly good performances out of all of them.  His ability to do this may have been why he was picked to direct the notoriously difficult Marx Brothers three years later in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!  Golding pulls off some some good tracking images of busy hotel phone operators, some lovely shots of the  bustling hotel lobby, and some even better images of the cavernous hotel hallways overlooking the many levels of the building.  Striking as these sights are, too often his camera retreats to individual rooms or the bar of the hotel, which seem like simple recreations of the original stage sets.  As with many movies based on plays, there is not enough attempt to "open up" the story.  Indeed, there are hardly any exterior shots in the entire film.
The Grand Hotel Lobby & Floors

I have not read the book, but the film seems to be presenting the Grand Hotel of Berlin, Germany as a microcosm of life; it even has a "circle of life" ending, with one character's body being carried away while a hotel worker hears of his wife giving birth. The film's main characters are a true cross section of society: an artist, an industrialist, two low level workers, and a member of royalty who is now a thief.  Their actions are observed by the cynical Doctor Otternschlag(Lewis Stone), who's face is badly scarred from a war wound.  He opens the film sitting in the hotel lobby, watching people pass by and wryly remarking: "Grand Hotel, always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens."  Over the course of the film, the characters will deal with issues like love, death, greed,  and betrayal in dramatic fashion, which would seem to disprove his observation.  Yet, at the end of the film, after so many big events, he delivers the exact same line; his pessemistic view seems to extend beyond the hotel into life itself, as he seems to wonder what is  the point of it all.  This almost nihilistic viewpoint seems to capture the anger and sense of betrayal that gripped Germany, and indeed much of the rest of the world, in the wake of WWI, and it is appropriately stated by a man who's face has been disfigured by the war.
But enough of portentous meanings, GRAND HOTEL is at heart a big star heavy drama that tells the different stories of five people who's lives criss cross with each other while visiting the hotel.  They are: Grusinskaya, a great Russian ballerina (Greta Garbo), Baron Felix von Gaigern(John Barrymore), a once wealthy baron who has fallen on hard times, Flaemmchen, a  sternographer (Joan Crawford)who's been hired by Preysing(Wallace Beery), a wealthy industrialist, and finally, Otto Kringelein(Lionel Barrymore) a book keeper who is dying of a terminal disease, and who has decided to live it up for the first time in his life.  The best way to look at the film is to examine each star's performance in turn:
Garbo gets top billing, but shows up last, playing on the audience's anticipation. She plays a great star, not unlike herself, and she gets a classic star closeup of her glowing face the first time we see her.  She epitomizes glamor here, but her acting is at times uneven. Overall, her performance works better as GARBO, the great star, giving the film goers what they want, than it does as a believable characterization.  Although this was not her first sound film, she seems to still be trying many of the same broad gestures she used in silent films, (and she may still have been struggling with her newly learned English)and her line delivery often shows her trying to wring every ounce of emotion out of each word.  Listen to her most famous line in the film, "I want to be alone",which she repeats three times, and tell me I'm wrong!  (Her Swedish accent is also wrong for someone playing a Russian, but the accents in this film are almost all wrong, so that doesn't matter).  Even for a prima ballerina, she is often too melodramatic, but in her defense, I don't see how any actress could believably pull off the scene where she considers suicide while talking out loud to herself in her hotel room.  Her acting improves in her later scenes, when she has fallen in love and radiantly dances and spins around. So overall, it's fun to see her being the bright star that she was, but I prefer her in later films like QUEEN CHRISTINA and NINOTCHKA.
John Barrymore and Greta Garbo


