For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1929/30:
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Big House
The Big Pond
The Devil’s Holiday
The Green Goddess
The Love Parade
The Rogue Song
Sarah and Son
Their Own Desire
For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 10 of the year post:
All Quiet on the Western Front
The following films are currently unviewable:
The Rogue Song (lost, viewed excerpt on YouTube)
Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1929/30 Year in Review post.
My Brief Year in Review piece for Anna Christie: Well acted and script has fun parts but too dependent on theatrical nature. Still, Garbo and Dressler!
Marie Dressler was a great early comedic actress who was not afraid to be a complete and utter ham in the right ways (she fits into both the sound and silent comedies), and Anna Christie finds her fully engaged in the most extreme version of that old reliable mode of hers as she staggers around drunkenly and loudly hiccups while lecturing some poor man who gets in the way of her. But her first drunken words were nothing compared to what we were promised in the advertising campaign for GARBO TALKS, as she shows up after several minutes of Dressler’s Martha slurring her way through the bars of the town, and proceeds to match her…well, not pound for pound, but she still lends plenty of life to a suitably sassy demand for a generous portion of ginger ale and whisky. She may have been the epitome of glamour, but she roughs it up here, and comes out looking far better than she did in her dire fellow Oscar nominee Romance. The usual problems of the early talkies being far too stagy and unconvincing apply as they usually do, but this does a much better job of overcoming the many hurdles it places in its path. When we venture outside (and the camera moves in this, sometimes! It’s like watching a Murnau!), the exteriors usually look a bit more atmospheric and foggy in the style of Docks of New York as opposed to the clean sound stages that characterized these types of movies on the whole. More importantly, the two most important women in the cast give two performances that feel like a melding of the best parts of the styles of acting. They go big and theatrical with their gestures and line readings, but still inject plenty of nuance and sadness into these women that are, all things considered, fairly broken individuals who are being ruined by drinking problems. While the story errs a bit too close to “prostitution is awful and sinful” in its ambiguities, it also has a great deal of sympathy for the titular character and refuses to fully dismantle her for working in the oldest profession. The pathos may be prominent and we are placed firmly in melodrama territory, but the dialogue is nicely punchy and everyone is competent enough to let the best characters (the female ones) in O’Neill’s work do all the heavy lifting.
The Big House
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Big House: Embrace the hamminess and enjoy the ear for dialogue even with the silly climax.
The Big House opens in a way rather similar to fellow Best Actor nominee from that year Condemned and another Best Picture nominee in Alibi, with a scene of stomping feet turning into the prisoners getting their measurements and personal belongings evaluated by the guards before the warden makes a speech. Here, it is a slightly kinder version, with Robert Montgomery’s Kent Marlowe being told that even though he may not be a criminal in the conventional sense since he was arrested for manslaughter thanks to drunk driving, he should still be wary of his inmates. He promptly gets housed with two of the nastiest criminals in the system, a brutal murderer nicknamed Machine Gun (played by Wallace Beery in a lovably hammy take) and a forger and thief named John Morgan (Chester Morris, who does a good job capturing his weary chemistry with his older cellmate). Needless to say, they hate each other, so fun for everyone ensues right away. Written by a woman, Frances Marion, who had a good ear for the masculine cliches that tough guys and superiors throw around at each other and their inferiors respectively. The two veterans of the prison system follow the code of never ratting anyone out, while the faux criminal wants to get out of the jail by any means necessary, including ratting the original crowd out after a series of nasty tricks including stealing his cigarettes, telling him he is getting out early (yes, he idiotically believes that), and so on. Eventually, he rats out their escape plans, and The Big House becomes the forerunner to District 9 eighty years later with its third act being one long, extended action sequence, with the most memorable moment that probably got it into the race consisting of a firearm battle that has held up surprisingly well for the time. It is nowhere near as fun as Machine Gun AKA Butch in the early hours coming to the realization that he should not have poisoned his girlfriend but just beat her up sometimes (I am a terrible hypocrite for laughing at that), but it gets the job done, and the little details focusing on how dehumanizing it is to be a prisoner is far better than anything that had come before in the admittedly small genre. Things would be improved, but they would also be made into something far worse than you would think.
