Looking Back at Oscar, #2

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1928/29:

Alibi
The Barker
The Broadway Melody
Coquette
The Divine Lady
Hollywood Revue of 1929
In Old Arizona
The Letter
Madame X
The Patriot
Thunderbolt
The Valiant


The following films are currently unviewable:
The Barker (only one copy, at MoMA)
The Patriot
(believed lost-I did watch a clip on YouTube?)

Now for the rest!

Alibi
I realize that all the early sound films were pretty incompetent (is there a consensus choice for the first good one?) but Alibi’s merits are all rooted in how dated it is and purely as a kitschy curio factor among a unanimously, correctly loathed Best Picture lineup. The second scene of the film is focused on a group of dancing chorus line girls who are so terrible that it must be seen to be believed, to the point I wondered if it was intentional of the filmmakers to focus on the most untalented one of them all and give her a supporting role where she comes off as hilariously untalented. (I ultimately don’t think it was-this was considered peak cinema at the time.) I wish I had a GIF of them waving around their arms like limp noodles. And that little tidbit sums up Alibi’s acting nicely since everyone just moves and acts like they’re in a silent. Aside from production design that was actually fairly inspired for the day, mostly because it looked more interesting than most apartment sets, there’s not much going on here. It’s called the first Expressionist crime film even though it most certainly doesn’t justify that potentially fun idea with moments like a rather fake sounding track of a bird idiotically chirping while a woman hums through a very long moment that serves no purpose. Leading man Chester Morris comes the closest to getting it to work, with at least some sense of transitioning between emotions (this is only relative to everyone else and I blame his worst scenes on the dreadful scripting and an ensemble even more hideous that he is), but everyone else goes for either showing no emotion or a hammy display of it (one man in particular gives a performance that is somewhere in the range of negative stars). What Alibi will ultimately be remembered for on the rare occasions when I think about it is the most ridiculously drawn out death in the whole of recorded human history, which brings to mind Elaine Benes screaming at The English Patient “JUST DIE ALREADY! DIE!!!” Lady, you don’t know the half of it-be grateful for getting to see a movie that is what Alibi wishes it was. I guess there’s some camp appeal to be found in this mess, with “This is a police affair!”/”I’m…making it…MY…affair!” being an inspired delivery in how nonsensical it is?

The Broadway Melody
What an auspicious debut for the Academy Awards in their awarding of the first great sound, post silent era, award for the best film to…this mess, which stands out as a dreadful piece of work even in an auspiciously hideous slate of nominees that represented the worst of Hollywood’s early sound era. Singin’ in the Rain feels like a massive apology for this creative nightmare’s existence. The Broadway Melody is simply the worst of the supposed Best Pictures unless you pretend the two sisters are incestuous and keep a lookout for it (why are they casually taking baths and kissing each other so often, they have boyfriends am I right?) The story goes absolutely nowhere you would not expect it to in its extended soap opera plot, and I can’t give it a pass on the basis of the cliches being new at the time because plenty of other films were subversive, and surely it can’t have been that hard to come up with a musical plot that didn’t revolve around two chorus girls trying to become famous where nothing of interest happens? The songs are awful and insipid, the leading ladies in Anita Page and Bessie Love (those names have to be fake, right?) cannot sing when they are participating in the Zanfield Follies (I know), particularly the former, and then when you factor in how horribly bland their love interests are it all begins to blur together in a most unappealing fashion. Still, at least Bessie can say she gave a decent performance, while Page delivers her lines like she’s reading the cue cards. If it wasn’t for the name of one of the men being Jock Warriner in a pun on Jack Warner, I would not be able to tell them apart. And then there’s the attempts at jokes. Here’s what this film enjoys making fun of: women in general, men who stutter, and effeminate gays. The test of time has really ravaged this one. Get it out of the way early in you are a completionist in this regard. Just go in order so you can start off on the appropriate footing with Wings and then knock this mess out, they both have the title cards of the silents as a transition. But to quote that awful title song, that’s the BROADWAY MELODY! It’s off tune and an endurance test, but by god it’s the highest quality music they’ve got.

