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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 51

Part 51: 1932


MOVIES:

  • Trader Horn

  • The Front Page

  • Cimmaron (winner)

  • Skippy (hidden gem)

  • East Lynne

Trader Horn

For today’s entry in the “It Sure Hasn’t Aged Well” category, I present Trader Horn, an adventure movie set and filmed in the wilds of Africa. Though it’s a work of spectacular effort (two men – and several animals – died during the filming of this movie), this is also Hollywood xenophobia at its finest. It both shames and beautifies Africa, her people, and her many cultures and traditions.


Trader Horn (Harry Carey) is an ivory trader. “No white man knows more of Africa than I,” he says to his traveling companion, Peru (Duncan Renaldo). Peru, who is new to the African landscape, looks around and observes men and women talking, children playing in the water. As he takes in his surroundings, he responds, “Horn, you’re mistaken about these people. They’re not savages! They’re just happy, ignorant children.” Aaaand we’re only getting started.

Their mission: Find the daughter of missionary Edith Trent (Harry Carey’s wife, Olive), who has supposedly been kidnapped by a distant, mysterious tribe. Along with their African gun bearer, Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu), they spend two long hours traversing through the wilderness, observing all kinds of animals, and people, along the way.


What results is essentially a whole bunch of documentary footage clumsily edited together with some actors. There are long, extended scenes of elephants, hyena fights, and lion chases, then cuts to the actors watching what we’re watching.

In all honesty, the making of Trader Horn would have made a better movie. It actually began shooting as a silent film, then halfway through production switched to sound. Illness, flash floods, swarms of insects and horrible accidents besieged the crew in Africa and there were at least two human fatalities: one crew member fell into a river and was eaten alive by a crocodile, while a charging rhino killed another (some reports insist that the second fatality was caught on film and used in the movie, but the shot is very clearly a special effect and not real).


In addition, animals of all kinds are gunned down on camera, while others were starved for days by filmmakers to make their fights with one another more brutal.

Though extremely problematic today, it’s easy to see how Trader Horn would have wowed audiences back in the 1930s. It took viewers to a place they’d never seen and showed them people they probably never knew existed. In a time before special effects, they saw large murder beasts die on screen and, of course, the white man glorified as the savior. While it’s certainly not the best film about the mysteries of the African wild, it was one of the first – allowing viewers to get up close (maybe too close?) and personal with the wonders of Africa and her inhabitants.

 

The Front Page

Racism, chauvinism, fake news…we’ve come a long way, baby!


I’m certainly no journalist, but I can imagine it’s tough being a reporter when there isn’t a story breaking and you have an editor breathing down your neck. It’s partly the reason Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) has decided to pack up his fiancée, Peggy (Mary Brian), and leave the Chicago newspaper where he works for a higher paying gig in New York.

His fellow reporters aren’t so lucky. Looking for any way to captivate their readers, this rag-tag group of journalists must resort to making up a good portion of the stories they write in order to appease their manipulative editor, Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou).


With one foot out the door, Hildy can’t wait to start his new life. But when the story of the decade lands right in his lap, he has second thoughts…


Earl Williams (George E. Stone) has just busted out of jail moments before his hanging. Using his honeymoon money for a sharp lead, Hildy winds up being the only person who knows where Williams is. But Williams maintains his innocence. Can Hildy help solve a murder, write the story of the century, please his boss and prevent his fiancée from abandoning him all before leaving for New York? Man, journalism was such a crazy job back then!

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is. Made in pre-code 1930, The Front Page was originally produced as a stage show two years before. In 1940, it was remade as His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant, then became a radio show that same year, then again in 1941, then again in 1946. It was remade for theaters AGAIN in 1974 starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, then again in 1988 (as Switching Channels), starring Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve. This doesn’t even count the several times it’s been performed on stage, including a recent adaptation in 2003.


But, like several films that have been remade again and again, the original just can’t compete with the more modern takes. Through the picture quality is fine for a 1930s movie, the sound is inconsistent and so hard to understand. Part of this is just due to the deficiencies of the time period, but it’s also partly due to the fact that the cast speaks so fast – and so loud – that it’s near impossible to understand anything they’re saying. If you’re one of those people who can’t stand movies that feel like plays, give this one a big skip.

