Saturday, September 12, 2009

Van der Veer, Rucker, With Byrd at the South Pole

With Byrd at the South Pole (1930)
Best Cinematography (Joseph T. Rucker, Willard Van der Veer)

The first World War was over, and it was an exciting time in America. The modern age was quickly coming upon Us. We were quickly conquering the skies and the seas, and it wouldn't be too long before every stretch of Earth would be explored. Fortunately, film had been created the very last moments of the exploration age, when guys who traveled great distances were considered national heroes.

Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd was one such hero, and With Byrd at the South Pole chronicles his 1928 expedition to the South Pole, with the goal to be the first man ever to fly an airplane over the very pole itself. Byrd, who claimed to have flown over the North Pole and who was one of the first people to fly a plane from New York to France nonstop, was quickly becoming one of the most famous explorers of the 20th century. He was considered very brave and patriotic.

He was not, however, a very good actor.

The film opens with a near-five minute scene of Byrd introducing the film. He's clearly uncomfortable, and we can't help but laugh as we watch his eyes move as he reads from cue cards.

Fortunately, the rest of the film fairs better, but overall it's an odd and slight docudrama that's valuable as a historical document then an actual movie. It's main problem is an overall lack of focus, switching between moods and goals rather quickly. At times, the film is a dramatic adventure... a picturesque look at an alien landscape... a technical documentary examining all the small details... a naked guy in a bucket...

This is largely the work of the editor, though. The thing the film won an Academy Award for, cinematography, is really very good. Two cameramen went along with the expedition, and even got to be characters in the film. Willard Van der Veer...

And Joseph T. Rucker.

Between the two, they produced a lot of great, dramatic footage of the Antarctic landscape and managed to great down and personal with the small details at the same time, and a lot of these shots, like ones high in the sails of the ships used to get to the South Pole or shots along the edges of icy cliffs, appear to have been downright life threaten to have taken.

It's impossible to figure out who shot what, so for all we know, all the dangerous stuff could have been the work of one of them and the other could have been a total puss, but however it worked out, you can't help but appreciate the work that went into it.

That brings up an interesting question: Why don't more documentaries get cinematography nominations? Surely, most documentaries depend on having the best damn cinematography possible.

Maybe the Academy is just, I don't know, stupid.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ronald Colman and Bulldog Drummond

Bulldog Drummond (1929)
F. Richard Jones
STARRING: Ronald Colman, Claud Allister, Joan Bennett
NOMINATED FOR: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ronald Colman)
Best Art Direction (William Cameron Menzies)

The transition from silent films to sound was perhaps most dangerous for the actors. If an actor didn't have a voice to match the physical persona they had built up in their silent career, they might never find work again. The most famous case of this was the career of John Gilbert, though his unexpected (but not bad) voice really only played a small part in his steep decline.

British actor Ronald Colman was one of the few stars that not survived the transition, but flourished in it. He had a great voice, and thanks to a side career in radio, knew how to use it. He had a natural charisma that he put in most of his roles, and found success in all kinds of films, be they action, comedy or romance, of which Bulldog Drummond is all three.

The character Bulldog Drummond was created by British author Herman Cyril McNeile as sort of an answer to the rise of American pulp novels. Unfortunately, like a lot of British writing in the early 20th century, McNeile's stories contained a lot of racism and general thugishness that would make the character an unacceptable hero today.

Fortunately, both Ronald Colman's and Bulldog Drummond's first foray into sound exorcised these negative elements, and what you're left with is a cool actor playing a character who's just simply BETTER then everybody else.

Throughout the film, the character of Bulldog Drummond, a retired World War I captain living in the British high life, goes around with a smirk on his face. He knows he's so much better then the people around him, and he's loving it. We're introduced to him reading in a gentleman's club full of old farts. A servant accidentally drops a spoon, upsetting the silence, and the old farts get cranky, and all Bulldog Drummond can do is laugh at how stuck up these people are. Then he starts whistling.

Because he's just simply BETTER then them.

The character of Bulldog Drummond is a bit unique, because he's not a professional crime solver, just a guy who's bored and looking for adventure. He's not even looking to help people, as his classified ad suggests.

And he does find adventure in the form of a girl's kidnapped uncle, but even on the case, he never starts taking anything seriously, even around the girl who hired him.

And most people would take this situation VERY seriously, because once Bulldog agrees to try and free the girl's uncle, he finds himself transplanted into a rather dark and very dangerous pulp world.

