Monday, January 31, 2011

1930/31 - The Front Page

I am writing this post from Las Vegas, the third city I have visited in as many posts. The last few days have been spent preparing for the opening of Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion, the comedy show in which I'll be performing for the next month. You may not think there would be any need for rehearsals for an improvised show, but believe it or not, we have found plenty of things to work on, not the least of which is promoting the show to our potential audiences. While the show opened earlier tonight, we have a small rotating cast, so I participated only as an audience member this evening. My first performance on stage will be tomorrow night.

Last night, I made the most of some down time by watching another in the Academy's race for Best Picture of 1930/31...

The Front Page
Lewis Milestone
Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer
(based on the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur)
Adolphe Menjou, Pat O'Brien, Mary Brian, Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett, George E. Stone, Mae Clarke, Slim Summerville
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Top reporter Hildy Johnson (O'Brien) is packing in the Chicago news scene to run off to New York with his fiancée Peggy (Brian), much to the annoyance of Hildy's editor, Walter Burns (Menjou). As Hildy says his goodbyes to his colleagues in the court press room, a big story begins to unravel that he simply can't resist. Convicted murderer Earl Williams (Stone) escapes and, while all the other reporters are out looking for him, he stumbles right into Hildy's lap. With a scoop like that, how can he possibly leave town? Walter is happy, but Peggy is not, and Hildy can't string them both along forever.

There is an immensely fun and vibrant quality about The Front Page, which is almost entirely on account of the snappy dialogue. The fast-paced conversations, clearly the product of a stage adaptation, are delightfully droll and occasionally risqué (the restrictive Production Code was not quite in force just yet). A lively ensemble of sarcastic characters keep the story moving at an exciting pace.

Of course, as is the case with such wordy pieces, the static staging can seem a bit tiresome at times. Fortunately, the witty barbs come with such frequency that the lack of movement goes largely unnoticed. Besides, the latter half of the picture features more action which alleviates any monotony. In fact, the film's second half is more engaging for other reasons, too. Whereas the opening scenes feature a whole bunch of subplots, albeit related, the second half is satisfyingly cohesive, concentrating on the main narrative.

As mentioned, the ensemble cast ensure the sarcasm is delivered with appropriate speed, led by Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou, a Matt vs. the Academy regular. Also of note are Frank McHugh, whose infectious laugh I noted while reviewing Going My Way, Edward Everett Horton, a prolific character actor of early Hollywood, and George E. Stone, fresh from another 1930/31 contender, Cimarron.

Unsurprisingly for a film that is 80 years old, The Front Page suffers a little from a lack of video and audio quality. For example, the rapid-fire dialogue is often difficult to comprehend. However, only a month ago, the National Film Preservation Board added the film to its National Film Registry, so hopefully, it will undergo a much-needed restoration soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

1930/31 - Cimarron

After almost a month away, I am finally back in New York City... but not for long. This week, I head back to the other side of the country to perform in an improv show in Las Vegas! Yep, I'll be a bona fide Vegas performer, right there on the Strip. A rotating cast of Australian improvisers will perform in Aussie Improv Comedy Explosion at the V Theater in the Planet Hollywood Resort beginning on January 31. So, if you're planning on being near Sin City during February, come check it out.

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, the Oscar nominations will be announced. As always, I have made my predictions as to which films will be recognised - and just in time, too. For anyone out there who might be interested in this sort of thing, here are my guesses.

While we wait for the Academy's picks for 2010, here's a look at their Best Picture winner of 1930/31...

Wesley Ruggles
Howard Estabrook
Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Nance O'Neil, William Collier, Jr., Roscoe Ates, George E. Stone, Edna May Oliver
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture

It seems that, even way back then, the Academy's penchant for epics was strong. Cimarron is a big-budget extravaganza spanning over four decades in the lives of Yancey Cravat (Dix) and his wife Sabra (Dunne). Yancey's aversion to staying in one place for too long leads him to forsake Wichita, Kansas and stake his claim in the newly opened land in Oklahoma. The couple and their two young children settle in the town of Osage, where Yancey begins a newspaper called the Oklahoma Wigwam. But his nomadic and restless nature soon sees him gallivanting off someplace else every few years, leaving Sabra to take care of the business and the family.

