Wednesday, November 30, 2011

1929/30 - Disraeli

Awards season has begun, which unashamedly makes me giddy. I've already seen a lot of the films that could potentially be recognised over the coming months but there are still plenty to go. One that I am particularly looking forward to is The Artist, especially after being named the favourite of the New York Film Critics yesterday. I'll be attending a screening of it (sadly, sans Q&A) on Friday, and will report on its merit soon.

Time now to discuss another nominee from the 1929/30 Best Picture contest...

Alfred E. Green
Julien Josephson
(based on the play by Louis N. Parker)
George Arliss, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss, Anthony Bushell, David Torrence, Ivan F. Simpson, Doris Lloyd
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Arliss)

19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Arliss) is having a tough time of it. His political rival, William Gladstone, has helped to undercut Disraeli's plans for a more far-reaching British Empire. But when Egypt puts the Suez Canal on the market, Disraeli sets his sights on purchasing it in order to secure control of India. Only trouble is the head of the Bank of England (Torrence) won't release the needed funds. Not one to give up, Disraeli calls upon wealthy Jewish banker Hugh Meyers (Simpson) for a loan and, with the help of his aide Charles (Bushell), Disraeli makes every last effort to ensure the transaction is successful.

With a generous helping of dialogue, the film's genesis as a play is unmistakable. There is very little action among the mostly political discussions until at least an hour into the story when a sense of urgency is finally introduced. At this point, the tale becomes exponentially more involving. Interestingly, the plot devices used are incredibly similar to those of farce, just without the humour. Disreali observes a foreign agent sneak an important piece of paper into her sleeve and excuse herself so she can secretly read it. Our inimitable hero ushers one of his allies to pester the rival, making sure she is not alone. It's like a doorless version of Noises Off. While exciting, this sequence is clearly far from historically accurate, along with much of the film's story, I imagine. The spy element, in particular, seems rather unlikely. Nonetheless, the picture is certainly not intended to be a documentary.

One of the more realistic elements of Disraeli, namely his apparent struggle against anti-Semitism, is treated with subtlety. The film does, however, present an interesting take on women's rights. Disraeli seems somewhat enlightened in terms of allowing women to remain present when political secrets are being discussed, yet his wife tells the story of how she suffered in silence after having her finger slammed in a door. She stifled her anguish, not wanting to bother her husband. With no sense of irony, everyone agrees that this was a "wonderful thing" for her to do.

You will probably find parts of this picture dull, but it is certainly worth watching, if for George Arliss's (pictured) intelligent performance alone. He became the first British actor to win an Oscar, and was arguably also the first to benefit from the Academy's penchant for transformational character work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

1929/30 - All Quiet on the Western Front

As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I get invitations to all sorts of special screenings during awards season, no doubt intended to influence my vote at the SAG Awards. Idealistic as I am, I remain staunchly subjective, despite being offered free popcorn and soft drinks. I mean, I'll take the free popcorn and soft drinks - and anything else you're willing to offer me, for that matter - but no amount of bribery will make me write your film's name down on my ballot ... except, perhaps, if you offered me a role in your next film. That might do it.

In the last couple of weeks, I've heard fascinating insight into the makings of three films vying for accolades this season. First, Albert Nobbs, a moving but rather contrived film. Its flaws are forgiven, however, due to impressive performances by Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, both present for the Q & A. Next, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a complicated and moody spy thriller, made all the more complicated by a terrible viewing perspective in the front row. Some faces were seemingly distorted so drastically that it was difficult to distinguish actors from each other. Nonetheless, a front-row seat meant that, during the Q & A, I was closer to the cheekily relaxed Colin Firth and the surprisingly stuttering Gary Oldman. Finally, Hugo, a visually breathtaking 3D extravaganza that is part children's movie, part homage to early cinema. Clearly, the producers took out all the stops for this screening. It was held at the magnificent Ziegfeld in Manhattan, where guests were treated to free popcorn and drinks, followed by a Q & A attended by no less than five of the cast - Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Chloe Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield - plus the screenwriter, John Logan.

We now take a look at the Academy's pick for Best Picture of 1929/30...

