Cavalcade (1933)

Cavalcade (1933)

Like Cimarron, Cavalcade belongs to the near-extinct genre of the family saga.  The film focuses on family life and how it corresponds to the external forces which shape it.  Where Cimarron uses masculinity as the film’s dominant force, showing us the wild west from the eyes of the male subject, Cavalcade presents the turn of the century largely through the experiences of women, with the world and their families changing rapidly around them.

From the opening shot of Big Ben in London, I felt more connected with this film than I did with Cimarron. Both films are ‘epics’ set within a historical context, but the difference is that rather than watching a story which represents a nation which is not my own, Cavalcade is a story of people with which I have a shared history.  And although Cavalcade was written as a period piece, it’s charm has ripened mightily over the last eighty years.

The tale begins with the turn of the 20th Century, establishing an upper-class household and its servants as the protagonists of the story.  The film chronicles the passage of time as the servants move on and start a business, the children grow up, and the families are shaken by key events of the early 20th century.  It all feels quite staged but is still very engaging.

The upstairs/downstairs dichotomy allows the characters and their stories a lot of room to breath.  When we’re getting tired of one character it’s never long before the focus moves to somebody else, or we shift ahead to show the children growing up in the midst of change.  There’s little chance to become bored as we’re taken rapidly through a world where time shifts as quickly as a change in music.

This theme of change is the main thrust of the story in Cavalcade, and it is the women who really convey the sadness and heartache which accompanies it.  Irene Dunn performs expertly, as does Una O’Connor as Mrs Bridges.  But the men are useless as actors.  Their characters return from the Boer War with no visible signs of change, not even subtle shifts.  They might as well have stepped out for a cup of tea.  The only reason we know that the war is a big deal is because the women tell us so.  And the young man playing Joe looks like he’d be more comfortable with a man in his arms than a Fanny.  Very unconvincing.

Thankfully, there is a redeeming war montage towards the end of film which is poignant and exciting, and I find it quite interesting that Hollywood asserts itself in these early films as anti-war, or at the very least offers quite a harsh critique of war.  I suspect and hope that this is something that will continue.

But by far the best moment of this project so far:

Annie:  Where’s Africa?  I know where it is, but where is it really?

Existentialist brilliance.


Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel is the essence of Hollywood Cinema.  Lavish, expensive looking, big names acting big roles, plot twists, murder, dual identity – Grand Hotel moves beyond narrative-driven, theme-based writing with characters serving a plot, becoming a story driven by characters who are as unique as their motivations.  It’s a film crafted to let actors do their thing, and as a modern audience I’m with them every step of the way.

This film could well be thought of as a precursor to films such as Ocean’s 11, with their ensemble cast of film stars providing the primary marketing thrust.  I’m glad the producers of this film broke with the tradition of settling for two big-name actors in the leads and went with such a large cast of stars, because it means I’m able to experience the performances of some of the era’s biggest celebrities in just one film rather than two or three.

And what weight these actors have!  Names I know which are famous just for being famous… Greta Garbo, John Barrymoore, Joan Crawford… I feel like the selectors of The Award in 1932 knew that they were choosing a film which would be treasured for the era it represents.  With many actors these days striving for roles which are unique or offbeat (as all good actors should!), it took a little while for me to absorb just how courageous this ensemble was.  All of the characters are deeply flawed, some irreconcileably so, but the actors get stuck in and it is their bravery for playing people with real issues which makes this film shine.

Technically, I noticed some subtle advances in editing while watching this film.  A wonderful shot of Wallace Beery’s eyes followed by a close-up of Joan Crawford’s legs implies so much more than it states outright.  And some of the superbly designed shots of the hotel’s Art-Deco lobby are as cleverly constructed as those in the old Silents.

In selecting Grand Hotel as the year’s top film for 1932, the Academy has immortalised the Golden Age of Hollywood at its most Grand.

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This is the film which inspired me to start blogging this project.  Cimarron is technically impressive, packed with visual subtleties, and it helped to define an incredibly popular genre of talkies, the Western.  Yet the film is fraught with problems, notably the touchy racial depictions and the jerky story-telling.  It’s a tough film for a young man to work out.

Cimarron is an epic, a kind of prototype Gone With The Wind perhaps, which details the life of a pioneering entreprenuer, Yancy Cravat, and his family.  I have come to understand ‘epic’ as a style intimately linked to the plays of Bertolt Brecht.  An epic is a story which uses a long narrative, often focussed on the toils of one central character, to make a point about the nature of humanity.  By the time we reach the end of an epic, the story’s purpose has a much greater impact because we’ve spent such a long time in this person’s life.  The idea behind ‘the epic’ is pretty basic, but it’s a fundamental foundation in a lot of Hollywood films.

