Looking Back at Oscar, #5

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1931/32:

Arrowsmith
Bad Girl
The Champ
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Emma
Five Star Final
Grand Hotel
The Guardsman
One Hour With You
Shanghai Express
The Sin of Madelon Claudet
The Smiling Lieutenant

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 10 of the year post:
Shanghai Express
Smiling Lieutenant

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1931/32 Year in Review post, including the following in a full length writeup:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Grand Hotel

Arrowsmith
Sinclair Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel Arrowsmith practically begged to be adapted for a film at the time, no doubt, and one with what had a fairly long running time for the era of about an hour and forty minutes to boot. Surely, with Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes and John Ford at the wheel, things would go well, but the story is just so straightforward thanks to the clear arc of the leading scientist’s various changes in career roles, from doctor to research scientist to someone who helps out with a plague in a sequence that gets into uncomfortably racist territory even if there is a black man who receives a shockingly sympathetic portrayal from a director known for his incredibly racist comedic relief (and he’s still in blackface, so grain of salt). His main issue is that he does not want to be a doctor, but it is what he needs to do in order to support his new wife, who he rather foolishly fell in love with immediately even by the standards of the movies and their ridiculous romances. Ford’s worst traits were amplified as a result of a drinking ban imposed by the studios and him wishing to get through the work quickly, resulting in some vaguely incomprehensible takes on the arc. It is therefore up to Colman and Hayes, but the former is rather bumpy, with his bigger scenes not gelling with the earlier, quieter moments where he comes across as a convincing partner to his wife. She may be a bit too broad herself, but in that sideshow way where she gets attention for herself without detracting too much from the main star of the show. Ford’s love in his black and white films of intensely inky blacks and stark whites only really comes into play for a scene where the two hug after a long first day at work or during a moment of them reconciling after a miscarriage against the blinding pillow, rendering things less visually interesting than they could be, simply the bland natural gray more often than not. I would have preferred a creepier take on the scene where he examines the young boy’s tooth, or the cows with a diseased leg when he has to take over veterinarian duties, or when the couple is fighting over how devoted the young physician is devoted to his place of employment in the small hick town where they are living, filled with Swedish caricatures.

Bad Girl
My Brief Year in Review piece for Bad Girl: A misleading title, but the gender politics and the ideas are interesting if not groundbreaking.

There is no Bad Girl in this movie unless you factor in the fact that Sally Eilers’ character, Dorothy Haley, is mildly sassy. 0/10, I want a refund.

Terrible joke aside, I believe this was the first sound film that Frank Borzage ever made, but the plot was a standard one that had been done to death by this point with a couple who married too quickly after some early flirtations and suffered financial misfortunes that lead to conflict. See also the all time masterpiece of this particularly grim old genre in The Crowd, not to mention the Coney Island location utilized by another great silent romance in Lonesome (hard to blame the screenwriters of Bad Girl for stealing, as it always looks like the most fun place ever during the 20s and 30s films that use it, ie Speedy). However, since this is an all-sound work, the focus was on realism and delightfully catchy dialogue, with quips thrown back and forth in a way that would make Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell’s characters in their movies blush, as this is all about the two overcoming their cynicism about the opposite gender. I would say they probably had a pretty good point, particularly Dorothy, but at any rate, the frankness is refreshing in that way that always surprises when watching the Pre-Code works. Much more frustrating when it comes to this is that the only way that Eilers is the titular adjective relates to her and James Dunn’s Eddie Collins have a complete inability to tell each other what they are actually thinking, resulting in the romantic issues falling into the realm of idiot plot. They are also a mismatched couple in terms of acting ability, with Dunn’s early work being rather obnoxious while his partner demonstrates a great melancholy in her snideness that adds some interesting depths to her performance. Despite this hurdle to overcome, they are definitely a believable pairing, but I wish the constant talking had not lent itself to making the holes in the conflicts so evident. The award for the direction feels like a career nod, perhaps the first example of the Academy trying to compensate for an earlier loss due to 7th Heaven facing off against the best films of its decade in the secondary Best Picture category from the original Oscars. If that is the case, then the fact that this movie lies in its title feels fitting in a strange way.

