The haunting final shot of All Quiet on the Western Front, easily the best film of 1930.

The 3rd Academy Awards for the film year of August 1, 1929 to July 31, 1930.  The nominations were announced on September 19, 1930 and the awards were held on November 5, 1930.

Best Production:  All Quiet on the Western Front

  • Disraeli
  • The Big House
  • The Love Parade
  • The Divorcee

Most Surprising Omission:  Anna Christie

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  City Girl

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #76

The Race: The National Board of Review began their top 10 list in 1929, mentioning two films that would eventually be nominated, The Love Parade and Disraeli.  Then came The Divorcee, which was heavily pushed by MGM because of their investment in star Norma Shearer, who also happened to be married to Irving Thalberg, the star producer at MGM.  The release of The Big House in mid-1930 to solid reviews and big box office also put it into good position to be nominated.  Meanwhile, another of MGM’s big films, Anna Christie, with the heralded tagline of “Garbo Talks!” was also a big money maker.  But then came All Quiet on the Western Front.  Even at $1.2 million, it wasn’t the most expensive film of the year (that distinction belonged to Hell’s Angels, the child of Howard Hughes that took years to film), but it certainly was the biggest film of the year and once it was released it pretty much sealed the deal for the Best Picture race.  The National Board of Review, in their second year, named it as one of their top 10, the only film from that list to get nominated.

The Results: The Academy didn’t screw it up, making All Quiet the only one of the first five years to win both Best Picture and Best Director.  Oddly, even with a nomination for Garbo and director Clarence Brown, Anna Christie was left out in the cold in favor of The Divorcee.  Also failing to get nominated were Hell’s Angels (which got a Cinematography nomination) and F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (which was shut out), in spite of being far better than any of the other nominees.

Even in their early movie posters, the seriousness and dignity of All Quiet on the Western Front was apparent.

All Quiet on the Western Front

  • Director:  Lewis Milestone
  • Writer:  George Abbott / Maxwell Anderson / Dell Andrews  (from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)
  • Producer:  Carl Laemmle Jr.
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Lew Ayres, Louis Walheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Writing Achievement, Cinematography
  • Length:  133 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War I)
  • Release Date:  21 April 1930
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #27  (nominees)  /  #7  (winners)  /  #35  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Ayres), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing

The Film:  Is there any Best Picture winner which has aged as well as All Quiet on the Western Front?  It is still as vibrant and powerful today as it was in 1930.  And how many films in the 106 year history of cinema leave such a powerful statement at the end.  So many films hinge upon their ending.  A terrible ending can mar a great film.  A brilliant ending can push a good film to great.  And this one, so poignant, so tragic, sums up all the waste of the first World War in one magnificent shot, then gives us a ghostly echo to remind us of what has been lost.

Great visions echo throughout history.  Watching this film again, watching Paul return home to find the men in his town still wildly passionate about fighting the war, explaining to him how he should march into Paris, how total conquest is what is needed, I was reminded of George McGovern’s comment in the documentary, Gonzo: “I’m tired of old men in air-conditioned rooms dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”  Erich Maria Remarque’s original novel has long been considered a classic, but it is one of those classics that is more about what he writes than how he writes it.  He was never a truly great writer and none of his other books enjoy anything like the life All Quiet has.  The film takes the story, this dark, haunting story about a group of young men who, together, go off to fight the Great War and how none of them come back.

It’s a great film right from the start.  The sound of the oncoming war fades away into the sound of a teacher talking to his students about their duty to their country.  It gives us glimpses of the individual students and their own personal reactions, without feeling the need to intrude upon the teacher’s monologue.  That this brilliant use of sound was not nominated for the Oscar is rather ridiculous.  Just the opening shots of the camera drifting back into the classroom with the outside sound still being heard is worth the Oscar for Sound and Cinematography.

Then there is the performance of Lew Ayres that anchors the film.  Ayres would only receive one Oscar nomination over the course of his long career, for Johnny Belinda, but he was a great actor and thus was his best performance.  The sequence where he is forced to share his foxhole with the man that he has killed (who at first is only dying, then later, dead) is a bravura performance, certainly better than any of the nominated performances.  But we also see his reactions to the war itself and to the home front, when he returns for a short leave and must confront the constant cries of “on to Paris!” before returning to find most of his friends gone.

