Saturday, May 31, 2014

Best Picture of 1934

I can't seem to find an explanation as to why the Academy decided to increase the nominee count to 12 for the 1934 Best Picture category. It's an odd number (well, it's an even number, but you know what I mean), and not at all warranted when you look at the list of films that received those nominations. There are certainly a small handful that could easily have been left off the list and nobody would have complained.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1934 are:
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street
  • Cleopatra
  • Flirtation Walk
  • The Gay Divorcee
  • Here Comes the Navy
  • The House of Rothschild
  • Imitation of Life
  • It Happened One Night
  • One Night of Love
  • The Thin Man
  • Viva Villa!
  • The White Parade
In a time before the Academy shied away from romantic comedies, the genre was well represented among this dozen. For that matter, so were romance films in general. In fact, every nominee features some sort of love story, whether it be the main focus or a supporting character's subplot. Another common theme is the appearance of musical numbers, often gratuitously. While only two of the films could truly call themselves musicals, many more contain at least one song and/or dance sequence. Several of the pictures also share the unfortunate trait of an unsatisfying conclusion. At first, I was willing to ascribe that failure to the learning curve that Hollywood must have gone through at the outset of the sound era. But upon reflection, that excuse can be easily dismissed, since silent movies also required interesting stories and story structures.

And if all that weren't enough, one last shared attribute among many of the nominees is narrative simplicity. Sure, a straightforward plot is great for comprehension, but quite a few of the stories seemed to lack depth and detail. Perhaps, though, this is merely a consequence of the eight decades of storytelling that has followed since these films were released. Back then, these stories undoubtedly seemed fresh and new, but now that everything has been done multiple times, contemporary audiences may perceive them as clichéd and formulaic.

Since there are a dozen films in this batch, I won't bore you by eliminating them one by one. Instead, I'll skip ahead and make it a two-horse race. Not coincidentally, the two films I rate highest happen to also be the two that continue to enjoy high regard today - The Thin Man and It Happened One Night. While both films could potentially be described as simple and formulaic - one a simple detective story, the other a formulaic romantic comedy - their superb execution raises them above their fellow nominees. Both are full of charm and wit with delightful performances. In the end, I am siding with the film that the Academy clearly loved as well - evidenced by their awarding to it the Big Five - and naming It Happened One Night as my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1934.

Best Picture of 1934
Academy's choice:

It Happened One Night

Matt's choice:

It Happened One Night

Your choice:

Where does your preference lie? With 12 films to choose from, this should be an interesting poll. Let's time-travel forward now to focus our attention on the Best Picture contest from 1987, which coincidentally also includes a greater than average number of comedies.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1987 are:
  • Broadcast News
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Hope and Glory
  • The Last Emperor
  • Moonstruck
Stay tuned...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

1934 - The House of Rothschild

Milestone time! The following review represents the 200th film I have screened for this project. It's sobering to think the 100th film (Pulp Fiction) was reviewed just a touch over one year after the project's commencement, yet the subsequent 100 films took over three times as long to get through. But who's quibbling?

And now we close off 1934's record-setting 12-way Best Picture race with...

The House of Rothschild
Alfred L. Werker
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the play by George Hembert Westley)
George Arliss, Boris Karloff, Loretta Young, Robert Young, C. Aubrey Smith
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

As an old Jewish money changer in 18th century Prussia, Mayer Rothschild (Arliss) is forced to deal with many injustices from the government. After being gouged by the tax collector, his dying request to his five sons is to head up a bank in each of the major cities across Europe. Thirty years later, Nathan (also Arliss) is running the London branch and becomes financially involved in the war effort against Napoleon. His help is not welcome by all, however. Count Ledrantz (Karloff) stubbornly refuses to do business with Nathan due to his being Jewish, but Nathan uses his wealth, power and cunning to strike a deal on his own terms.

The House of Rothschild treads a fine line between portraying its protagonist as a sympathetic character who is plagued by anti-Semitism and a scheming miser who fulfils the unflattering Jewish stereotype against which he is fighting. Consequently, I found myself bouncing back and forth between pitying Rothschild's persecution and deploring his deviousness.

On the surface, this seems like the kind of character flaw that makes for great cinema, but unfortunately, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that this was actually a flaw with the production. There's a good chance the film-makers merely accentuated the stereotype of the Jewish money-grubber for effect. Then again, it would be understandably difficult to avoid painting Rothschild as avaricious since the real Rothschild was one of the wealthiest men in England.

