Anita Page, Bessie Love and Charles King in The Broadway Melody (1929), the second, and worst, Best Picture winner.

The 2nd Academy Awards – for the film year of August 1, 1928 to July 31, 1929.  The awards were held on April 30, 1930.

Best Production:  The Broadway Melody

  • In Old Arizona
  • Alibi
  • The Hollywood Revue of 1929
  • The Patriot

Most Surprising Omission:  The Divine Lady

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Nosferatu

Best Eligible U.S. Film Not Nominated:  Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #82

According to Inside Oscar and Movie Awards, the nominees were announced on October 30, 1929.  Yet, according to the Academy “There were no announcements of nominations, no certificates of nomination or honorable mention, and only the winners (*) were revealed during the awards banquet on April 3, 1930. Though not official nominations, the additional names in each category, according to in-house records, were under consideration by the various boards of judges.”

The Race: Well, according to the Academy, there was no race.  But the winner turned out to be The Broadway Melody, which was the biggest box office earner of the nominees and was made by MGM.  Given that Louis B. Mayer had appointed all five judges who were making the choice, it didn’t really seem too hard to figure out.  That selection, combined with Mary Pickford winning for a film that pretty much panned, led to changes in the voting.  The next year, every Academy member would be able to vote.

The Results: They were terrible.  I mean, really, simply awful.  Not only is this one of only two years (along with 1930-1931) that doesn’t have a single nominee that qualifies for my Best Picture list (you must be at least ***.5), but none of the nominees even reach ***.  There is not a single good film in the bunch.  Not that it was entirely the Academy’s fault.  I’ve only ranked eight films high enough to make the list, making this one of the worst years in film history, rivaled only by the following two years.  And of those eight films, four of them were foreign (Nosferatu, October, Napoleon, The Fall of the House of Usher) and thus doubtful as to whether they would have actually qualified.  That leaves Steamboat Bill Jr., The Wind, Docks of New York and The Wedding March.  Of those omissions, The Wind is the oddest, as it was directed by the well-respected Victor Sjostrom and starred Lilian Gish, the greatest star of the early silent films.  Why they bowed to Mary Pickford and her desperation rather than rewarding Gish for her years in the industry is beyond me.  I mention The Divine Lady as the most surprising omission only because it was nominated for three Oscars, as many as Broadway Melody and Alibi and more than Hollywood Revue, including Actress and it won Best Director, the only time the winning director came from a non-nominated film.

The Broadway Melody

the weakest Oscar winner: The Broadway Melody (1929)

  • Director:  Harry Beaumont
  • Writer:  Edmund Goulding / Norman Houston / James Gleason
  • Producer:  Harry Rapt
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Bessie Love, Charles King, Anita Page
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Actress (Love)
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  1 February 1929
  • Box Office:  $2.80 million
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #24  (year)  /  #82  (winners)  /  #471  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Love)

The Film:  It is the worst of the Best Picture winners.  I thought this when I first saw it some 15 years ago and I thought it again, struggling to get through it on TCM during 31 Days of Oscar.  It’s just a stupid movie.  The only reason it’s not the lowest ranked film of the entire year is that Coquette, which won Mary Pickford the Oscar is even worse.  This film, like Alibi, is an example of what is wrong with the early sound films.  The Broadway Melody is an original script, so the writers were suddenly forced to come up with dialogue to support their thin story.  Most of the best written films of the early sound films were adapted, either from plays or novels.  The ones that weren’t were stuck with simple stories and weak dialogue.  Charles King is in love with Anita Page, the more feisty of a sister singing and dancing act.  She constantly rebuffs him until he comes to her defense just as the man she has chosen decides to assert his hold over her and she marries him.

