Monday, March 26, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1929-1930

The Contenders:

All Quiet on the Western Front (winner)
The Big House
Disraeli
The Divorcee
The Love Parade

What’s Missing

These early years of Oscar are difficult when it comes to figuring out what might have been missed with a nomination. The reason is that, unlike today when the Oscars simply run year by year, the first six years went from August of one year through July of the next. As such, determining what year a film is eligible for can be problematic, especially when Wikipedia (the singlemost useful source for something like this) doesn’t list release dates. Anyway, I found two that I think I can argue belonging here. The first is Hallelujah, which I think is more interesting as a piece of film history than it is as a film itself. And, honestly, it didn’t have a chance for a nomination in this third Oscar year. The other film, Pandora’s Box, didn’t have much of a chance either because it was a silent film in the sudden age of talkies. Still, I think it’s a huge miss.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I mildly appreciate all of the nominees for this year at the very least. I even like The Big House in part. The biggest problem with it is the middle section, where it gets very squishy, for lack of a better way to put it. The third act is surprisingly good and goes a long way to redeem just how much gets lost in the second act. Of all of the films nominated, it’s the one with the biggest downside and the smallest upside to fix it. I’d much rather see Pandora’s Box on this list.

4. Absolutely the best thing about The Divorcee is Norma Shearer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for this performance (and I’ll get there eventually). The biggest issue with The Divorcee isn’t the plot or the melodrama, but the length. This movie desperately needs another 15 minutes running time to better tell the story it wants to tell. It needs that additional space to fill out the story. I like it well enough without feeling I need to ever see it again, and with the knowledge that Shearer was rewarded for being the best part of it.

3. I didn’t love Disraeli. In fact, I may have ultimately liked The Divorcee more than I did this one, but I’m putting this higher for a single reason: George Arliss. Arliss has so much fun with this role and this film that it’s impossible not to enjoy it through him on some level. It’s problem, honestly, is that it is an early talkie with everything that represents both in terms of positives and extreme negatives. It’s overacted and silly in places despite how much fun Arliss is having with it. He makes it worth seeing at least once, though.

2. The Love Parade is another early talkie, and an early musical. It’s also a film that didn’t really feel it necessary to create much of a fourth wall. It’s also more or less the invention of the classic musical. Oh, there were musicals before this one, of course, but this is the film that essentially invented the concept of having the characters sing their feelings to each other. The Maurice Chevalier performance is exactly what you expect from him. I still contend that while I don’t like Jeanette MacDonald as a singer, I love her as a comedienne. And it’s Lubitsch, so it’s got that going for it, too.

My Choice

1. All other contenders pale before All Quiet on the Western Front, though. One of the first truly great anti-war movies, this is a film that still manages to resonate and speak to audiences nearly 90 years later. It’s lost almost none of its power over the intervening years, something that can’t be said for many films, and especially can’t be said for a lot of early talkies. Add Pandora’s Box to the mix and we’d have a little closer of a second place, but nothing is removing this from the top position. It was the absolute clear winner here, and anything else would have been an embarrassment.

Final Analysis

9 comments:

  1. Very difficult to argue against All Quiet on the Western Front. Besides being a great and captivating movie it also broke so many barriers, technical, stereotypical, attitude etc. It is incredibly modern considering when it is from. At that time sound movies had not movied off the sound stage and here we get the whole thing outdoors!!!
    I don't know what else I would have included from that year. It is really ackward with that summer-to-summer period.

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    1. Considering the 1001 Movies list, All Quiet and Pandora's Box I think are the two you'd know that were mentioned here. And really, the choice was between them.

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  2. One of the few times the Academy got it right. I always remember when I watch All Quiet on the Western Front that it was only made 12 years after the war ended, and yet was told from the Germans' perspective. Of course it was adapted from the novel, but doing so so soon after the war is rather remarkable. And considering the looming WWII makes it even more poignant.

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    1. There's a lot that is surprising here. That it's an anti-war statement certainly helps its success. It would be a much harder sell to have a pro-war movie from the German perspective in these years.

      I'm constantly surprised at not how good it is, but how relevant it has remained. I think you could show this to a modern audience without much loss in its power or original message. That's pretty amazing.

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  3. While I would never argue with All Quiet on the Western Front, a great great film, being the winner and no matter who it went up against there is no other logical outcome I do wish it had competed against better films.

    I'd toss the entire rest of the slate and comprise it of some combination of Hell's Angels, Under the Roofs of Paris, Pandora's Box, The Blue Angel, Journey's End and The Dawn Patrol along with Western Front. Pandora would probably come in second though it would be a razor thin edge over Hell's Angels.

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    1. Here's why these early years are such a pain in the ass.

      Hell's Angels: release date November 15, 1930 (not eligible)
      The Blue Angel: release date December 5, 1930 (not eligible)
      The Dawn Patrol: release date August 20, 1930 (not eligible)

      See what I mean? Half of your suggestions would have to be in the next Oscars (and are all certainly more interesting films than Cimarron).

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    2. That does make it tougher. I guess that Diary of a Lost Girl would fall into that too since though it came out in 1929 it didn't come to America until sometime in 1930. '29 was such a transitional year a lot of films are rough around the edges because they were adapting to sound.

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  4. I agree totally with your assessment of this movie. It was such an obvious choice, I'm still a little surprised that the Academy didn't miss it anyway.

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    1. I see what you did there.

      It's worth repeating something I've said a number of time before. These posts aren't a celebration of Oscar--they are a reckoning.

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