As is the case with many films of this early sound era, Cimarron often feels melodramatic, a drawback that is probably only augmented by its epic quality. While the Oklahoma land rush scene is indeed spectacularly staged, it finds itself a little light on substance. (Gratuitous action scenes are not unique to modern blockbusters.) The overly theatrical deaths don't help the film's cause either. And perhaps its just a case of Hollywood still learning the ropes of how to make pictures with sound, but there are more than a few awkward silences in between lines that could have been avoided had the editor cut to the next shot a little sooner.

The narrative is solid, though, covering the Cravats' tale at various intervals in their lives. However, as we near the end of the picture, the length of time that has passed between sequences gets longer and longer and begins to feel a bit rushed. Whereas the first few jumps are only a few years, the final act takes place over two decades after the previous one. And since the characters age so much from start to finish, there is a great deal of make-up required to make the actors look forty years older. Fortunately, it is very convincing work, impressive for the time period.

Oscar-nominated Richard Dix does an admirable job playing one of the most heroic characters ever written. Lawyer, pastor, pioneer and newspaper editor, Yancey inspires the masses, stands up to bullies and saves lives, all the while maintaining his impossibly great hair. He is well-liked and morally upstanding ... despite a slight case of 19th century misogyny and his habit of abandoning his family for years on end. The usually subtle and intelligent Irene Dunne (pictured), also Oscar-nominated, is a little over-the-top in this early role, but then again, so is most of the cast.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

1930/31 - East Lynne

The last few days in Los Angeles have been both relaxing and energetic. While I've managed to get in a fair amount of lounging around, I've also taken in a couple of racquetball games as well as a hike in Temescal Canyon. Add a poker night and a games night to the mix and you've got yourself quite an eventful vacation. To cap it all off before I head back to New York and the cold weather, the Golden Globe Awards, which are occurring just a few miles away in Beverly Hills, are just about to begin as I write this.

Earlier this week, while at the UCLA Film & TV Archive, I got the chance to watch a hard-to-find nominee from the 1930/31 Best Picture race...

East Lynne
Frank Lloyd
Tom Barry and Bradley King
(based on the novel by Mrs. Henry Wood)
Ann Harding, Clive Brook, Conrad Nagel, Cecilia Loftus, Beryl Mercer
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

Pretty young social butterfly Isabella (Harding) is initially excited to marry wealthy politician Robert Carlyle (Nagel), no relation to the well-known Scottish actor. He brings his new bride to live with him at his estate, East Lynne, where his sister Cornelia (Loftus) takes an immediate disliking to her. After a few years, Isabella feels bored in the stifling house, her only stimulation derived from playing with her new son.

Yearning for some fun and excitement while Robert is away, Isabella sneaks off to a fancy ball with an old suitor Captain Levison (Brook). The two share an illicit kiss before Isabella rejects his further advances. But the damage is already done. Cornelia witnessed the indiscretion and blabs to Robert, who, believing Isabella has been unfaithful, throws her out of the house, vowing never to allow her to see their son again.

East Lynne begins as an occasionally bland melodrama, but manages to avoid being completely boring. Its characters are relatively clichéd - the fun-loving wife, the conservative husband, the protective older sister who passive-aggressively makes life miserable for the newcomer. The story, too, is a tad tired - new girl, not accepted by husband's family, tries to deal with stuffy upper class rules and etiquette. It's definitely soap opera material.

However, it does become engrossing towards the climax of the film. Once the stakes are raised, things start to get tense, and the picture is much more watchable. Unfortunately, though, the climax itself is a bit laughable. Isabella goes suddenly blind, but rather than stay put and wait for help, she inexplicably attempts to find her way home on her own and walks straight off a cliff.

Ann Harding (pictured) is possibly the finest part of East Lynne. Her natural performance as the party girl without a party is truly engaging and helps to alleviate the film's flaws. Conrad Nagel as the staid husband also offers an accomplished portrayal if you can get past the heavy lipstick and eyeliner. And Clive Brook as the other man is compelling if only for his unusual cadence. None of the performances received Oscar nominations. Nor did any of the technical or creative elements. In fact, East Lynne's sole nomination was for Best Picture.