John Barrymore as Baron Felix von Gaigern gives the film's best performance which is fortunate because his character is the link between all five of them. He is  instantly charming and likable, even when he's planning a robbery, and Barrymore is smart and subtle in the role. Without ever raising his voice he commands every scene he's in through sheer charisma; we can still why most people take an immediate shine to him, and why the two women in the film fall for him so quickly! A key moment for him is when he sneaks into Garbo's room to steal her pearl necklace; he is forced to hide when she returns earlier than expected.  She is sad because the audiences for her dancing are getting smaller, and  alone in her room, she considers suicide out loud to herself, causing Barrymore to reveal himself to her.  When he asks him who he is, he responds "Someone who could love you, that's all. Someone who's forgotten everything else but you. " This scene is faintly ridiculous in the way that the two strangers fall deeply in love at the drop of a hat, but Barrymore manages to sell it (Garbo's image as the most desirable woman in the world certainly helps!).  After spending the night together, he returns her pearls and refuses her offer of money that he needs to pay off his criminal accomplices (the baron is broke, but still noble). This leads to Barrymore's best scene  when the baron, now desperate for   money, could easy steal a fat bank roll from a drunk.  The way Barrymore shows the emotions playing out on his face, weighing the pain of the crime he has committed on the drunk with the possibility that his own life depends on getting the money, is great, understated acting.
Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen, the sternographer and sometimes model, doesn't really have a lot to do here, but, in high contrast to Garbo, she gives a relaxed and natural performance that is winning.  It's probably for the best that she and Garbo never have a scene together (indeed, at no point in the film does Golding get all five of his stars together in the same shot) because their different acting styles probably wouldn't mesh well.  Crawford is at her best when she's flirts with her boss, Preysing; clearly, she's not attracted to the man, but she knows that she can get an all expenses paid trip from him (and possibly much more)if she plays her cards right, so she leads him on without actually saying too much, accepting his advances without quite promising to return them.
John's brother, Lionel Barrymore, plays Otto Kringelein, and if I didn't know for a fact that they were brothers, I certainly wouldn't have guessed it!  Lionel may have only been four years older than John, but he looks and acts much older, and he lacks John's leading man looks (John was famously know for his great profile).  Not only do they not look alike, but their voices and style of acting are also different; Lionel's high pitched voice gets a workout here as he spews out dialogue at a brisk pace (his character is often drunk, so there's some excuse for his energy here).  Lionel certainly seems to be having a grand time with this role, as his terminally ill  character gets to drink, dance and gamble for the first time in his life.  His big scene comes when he gets to tell off his boss, Preysing, with a rush of glee and drunken bravado.  While such a broad character can become tiresome (I get particularly annoyed by him when he complains about his room early in the film), Lionel's zest and joy for the role eventually won me over.
Finally, there is Wallace Beery as the corrupt industrialist Preysing, and I simply think he is utterly miscast.  With his gruff demeanor and physical size, I find Beery much more believable in roles such his washed up boxer in THE CHAMP, or his hardened criminal in THE BIG HOUSE, than here.  He seems ill at ease in his fancy clothes, and when he speaks of big business wheeling and dealing with his associates, he's seems to have no idea what he's talking about.  (These scenes are among the film's worst, with a lot of yelling about some kind of big business deal that's never explained to the audience.) Oddly, Beery is the only actor in the film to try a German accent, but it never really works, and one wonders why he bothered.  The best thing to say about his performance is that it doesn't sink the film, and he usually is interacting with one of the other stars, who are all doing better work than him.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

GRAND HOTEL is often considered a classic, perhaps more for its gathering of great stars than for its quality; still, it certainly is ambitous, and mostly effective, with Beery's performance being the only glaring weakness.  Personally, I prefer Howard Hawks's fast moving gangster film, SCARFACE:THE SHAME OF A NATION, but there was no way that the Academy would honor a gangster movie at that time; they were often attacked for glamorizing criminals.  I also perfer Josef von Streberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS.  Still, it's no surprise that a movie as big budgeted and star driven as GRAND HOTEL won, and I certainly don't think it's a bad choice.



