Well, we're only two weeks into this cinematic adventure, and I'm already learning a lot! In 1930, there were actually two - that's right, two - Academy Award ceremonies! The first ceremony (and the one on which this week's blog focuses) honored films released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929.
1930 (January - June): A BRIEF RECAP
Seeing as how there were two Oscar ceremonies in 1930, we'll split our recap into two parts. After all, it's only fair! Here are a few things that happened in just the first six months of 1930:
Charles Lindbergh arrives in New York, setting the cross country flyig record of 14.75 hours. Anna Christie, Greta Garbo's first talking picture, opens in the United States. Her first line in the film? "Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don' be stingy, baby." In March, Mahatma Ghandi and a group of followers begin the Salt March, a trek to the sea where they intend to manufacture salt in defiance of the British government's monopoly on salt production. Ghandi is arrested by the British in May. President Hoover assures the public that the worst effects of the Depression will be over within 90 days: "Prosperity is just around the corner," he says. Scientists report the discovery of a ninth planet (Pluto) at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (also knowns as the Hays Code) is adopted by the film industry. Movie ticket prices began to decline after the stock market crash of October 1929; in March 1930 they are around 27 cents each.
THE 1930 ACADEMY AWARDS
The 2nd Academy Awards were presented on April 3, 1930. Unlike the 1929 Oscars, the winners were not announced in advance. The ceremony was broadcast live on the radio; it honored films released between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929. Since these awards were given out more than eight months after the end of the eligibility period, it was decided that the next ceremony would be held only a few months later, in November. As a result, 1930 became the only year in which two Academy Awards celebrations were held.
Another notable (and mysterious!) thing about the second Oscar celebration is that it's the only year in which there was no official list of nominees! Later research by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would result in an unofficial list of nominees, based on records of which films were evaluated by the judges. And these are the films that I watched this week.
Included with this list is a movie which I couldn't see: The Patriot (1928). Unfortunately it's one of those films that's never been released on home video, probably because they don't have a film print that's complete enough to restore. The movie is listed below, with a little bit of info.
And the nominees are....
Starring: Emil Jannings, Lewis Stone and Florence Vidor
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
What's it about? In 18th-century Russia, Czar Paul I (Emil Jannings) is a brutal yet pathetic dictator, who holds the mighty country tightly in his tyrannical grasp. His friend, Count Pahlen (Lewis Stone), begins to question whether the Czar should be allowed to rule. The Count joins a plot to assasinate his friend - a plot hampered by the beautiful Countess Osterman (Florence Vidor, former wife of the great King Vidor, who directed films from 1913 to 1980).
What makes it special? It was the last silent film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar; it won the award for Best Writing Achievement. You can read more about it in this article by Gabriel Ruzin. And although the film itself is lost to history, the trailer remains. I've included it here:
The Hollywood Revue of 1929
Starring: Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, and a whole slew of MGM contract players.
Directed by: Charles Reisner
Where did I find it? I bought the DVD on eBay. The quality of sound and picture was excellent.
What's it about? It's a good, old-fashioned singing and dancing variety show. Co-hosts were Conrad Nagel (the handsome leading man who would go on to star in at least one more Best Picture Nominee, 1930's The Divorcee) and funnyman Jack Benny, whose television show The Jack Benny Program ran for fifteen years. There were over a dozen acts in this one, and it would be a bit difficult to give you a summary of each one. But for me, some of the highlights were these:
A young and incredibly elegant Joan Crawford does a musical number - singing, dancing and showing off her gorgeous legs. Comedienne Marion Davies, who was W.R. Hurst's longtime romantic companion, does a perky tapdance number. And Laurel and Hardy do a bit that ends up with Hardy slipping on a banana peel and falling face-first into a giant cake covered with whipped cream.
One of my favorite segments was a scene where Norma Shearer and John Gilbert do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Then someone yells cut, and they walk "off camera" and have a talk with the director, played by Lionel Barrymore, who says that the studio has re-written the script. "The kids don't like this Shakespeare stuff," says Barrymore. "The studio wants the scene to be more modern." So back Norma and John go to the balcony, where the re-do the scene...in 1929-modern teenage slang! I must admit that I laughed out loud. And you know what makes this segment extra-amazing? It was done in color!
