Grand Hotel (1931-32)

Grand Hotel - movie poster

“Grand Hotel. People coming, going, nothing ever happens.”

So says Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) with icy introspection, sitting alone, away from the others, in the lobby of this plush Berlin establishment. His keen observation caps an opening medley of fast-cut telephone conversations from much of the principal cast, which introduces them as well as their individual story lines. It’s an effective way to begin this marvelously shadowy, world-weary ensemble piece with an ironic critique of “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

The cinematography is outstanding from the get-go, most notably in an indelible overhead shot that looks down on the outer spiraling stairs, straight over the lobby’s circular front desk, far below, giving the impression of a beehive or perhaps an ant farm crawling with activity but reduced in size to reflect its proportional worth. It’s a stunning visual supporting Otternschlag’s classic quote, establishing the perspective that all of this “drama” we are about to see will add up to nothing more than an average day inside these decadent, swanky walls. Everything happens, and nothing happens. It celebrates and trivializes at the same time.

Overhead shot of the busy lobby in "Grand Hotel," 1932.

Overhead shot of the busy lobby in “Grand Hotel,” 1932.

Unlike previous Best Picture -winners where the story is king, Grand Hotel is the first ensemble movie to take the award, relying more on memorable characters than any individual plot line. It was also MGM’s first all-star dramatic vehicle, and they loaded it to the brim with several of its top stars: peerless Greta Garbo, two Barrymores (Lionel and John), Wallace Beery, and a young and sizzling Joan Crawford, with able support from two stalwart character actors Stone and Jean Hersholt (of the Academy’s own Humanitarian Award fame). Any of the stars could have carried a movie like this by themselves and proved that point in previous releases, but the studio opted for an “eggs in one basket” approach, a novel idea back then that paid off big-time. Grand Hotel was the biggest money-maker of 1932.

The people do come and go, as Otternschlag says, a doctor by trade, disfigured with dark scarring over half of his face from the Great War when he was “dropped off” at this hotel and forgotten. John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern. Despite the title and charm and an adorable dog, he has no financial means to sustain his life even on a basic level. This congenial aristocrat is on the brink of disaster. Wallace Beery is General Director Preysing, a corrupt and wealthy mogul, desperate to seal an underhanded business merger that would save his financial interests. Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen, an ambitious stenographer hired by Preysing as a temp who knows the worth of her looks and youth and isn’t afraid to parlay them into a better life. Lionel Barrymore as Otto Kringelein, a humble accountant working for the same corporation Beery owns, checks into the Grand Hotel for one final, celebratory fling before he dies of a terminal illness. And Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya, a famous ballerina who yearns to give everything up and escape from her glamorous life, if only she could find someone who would love her for herself.

At times this movie feels like a stage play, because it was. Irving Thalberg purchased the rights to Vicki Baum’s novel for MGM, but produced it to great success on Broadway first, before lining up his all-star film cast. Only one holdover from that stage production re-created her role on film: the ballerina’s devoted maid Suzette, played by Rafaela Ottiano.

Image of Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford in "Grand Hotel," 1932.

Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford in “Grand Hotel,” 1932.

There are two real standouts for me in this movie. First, there’s Joan Crawford, who manages to outshine even Garbo. Joan was an established star by then, but to see her command the screen with those expressive eyes and a knowing smile sets her apart from the rest. Her visual pictures paint thousands of words, as the saying goes. She was at the height of her screen beauty here, and the camera loves her. Lionel Barrymore is the other standout and, for me, the heart of the picture. It’s when Joan and Lionel share the screen that the movie packs a resonating punch. Both characters are caught up in the immediacy of life. Barrymore’s accountant hasn’t long to live, but he’s decided to make the most of his remaining time while he can. Crawford’s stenographer knows her looks and youth won’t last forever, so she too is making the most it. That’s why they work so well together. They are caught up in a specific moment, sharing it for all its worth, knowing full-well that it won’t last. There is a beauty and sadness in their scenes.

Garbo’s iconic line is spoken in this film more than once: “I want to be alone.” Her earlier, somewhat archaic romantic scenes opposite John Barrymore serve well as a setup for the final scenes where she exits the hotel and steps into a taxi, deliriously happy and in love while the audience knows her impending rendezvous with the baron will never happen. It’s that moment and the scene just before when the telephone rings inside the baron’s suite with no answer, as his sweet dog looks up from the bed and waits for a master who will never return. I admit it was this shot that got the tears flowing for me.

