In which I continue to watch the Best Pictures in order:
The grand irony of a “talkie” like All Quiet on the Western Front is that its best moments have no dialogue whatsoever. Yet without the requirement of repertory music or a score, it is allowed to use silence to its greatest effect, punctuated by intense bombing. If Wings is about the way the glory of battle is interrupted by mindless tragedy, in All Quiet it’s pure FUBAR. Even the impressive-for-its-time realism of Wings looks hopelessly romantic by comparison. The battle scenes still hold up: they’re jarring, disorienting, and mostly, loud. The film contrasts the quick and chaotic clash of battle with the intense and long stretches when soldiers are starving and waiting. Watching this in a movie theater must have made audiences want to duck for cover. Lewis Milestone, another director who made a whole lot of movies (including the original Oceans Eleven!) is at his best in these “foxhole” scenes, which don’t seem stagy even with the static camera, but hauntingly claustrophobic.
The most celebrated scene is its ending, but I was most moved by a moment when Baumer, the protagonist, kills a Frenchman and must wait out a gunfight with the corpse. It’s here that contemporary audiences could see the “realism” that dramatic movies could aspire to. Yet the scene is almost ruined by the constantly yapping Baumer, whose dialogue seems to exist to remind audiences that the audio was working. Watching the movie now, the flaw of All Quiet on the Western Front is that it gives over to preachiness and polemic, to having mostly unsophisticated soldiers spell out all of Erich Maria Remarque’s unsubtle themes. The opening, in which a professor shouts “Dulce et Decorum est” to his schoolboy soldiers, is embarrassing and unnecessary. Yet I concede All Quiet its “masterpiece” status, as its power still resonates among the best and most provocative anti-war documents.
Both the second and fourth Best Picture winners, Broadway Melody (1928-29) and Cimarron (Best Picture 1931-32) feature stuttering characters, as though the new technology is showing off its ability to not only present noise, but also nuanced, scattered, realistic noise. Broadway Melody uses music to produce very limited song and dance numbers; they lack the excitement of the “Let’s put on a show” musicals that would come later. As its poster declares: “TALKING SINGING DANCING” – which pretty much covers all of the things that happen in Broadway Melody. It’s baffling that a slight film like this impressed much of anyone, even if it’s occasionally fun to watch the quirky female leads. Yet the movie is maddening: even though the vibrant women are the only interesting characters in the film, they’re still at the mercy of men. When “Queenie,” the really talented one, abandons show business for marriage, it leaves a really sour taste. It’s anyone’s guess why this fairly typical backstage drama ends on such a weird downer note. Yet here’s a case where the Academy does what it still does best: sneaking a middling film into longevity by giving it an award. There’s more about it here.
“It’s men like him who build the world, the rest of us just come along and live in it.” That’s an actual line of dialogue from 1932 Best Picture winner Cimarron, and it became the more complicated subtext of a number of much better westerns. More of a historical epic than a western, Cimarron wants to capture the way great men bring the savage frontier kicking and screaming into civilization. This contemporary review from the New York Times says it all when the first paragraph notes the “stupendous undertaking in view of the time that is covered and the hosts of persons in its scenes.” But stupendous in this case translates to kind of stupid, and that’s not merely our inability to adapt our sensibility toward this kind of entertainment: the film turns a 336 page book into a two hour movie and feels like its missing three hours of character development. Edna Ferber (Giant) wasn’t exactly John Steinbeck, but she was good at this kind of epic of Manifest Destiny that the movie truncates to baffling incoherence – the key feminist plot of the novel, of a virtuous and long-suffering wife who becomes a congresswoman, is made ridiculous through this grand sweep of time.
To watch the movie now is to witness a different breed of acting, so bereft of the kind of naturalism we’re used to that it seems designed as parody. As fist-punching, newspaper-paper writing, do-gooding Yancey Cravat, Richard Dix is a grinning, strutting he-man caked in make-up. Comically handsome and wooden, Dix’s exaggerated baritone and swagger makes the Super Golden Crisp-craving Sugar Bear seem like a method actor. Yancey is a Wyatt Earp figure, the kind of restless soul who leaves one town he’s saved and then goes to start another. His bolo tie is, I assume, supposed to affirm his intense masculinity. He’s a bit like Poochie: whenever he’s not on screen, everyone asks, “Where’s Yancey?” Yancey’s exploits are pure tall tale – he shoots the hilariously unthreatening outlaw “The Kid” and dies while somehow saving everyone else in an oil rig explosion only to reveal that it has somehow also left him scarred with terrible old-age makeup.
Reading that New York Times review, however, reveals the excitement of the critic and that anticipation of the “spectator” to see the grand spectacle of such a “stupendous undertaking.” Indeed, the movie does manage to capture some of the chaos of these earlier outposts, which is probably not that dissimilar to the experience of being on a film-set in the early 1930s. Yancey might almost seem as a stand-in for the directors who were trying to legitimize film in the eyes of critical audiences who didn’t see its value as a form. The move from chaos to order that’s inherent in western narratives might be a popular theme for just this reason, though John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann would challenge this trajectory brilliantly. Cimarron treats it with a solemnity that makes it pretty easy to make fun of.
Watching Cimarron and Broadway Melody suggests that if these were the best movies of the early talkie period, things must have been pretty grim indeed. But that’s certainly not the case. Broadway Melody beat out one of Buster Keaton’s best, most entertaining films, Steamboat Bill Jr. And in 1931, Cimarron rode its epic trappings to victory over definitive and groundbreaking classics like City Lights, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar. Yet the fledgling Academy Awards weren’t going to give its highest praise to a silent film by Charlie Chaplin, nor were they going to reward the values of gangster heroes played by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were light years removed from the upright moralism of Yancey Cravat.