Friday, January 14, 2011

1930/31 - Skippy

Yesterday morning, I diligently researched how to get to UCLA before embarking on my journey. The bus schedule informed me that the No. 2 bus leaving at noon would take me from Sunset & Gower (which is near the Hollywood apartment in which I am staying thanks to Aussie friends Steve & Josh) all the way to the UCLA campus in Westwood. Like clockwork, the No. 2 bus arrived precisely on time and I happily hopped on board. About fifteen minutes later, with UCLA still about five miles away, the bus driver notified the remaining passengers that the current stop was the last that this bus would make. Apparently, I had hopped on the wrong No. 2 bus. This No. 2 bus, the driver explained, only went as far as West Hollywood. To get to UCLA, I needed to catch the No. 2 bus that terminates at Pacific Palisades ... Wait. So, there are two different bus routes that call themselves the No. 2? ... Well, that's perfectly reasonable. Nobody will ever be confused by that...

I did eventually make it to the stunningly beautiful UCLA campus where I visited the equally stunning Powell Library. Inside, I found the Film and Television Archive and viewed East Lynne and Skippy, both nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1930/31. Later that afternoon, I stopped by the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre and found the hand and foot prints of Jackie Cooper, the young star of Skippy. Mysteriously, though, there appears to be an error in his age or the date of the signing. Cooper was nine years old on December 12, 1931. (I also realise now that I should have asked someone else to take the photo so that I could appear in it as proof of my presence. Oh, well. You'll just have to believe me.)

Even though I actually watched East Lynne first, I will save that for the next post, which means our first Best Picture nominee from 1930/31 is...

Norman Taurog
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Don Marquis, Norman Z. McLeod, Sam Mintz
(based on the comic strip by Percy Crosby)
Jackie Cooper, Robert Coogan, Mitzi Green, Jackie Searl, Willard Robertson, Enid Bennett, Donald Haines, Helen Jerome Eddy
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Director

Skippy (Cooper) is a precocious little rascal, constantly disobeying his parents (Robertson & Bennett). Despite being told that he must never venture to the other side of the tracks, Skippy spends most of his time there, befriending a poor boy named Sooky (Coogan). When Sooky's dog is taken away by the local government (of which Skippy's father is the health supervisor), the two boys attempt all sorts of crazy schemes to make enough money to buy the required dog license. Skippy is also dismayed to hear that his father plans to tear down the shanty town where Sooky and his family live.

Today, most comic book adaptations are of the large-scale superhero blockbuster kind. Not so in 1931. Skippy is light entertainment that could easily be written off as a piece of fluff. Most of the characters are one-dimensional caricatures. And the simple plot hides the fact that the story is merely a whole bunch of comic strips strung together.

However, with four-time Oscar-winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz as a co-writer, the script remains clever and witty. For example, in response to Skippy asking him what his father does, Sooky states, "He just stays where he is. He's dead." As an Australian, I was also enamoured with the conversation about kangaroos, but slightly mystified by Sooky's mother feeding the children bread and brown sugar.

Norman Taurog garnered the Best Director Oscar, probably due to his fine work in guiding the young stars to such impressive performances. With the comic timing of a seasoned comedy performer, Jackie Cooper (pictured) is particularly compelling. Not only does he still hold the record for the youngest Best Actor nominee (he was nine years old!), but his nomination is the earliest of any living Oscar nominee in any category.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Best Picture of 1951

For the first time since this project began, I am writing from Los Angeles, California, home to the Academy of this blog's title. This morning, I giggled like a schoolgirl as I drove past their idyllic-looking Fairbanks Center, a building that houses the Margaret Herrick Library. As the awards season heats up, my presence in this town for the next few days will hopefully bring more fodder for the upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, it is verdict time again.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1951 are:
  • An American in Paris
  • Decision Before Dawn
  • A Place in the Sun
  • Quo Vadis
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
Similar to most Best Picture races, these films are all highly engaging, if for different reasons. The eventual winner, An American in Paris, perhaps stands apart since it is the only one to engage its audience with the use of singing and dancing. But, as always, my predilection for drama leads me to the contenders with more personal stories.