Why?  That’s a serious question.  Watch this film and tell me why.  Charles King’s Eddie is a complete idiot.  He starts out more interested in Hank and ends up falling for Queenie, in spite of the fact that Hank is nicer, better looking and a better fit.  Queenie is nothing but trouble and is interested in Jock Warriner (obviously this cad of a character was meant to sound like Jack Warner, the boss of one of MGM’s biggest rivals).  But Eddie is determined to win Queenie, and what’s more, she eventually capitulates and agrees.  So Hank is forced to form a new partnership.  Yes, earlier in the film we can see that Queenie has the bigger talent (or at least is the one the talent producer is more interested in).  But through the second half of the film how can any man in his right mind go for Queenie?  Part of the problem is the acting.  Bessie Love was nominated for Best Actress for playing Hank and she’s the only person in the cast with a modicum of acting talent.  So it would make sense to find her more appealing because she isn’t as badly played.  Even if the dialogue and story weren’t as stupid as they are, it would still be difficult for anyone to be as bad as the rest of the cast.  Yes, there were some production values to the film and there’s no question that the notion of Best Production was very much in effect in the early days.  But even in the worst year for Best Picture nominees in Oscar history, this is still a terrible choice.

The least weakest nominee: Roland West's Alibi (1929)

Alibi

  • Director:  Roland West
  • Writer:  Roland West  /  C. Gardner Sullivan  (from the play Nightstick by John Griffith Wray, J.C. Nugent and Elaine S. Carrington)
  • Producer:  Roland West
  • Studio:  United Artists  (produced by Feature Productions)
  • Stars:  Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Mae Busch
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Actor (Morris), Interior Decoration  (not listed by Inside Oscar, but now listed by the Academy)
  • Length:  83 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Gangster)
  • Release Date:  20 April 1929
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #21  (year)  /  #433  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  None

The Film:  Is this what The Racket would be remembered as if it hadn’t been lost for all those years?  Alibi is a perfect example of all the problems that Hollywood had as it tried to make the transition into the Sound Era.  There are some good technical effects in the film, good cinematography and editing, with interesting art direction.  The credit for the look of the film seems to rest mostly on Roland West, who both directed and produced the film.  He was obviously influenced by European directors, especially the Germans.  The slip from Netflix describes Alibi as “America’s first expressionist crime film.”  These effects weren’t things I remembered from the first time I saw it and that’s mostly what accounts for moving it up to the top of the class for 1929 (that and how over-whelmingly stupid In Old Arizona was on re-watching it).

So there we have the strengths of the film.  But what are the weaknesses?  After all, I only gave it a rating of **.5.  Well, that’s when it comes to the acting and writing.  Even though it was adapted from a play and wasn’t as badly written as many of the early talkies, it still wasn’t particularly good or interesting.  We have Chick, the gangster who has just been released from prison and who is romancing a police sergeant’s daughter.  The police are fingering him for a crime and the daughter knows that one of the man who has been hanging around Chick is in fact an undercover cop.  Things move towards what would seem like an obvious bad conclusion for many, except the movie doesn’t have much to hang on this plot and once people start dying, it actually takes a while to still finish the film.  There just isn’t enough to the story and most of the dialogue is pretty awful.  Then, of course, there is the acting.  Morris, who was nominated for Best Actor, isn’t completely terrible but he’s the only one in the cast who can make this claim.

In Old Arizona

100% All-Hokey: In Old Arizona (1929)

  • Director:  Irving Cummings / Raoul Walsh  (note:  The Academy only nominated Cummings and the IMDb doesn’t list Walsh as director, yet his name is clearly on the credits.)
  • Writer:  Tom Barry  (from the story “The Caballero’s Way” by O. Henry)
  • Producer:  Winfield Sheehan
  • Studio:  Fox
  • Stars:  Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Writing Achievement, Actor (Baxter), Cinematography
  • Length:  95 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • Release: 20 January 1929
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #22  (year)  /  #445  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Baxter), Sound

The Film:  The first Western nominated for Best Picture, I once considered this the strongest surviving nominee of the year.  And that is most assuredly not saying much.  I thought so when I first watched it, several years ago, but it dropped enough down the list and Alibi held its ground to drop it to second.  It really is a ridiculously hokey film.  Warner Baxter plays the Cisco Kid and he really does ham it up.  If I still deem to give him a nomination, it’s only because this is a ridiculously weak year and there isn’t much to go around.  What this film did, better than almost any of the other films that year, was incorporate its sound.  While Broadway Melody and Hollywood Revue were simply throwing out dancing and singing numbers because it was possible, In Old Arizona actually made use of its sound, of the wagons moving, of the shots of a gun, of how a man can learn things by over-hearing the people in the room next door.  The plot is as pointless as any other Western plot: the law wants to catch The Cisco Kid, the man who keeps robbing the stagecoach, but he keeps getting away.  There is a woman, of course, and she is fought over by the Kid and by a lawman.  But that this film was nominated for its writing is far more absurd than the fact that it was nominated for Best Picture.

