What the Nominees Were: Broadway Melody of 1929, Alibi, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, In Old Hollywood, The Patriot
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: 1929 was a weak year for American movies: Silent cinema had been abruptly abolished at its artistic peak and everybody was adapting to sound with much difficulty. Only one American movie, our winner, is remembered as having made good use of it. If the Academy had been more willing at this point to consider foreign movies, they might have found another filmmaker who instantly mastered sound: Alfred Hitchcock, with Blackmail. Meanwhile, there were still great silent movies being imported from abroad, if the academy had been willing to consider them: the Soviet city-symphony Man with A Movie Camera and two German films starring expatriate American ingénue Louise Brooks: Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora’s Box.
What Did Win: Broadway Melody of 1929
How It’s Aged: Poorly. As the first all-talking musical with a story, it was very impressive at the time, but it’s a very bland backstage melodrama with forgettable songs and stars.
How Hard Was the Decision?: Tough... Time after time in this series, we’ll have a great year with far too many good choices, like 1928, followed by a year with no ideal choices, though Applause is still great. It was tempting to go with Pandora’s Box, but we all know that no European silent film could ever win Best Picture in the sound era, right? That’ll never happen! (Until last week.)
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writer: Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Beth Brown.
Stars: Helen Morgan, Joan Peers, Fuller Mellish, Jr., Jack Cameron, Henry Wadsworth
The Story: Burlesque star Kitty Darling finds out she’s pregnant on the same night that her Boss-Tweed affiliated husband gets the chair. She sends her daughter off to Swiss boarding schools, but twenty years later her rotten new husband insists on bringing the daughter home and putting her in the act.
Why It Didn’t Win: For the second and final time, the awards were determined in a back room, and this time it caused a scandal because, post-crash, the moguls tossed artistic considerations aside in favor of their most commercial product. Nominee Broadway Revue consisted of nothing but every MGM star standing in front of the camera one by one singing a song! Melody tried a little harder than that and it was a big hit, so it got the award. The scandal would lead to a new voting system the next year…
Why It Should Have Won:
- Besides, this never would have won with Louis B. Mayer still in charge since it’s the ultimate anti-MGM movie: a painfully naturalistic look at the most un-glamorous side of show business. Mamoulian’s gaze is withering yet still affectionate towards his tawdry subjects. If anything, as the title implies, it’s the anonymous audience that are the real villains here, insatiably stripping the entertainers of their hopes, dreams and illusions along with their clothes.
- The opening is wickedly symbolic of what Hollywood was going through: A dead, quiet, street… A discarded, old-fashioned vaudeville poster blows along in the dust until it briefly sticks to a building so we can read it: Kitty Darling, Queen of Hearts. It falls the ground again and underfed dogs tear it apart. Where is everybody? Then, from the distance… sound! A marching band approaches! All the doors open and crowds come pouring out to hear it, trampling over the old posters.
- Astoundingly, this was Mamoulian’s first film. He was one of the theater directors rushed into town to replace the old-fashioned silent guys, but the brilliant silent sequences here are the equal of the dialogue scenes. He was simply an instant genius, but, because he’s mostly associated with the frequently-ignored early-sound, pre-code era, he remains very underrated.
- Terrified of camera noise, directors hid the camera inside a heavy box. Mamoulian not only had the bright idea to put wheels on that box, he also found ways to get back out on location, staging a dialogue scene on the Brooklyn Bridge and elsewhere around Manhattan. Even more amazingly, he opened the windows, creating dense sound collages of the city’s cacophony of noises, providing one last round of applause for a fading star.
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice Kino disk with a few features.