Both Quo Vadis and Decision Before Dawn use epic backdrops for their personal tales. Though still an absorbing film, the Roman epic does not shy away from extravagance and its religious themes can potentially turn some audiences off. The World War II drama is perhaps slightly more successful at keeping the focus on its characters' emotions, but it also has its flaws.

Far more personal still are A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun, both filled with emotional tension and enhanced with superb performances that are right up my alley. The former is clearly the more traditionally renowned of the two - which does make me doubt my decision somewhat - but its unfortunate censorship lessens its impact a little. Perhaps I'll change my mind in the future, but for now, I will officially name my favourite nominee from 1951 to be A Place in the Sun.

Best Picture of 1951
Academy's choice:

An American in Paris

Matt's choice:

A Place in the Sun

Your choice:

As always, your vote is important, too, so let me know which of the nominees is your favourite in the poll above. Now that I'm in L.A. and have access to the UCLA Film Archive, we begin our look at films from the 4th Annual Academy Awards.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1930/31 are:
  • Cimarron
  • East Lynne
  • The Front Page
  • Skippy
  • Trader Horn
Stay tuned...

Monday, January 10, 2011

1951 - Quo Vadis

It's almost hard to believe that my visit to Australia is very nearly over. Tomorrow, Kat and I fly back to the United States after a whirlwind tour of Sydney. The last couple of weeks have been all hustle and bustle as we caught up with friends and family, every meeting seeming to involve food. And for some reason, we met an inordinate number of babies for the first time, many around the eight to ten month age range. If my calculations are correct, it appears that these couples may have specifically waited for us to leave the country to conceive their children. Hmmm...

So busy was I during this trip that I am only now posting this review despite having watched this film almost a week ago. My first film of 2011 was the final nominee from 1951's Best Picture contenders...

Quo Vadis
Mervyn LeRoy
John Lee Mahin, S.N. Berhman, Sonya Levien
(based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz)
Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov, Patricia Laffan, Finlay Currie, Abraham Sofaer, Marina Berti
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
0 wins

Ancient Rome in the first century is governed by Nero (Ustinov), who acts more like a tantrum-throwing child than an emperor. After years as Nero's advisor, the far more intelligent Petronius (Genn) placates and coddles his emperor to the point of manipulation, biding his time. Marcus Vinicius (Taylor), a commander in Nero's army, returns from battle and chauvinistically pursues Lygia (Kerr), a hostage of Rome and a member of a newly-formed religious group known as the Christians. Vinicius asks his emperor if he can have Lygia as compensation for his successful military duties. What girl could resist such a romantic gesture? Lygia falls in love with Vinicius anyway, but their newfound happiness is short-lived as Nero begins to cruelly persecute the Christians and those who associate with them.

As a historical drama, Quo Vadis hits all the right notes. However, Quo Vadis is not entirely a historical drama. It is mostly a Christian allegory and, as such, can appear a tad preachy. Although, its perceived preachiness is probably dependent on the viewer's religious convictions, I suppose. Nevertheless, the allegorical content is itself engaging and, therefore, not too detrimental to the enjoyment of the film for those of a non-Christian persuasion.

It is difficult not to at least compare this picture to that other Roman epic of the 1950s, Ben-Hur. Indeed, there is a brief chariot scene in Quo Vadis, complete with drivers whipping each other and spiky wooden wheels tearing other wheels to shreds. The whole thing may well have been considered reminiscent of the Charlton Heston classic if it weren't for the fact that Quo Vadis was released about eight years prior to Ben-Hur.

In any case, the exciting action sequences are fitting for any film hoping to label itself an epic, and they are complemented by lavish sets and costumes creating a theatrically extravagant atmosphere. Only the special effects leave a bit to be desired. Due to the limited technology of the time, the blue-screen effect often leaves a blue glow around the actors, making them seem like 70s TV weathermen. Despite this unavoidable flaw, the chaos surrounding the burning of Rome is still immensely powerful.

