Looking Back at Oscar, #1

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1927/28:

7th Heaven
The Last Command
The Noose
The Patent Leather Kid
The Racket
Sadie Thompson
A Ship Comes In
Street Angel
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
The Way of All Flesh
Wings

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 10 of the year post:
7th Heaven
The Last Command
Sadie Thompson
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Wings

The following films are currently unviewable:
The Noose (only one copy, at MoMA)
The Way of All Flesh
(believed lost-I did watch a clip on YouTube?)

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1927/28 Year in Review post.

The Patent Leather Kid
Boxing movies may be cinematic, but outside of Raging Bull and a few others that I’m too lazy to dredge out of my memory, they rarely provide anything of interest. Richard Barthelmess is not the sort of star who holds up particularly well nowadays, with his take on Asians that receives copious assistance from DW Griffith’s yellowface makeup being the worst part of Broken Blossoms. Anyone who can remember him in Way Down East is smarter than me. A weird disparate blend of boxing picture, war story, and romance (although that last one was in all the silents), The Patent Leather Kid is right away crippled by being one of the longer silents at just over 2 hours and not remotely justifying it with predictable story beats, flat characters with the same old over sincerity of the era, and static, bland visual compositions. The real star of Patent Leather Kid is Molly O’Day, a former child performer (her career ended very quickly due to weight issues) who may be handed all the lines that vaguely approach “fun” on a platter but serves them up with a wink and a smile every time. With a cast of six people who matter, the other five fit the standard molds of the era. Hero for our lead, male rival for Lawford Davidson, sidekick for Arthur Stone, wiseass that gets dropped from the plot fairly quickly for Matthew Betz…and most unfortunately, “comedic relief black man” for Raymond Turner. Thankfully, he is a real African American man and not someone in blackface, and the film has a surprisingly mild streak of progressiveness running through it by making his character the most decorated when the war comes around. Said character’s name is Molasses, but we can’t have everything I suppose, especially when we’re otherwise trafficking solely in cliche territory. Maybe back in 1927 this type of plot didn’t feel tired and overdone, and the box office would certainly seem to indicate that, but nowadays only the craziest of Oscarphiles like myself would want to seek it out. And that’s without even factoring in the difficulties in getting one’s hands on the other nominee from Barthelmess that year, with the Museum of Modern Art keeping the only copy in existence locked away very tightly. No doubt not a particularly tragic loss in the history of lost works when you look at the standards for the time.

The Racket
The Racket, believed lost for many years and restored after a copy was found in a vault, is an interesting find as one of the first gangster pictures ever made with Howard Hughes as the producer, if not the original, and which set up a run of them for many years to come (along with a 1950s remake that nobody seems to care about). Sadly, it’s no forgotten masterpiece predecessor to The Godfather, and in fact is the weakest of the original Best Picture nominee slate by a mile when up against near-masterpieces 7th Heaven and Wings. (Said nominee slate is still better than the other BP category that lasted just for that year, featuring actual masterpieces Sunrise and The Crowd…and boring Nanook ripoff Chang.) Happily, it’s an interesting little experiment that flies by nicely and never wears out its welcome even if it also never gives us much of anything to celebrate. The roots are in theater, with a take on Al Capone so thinly disguised that it’s safe to say even a modern viewer can draw that out. Lewis Milestone was a talented director, but he’s limited by the technology of the time (which made some shocking progress by the time the third Academy Awards ran around if you look at his masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front), and thus the movie seems a bit too dependent on the title cards in the way of some of the more mediocre silent films. The plot is fairly bog standard, with an honest cop in a corrupt force trying to break down the reign of a bootlegging gangster king, but there’s two notable parts of the template. The more predictable of these parts is the gangster’s little brother Joe, who is told that “all women are poison” by his older brother Nick, and this comment is backed up in the script when he gets killed off and the nightclub singer he likes turns out to be a one dimensional gold digger. Charming and sadly typical, but the other twist in the tale is the notable part. Spoilers ahead: evil triumphs over good thanks to the corrupt organization that is the law enforcement, with Nick being killed after being encouraged to escape since he was going to call out the corruption in the law enforcement. Thus, crime continues, and the evil mob member is treated as the hero for the first occasion ever and certainly not for the last.