All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews
(based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)
Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis, Jr., Walter Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

Paving the way for many anti-war films that followed, All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a bunch of German high school boys who enlist in the army at the outset of World War I after an impassioned and patriotic speech by their teacher. At basic training, the young men are naively itching to get to the action, but once on the front, they quickly discover that war is not in the least bit exciting. It is tedious and dirty and psychologically damaging. The men are often hungry and tired, continually questioning the purpose of their exhaustion.

From the opening caption, there is no question as to what message this picture conveys. There is a veritable onslaught of "war is bad" moments and the poignancy with which that message is presented is rather overt. Nonetheless, it is indeed poignant. It is difficult not to be moved by the plight of Paul (Ayres), who after stabbing an enemy soldier in a foxhole, is forced to watch him die over the next few hours.

For a film of its era, it is commendably realistic in its portrayal of warfare. The in-your-face style of its battle sequences surely makes it the Saving Private Ryan of its day. The realism is, however, almost shot to pieces by the simplistically written characters. All the new recruits are naively idealistic and barely distinguishable from each other. So much so that they often behave as one, ducking in unison at the sound of artillery shells and complaining of hunger in a simultaneous barrage. In fact, when a couple of characters eventually become recognisable as distinct personalities, their most distinguishing trait is that they are not dead.

Furthermore, the performances are largely over the top, even for 1930 standards. Ayres (pictured) is particularly exaggerated, though he redeems himself late in the film during a touching scene in the classroom. Louis Wolheim and Slim Summerville deliver the most memorable performances for my taste, possibly because the humour of their characters allows them to get away with more theatricality.

Despite my criticisms, All Quiet on the Western Front is a thoughtfully directed and provocative film with many significantly powerful moments. Its issues may simply be a sign of its times.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

1929/30 - The Divorcee

More celebrity shoulder-rubbing stories from this past week at work. I poured some water for Andie MacDowell, was thanked by Jimmy Fallon, and witnessed a live performance by Coldplay. Other attendees that I spotted at these events were Julianna Margulies, Taraji P. Henson, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John McEnroe, Lorne Michaels, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Here endeth the name-dropping.

Don't forget to vote for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. The poll is in the right sidebar.

Next up in the contenders vying for 1929/30's Best Picture prize is...

The Divorcee
Robert Z. Leonard
Nick Grindé, Zelda Sears and John Meehan
(based on the novel "Ex-Wife" by Ursula Parrott)
Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Florence Eldridge
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Actress (Shearer)

You would be hard pressed to find another film with such a spoiler for a title. The leading lady, Jerry (Shearer), doesn't actually become a divorcee until two-thirds of the way into the story. After marrying former lothario Ted (Morris), she is devastated to learn of his infidelity. Ted is remorseful, asserting that his fling meant nothing and that an affair need not end a marriage. His opinion is quickly reversed, however, when Jerry confesses to an affair of her own. They are summarily divorced and Jerry must now figure out what she really wants out of life.

The Divorcee is melodrama, but it is good melodrama. One might even say that it is restrained melodrama, if that's not an oxymoron. Granted, it is laboured at times. There are even a couple of instances in which dramatic pauses have been quite obviously inserted artificially by the editor. However, the result is a healthy amount of dramatic tension that, for the most part, remains subdued. Yes, the characters are emotionally volatile but there is a pleasing lack of over-the-top explosive arguments.

With a mostly straightforward storyline that grows a little more complex in the final act, The Divorcee is essentially an in-depth exploration of a relationship tainted by infidelity. The script itself is cleverly written and infused with wit. Note, for example, the way in which Jerry admits her adultery by using the phrase, "I've balanced our accounts." Then again, that wit is occasionally offset by some downright strange lines, such as the romantically intended, "I'd like to make love to you 'til you scream for help."

On DVD, The Divorcee is featured in a collection entitled Forbidden Hollywood (which you can buy by clicking on the Amazon link below - pardon the seamless plug), a set that includes films with subject matter that would undoubtedly have been unacceptable once the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in Hollywood in the mid-1930s. However, as far as Pre-Code films go, this picture is relatively tame. In fact, director Robert Z. Leonard utilises some clever visual techniques that were in abundant use once censorship outlawed anything sexual. When Jerry commits her unfaithful deed, all the audience sees is a curtain closing over the bedroom window. Later, when Jerry is enjoying her bachelorette lifestyle, there is a montage which consists solely of close-ups of her hands being held by a series of different men. Of course, while these scenes themselves may have satisfied the Code's guidelines, the promiscuous behaviour enjoyed by the main character would certainly have been a no-no. Particularly since that behaviour goes unpunished.