Cimarron must perform this function well because upon reaching its conclusion, relaxing in my living room in New Zealand in the 21st Century, I’m given a sense of nostalgia for a time and era that I have nothing to do with.  It’s a great feeling, the sense that you’ve built a business, a family, and even a city with Yancey Cravat.  But there are problems with how we’ve arrived here.  Despite gaining a Best Actor nomination, the guy playing Yancey would do better on an airport runway the way he flails his arms around and yells.  He’s not acting.  It’s no wonder Stanislavsky had such an illustrious career teaching in the States – the idea of an inner truth seems lost on actors such as Richard Dix.  And about three quarters of the way through the film, when Yancey returns from fighting Indians, the film grinds to a halt in the courtroom scenes.  I don’t believe my problem watching these scenes are a result of an MTV- (or perhaps YouTube-) generation attention span.  I think that the story-telling in these scenes, from the dialogue and editing to the characterisation, is quite poorly executed.

And another massive issue; no matter which way you look at it, Cimarron is fraught with problematic racial depictions.  I find I can enjoy this movie only if I pretend that there isn’t anything racist about a white businessman telling his black servant to eat his watermelons.  Watching this movie with a Sherpa and a Tahitian felt too awkward too many times for this white dude.

Yet there are moments when, in keeping with the film’s rather noble assertion that it takes all of us to build a family, a city and a nation, these characters of different backgrounds are embraced, and quite beautifully.  ‘If you know anything at all…’ says Yancey, ‘…you’d know that a Cherokee Indian is too smart to put anything in the contribution box of a race that’s robbed him of his birthright.’  And in the final part of the film, Yancey’s grandson goes on to marry an Indian girl, symbolising, I take it, that all the people of America are one big family.  This is a touching and progressive theme to include.  The problem is that these racial depictions are so uneven that I just can’t work out where the film stands and if it means what it says or if it says it quite by accident.

Here’s the deal; not every film can be a masterpiece.  Nor can every year have a masterpiece, for that matter.  While it may be flawed, it is these very problems which make this film such a fascinating watch.  Seeing Cimarron is a look into a time when filmmakers were still working out how to execute a lavish historical epic.  Cimarron doesn’t quite get there, but hey, someone had to be the first one to give it a try.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Today, All Quiet on the Western Front feels pretty old.  It’s not until you give it some consideration afterwards that you realise how ahead of its time it must have been, and appreciate the artistic, and likely financial, risks taken by the producers.  The Academy deserves big cred for selecting this film as a Best Picture winner.

A lot of films today seem to draw on the idea of de-humanisation, losing a sense of self amidst the machine of war or some other institutional power.  All Quiet on the Western Front does the opposite of this, humanising aspects of war which we would rather not.  All Quiet shows us World War One through the eyes of ‘The Enemy’, Germany.  We follow the war-time experiences of a group of young soldiers from recruitment until one by one they are all killed on the battlefield.  Even today some of the scenes are difficult to watch, and I’m pretty sure that everyone who sees this film is likely to find something hard-hitting at least once.

This said, it’s still difficult for a modern audience.  Despite being explicitly German, the actors all speak with American accents.  I’m tempted to offer an ‘they’re just getting used to sound’ excuse, but then I remember that theatre has been around for centuries and that acting with voice is nothing new!  I also felt that All Quiet was noticeably lacking in any sort of external musical score.  Maybe this helped achieve a type of cinéma-vérité style which would no doubt have been well ahead of its time, but for me it served tomake the film a bit harder to connect with emotionally.  What I realised watching this film is the power which music has to help guide the rhythm of cinema.  Music helps an audience move beyond the aesthetic of a film and feel a deeper sense of connection.

There’s no denying that All Quiet on the Western Front is an important addition to the historical canon of filmmaking.  The artistic choices made by this team are progressive even by today’s standards, and it’s a compliment to the Academy that this film was awarded the equivalent of Best Picture in 1930.

The Broadway Melody (1928)

The Broadway Melody (1928)

A lot of the reviews of this film I have read dismiss it quite early on. For some reason they seem to think that a film rooted in spectacle isn’t enough of a justification to earn it Best Picture (check out Rotten Tomatoes).  Sure this statement is probably true of today’s filmmaking, but lets not lose sight of the fact that the entire early film industry grew from the thrill of spectacle.  Early cinema audiences were fascinated by the excitement of the chase or comedy sequence.  Can we really fault the Academy for awarding Best Picture to a film whose success hinged on the novelty of singing and dancing?  Of course not.

