For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1930/31:
A Free Soul
The Front Page
Min and Bill
Royal Family of Broadway
For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
The Front Page
Min and Bill
The following films are currently unviewable:
East Lynne (only at UCLA)
Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1930/31 Year in Review post.
Cimarron has the reputation of “Well, at the least the opening is great” among Best Picture winners and I see no reason to refute that. The opening grabbing of the Oklahoma land is legitimately thrilling stuff, the one time the movie shows a gift for where to stick the goddamn camera and things happen even with the utterly awful Richard Dix’s Yancey Cravat speechifying beforehand. (Luckily, it’s barely audible in this case thanks to the movie’s utterly atrocious audio work, where there is constantly people talking so loudly in the background that you cannot hear what matters. I very much doubt this was intentional.) That one shot of the horse breaking free of its reins as it comes closer to the screen than I would feel comfortable with if I was shooting is a beautiful visual. And it is all over at about eight minutes into the movie’s delightfully long two hours (and change) running time. For all the flack Gone With the Wind gets for its racism, at least you can just barely draw an argument out that there was some sympathy for the slaves buried deep down if you squint thanks to Hattie McDaniel. No such luck to be had with Cimarron, which includes numerous black stereotypes that make Butterfly McQueen look tame. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to turn off a movie more as when Dix lets out a horrifying cringe worthy WHOOPEE, a black boy falls from the ceiling onto a table, and he responds by begging Master Yancey to take him with him so he can work for him. Irene Dunne, meanwhile, gets off to a debut where she is totally hamstrung by her inexperience and the dreadful material she has to act with. Even when the story mercifully shifts towards her direction, we still get another Best Picture winner that thinks that mocking stutterers is funny (two out of four at this point!), to say nothing of its horribly condescending attitudes to Native Americans (dirty savages unless you are a truly enlightened person, but it’s okay to discriminate anyway by stealing their land) and Jews (nerds who aren’t that bad, really!) It takes an eternity to make it through this without cringing or pausing to take a break from the horrors of Dix’s performance. The first scene probably puts it above Broadway Melody, but just by a few hairs, and what we get afterwards is worse.
A Free Soul
Trial scenes in movies are arguably the most hit and miss brand of scenes that could possibly exist due to their inherent restrictions, yet it can feel that filmmakers will lean on them to the point of absurdity, and when they are located in a production as bound to the stage as A Free Soul is then they look will look even worse than the run of the mill, mediocre ones. As one of those movies that could not quite make it into the Best Picture race despite having attention in Director, Actor, and Actress, it becomes apparent why the Academy fell so hard for this one without fully embracing it at the last hurdle in the shape of Lionel Barrymore’s performance. The slight silent era hamminess that led to the soundless Sadie Thompson feeling like a morality play (I mean that as a compliment) results in his alcoholic lawyer character coming across like the forerunner to Jack Nicholson’s arguable worst hour in A Few Good Men. Norma Shearer, fresh off her Oscar win, gets rewarded with a damning and lacking supporting wife role where her entire role is as a prop to help make her lawyer husband feel at home, and occasionally pursue her romantic complications. Except…she is not the wife of the Barrymore persona, she is his helpful daughter and the only person he can tolerate most of the time. Yes, the best way to get yourself through this movie is to pretend the relationship is incestuous. There’s also Shearer’s character falling in love with the gangster on trial, played by Clark Gable in a take that sadly lacks his usual charm and mustache, but he still looks good when compared to the opposition in the shape of Leslie Howard’s blandly generic white man, with the personality of plain sugarless yogurt. The melodrama is piled on relentlessly until a final speech from Barrymore, who has dealt with plenty of alcoholism troubles by this point, in the grand tradition of Oscar clips throughout the ages that ignore everything surrounding them. Worst of all is the “if it doesn’t fit you must acquit” defense being made literal in the form of a hat that does not fit getting Gable off the hook. A Free Soul feels practically refreshing as compared to the devastatingly awful stuff that was being made just a few years earlier in the sound era, but it has still rotted rather than aged properly.
My Brief Year in Review piece for Holiday: The ensemble is fantastic and the broad strokes are great, but I think the consensus skewing towards the remake will turn out to be accurate if the camerawork improves.
In the same vein as The Front Page, Holiday is inevitably hampered by comparisons to the remake, this edition coming in 1938 and being directed by the great George Cukor and with a cast that has a bit more modern appeal. Both versions have a plot you could really only write as a satiric piece of work nowadays, with a man who has worked very hard to achieve his position in life falling in love with a woman who comes from a great deal of money, and deciding he wants to enjoy life a bit before getting back to working for the rest of it, only to run into opposition from his snobby father in law and the fact that the sister is the better match for him. Most of the problem is the first half, which is a very long series of tedious expositions masquerading as dialogue that explicitly tell us everything we need to know about our two leading actors, and in a series of long and perfunctory feeling shots. The main thing this Holiday has going for it is the ensemble. Mary Astor, one of the best stars of the era, plays the bride and was weirdly not nominated despite having a perfectly consistent edge underwriting all her choices. Edward Everett Horton, who would reprise his role as the traditionalist in law for the remake, is sufficiently humanistic in his grumpiness to make me excited for how he revises it in 1938, especially as he does not instinctively look like the best choice for the repeat player one would make from this even without the knowledge of a certain nomination. Robert Ames as Johnny works because he comes across as a rather bland individual who still possesses a certain level of rebellion in his heart. Finally, we come to Ann Harding, whose lead billing gives away the direction the story is heading, but she is enjoyable to watch throughout, tempering her vivaciousness with the knowledge of her position even if her line deliveries frequently come across as stilted and like she is reading off cue cards. Still, the broad strokes of this are a worthy idea to explore, and some of the crude scribbles are translated into this film with simple but bold primary colors. They flatter no matter how much you wish for a little more shading in the psychology on the part of the arcs.
