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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 64

Part 64: 1931


MOVIES:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front (winner)

  • The Big House

  • The Divorcee (hidden gem)

  • The Love Parade

  • Disraeli

All Quiet on the Western Front

Director: Lewis Milestone

Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis, Jr., William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville, Walter Browne Rogers, G. Pat Collins, Edmund Breese, Beryl Mercer

Oscar Wins: Best Director, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Writing


From the comfort of his desk, clad in a cozy tweed jacket with not a care in the world, an old professor tells the young recruits in front of him: “It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”


On the chalkboard behind him are lines from Homer’s Odyssey: “Tell me, oh Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide.” The only knowledge this man and his students have of war is from textbooks…stories of wars that happened thousands of years ago when men who fought tirelessly were worshipped as heroes. And for Germany’s young soldiers, it all but ignited a passion to join the ranks.


But when a German soldier returns to this very classroom, once an eager lad and now a man hardened after three years of fighting on the frontlines, he tells these young boys that war is “dirty…it is death,” and to hell with the glory that comes with fighting for your country. It’s a scene very much ahead of its time, and one that didn’t sit well with one Adolf Hitler.


All Quiet on the Western Front (both the novel and the film) were met with opposition by those who deemed it pacifist propaganda, chief among these critics being the emerging Nazi party. In America, however, it became an Academy Award-winning film, taking home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (the first film to win both awards). As Nazis stormed movie theaters that dared project the movie with cries of “Judenfilm!”, two Jewish men won Oscars for one of the most important anti-war films of all time.

All Quiet begins with a quote:

“This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

The story begins with a squad of German soldiers, fresh out of school, who have been lulled into action by the tweed-wearing teacher mentioned above. Holding strong to the belief that their time in France will be filled with more women than war, they are almost giddy as they gather their uniforms and supplies.


Unsurprisingly though, war is far from the adventure they were told about. One by one, these young boys meet their end, and the fear, anger and terror of war becomes more and more real by the second.


Our main character is Paul (Lew Ayres), a once eager man who has seen nothing but brutality since arriving in France. We follow him, and a handful of other cadets, through basic training and their journey to the front, where they’re under the command of Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), seemingly one of the only higher-ups who sees war for what it really is: bloodshed.


Over the course of three years, these soldiers are put through the ringer. They’re trapped in a bunker for days under fire, run through enemy territory, some even end up in the hospital, wailing in agony. In no time, this once patriotic class is picked off one-by-one, lost to hunger, disease, injury or madness.

Eventually, Paul is one of the only members of his class left. He returns home on leave, only to find out that the noble heroism and romanticism of war are still being taught in schools. When his old professor asks Paul to speak to the new generation of students about his time at war, he can barely muster up anything but the cold, hard truth. “Up at the front you’re alive or you’re dead and that’s all,” he says. “And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death!” In fact, Paul becomes so impassioned that he decides to end his leave early and return to the battlefield. It seems the war has destroyed his ability to do anything but make war.


Unlike many of the rousing, patriotic scenes we see in mainstream war films, the battle sequences in All Quiet were rattled with anxiety. With their faces covered in smoke and gas, soldiers can barely even see who they’re fighting. Bombs and bullets certainly kill, but also leave men maimed, shattered, barely hanging onto life. Between gunshots, you hear men screaming out in pain, calling out for help, or crying for their mothers.

Though it’s considered to be one of the greatest war films of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front is unambiguously anti-war. In one scene, a group of characters discuss who wants the war in the first place. Perhaps the Kaiser, to establish its place in history? Or maybe the leaders of the countries, who are suffering bruised egos? Maybe the manufacturers, who are looking to make some money? Regardless, it’s certainly not the soldiers, who still have no idea what they’re fighting (and dying) for. The brutal, bloody, pointless nature of trench warfare becomes the beating heart of this monumental film. So much sacrificed for so little – a few yards of muddy ground bought by the blood of thousands.

