Sunday, March 18, 2012

What Should've Won (That Could've Won): 1930

The Year: 1930
What the Nominees Were: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Nothing much on the American side, but The Blue Angel and L’Age D’Or were two great imports that year.

What Should’ve Won and Did Win: All Quiet on the Western Front
How Hard Was the Decision: Tough, because Lubitsch’s The Love Parade is so smart, funny, and self-aware. But there are good reasons why drama almost always trumps comedy at awards time. A truly profound, heartfelt drama like this can reach greater emotional heights and depths than even the best comedies.

Director: Lewis Milestone (and George Cukor as “dialogue director”)
Writers: Adaptation and dialogue by Maxwell Anderson, Screen Play by George Abbott, Adaptation by Del Andrews, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Stars: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy

The Story: In small-town Germany, four high school students are convinced by their jingoistic teacher to sign up for the infantry at the beginning of World War I.  They are totally unprepared for the hunger, brutality, and absurdity of life on the front which slowly destroys them, body and soul. 
Any Other Nominations or Wins: Also won for direction, lost cinematography and lighting
How It Won: Mayer’s grip was loosened and the Academy begrudgingly adopted a one-person, one-vote system.  The results of democracy showed right away: Western Front was far less glamorous than the previous two winners, and it was released by Universal, the least powerful studio.  After an ignoble start as a failed union-busting scheme, the Academy was now stumbling towards credibility, not that there aren’t a lot more dubious winners to come…

Why It Won:
  1. It sounds like a dubious idea: How courageous is it to make a pacifist message-movie that says that our enemy who lost should never have gone to war?  Who could possibly disagree with that?  But that’s where this movie’s subversive genius comes in.  Focusing on the enemy army disarms the audience, but the trick is that there’s nothing German at all about Milestone’s soldiers, other than the names and the costumes: No German accents, no Teutonic theories, no Kaiser worship… Just the universal realities (and evils) of war. The four kids could be from any town in America, and that’s exactly how they seem to audience: these are our boys.  
  2. The movie is an episodic series of small vignettes: tiny moments of compassion, camaraderie or black humor, interspersed with epic-scale, fully-immersive battle scenes.  Milestone is equally adept at both.  The cumulative effect is devastating.
  3. As movies adjusted to sound, so did acting styles, slowly… Things are already far more natural here than in Applause, but still not quite there: Ayres is startlingly good and underplayed in dialogue scenes, but he lapses into artifice for the monologues, still telegraphing his emotions as if we couldn’t hear his words.  They say that Gary Cooper was the first pure sound-film actor, staying still and letting the words and his eyes carry everything.  He would have his first big hit the next year…
  4. And sure enough the best moments are still silent… We see one soldier’s brief flashback: After his impulsive enlistment, his mother sees his uniform and collapses in horror.  Suddenly filled with shame, the boy tries to tear the uniform off…but just then his father comes in and beams with pride.  Caught between the two, he doesn’t know what to do.  That’s the whole movie right there.  The rest is gravy. 
  5. Ironically, the arrival of strict censorship in 1934 is now seen as the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age, because of the sly sophistication it forced filmmakers to adopt, while the frank sexuality of 1929-1933, the “pre-code” era, can appear tasteless by comparison, but this movie belies both of those prejudices: the tender scene in which Ayres loses his virginity to a French village girl, both desperately seeking a connection but unable to speak the other’s language, is beautifully restrained and heartbreaking.  It forcefully reminds us just how destructive and dishonest it was of Hollywood to spend thirty years denying the existence of pre-marital sex.  
How Available Is It?: They’ve just released a beautiful new restoration on DVD.  Even if you’ve seen the movie before, you should check this out… I felt like I was seeing the beautiful and haunting imagery for the first time.

Ah, 1930: Hey, I thought Don Draper came up with that slogan in 1960!


Michael Hoskin said...

It's always good to see some love for All Quiet on the Western Front; I feel Remarque's Spark of Life would make a fine film too.

Regarding "it's toasted" - that was the moment that Mad Men lost me (yes, the pilot). I was waiting for the Luckies people to react, "Oh, you're going to sell us our own 30 year old slogan right back at us? We heard right about you Draper, you are past your prime!"

Matt Bird said...

I've been working on a period-set pilot for a while, and I keep running into annoying little anachronisms, and then I think, hey, if Weiner could get away with "It's Toasted"...