Sunday, October 24, 2010

CIMARRON (1931)

CIMARRON (Dir: Wesley Ruggles) (Screenplay: Howard Eastbrook, based on the novel by Edna Ferber)

Although there were a handful of westerns made in the silent era (John Ford, the most famous western director ever, was already making them), it wasn't until the 1930's that the genre took hold, and hundreds of what were often known as "oaters" were cranked out by the studios.   CIMARRON is the first western to win best picture, something that wouldn't happen again until DANCES WITH WOLVES in 1990.   Clearly, the academy often saw such films as "kiddie" fare (which many of them were)and not worthy of awards.  Despite not getting a lot of respect, westerns remained popular for decades, indeed it's hard to believe now that there was once a time where westerns dominated American movies (and later, TV) with millions of kids buying Davy Crocket raccoon skin caps or cowboy hats.  Fewer and fewer westerns are made these days, as kids seem to have gravitated more towards super heroes; still, the genre will probably never completely die, since the era of the old west has become so romanticized in American culture.
CIMARRON is based on a book by Edna Ferber, which was based loosely on the real life exploits of Temple Houston, a gunfighter and lawyer.  Like many westerns, it is intended to be a tribute to the bold, brave men of America's wild frontier days who first formed towns and then fought to keep order in them, but, as I will get to, it does not allows follow the usual plotlines of the "classic" western.  The RKO studio spent over a million and half dollars on the film, with director Wesley Ruggles using literally thousands of extras (and 28 cameramen!) to shoot the film's opening scene, a recreation of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889.  It is a very impressive scene, as horses and wagons literally flood over the landscape, the only problem with it is that, after this big opening, the film's scope shrinks considerably, and the rest of the movie is never as exciting.
As I previously stated, in many ways, this is an unusual western; for one thing, it spans forty years, meaning the days of the old west are long gone by its end!  Also, its hero, Yancey Cravet,(Richard Dix) may be a former gunslinger who does indeed wear white, but he is also well read (he quotes the bible and poetry constantly), is married with a small child, and along with printing a newspaper, he is also capable of being a minister or a defense lawyer.  He is hardly the solitary stoic western hero of so many other films.   There is  a word for the way Dix plays him: broad.  His style of speech is booming and stentorian, he will often yell for no reason, and he swaggers and struts all the time.  Personally, I rather liked this performance; obviously this is supposed to be a larger than life character, and that's just how Dix portrays him.  As one character says of him, "He's gonna be part of the history of the great Southwest. It's men like him that build the world. The rest of them, like me... why, we just come along and live in it."

 A truly big performance

In the opening land rush scene, Yancey finds himself without land (he is tricked by a woman who steals his horse),  and then he returns home to his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne) and child, and announces that he is still taking them to the Oklahoma town of Osage, where he will publish a newspaper.  Although Osage is a lawless town when they get there, they are determined to stay, and through a mixture of his willingness to act as a sort of sheriff and preacher along with printing the paper, the town eventually becomes livable.
You can't have a western without gun play, and so this film does, but it is relatively mild compared to most.  There is, in fact, only one extended shoot out, and that comes quite early in the film.  It is fairly well done, especially since it is mainly between Yancey and "The Kid" (William Collier Jr.)a former friend of his from his gunfighting days; it even has a surprising ending, when Yancey nobly allows the wounded Kid to ride out on his horse,  Kid grabs a spare gun and shoots Yancey straight through the arm.  I saw this film at a revival house a few years ago, and even jaded modern audiences gasped at this moment.
Perhaps because this is a movie based on a novel written by a woman, CIMARRON is, that rarity of rarities, a western with a strong role for a woman; in fact, this story is as much Sabra's as it Yancey's.  As Sabra, Dunne, mostly known today for the romantic comedies she made with Cary Grant, is really very good.  She believably ages in the film, and transforms from frightened young woman to someone who is determined to do what she has to protect herself and her family.  When Yancey leaves his family to go on another land rush, she takes over printing the paper with great success.  By the end of the film, she has become such a pillar of the community that she has been elected to congress!  But she isn't perfect; early in the film she refers to Native Americans as "filthy savages", but, when Yancey explains to her(more than once) how horribly the Native Americans have been treated, she slowly comes to see things his way, and at the end of the film she is proud of the fact that her son has married a Native American woman.