Norma Shearer (pictured) won a Best Actress Oscar for her astute portrayal of a woman dealing with life's punches. Her supporting cast delivers a number of intelligent performances, but my favourite is Robert Montgomery, who is shrewdly funny as the calmly neurotic (another oxymoron?) Don.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

1929/30 - The Love Parade

Last Friday, I finally got around to redeeming a gift certificate that my darling wife had given me for my birthday in February. Yes, I am the king of procrastination. The gift certificate entitled me to a full body massage at a local spa, which, through no fault of the massage therapist, turned out to be an entire hour of cringing discomfort. To be fair, that's essentially how I've felt every time I've received a professional massage. It's not that I'm prudish. Oddly, lying almost naked while a stranger rubs his hands all over me doesn't really bother me. It's the pain that bothers me. The digging, the pinching, the grinding - all actions I'd rather not experience. You might ask, "Well, Matt, why don't you just ask the massage therapist to give you a softer massage?" Well, that would involve confrontation, silly. Instead, I just lie there with my face, hidden from my tormentor's view, scrunched in near agony. And when it's not unbearably painful, it's unbearably ticklish. For some reason, the backs of my knees are unusually sensitive. But, again, rather than risk the inevitable embarrassment of flinching when his hands tickle my knee-backs, I concentrate with every fibre of my being to remain uncomfortably still. The entire experience is, in a nutshell, full of tension, both physically and metaphorically, which is surely the exact opposite of the intended result. I am possibly the only person on the planet who requires some relaxation after a massage.

Kicking off our look at the Best Picture contest of 1929/30 is...

The Love Parade
Ernst Lubitsch
Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda
(based on the play "The Prince Consort" by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof)
Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, Lupino Lane, Lillian Roth, Eugene Pallette, E.H. Calvert, Edgar Norton, Lionel Belmore
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

Paris - the most romantic city in the world. Perfectly suited to the philandering lifestyle of Count Alfred Renard (Chevalier), the military attaché to the Sylvanian Embassy. His womanising exploits cause much scandal, however, eventually boiling over when he is caught in a romantic encounter with the Ambassador's wife. He is sent back to Sylvania to answer to Queen Louise (McDonald), who is conveniently unable to find a suitable husband for herself, mostly because no man desires to live in deference to her. Alfred and Louise quickly fall for each other, but making a royal marriage work proves difficult for the former Casanova, especially as he is given little respect and no power.

There are several genuinely funny moments in The Love Parade, beginning with a chuckle-worthy opening scene involving a fake suicide. The rest of the film features some great visual gags (an entire military squadron ordered to tiptoe as they march so they don't wake the Queen) and even some clever wordplay (Alfred's ludicrous explanation of why he has a French accent). Thus, as a comedy, The Love Parade succeeds quite well. As a musical, however, not so much.

Even taking into account the fact that the musical film genre had not quite perfected itself yet, there is something unsatisfying about most of the musical numbers. The lyrics are almost at the level of a Gershwin or a Berlin, but the music is bland and not at all catchy. Plus, the static visual style in which the songs are presented is a missed opportunity. I understand that, at a time when talking pictures were still a novelty, simply hearing people sing on film must have seemed interesting enough, but in this case, the audience might as well have been listening to a gramophone. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that this film is director Ernst Lubitsch's first foray into sound. The only exception to all this musical drabness is the number Let's Be Common, which features the humorous acrobatics of an energetic Lupino Lane.

Maurice Chevalier (pictured) exudes a boyish charm that is hard to dislike and his comic talents are finely displayed, earning him a Best Actor nomination. Jeanette McDonald is surprisingly natural in her debut film, after several years in the theatre. Here, she is provided with the opportunity to showcase what an amazing set of pipes she has. Also of note is Lupino Lane, who is as funny as he is agile.

All in all, The Love Parade is a relatively simple story that, despite some slow points, is worth viewing. If you can get past the flat musicality and the questionably chauvinistic resolution, you will more than likely find plenty to make you laugh.