 

The Big House

Director: George Hill

Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, Karl Dane, DeWitt Jennings, Mathew Betz, Claire McDowell, Robert Emmet O’Connor, Tom Kennedy, Tom Wilson, Eddie Foyer, Rosco Ates, Fletcher Norton

Oscar Wins: Best Sound Recording, Best Writing

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Wallace Beery)


There’s no better place to witness the range of human cruelty than in the American prison system. Unclean quarters, twisted law enforcement and poor nutrition are pretty normal, as are beatings, rape, and unfair methods of punishment.


Though it’s widely considered to be the first prison film, there’s nothing quite as brutal as any of this in The Big House, a movie that looks tame when compared to The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, even I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which came out only two years later. Yet writer Frances Marion spent months researching her movie script, a feat that would earn her an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.


The film begins with day one of Kent’s (Robert Montgomery) 10-year prison sentence. After a drunk driving incident lands him a manslaughter conviction, Kent finds himself bunking up with two of the most notorious criminals in the jail: Butch (Wallace Berry) and Morgan (Chester Morris). Morgan is nothing but a petty criminal, but Butch murdered three people for $500 and even poisoned the woman he loved…though he regrets that last one…sometimes…

Like most prison films, we’re set up for disaster pretty quickly. The jail is built for 1,800, but holds 3,000. The guards are power hungry and cruel, doing whatever they can to take down the prisoners they don’t like. The prisoners don’t get the respect or facilities they need, which sets us up for certain confrontation.


As a roughneck, Butch is all too ready to lead the charge against the guards, but Kent isn’t so sure. His drunk driving charge indicates he’s barely ready to handle adulthood. When a plan is finally put into place, a nervous Kent tells the warden everything he knows…but Butch is keeping some cards close to his vest.


The final few minutes of The Big House are fueled with pent-up anger on both sides. A long, bloody battle pits bloodthirsty prisoners against the unprepared guards for an old-fashioned fight to the death. Who will be left standing? And at what price?

The Big House is the granddaddy of all prison films. The hundreds of prison dramas that have been made since have all been influenced in one way or another by this seminal movie. It was one of the year’s biggest pictures and garnered four Oscar nominations, including Best Sound and Best Screenplay (Frances Marion would become the first woman to win a non-acting Oscar for her screenplay).


The purpose of prison has been debated for generations. Is it to punish or reeducate? This dilemma is central to what makes The Big House still feel so contemporary today. What this prison wants to do, and what it succeeds in doing, isn’t always the desired intention…and I’m sure it’s not far off from how prisons are still managed today. For the prison at the center of this film, the goal is to foster a sense of conformity. Prisoners are stripped of their names and told they now answer to a number. Guards encourage bad behavior so that they can punish it to deter bad behavior which creates resentment, leading to more bad behavior and so on and so forth. The only thing anyone seems to get out of their time in prison is a lesson in brutal, cynical violence. It’s no wonder life after lockup is so challenging for most people.


Not only did films take a lesson or two from The Big House, but several prison TV dramas, such as Orange is the New Black and OZ have homages to this classic movie. Even all these years later, The Big House still showcases a broken, decrepit system almost designed to fail. Sadly, it’s proof that not much has changed over the course of nearly a century.

 

The Divorcee

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Robert Montgomery, Judith Wood, Helene Millard, Florence Eldridge, Mary Doran, Robert Elliott, Tyler Brooke, Zelda Sears, George Irving

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Norma Shearer)

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Writing, Best Picture


Should old acquaintance be forgot?


It’s an interesting question when we’re talking about a film like The Divorcee, a movie that feels so stuck in the past – yet so ahead of its time.


With jazzy music playing and a bunch of people giggling at a country house party, The Divorcee opens with a promise of a witty rom-com or sex comedy. Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) can’t keep their hands off each other and it’s clear our story (and this friend group) is centered on them. When they suddenly announce their engagement, everyone is overjoyed for the couple…well, almost everyone.