The Champ
According to the highly reliable source that is Wikipedia’s article for it, The Champ is one of the most influential films ever made. It spawned the inspiration for the beloved children’s book series The Berenstain Bears, it resulted in countless films focused on the father and son dynamic, particularly in the 1930s, it got Wallace Beery an Oscar in a “tied” result (losing by a single vote constituted a tie back then) and resulted in him being paired with Jackie Cooper numerous times even though they practically hated each other. It is also not a very good movie. Boxing movies have to do a whole lot more to win me over in general, but this is no Raging Bull, relying on the bog-standard plot that no longer feels remotely revolutionary of an alcoholic bum of a former world champion learning to be a better man as a result of his son, who never stops being in love with him even when his selfish behavior makes it near impossible. You can tell just how inspiring this is going to be from the first shot of Beery’s drunken punching as he runs behind a car while Cooper is with him, looking cheerful. The former was always a complete and utter ham, but I can borderline embrace it for the majority of this thanks to his natural vaudevillian tendencies to go for a slapstick brand of ridiculousness. His fictional child, however, is far too precocious and cutesy for my liking, in the same vein of the parts of his Oscar-nominated work in Skippy that I both liked and found very irritating, but this is falls far more on the bad side of that divide when looking at a film that is most decidedly not aimed at children, complete with getting saddled with having to call his father “Champ” rather than anything like “dad.” Everything is just so creaky, with the exception of the camerawork. The camera moves, and it does so with a thrilling casualness. Unfortunately, the script does not do the same with going into undiscovered places, and we get a finale that feels like the antithesis of City Lights, with, spoiler alert for an incredibly old movie, the titular character dying, the child crying, and the mother showing up with the promise of a better home life than he could provide and then it ends. It is not a bad ending, but in a similar vein to the film itself, it’s all a bit much.

Emma
Marie Dressler was tremendously appealing in her revealing tenderness despite the fact that her appearance and characters were usually rather gruff. Her finest hours were still more than a little bit hammy, but Emma is really just a diet version of her wonderfully layered work in Min and Bill. Her work there was mysterious and had interesting motivations in taking care of the girl she had adopted, but Emma is simply nothing more than a nice lady who happens to be a decent nanny. So, a less complicated role, but does she have anything to make her nomination a warranted one? I’ll answer by saying that this was my sixth Clarence Brown film, and after my feelings on his last five ranged from acknowledging competence while not being particularly thrilled (Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie, The Eagle), to irritation (A Free Soul), to outright hatred (Romance). Hopefully National Velvet, his most popular, warrants his incredibly lengthy career that has been almost entirely forgotten nowadays…or perhaps The Yearling. Emma’s main asset is that it is short, silly, and kills an hour effectively. Dressler does not even try to draw something coherent out of this incredibly weird script, but while she is definitely relying on her tics and mannerisms, they are charming and good hearted, even if watching her pull three faces rather than just one for a scene where a little girl claims to know where babies come from is a bit much. It is still yet another Long Suffering Mother role, but where Jane Wyman brought layers to Lulu in The Blue Veil, Emma is stuck in something closer to A Ship Comes In, a comedy that makes a truly awful shift into a courtroom drama after a strange scene where she gets stuck in a flight simulator. (Before you ask: no, it made no sense when watching it.) You could usually count on Dressler’s performances to underplay the tragedy of certain moments to the benefit of her performance as a whole, but the amount of nonsense she has to endure when the kids she nannies accuse her of murder (!?) is the sort of thing that would defeat many actresses, most particularly the kind who falls into the “hammy but good” category on her best days and at her worst is pretty unconvincing. The script is so unpredictable to make the shifting moods of her brand of character seem excessive and borderline schizophrenic.

Five Star Final
My Brief Year in Review piece for Five Star Final: Viciously nasty material that gets diluted down a bit. Remake?

Between Five Star Final, The Front Page, and the upcoming remake of the latter in the form of His Girl Friday, the early Academy Awards were very much into journalism. It is a passion that has never really gone away what with Spotlight being the most recent Best Picture winner and Gentleman’s Agreement winning down the line. Among all these, the 1931/32 nominee is somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of quality, but certainly better than the “best of the worst” nominee that was last year’s The Front Page. It even starts better, with two men attacking a newspaper stand with paint as black and goopy as tar. The film then proceeds to crib symbolism from Lady Macbeth, with Edward G. Robinson’s editor being obsessed with washing his hands as a result of his guilty consciousness over giving up his ideals a long time ago. His secretary gets the lord role, wanting to marry him and help him get over it, but needless to say, there will be obstacles along the way. We then get the revival of a murder serial relating to a pregnant stenographer who murdered her boss for not marrying her when he got her pregnant, a story that deserved its own full perspective from the women’s point of view, not to mention the paper’s desire to make sex highbrow in an eerily good case of timing thanks to the Production Code (the details, however, fall squarely into the male gaze realm). From there, we go into the realm of an investigative mystery, related to the follow-up details of Nancy the stenographer’s life now (she escaped jail due to the baby, and her new husband has no idea that he is a murderer). Standout is easily Boris Karloff, though, as a reporter willing to do anything but especially the uncouth (he was booted from divinity school for sexual misconduct, and yes this is an early 30s film), and is not only perfectly creepy, but causes a tragic chain of circumstances that leads to a real downer of an ending. The movie is snappy enough, but really, it mainly has its rather shocking (for the time) plot, one where I would like to see the broad strokes taken and reapplied in a way that improves upon the original. There is a much darker style for this story, and it could be a real shocker of a drama.

