Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron

For God's sake, please cover up!

I’m beginning to really enjoy this project. My enjoyment does not come from basking in the brilliance of Hollywood’s masterpieces, but rather from seeing some of the worst movies known to man and wondering just why they were given such top honors. Granted, Cimmaron was released 8 years before the first Palme d’Or was awarded in Cannes and talkies were still in their infancy, so it’s not as if the Oscar held the prestige that it does now. But, dammit, this movie really deserved nothing more than a giant cold sore on its mouth.

It’s been over a month since I first watched this film. I had a busy month of May, chock full of laziness and procrastination, thus derailing this project for a bit. When I did get around to reviewing my notes on this movie, I found the following entries:

  • “I need to drink more in order to enjoy this movie.”
  • “I’m gonna miss Conan for this!”
  • “Was the Wild West just full of bored assholes who need jobs?”
  • “If this movie was a person, I would punch it.”
  • “STFU Yancey!”
  • “Yancey is supposed to be an untamed spirit, but he’s more of a boring ass.”

Ah, Yancey…

You might ask yourself why I want to punch Yancey in the crotch repeatedly. In case you’re curious, the guy with the open shirt in the picture above (a scene that thankfully doesn’t appear in the film) is Yancey. Yancey is the hero of the film. He’s a noble, untamed spirit who stands up for Native Americans and prostitutes. He’s admired by men and desired by women. He walks with a giant stride and has a great big booming voice that commands attention. He’s everything a hero should be but fails on all levels.

Yancey is a dreamer and idealist who drags his wife and young child with him to join the masses in settling the Oklahoma Territory despite the fact they have a happy life in Wichita. Their life in Wichita is, in fact, very comfortable. His family is well-to-do and Yancey is the editor of a local newspaper. He give it all up because of his sense of adventure.

So, off they go on a wild adventure full of gun fights, bar room brawls, train robberies, a lost city of gold, the discovery of the meaning of life and a scene involving Yancey finally learning how to read.

Naw. Just kidding. The movie pretty much centers around Yancey and his wife settling in the new town of Cimarron. It focuses on the problems of founding a new town and the need to have someone keep it all together.

It’s quite riveting.

Apparently, Yancey’s reputation precedes him for reasons that escape me mainly due to the fact that the film does not say why people love/hate him so much. Sure, he was the editor in chief of a newspaper in Wichita where he defends the rights of the various Native American nations. But, for some reason, people praise his existence or want to gun him down in the street.

There’s a particularly odd scene in the movie where he asked by the townsfolk to preside over a mass attended by the entire town. A giant tent is set up in town and everyone attends. After a long, boring speech by Yancey a couple of things happen:

First, Yancey asks the townsfolk to contribute some money in order for Cimarron to have a proper church. Fair enough. Churches don’t build themselves and they often are built using contributions from the congregation. He then utters the following statement: “Anyone caught contributing less than two bits will be thrown out personally by me. Not including Indians.”

Good ol’ Yancey. Always protecting Native American rights.

Secondly, Yancey concludes the ceremony by shooting and killing one of the outlaws that had been plaguing him for something like a half an hour of the film. I think this has to do with something about one of Yancey’s friends being murdered by this guy. I’m not sure. I do know that someone should tell Yance that God has a thing about killing people, especially in a ceremony set up to worship Him.

The best part of this scene is when Yancey’s wife, Sabra, utters the line, “Did you have to go an kill him like that?” No, dear. I could have stabbed him in the head repeatedly with a rusty nail, stripped off all my clothes, bathed in his blood and yelled, “Hail Satan!” but I would have thought that it would have been perceived as an unmotivated murder.

This brings up Sabra. Sabra is the stoic heroine of the story. She basically puts up with so much crap from Yancey and says nothing. She is the silent, selfless victim of the entire 131 minutes of this film.

As the film progresses, Yancey gets word that the government has opened up the Cherokee Strip for settling. Excitedly, he tells his wife that he’s off for another adventure. But, she shouldn’t worry. He’ll be back for her and their, now, two children.

Yancey disappears for five years. There’s rumors of him eventually going off to fight in the Spanish-American War. Sabra does not hear from him during this time. Yet, she faithfully waits for him to come home. She goes so far as continuing publishing the newspaper he started, including keeping his name on masthead as publisher.

Yancey returns for a brief visit. It’s long enough for him, in classy move, to compare himself to Odysseus and Sabra to Penelope. He also defends the town prostitute in some sort of legal case because, in his absence, he obviously went to law school and knows a shit ton about morality. Then, he leaves again to go worship his image in the mirror for a few decades.