In a world with mad scientists, murderers in the shadows and secret passages, you'd expect a hero to stay focused and serious, but Bulldog Drummond is just so much BETTER then everybody.

And that's ultimately where the film's entertain value comes from, Bulldog Drummond smirking and easily outwitting all these dangerous criminals who want to cause him serious harm. I didn't smile during the action scenes, I smiled at small moments like Drummond playing a little tune on his car horn to mock the crooks he just escaped from.

In many ways, Bulldog Drummond is the grandfather to the wisecracking antiheroes who throw around one-liners with each victory, guys like Bruce Willis' character in Die Hard, but perhaps Drummond's nearest relative is this guy:

That's what Drummond is. A cartoon. Just like Bugs Bunny sticking his fingers into Elmer Fudd's gun barrel and having it backfire, the rules just don't apply to Drummond, and he always ends up on top. Part of that comes from the script, but a lot of the credit needs to go to Ronald Colman, who's light smirk and general body language really sells the character's superiority over everyone else.

Perhaps it's because it's such a rarity for a hero to go through no hardships at all that makes the film as enjoyable as it is, a contrast to the struggle of the heroes of every other film. I'm sure it'd get boring really fast if more good guys had it this easy. Bulldog Drummond would probably trump any of those guys, though. Bulldog Drummond is just BETTER then everyone else.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Oscar Lagerstrom and Raffles

Raffles (1930)
Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, George Fitzmaurice
STARRING: Ronald Colman, Kay Francis, Bramwell Fletcher
NOMINATED FOR: Best Sound, Recording (Oscar Lagerstrom)

I've said many negative things towards the introduction of sound in the film industry, but this is not so much a distaste in sound itself as it is a mourning of the lose of what COULD have been. The only point to that is to warn people of how future technological advances can impede on art.

Now that we've had the large clunk of transitioning between silents and talkies and are in the first Academy Awards to give out awards for sound, it's time to stop looking back and instead look forward to the artistic and technical advances sound will offer films as they begin to grow again.

Raffles belongs to the technical side of things. The film and it's sound can be both described in one word: functional. The film is a largely no-brainer light comedy that serves as a Ronald Colman vehicle (of whom I'll have much more to say about in my review following this one). Neither groundbreaking nor insulting, just functional.

The sound design on the film is equally so. Now that sound was no longer a novelty, it had to be made both unobtrusive when it wasn't needed (unlike scenes pausing to showcase their sound effects like in In Old Arizona) as well as technically sound (unlike the horrible sound levels in Coquette).

Which is not to say the sound design doesn't occasionally have fun with itself. The very first scene is that of three police officers sipping soup.

Right off the bat we're shown how dysfunctional the police force in this film are, because the sounds of biological functions are funny, and it wouldn't have been appropriate in 1930 to open a film with three police officers farting.

However, beyond this and two other unimportant moments, the sound never really brings attention to itself. The only recurring motif in the sound design is that of chiming clocks, none the least being Big Ben, since the film takes place in London. Even these barely register though, merely a way to fill the gap of silence as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, pulls off his little heists.

Very rarely do sounds in this film overlap. When a character walks through a room, we hear his footsteps or the floor creaking. However, when a character walks through a room while talking, we only hear the dialogue.

This sounds like no big deal in today's film world, but barely a year ago filmmakers found themselves obligated to include every single sound they could to display the novelty of it all, so it's nice to start seeing restraint in these films. The only time sounds overlap is when there's just no other way around it, like when two characters chat while in a dance club.

In many ways, Raffles may be a more important film in terms of the use of sound then some of the more artistic attempts at the time like Alibi because Raffle displays control. All the artistic talent of a painter isn't worth a damn if he has a twitchy arm, and while Raffles may be artistically uninteresting, it's at least dominate of it's functions, so much so that they finally got the camera to move again.

Remember, cameras during that time were so loud that they had to be encased in sound-proof booths so they wouldn't be picked up on the microphone. So imagine my surprise to see not one, but several scenes of characters to and away from the camera while the camera follows, complete with sound!

I really don't know how they did it. Maybe they invented a quieter camera or a more selective microphone or they dubbed the sounds and dialogue in later (and if it is a dub, it's a really, really good one). Whatever they did didn't catch on with everyone, and a lot of the films during that time still had the nailed-down camera thing going against them.