In the end, Grand Hotel is grand soap opera, complete with intertwining plots, romantic and confronting characters, life, death, and even birth when the porter Senf (Hersholt) learns over the telephone of his new baby’s arrival. It’s a broad slice of life in a transient location, and a worthy choice for the Academy’s favorite of the year.

Grand Hotel

Director Edmund Goulding
Primary Cast Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt
Familiar Faces none (no repeat performers from the previous winning films)
Firsts First and only film to win Best Picture without any other nominations
Total Wins 1 (Picture)
Total Nominations 1 (Picture)
Viewing Format Blu-ray Disc

 

Cimarron (1930-31)

Cimarron - movie poster

Cimarron is a true Edna Ferber epic, no question. It has all the characteristics of her best-known novels. Ms. Ferber also wrote Giant and Show Boat, and in all three cases, her classic stories follow a family’s romantic, social, and often political development over several decades. They have strong female characters at the core, and each saga presents racial injustice as a major theme and motivator. In Show Boat, it’s the relationships and treatment of African-Americans by whites. In Giant, it’s Mexican Americans and whites, and in Cimarron, it’s Native Americans and whites. All three deal with interracial romances and mixed races as well.

Cimarron stars Richard Dix, himself a silent-era cowboy star who successfully made the transition to Talkies but also kept most of his outdated acting habits intact, at least judging from this film. Dix was honored with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and at first I was scratching my head as to why and how it happened. But as the film went on, I realized he is well suited for his role. Yancey Cravat (no, I’m not making up that name) is a larger-than-life, boot-stomping, square-jawed “cowboy hero” of his day — but his “day” is quickly passing him by.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in "Cimarron," 1931.

Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in “Cimarron,” 1931.

As the years pile on, he and his young bride Sabra (Irene Dunne) drift apart in outlook, opinion, and sentiment. Yancey is a real throwback to another often glamorized, folkloric era, just as Dix is a throwback to the silent-movie cowboy star. I must confess, by the end of the film, I couldn’t picture anyone else in the role — at least not as effectively. Watching him over-emote with his heavy eyeliner and stilted speaking voice and grand, silent-movie gestures, he seems just as out-of-place in the new era of sound as Yancey does watching his new frontier and old western ideals fade into the sunset. It doesn’t help that he is playing opposite newcomer Irene Dunne, fresh from her role as Magnolia in the national tour of the smash musical Show Boat, who is very much at ease in sound films, giving the first of her five career-spanning, Oscar-nominated performances as Best Actress.

Eugene Jackson as Isaiah in "Cimarron," 1931.

Eugene Jackson as Isaiah in “Cimarron,” 1931.

One of the ironies of this film from 1931 is that we watch Yancey and Sabra’s son fall in love and marry out of his own race — but while presenting a narrative plea for equality, or at least mutual respect as far as the White Man’s relationship with Native Americans goes, we also get a cringe-worthy, stereotypical African-American boy (yes, a cartoonish pickaninny) for comic relief. Eugene Jackson, former member of the silent Our Gang comedy shorts known as Pineapple, plays Isaiah. I suppose the only saving grace here is that he dies early on, and we are meant to feel sorrow for his sacrifice, or perhaps pity for his loyalty to the family. The laughing stops. The clown is dead. Regardless, over 80 years later, it comes off as clumsy and hypocritical and a definite mixed message as far as the plot’s moral voice goes. This film is clearly a product of its time, and it reminds me all too well of the complexity of equality and an ongoing struggle (to this day) to achieve it and even depict it in a pure sense.

Still, the real star here is the story, and it’s a strong (often imitated) one. It might even be compared to other classics like A Star Is Born, where an established leading male character meets his romantic “diamond in the rough,” and as the plot progresses, they switch places. The demure but ambitious female is on the rise, coming into her own success and independent voice, while the male “hero” struggles and loses ground, searching for his old ways and former glories. It makes for compelling drama, and long after the film ended, I was pondering the characters and their complex motivations. Cimarron is a worthy choice for Best Picture for that reason alone, and I’m not surprised it received near-universal critical praise when it was released.

A bevy of supporting performances help make this film memorable, starting off with one of my all-time favorites Edna May Oliver as Mrs. Wyatt. She too has a prior Show Boat/Edna Ferber connection, just like Irene Dunne, having created the role of Parthy in the original Broadway production. Estelle Taylor, George E. Stone, William Collier, Jr., and Stanley Fields, add greatly whenever they are on screen and deserve mention as well.