The Guardsman
The Guardsman not getting a nomination in the Best Picture category for the 5th Academy Awards despite being the only film to score acting nominations in the male and female categories in a very cramped lineup of only three citations that year seems a little bizarre until you consider that both Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were considered Broadway royalty and there was a lot of appreciation in the acting community for their contributions to that particular artform, which was magnified by their characters being actors of the stage themselves (movies about plays were the movies about film of the time). It is not a perfect explanation, but still, this is essentially a photographed play, and even the crudest of the competition in the big race that year had a little increase in mobility in the utilization of the camera. Also in heavy debt to the theater is the performances, with both of the nominated leads giving performances that skew over the top. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, for the movie is a farce focused on the man thinking his wife is having an affair and putting on a disguise to try and fool her. This makes it all much harder to judge on the level of performance. How intentional is their hamminess? It’s not like the more restrained style was a total mystery back then, it had been done before. Ultimately, I would say that their ridiculousness, to the rafters delivery worked for me more often than not, with Fontanne having a small advantage in the shape of a slightly less relevant role (and weaker competition in her category that makes her the clear standout of what was nominated, whereas Lunt has to compete with two fairly good actors and thus feels like the weakest link), so she can justify a bigger take (she also seems to be having a higher level of fun with her bitchy laughs and mean spirited interjections), while Lunt’s advantage is in the shape of him getting to pull slightly sillier faces and grander line deliveries. The two are clearly not used to having to tone things down for a camera, but they have the natural charisma that hints at a great career if they had continued with it, with perhaps a few nominations for improved roles on the horizon if they had. But clearly, they truly preferred chronological shooting order.

One Hour With You
My Brief Year in Review piece for One Hour With You: Not as good as The Love Parade, strangely enough, probably due to the directorial conflicts. Still a cute time but so static in camera work.

One Hour With You begins promisingly when an opening credit title card promises that we will be granted direction by Ernst Lubitsch with assistance by George Cukor, two of the best directors of the time even if their peaks would come a little later in their careers. In practice, however, this film feels like a diet version of The Love Parade thanks to Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald relying on similar acts to what they did in that earlier piece of work to far diminished results, despite the fact that there should have been theoretical advances in technology that should have made the film easier to make without such static, unmoving shots. The directorial problems that plagued the production probably played a part in this, with Cukor as the original director with Lubitsch’s assistance, but the latter, unsatisfied with the job he did, sued to get the primary credit transferred to him after redirecting huge chunks (Cukor’s career was thankfully not ruined and he got to break his contract as compensation). He particularly had a problem the comedic ones focusing on the various attempts of the leading couple (who are the type of people who hook up in a park, are arrested by a police officer for it, and persuade him to let them go by singing a song about the moon, so you know what you are getting into immediately) to keep their marriage alive even when dealing with so called friends from their school days who are trying to, well, get with them. There is a whole lot of intertangled nonsense regarding what the couple needs to do, with a whole lot of songs that have aged rather poorly thrown in (“You can pay my bills/you can buy my clothes!” was my favorite lyric), but there is still a certain delicacy and a knowledge of where everyone stands emotionally that serves it all well. What has not aged as well, however, is Chevalier’s constant asides to the audience about what they would do in a similar situation. No, I do not want to hear a doctor lecturing the audience on what we need to do in order to spice up our love lives, was this considered brilliant comedy by the audiences and Academy members back in 1932? Go back to the over the top French accented singing and the shrillness of MacDonald’s musical voice! That is a much better rationale for voting.

The Sin of Madelon Claudet
I once saw this particular movie referred to as The Sin of Maudlin Claudet, which is not the most unfair analysis. The movie had to be reshot entirely after a bad preview when it went by the title The Lullaby, panned for its “conventional and sappy plot” according to Wikipedia. Hard to imagine that a more melodramatic version of this particular picture exists, but here we are, with a piece of work featuring a woman who starts getting yelled at right away during the opening scenes and undergoes a pregnancy despite not being married, is imprisoned, loses her son, becomes a prostitute so he can go to medical school, and eventually loses all her limbs…oh all right, not that last part, but she certainly ages. Comparisons to the past melodramas to get Oscar attention were inevitable, but this is more of a Sarah and Son or Madame X, with its rather ridiculous lead performance and stupid gender roles, than a Sadie Thompson. Helen Hayes had been having a good year, also starring in Arrowsmith, but she was better in the John Ford and I wish she had won for that instead, even with the broader strokes of Madelon’s arc being the sort of thing that appeals to the basic Academy voter on a primal level. There is definitely some ambition in what she does, in part due to the plot having such a ridiculously contrived nature, but in a particularly over the top lineup, she definitely stands out as a very strange sort of hammy, theatrical in even her quieter moments like giggling at a son’s bad joke. The prior example actually worked for me as the brand of behavior a specific kind of mother would adopt if necessary to make her child think he is funny, but we do not get a read on the personality of this woman. She is a man’s creation, a tragic maternal figure that has to deal with an endgame that feels incredibly rushed, and the way she tries to come across as nobly old in her made up scenes at the end rather than trying to hide the signs of her aging is a little too ridiculous for any picture to sustain. It is not an offensively awful choice in a weak lineup that only had three nominees, but you cannot help but feel the predecessors of the Weinsteins manipulating this film over 80 years later.

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