Sound is not and has never been an enemy to film, it's merely it's misuse that caused so many filmmakers and film viewers headaches. While Raffles the film is ultimately unmemorable, it does show a lot of control of it's functions, and now that the tools have been used properly, we can finally see what we can make with them.

Monday, July 20, 2009

November 5, 1930

The third Academy Awards ceremony was the second of 1930, done so to get the Academy aligned with the calender year. Awards were given away for eight categories, including a brand new category for sound production.

Thomas A. Edison was presented an honorary Academy membership and gave a post-dinner talk. George Eastman was also presented an honorary membership.

For the third and last time, the statuettes are made of bronze castings with 24k gold plating. Later statuettes are all made of britannium.

Sound was finding it's ground at this point, and would eventually lead film into many interesting directions.

I've managed to find many, many more films from these Academy Awards then I did for the 2nd, so hopefully we'll get a good look of the film industry in 1930.

Welcome to the 3rd Academy Awards.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Index: 2nd Academy Awards

Best Picture
The Broadway Melody (1929) - M-G-M
Other Nominees:
- Alibi (1929) - Feature Productions
- In Old Arizona (1928) - Fox
- The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) - M-G-M
- The Patriot (1928) - Paramount Famous Lasky

Best Actor in a Leading Role
In Old Arizona (1928) - Warner Baxter
Other Nominees:
- Alibi (1929) - Chester Morris
- The Patriot (1928) - Lewis Stone
- The Valiant (1929) - Paul Muni
- Thunderbolt (1929) - George Bancroft

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Coquette (1929) - Mary Pickford
Other Nominees:
- Madame X (1929) - Ruth Chatterton
- The Barker (1928) - Betty Compson
- The Broadway Melody (1929) - Bessie Love
- The Divine Lady (1929) - Corinne Griffith
- The Letter (1929) - Jeanne Eagels

Best Director
The Divine Lady (1929) - Frank Lloyd
Other Nominees:
- Drag (1929) - Frank Lloyd
- In Old Arizona (1928) - Irving Cummings
- Madame X (1929) - Lionel Barrymore
- The Broadway Melody (1929) - Harry Beaumont
- The Patriot (1928) - Ernst Lubitsch
- Weary River (1929) - Frank Lloyd

Best Writing, Achievement
The Patriot (1928) - Hanns Kräly
Other Nominees:
- A Woman of Affairs (1928) - Bess Meredyth
- In Old Arizona (1928) - Tom Barry
- Our Dancing Daughters (1928) - Josephine Lovett
- Sal of Singapore (1928) - Elliott J. Clawson
- Skyscraper (1928) - Elliott J. Clawson
- The Cop (1928) - Elliott J. Clawson
- The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929) - Hanns Kräly
- The Leatherneck (1929) - Elliott J. Clawson
- The Valiant (1929) - Tom Barry
- Wonder of Women (1929) - Bess Meredyth

Best Cinematography
White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) - Clyde De Vinna
Other Nominees:
- 4 Devils (1928) - Ernest Palmer
- In Old Arizona (1928) - Arthur Edeson
- Our Dancing Daughters (1928) - George Barnes
- Street Angel (1928) - Ernest Palmer
- The Divine Lady (1929) - John F. Seitz

Best Art Direction
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929) - Cedric Gibbons
Other Nominees:
- Alibi (1929) - William Cameron Menzies
- Dynamite (1929) - Mitchell Leisen
- Street Angel (1928) - Harry Oliver
- The Awakening (1928) - William Cameron Menzies
- The Patriot (1928) - Hans Dreier

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Lost Films: 2nd Academy Awards

In the days before television, VHS and DVD, not a lot of thought was given to film preservation. As such, the further you go back, the harder it is to find copies of certain films. There were a lot of films nominated during the 2nd Academy Awards that are either completely lost or unavailable in any consumable format.

Should any of these films become available, I promise to go back and review them.


4 Devils (1928)
Nominated For:
Best Cinematography (Ernest Palmer)

According to Wikipedia:

"The plot concerns four orphans (Anders Randolf, Barry Norton, Charles Morton, and Gaynor) who become a high wire act, and centers around sinister goings-on at a circus."

The film is sadly lost. Details are available on the DVD of Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans.


The Awakening (1928)
Nominated For:
Best Art Direction (William Cameron Menzies)

Can't find much information on it, besides that it takes place in World War I. No known copy exists.