Cimarron

Director Wesley Ruggles
Primary Cast Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Edna May Oliver
Familiar Faces none (no repeat performers from the previous winning films)
Firsts First western to win Best Picture, first of only two movies in history to receive a nomination in every eligible category
Total Wins 3 (Picture, Writing: Adaptation, Art Direction)
Total Nominations 7 (Picture, Director, Actor: Richard Dix, Actress: Irene Dunne, Writing: Adaptation, Art Direction, Cinematography)
Viewing Format DVD

 

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)

All Quiet on the Western Front - movie poster

I’ll be up front about it — I think All Quiet on the Western Front is the best anti-war film ever made (at least to date), based on the now-classic 1928 German novel by Erich Maria Remarque with a forward that includes the following quote:

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.”

The same quote opens the film. The images are haunting, the story extremely powerful. This is an early talking picture, and, as with The Broadway Melody, a silent version was released simultaneously to movie theatres not yet equipped for audio presentations. The newly restored Blu-ray Disc contains both versions (sound and silent) for a fascinating side-by-side comparison. Even though the technology could be vastly improved today, the telling of the tale could not. From a cast of largely unknown young men to the gritty and realistic battle scenes to the lack of almost any music score (lending a claustrophobic but authentic feel), this film doesn’t miss a mark.

The jingoistic schoolteacher in "All Quiet on the Western Front," 1930.

The jingoistic schoolteacher in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” 1930.

It tells of a loss of innocence, following a group of German schoolboys who are worked up into a patriotic frenzy and coerced as much as inspired by their fanatical and dangerously misinformed schoolmaster to leave their desks and homes and families and enlist right away in the army.

This scene is repeated much later in the film when a disillusioned and broken-down Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayers) returns on leave to his home, to the very classroom where he made the decision that would forever change his life. He sees the same elderly schoolteacher filling a new group of innocent young heads with visions of glory and patriotic heroism. The schoolteacher then turns to the uniformed Paul to echo his impressions of “what it’s like” to be in a war, and Paul completely shatters his perspective in front of the whole class.

What strikes me most about All Quiet on the Western Front is its story, which is raw and emotional and often disturbing. Perhaps seeing it as an “early Talkie” with black-and-white shadowy images and, in some cases, crude production values lends an aspect of realness that makes me feel like I was there with them in 1914 — and the fact that this movie was shot a mere 16 years after these (fictional) boys enlisted and went off to war also seems more authentic to the era than a modern, slick production of it would be.

I love that the opening “hometown” scenes in the German village were filmed quite obviously on Universal’s back lot. I say “quite obviously” having lived in Los Angeles for more than two decades and having visited Universal Studios where I took the tram tour many times. This is the same outdoor set used for village settings in Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and more movies than I can count. That adds a layer of familiarity as well, for me, so when the boys go marching off to war in a production released 85 years ago, I feel in an odd (perhaps parallel-universe) way like I know where they came from.

Lew Ayers as Paul Bäumer in "All Quiet on the Western Front," 1930.

Lew Ayers as Paul Bäumer in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” 1930.

The acting varies from subtle to sledgehammer, but I never found it insincere. There is one scene between Paul and a French soldier he fatally wounds in the trenches that is particularly heart-wrenching. When Paul agonizes over the soldier’s dead body, it puts a human face on both sides of this tragedy. Gone are any traces of glory or “winning” or patriotism. This is about two people caught up in one of the ugliest sides of human nature.

All Quiet on the Western Front stays with me, long after I see it. While I’m watching the film, it often seems like a simple, straightforward telling of the story. It’s only days later, when I still can’t shake its images out of my head, that I realize how powerful and haunting it is, how strong the direction and cinematography are, and how successful a book-to-screen adaptation this movie truly is.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Director Lewis Milestone
Primary Cast Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray
Familiar Faces none (no repeat performers from the previous winning films)
Firsts First winner based on a novel, first to win both Best Picture and Best Director
Total Wins 2 (Picture, Director)
Total Nominations 4 (Picture, Director, Writing, Cinematography)
Viewing Format Blu-ray Disc

 

Academy Weighing Return to Five Best Picture Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is seriously considering a return to its former policy of having only five best picture nominees, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. That number would be down from a maximum of 10 that are allowed by the current rules.