Coquette
I know that it is not a very intelligent criticism to reply to a movie with LOL but really, how else can one reply to Coquette? The original “terrible film that wins an undeserved, reviled Oscar for hugely political reasons” and one of the craziest examples thanks to Mary Pickford basically blackmailing everyone into voting for her. As much as I want to give bonus points for that kind of thing, it becomes a lot harder to put up with that when dealing with the leading lady herself, who gives the kind of take that feels dated for the time (and apparently, the critics thought so too). She gets no help from anyone involved in the production, who make a flirty young Southern belle dress like a matron and act like a small child. Everyone else in the movie gives a performance that is simply inappropriate for a talkie and are plenty unbearable but she just does not even try to resemble a human in a script that already makes her and her brother comes across as incestuous in the most theatrical sense of the word. I really do think this was the inspiration for Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain with that shrieking, squawking voice of hers but at least Jean Hagen did not have an accent that does not come close to approaching the realm of “Southern,” combined with a habit of screwing up her lips and pointing at them. Why not watch that masterpiece instead? This is easily the worst performance to win the Academy Award that I have ever seen, but she scarily is not the worst in her field thanks to Madame X’s Ruth Chatterton giving the only vocal take on her character that might be worse than Pickford’s. Still, it is striking how the first Academy Awards rewarded many a great film and acting display and the second ones gave out trophies to trash that should’ve been allowed to remain forgotten. The misogyny baked into all the characterizations is draining and the minute party invitations become a key plot point in the social goings on, you know just what realm of horrors we are heading into. High school drama classes would be embarrassed by her deranged emoting that would make Emil Jannings, even when he was at his most intensely theatrical, blush. But at least it is a nice, short picture and not a tedious epic.

The Divine Lady
For a long time, Corinne Griffith was not considered a nominee for this movie…and then she was! The mysterious sixth nominee back in the first two years of the Academy’s history when no one was really sure what qualified outside of the winners (Street Angel being nominated at both the first and second ceremonies will never fail to drive me batty, especially when you consider my own horribly inconsistent eligibility date rules that drove me to stick one 1922 film that got a US release in 1929 in the silent era post and another in this year). If you’re wondering why that parenthetical was so long it’s because The Divine Lady is precisely the kind of movie that does not really inspire lengthy commentary in the same vein as all the other crap that got nominated that year. The sea battles are fairly impressive for the time, but having to use that qualifier is never a good sign (All Quiet on the Western Front will be covered for the next LBaO and sure as hell won’t get that), and everything else is in the same old vein of the early sound works even though this film (more of a theatrical adaptation with very little changed about it) is technically a partial silent. It’s a very simple work in the most dull ways, with Griffith playing the most straightforward take on her character being lost in love for a man like Napoleon. You don’t get a sense of anything particularly deep going on beneath the surface or anything but a brief skimming of her tactics in creating this characterization. The script has just enough going on to justify some interesting line readings but we aren’t granted them. She mostly just strikes a series of glamorous poses, particularly in a mildly amusing scene where she does precisely that in preparing to greet her lover, and calls it a day. I wonder how much of the blame for this is on the so called Best Director Frank Lloyd in how he tells her to act identically in the soundless and sound sequences. “Look sad! Now look happy! Now thoughtful!” So on and so forth. She looks good compared to Chatterton, at least, but there’s no real sense of trying to scrape something out of mediocrity like with Bessie Love, she simply treats the material as a straightforward plot and runs with it mechanically.

Hollywood Revue of 1929
The Hollywood Revue of 1929 opens up with a song any movie fan should know and love: Singin’ in the Rain! Surely, even with black and white and no Gene Kelly, this can’t be that bad, right? And the opening credits declare that included in the “galaxy of stars,” we will be seeing some legends like Joan Crawford and Buster Keaton, this has to be at least passable! Ha, you wish. Welcome to the 2nd Academy Awards, where everything stinks! Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place indeed, especially after an opening singing number that does not sound like any sort of choir even if I have my suspicions about all the silent stars who were rendered irrelevant come the talkies (long story short, I think personal feuds undoubtedly played a role along with lack of talent for the new time). From this point on, it’s best to just embrace the weirdness, including a frightening moment early on where some dancers get the black and white inverted for reasons I do not understand in the least. Then the corny dialogue begins, with a never ending ukulele screeching from Charles King that is supposed to be funny, I think. Luckily, Joan Crawford is up next, and she sings and dances a bit! And…she’s not very good at either, but she’s clearly having a ton of fun where a few of the other automatons are not and it’s Mommie Dearest herself so I do not care at all. (Also, she looks alarmingly young and beautiful here. That is a compliment but I’m just so used to seeing her in evil old woman mode.) After a few more numbers that make a rule clear that less people, specifically a single female performer, involved in an act generally signals a minor uptick in quality (the tap dancers are so boring and mechanical about it and the male singers are bland, but Marie Dressler is wonderful), including an awful song for mothers, we get to…a reference to another Best Picture nominee in the shape of The Broadway Melody! And then Anita Page shows up and I am too horrified to continue properly paying attention to this boring movie saluting one that is worse. Why do I have to endure the same horrible tune twice in one retrospective of these stupid nominees? Sadly, Laurel/Hardy’s act and Keaton falling down everywhere are not suitable compensation for…THAT.