The Barker (1928)
Nominated For:
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Betty Compson)

Plot according to Turner Classic Movies:

"Nifty Miller, the greatest carnival barker in the world, sends his son, Chris, to law school in the hope that the boy will find in professional life a more settled and prosperous life than that of the sideshow. During one of his summer vacations, Chris finds work with the carnival, and Nifty breaks off his relationship with Carrie, a hula dancer who, seeking revenge for this slight, pays another carnival girl, Lou, to vamp the innocent boy; Lou, however, genuinely falls in love with Chris. When his father finds out that they are in love, Chris defiantly announces his intention to marry the girl. Seeing his ambitious plans for his son seemingly collapse, Nifty quits the carnival and turns to drink. He later finds out that Chris has returned to law school at Lou's urging. Offered a partnership in the carnival, Nifty returns to his former life as a barker."

Prints exist, but no VHS or DVDs


The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929)
Best Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons)

Wikipedia on the novel the film was adapted from:

"It tells the story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope-fiber suspension bridge in Peru, and the events that lead up to their being on the bridge. A friar who has witnessed the tragic accident then goes about inquiring into the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die."

A part-talkie, part-silent film. The talkie portions are lost, and the remaining parts of the film are in storage and are unavailable.


The Cop (1928)
Nominated For:
Best Writing, Achievement (Elliott J. Clawson)

Not much information on this film, a print might exist at the Library of Congress.


The Divine Lady (1929)
Best Director (Frank Lloyd)
Nominated For: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Corinne Griffith)
Best Cinematography (John F. Seitz)

The plot according to IMDb:

"A partly fictionalized account of history begins with the arrival of slatternly Emma Hart, a cook's daughter, at the home of Charles Greville. Greville takes her as his lover and grooms her until their relationship becomes an inconvenience. Greville then dupes Emma into traveling to Naples to live with his uncle, Lord Hamilton, ambassador to the court at Naples. Realizing that Greville has abandoned her, Emma agrees to marry Lord Hamilton. Soon, however, she meets Admiral Horatio Nelson of the British Navy. Emma plays a crucial role in convincing Naples to open its ports to Nelson during his campaign against Napoleon's French fleet. Soon, Emma and the married Nelson become romantically involved -- a relationship which will have consequences for them both."

Prints exist, and it's aired on Turner Classic Movies a few times. Possible review in the future.


Drag (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Director (Frank Lloyd)

Plot according to Turner Classic Movies:

"Young David Carroll takes over the publication of a local Vermont newspaper. Although he is attracted to Dot, "the most sophisticated girl in town," he marries Allie Parker, daughter of the couple who run the boardinghouse where he lives. Inseparable from her parents, Allie remains at home when David goes to New York City to sell a musical he has written. There, Dot, now a successful costume designer, uses her influence to get David's play produced. David and Dot fall in love, but she leaves for Paris when David indicates he will remain true to Allie. He sends for Allie; but when she arrives with her whole family, he decides to follow Dot to Paris."

Prints seem to exist, not much information beyond that.


Dynamite (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Art Direction (Mitchell Leisen)

The plot, according to IMDb:

"Wealthy Cynthia is in love with not-so-wealthy Roger, who is married to Marcia. The threesome is terribly modern about the situation, and Marcia will gladly divorce Roger if Cynthia agrees to a financial settlement. But Cynthia's wealth is in jeopardy because her trust fund will expire if she is not married by a certain date. To satisfy that condition, Cynthia arranges to marry Hagon Derk, who is condemned to die for a crime he didn't commit. She pays him so he can provide for his little sister. But at the last minute, Derk is freed when the true criminal is discovered. Expecting to be a rich widow, Cynthia finds herself married to a man she doesn't know and doesn't want to."

The film is in rotation on Turner Classic Movies, but no VHS or DVD is available. A possible review coming in the future.


The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Writing, Achievement (Hanns Kräly)

The plot according to IMDb:

"There is a big charity function at the house of Mrs. Cheyney and a lot of society is present. With her rich husband, deceased, rich old Lord Elton and playboy Lord Arthur Dilling are both very interested in the mysterious Fay. Invited to the house of Mrs. Webley, Fay is again the center of attention for Arthur and Elton with her leaning towards stuffy old Elton. When Arthur sees Charles, Fay's Butler, lurking in the gardens, he remembers that Charles was a thief caught in Monte Carlo and he figures that Fay may be more interested in the pearls of Mrs. Webley, which she is. After Fay takes the pearls, but before she can toss them out the window, she is caught by Arthur who is very disappointed in how things are turning out."