Read more: Hollywood Reporter link (March 3, 2015).

I really hope this is true. It was a huge mistake to raise it in the first place. They did it to be “inclusive” so films like The Dark Knight and more popular choices might be recognized (if you doubt that, read the press on it when it happened, or just read this article).

Instead they have more independent art-house films that don’t deserve the nomination AND four people saw them. Some of the recent nominees only received a Best Pic nomination and maybe one other. That’s it. If the film is up for the highest honor as an overall “best” choice and can’t score nominations in any other category as “outstanding,” then what the hell is so special about it? And something is really messed up.

I also hate the crazy, gerrymandering voting system of how they throw out percentages of the highest and lowest and end up rounding off to the square root of an isosceles triangle to get the top choices. How about something really insane, like the TOP FIVE CHOICES GET ON THE BALLOT. Crazy idea, right?

They can’t have it both ways. It should be a tough competition for “best,” not a diplomatic basket of lollipops to be handed out to the entire class (or not at all). The “everybody gets a gold star” mentality is burying the award and any meaning it has or had (yes, they are undermining its history as well). There should be upsets and surprises and snubs. That’s the drama for the public. By taking that away, you lose your audience. The award and the Academy itself was created as a promotional device for the public. It is motion picture PR to promote positive awareness of the industry. They have always needed and wanted that. But they can’t pretend it’s not a competition, and a fierce and costly (and sometimes corrupt) one at that.

They need to stop playing politics with their elitist award that’s only managed to become more elitist and less inclusive in the past decade. Well done, Academy! Well done.

 

The Broadway Melody (1928-29)

The Broadway Melody (1928-29) - movie poster

Released in February of 1929, The Broadway Melody was billed as the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing motion picture. Timing is everything, as they say, and it’s fascinating to note that this frothy, sentimental, backstage entertainment came out a mere eight months before the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. It marks the beginning of a new era in cinema as well as the end of an innocent, carefree, and prosperous age for many Americans. Not all theatres were equipped for sound, so this movie was also released as a silent film. It seems odd for a musical, but MGM was the same studio that made a silent version of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert. Initially, The Broadway Melody featured a two-strip Technicolor sequence, called “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” which has since been lost. Only the black-and-white version of it exists today.

There was much buzz in 2012 when director Tom Hooper decided that all of the singing for his film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables would be recorded live while the cameras rolled, but that’s exactly the way it was done for The Broadway Melody and indeed all early sound musicals. Lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks wasn’t considered an option in 1929, and an off-screen orchestra played live for these musical numbers as well. However, the original choreography was scrapped for “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” and rather than assemble the live orchestra again for reshoots, new choreography was filmed to the existing soundtrack, marking the first time a musical sequence was shot to prerecorded playback — which is still the preferred method, to this day.

The film opens with the familiar Leo the Lion in MGM’s logo, roaring silently over the music, yet another indication of this sudden, transitional period between eras. After the titles, we see several aerial shots of 1920s New York City skyscrapers, including one traveling shot looking straight down over the tops of the buildings. This reminds me so much of the opening sequence in another Best Picture -winning musical — 1961’s West Side Story — but there is no Chrysler Building, no Empire State Building, and no World Trade Center or Freedom Tower either. This is the gleaming metropolis of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and George Gershwin.

Charles King sings the title tune in "The Broadway Melody," 1929.

Charles King sings the title tune in “The Broadway Melody,” 1929.

We end up in Tin Pan Alley, the name given to a cluster of office buildings filled with songwriters, publishers, singers, and musicians, all huddled around upright pianos, trying to bang out the next big hit tune that would sweep the nation. Through a dissonant medley of noises at the Gleason Publishing Company — which must have been exhilarating to movie audiences accustomed to imagining such sounds — we focus in on Eddie Kearns (Charles King), running through his latest tune with a piano player (played by Nacio Herb Brown, the man who wrote all the music for the songs in this movie). As character actor James Gleason (who co-wrote the dialogue and must have named this fictional publishing establishment after himself along the way) walks from office to office, he picks up on the brilliance emanating from Kearns and his piano player. He quiets everyone as they deliver the movie’s title tune and signature song, “The Broadway Melody.” They are joined by more seemingly-improvising musicians and flapper-girl singers and even the film’s lyricist Arthur Freed, who would go on to become MGM’s top producer of musicals, standing behind his songwriting partner Brown at the piano. It’s an exciting opening number, full of toe-tapping energy, and it’s a great way to kick off the story.