The Big Pond
What a silly little trifle this movie is, and a bizarre look back at awards bait of seasons past. Maurice Chevalier’s character, who is a supposedly lovable immigrant, spends the entirety of The Big Pond trying to romance a girl whose father owns a chewing gum factory (you can immediately tell just how treacly this movie is just from that job description) and he does so by spending time on gondolas, singing tedious romantic arias to her in between light comedic antics. To make matters increasingly upsetting, his love interest is Claudette Colbert, who feels absolutely wasted on a plot this airy and seems perpetually on the verge of running out of the frame even as she does the best job she can with the very worst of the movie’s dialogue, selling it hard. All the acting and jokes are the sort of typical pap that makes up the early talkies but at least it all flies by quickly thanks to the musical numbers cutting down on the dialogue required, as (sigh) the camera refuses to move and the cast talks into an awkwardly placed microphone. The entire story is rooted around male bonding, with Americans portrayed as brash assholes and Chevalier’s Parisian charming everyone with his naturally kind and simple ways of the lover. This is not exactly what I look for in a work of art, and I will cop to pausing this frequently so I could do something much more interesting…something which I previously did NOT do for films about twice as long as this one that were also infinitely better. The lack of volume in The Big Pond is what makes it precisely so hard to talk about, it is like trying to prop up an elephant using two bendable straws. Summoning up the conviction to do it is near impossible. The production design does not help matters. You would think that a work that spends so much of its running time in the company of the rich would have more opulent material to help it out in its palette but outside of a few nice dresses, the budget feels present, and not in a way that adds to its charm. It comes across as restricted rather than making a whole lot out of very little. Perhaps Colbert got a raise for being the only convincing thing on the screen? She probably only somewhat deserved it.
There is not a whole lot of point to the existence of Bulldog Drummond but it was so popular back in the late 20s that it spawned a whole series of (no doubt equally pointless) films, making it the equivalent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in all its interconnected nightmare cinema devouring…except not as prolific or well remembered nowadays. James Bond this never was. The premise is the sort you have probably seen or read before in some other work of art, with a rich man deciding he is very bored with his life and deciding to become an appropriately handsome and charming detective, with an older and sassy British male sidekick. Except the titular character is so wonderful that he has two of them! What a game changer for Agatha Christie! Ronald Colman, the first of a whopping thirteen actors to take on the role, is nothing special in the part, saying his lines in a way that is mostly interesting as a transition between the awful overbearing nightmare that was most of the performances nominated at the 2nd Academy Awards and the more normal ones we see nowadays. I wish the movie had made up its mind as to whether it wanted to be awful and overbearing or something worth watching, although Joan Bennett as the love interest is pretty damn terrible, unable to even come across as convincingly sad. When we find out what exactly is happening to the missing father, things get a little more interesting (he is being tortured by the stereotypical henchman, including a fairly glamorous femme fatale in Lilyan Tashman who delights in elongating her words until they reach the snapping point), but the main draw here is the well above average visuals. The sets and sound design have held up well enough thanks to the usage of movable microphones, with neat and functional, well decorated in the sense of the rich with taste, yet still slightly spooky rooms throughout. Far less enjoyable is the insistence on including musical numbers within a detective story. An Irish tenor of some kind performs and he is fairly unbearable to my modern ears that have been poisoned by the pop song filled radio hits…and he is not very good anyway. All talking and singing pictures would not get their act together for quite a long time and this was not the work that would do it.
Condemned shows how it has aged almost immediately in various small, irritating ways. It starts with a prison boat that makes it very clear that the numerous cast members are not actually getting splashed with ocean water but with some poor crew member dumping a bucket onto them as they all yell simultaneously. Ronald Colman, nominated twice for this and his slightly better performance in Bulldog Drummond (although he mostly just relies on the same “I am a charming, attractive male” act that got him nominated back when the Academy had bizarre taste, with a script that feeds him the least banal lines), has not gotten much to do by this point…so we meet the wife of the warden and the prison head himself, played respectively by Ann Harding in a boring supportive role that does not remotely prepare us for what is supposed to be a great performance in Holiday (have not seen it yet) and Dudley Digges as a two dimensional sexist and sadistic jerk, albeit one who wants his wife to be treated like a queen as opposed to perpetually serving him sandwiches but has no problems treating the prisoners like garbage. From there, I think you can guess which two characters fall in love and decide to escape, so we shall move on. The photography may not be in the best quality at this point thanks to the ravages of time but we get so many medium shots whenever we want to see what a character is thinking and wider shots when the director wants us to see a collection of the rather bland settings. Easily the most tiresome aspect of this particular product is the script, which forces us to grow attached to certain characters in the characteristically unsubtle ways of the early sound films, shoehorns in the typical unnecessary and unpleasant songs that people liked for some reason, and has a bizarre habit it rips off from the silents. Certain strains of dialogue, mostly related to the desired cigarettes, are perpetually repeated in the way that you would normally use title cards for in a movie that would have been made a few years earlier than this one. If I never hear another person talking about cigarettes after watching this, it will be too soon. The monotonous delivery, with the exact same phrasing, is what really makes it come across as so lazy.