Despite all that, George Arliss delivers a sincere performance as Nathan Rothschild, genuine in both his frugality and his indignation. Best known for his horror movie roles, Boris Karloff (pictured, with Arliss) is imposing as the bigoted Count Ledrantz, largely due to his striking eyebrows.

It's also worth noting the somewhat sketchy attempt at a colour sequence. Obviously, colour film technology was still in its infancy in 1934, so the lavish sets and costumes of the film's final scene initially seemed to me to be the victim of a horrible post-production colourisation, but it turns out it was actually one of the first scenes ever to be shot using three-strip Technicolor. Lastly, The House of Rothschild, like Here Comes the Navy, also joins the Only-Nominated-for-Best-Picture-and-Nothing-Else Club. Surprisingly, though, the film still placed third in the Best Picture race (the Academy announced runners-up back then).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

1934 - Here Comes the Navy

Every now and then during this project, particularly while reviewing years prior to 1940, there is a movie that proves a tad elusive to get my hands on. I've visited the UCLA Film Archive twice (once for this current year of review, as it happens) to view three separate films and have had to find some "creative" ways (*cough* YouTube *cough*) to view others. When I began the current year of review (five months ago, shamefully), this next film had been given no home video release. It was also nowhere to be seen via my usual illicit channels, so I simply threw caution to the wind and hoped that TCM would schedule it soon.

As luck would have it, they have indeed scheduled it ... for July. As more luck would have it, the Warner Archive Collection added the film to its list of distributed titles just a couple of months ago, making it available to order. Serendipitous, indeed. Considering I only have two films left in this current year of review, it seemed silly to wait another two months for the TCM broadcast, so I decided to shell out the cash to buy the DVD, only the second such time I've done so for this project.

Interestingly, it's also only the second time I've bought a DVD at all since moving to the United States almost five years ago. I had quite the DVD collection back home in Australia, but being predominantly region 4 discs, it seemed unnecessary to bring them with me, so they currently just gather dust at my in-laws' house. And with the emergence of services like Netflix that offer streaming movies as well as DVD rentals by mail, it has also become unnecessary to purchase new titles. It's sad to think that Netflix has essentially replaced my DVD collection, but it's certainly lighter on my wallet.

And now, here are my thoughts on the penultimate nominee from 1934's race to Best Picture...

Here Comes the Navy
Lloyd Bacon
Eric Baldwin and Ben Markson
James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Gloria Stuart, Frank McHugh
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

In a vaguely similar story to the also-nominated Flirtation Walk, Here Comes the Navy features a firebrand who impulsively joins the military to prove a point to an adversary. Chesty O'Conner (Cagney), a blue-collar civilian, loses a fistfight to naval officer Biff Martin (O'Brien), and subsequently enlists in naval training to show him what's what. Not having thought it through properly, Chesty predictably ends up with Martin as his superior, allowing Martin to make life as difficult as possible for his nemesis. To complicate their relationship further, Chesty falls for Martin's sister, Dorothy (Stuart), nonchalantly risking his job to win her heart.

In one sense, Here Comes the Navy bucks the trend of many of its fellow nominees by not including any gratuitous musical numbers. Well, there are a couple of scenes in which characters intentionally sing badly (at least, I hope it was intentional), but it's safe to assume they are for comic relief, rather than any genuine attempt at musical entertainment.

However, in another sense, the picture provides yet another example of what has been a common theme among this year's shortlist - a less than satisfactory conclusion. In its defense, we are at least given a wedding ceremony for our romantic leads. It's just that it comes completely out of nowhere. The last we heard, Chesty wanted nothing to do with Dorothy, then all of a sudden, they're getting married. No explanation. Just an assumption that his recent heroic act must have somehow softened his heart. Then, to top it all off, the final moment of the film features the atrocious singing of the groom's best friend's mother. Granted, it's a callback to an earlier setup, but it's still an odd feeling to leave the film with a character we've never seen before.

With a reputation for playing tough guys, James Cagney's portrayal of the hotheaded Chesty is certainly larger than life, probably due in part to some pretty contrived dialogue throughout. To some extent, the character is difficult to truly get behind since he spends most of the film being a conceited, impulsive dick. Donning blackface certainly doesn't help his cause, even taking into account the fact that that sort of thing was not as taboo among mainstream audiences back then. Holding her own opposite Cagney is Gloria Stuart (more than six decades before her sole Oscar nomination for Titanic) as the confident Dorothy. And speaking of sole Oscar nominations, Here Comes the Navy joins that elite group of films with the seemingly paradoxical feat of receiving a Best Picture nomination and no other.