Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Should've Won (That Could've Won): 1928

Okay, guys, here we go, I’ve been prepping this for a while.  After two years, “Underrated Movies” are going on a long hiatus in favor of a year-by-year journey through my second-guesses of the Best Picture Winners.  I’ll try to limit myself to the same unofficial standards the Academy uses, mostly choosing from that pool of widely-released American movies that have that certain “you’ll laugh / you’ll cry”  epic sweep that the Academy loves. 
The Year: 1928
What the Nominees Were: This was the only year in which they split the nominees between “ Best (mainstream) Picture”…
  1. Wings
  2. The Racket
  3. Seventh Heaven
…and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”… 
  1. Chang
  2. The Crowd
  3. Sunrise
This wasn’t a bad idea, actually.  Maybe they should bring it back. 

Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman is his final masterpiece, and it easily would have deserved the prize had it come out in 1929, but it had the misfortune to come out in 1928 instead, one of the best-ever years for American movies.   

What Did Win: Picture: Wings, Unique or Artistic Picture: Sunrise
How The Winners Have Aged: It’s hard to complain about either of these choices.  Wings is still amazing-looking and a good story, and Sunrise is a flat-out masterpiece. Unfortunately, it was up against…
What Should’ve Won: The Crowd
How Hard the Decision Was: Not very, since The Crowd is my all-time favorite movie.  I had been dating my future-wife for a week when I took her to a museum and made her watch it to test her.  (Dating me was never very fun.)  Luckily, she loved it, and me.

Director: King Vidor 
Writers: Screenplay by Vidor and John V.A. Weaver, Titles by Joe Farnham 
Stars: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Estelle Clark

The Story: A young man, born on July 4th, 1900, is assured by his parents that he’ll be president someday, but instead he just becomes a face in the crowd in New York City, unable to support his loving family on a clerk’s pay, and torn apart by his failures.

Nominations and Wins: It was nominated for Best Unique or Artistic Picture and Best Director, but lost both.
Why It Didn’t Win: It’s hard to fault the Academy for overlooking it.  It was a great year and they made good choices.  It is to America’s shame that this portrait of poverty has become more timely and powerful with each passing year, whereas Sunrise, about rural fears of city life, seems far more dated. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. American sociologists have become increasingly concerned about the so-called “Lake Woebegone” effect, named for Garrison Keilor’s fictional town in which every child is expected to be above average.  What does it do to a nation when average-ness is demonized?  Vidor knew way back in 1928: it destroys the soul.  This is the tragedy of an average man who has been told that it is unacceptable to be average, and can’t forgive himself for his failure to excel.
  2. This was the last year a silent movie won best picture until, presumably, tonight, when The Artist is expected win the prize it richly deserves.  Both movies excel at finding those little vulnerable behaviors that we’ve all done but never seen onscreen before, like trying to get a spot off your face and then realizing it’s on the mirror.  Sound pictures have never achieved that level of universality. If sound movies are the cousin of prose, then silent movies are the cousin of poetry.
  3. But the real tragedy of the arrival of sound was the death of the moving camera, which had just exploded into use in the ‘26-‘28 period.  The camera is wonderfully alive here, such as when it slides backwards down a Coney Island slide in front of our heroes as they experience the exhilaration of first love.  It would take thirty years for camera operators to recapture this level of liberation. 
  4. The anchor of this movie’s greatness is Murray’s heart-wrenching performance.  He himself was pulled from the crowd (he had been an extra) and catapulted to stardom after giving one of the most astoundingly naturalistic performances ever captured.  Unfortunately, it might have been a little too natural.  Like his character, Murray could not live up to these expectations.  He died in poverty eight years later.
  5. You might not have seen this, but you’ve seen its influence everywhere. The Apartment reverently replicated the stunning introductory shot of the hero at work in a sea of desks, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July is a comedic genre-flip of the same story, and It’s A Wonderful Life updated a similar character arc for the post-war era.  Even those who did not imitate the picture were in awe of it: When Jean Luc-Godard was asked why he never made any films about ordinary people, he responded, “Why remake The Crowd?  It’s already been done.” 
How Available Is It?: Not at all!  I had to download a low-quality bit torrent dub of the old VHS version!  Boo! 

Ah, 1928: Odd Pants!