Outside of the technical issues, The Front Page gives us a newsroom full of one-note reporters with little to no depth. Even Hildy, torn between his obsession for journalism and his desire to marry, doesn’t really seem interested in committing himself to either life; thus the dilemma at the heart of this screwball comedy barely seems to matter.


On the plus side, The Front Page is a very interesting example of the more permissive, pre-Code Hollywood era, complete with casual drinking and gambling, open references to prostitution, whore houses, and other vices. One character even flips off the mayor and there are double-entendres aplenty (if you can decipher them amongst all the fast-paced yelling!). Like Stagecoach did for westerns, The Front Page easily set the bar for better newsroom comedies to come…and, like Stagecoach, it just can’t keep up with the fast-paced genre it helped create.

 

Cimarron

Cimarron has the distinction of being the first Western to win Best Picture. It also has the distinction of being one of the worst films to take home the award.


It starts with a bang – a man signaling the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush. It’s a Manifest Destiny-fueled event that allowed settlers to stake their claim on the Unassigned Lands that once belonged to the Native Americans. In the heart-racing opening scene, thousands of carriages, horses, and buggies barrel forward, eager to snag up their piece of property. It’s an early version of what would become one of the most standard Western film narratives: the Death of the Frontier, in which a bold white man aims to tame the wild west, only to discover the civilization he’s helped birth has no place for him.

Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) has done his research. Having left his home in Kansas behind, he is ready to make a new life for his family out west. He knows exactly what plot of land he wants…all he can do is hope no one gets there first.


However, someone does. A tricky prostitute named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) beats him to it, and he has no choice but to return home without the title to his dream land. But that’s not gonna stop Yancey from becoming a part of the Westward expansion. Gathering up his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne) and his young son, Cimarron, the family moves to the newly founded town of Osage, where he becomes a prominent citizen and the editor of the local newspaper, The Oklahoma Wigwam.


The film then follows the city of Osage from its earliest days to the then-present 1930s. Yancey does his thing. Sabra goes into politics…it’s very reminiscent of Giant (both novels were written by Edna Ferber), in that it spans several years, suffers from a lack of plot and overstays its welcome.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Cimarron also has racial and sexist undertones, but it’s hard to fault it for that. This movie is a product of its time, much like Gone with the Wind or The Good Earth. On the plus side, Cimarron is actually quite feminist for the time, with Sabra being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She believes in equality, supports her son’s decision to marry an “Indian princess”, and even becomes accepting of the woman who stole her husband’s property at the start, Dixie Lee (though Yancey had to convince her it was the right way of thinking first).


All in all, Cimarron has all the makings of an epic, but all its failings, too. While it does a good job of reminding us that our roads were once nothing but dirt and our cars ran on carrots rather than fuel, it also reminds us that some movies try to say too much, and – in turn – end up saying nothing at all.

 

Skippy

Skippy is one of those movies that will break your heart and warm it at the same time. It will make you laugh (the writing is AWESOME), it will make you cry, and it may even inspire you to question your beliefs. There were so many times I wanted to give this movie a hug, for different reasons at different points. The thick layer of sentimentality may make it seem dated, but in a way that reflects more poorly on modern society than on this film.


Like most little rascals, precocious Skippy Skinner (Jackie Cooper) spends his time trying to dodge those things his parents want him to do (brush his teeth, clean his ears), while putting all his effort into doing the things his parents don’t want him to do. Chief among the latter is spending time across the railroad tracks in Shantytown, aka – the slums.

Skippy’s father, Dr. Herbert Skinner (Willard Robertson) is the head of the city’s health board. He prefers his son to play with the “clean” neighborhood kids, like brother and sister Sidney (Jackie Searl) and Eloise (Mitzi Green). As a bonified germaphobe, Dr. Skinner believes Shantytown is unhealthy and has already decided to tear it down, forcing its poor residents to find somewhere else to live.


This doesn’t sit well with Skippy, especially after befriending Sooky Wayne (Robert Coogan), who lives on the wrong side of the tracks.


Skippy and Sooky spend most of the movie doing what little boys do…playing, getting in fights with other kids…and spending time with Sooky’s mongrel and unlicensed dog, Penny. But when Penny is captured by the city’s dog catcher, it’s up to Skippy and Sooky to raise the $3.00 needed to get Penny back.