In his absence, Sabra keeps publishing the newspaper, still with Yancey’s name as publisher. The film jumps a few decades, to the then modern time. Sabra has now amassed a fortune, making her a powerful woman in Oklahoma. So much so that she successfully runs for a seat in the Senate.

As Senator Sabra is touring an oil field with a delegation, they learn that there’s been — gasp! — an accident! The young man, rushing to reach a phone, excitedly tells them that the victim is some old man who had been hanging out in the oil fields for a while. Some old man named “Yance.” Sabra desperately runs to Yance’s side where he dies in her arms. The film ends with a statue of Yancey being erected in the middle of the modern city of Cimarron.

I really want to punch something right now.

Cimarron is chock full of melodramatic idiocy. Also, it’s full of racism and stereotypes. The Jews are poked fun of. Stutterers are, once again, used as comedic relief. There’s also a scene where Yancey points out a watermelon vendor to his young, African-American servant.

I really am enjoying this project despite the fact that it’s leading me towards having violent outbursts.

Next up: Grand Hotel

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front

Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres

Director: Lewis Milestone

All Quiet on the Western Front is a movie with cajones. It takes a lot of nerve for a movie that was made during the early talkie era to use sound — not words, not voices, but sound itself — to tell the story. It’s a movie that pushed the limits of filmmaking at the time.  It’s also a movie that is leaps and bounds past the previous winner.

While it’s certainly not the first film on our list to deal with war, it’s the first to deal with war in such a realistic way. Wings was breathtaking in its own way and did not pull punches when it dealt with man’s eternal battle with his neighbors. However, All Quiet on the Western Front makes it look as though it is a total glorification of, and justification for, war.

This time along, we get to have the opposing view of World War I. The story centers around a Paul Bäumer, a young German teen who gets swept away in German nationalization and, with the urging of a quite animated and unrelenting teacher, goes off to fight for the Fatherland. As with most men that get swept up in such a frenzy, he and his schoolmates are extremely excited to defend their country’s honor. Although the depicted boot camp is rough, it matters not to them. They are ready and willing to fight and give their lives for the Kaiser!

It’s only when they are finally sent off to the battle lines is when reality sets in. This is where All Quiet on the Western Front shines.

The story telling techniques use less dialogue than expected to get the anti-war message across to the audience. Instead of using voices and words, the film uses war itself as the deliverer of the message. The first night that Paul and his company spend on the battle front they are sent out on night duty. Soon into their conversation with Paul’s soon-to-be mentor, Katczinky, a tracer lights up the darkness and the bombardment begins. Dialogue becomes non-existent to the soldiers and the audience alike. Instead we all hear bombs exploding, sending the message that there is nothing to this world other than the war.

The bombardment lasts at least ten minutes, which is enough to drive the audience mad.

The unseen enemy only makes an appearance a handful of times. Mostly it stays in the distance, lobbing bombs at the Paul and company. When the enemy does make an appearance it’s in the form of a French soldier that dies at Paul’s hands. Paul is then forced to come to the realization of what he has done. He searches the body and finds pictures of loved ones. He realizes that the Frenchman was just trying to live his life just like the rest of us. He begs for the lifeless corpse’s forgiveness to no avail.

The madness of the unseen enemy does not stop there. While in the trenches, the soldiers try to keep themselves busy by playing cards and talking about home. However, the explosions continue, shaking the bunker itself and raining dirt on the soldiers’ heads. When one of the soldiers breaks, it’s absolutely genuine. The torture that the soldiers face, day in and day out, is clearly portrayed by some top notch actors who pushed the boundaries of what acting was at the time.

When the German soldiers do come face-to-face with their aggressors, they fight tooth and nail with an animalistic fervor. As the enemy approaches, machine guns are used to mow them down. When that is not sufficient bayonets, shovels and fists are used to confront the enemy. Blood flows freely.

One of the most jarring moments in the film is when a soldier runs towards the camera, we see an explosion and all that’s left are his hands, gripping the barbed wire.

When it does come down to dialogue, most of it centers around why they were there or what they would do after the war was over. While it sounds as though this may be a bit too much for the audience, it’s absolutely appropriate and justified. The soldiers express the concept of distrust in one’s own country for sending them off to such a horrible war. They express disgust in the fact that someone is profiting off their misery. They don’t quite understand what started it all. The only thing they understand is that they are there and have no way of getting out.