Michael Hoskin said...

Oh, how I have searched for a copy of the Crowd; the only one for sale at Alibris runs for $170! Oy.

Steve Bird said...

When I first got into silents, it was largely through Fairbanks's action movies and Keaton's comedies. I began to seek them out on TCM late night. One morning I caught some of The Crowd on tv and instantly recognized an extraordinarilly arresting level of realism, emotion, and art captured in eighty-year-old celluloid. Years later when my TiVo caught it I made sure to watch it all the way through, and it is a rare and tragic thing.

j.s. said...

So if this has played on TCM several times from a recently completed HD master where's the DVD/Blu-ray? If Warner Bros. can't or won't do it, why don't they license it to a company like Criterion?

J.A. said...

I haven't seen the film, but is it really better than SUNRISE? It's been years since I've seen that either, but I remember it being amazing. It destroyed all my preconceived notions about what silent films were like when I first saw it.

You're comparison of the two seems to assume that remaining topical over the course of time is the mark of greatness, I'm not 100% convinced... Aren't some masterpieces specifically OF the time? That's one of the things I love about TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. that you seem to find fault in, that stylistically it hasn't aged well (cheesy 80s graphics, etc...) But to me that film is an example of being 100% of the time and commenting on it from an outside perspective all at once. Maybe it's not the best comparison, you're talking about theme, not style, but still. OK, now I'm on tangent. Love your blog. I'm one of your lurkers.

I really want to see the film, the opening sequence on youtube was pretty stellar, and I see what you're saying about the office shot from THE APARTMENT.

Matt Bird said...

J.S.-- I know! Since "The Artist" came out, I've seen various lists of "If you want to see more silent movies, here's what you should start with" and The Crowd is always on those lists! Where's the DVD??

J.A.-- I think it's a fine line. I love movies that are ABOUT their time. When I hear people say that "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" or "Alice's Restaurant" are "dated", I think "Well, yeah, that's the whole point!"

But I think that "style" dates in a different way. When you're making an intentionally "stylish" movie, you're not saying "this is how it is today', you're implicitly saying 'this is what I think is cool and forward-looking'. That's why I feel more comfortable using words like "dated" for movies like TLADILA or Diva, though it doesn't lessen my affection for them.

As for a movie like 'Sunrise', here I'm using 'dated' in a different sense. I'm not just referring to the facts on the ground being dated, but the underlying assumptions. Murnau starts with the assumption that "town = pure, city = degraded". In retrospect, that seems like a naive assumption to have, even then. Sinclair Lewis's novel "Main Street" of 1920, on the other hand, doesn't seem dated at all, because its analysis of the town vs. city dynamic seems far more nuanced and prescient.

For the whole series, I should point out, I'm not going to attempt to pick winners strictly using the standards of the day, but I'm going to allow myself some leeway to re-analyze these movies in retrospect, using current cultural standards and aesthetics, to a certain extent. To do otherwise would be almost impossible, I feel.

Steve Bird said...

Regarding "dated" silents a la "Sunrise," I feel that way about Harold Lloyd's "Speedy." In that, we're rooting for a small businessman with a license from NYC to run a horse-drawn street car, which he can maintain as long as he runs at least one car per week. We're supposed to root for him because he's old fashioned and folksy and quaint and authentic. Huh? I'm all for small businessmen fighting against a large corporation, but come on! Maintaining a monopoly for tracks on a public street for such a slow, infrequent, spotty service strikes me as ridiculous.

J.A. said...

That clarification makes sense re: Sunrise and nuance. It has been a while since I've seen it, but I can see how s simplification of ideas and world-view would not hold up.

Really quickly about TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. -I guess why I count it as a film that is of and about its time, (and why the graphics, music, etc. still feel right-on today) is that on some level all that over-the-top 80 chintz seems meta to me. The film doesn't feel like it's trying to be forward-looking in its style, it feels as if Friedkin is self-consciously reflecting back the superficial flash of era. So on some level style itself feels like one of the subjects of the film to me. Those credits were so terribly "80s" I couldn't help but think there was commentary there. Maybe I'm giving it too much credit.

Steve Bird said...

For anyone still monitoring this comment thread: TCM is showing The Crowd at midnight tonight. Set your DVRs!