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.
What the Nominees Were: This was the only year in which they split the nominees between “ Best (mainstream) Picture”…
- The Racket
- Seventh Heaven
…and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”…
- The Crowd
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…
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Ah, 1928: Odd Pants!