The Devil’s Holiday
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Devil’s Holiday: Nancy Carroll is wonderfully lively in this even with that godawful turn in an otherwise suitably loaded script for the time in the third act.
The Devil’s Holiday starts off with some scenes that I have to wonder if the Best Picture winning film (also directed by Edmund Goulding) Grand Hotel ripped off a few years later, featuring a phone operator recapping some minor bit of nonsense to the visitors that want to see someone. We wind up shifting our focus to Nancy Carroll’s Hallie, who works as a manicurist and a sort of closer for the salesmen of the area who works as an escort to ensure that the deals get closed. She wants to live in Paris, so when a rich man shows up, she is excited about that three percent commission. I think you can guess where it goes from there, and if you guessed “love story” you are right! But the twist is a little unusual, with the man in question, David, being a complete and utter idiot from the sticks. So she decides to marry David…and be so awful that his father will pay her off and she can get away. Amazing, and Carroll has a lot of fun selling the hell out of her awful scenes at the parent’s house, playing every caricature in the book in a way that complements the stagier moments of that particular kind of acting, along with neatly tying it into her mannerisms from an earlier scene where she talks about how she does not like men and only uses them for the financing of her dream vacation. She makes her limitations work for her, and thus is my pick for Best Actress in a lineup that really only has Garbo in Anna Christie to otherwise recommend to it. Much more importantly, she nails the parts that do not work as well, namely the big “I guess I really do love him!” moment. The title is, unfortunately, in reference to the script choosing to provide her with a big Christian moment since David’s family is religious. And yet, she somehow almost brings it together. The seams burst pretty quickly but for a few precious seconds she gets as much mileage as she could probably wring out of such an idiotic, preachy ideal. It is also a shame the movie ends that way, as it had a plot and screenplay that was actually quite reasonable and engaging to boot for an Oscar nominee in the early years. We can’t have everything, I suppose, but greatness was definitely possible.
Disraeli is more or less like the corpulent common ancestor to many a Best Picture nominee over the years in the worst way possible (although at least it only clocks in at ninety minutes rather than some of the truly horrible epics). It contains every possible trait you could imagine in a godawful biopic bore that offers nothing except TRUE STORY preaching to the choir about how the titular character was a Great Man. Except this is too off putting to do it right, with George Arliss’ Oscar winning performance (of course he was the winner) being him reciting Important Political Speeches as title cards and headlines explain everything we are seeing as a very big deal in human history. Everyone moves stiffly and the speeches are dire thanks to the reliance on static camera shots, but there was really no excuse for that by this point with plenty of works that moved the photography around, including that year’s winner of the big prize (which featured a performance that actually deserved to win at its core and was about historically important stuff too…and he was not even nominated). This is like the worst kind of lecture, reminding me of the kind of class where you can simply show up to the majority of the classes and you will get a B as a result. But the speech itself is dire and dull, refusing to consider anything that resembles the “show, don’t tell” rule. Most annoying of all is how little the supporting cast gets to do, they only matter in the ways that they relate to this very great man, causing an endless feedback loop. It is fairly easy to pile onto a movie along these lines that everyone hates nowadays but is it really so different from the Oscar bait we get nowadays? No, it is simply the original, and it couldn’t even win Best Picture to make the backlash against this brand of work just a small measure harsher. This should have been forgotten altogether, tossed to the dogs of history to devour and dissolve into ashes in exchange for lost silent films that were probably far superior in the way that they expressed ideas just as complex as the ones of this old white male politician. It may be a quick watch, but the merits are far more lacking than those which never end in that quickness.