 Irene Dunne

It is on this last point that CIMARRON is a truly unusual western; with so many films in this genre portraying Native Americans as subhuman, it is truly surprising to see a western hero who uses his paper to crusade for their rights, and, when given the chance to get rich from exploiting their land rights, refuses.  Yes, this is a western released in 1931 that is more progressive towards women and Native Americans than most westerns made twenty or thirty years later.  On that level, it is a nice surprise.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
In researching this film, I have found that a lot of critics dislike it.  I myself, enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, perhaps because of how different it is from later westerns, most of which I'm not a big fan of.  If one can handle the broad nature of Dix's performance (and the at time insufferable nobility of his character), than I think you will enjoy it.  But was it worthy of the Oscar?  In a word: no.  Especially since that same year Charlie Chaplin released his classic film CITY LIGHTS, still one of the best(and most romantic) comedies ever made.




Saturday, October 23, 2010

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT(1930)

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Dir: Lewis Milestone) (Screenplay:Maxwell Anderson, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)

When discussing this film, I feel it is best to repeat the film's opening title card in total: "This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war..."  So this is an attempt to make a serious, unblinking look at war and its horrible effects on the men who fight it, and on that level it is an unqualified success.
For the second time in three years, the academy would give the best picture award to a film about WWI, and both are directed by army veterans and feature big fighting scenes.  But the tone of this film and WINGS couldn't be any more different; unlike that film, this is, as the title card suggests, least of all an adventure.
Published in 1928, Erich Maria Remarque's book of the same name, based on Remarque's own experiences as a German foot soldier,  was an immediate success, quickly being translated into many languages and selling over two million copies; it is still a revered and studied book.  (It was also banned by the Nazis, not surprisingly given the subject matter).

 A powerful image

Director Lewis Milestone had made training films for the US Signal Corp in the war before coming to Hollywood, where he worked in various jobs for years before he hooked up with Universal studio producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and got a then huge budget of 1.2 million dollars to make this faithful film adaptation. He worked hard to ensure the film's realism, and employed many real German war veterans in the film's thousands of extras.  He also made the battle scenes graphic, indeed this may be one of the bloodiest Hollywood films made up to this point(remember, there was no production code yet.) I believe this is the right decision, for just as Steven Speilberg showed us decades later in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, to really show the horror of war you have to capture it in all its sickening detail.  In one scene in ALL QUIET, the German soldiers are laying down barb wire, and there is an artillery attack; while diving out of the way, one of the men goes head first into the barb wire and comes up with a face full of blood, screaming "My eyes!  My eyes!". It's a shocking, brutal and unforgettable image, as any honest filming of a war scene should be.  Many later war films, that showed soldiers being shot and falling to the ground without a drop of blood, seem almost laughable in comparison.

The movie opens with a small German town gearing up for war, and we see the soldiers marching  while the townspeople cheer and chatter about how short and easy the war will be.  We then see a college professor named Kantorek (Arnold Lucy)addressing his class of all male students; he gives a stirring speech about the glory of war, calling the boys "the iron men of Germany", and some of the students imagine themselves as soldiers, marching to glory.  They enthusiastically rush to join the army, and the rest of the film follows them through boot camp and combat, where we find their naivete will not last long.
Although Milestone stages the battle scenes extremely well, he also gets the other details of a soldier's life right; the muddy trenches, the long marches, the constant hunger, the boredom in between the fighting and the mixture of terror and exhilaration that comes from the moment before the battle begins.  One of Milestone's best sequences comes when a group of soldiers are crammed into a bomb shelter in a trench that is being shelled by enemy fire: with nothing to do but wait it out, some of them try to sleep, others play cards, but none of them can ignore the constant explosions, getting louder and louder, that rock their shelter.  When one of them snaps and runs out onto the battlefield, we can fully understand his reaction.
There are two large battle scenes in the film, and it is to Milestone's credit that they focus on different aspects of combat and do not feel repetitive in any way.  The first is a major ground assault by the German soldiers that shows the vast scope of the fighting: there are excellent tracking shots of the soldiers in the trenches first waiting for the incoming invasion, followed by more tracking shots of  brutal hand to hand combat(Arthur Edeson's great cinematography was nominated for an award also).  Even more striking is the moment where, in one sweeping camera motion, we see a machine gun nest mow down a whole line of attackers.  And what better illustration of the whole pointlessness of the war can there be than at the end, when we find that, despite all the fighting and killing, neither side has gained any ground; there is no victory or glory here, only death.
The second battle reverses the first, depicting loss of life on a more personal level:  The film's main character, Paul(Lew Ayers), is part of a German attempt to capture a town.  Separated from his men, he is forced to hide in a hole while enemy soldiers run by.  When one of them jumps in the hole, he stabs the man in the stomach; still pinned down by fire, he slowly watches the other man bleed to death.  In the film's most famous moment, Paul realizes that this man is just a soldier like him, and he breaks down, begging for the man's forgiveness and promising to contact his family to apologize.  Ayers plays this scene all out, and the power of it still holds up eighty years later.