In the end, it’s all for naught. As with all wars, there is no happy ending. The final, silent scene, involves a solitary Paul in the foxhole waiting for the faceless enemy. When we do finally see the antagonist, he takes aim at Paul. A single shot rings out in the battlefield.

The last thing we see is a field full of white crosses. Superimposed on this are the men who went off to war with Paul, marching into the twilight. One by one, they turn to the camera to acknowledge the audience for one last time just before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Universal Pictures apparently knew they had an important story to tell back in 1930. They pulled no punches. All Quiet on the Western Front is an extremely dark and gritty story that uses graphic imagery to tell its story. And why should they have pulled their punches? It’s an important story to tell, especially considering that the audience it was meant for never thought another unimaginable war such as this was nine years in its future.

It’s a pity that we don’t always learn from such anti-war stories. This is certainly not the last war or anti-war film that will appear on this list. Some will glorify war while others will show the causes and people it affects. One thing I’m starting to understand about this endeavor is that they’re not all going to be easy watches. However, some are honored with the Best Picture award because of their importance. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a film.

Next up: Cimarron

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody

The Broadway Melody

Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love

Director: Harry Beaumont

“Chick fights, bleach blonde jokes and a gay guy in wardrobe. Some things never change.”

That quote is from my girlfriend, who will be popping up here and there along this journey. She’s agreed to watch most of the movies with me when it’s convenient to her. While I did try to get her to watch the entire list as sort of a project we could do together, there were several that she refuses to watch. At the very top of the list is Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She is adamant that she will never watch this movie. I tried to explain to her that, since I’m making personal sacrifices by re-watching Chicago and finally seeing Crash all the way through, she should make sacrifices herself.

This plan of attack did not work well.

But, she did agree to see what The Broadway Melody was all about.

The movie is sometimes know as The Broadway Melody of 1929 due to its success spawning three sequels, in 1936, 1938 and 1940. It is also said to be the first movie to spawn sequels, a fact that I’m sure is only technically true. The one thing for certain is that it was the second film to win the Oscar for best picture and the first sound film to do so.

If you’ve ever had the chance to read up on the history of the introduction of sound to the film industry (or, perhaps, have had the pleasure of seeing Singin’ In the Rain), you know that there were numerous problems that came with this new technology. The Broadway Melody is no exception to the rule.

The film centers around two sisters — the oddly named duo of Hank and Queenie — who come to New York City to make it big on Broadway. They’re fresh off the road, traveling around the country for the last several years with their act. Hank has convinced Queenie that coming to New York will be good for the both of them. Hank’s tired of the road and her “friend” Eddie has guaranteed a part in the show he’s working on.

The girls soon go meet Eddie, who has written a song that a Mr. Zanfield (a thinly-veiled reference to Flo Zeigfeld) has agreed to be part of his big show that plays on Broadway. Eddie is pleased as punch to have Hank in town because this means he can finally marry the reluctant Hank.

But… what’s this? Could it be…

Queenie? All growed up? Little Queenie, who he used to tease when she was in pigtails? Gee, she’s all growed up and a lady now!

And thus, the movie starts on its cliché-ridden ride.

Long story short, it turns out that Mr. Zanfield doesn’t like Hank, but takes a liking to Queenie. He thinks she’s especially talented. She shows off this talent by standing on a high platform with her arm stretched out for an entire song. An entire song! That’s like three minutes!

Another person who takes a liking to Queenie is the evil, slimy and filthy rich Jock Warriner (a thinly-veiled reference to Jack Warner). Jock decides that he wants Queenie all to himself. This is much to the chagrin of Eddie, who, you see, has decided that he loves Queenie. But, Queenie gets tempted by the glamour of fame and fortune, despite the fact that she has only been in one performance on Broadway.

Most of the rest of the movie involves Jock trying to woo Queenie while Eddie and Hank try to convince her he’s bad for her. Queenie just basically wants to be left alone and free to do what she wants. She’s gonna be a big star and no one can stand in her way!

Showgirls

The Broadway Melody of 1995?

Ultimately, Hank realizes that Eddie doesn’t love her anymore. She lies to him, tells him she never loved him and tells him that he’s “yella” (really) for not going after Queenie. Eddie confronts Jock in his penthouse apartment and confesses his true love (for the third or fourth time) to Queenie. Which comes to no surprise since Eddie also spends a good chunk of the film trying to stick his tongue down her throat. She confesses that she loves him, too. The final scene of the movie takes place after Eddie and Queenie come back from their honeymoon.

Happy ending. Hooray!