When The Divorcee opened with Singing in the Rain playing in the background, I was not sure as to whether this was foreshadowing good things or bad thanks to the Hollywood Revue of 1929 still being in the back of my head. We wound up with a little of both. The broad strokes of this plot, which focuses on the ping ponging around of two men and women apiece in various states of marriage and singledom depending on the state of their relationships as determined by injuries over the years, and, more intriguingly, their affairs. The sexual hypocrisies of men being allowed to get away with extramarital relationships while women cannot is a topic that could have been brilliantly ahead of its time, but you should probably watch Dodsworth instead for that kind of thing. The details contain unfortunate sidelines like a muddle of insipid comic relief from an Italian man who hams it up and talks like a Mario Brother, and the ideas relating to the sexism of the time are simply pointed out and then ignored by Robert Z. Leonard in his direction, who mostly relies on some surprisingly inspired shooting in a film that contains far more camera movement than you would expect for the era and the number of interior scenes. Also annoying are moments such as someone at a party asking loudly “What could have happened to those two?” when they have not shown up for a while thanks to the husband revealing he cheated right before it happened. Norma Shearer’s titular character, Jerry, stands out due to the lack of competition in the quality of the acting field, with a delivery that works well for the rather silly lines and dragging what she can out of her limited reaction opportunities, such as turning a laugh into a cry. The ultimate irony of The Divorcee is that it just does not seem to care much about the woman in question, moving from one rote plot point to another with the sort of emotional processing rates that are best contemplated by robots, so quickly it moves through its talking points and emotional beats. It all results in mild frustration, for anyone who watches this would no doubt come up with something better from the very solid basic narrative. It is still very strange to think that this was most likely the runner up for Best Picture that year, though.
The Green Goddess
The Green Goddess waits slightly longer than one minute of storyline before unleashing the racism, showing a bunch of people who are meant to be from a fictional nation, Rukh, but otherwise look, dress, and speak exactly like Indians (with India basically getting called uncivilized in a throwaway line) being absolutely shocked at the sight of a plane carrying three British pilots flying over their town. Before we hit the six minute mark, there is a near international incident involving sitting on a statue of one of their gods, and I think we are supposed to sympathize with…the Englishman. Charming. Even more ridiculous is that it was a remake of an earlier silent starring George Arliss that he remade (which he did with almost all of his silents once the talkies came into play), for this ensures double the dullness thanks to the lack of care in the visuals or the plot. Arliss’ role is that of a Raja (oh goody, more racist casting-no attempts to drop his accent by the way) who can, thankfully for the characters and unfortunately for the audience members, speak English fluently. It then turns into a hostage exchange due to the half-brothers of the Raja trapped as hostages of the English who the people want back, and the token married female pilot is threatened with marrying the leader of Rukh. The rest of the movie is a glorious ode to how wonderful Europeans are and how terrifying or wacky Asians are, with a joke about the supposed fact that the Rukhians are “accustomed to being barbarians.” As for the fact that Lucilla is expected to give into the carnal desires of the leader of the country, well, do I really need to explain the way that this is playing into the tired old trope (originally typoed as “tripe”) about white women having desirable characteristics because they are so inherently superior? Gag me. Arliss’ performance is pure ham. He is clearly having fun, but what does it say that he is having so much fun playing someone who is right on the line between racist caricature and character? I thought Disraeli was an egregiously awful picture but this, while not as draining and dull, is just low key painful for its entire duration, and features a far worse cast that gives into the very worst ideas the general population has regarding the earliest sound movies.
The Love Parade
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Love Parade: I wish Lubitsch had access to a better camera and sound equipment, for the cast is so winning and the story is about as well handled as a generic melodrama could be.