And the war scenes.  There are those who insist that any war film will automatically glorify it, but this film argues against all of that.  The constant barrage of sound and explosions, the death and destruction surrounding all of them, there is nothing here that makes war seem glorious or even necessary.  Then, of course, it all comes down to that famous finale.  And the studio wanted to try a happy ending out of all of it.  So the director, Lewis Milestone, replied “I’ve got your happy ending.  We’ll let the Germans win the war.”

The opposite of most biopics, George Arliss is actually stranger looking than Disraeli was.

Disraeli

  • Director:  Alfred E. Green
  • Writer:  Julien Josephson  (from the play by Louis N. Parker)
  • Producer:  Jack L. Warner
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  George Arliss, Joan Bennett
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Writing Achievement, Actor (Arliss)
  • Length:  90 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • Release Date:  1 November 1929
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #18 (year)  /  #400  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Arliss), Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  George Arliss was something that would be hard to do today: a genuinely strange looking leading man.  His acting ability triumphed over his looks.  He had no problem winning Best Actor, both because he was a respected actor (he was also nominated in this year for The Green Goddess) and also because he had already played this role twice, once on stage and once in a silent version.  This was an adaptation of that same stage play that Arliss had been so masterful in, but that’s also the biggest problem with the film.

This film seems like a play.  Even worse, it seems like a history lesson.  None of it feels natural, none of it feels cinematic, in even the slightest way.  Mostly, the actors stand around and say their lines.  We learn all about how Prime Minister Disraeli managed to sneak his way past both Parliament and the Russians to make sure that the British ended up with a good chunk of the Suez Canal and this ended with Victoria becoming the Empress of India.  It seems odd to have a play and two films celebrating this fact at a time when the world was still recovering from a horrible world war that came about precisely because of uncontained imperialism, but it seemed to be successful enough, so maybe people didn’t quite make the connection.

Arliss is quite good, though, watching it again, I decided that the best performance of the year was the non-nominated performance by Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front.  Something about Arliss’ performance reeks too much of stodgy stage acting, while Ayres was quite natural and amazing in his role.  You can learn about history watching this film, but it’s hard to really enjoy.  There’s nothing alive about it.

The original movie poster for The Big House, which I snagged from Mythical Monkey.

The Big House

  • Director:  George W. Hill
  • Writer:  Frances Marion
  • Producer:  Irving G. Thalberg
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Writing Achievement, Actor (Beery), Sound
  • Length:  87 min
  • Genre:  Crime  (Prison)
  • Release Date:  14 June 1930
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #19  (year)  /  #402  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Morris), Sound

The Film:  Kudos go to George W. Hill for reining in Wallace Beery.  Beery was a relentless ham and playing a hardened convict, it would have been easy to let him get out of control.  Instead, Beery actually does a pretty solid job, though it is Chester Morris who really carries the acting load in this film, much as he did in Alibi.  Beery and Morris play criminal bunkmates who welcome in weakling newcomer Robert Montgomery, who accidentally killed a man while driving drunk.  Morris is a better person than Beery, but both live up to the convict code of never ratting anyone out, while Montgomery is determined to try and get out through whatever means he can.  As one of the first sound prison dramas, this has been a highly influential film and just about every prison riot scene owes a debt to this film.

But it won the Oscar for writing and it really didn’t deserve it.  The writing is perhaps the biggest problem with the film.  There is just too much that is unbelievable, most notably the whole subplot of Morris escaping and then becoming romantically attached to Montgomery’s sister.  While Morris does a good job with the scenes, none of them are even remotely plausible.  Then he ends up back inside and we get the very long riot scenes that take up most of the second half of the film.  The drama and tension from the early parts of the film just become one long action sequence that seems to never end, until we finally get the death scenes of a couple of major characters, and an ending that seems even more unrealistic than the earlier romantic scenes.  But the Oscar for Sound isn’t a bad choice (though All Quiet would have been a better choice, it wasn’t nominated).  The nomination for Beery isn’t a bad choice either, though Morris is better.