All singing, all dancing, not very entertaining: The Hollywood Revue of 1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

  • Director:  Charles Resiner
  • Writer:  Al Boasberg / Robert E. Hopkins
  • Producer:  Harry Rapt
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  pretty much everyone at MGM except Garbo and Chaney
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Interior Decoration (according to Inside Oscar, but not the Academy)
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Musical  (Revue)
  • Release Date:  20 June 1929
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)  /  #456  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  None

The Film:  With the advent of sound, MGM decided to grab everyone on the lot and throw them together into one film.  That’s pretty much what this film is.  It’s a grab bag, a musical and entertainment revue.  The problem is, it’s not particularly entertaining.  It simply takes the available talent and lets them attempt to be talented.  There’s nothing to tie it together into any coherent film.  I suppose it’s a multi-generational gap.  I feel no need to watch a revue of the available stars attempting to perform tricks.  Yes, there are moments that make it somewhat worthwhile.  After all, this is the first appearance on film of the song “Singin in the Rain.”  On the other hand, John Gilbert was so awful as Romeo in the Romeo and Juliet sequence that it pretty much permanently damaged any chance he ever had at being successful as a film actor in the Sound Era.  Even Laurel and Hardy aren’t particularly effective, for unlike the Marx Brothers, who were great at throwing out lines, Laurel and Hardy work best in the larger format of a plot.  So, MGM had all the stars in the sky.  But they were still learning how to put together a film.

The Patriot

The lost Best Picture nominee: Ernst Lubitsch's The Patriot (1928)

  • Director:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Writer:  Hans Kraly / Julian Johnson  (from the plays by Ashley Dukes and Alfred Neumann and the story “Paul I” by Dmitri Merezhovsky) – note:  Johnson wrote the titles for the Silent version.  The Oscar went to Kraly.
  • Producer:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Emil Jannings, Lewis Stone, Florence Vidor
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Writing Achievement, Actor (Stone), Interior Decoration
  • Length:  113 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  1 September 1928
  • My Rating:  N/A
  • My Rank:  N/A
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  N/A

The Film:  This is it, the film that makes it impossible to see every Best Picture nominee.  The most sought after of the lost films.  A trailer does still exist, but the film itself is gone.  So what can we tell from the trailer.  Well, with Jannings so obviously the lead, we can wonder why Lewis Stone was nominated.  Given that Jannings had already left the States by this time and gone back to Germany and the Academy was all about the industry congratulating itself, there certainly was no incentive for them to nominate Jannings again.  Certainly if we look at the film as a Production, rather than how great a Picture it is, then there is no question that it belongs among the nominees.  And let’s face it, it almost certainly would be the best of the nominees for this is such a ridiculously weak class.  Hollywood was so unsure of itself in the first part of the Sound Era, that of course, a Silent film would be the best of the year.  Certainly the Interior Decoration seemed worthy of the nomination and its surprising that it didn’t win given the lackluster description of the winner, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  There are certainly a couple of easy explanations.  The first is that since no film won more than 1 award, they were trying to spread things out.  The second is that the award went to Cedric Gibbons, one of the founding members of the Academy.  Hans Dreier, the nominee for The Patriot, would have to wait until his 20th nomination, in 1945, before he would finally win the Oscar.  It might also have to do with Lubitsch himself.  They loved to nominate his films, even to nominate him, but over the years he had six different films nominated for Best Picture and the Writing Achievement Oscar for The Patriot was the only win out of a combined 20 nominations.  And one other reason that it might not have won Best Picture?  Well, in the first four years, the award went to four different studios and Paramount had won the first year.  It would take until 1936 for a studio to win back to back Best Picture Oscars (MGM) and it took until 1938 for any studio other than MGM to win its second Best Picture.  Paramount wouldn’t win Best Picture again until 1944.

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