What makes it special? I'm actually not a huge fan of musicals, but in spite of that, and regardless of the fact that the jokes were corny (which is natural, considering that they were old even when this one was filmed!), this is a real treasure. To think that all of these great stars were captured together, on the same piece of moviemaking. If you're a fan of musical variety shows, you should definitely look this one up if you get the chance!
Starring: Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Eleanor Griffith
Directed by: Roland West
Where did I find it? This was the first of my Movie Monday films that I was able to find on Netflix! The picture quality was good, but the sound went in and out. However, considering the age of the movie I was very happy with it.
What's it about? Handsome prohibition gangster Chick Williams (Chester Morris) has just gotten out of prison and returned to the loving arms of his mob family. With his new-found freedom and a gorgeous gal on his arm, he seems to have the world at his fingertips. His new girl, Joan Manning (Eleanor Griffith), is the daughter of a police sergeant, but that doesn't prevent her from being a wide-eyed innocent who fully believes Chick when he says he was framed by the "coppers."
During a warehouse robbery, a policeman is killed. Chick is suspected, but Joan gives him an alibi, saying that he was at the theatre with her when the robbery took place. And then, in an act of defiance against her father, she drops one more bombshell: she and Chick have gotten married.
During a taut, terrifying interrogation of a petty crook, police secure testimony that Chick is the shooter. Fearful that Joan's alibi may not be able to hold, Chick and his cronies attempt to secure another "witness" on his behalf, but they make their biggest mistake in soliciting the help of an affable drunk who is actually undercover police officer Danny McGann (Regis Toomey). Joan knows that McGann is a cop. She wants to keep his secret but accidentally gives him away.
McGann is killed. Joan doesn't want to believe in Chick's guilt, but when she threatens to defy him, he shows his true colors. "I killed that cop," he tells her, taking joy in watching Joan's faith disappear. "You're my wife and you'll do what I tell you."
At that moment the cops bust in. They take Chick prisoner, but he escapes, making his way up to the roof. He tries to jump from one building to the next, but he misses, and plunges to his death in the alley below.
What makes it special? This flick was what's known as a "transitional talkie." It was filmed both with sound and as a silent picture. It's also credited as being the first Impressionist gangster film, which means (as near as I can tell!) that it has a kind of avant gard aesthetic quality. The exterior night backgrounds are hand-drawn in what I call the "comic book style."
Lines between good and bad are blurred in this film. The criminals are definitely portrayed as villians, but the police aren't much better. The scene where they force an implication of Chick out of a petty criminal, by threatening to shoot him, is pretty brutal. Of course we've seen that kind of scene a million times in movies since then, but at the time it must have seemed especially shocking and gritty, and it still packs a heavy punch today.
Chester Morris, who plays Chick Williams, is definitely the standout actor in this picture. (We'll see him again in the 3rd Academy awards with the movie The Divorcee.) On screen he goes from urbane young man wrongly accused of criminal activity, to tough-guy mobster as he plots his alibi with his cronies, to smirking villian as he confesses his crimes to his wife, and ends up as just another cowering, pathetic crook as he bargains with the police for his life then tries to make a getaway. In the hands of a lesser actor these transitions would have been impossible, but he pulls it off. He was nominated for Best Actor (he lost to Warner Baxter, star of In Old Arizona).
The seeds of many future gangster flicks, most notably The Departed, can be seen in this movie. On its own merits it drags a bit, but anyone interested in early crime pictures will definitely want to check this one out!
In Old Arizona
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess
Directed by: Irving Cummings
Where did I find it? I rented the dvd from Netflix. The picture was good - especially the wide shots of the Arizona landscape. The sound had undergone restoration and is in great shape.
What's it about? The Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) is the "Robin Hood of the Old West." With a $5000 price on his head, he could be the most wanted man in Arizona. But this is no callous badman, no ruthless villian: he's a gallant and gracious thief. While holding up a stagecoach at the beginning of the film, he assures the occupants that he never steals from passengers; all he wants is the Wells Fargo gold. He even goes so far as to buy a brooch from one of the young ladies riding in the stagecoach before riding off with his good manners intact, and the stolen gold tucked into his saddlebags.