A Ship Comes In
A Ship Comes in really only endures as a curio piece of work thanks to Louise Dresser’s nomination as one of the original Best Actresses, and your best bet if you’re so interested is to watch it on YouTube-thankfully, it’s short. I have no idea if an unapologetic pro-immigrant stance was anything revolutionary back in the late 1920s (they’re called the backbone of the country) but whatever the case, the whole scenario of immigrants coming to the country and starting a new life isn’t executed well enough to feel like anything other than pure boilerplate that doesn’t even try to subvert the generic plot points (although they were probably more fresh back then). Things get even worse when the father is falsely accused of a crime and the trial scene features the daughter making a face that could never be interpreted as anything other than, well, a bitch face when she’s supposed to be looking sad. You’d think she practically wanted her father to go to prison for a phony crime. Dresser is best in show for sure, with her desperately cajoling her red-eyed infant to stop crying upon arriving at Ellis Island conveying a genuine maternal warmth. It’s still not particularly worthy or even good, with her otherwise rather blank, perpetually defeated looking take on the character (I’m being generous with that term, Mama Pleznik is just as much of an every woman as the Wife in Sunrise except endowed with infinitely less directorial sympathy) feeling like a major step down from fellow nominees Gloria Swanson and Janet Gaynor pumping their creations full of the sort of details that were sorely lacking from most other silents and early sound days in an otherwise exciting start to the Best Actress lineup. She doesn’t get as much to do, either, and feels like a supporting character in a film that presumably counts her as the lead. Misogynistic intertitles don’t help this matter, with Mama’s big concerns being the baking of a cake without sugar (the term used: “handicapped”) or doing laundry (“like a queen”). I can’t call this an endlessly mediocre movie when it’s so easy to knock off and be done with, but nothing about it draws attention as something necessary for a non-Oscarphile. (Most interesting is that a few sources online say that it wasn’t too widely seen and the nomination was one of the first ever shock noms.)

Street Angel
My Brief Year in Review piece for Street Angel: I wish the film had committed to one aesthetic or the other, and it’s Gaynor’s weakest hour in terms of her 3 cited performances, but it’s still very lovely.

Street Angel’s main claim to fame, in the same vein of many a minor piece from that era, is Janet Gaynor winning the first Academy Award for Best Actress in the shape of three of the most (slightly depressingly) definitive silent film roles for women-this movie, Sunrise, and Seventh Heaven, which all represent mildly different takes on a perfect, idealized woman with little dimensions that the actress has to carve out herself via chemistry with her male costar. The other two are masterpieces of the cinematic form, damn the criticisms of characterization that I just made, but Street Angel struggles a bit even though it never outright steps wrong. Firstly, this owes a huge debt to Sunrise’s critical acclaim, and while I’m all for cribbing from the very greatest of movies if you know what makes them work, there’s a slight muddle here. Sometimes we get a German Expressionism aesthetic, and other times we get a slightly prettied up realist aesthetic. While both look very nice and are given a little bit of extra life from Gaynor and Charles Farrell, who take on their roles with grace if not quite the same level of skill on Gaynor’s end that she would possess when paired up with Farrell (who might do a better job here at certain points but I cannot help but respond more strongly to the stronger work that contains the performance) in Seventh Heaven a few months earlier in the year. The natural skills behind the camera are lacking in some respects, with the sad parts of the picture adopting the German Expressionism style to enhance the horror, the idyllic moments are more realistic, and the contrast is simply too harsh to really sustain itself. Better to fully embrace the former, which the last half hour does to its benefit in some genuinely spectacular sequences. Still, the old “hooker with a heart of gold” trope never got a workout that was so genuinely beneficial to others as it did in this, and even a minor Frank Borzage picture still has a lot to recommend to it. Stick around until the second arrest for a horrifying workhouse that looks like something out of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a painter’s workshop that has now become lifeless and sad, and a reunion that is gorgeously foggy and feels like genius as opposed to the solid craftsmanship that we rely on otherwise.

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