Prints seem to be available, but no VHS or DVD copies.


The Leatherneck (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Writing, Achievement (Elliott J. Clawson)

Can't find much information. If prints are available, there isn't any VHS or DVD copies.


Madame X (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ruth Chatterton)
Best Director (Lionel Barrymore)

Plot according to IMDb:

"Thrown out of her home by a jealous husband, a woman sinks into degradation. Twenty years later, she is charged with killing a man bent on harming her son. The son, unaware of who the woman is, takes the assignment to defend her in court."

Prints exist, will probably review in the future.


The Patriot (1928)
Best Writing, Achievement (Hanns Kräly)
Nominated For: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Lewis Stone)
Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier)
Best Director (Wrnst Lubitsch)
Best Picture

The tag line according to IMDb:

"These Characters Will Fascinate You! EMIL JANNINGS - Cruel, brutal, but also pathetic. The mad Czar who holds all Russia in his tyrannical grasp. FLORENCE VIDOR - An exotic beauty of the court. The Czar's favorite! Betrayed by her lover, she becomes a thorn in the hands of the conspirators! LEWIS STONE - Prime Minister and trusted friend of the mad Czar, who conspires against the monster ruler of Russia. NEIL HAMILTON - Heir to the throne. Worshipped by the Russians. The only man who can hold the government from self-destruction."

This film is very, very lost. Chances of finding it are 0 to nil. It is the only Best Picture nominee for which no complete or near-complete copy exists.


Sal of Singapore (1928)
Nominated For:
Best Writing, Achievement (Elliott J. Clawson)

Not much information. A print supposedly exists at UCLA.


Skyscraper (1928)
Nominated For:
Best Writing, Achievement (Elliott J. Clawson)

The plot according to Turner Classic Movies:

"Blondy and Slim, buddies, are high steel workers. Blondy falls and is seriously injured while attempting to rescue Slim. As a result of his injury he can no longer work, and he falls into a reclusive depression. Only after his friend pretends to be interested in his sweetheart does he recover his spirit and become well again."

Not much information on availablity.


Thunderbolt (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Actor in a Leading Role (George Bancroft)

Plot according to IMDb:

"A criminal known as Thunderbolt is imprisoned and facing execution. Into the next cell is placed Bob Morgan, an innocent man who has been framed and who is in love with Thunderbolt's girl, without knowing of their relationship. Thunderbolt hopes to stave off the execution long enough to kill young Morgan for romancing his girl."

Not much information on availability.


The Valiant (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Muni)
Best Writing, Achievement (Tom Barry)

The plot according to Wikipedia:

"The play's plot is actually quite convoluted. The basic story of the plot is that a half an hour before a murderer's execution, the Warden and the Prison Chaplain attempt to discern the prisoner's identity. He meets his long lost sister, although the end is slightly ambiguous if one is not paying attention. The play ends with the exit of the murderer, the Chaplain and the Warden."

Prints exist only in private collections.


Weary River (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Director (Frank Lloyd)

Plot according to Turner Classic Movies:

"Bootlegger Jerry Larrabee is framed by a rival gangster and is sent to prison, where he comes under the kindly influence of the warden. Jerry turns to music and forms a prison band, broadcasting over the radio. Radio listeners are deeply moved by his singing, and Jerry wins an early parole. He goes into vaudeville and quickly flops; he then moves from job to job, haunted by the past. Forced at last to return to his old gang, Jerry takes up with his former sweetheart, Alice. She gets in touch with the warden, who arrives on the scene in time to keep Jerry on the straight and narrow path. Jerry eventually becomes a radio star and marries Alice."

Prints exist, may review in the future.


Wonder of Women (1929)
Nominated For:
Best Writing, Achievement (Bess Meredyth)

The really short synopsis from IMDb:

"A German pianist is going to break up with his unfaithful wife, when he receives the message that his favourite stepchild has died."

Despite a rumor of a laserdisc existing at UCLA, this film is pretty lost.

Hollywood and The Broadway Melody

The Broadway Melody (1929)
Harry Beaumont
STARRING: Anita Page, Bessie Love, Charles King
WON: Best Picture
NOMINATED FOR: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Bessie Love)
Best Director (Harry Beaumont)

The 2nd Best Picture winner opens big, with a vast shot of New York City as filmed from an airplane.