Skippy is even more bound and determined to save Sooky’s dog when he learns who is responsible for the rule that caused her capture: Dr. Skinner. Can Skippy raise the money needed to save Penny before his father catches on?


Based on the comic strip by Percy Crosby, Skippy is good, antique-style fun for youngsters and the young at heart (think Little Rascals or Denise the Menace). The story may be thin and old-fashioned, but it’s so affectingly performed and directed that its charm is sure to get under the skin of even the most cynical critics. This is mainly thanks to lead actor, Jackie Cooper.

Already a popular child actor by the time he was 8, Cooper was in his hey-day in the 1930s. Super charismatic and effortless in front of the camera, Cooper proved his talent time and time again. So much so that his performance managed to earn him a Best Actor nomination, making him the youngest to do so in that category.


Unlike the other films this year, Skippy still holds up more than 90 years later. It features a simple story, but its simplicity might be one of the reasons it held up so well. Skippy and Sooky also had amazing chemistry, creating a strong, natural friendship that grounds the entire film. It’s easy to believe that Skippy is growing up and learning from his time with Sooky, a kid from the poor part of town, and he is becoming a better person because of that.

 

East Lynne

Up until recently, East Lynne wasn’t an easy film to see. There is only one complete print still in existence…and it’s housed at UCLA and can only be viewed by appointment.


A few years ago, a bootleg copy appeared on DVD; however, it was missing the last 12 minutes. Then, a version appeared on YouTube with the last 12 minutes edited in, thanks to someone who filmed their viewing at the UCLA library.


I never want to wish a film to be lost to the ages, but there have to be more films worth restoring than this one. This Victorian melodrama, which shares similar plots to Rebecca and Phantom Thread, may have been new age at the time, but now seems outdated and old-fashioned. Weak husbands, bored wives, overbearing siblings – been there, done that.

London socialite, Lady Isabella (Ann Harding) is a new wife, married to country solicitor, Carlyle (Conrad Nagel). When they arrive at Carlyle’s East Lynne estate, they’re given a rather chilly welcome by his sister, Cornelia (Cecilia Loftus), who doesn’t want to give up her role as lady of the house.


Romantic Isabella actually couldn’t care less, but is disappointed to realize that her husband and sister-in-law are about as stodgy as they come. No fun is to be had at East Lynne.


Still, she stands by her man. Three years later and the couple now have a son, but life is just as dull for Isabella as it ever was. When an old suitor, Captain Levison (Clive Brook) comes to visit, a misunderstanding causes Carlyle to reject Isabella on account of infidelity. She’s ejected from her home, forced to give up her wealth, her marriage, and her new baby boy.

But she makes the best out of a bad situation. Isabella and Levinson live it up in Paris while, back home at East Lynne, Carlyle takes a new wife. For years Isabella is left to wonder what’s become of her little boy…and when tragic events cause her to return to East Lynne, things go from bad to worse.


The novel of the same title, which came out about 70 years before the film, was a sensation – due to its naughty and intricate plot. In the book, Isabella is the one who decides to leave her husband after developing feelings for Levinson. She also suspects Carlyle of having an affair with a family friend. After being impregnated, rejected and shunned by Levinson, Isabella comes to regret her decision to leave her marriage. All of this is left out of the film, of course. While she paid for her mistake 10-fold in the novel, the movie depicts her as a sympathetic victim who should have tried harder to please her husband. Welcome to 1931!


Unsurprisingly, East Lynne was only nominated for one Academy Award – Best Picture – which it lost. It’s been revamped a few more times, both for the large screen and the small, but hasn’t really seen much success. It seems once you’ve left Mandalay East Lynne, it’s near impossible to go back again.

 

SCORECARD

 

Cimmaron

Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Production (Best Picture), Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Richard Dix), Best Actress (Irene Dunne), Best Cinematography, Best Director (Wesley Ruggles)


Skippy

Wins: Best Director (Norman Taurog)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Jackie Cooper), Best Production (Best Picture), Best Adapted Screenplay


East Lynne

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Production (Best Picture)


The Front Page

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Adolphe Menjou), Best Director (Lewis Milestone), Best Production (Best Picture)


Trader Horn

Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Production (Best Picture)

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