As it turns out, Ted isn’t the only one with eyes for Jerry. Paul (Conrad Nagel) also has affections for her, even though Dorothy (Judith Wood) swoons for Paul. But Paul isn’t without manners. He kindly steps aside and lets Jerry go, knowing Ted is the better man for her…


NOT.


He of course turns to alcohol as a way to cure his aching heart. As a result, he ends up crashing his car, permanently disfiguring Dorothy in the accident. Seeking atonement, Paul marries Dorothy in her hospital bed, a scene contrasted with Jerry and Ted’s elegant church wedding.


For the next three years, everything is hunky dory for Ted and Jerry. On the night of their third wedding anniversary, their crazy group of friends arrive with an unexpected visitor named Janice (Mary Doran), who can’t keep her eyes off Ted.

When Jerry walks in on Janice embracing Ted in the kitchen, she realizes something is wrong. She confronts Ted, and he explains to her that they had a drunken one night stand a month back (oopsies!). He goes on to say it didn’t mean anything and she should just stand by her man, for crying out loud.


Naturally, Jerry is devastated. She confides in Ted’s best friend, Don (Robert Montgomery), which leads to Jerry having a little affair of her own.


Yet Jerry can’t keep her secret from Ted. “I’ve balanced our accounts,” she tells him. Yet, what’s good for the goose was not good for the gander. Ted flies into a fit of rage, sending the couple to court to finalize their divorce.


Ted finds solace in the bottle, while Jerry loses herself in a different man every night in an endless string of parties. Dolled up in stunning dresses, full makeup, and lavish jewelry, Jerry is reborn. All men are fair game to her now as she begins treating men the way men treat women.

Though this film (and its ending) might be hard to believe for modern audiences, The Divorcee was ground-breaking cinema at the time. Here was sex, openly discussed, practiced and joked about, even used as a weapon. Jerry gets to experience sexual liberation, having the time of her life as a well-to-do single woman. Ending aside (I won’t spoil it for you), there’s no doubt this movie sparked conversation at mahjong tables across the country.


In the end, actions may have consequences, but life’s too short not to have a little fun! After all, we’re all just trying to make the best of what we’ve got, whether or not we’ve vowed “…till death do us part.”

 

The Love Parade

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Lupino Lane, Lillian Roth, Eugene Pallette, E.H. Calvert, Edgar Norton, Lionel Belmore

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Maurice Chevalier), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Sound Recording, Best Picture


It’s man vs. woman in this pre-code, sexually pumped, satiric romance. Often thought to be the first movie musical, The Love Parade opened the door for a decade of the battle of the sexes films. While it’s by no means the best of the films this year, it succeeds in unleashing a continuous roll-out of naughty double entendres and insinuations that never resort to vulgarity, but clearly aim, um, below the belt.


Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier), a suave and sophisticated military man, is far more interested in campaigns of the bedroom than the battlefield. Attaché to the fictional Sylvanian Embassy somewhere in Europe, he returns to his country in disgrace after word of his many conquests in Paris (with married women, mostly) gets back to the ambassador.

As a result of his indiscretions, including sleeping with the ambassador’s wife, he’s recalled from his diplomatic mission and sent to Queen Louise of Sylvania (Jeannette MacDonald) to be reprimanded.


Meanwhile, the Queen is unmarried and loving her single life, though her advisors make it their business to push wedding bells at her at every opportunity. As the queen, Jeannette MacDonald makes a saucy, pre-code poster girl version of royalty. With marcelled hair, a cigarette and a tight, spaghetti strap dress, Queen Louise reads over a report of Count Alfred’s indiscretions with amusement while he stands there and sweats it out.