We spend about half a minute to absorb the setting. Similar shots were used in The Crowd to reveal the city as a massive machine, impossible for any individual to conquer, where as Speedy took the same kind of shots to create a poem celebrating the city for it's communities and quirks.
The Broadway Melody shares neither of those ambitions. The film mearly shows New York for the sake of showing New York, and then confines the rest of the film into tiny sound stages. That sums up the film perfectly: A film that by every right should have been ambitious and interesting, but decided to confine itself in trite and confusing plot points.

The film holds the distinction of being one of the first musicals ever, and the first musical to win Best Picture. That doesn't mean anything, though. The songs are just songs. They are not used to tell the story, they aren't related to the actual plot, the film is put on hold so that the actors can sing them. I'm not even sure if you could call that a musical.

And is it really that smart to make a musical this early into the history of talkies? People could barely figure out microphones, let alone sound editing, and scenes involving more then one person talking or making noise turned the scenes into clustered messes. Here's a scene near the beginning that's the perfect example of what I'm talking about, which also follows into the film's first song:

Hope you like that song, because it's not the last time we hear it.

Beyond bad sound and quaint songs, the film doesn't offer anything beyond a by-the-numbers struggle-for-success story, only now in sound for the first time. Two small town girls, Hank and Queenie Mahoney, make a new home in a New York hotel, trying to break into Broadway. They have a friend named Eddie on the inside, the big wig star you saw singing earlier, who is also Hank's boyfriend. They haven't seen Eddie for a while, so when Eddie sees how much Queenie has blossomed...

...he IMMEDIATELY jumps ship.

Queenie isn't the smartest apple, and Eddie is shallow as all hell, but you're not going to believe this, but these two are the characters we're supposed to attach ourselves to. By the end of the film, Eddie will have cheated on Hank, Queenie will have turned down the advances of a rich but really really nice producer (who everybody in the film hates for no reason I can see), and then the two get married and we're supposed to treat this like a happy ending. I'm not sure if this is just an example of old-school 1920s values or some clunky attempt at a sad ending.

What the hell is this movie supposed to be?

If I was to say anything nice about this film, it'd probably be that it provides a decent look at the behind-the-scenes of the Broadway variety shows of the time, and boy, do they seem like totally unappealing places. Nobody gets along, both the performers and producers are there just to make money... well, I guess that's pretty accurate t0 any job.

The Broadway performances themselves are standard fare and unimaginative, but even if they were amazing, we could barely see them anyway.

I suppose the filmmakers wanted to give us the feeling of being at an actual Broadway show, sitting in a decent middle row seat. This was an unfortunate attitude, and it makes the performances little and insignificant.

There's nothing really beyond this. Once again, I find myself with fewer things to say about the Best Picture winner then I do with the other nominees. The Broadway Melody isn't an awful film, it's just uninteresting and uninventive in a time where films really needed both.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hollywood and The Hollywood Revue of 1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)
Charles Reisner

I don't normally look at films I haven't seen in full. My excuse is that The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is not a film, it's a television special in the days before television.

All this "film" is is a collection of sketches performed on a stage by then-famous Hollywood stars. There's no narrative, no story, just some comedy bits and some singing, stretched out to two hours. You could randomly shuffle the sketches up and still come out with the same movie.

And that doesn't offer anything worth talking about. I guess it gave the people the same kind of Seeing Famous People Do Stuff thrill that we now get from Dancing With the Stars and such shows, but if you really need that kind of thrill, you probably have nothing to do with this blog.

Since there's no substance to speak of, I'll just post the available clips on Youtube and show you what was entertainment in 1929:

Host Jack Benny getting his clothes torn off by William Haines...

Marie Dressler having a royal fantasy...

Buster Keaton dancing in drag...

Laurel & Hardy doing magic, kinda (my personal favorite bit from those I've seen)...

John Gilbert & Norma Shearer doing a classic scene from Romeo & Juliet (IN COLOR!)...

And them again, doing a more up to date scene from Romeo & Juliet (IN COLOR!)...

And to close things out, the entire cast performing "Singing in the Rain," which I should point out debuted with this film.

