Sunday, December 11, 2011

Best Picture of 1929/30

One of the things I'm enjoying about this silly little project is the opportunity to watch some of cinema's early offerings, an activity that I previously did not engage in very frequently. While it is clear to me that my tastes lie with slightly more modern filmmaking, I am always pleasantly surprised by how fascinating I find some of these vintage pictures, and even more surprised when I come across a forgotten gem. I may not have uncovered one of those gems with the current crop of films under review, but they each contained elements worth appreciating and I'm genuinely glad to have experienced them.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1929/30 are:
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The Big House
  • Disraeli
  • The Divorcee
  • The Love Parade
When sound was introduced to moving pictures in the late 1920s, it forced a change not only in the obvious technical aspects of filmmaking but also in the conventions that cinema used to tell a story. It took a few years for those conventions to be perfected - in fact, the style and form of cinema is constantly evolving - and the five films up for Best Picture here unfortunately show some signs of that lack of experience. Technique issues aside, however, they each manage to offer an engaging story.

The Love Parade includes many funny moments but its main flaw is that it is musically dull, rather a fatal issue for a musical. Disraeli is a fascinating study of a political figure but its wordiness can be a bit trying at times, especially in light of its mostly static staging. Prison genre pioneer The Big House possessed the potential to be far more gripping but it nonetheless includes an exciting climax.

The two nominees left to duke it out are the straightforward storytelling of The Divorcee, a personal exploration of a troubled relationship, and the epic storytelling of All Quiet on the Western Front, a personal exploration of troubled soldiers. The latter was the Academy's choice and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only film of the five that has retained any decent recognition among modern audiences. As an epic, it is arguably the most theatrical of the nominees, but in spite of that - or perhaps because of it - it is also the most emotionally powerful. Thus, as so often is the case, the bigger film wins out. All Quiet on the Western Front shall be named my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1929/30.

Best Picture of 1929/30
Academy's choice:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Matt's choice:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Your choice:

I suspect many of you may not have had the chance to see all five of these films, but it seems incredibly unlikely that every Academy member sees all the nominees before they vote so I'm certainly not going to disqualify you from taking part in the irrelevant poll above. Next up, we move back to much more recent times with fine selection of modern cinema.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 2006 are:
  • Babel
  • The Departed
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • The Queen
Unlike the previous year of review, all of these films are very easily accessible so why not follow along with me. In fact, all five of the 2006 nominees are available to watch instantly on Amazon. Just click on the links below.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

1929/30 - The Big House

I'm very happy to report that The Artist is a fantastic and innovative film, certainly worthy of its recent recognition. Thoroughly enjoyable, the film makes clever use of its genre and, let's face it, it's difficult not to be unique when you make a film in a genre that hasn't been around for 80 years. Anyway, you should do whatever you can to see The Artist. Undoubtedly, this clever film will be mentioned a lot in the coming months.

As we wind down the current year of review, don't forget to cast your vote for the next one. The poll is in the sidebar on the right hand side of your screen. But you knew that already.

The final film for us to have a look at from 1929/30's slate of Best Picture nominees is...

The Big House
George Hill
Frances Marion, Joe Farnham, Martin Flavin
Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, DeWitt Jennings
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Writing

Kent (Montgomery) arrives in prison for his first day of a ten year sentence for manslaughter after a drunk driving accident. His cellmates are two hot shots of the block, the intelligent and level-headed Morgan (Morris) and the uneducated murderous thug Butch (Beery). Kent struggles to fit in at first and finds himself further ostracised when he sets up Morgan to take the blame for a hidden knife. The incident results in Morgan being sent to solitary the day before he is due to be released on parole. He vows to get even with Kent and, after cleverly escaping prison, he tracks down Kent's beautiful sister Anne (Hyams). However, his desire for vengeance slowly dissipates as he falls for Anne and realises how important Kent is to her and her family.

While an engaging story, The Big House has some pacing issues. Potentially gripping dramatic conflicts are often glossed over far too quickly, occasionally leaving the feeling that we are merely watching a series of plot points. It would be far more interesting to see the characters struggle with their decisions and actions but too often they are given a less than appropriate time frame to do so.

It's actually quite a shame because the narrative otherwise holds our attention well and the climax is incredibly exciting. So, if there had been more emotional depth to the way the characters were written, this picture could really have been a classic. As it stands, however, the film still holds a place in film lore as being somewhat responsible for the popularity of the prison genre. It was one of the first of its kind to explore the harsh conditions of prison life and, in that regard, it is successfully fascinating. Nonetheless, some of the questionably superficial dialogue doesn't help its cause. When the warden tells his assistant that the inmates are planning an uprising at noon, the assistant checks his watch and exclaims, "Noon? That's one minute!"

Chester Morris (pictured, with Beery) is the stand out among the cast with his confident presence as Morgan. Wallace Beery's constant "Who? Me?" catchphrase is mostly caricature but he is appropriately cast, earning the film's only acting nomination. And Robert Montgomery is effective as the foolishly naive Kent. Both Montgomery and Morris also appeared in fellow 1929/30 Best Picture nominee The Divorcee, playing roles with interestingly similar social statuses to their characters here. Incidentally, after I downloaded this film from iTunes, I noticed they had incorrectly listed the director of The Big House as George Roy Hill (famed for helming The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) rather than its actual director, known simply as George Hill.