It’s definitely a better film than I remembered.  In fact, I didn’t remember much about it at all except that I rated it at **.5 the first time around and this time it’s up to a mid-range ***.  It’s not in the top 10, even in a year as weak as this, but I’d still rather watch it again than sit through Maurice Chevalier.

The combination of Chevalier and Lubitsch gets its first of 3 Best Picture nominations with The Love Parade (1929)

The Love Parade

  • Director:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Writer:  Guy Bolton  /  Ernest Vadja  (from the play The Prince Consort by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof)
  • Producer:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Studio:  Paramount Famous Lansky
  • Stars:  Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Actor (Chevalier), Cinematography, Interior Decoration, Sound
  • Oscar Records:  Most Nominations  (6) – held until 1931, Most Nominations without a Win  (6) – held until 1940
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  19 November 1929
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #25 (year)  /  #415  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  None

The Film:  It was the first film to receive 6 Oscar nominations, the first to be nominated for all the technical awards, and yet, all I think of today is that it’s the film that James Leer names his novel after in Wonder Boys.  Ernst Lubitsch was a somewhat golden boy of the early Academy Awards.  In 1929 and 1930 he had back to back films that earned a combined 11 Oscar nominations, including back to back nominations for Lubitsch for Best Director.  He also had two more films in 1932 that were both nominated for Best Picture.  They were all examples of the Lubitsch touch, that light-hearted enjoyable type of film that people could go to and forget about the cares of the world.  But of all those four films, there was only one Oscar (Adaptation for The Patriot).  The Academy was all too willing to say that Lubitsch films were good, but weren’t willing to take that extra step.  He certainly still enjoys a certain reputation as the DVD release of The Love Parade came among the Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse Box Set from Criterion.

I think that perhaps my issues with Lubitsch are best summed up by von Stroheim: “The difference between me and Lubitsch is that he shows you the king on his throne and then he shows you the king in his bedroom.  I show you the king in his bedroom first.  Then when you see him on the throne you have no illusions about him.”  Lubitsch seemed to blossom in Hollywood in the same way that von Stroheim declined perhaps because there was a lot of the fantastical fairy tale about Lubitsch.  He wasn’t interested in the real world.  The Love Parade is a perfect example of that.  There are some nice moments, some good songs, particularly the song in the tavern with the females supporting the queen and the males supporting the prince consort.  But at heart it is a simple tale, there isn’t much too it and there’s only so much I can take of Chevalier.

The Divorcee

Norma Shearer's Oscar winning film: The Divorcee (1930)

  • Director:  Robert Z. Leonard
  • Writer:  John Meehan  (from the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott)
  • Producer:  Robert Z. Leonard
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery
  • Oscar Nominations:  Production, Director, Writing Achievement, Actress (Shearer)
  • Length:  84 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • Release Date:  19 April 1930
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #30  (year) – out of 30  /  #469  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress  (Shearer)

The Film:  When I first started watching the early Academy Award winners, I was struck by Norma Shearer.  She seemed to somehow combine sensuality and innocence into one thing and I thought she was the best actress of the early sound films, the one who made the best transition out of the silents, showing that she could act with a face and with a voice.  It was such a shame then that her best performances, The Divorcee and A Free Soul, were in films that were so lackluster.  Certainly there was a bit of scandal about The Divorcee, the idea that a woman could go out and enjoy sex and life and leave her husband behind.  But scandal isn’t the problem here.  The problem is, outside of Shearer’s performance, everything is completely flat.  There is nothing that brings this story to life.  And even going back, I don’t think as highly of Shearer as I did when I first started watching her films.  I still find her to be a true beauty, and she, more than anyone else outside of Garbo, could encompass that early sexuality and still act.  She was a far better actress than Clara Bow or Louise Brooks and much better looking than Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn.  But her performance and beauty aren’t enough to carry this thin film.  She has a marriage that very quickly goes bad, with a cad of a husband who cheats on her, tries to say it was nothing, then gets himself thrown out of a nightclub in fury at the thought that she has enjoyed herself while he has been out of town.  And this was nominated not only for Best Picture, but also for Director and Writing.  How could they have possibly thought this film was worth the acclaim?  This was the same year as Anna Christie, which was nominated for neither Picture nor Writing.

Advertisements