Last year’s The Broadway Melody won the second ever Best Picture award despite being limited on pretty much every level from the script and the storyline down to the the horribly limited technical aspects of the era. The Love Parade is still more than a little handicapped in the same fields as the original, with all the scenes being shot in a fairly static, stagy way and a plot that is…well, it is still a musical plot, but one that has a higher volume of interesting nonsense going on underneath the surface than in its predecessor’s banal soap opera story of siblings and romances. The camera thankfully moves a fair bit more than that movie ever did, but ultimately, Ernst Lubitsch shows the nascent signs of his talent and does not care too much about the rather silly songs here even though they are paid their due respect (one wedding march gag early on is particularly clever). Lubitsch’s ultimate skill is making the immediate romance between our two leads, with Maurice Chevalier playing a figurehead part and Jeanette MacDonald playing the (thoroughly modern) Queen of a fictional country, come across as something to be respected and taken seriously even when it is a love at first sight situation and the two promptly proceed to have problems due to the position of Crown Prince having nothing to do other than responsibilities. We also get a subplot of a romance between the head valet for Chevalier (Lupino Lane) and the maid for MacDonald (Lillian Roth), which fleshes things out rather than distracts us from what really matters. You can practically feel the director’s aggravation with the fact that the camera is too lumbering to move around on a regular basis and the actors are consistently forced to talk into microphones placed in awkward locations, no matter how many times we get a chorus singing in unison as the queen prepares to take her morning bath with a amusingly large sponge to make up for the limitations. Something as simple as cross cutting back and forth with the lovers pining away to a tune, as they sing a song simultaneously, feels revolutionary despite the movie proceeding to handicap itself by adding inserts of a plane going overhead just for the sake of “look, an airplane noise!” or emphasizing the huge, ridiculous gap in the accents thanks to Chevalier’s Pepe Le Pew voice.
Greta Garbo was a great talent in both silents and talkies but she is not only squandered in this piece of garbage, she is also pretty awful herself. The film focuses on a bishop who spends the entire time flashing back on a love affair that went nowhere as a result of his grandson marrying an actress (scandalous!) and feeling he needs an education on the nature of Love with a capital L, and the writer, Edward Sheldon, uses this as an excuse to wallow in some of the most purple prose imaginable. While I can be grateful that the movie is only an hour and sixteen minutes long, it feels infinitely longer when the characters talk all night long on topics as banal as the perfume of romance (yes, that is the way that the title is utilized) or moan about how Garbo’s flowers are born to die even though they are being crushed anyway. Garbo plays an Italian opera singer (they had a thing for mediocre accents that year) and we learn absolutely nothing about her even when she is expounding upon her banal ideas, and she delivers her lines in a way that feels just as slurred and tedious as the words she is actually saying are. No actual human being talks like this. Lewis Stone is worse, mostly standing out due to how incredibly strange he looks. I never will understand his leading man status. Some of this could be appealing if the characters were treated with derision but director Clarence Brown (yes, the one who did National Velvet, no idea what happened here) is too filled with sincerity and adoration for these bland vessels. Also, worst line of dialogue ever: “Life is very simple at 28.” No, it is fucking not. I am not at that age yet and I am fully aware that this is bullshit, yet the actual twenty eight year old agrees with it! Why should I like a movie that takes such pleasure in validating the folksy condescension of older people as wisdom from experience. Visually, the film looks as if it should have been a nominee at the 2nd Academy Awards with its blandly still camera and visuals that do nothing to inspire anyone. Everything from the curtains to the chairs has the feel of something out of the house of a rich person with bad taste. Isn’t that this film’s ideal audience, though?
Sarah and Son
Ruth Chatterton’s performance in last year’s Madame X is currently ranked in the dead last spot in my Oscar Ranking post among all the Best Actress nominees I have seen as part of my Year in Review projects thanks to her ceaseless attempts at coming across as DRAMATIC with her voice which really just made her come across as a nutjob. I think you can gauge that my expectations for this particular picture were already at the level of the floor when I heard the tinniest version of the opening strains of The Cradle Song after seeing that godawful title. “But it has Fredric March and was directed by the woman director, Dorothy Arzner, who did the delightfully underrated Wild Party, so maybe there’s hope?” was my next thought. But then Ruth Chatterton opened her mouth. She plays her character much straighter, perhaps because her attention is focused entirely on the Dutch accent she sports throughout and it wobbles anyway for the first half of the film, because we get a massive time skip for no goddamn reason after her good for nothing bum of a husband sells their child and runs off to join the army. She has become a big star in the meantime and now she sounds like a bad impersonator of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. Even more horrifying is the fact that all the characters are Chekhov’s Guns of sorts, ranging from the child of the maid being introduced for no reason only for a rich couple to attempt to use him to trick Sarah a few minutes later, to March’s lawyer meeting her once…and still being in love with her ten years later, and they obviously wind up together. March is pretty unable to salvage anything from this particular dud, and as per usual, Chatterton is pretty dreadful independent of her accent. It is nowhere near as bad as Madame X but she still looks like she is thinking “Now I must look sad…I must look happy…” whenever she attempts to act. If only we had a Wild Party reunion with Clara Bow in the leading role. I don’t know if she was capable of doing that kind of vocal trick, but there is no logic applied for why the titular leading role had to be a Dutch immigrant who wanted to make it in show business, so cut it! Cut this whole piece of crap, actually.