The one thing I can’t figure out is why the girls go ape over Eddie. He’s really a giant jerk who cruelly teases them throughout the movie. He’s not a likable character at all. Although, I guess he does have money now that he’s sold this one song to Mr. Zanfield. He even has gold garters to hold up his socks!

Hot dog! This guy’s a keeper!

While this movie has its fans, it’s definitely difficult to understand why it won Best Picture for the 1929/30 Academy Awards. By today’s standards, the movie is extremely heavy-handed and melodramatic. The pacing is awkward. There’s eternal pauses between each joke, as if to wait for the audience to stop guffawing. Most likely this is a technique left over from the stage.

The humor doesn’t really translate to a 2011 audience. One thing is for certain, today’s audiences still think that homosexual characters, drunks and stutterers are the high point of comedy excellence. The Broadway Melody definitely has those in spades with the presence of the wardrobe manager who raves about the fabrics; some drunk rich guy who hiccups a lot; and the sisters’ stuttering Uncle Jed who is a source of endless confusion laughter because he talks like Porky Pig.

The technical quirks of the movie are also quite bothersome. The sound drops out when there is no dialogue, most likely due to the director incorrectly believing that a microphone was not needed for those moments. Thus, the noticeable absence of sound altogether at times. Also, the songs themselves are improperly mixed, causing the musicians to almost drown out the vocalists.

It also seems that they had yet to master the numerous filmmaking techniques that we take for granted these days. Most of the dialogue was shot using medium shots. The dance numbers were shot using full, stationary shots. The concept of the pan and tilt seems to be years away. Although, I feel that Wings had a lot more movement with the camera and took more chances with the various shooting techniques.

This is what happens when a new leap in technology obsesses the filmmaking industry: the loss of story telling. It still happens these days. For every successful 3D movie such as Up or Avatar, which uses actual story telling along with the technology, there’s heaps that just throw out story telling altogether. I’m looking at you, Drive Angry.

By the end of this movie my girlfriend had fallen asleep and I was barely keeping my eyes open.

They all can’t be winners.

Well, this one did win the Oscar for best picture. But, that’s beside the point.

Next up: All Quiet on the Western Front

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Wings on the Walk of Fame

Clara Bow

Clara Bow

I took a walk Sunday afternoon and took a couple pictures. Since Hollywood is incredibly close by for me, I’ve decided to use as many resources available to me as possible.

The above picture is Clara Bow’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Once the biggest star in Hollywood, now her star is in the driveway that leads out of the Chase Bank at Sunset and Vine. Every day, cars drive over her star while their drivers do not notice nor care. It’s not a fitting legacy for Clara Bow.

Buddy Rogers

Next up, I went searching for Charles “Buddy” Rogers’ star on the Walk of Fame. Buddy was the lead star of Wings and carried the movie the whole way, brilliantly playing the main protagonist Jack.

Buddy’s location is a bit more depressing than Clara’s. On Hollywood Blvd, past two abandoned buildings and in front of Pep Boys sits his star.  A half of a block down is where the Walk of Fame ends. So, basically, it’s the ass end of the Walk of Fame.

Like anything in this town, you have to fork out the big bucks to get noticed. Not every actor, director, producer, etc. can’t have their star in front of the Kodak Theater. The rest of the poor schmucks get to be in front of the Popeye’s Chicken, one of the many Scientology centers in Hollywood and, yes, the Pep Boys.

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Wings (1927)

Wings (1927)

Starring: Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arden

Director: William Wellman

Wings has the distinction of being the first film to win the Academy Award for best picture.

Well, technically, it won the award for Outstanding Picture, Production. There was a second award given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans for Unique and Artistic Production. I’m not sure how they made the distinction back in 1929 when they awarded the statuettes. But, for all intents and purposes, Wings is considered the first film to win best picture. Thus, casting Sunrise into obscurity or some horrible fate unknown to all mankind.

Sunrise has been released on DVD and is readily available to add to your Netflix queue. Which is something that cannot be said for Wings.

And thus, I hit my first speed bump in this project. It’s quite an interesting speed bump as well.  Wings is not available on DVD. The film was released on VHS some years ago. But, VHS involves way too many steps of frustration, including digging the VCR out of the closet with hopes that it might still work.

I did, however, find a solution that worked well. Some kind individual uploaded the film to YouTube. Sure, I had to watch the film in ten-minute increments. But, I was able to watch on my television, courtesy of Apple TV.

Let’s hear it for modern technology.  Huzzah and all that.