 The two enemies

It should be noted that the film is not all dark; there is a wonderful, funny moment when the German soldiers discuss the war, and can't seem to decide who started it and what the whole point is.  Some think that every emperor has to have a war of his own, while others try to blame the people of the foreign countries they're fighting, but can't come up with a good reason why.  The debate ends when Katczinsky(Louis Wolheim, who gives the film's best performance), the oldest and most experienced of them all, suggests that when there's about to be a big war, the opposing country's leaders should meet in a big field in nothing but their underwear and fight it out with clubs, a sentiment that endures to this day! Along with being funny, this scene is thoughtful without becoming pedantic, and it's certainly interesting to know that even the soldiers fighting in WWI couldn't really explain it.

Another sequence that keeps the film from being too much of a downer comes when some of the soldiers steal away from camp to share some food with some obliging French women.  It ends with Paul, talking to a woman that he has just slept with, (and who doesn't speak any German) vainly trying to explain that, even though he will never see her again, he will never forget this perfect moment. It fully captures the feelings of  a young man, made old through battle, desperately trying to make some connection with someone, even if it's with a woman he can't even talk to. This is a poignant moment,  even though Milestone coyly keeps the camera out of the bedroom the whole time(we only hear them talking). 
Another famous (and controversial) scene comes when Paul, slightly wounded, returns home on leave, and wanders by his old classroom, where his former professor is giving the same jingoistic speech to another class.  Paul wanders in, and when the teacher asks him to give a few inspiring words about his experiences, he can only describe the horror of it all, saying "It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it's better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?".  Although the students are quick to call Paul a coward, the film(and the novel)are definitely on his side of the argument, and therefore seem to embrace the pacifistic notion that dying for one's country is mostly an abstract idea, believed  by people who have never been near a battlefield, and that those pretty words become meaningless in the face of death.  While I personally am sympathetic towards this view, I can see how others might object to it, especially years later, after events like the undeniable evil of the Axis powers in WWII, make Paul's sentiments seem wrong.  However one feels about this argument, it is one that rarely is brought up in a war film at all, and therefore it makes the film more thought provoking and commendable than most films on this subject.  Milestone did not water down the message of the book, and I think that's admirable.  Ironically, he would go on to direct pro war propaganda movies during WWII.
It is interesting to note that, over fifty years later, the academy would give the best picture award to PLATOON, another war film made by a veteran that shares some similarities with this one: both have main characters that are college students that drop out to enlist in what they see as a just war, they both have that character bond with an older, battle hardened soldier, and, most importantly, they both show their heroes go from gung ho war supporters to cynical pacifists.  It's tragic how this same story can be played out again and again.
I have spent most of this essay praising the film, but I do have a few minor quibbles with it: while the dialogue is mostly good, there are moments where characters speak their thoughts out loud in a exaggerated, declamatory way, that still shows the influence of silent film acting.  This is particularly noticeable when Paul prays for the life of a friend of his who's dying in a hospital.  Even more maudlin is the saintly nature of Paul's mother (Beryl Mercer), who's bland homilies to him seem unnecessary, and plunges the film into sentiment; fortunately, she's not on screen for long.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's obvious that I love this movie; to me it has hardly aged at all, and it is still provocative and powerful.  Certainly it is one of the best war movies ever made, and worthy of winning best picture.



Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE BROADWAY MELODY(1929)


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THE BROADWAY MELODY(DIR:HARRY BEAUMONT, SCREENPLAY:EDMUND GOLDING)

Although 1927's THE JAZZ SINGER is remembered as the first sound film, most of it was actually silent, with just a few scenes featuring singing and hardly any spoken lines of dialogue.  So it was 1929's best picture winner, THE BROADWAY MELODY, that was the first (as it was promoted)to have "100% ALL TALKING!  100% ALL SINGING!  100% ALL DANCING!". Yes, this was the first official Hollywood musical, and it is appropriate that the studio that produced it was Metro Goldwyn Mayor, seeing as how that studio would come to be so identified with big splashy musicals in the coming decades.  Unfortunately, THE BROADWAY MELODY, much like THE JAZZ SINGER, is far more interesting today as a primitive museum piece than it is an actual good movie.
Remember all those funny scenes in SINGING IN THE RAIN where we saw the old movie studio struggling with the change to sound films?  Well, those scenes were based on actual stories from that time; the change to sound was indeed a difficult one, and THE BROADWAY MELODY  is a good illustration of some of those difficulties.  It's sometimes hard to make out the dialogue, there are many static long camera shots with little to no camera movement, the sound occasionally drops off sharply, and the actors still use the broad expressions and gestures of silent film. Still the influence of this film in undeniable, not only as the first musical, but as the first backstage musical.  All of the elements that would become cliches are there: the struggling young dancers, hungry for fame, the hard driving director who yells at the chorus girls, the backstage backstabbing (there's an outright cat fight at one point!),the lecherous producers who back the show just to meet the chorus girls, and the backstage dressing room scenes of the chorus girls that showed as much skin as the screen would allow at the time (it wasn't just the producers who were lecherous!).  One character we see in this movie that would not become a cliche, and indeed would  soon be banished from movies altogether under the production code,  is an extremely gay costume designer, acted with enormous energy by Drew Demorest.  It's more than a bit surprising today to see an openly gay character in such an old movie, but since he's protrayed as a mincing stereotype, and is subjected to all manner of homophobic sniping by the other cast members, the film could hardly be called progressive in its outlook.
The music for this film was written by Nacio Herb Brown and the lyrics were by Arthur Freed;although I find the title song to be the only truly great song in the score, (and it's evocation of the glamor and excitement of the great white way is so effective that it still often performed there to this day), the rest are pleasant enough and hold up pretty well, with "You were meant for me" also becoming a standard. Along with influencing movies like 42ND ST.(generally considered to be the best of the backstage musicals) and FOOTLIGHT FRENZY,  MGM capitalized on THE BROADWAY MELODY's success by releasing a series of similar themed films that updated the title (BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936,  BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938, etc.).

 Rehearsing the title number

The film opens with a scene in a music company building, and it cuts from one group of singers practicing to another in rapid succession; this probably was quite a dazzling scene for audiences in 1929, who only heard one song at a time in THE JAZZ SINGER, and it's still a fun a way to open the film, even when the music drowns out the dialogue.  The film's hero, Eddie Kearns (Charles King) quiets everyone down to announce that he's just written a great new song, which is the title song. He quickly sings it  (it will be performed two more times in the film) and dashes off to meet his fiancee and her sister; they are the older, headstrong, Harriet(Bessie Love) and the sweet, slightly dim Queenie(Anita Page).  They are a singing and dancing act who have had some success on the west coast, and have come to break into broadway, with Eddie's help of course; he just happens to be starring in a new show, and he convinces the producer, Francis Zanfield (obviously based on famed Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld) to let them be in it.  Meanwhile Eddie, although engaged to Harriet, finds himself falling for Queenie; she starts to have feelings for him too, but, not wanting to hurt Harriet, she starts going out with sleazy producer Jock Warriner(a parody of Jack Warner, the head of MGM's rival studio, Warner Brothers), much to the dismay of Harriet and Eddie.
 The dull love triangle