Army Sergeant Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) is dispatched to bring the Kid to justice. The two meet in a barber shop, where the Kid is getting himself all cleaned up to go and visit his lady love. Of course, the Cisco Kid is well aware that Dunn is hunting him, but the good Sergeant doesn't realize that this affable Mexican gentleman is actually the bandit he's looking for until after his prey had ridden away.
The Kid goes to visit Tonia Maria, the girl he loves best. Not realizing that she's been unfaithful to him in his absence, he showers her with gifts and affection. As a favor to him, she goes to take a message to Mickey Dunn, and she and Dunn hit it off. They conspire together to capture the Cisco Kid. But he gets wind of the plan, and executes a complex revenge, tricking Dunn into shooting Tonia Maria.
What makes it special? Warner Baxter won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in this picture, and he does seem to hit all the right notes as the charasmatic anti-hero. He's a dead-eye shot, a generous tipper, and he can carry a tune like nobody's business. Baxter manages to balance the Kid's borderline-buffoon quality with the dark underbelly of the man betrayed.
Another interesting thing about this film is that it's apparently the first all-sound Western (although it's really more of a tragic love story than a shoot-'em-up cowboy flick). One sound effect in particular, that of ham and eggs sizzling on a stove, must have caused quite a sensation. It was a real techical achievement.
And I can't leave this film without mentioning again the extraordinary footage of the America Southwest. They are clear and beautiful and altogether remarkable - what a wonderful job of photography and restoration!
And the winner is...
The Broadway Melody
Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love
Directed by: Harry Beaumont
Where did I find it? Netflix
What's it about? Feisty and ambitious Harriet "Hank" Mahoney (Bessie Love) and her shy, beautiful sister Queenie (Anita Page) bring their sister act to New York with dreams of making it big on Broadway. Hank's boyfriend Eddie Kerns (Charles King) has a job in a Broadway revue called the Zanfield Follies. Although Hank and Eddie have been together for awhile, when Eddie and Queenie see each other it's love at first sight. But they don't breathe a word about their feelings.
Eddie manages to bring the girls into the show, but things don't stay rosy very long. Hank's stage time is reduced, while Queenie's is increased. In an effort to keep her feelings for Eddie at bay, Queenie allows a rich investor, Jock Warriner, to court her. Hank watches with horror as Queenie descends from young innocent toward kept woman. She struggles to keep Queenie the same girl she's always been, but Queenie fights her every step of the way.
Jock has gifted Queenie with a luxurious new apartment. On the night that she's supposed to move in, he throws her a party. Hank and Eddie try to keep her from leaving the theatre and going to the soiree. There's a terrible fight, and Hank realizes that Eddie is in love with her sister.
Queenie escapes and runs off to the party. Hank tells Eddie, "If I were in love with someone the way you are with Queenie, I'd go after them and do whatever I had to to get them back." Eddie hugs her and runs out the door to be with the girl he loves. He arrives at the party just as Jock is about to force himself on Queenie. Eddie saves her, getting himself pretty well beaten up in the process, and they leave together.
Months later, Hank is pacing anxiously in her apartment. Eddie and Queenie rush in, freshly back from their honeymoon. The reunion is awkward but happy. And Hank can't stay long - after all, she has a new partner and they're about to leave for a brand new tour. But Hank is sure she'll be back on Broadway before too long. "It's cream in the can, baby," she says pluckily.
What makes it special? This was MGM's first all-talking musical feature. It was also the first musical to spawn sequals: Broadway Melody of 1938 (which will appear on our blog in a few weeks) and Broadway Melody of 1940.
Of all the movies I've seen so far for this blog, Broadway Melody was the most modern, and that made it - for me, at least - the most enjoyable. It's a story about sisterly devotion (Hank and Queenie are both willing to give up the man they love so that the other can be happy), and it's a story about the kind of courage that's needed to follow your dreams and still maintain your integrity. I thought it was great!
Next week: war, infidelity and the ultimate Frenchman! (How's that for a teaser?)