Their Own Desire
With only an hour’s worth of length to its name, Their Own Desire does not make it easy to sum up in an appropriately sized capsule for this column. It is a very easy work to summarize on a plot level, however: pure soap opera, a frivolous trifle that should not have earned Norma Shearer a second Academy Awards nomination and thankfully was not the winner in that particular field. Fittingly, she plays a role that could be tangentially associated with another divorcee like in the movie she won the Oscar for, in this case the daughter of a man who is getting a divorce that she is not happy with. Needless to say, the family is rich, with the opening shots consisting of them all dressed up for a day to play polio at the country club and laughing together. She then meets a boy, and guess who her new suitor is the son of? If you guessed “dad’s new trophy wife,” you are correct! Thankfully, the plotline being so thin results in director E. Mason Hopper quickly bolting through the papery narrative in record time, focusing his energies on the visual decor of the picture instead. In this respect, you could probably justify a watch, with pretty and plain interiors that work. Far more offensive is when a storm enters the frame, obviously endangering everyone’s lives for no goddamn reason. Everything is overwrought, so you might as well mute this movie and watch the pretty white people flash their pearly white teeth as they smile and laugh at each other’s insipid comments. I would not be shocked if there was a message buried very deep down in the screenplay mocking the idle rich but at the same time, no, it’s an early sound picture and those took far too long to get their act together visually and narratively. I just don’t understand the point of this particular film, for even if housewives need to go out to the movies too, this was not the Norma Shearer star vehicle that provided a slightly healthier breed of scandal for them to salivate over. It is the kind of junk food that you cannot even enjoy eating while you are doing so, and it is bad for you to boot. Thank goodness for the Douglas Sirks of the world who were capable of injecting some mad, depressed repression into this most staid of scenarios.
The Trespasser starts off by throwing us into the problem right away and coming across as a nice little successor to Sadie Thompson and Queen Kelly, with Gloria Swanson once again falling in love with and getting engaged to someone who she really should not be paired with according to society, and the men in her life promptly try to remake her in their image. Much like in the von Stroheim picture, it is rooted in classism. (We the people really need an essay on Gay Men and Gloria Swanson, no matter that her cult is currently confined to a small number of people.) However, the main difference here is sound, and the problem is not on greatest actress in the world Norma Desmond but everyone else involved in the production, right down the banal visuals of the rich and poor interacting against an unmoving camera with no detail in the sound or sights. She fully earned that nomination off the back of totally making a comeback even when the odds were well and truly stacked against her. She may play a stenographer, but she even gets a moment that singlehandedly makes this movie worth watching in a shouting match with some paparazzi: “BEASTS!” She screams that repeatedly, and I feel nothing but a deep sense of envy at her being able to do that. What a dream job! Everyone else, however, comes across terribly. Her love interest and his father who hates her character, Marion, do not seem like any kind of relation. The former barely inflects emotion into his performance, while the latter goes too big and broad in that regard. They don’t need dialogue, they have faces! But they are not well served from a script as lousy as the one that Norma Desmond penned in her childish scrawl, with far too much insistence on the cast saying precisely what they are thinking in a way that never approaches poetic. If you feel a particularly strong urge to see The Trespasser (what a strange title choice), then just skip to the point at which the press shows up and we get the shouting of the BEASTS! I would happily watch that for an hour and a half, or at least endure an infinitely longer movie, but I suppose we should be grateful that this particular screenplay is fairly short as is due to all the dross in it.