  It's this gossimer thin plot that drives the film, and, even with the music numbers, it just isn't enough to carry it; there is scene after scene of Eddie and Harriet begging Queenie not to go out with Jock, which become more and more frantic, until they are literally yelling and fighting each other.  The audience quickly becomes thankful for the music numbers that break up all the squabbling.  Sadly, even the musical numbers aren't all that great; indeed, I found Queenie and Harriet's act to be quite weak, and it seems unlikely that their not very strong singing and dancing could ever really make them a big hit on Broadway.  It's also a shame that the "wedding of the painted doll number", which was originally shown in technicolor, now only excists in black and white.
The film's ending has a surprising miscalculation for a musical:no music!  Oddly, the film's last musical number comes about twenty minutes before the film's end, and the rest focuses on the story's resolution.  As if we really cared about how the corny and predictable story would turn out!  This is one mistake very few other musicals would ever make, I mean, come on, you have to give the audience one last show stopper!

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's obvious that I have mixed feelings about THE BROADWAY MELODY, and so it's easy for me to say that Victor Seastrom's THE WIND, Buster Keaton's STEAMBOAT BILL JR. and Erich Von Stoheim's THE WEDDING MARCH are all far better (if less groundbreaking) films.  They are also all silent, but they hold up very well, and don't have any of the technical limitations that early sound films did.




Sunday, October 3, 2010

WINGS(1927)

WINGS(DIR:WILLIAM WYLER, SCREENPLAY: HOPE LORING & LOUIS D LIGHTON)

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927 to help promote advances in film making, which lead to the formation of the yearly Academy Awards.  The first award presentation was made on May 16th. 1929, it was held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and it was attended by 270 people(!).  Movie star and Academy president Douglas Fairbanks handed out the 15 awards (!!), and, in stark contrast to today, the audience already knew the winners; the results had already been posted three months earlier in the Academy's trade publication.  All films that played in LA between August 1, 1927 and August 1, 1928 were eligible. (THE JAZZ SINGER was excluded;  it was thought that, because it was the  first talking film, it would have too much of an advantage over other films). The big winner was the WWI adventure film, WINGS, directed by William Wyler.
Ironically, it was Douglas Fairbanks who had gotten Wyler's start in Hollywood, befriending him when Wyler was a flying Ace in the war, which would, of course, make him the natural director for this film.  (He even did some stunt flying for the film himself). His perfectionism in shooting the flight scenes pushed the film way over budget, but the result was a big box office hit. Although this was not the first big budget feature to be about WWI (King Vidor's THE BIG PARADE had come out two years earlier), it was the first to feature exciting aerial battle scenes, and they were shot without the virtue of miniatures or special effects.  Yes, over 80 years later, the shots of the planes swooping and barrel rolling through the sky are still striking, even if at times it's hard to know who exactly is shooting at whom.  Unfortunately, when the film is on the ground, it slows to a standstill.  The story is very simple (too simple); 2 young men, Jack and David (Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen), rivals for the love of the  same woman, join the army, bond during boot camp, and have adventures in the war, and, well that's it.  Wyler winds up pulling this simple plot like taffy over two hours, and it leads to an interminable scene where one of our heroes gets drunk on leave in Paris, and staggers around for what seems like hours. 
Even worse, this is a film that was made only 10 years after the end of the war, and it has no point of view about the politics behind the war; Jack and David go off to fight without questioning the wisdom of the enterprise at all,(when they go on their first combat mission, they are excited and not scared at all, as if they know that they're the heroes in a movie and therefore invulnerable!) and the humanity of the soldiers on the other side is almost completely ignored.  This is an an action film first and a war film second; at times it feels that the war only exists as an excuse to get to the flying scenes.
It is not surprising that the only part of the film that truly works dramatically is one that takes place up in the air: David, shot down behind enemy lines, steals a German plane and makes his way back to the allied side.  While flying, he inevitably runs into Jack in another plane, who, naturally thinking he's an enemy, starts to fire on him.   Up until this moment the film has been mostly fun, but here it truly takes a dark turn, one that catches the viewer unaware.  Will we really see one best friend shoot another by accident?  This a truly suspenseful scene!  The fact that it ends not only with Jack shooting David's plane, but then  David literally dying in Jack's arms, casts a dark shadow over the rest of the film, a shadow that is not totally dispelled by the sappy "love conquers all" ending.  It's a shame Wyler didn't try to have this more serious tone throughout the film; that plus some judicious editing could have made this a great  WWI movie, (like Vidor's aforementioned THE BIG PARADE), instead of a near miss.
One thing I kept thinking of while watching this movie was how much it was like Tony Scott's 1986 film, TOP GUN.  Both films have training scenes with macho heroes, both films show male bonding over sports (boxing in WINGS, volley ball in TOP GUN), and, sadly, both films contrast exciting flying scenes with dull scenes on the ground.  The fact that both films were both enormously successful just goes to show that some things never change: if you give your audience lots of whiz bang excitement and show some attractive people in love, you can make money without much story!