After they finish, Kearns reveals that he has sold his song to Francis Zanfield (modeled after Florenz Ziegfeld), and “the Mahoney Sisters are coming from the West to put it over for him.” The golden age of Vaudeville would eventually be undermined by talking pictures like this one, and changing tastes in entertainment, but for now, acts like the Mahoney Sisters traveled around the country performing in various circuits such as the Orpheum, Keith, or Pantages.

A title card over a black background (yet another holdover from silent films that is to be repeated throughout this movie) announces the setting of the next scene. It’s the Mahoney Sisters’ hotel. “Hank” (Bessie Love) and her kid sister Queenie (Anita Page) arrive in the city, big on ambition and dreams but short on cash. Their “uncle” enters the room with news of future regional bookings, an invitation to dinner, and a cartoonish stutter — which must have been funny back then — followed by Kearns, who is romantically linked to older sister Hank, but suddenly casts his eye on her all-grown-up sibling Queenie, and the love triangle is established.

Bessie Love as Hank Mahoney in "The Broadway Melody," 1929.

Bessie Love as Hank Mahoney in “The Broadway Melody,” 1929.

What is evident after just a few minutes of this scene is the superior acting of Bessie Love. It’s almost like she’s in a different movie. She doesn’t recite her lines “good and loud” for the microphone the way the others do. She doesn’t seem stilted or overblown or robotic. Her energy level is elevated along with the others, but her voice and reactions are natural and perfect for this new sound era. Bessie received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her work in The Broadway Melody, and in my opinion she could have easily won. When the story unfolds, it’s clear her Hank is the heart and soul of the movie.

The Broadway Melody was the number-one box office hit for 1929, and it’s important to remember that this film was the first of its kind. Plenty of backstage musicals came along later and copied what was good about it while tossing out the rest, and by most accounts they did it better — including 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. This was a true pioneer, however, one of the rare beasts in Hollywood: an original idea. Movies like Singin’ in the Rain and even Chicago owe a great deal to the movie musical that started it all. Speaking of Singin’ in the Rain, that film used the song catalogue of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown and featured nearly the entire score from this film as it told its hilarious story of the advent of sound in movies. Today, we would call it a “Jukebox Musical” as was An American in Paris, also a Best Picture -winner featuring the song catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin. Both movies were produced by Arthur Freed, the guy standing by the piano player in the background of the opening scene in The Broadway Melody. The guy who wrote the words and helped usher in a brand new way to tell stories on film.

The Broadway Melody

Director Harry Beaumont
Primary Cast Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love
Familiar Faces none (no repeat performers from the previous winning film)
Firsts First sound movie and first musical to win the Oscar as Best Picture
Total Wins 1 (Picture)
Total Nominations 3 (Picture, Director, Actress: Bessie Love)
Viewing Format DVD

 

Wings (1927-28)

Wings (1927-28) - movie poster

My journey through “Best Picture Land” begins just as it should with Wings, the first film awarded the top prize by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This movie has several key ingredients that have been honored time and again: a simple, strong story with complex and conflicted emotions told on an epic scale that sweeps audiences, or at least this particular viewer, completely away. Originally presented with extended sequences in Magnascope — a silent-era equivalent of IMAX allowing for a much larger image to be projected than the standard 35mm prints of the day — Wings aims to impress and even overwhelm with stunning aerial battle scenes that, 88 years later, still make my jaw drop.

The movie stars Clara Bow, a silent-cinema icon and one of the few names from this bygone era that people remember today. The plot’s romantic quartette is fleshed out by the appealing swell-guy Charles “Buddy” Rogers, whom I had the pleasure of meeting twice, the somber, stoic, and rugged Richard Arlen, and his hometown sweetheart (soon to be his real-life sweetheart) played by Jobyna Ralston. It also has a memorable scene featuring young and handsome Gary Cooper, a future double-Oscar-winner and major star in his own right.

Wings relies heavily on spectacle, not unlike Gone With the Wind, Titanic, or Ben-Hur, and admittedly I first saw this film years ago by way of a faded, scratchy print on VHS. Today, I am watching the gloriously restored Blu-ray Disc, with its outstanding picture and sound — and yes, presentation makes all the difference in the world. This print is virtually immaculate with incredible, fine detail throughout. The sky battles have hand-tinted, colored fire shooting out of the biplanes’ machine guns, just as they did for audiences in 1927.