Most importantly, the film has a very engaging story, approaching the material in a personal and emotional way despite the epic backdrop. The characters are interesting, both as written and as performed. Peter Ustinov is the standout with his hilarious yet poignant portrayal of the narcissistic emperor Nero. His right-hand man, Petronius, is played with delicious restraint by Leo Genn. Both men received Supporting Actor nominations from the Academy, boosting the film's total nods to eight, only three less than Ben-Hur's in 1959. The two films' conversion rates are a little less similar. While Ben-Hur took all but one of its nominations, Quo Vadis failed to take home any awards at all...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

1951 - A Streetcar Named Desire

Happy New Year! I write this from sunny and warm Sydney, Australia. Despite the sweat glistening on my forehead, I am more than pleased to experience these hot climes because it means I have avoided the recent blizzardy conditions of New York. To ring in the new year, last night Kat and I first caught up with some friends to enjoy the early evening fireworks over beautiful Sydney Harbour with our view from a park in Lavender Bay (pictured - just imagine fireworks). We then made our way back to my parents' place to watch the midnight fireworks from an equally stunning viewpoint on their balcony.

Earlier in the week, I watched my last film of 2010, another film classic from 1951's list of Best Picture nominees...

A Streetcar Named Desire
Elia Kazan
Tennesse Williams and Oscar Saul
(based on Williams' play)
Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
4 wins, including Best Actress (Leigh)

Blanche DuBois (Leigh) arrives in New Orleans and hops aboard a streetcar named Desire, making her way to the French Quarter to visit her sister Stella (Hunter). Stella's macho husband, Stanley Kowalski (Brando), immediately takes a disliking to Blanche's snobbishness and accuses her of secretly selling the family home and keeping the money for herself. When Stanley's poker buddy Mitch (Malden) shows interest in Blanche, Stanley digs around in her past to uncover all sorts of nasty secrets, creating tension between ... well, everybody.

I have a confession to make. Despite being an actor and a film buff, I had never seen this (or any other) adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Even more embarrassingly, I have not seen or read the play on which it is based. I was aware, of course, of Blanche's famous last words, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," and of the iconic image of Stanley outside screaming, "Stella!" but somehow, I was almost completely oblivious to the plot ... which turns out to have been a bit of a hindrance.

As I've discovered over the course of this project, many films of this era find creative solutions to the restrictive censorship rules to which they were forced to adhere. However, in this instance, it seems some of the censoring occurred after the film was shot and without director Elia Kazan's approval. Consequently, there are a few relatively crucial plot points that remain slightly elusive. After I viewed the film, I read a synopsis online and was somewhat astonished to discover that Blanche had previously engaged in prostitution and that her suicidal husband was gay. To top it all off, the climactic fight scene between Stanley and Blanche turns out to have been a precursor to a rape. Mind you, everything made a lot more sense with that knowledge. I only wish that I had discerned that information while I was watching. (I suppose I should acknowledge, though, that my failure to correctly comprehend these events may also be due to the lack of focus brought on by my jet-lag.)

Unfortunate censorship notwithstanding, the picture boasts a captivating atmosphere. The story takes place during a hot Southern summer and the heat permeates the screen, both literal heat and metaphorical heat. The characters sweat from the high temperatures and also from their sexual desires, simultaneously represented by many a torn undershirt (pictured). Amplifying the heat is the sultry and steamy score. If it is at all possible for music to feel hot, composer Alex North succeeds admirably.

The first film to win three acting Oscars, A Streetcar Named Desire's performances are arguably its most striking feature. Vivien Leigh's portrayal of the pretentious Blanche DuBois at first seems merely to be a reprisal of her other Oscar-winning prissy Southern belle role, but develops into several truly touching moments. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden both won supporting role Oscars for their superbly compelling characterisations. In my humble opinion, however, it is the only non-winner in the cast who gave the standout performance. Marlon Brando's naturalistic approach to his portrayal of the intensely passionate Stanley Kowalski is a seminal example of method acting, a technique that was probably not well understood or accepted yet by the old guard of the Academy. Instead, they gave the Best Actor award to an overdue Humphrey Bogart. Nonetheless, Brando (along with fellow nominee Montgomery Clift of A Place in the Sun) delivered a performance that was influential in shaping the future of screen acting.