Not to sound like a slack-jawed yokel, but I’m pretty amazed at what technology was available in 1927 when Wings was released.

Not only was Wings the first movie to win best picture, but it also holds the distinction of being the only silent film to win the honor. Sound on film was introduced the same year with The Jazz Singer, but it was still solely a gimmick. The fact that everyone involved with Wings was able to tell a cohesive, compelling story for 141 minutes without the help of dialogue is quite a feat. But, in retrospect, the film business was a couple of decades old at this time and they had this story telling deal down pat by now. Wings is just a culmination of it all.

It will be interesting to see what the addition of sound mean to the business when I watch the next couple of films. Interesting enough, the next film on the list to watch (The Broadway Melody) is a musical. This whole singin’ and dancin’ thing really benefitted from the addition of sound. But, was it just a novel concept? We’ll see.

Wings definitely benefitted from the crazes of the times as well. One of the reasons cited for its success is that Charles Lindbergh had, months earlier, completed the first solo transatlantic flight. Thus, the film itself was swept up in the public’s recently found obsession with aviation.

And, audiences were not disappointed to when they flocked to the theaters.

The film is about two men – the brash Jack and the cool-headed, affable Dave – who are in love with the same woman. Sylvia loves Dave, but Jack is in love with her as well. To complicate matters, Mary is madly in love with Jack. But, Jack won’t give her the time of day because he’s hung up on Sylvia.

Seriously, Jack… Mary is played by Clara Bow. The It Girl. If you don’t know what that means, ask your grandparents. Suffice to say, Jack is one dumb dude.

All grow up in Small Town America, but when the United States enters the war, Jack and Dave enlist to become pilots. They eventually find themselves fighting the Germans in aerial combat.

This is where the film kicks in. The brilliance of the filmmakers comes out in the various camera angles and multiple edits that keep the action moving. Cameras were mounted on the front of the planes, pointing straight at the pilots. This gave the audience the straight on view of the pilots themselves. It also proves to the viewer that the actors actually were flying the planes. They were definitely not put in front of screens in mock airplanes, pretending to fly.

What is also astonishing is that the amount of blood and carnage shown on screen. When pilots are shot, blood runs down their faces. The culmination of the movie involves the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and involves mustard gas; a soldier being run over by a tank; soldiers being slaughtered by machine guns (some at the hands of Jack); and a blind soldier being guided through the battlefield by his sighted, injured companion riding piggyback.

There is also scene that involves Clara Bow’s side boob.

It’s no surprise that this movie is a pre-Hayes Code film. The unfortunate thing is that it would take some time for movies to get this realistic again once the code is enforced.

Ultimately what drives the film is humanity and our basic needs. It’s the sadness expressed by Dave’s mother and father as he says goodbye to them before going off to war. It’s his farewell to his dog and the emotion he expresses. It’s Mary’s tenacity and devil-may-care attitude about life, coupled with her unrequited love for Jack.  It’s also the tragic end, giving Jack the realization about what’s important in life.

We may have come a long way in 84 years, but we’re still human.

I cannot recommend this movie enough.

Next up: The Broadway Melody of 1929

Also, if you’re interested, watch Wings on YouTube here.

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83 by 72: Prologue

The sentence, “I’ve decided to watch all the films that won the best picture Academy Award in chronological order and write about each one” usually is met with a blank stare.

I don’t blame the blank stares. I fully understand the madness of the project I am about to undertake. I’m going to sit through 83 films. I’m also going to write 83 essays about these films. It’s a long commitment.

As of this reading, there isn’t a time frame as to when I will complete this task. I just know I want to see this thing to the end.

That’s not to say that this is going to be a very lazy project where an entry will happen once a month. I want to see this thing through in a reasonable and manageable time. There’s a good possibility that there will be an 84th film to add to this list by the time I am through. But, I think that will be all right.

There are a few goals I want to achieve.

Firstly, what fascinates me about this project is that all the movies on this list are windows into a bygone time. They are a snapshot of what the world was thinking and feeling at that time. There will be moments of brilliance that move me. There will be several “What were they thinking?” moments. But, over all, I want to point out how history ties into the whole thing.

Secondly, I want to make sure I spend as little money as possible on this. I want to make sure I’m not buying DVDs that I will only watch once. I’m going to rely heavily on my own personal collection as well as Netflix (and Netflix streaming, courtesy of my AppleTV). There will be a slight hiccup in the beginning, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Finally, I want to enjoy myself. And, in the process, entertain and inform the reader.

So… first up: Wings

 

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