The Royal Family of Broadway
George Cukor feels a little underrated nowadays even with a fairly sterling reputation, but one thing he was very reliant on was the usage of color. He directed Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and A Star is Born’s remake, so enough said there. He could make strong black and white films, like…well, I haven’t seen Philadelphia Story yet, but at least it has the appropriate reputation. Royal Family of Broadway both has a co-director in Cyril Gardner, whose small filmography where this is the best known title does not indicate good things, and not enough visual panache. It was admittedly an early work, but he had also contributed to the first sound masterpiece in All Quiet on the Western Front just a little while ago. Fredric March is the main attraction, and he plays a parody of John Barrymore that he apparently researched and copied heavily, a complete and utter prima donna named Tony Cavendish who has a zany family of fellow theater people. He goes to Hollywood and becomes the resident Casanova, nicknamed America’s Greatest Lover, but everything feels like a series of affectations rather than a genuine character even if it seems likely that John Barrymore’s mannerisms were more than slightly put on. Most amusing is the fact that Ethel Barrymore was completely outraged about the existence of such a gossipy piece of work until she saw it and found it in her heart to forgive poor Cukor’s nerve (he did not write the original play). Much more damning than the endorsement of the future Oscar winner is that old early sound film chestnut: too stagey and edited in a boring way, with one major exception that hints at what was to come in the shape of that madhouse Born in a Trunk number: a long tracking shot that required huge cranes as we go up a staircase at a certain point. Not exactly necessary but it shows that he had an eye. Incidentally, he rewatched it later in his career and hated it. He was probably right to do so, and thank goodness the cliches of this have been buried for good in a career that would provide us with many gems and significantly better works, not to mention Fredric March already having a performance better than this and continuing to give them throughout the rest of his time as a star. Let us stick to viewing this as a springboard.
Skippy is the definition of “your mileage may vary,” as I personally do not like children in movies much and found the main character too aggressively cutesy in his Dennis the Menace type personality. Jackie Coogan is actually quite good and gives a better performance than most of the adult Oscar nominees in his Best Actor field, but he is also mostly just playing a child-not exactly a stretch outside of that rather grim little anecdote about his uncle, who was the director, lying and saying he would kill his dog in order to get him to cry about it. This was apparently not as appealing to the Academy as Lionel Barrymore hamming it up through his trial. (Wikipedia’s wording of this particular anecdote, completely botching the understand of the term “mixed feelings,” is funnier than anything in the film itself. Also amusing: Norman Taurog’s ridiculously long resume as a director that contains nothing of note except for Boys Town, which is not exactly a popular work among most cinephiles with good taste, and this.) A slightly more interesting child performance comes from Skippy’s delightfully obnoxious friend Eloise, played by Mitzi Green. Her recitation of her dead dog poem may be hammy but she owns it. Visually, while the usual problems of static camera work abound, the costumes are impressively detailed, coming across as something straight out of a comic strip with all the heightened stuff that implies. I wish this had been filmed in color so they could go really obnoxious with the Technicolor of the outfits to portray some sort of heightened reality of childhood. Otherwise, this is a brief little trifle, with not much to recommend beyond historical curiosity. I am genuinely uncertain if this is a worthwhile or accurate window into what it means to be a child during the early 1930s, as it seems too filtered through the mild idealization of an adult, but perhaps it is just a sign of more innocent times. Still, there is definitely something universal in how the class divide between the rich protagonist and his new friend from Shantytown are completely irrelevant to the group that we spent our time hanging out with, who fight, make up, hang out, and then go back to beating each other up. Funny how the Academy’s taste in examinations of class has stayed at about the same level of sophistication over the years!
Trader Horn is a pretty dubious creation on both a moral and artistic level. There is not much justification for a two hour movie that consists of a plot revolving around a white queen ruling over Africa that is saved by the equally Caucasian explorers, who also go around hunting the wildlife, for reasons that I hope I don’t have to explain. The movie got nominated for similar reasons to Cleopatra in the 60s, to justify its massive expenses and epic scale (it still turned a profit of a million dollars), but this cannot have been a fun set to work on. You can read about this on Wikipedia, but savior of the natives/totally not African at all ruler Edwina Booth contracted a major illness, reportedly from sunbathing in the nude. The poor sound crew could not produce anything of worth in all that footage, animals were starved to produce the results of the animal attacks we get to see (this is not the equivalent of Tarkovsky shooting an already doomed horse in Andrei Rublev), and two crew members were killed by a crocodile (yikes) and a charging rhino (you get to see that in the final cut for motivations I will never understand, essentially rendering it a snuff film that shows the rhino and a lion getting killed as well). There is no acting to speak of, the length is ridiculous for something that is so obviously loaded with stock footage of the local wildlife, the director W.S. Van Dyke is fond of showing off topless black women to make it feel more like a documentary (yes, the one who did The Thin Man series along with a few other mediocre Best Picture nominees and the pretty but still racist White Shadows in the South Seas). The script also claims that the Zulus and Maasai tribes, which lived on different sides of the continent, were at war. When will we watch a story about New York City getting into a war with Los Angeles? Better yet, when will there be a decent Best Picture nominee in this lineup? I watched this after Cimarron/Skippy and East Lynne is not coming out on DVD anytime soon, but this might be the worst of the bunch. Only one character’s gigantic hat that looks like a beehive on his head provides any relief in this overlong mess. How did Leo the Lion feel with regards to opening this up?