In Old Arizona
The minute the opening notes of In Old Arizona’s godawful singing from the part of Warner Baxter hit my ears I clammed up, and then I remembered from my brief look at Wikipedia that this…was the singing cowboy movie nominated for Best Picture and which won Best Actor at the 2nd Academy Awards. At that point, I knew exactly what I was in for and resigned myself to the process, but even then there were unexpected irritations to come my way. Warner Baxter plays the Cisco Kid and while nothing from this year will top a certain supporting performance from Alibi in terms of the overwhelming volume of hamminess that gets piled onto us from every direction, this comes fairly close thanks to a scene where he absolutely refuses to blink or look in the direction of someone who he is taking hostage for their jewelry (although one woman who gets held up at gunpoint at the beginning gives a performance out of an Ed Wood film). The musical numbers are worse than anything in Hollywood Revue AND Broadway Melody, which is a pretty major insult on my end but at least they weren’t horrible and operatic. The Mexican accents in this are hugely racist and terrible. I’m sure Speedy Gonzalez would be offended if he ever saw this. It deserves some minor credit for stretching its feather thin plot out to ninety minutes and justifying the use of sound, but the former also makes it an endurance test and the latter is a case of it just standing out by luck. Are things like eavesdropping on a conversation and the sounds of doors closing and things like that really so revolutionary or did they just come with the territory of the new technology? Who cares? One final note for the road: someone intended to star In Old Arizona ended up losing an eye because of this piece of crap when a jackrabbit jumped through the front window of his car. I shouldn’t laugh at this, but it is pretty hilarious, and more importantly, it’s a more believable hokey plot point for a film than the entirety of this garbage. Since this was the last of the BP nominees from 1928-29 that I saw, I want to take the time to express some regret that The Patriot is gone forever, for silence is golden when everything else is so screechy.

The Letter
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Letter: Not exactly good, but interesting. Wyler improved it.

One of those movies that will inevitably struggle thanks to the fact that it was outdone by its (outstanding) remake in 1940 starring Bette Davis, the 1929 version of The Letter still holds some mild interest if only for Jeanne Eagels’ final performance before a heroin overdose tragically ended her life early. She most notably doesn’t appear for the first fifteen minutes of a work that currently runs an hour long, which nowadays would get her bumped to the Supporting category even when she gives some truly warranted scenery chewing for the remaining forty five minutes. Make no mistake, it’s not a performance that would pass muster something like two years later, but she sets the bar high for very early sound performances even if it’s by virtue of the fact that she really looks like the drug addict on the verge of a physical or mental breakdown that she unfortunately was, lending a certain air to the proceedings amplified by the godawful audio quality of the version that’s most widely available on the Internet. It is a vaguely disturbing creation in a work that goes for the flashiest possible change rather than a slow, earned development of characterization. Where Ruth Chatterton in Madame X looks and especially sounds as someone very intent on ACTING her way through her movie, Eagels is playing a role that lends itself nicely to a certain brand of making herself an increasingly theatrical woman than she really is. Unintentionally good characterization? Probably the case, particularly in a film where the rest of the cast’s line readings skew towards the hokey, but she’s also limited by the choice of the director to shoot in long takes that don’t move or cut away, essentially rendering her the star of the show and the only thing allowed to move. Props for seizing the mobility within the frame and rendering this movie that is otherwise a bit airless into something I can just barely throw a passing grade towards with a bizarrely inconsistent display of this woman’s veering back and forth between the heightened artifice and flatness of her emotions. It coheres in a way that I can just barely get behind in the context of all acting, but the more distance I gain the more fondness I feel for it thanks to dialogue that feels that it could actually be said by real people as opposed to deranged syllables thrown together.

Madame X
Lionel Barrymore directing Madame X of all films is pretty amusing if you consider his prostitute hating preacher role in Sadie Thompson (which I saw just before this so of course I was amused), but what really fascinates about this is the early sound system that was used. The original boom microphone was used to capture sound…in the shape of a fishing line being strung up to the camera and being swung around so that the actors could move during their performances. Unfortunately, that all adds up to pretty much nothing when you consider several things, starting with the incredibly fuzzy audio quality caused by swinging around your microphone on a fishing line. Far more depressingly, the cinematography is unexceptional and you could probably direct a movie of equal quality with the usual awkward “stand in front of a mic” nonsense…and then we must come to Ruth Chatterton. She gets a huge number of awards show clip moments, and by god does she milk the fuck out of them. She overacts with just her eyes if such a thing is even possible. Don’t even get me started on when she actually has to talk. She’s confident in what she wants to do with this character but what she wants is a big, epic, journey of Acting with a capital A and makeup that causes her to go from young and beautiful to a battered, old, unattractive woman. But any performance with this kind of troublesome enunciation is not going to work, and she has a very weird way of delivering her lines. I am admittedly currently missing two of the women from this particular Best Actress lineup and have heard absolutely horrible things about Mary Pickford’s win, but you have to wonder how a film as awful and stilted as The Broadway Melody can produce Bessie Love’s performance that looks like roses compared to Jacqueline, who feels like a side character in Shakespeare who’s trying to hijack the play for herself. The rest of the picture, at least, never reaches the awful lows of the entire Best Picture lineup from that year. One has to wonder if I would be giving this a minor rave if the leading lady had been a miracle worker? It’s otherwise a decently executed vehicle for whoever is playing Jacqueline to show her stuff. Sadly Chatteron doesn’t have a whole lot of stuff to give to the audience.