Though his exploits seem to intrigue her more than anything, it’s still up to her to “punish” him in some manner. So, Alfred is ordered to be her dinner date, resulting in a romance that sets the stage for a royal wedding. As Prince Consort, it is understood by everyone (except Alfred) that marriage to the queen means taking a backseat in the affairs of state, as well as the home. After a few weeks, Alfred realizes he has become merely a figurehead to be used in the boudoir, there to carry out all his wife’s commands.

Though frustrated, there’s not much Alfred can do. The vows have been spoken and there’s way too much prestige (and money) on the line to undo that which has been done. Besides that, Alfred and Louise do have crazy chemistry – they just need to figure out a way to make this modern 1920’s reconfiguration of traditional gender roles work out to each other’s advantage!


With equal parts humor and physical comedy, The Love Parade is a cute romantic romp with a fun fairytale-esque plot. The theme of gender roles gives this film a bit of a modern twist, with the traditional husband and wife roles reversed. While Louise is out there slaying, Alfred must wait for his wife before he’s served breakfast and has his daily schedule planned out for him (tough life!).


A lot of the comedy also comes from the music, which was often risqué in and of itself. In one of the more daring numbers, Alfred sings a song titled, “But Nobody’s Using it Now”, which is perhaps the only time in musical history where a man sings a tender love song to his own penis.


Unfortunately, the musical numbers are probably the best part of this film, and even those aren’t great. While this bedroom comedy was fun and naughty at times, the slow parts were REALLY slow. To put it bluntly, the best parts were over too fast and the bad parts just never ended.

 

Disraeli

Director: Alfred E. Green

Starring: George Arliss, Doris Lloyd, David Torrence, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss, Anthony Bushell, Michael Visocoff

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (George Arliss)

Other Nominations: Best Writing, Best Picture


More like dis-aster.


While I can certainly appreciate that a movie made in 1929 won’t have the bells and whistles of a modern classic, I can’t forgive its total lack of excitement.


This movie was drier than sawdust, blander than water, slower than molasses. It’s about as forgettable as its title character, who was a real person – a real person had that haircut. Made at a time when Benjamin Disraeli was still a well-known figure, Disraeli spends next to no time explaining how this man reached the office of Prime Minister. Instead, it takes for granted that the audience will know who Disraeli was and why he was important. So, if you’re like me and you have no idea who this guy was, allow me to explain…

Benjamin Disraeli (George Arliss) was the British Prime Minister in 1874. His ambitious foreign policy, aimed at extending the British empire, is met with stiff opposition in Parliament. Disraeli is also disliked in the public eye because of his Jewish heritage.


However, a bit of good luck comes his way when The Khedive of Egypt – in desperate need of money – offers his shares of the Suez Canal. He knows that ownership of these shares would essentially lead to Britain owning the Canal, providing a link to not only the British Empire, but that ‘great jewel’ in the Crown: India.


Cool in theory, but there are a couple problems. First, the Bank of England has no interest in financing the deal. Second, there might be a spy in the midst…


Disraeli tries to take matters into his own hands – working with a Jewish banker to handle the first problem and essentially turning himself into a matchmaker to handle the second (this part is really convoluted and confusing but essentially he encourages one of his female supporters to fall for a man Disraeli is grooming as his own spy…or something like that).

Some more stuff happens that really is of no interest and then the Canal eventually falls into British hands – making his beloved Queen Victoria the new Empress of India.


As one of the first sound films, Disraeli very much feels stuck in 1929. It feels like a silent film, a very boring silent film, with just the added sound and nothing more than that. The film lacks the cinematic quality needed for this kind of story and almost seems comical with silent stars overacting their parts with flamboyant makeup and costumes.


While the position of British Prime Minister has been held by some colorful characters over time, Disraeli wasn’t what you might call one of the ‘interesting’ ones. His claim to fame is probably his assistance in purchasing the Suez Canal – and being the only person of Jewish heritage to hold the prestigious title of Prime Minister. While that’s certainly impressive for the history books, it lacks the pizazz to make it cinematic entertainment.

 



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