Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Should've Won That Could've Won: 1931

The Year: 1931
What the Nominees Were: Cimarron, East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Frankenstein, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Street Scene, and our winner…

What Did Win: Cimarron
How It’s Aged: Very poorly.  This talky western melodrama’s half-hearted whispers of feminism were drowned out by a roar of unintentional racism.

What Should’ve Won: City Lights
How Hard Was the Decision: This was a tough call: Frankenstein is pretty much a perfect film, and Vidor’s Street Scene is an underrated masterpiece.  Plus, it was hard to convince myself that this lone silent hold-out could have won in 1931… but City Lights is such an ideal “you’ll laugh / you’ll cry” combination that I’m convinced the Academy could have been honored it if they had overcome their prejudice just a little bit.  

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers 
The Story: The little tramp is back to take on the Depression.  He falls in love with a blind flower girl, then rescues a suicidal millionaire, who goes back and forth between lavishing gifts on him when drunk then kicking him out when sober.  Can the tramp stay in his good graces long enough to help the girl? 

Any Nominations or Wins:  None whatsoever!
Why It Didn’t Win: It’s simple enough: Chaplin was the only filmmaker who refused to transition to sound.  He broke off and went his own way.  This movie was not at all the image that Hollywood wanted to project in 1931. 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. No one was better than Chaplin at a pratfall, or an elaborate set-up and pay-off, but this movie shows how much of his genius lay in his scene choreography, elegantly demonstrated in the movies delightful boxing match.   
  2. One great thing about “Downton Abbey” is the way it conveys the capriciousness of life without a social safety net: the rich were more than happy to take care of the poor—when it occurred to them.  Made in the darkest days before the dawning of America’s long-overdue New Deal, this movie hits that point even harder.  Whenever the millionaire is drunk, the tramp has it made, but otherwise it’s a boot to the ass. 
  3. Cherrill’s role could not be more sentimental in its conception, but she makes it work by playing the role as a real person, not a suffering saint.  Few female stars at the time were allowed to look this genuinely annoyed:
  4. As a good communist, Chaplin dreaded the notion that his work would no longer be an international (or should that be internationale?) art form.  He skewers sound every chance he gets here.  The first shot is a windbag getting up to give a speech, but when he opens his mouth, all we hear is trombone music (shades of Charlie Brown!)  The film does have a synchronized soundtrack, but only to provide annoyances: a swallowed whistle, a police siren, that boxing bell…
  5. The movie is most famous for its indelible final shot, in which the now-sighted flower girl finally gets a look at the tramp, who suddenly realizes that he may not pass this final test.  It’s the ultimate riposte to anyone who doubts Chaplin’s serious-acting chops. 
How Available Is It?: All of Chaplin’s movies are available on the same so-so DVDs from the ‘90s.  They’re crying out for new editions. 

Ah, 1931: Nose Adjuster!


j.s. said...

I believe that CITY LIGHTS has aired in HD on TCM. And that there's definitely a Criterion Blu-ray in the works. CIMARRON is so bad that even a genius of the Western genre like Anthony Mann couldn't do much with it when he remade it 30 years later. Of all the Westerns he's made it's probably the one I like least.

Matt Bird said...

Believe it or not, I was actually forced to read the book Cimarron in high school. Edna Ferber wrote great stage plays, but that book: oof.

dan scarfo said...

I like your style: brief and informative. Good job!