World War I may seem like ancient history today, but it’s important to realize that when this film was made, it was just eight years after the “war to end all wars.” Horrific images and personal stories were still fresh in people’s minds, and I can’t imagine how powerful it must have been to see this movie on the big (and for some sequences, giant) screen back then.

Movie mogul Jesse Lasky brought this project to Paramount Pictures, intending it to be the year’s big “road show” release, and they invested a huge amount of time and money into it — a fact that is boldly evident in every aspect of the production. This looks like an expensive film, one of the last, great, silent spectacles.

And “silent” is a relative term at this point, since, in the twilight years of the art form, silent films often had soundtracks with synchronized effects, background ambiance, and even prerecorded music at screenings. For Wings, a live orchestra accompanied the film, not only for its New York and Los Angeles engagements, but in many cities around the country. That, along with the Magnascope presentation, made it a highly unique experience for moviegoers.

The original music score was discovered not long ago by way of a reduced conductor’s hardcopy (yes, actual paper) in the Library of Congress and has been re-orchestrated with great skill and care for this restoration. When the first stanzas of the appealing main-title theme are heard, the current Paramount logo gives way in receding order to a parade of every past logo until we arrive at the original one from 1927 — a highly effective way to transport viewers back in time to the era of the film’s release. It also has a curious effect of making this experience fresh and exciting. Rather than observing an archaic movie 88 years after its release, I feel as if I’ve time-traveled back to see a “brand new film.” In short, I’m already hooked.

Charles "Buddy" Rogers as Jack in "Wings," 1927.

Charles “Buddy” Rogers as Jack in “Wings,” 1927.

The story opens with Jack (Buddy Rogers) lying face-down on his front lawn. It’s a warm, sunny day. As he rolls over and gazes up at the clouds, a plane passes by overhead. Its droning engine travels from one speaker to the next in 5.1 Surround Sound, and I’m struck by how contemporary it all feels and how modern Jack looks. No phony silent-movie makeup augmenting his face. The slick curls in his hair and his dapper clothes under his mechanic’s coveralls could easily be worn by a fashion-conscious college dude today. In fact, with the golden-amber tint to this black-and-white footage, it looks like an image torn out of the latest Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. Jack is handsome, hopeful, and most definitely a daydreamer. There is a youthful energy and innocence in his eyes.

The first scenes set the the tone for a simple home-life prior to the “big event” (in this case, the front lines of World War I) — a formula popular with Best Picture epics like Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur. The quartet of “unrequited lovers” is introduced — Jack, his next-door neighbor Mary (Clara Bow) who is secretly smitten with him. Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), the girl Jack is sweet on, and rich kid David (Richard Arlen) who has won Sylvia’s heart.

The acting is surprisingly natural overall even if the energy level is heightened, which is due in part to the slightly faster film speed. Director William Wellman allows for lingering closeups of his featured characters. He understands that the emotions in a story are just as important as any action sequence. That’s what makes a film like Wings resonate for me. It’s odd than in some ways filmmaking took a minor but temporary step backward with the advent of sound. Suddenly, the spoken word became the new toy, the latest gimmick, and the focus of most movies. It’s as if they forgot the old cliché that “a picture paints a thousand words.” Actors talked (and talked and talked) and indicated and articulated emotions and described their own plot lines, rather than showed audiences what was happening. I find early talking pictures to be more stilted in general than the later silent films such as Wings that came at the dawn of this new audio era.

Sound even hindered camera movement at first, since any clunks or squeaks could be picked up by the microphones. Early Talkies have endless “locked off” shots where the camera doesn’t budge. This is far from true in a film like Wings. Cinematographer Harry Perry’s camera travels everywhere from the edge of a lover’s garden swing, swaying to and fro, to the cockpit of a biplane during spectacular midair battles.

Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers share a passionate embrace and onscreen kiss in "Wings," 1927.

Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers share a passionate embrace and onscreen kiss in “Wings,” 1927.