The Broadway Melody was released just as ‘the talkies’ were becoming popular around the world.  With the advent of synchronised sound, Hollywood Cinema was fundamentally altered in terms of creativity, technical production elements and audience expectations.  This is why The Broadway Melody is such an interesting watch.  We’re seeing some of the first song and dance numbers in the history of cinema – what a priviledge!  Setting this film apart from their competitors, the numbers were integrated into the story with simplicity and a fair justification.

The story itself is relatively bland by today’s standard, but we can forgive this because watching the film in the twenty-first century we’re probably expecting it to be a bit of a time capsule.  Two lasses, sisters actually, head to New York to make it big on Broadway.  Maybe a dated premise today, but many of us will still be able to connect this to our own lives, if not in literally wanting to conquer Broadway then to be figuratively heading towards some sort of higher achievement or goal.

The two girls (Bessie Love and Anita Page) are gorgeous looking and the girl playing Hank is one fantastic actress.  I loved the costumes – imagine an era where people wore top-hats and still took themselves seriously!  And the show costumes – I totally digged them.

Some may disagree, but on the whole I found the representation of women in this film to be subtely progressive.  Sure, the girls careers are at the mercy of big-shot Mr Zanfied, the producer, but their love lives are their own.  They have the right to choose who they date – a couple of characters have an argument because they don’t want Queenie to date one particular rich guy.  ‘You can’t choose him!’ they cry, firmly implying that it is her choice to date whomever she pleases.  A fair and rather balanced representation for the 1920s, if you ask me.  Debate welcome.

Of course, there’s no denying that the musical numbers aren’t that good.  The dancers are out of time and the singing isn’t all that great, but considering that most of the filmmakers and performers working on this project have never worked with sound before, I’m willing to forgive them and be thankful for the chance to observe a film which captures a glorious moment of revolution in Hollywood, and even world, cinema.

Wings (1927)

Wings (1927)

This film is a treat.  I watched a VHS copy, which added heaps to the charm of watching a film from a bygone era!

Wings is a silent film from 1927 and was the first film to win the award which we now know as ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars.  Watching this film reveals technical marvels of silent film which you might not have realised existed.  We think of silent film as outdated and corny and probably expect it to be pretty lame, but Wings has just enough of the expected cliche and quaint melodrama to draw you in, followed up a rather tragic and exciting turn near the end, to make it a great watch.

The beauty of silent film, as exemplified not only in Wings but also by silent classics such as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, is the astounding attention to detail.  With no diegetic sound (ie sound which comes from within the film world, rather than outside it), we are not bogged down by the need to advance the story through people to people interactions and talking.  The title cards do this for us.  The filmmakers primary focus is on pictures and images rather than story-telling.  In watching Wings, the result for me felt like reading a picture-book or even a comic.  I felt like I was actively reading rather than passively watching.  Watching Wings makes you realise that film is, first and foremost, a visual medium.

As mentioned, the technical aspects are something else.  This film was made well before the appearance of commercial airliners, and images of cloud-tops would have been a rarity and a true treat way back in the 20s.  How on earth did they film the air fights?  How did they have the gall to organise all of those epic war scenes?  The way they overlaid multiple pictures at once…and just look at the colours!  This film is a true technical masterpiece and checking it out will no doubt whet your appetite for more.

And just as a coda to this – isn’t it crazy how attitudes change?  Perhaps it’s my liberal upbringing informing this assumption, but as history moves forward shouldn’t we expect society to open up and be more tolerant?  What I’m driving at here is the passionate kiss between the two leading men near the end of the film – you sure couldn’t see that in Hollywood today unless you were making some kind of statement.

I’ve recently embarked on a task of the monumental proportions – to watch the entire canon of films which have won Best Picture (or equivalent) at the Academy Awards.

The purpose of this blog is a) to help convince those of you who are also considering undertaking this most immeasurable of challenges to take it up, and b) to help those of you undertaking this same mission to further engage with the films if you’re like me and enjoy having a good think afterwards.

If you live in a country outside of the United States, you might have trouble tracking down many of the early films.  I know I sure did.  I’m lucky enough to live very close a world-class video shop, Aro Video, which has a copy of nearly every one of the films.  The ones which are missing are only so beause they have never been released in New Zealand.  If you’re stuck in a similar predicament, you can find the movies at The Pirate Bay, but remember, downloading might be illegal and you can never beat an authentic edition!