No, I have no desire to hunt the rest of the film down. What's the point? It's mostly Hollywood patting itself on the back, and I already get enough of that with the Academy Awards.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Warner Baxter and In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona (1928)
Irving Cummings
STARRING: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess
WON: Best Actor (Warner Baxter)
NOMINATED FOR: Best Cinematography (Arthur Edeson)
Best Director (Irving Cummings)
Best Writing, Achievement (Tom Barry)
Best Picture

There was a reason the early sound films were called "talkies." Most shoots were limited to a single microphone, and that was usually reserved for the dialogue. It was hard to pick up sounds that weren't within a few feet of it, so films were enclosed on sets to allow for easier sound pick-up.

This is what gives In Old Arizona it's claim to fame: Along with being the first sound western, it's the first sound film that largely takes place outdoors.

Unfortunately, this isn't as big of a deal as it sounds. The microphones barely picked up anything beyond a few feet, so for a ten second shot of a man riding a horse, you might hear the hoof beats for about two seconds, followed by eight seconds of total silence. More minor sounds that would create atmosphere, like the wind, weren't picked up.

The locations in Arizona were certianly photogenic, but with such weak sound sources, it would have been a lot more satisfying to just give the non-dialogue portions of the film to a foley artist. Not that there's a lot of those. This is a "talkie," and it earns that title. This film will NOT SHUT UP! It's wall-to-wall boring conversations between three bad actors, and it's enough to drive you bonkers.

Let's start with Baxter.

Warner Baxter, who won the Academy Award for acting somehow, plays the Cisco Kid, #1 outlaw of the west, and oversized hat connoisseur! This is my first film with Warner Baxter, and I'm not sure what his acting strengths are (or if he even has any). He's never allowed to physically act throughout the entire film, he just stands there with a smile and reads off his lines.
And he keeps talking, and talking, AND TALKING. He never stops talking. There are a lot of scenes where he's alone, and he just talks to himself. He sees a wanted poster for him, and he laughs and gives a monologue about how awesome he is. He monologues about everything: about how awesome his girl is, about how awesome babies are (seriously), about how awesome his wine is, etc.

And despite all this talking-and-nothing-else, Warner Baxter isn't very good at it. Maybe it's his faux-Mexican accent (even though the character is Portuguese, figure that one out). Maybe Baxter couldn't play young (the character was 25 and Baxter was 39). Maybe he just couldn't get over how goofy and large his hat was.

In any case, Baxter was bad, and the Cisco Kid was uninteresting. The description of the film I read compared the Cisco Kid to a wild west version of Robin Hood, which is nothing but a complete misunderstanding on what Robin Hood was about. Robin Hood didn't just "steal from the rich and gave to the poor," he fought a corrupt government that squeezed money unfairly from it's citizens. The Cisco Kid just stole stuff.

The opening of the film shows the Cisco Kid stealing a box of money from a carriage, and then leaving. The people the Kid steals from aren't rich or corrupt or anything, they were just passing through, and the Kid never has any intention though the film to do anything with the money but buy things for him and his girl. What an asshole.

It should be noted that in this classic western story of law makers and law breakers, there's hardly any action in it. The carriage stickup is just the Cisco Kid pointing a gun at a few people, them giving him the money, and him leaving. No shots fired, no hasty escapes, just routine.

There's only one scene in the movie that would qualify as an action scene. About two-thirds of the way through, three random guys spot the Cisco Kid and try to take him down for the reward on his head, but the Cisco Kid makes quick work of them. It's a quick moment, shot from a distance, and has nothing to do with what little plot there is in the film. So, with those two short moments out of the way, what left for the remaining 60+ minutes of film?

Talking, talking, talking, talking, TALKING.

And then we have Edmund Lowe and his character Sgt. Dunn. Despite being the Cisco Kid's main foil, Dunn comes off even worse of a character. He's a gambler and a womanizer who cheats on his wife, and he's only really after the Kid for the money, not because it's the right thing to do. The main problem with this is that Edmund Lowe must not have gotten the memo and thought he was playing the good guy, because despite what this character does, Lowe always plays the character as an aw-shucks-boy scout that ends every sentence with "geez".

And then we have Dorothy Burgess and her character, the feisty Mexican Tonia Maria. Tonia is a gold digger, and sleeps with other men behind the Kid's back. She's easily the least-likable character in the film, and it doesn't help that Burgess' performance is damn near racist.