The moment Jack and David hit boot camp (filmed at a US Army base in San Antonio, Texas), there is tension between them. After a heated boxing match, this opposition gives way to the film’s other love story: an honest-to-goodness “bromance.” Without giving away much of the plot (come on now, it’s been 88 years), there is a tender embrace and passionate kiss toward the end of the film. Much speculation has been written about this impromptu gesture. I don’t believe it’s sexual so much as a demonstration of their genuine love for each other. Still, there’s no denying these two men share something special and very deep between them. Other films in the 1920s and ’30s have similar expressions of love manifested in kissing (full on the lips), hugging, and caressing between two same-sex characters or siblings (see Bessie Love and Anita Page in The Broadway Melody) or a mother and son or father and daughter. I think “public displays of affection” were more acceptable back then without an automatic jump to sex as the driving factor. Perhaps it was an innocent time on the surface. At least that’s the way I see it. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt in this case, but if others choose to see Jack and David’s kiss as sexually motivated, I understand that. It’s certainly passionate, no question.

Wings is not without faults, and its established momentum comes to a screeching halt for a comedy bit involving an intoxicated Jack playing with special-effects bubbles in his champaign. It’s a one-joke sequence that might have been amusing in its day (back when “drunk” was more funny than serious—Arthur, anyone?), but whether you’re laughing or not, this scene goes on way too long. I’m sure it’s in there to lighten the mood and give audiences a break, but they didn’t need an extended nap.

It’s easy to see, in the end, how and why Wings was chosen as the outstanding picture, or “Best Production” as it was initially called. The film has so much going for it and a very broad appeal. It’s also worth noting the “other Best Picture” for 1927-28. I’m referring to an award handed out only for this inaugural season and never again, in a category known as “Best Picture, Unique Artistic Production,” which went to Fox’s masterpiece Sunrise.

It seems my Best Picture Project has started out with a bang even if it was a silent bang. Now on to the next, with The Broadway Melody.

Wings

Director William A. Wellman
Primary Cast Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper
Familiar Faces none (first winner, so no repeat performers)
Firsts First film to win the Oscar as Best Picture
Total Wins 2 (Picture, Effects)
Total Nominations 2 (Picture, Effects)
Viewing Format Blu-ray Disc

 

Paul’s Folly: An Introduction

film reel

It sounded like a fun idea at first. Actually, it still is: what would it be like to watch every movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture in chronological order? It wouldn’t be my first time with the films. For some, it’s a recent revisit; for others, it’s been decades.

I’m not a binge watcher either, so I won’t attempt to do it overnight or even pledge to see one a day, but I will make it through the list. Call it a playful challenge or personal dare if you like, but let me start by saying I don’t think all of them were “best,” or even close to it, while others well deserved the honor.

Regardless, the only fact here is that a group of select peers working in motion pictures decided to give these films the top prize in their industry — whether it was due to legitimate merit or behind-the-scenes politics or a sign of the times (either fashion or reactionary), whether the film was a runaway hit, an odds-on favorite, or a little-known underdog out of nowhere that caused gasps around the globe when its name was announced at the podium.

I’m fascinated by the Oscars and their history and always have been. We’ve shared a love/hate relationship ever since I was a wee tot of the 1960s growing up in a college town in Kansas, watching the live broadcast at home with my parents — but you can read more about that here if you like.

This project is already underway, and I discovered after viewing only a handful of entries that I was witnessing the evolution of film, but even more remarkable, I saw a common thread in the struggle of artists and craftsmen to express themselves in their chosen medium. Everything was changing, not just the technology of the day. On the surface, I saw hairstyles, makeup clothing, telephones, cars, gadgets, modes of transportation, and other trendy advancements come and go. Artistically, I saw methods of cinematic communication evolve: dialogue, acting styles, directing styles, editing, music, cinematography, sound design, and visual effects, all working in tandem in an attempt to improve the telling of a story — whether it was modern or period; drama, comedy, or musical.

It’s been a fascinating journey so far, and I’m barely out of the starting gate. I hope you’ll join me for the rest. Weigh in with your thoughts if you like. Argue with me (no name-calling, pal) or agree with me if you are so inclined. I won’t attempt to rank them from best to worst or reduce my opinion to a “who should have won instead” contest. That’s the easy route. The fact is, they did win. All of them. And I’m more interested in considering why. What does it say about film passions and movie trends or Hollywood politics throughout the years?

Consider this blog a big comfy couch in front of a 70″ HDTV. We’ve got virtual popcorn and your favorite beverage ready for the ride. Now dim the lights and crank up the sound — yes, even for a silent film — as we “start at the very beginning” (a very good place to start, according to the 1965 winner The Sound of Music) with Wings, the first Best Picture for the (then) seasonal calendar of 1927-28.

Enjoy!

Paul