Thunderbolt
Thunderbolt is a film with a sufficiently interesting premise to warrant a remake: a criminal (guess his nickname!) finds out that his flapper girlfriend has decided to reform herself and is dating a new man, who’s as boring as they come. He then gets arrested (because of…a dog barking? And not in the way you’d think). He then decides, from death row in prison, to go for revenge. He manages to engineer a scam to get the new guy sent to jail for a bank robbery and murder, then plans to murder him on his own when they wind up in neighboring cells. Then he suffers a guilty consciousness after several unsuccessful attempts are foiled by the guards and decides to let the new lover live to make his girlfriend happy. Sounds juicy, but sadly this movie was made in the early sound days, and thus is as stagey and hokey as they come, with numerous scenes that add nothing to the proceedings and dialogue that has well and truly dated even if Richard Arlen wasn’t so determined to play scenes like wrestling with his mother as sincerely and, disappointingly, non-incestually as possible. Most notable is a scene where someone falls down and everyone in the apartment starts making comments while a baby that isn’t even on screen begins crying, in a laughably bad attempt at early sound work. Josef von Sternberg absolutely had talent, which makes this all the more disappointing, but this was his first talkie picture and really only holds curio value for that and the Oscar nomination for George Bancroft. Outside of looking uncannily like Alec Baldwin, his approach to the role consists of…growling, and pulling the same face no matter what circumstance he gets forced into. His furrowed brow is unceasing and never modified, although I suppose this was sufficient to make him appear as a terrifying villain to a more old fashioned audience. Thunderbolt’s nicest surprise? Fay Wray being best in show, albeit not even particularly good. Most of the extras in this are hilariously terrible, though, so there’s no stiff competition. With some more tonal and technical finesse, this could’ve been a keeper because the bare bones premise is delicious, but sadly everyone gets painted with the broadest of brushes in both the writing and the performances. We’ll call this the groundwork for future successes on von Sternberg’s end and leave it at that. (Also there’s a goddamned band in the prison, which I’m convinced I hallucinated.)

The Valiant
The Valiant is a bizarre little curio (not in a good way), believed to be a lost picture for many years until a print was found somewhere. Running just barely over an hour, it stars Paul Muni. He would go on to be the future star of many a terrible biopic, and would receive a Best Actor nomination for a performance where he gets maybe five minutes of screentime in the first half of the movie, so clearly it was a real “star is born” moment. He didn’t win the award and didn’t deserve to, but then again, no one really did in that horrible lineup except maaaaybe Chester Morris on a generous day, and the film has somewhat suitably become hard to find as a result, complete with a hilariously thorough Wikipedia page that could qualify as an alternative to those who don’t want to take the trouble to ask for a broadcast on TCM. (The original version of this post didn’t have this or Coquette. The 2nd Academy Awards are the fucking pits.) The plot of this movie is some godawful paper thin bullshit about a man who is convicted of murder and then tries to convince a mother and her daughter that he is not their long lost son. James Dyke is the name he goes by, and Joe Douglas is the name she claims for him, so I think you can guess what the answer to the question is, complete with all the overacting making it extra clear. The good news is that Muni’s performance is arguably the best of the bunch in this ridiculous community theater show (Marguerite Churchill, who plays his sister, is truly terrible in every way in her final scene), the bad news is that nothing about this works otherwise since it’s so alien to a modern viewer. I suppose there’s something to be said on the weirdly overpowering presence of religion in the story, along with the hilarious scene where two people are washing a dog and it sprints off once they dump a bucket of water on it, with “OH HE’S GONE!…I LOVE YOU HONEY!” as an honest to god piece of dialogue. It’s so hilarious that I’m choosing to believe that there was some intentional camp worked into the scheme of things, with the final revelation being a total nonstarter. The whole year sucked, so I’m glad all I have left is a lost work.

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