Eventually, Tonia gets with Dunn, and we realize that the only reason we're even rooting for the Cisco Kid, a selfish bandit, is because everybody else is WORSE. What we end up with is an hour and a half film where three totally unlikeable characters do nothing but talk to each other about nothing, all while being played by three bad actors. This is what Hollywood wanted to pretend was entertainment back then.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Roland West and Alibi

Finally! An interesting movie!

Alibi (1929)
Roland West
STARRING: Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Mae Busch
NOMINATED FOR: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Chester Morris)
Best Art Direction (William Cameron Menzies)
Best Picture

It's kind of heartwarming to discover that SOMEBODY was trying to use sound artistically this early in it's history. Most sound films at the time were just stationary cameras filming people talking. Sound was just that, sound. A gunshot was a gunshot, a footstep was a footstep, and a scream was a scream. There was very few attempts to bring symbolization into sound this early in the game.

Alibi is a dated, creaky film now, but put into context, and it's pretty amazing. The very opening scene is a montage of simple sounds. A prison guard twirls his baton, creating a beat.

A bell is rung to the same beat.

Prisoners drag their feet.

Another prison guard beats his baton against a wall.

This is the earliest musical moment I've seen in sound pictures. The film is not a musical, but the simple beat and the poetic images suggest the opening moments of a modern music video. Most musicals at that time were simply Broadway performances put in front of a camera, usually involving dancing girls with glittery costumes.

Alibi has those too, though.

This is the main problem with Alibi, it has split personalities. The film was originally conceived as a silent film, but the success of talkies forced director Roland West to transform it into a sound film.

What we end up with is a film where half the scenes are like the one at the beginning, filmed silent with sound dubbed in later, and the other half falling into the same claptrap of all the other early sound films, with glittery flow-stopping musical numbers and people standing in rooms talking while the camera doesn't move.

The plot is at least interesting, so we have that to get us through the exposition scenes. The film revolves around the relationship between ex-con Chick Williams and the police. For the first half of the film, we learn that the police planted a gun on Chick which resulted in him going to prison. When Chick gets out, he connects with the daughter of the police sergeant that framed him, much to the father's dismay.

If the film has anything to say, it's that, sure, criminals are bad, but the police are not much better. Chick's framing is the big off-screen example of the police's questionable tactics, but that's not enough for us. We have to see these guys do their dirty laundry themselves.

During a heist, a police officer is shot, and the police are going to get answers no matter what. They bring in a two-bit thug and start questioning him, demanding a name out of him even though he claims an alibi.

This scene is my favorite in the entire film. Roland West did a lot of experimenting with sound in the film, and he may have been one of the first directors to discover that with sound comes silence. Silent films never had the luxury of silence, with live music always being played. With a sound film, when the sound goes away, you pay attention, you get tense. So, when a mysterious face appears in a door...

...and one officer goes to stand by the window...

...and the other officer wipes the fingerprints off a gun...

...and there's no sound to explain it all, no sound to comfort you, then your heart really starts to race.

It's amazing how hopeful I get when I see someone trying to regain the artistic freedom lost by technology. As CGI continues to take over films, I hope we get more and more directors who try and implement it in new and artistic ways.

Again, the film is still a mixed bag, and that goes for it's other elements. It was nominated for it's art direction by our old friend William Cameron Menzies. Some descriptions of the film has dubbed it "inspired by German expressionism," but I don't agree. However, the slightly off-beat art deco is something to enjoy.

So while Menzies' production design is a hit, the acting is a big, big miss. It seems most of the actors involved were still suffering from the jitters of converting to silent style to talkie style. Chester Morris, nominated for Best Actor for his role as Chick Williams, always seems like he's trying to squeeze his skull out of his head.

However, the worst offender is Regis Toomey, playing an undercover detective named Danny McGann. His cover? Drunken Wall Street broker.

Danny's drunk character is so over the top it's laughable. At first I thought the character of Danny was a bad actor, but when Danny's cover is blown and we see the real character, I realized that it was Regis that was the bad actor. Every scene with Danny is sooooo drawn out and annoying, and it makes sense that his most drawn out and annoying scene is when he dies.

It takes minutes for him to finally go. He tells everyone his regrets, makes his finally wishes, etc., all with twenty second pauses between each line. And finally, right before he dies, UKULELE MUSIC STARTS PLAYING! What is this crap!?!

*sigh* Such is the nature of this film. If you want the good, you got to take the bad. It's certainly the best film from the 2nd Academy Awards I've looked at so far, and in this sea of dead weights, you take what you can get.