 Gary Cooper (right)

2 more quick notes on WINGS: This movie is famous being the first substantial role that future star Gary Cooper ever got.  At age twenty six, Cooper looks great and already has his macho swagger down, playing a doomed pilot who doesn't believe in luck, but he only gets one scene!  Actually, he shows more screen presence here than either of the male leads, and I think he would have been a better choice for either of their roles, but he was just getting started.
 The It Girl

Also, this film features Clara Bow, one of the most famous silent screen stars; it was released shortly after her star making role in the film IT, which was so popular that she was forever known as "the IT girl" (a term still sometimes used to describe a female star that's hit it big). In WINGS she plays a tomboy who has a crush on Jack, who shows no interest in her throughout most of the film.  In other words, she's utterly miscast.  Here is a woman often described as "the first female movie sex symbol", and who epitomized the image of the sexy 20's flapper, stuck in a role where she carries a torch for a guy who pushes her away, both verbally and physically.  It's like having a movie with Marilyn Monroe in it, and having all the men ignore her! Not surprisingly, Bow seems bored in her love scenes, but the few scenes she has where she isn't with Jack show some of the sprightly charm that made her a star.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
In another odd quirk about the early days of the Oscars, WINGS was not the only film to be awarded best picture that year!  It was awarded "best production", while F.W. Murnau's SUNRISE won for "artistic quality of production"; over the years, WINGS has been credited for winning best picture and SUNRISE's win has been forgotten.  This is a shame, since I believe it to be the far better film.  SUNRISE is a lovely, moving film that is truly one of the jewels of silent cinema.



Movie Geek Gets an Idea

Hello, I am a San Francisco dwelling lifelong movie geek, with a special fondness for films from what is often referred to as "the golden age of Hollywood", which generally means from the mid 1930's (when the production code ruling what could and could not be shown in films was strictly enforced) to the 1960's (when said code was replaced by the rating system that endures with only a few changes to this day). About a year ago, while perusing a list of all the films to ever win the Academy Award for best picture, I realized that I had seen the vast majority of them.  This is more rare in a person than you might think!(Honestly, how many people have even heard of the film CIMARRON?  Hmmm?).  Yes, it turns out over the years that the big award has often gone to a film that almost immediately falls into obscurity (it can happen to actors too, right, F Murray Abraham?).  So, I decided to watch every best picture winner ever, mainly to satisfy my own curiosity and impress/annoy  people at parties. I should mention, I am not a person who watches each Oscar broadcast breathlessly awaiting each big award, indeed, I often skip the broadcast altogether, although the results never fail to interest me.  I like the idea of the Oscars (which I see as celebrating films as an art form instead of just a way of making money for studios) more than what they often feel like (a bunch of rich and famous people massaging each other's egos).  Anyway, back to my quest: I thought tracking all the films down would be a snap, what with TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES, NETFLIX  and the Internet. I turned out to be mistaken in that regard, but with patience and perseverance, I managed to accomplish my goal.  (The toughest nut to crack turned out to be CALVALCADE from 1933, which required buying a VHS copy for around thirty bucks on our old friend Ebay.)  Having reached this milestone I decided it might be interesting to share my accumulated knowledge with the world by posting an essay on each movie in chronological order, ending each essay with the all important question, "Did they get it right?". (And I should mention that I'll have some spoilers in my essays, so you know).

So let's begin with the first, and for many years the only, silent film to ever take the golden boy....WINGS


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