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.