Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1930-31: René Clair (Le Million)

If choosing the best screenplay of the year were simply a question of counting up the quotable lines, Animal Crackers would be the hands-down winner for 1930-31. Not only did that movie give us Groucho Marx's most famous monologue—a description of the most inept African safari of all time—but it also included the "Take a letter to my lawyer" routine, the "Strange interlude" bit, Groucho's signature song "I Must Be Going," Chico's first piano performance of "I'm Daffy Over You" and some of the best work of Harpo's career.

In adapting the stage play that he and George S. Kaufman (with songs from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby) had written two years before, Morrie Ryskind retained the best jokes and the bare structure of the story, and jettisoned as much of the connective tissue as he could, but Animal Crackers never quite escapes the staginess of its origins and even if one of the supporting characters and I share the same name, I get a bit restless waiting through the dull stretches of creaky plot contrivances for another of the Marx Brothers' wonderful comedy routines. It's not much of a knock considering how often these great routines pop up, but in a year loaded with great screenplays—not just my nominees, but also The Dawn Patrol (John Monk Saunders), M (Fritz Lang and Thea Harbou), The Front Page (Charles Lederer and Bartlett Cormack) and The Public Enemy (Harvey Thew)—it's just enough of a flaw to make me look elsewhere for the best screenplay of 1930-31.

Instead, the award goes to René Clair for his delightful and inventive musical comedy, Le Million. The story is tight and precisely put together, the songs and dialogue are witty and memorable, and the resulting comedy is as light and frothy as a glass of cold champagne.

Le Million is the story of a struggling artist (René Lefèvre), in debt to his landlord and every shop owner in town, who discovers he has won the lottery—if only he can find the ticket. He remembers it's in the pocket of a jacket he left with his fiancee (Annabella), but she's given the jacket to a beggar (Paul Ollivier) on the run from the police who then sells the jacket in a thrift store to an opera singer who thinks it's just perfect for his role in La Boheme. Soon everybody is scrambling to get their hands on that jacket, a chase that climaxes in an on-stage scrum in the middle of the tenor's performance. Le Million influenced the title sequence of A Night at the Opera, and as a comedy, it can stand comfortably alongside the Marx Brothers' classic. It really is that good.

And if that was all there were to it, Le Million would still be one of the best movies of the year. That Clair also takes time, as the characters race around at a non-stop clip, to explore two of his favorite themes, the outsize role of money in society and the fragile nature of love, makes Le Million one of the best movies of any year, a deserving award winner.

Clair gets great mileage out of the deference we pay to money and the people who have it regardless of their worth as human beings, and we laugh at the contortions of the shopowners to ingratiate themselves to a man they had just minutes before been chasing through the streets. Clair also shows us the lengths supposedly respectable people will go to get their hands on money they aren't entitled to, such as the ironically-named Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert) who lets his friend the artist sit in jail just to increase his chances of getting to the lottery ticket first.

As for the beggar who took loan of the jacket then sold it, he turns out to be Grandpa Tulipe, a master criminal who leads a well-organized band of highly-efficient thieves. But even they aren't content merely to steal, they feel compelled to dress up their base impulses with the same sort of respectable lies Bernie Madoff no doubt told himself:

"We are the foot soldiers of inequality!
We take back the spoils of social injustice!
And under the watchful eye of the police,
We redistribute wealth and private property."

Clair concludes that "money isn't everything" but then adds this telling postscript:

"So say folks who are intelligent
To folks who haven't got a cent.
We'll believe what they say,
When they give all their money away."

The second of Clair's favorite themes, that along with the notion that pos- sessions are a trap, real love is fragile and fleeting and not a game human beings are really adept at, could have become the stuff of a pretty conventional romantic comedy but for Clair's skill at spinning out the courtship. "We're just sort of engaged," the artist tells the beautiful model in his arms after his fiancee has caught them in an embrace. The fiancee herself is an outrageous flirt and isn't sure she wants to help him even of it does mean riches for them both. As expected, the two reunite and break apart and reunite and break apart throughout the movie, but it's only while they're trapped on stage behind a piece of scenery while the tenor and the coloratura sing of love that they reveal to each what's really in their hearts.

This doesn't even touch on the fact that Le Million made the most innovative use of sound to date in the Early Sound Era, introducing ideas that still crop up in movies and television. But that's the subject of my next essay, "Achievements In The Use Of Sound: René Clair's Le Million."

Despite how unappealing the idea of watching a seventy-eight year old French musical comedy might sound to a casual movie fan, Le Million really is a Saturday night movie, full of slapstick and sightgags, and the only thing that keeps me from naming it the best Fun-Stupid movie of 1930-31 is my reluctance to task your patience with subtitles. But if you're willing to take a chance then I'm telling that this is the one French movie you can brag to friends about watching, understanding and enjoying.

Or to put it another way, Katie-Bar-The-Door started out watching Le Million I think mostly to humor me, became completely enchanted with it and wound up talking about it for days afterwards. In fact, she's the one who urged me to choose it for best screenplay over it's better-known competition. And she was right.

Born in Paris in 1898 as René-Lucien Chomette, René Clair worked as a journalist and an actor before directing his first film in 1924, Entr'acte, an exercise in Dadaism that included jumbled footage of Paris and a coffin that runs away from a funeral. He achieved his first lasting success in 1930 with Under The Roofs Of Paris, an amiable comedy about the intersecting lives of four Parisians. Convinced there was no point in merely replicating theater or radio performances on film, it was in this film that Clair first began to experiment with the new sound technology. As I will discuss at more length in my next essay, Clair's use of sound in Le Million was both inventive and influential and was a landmark achievement of the Early Sound Era.

Clair made three more movies in France, including the classic À Nous La Liberté, then relocated to Hollywood in 1935 where he worked until after World War II. His Hollywood films aren't on par with his best French work, but he did direct I Married A Witch and Then There Were None, both critically-acclaimed box office hits. During his career, he directed thirty movies, his last in 1965, and died in France in 1981 at the age of eighty-two.

Acknowledgment: Usually when I write these essays, I sit in front of my DVD player (or VCR or YouTube) and take notes in longhand, transcribing quotes and making my usual witty observations. But Katie and I got Le Million from Netflix and I sent it back before it occurred to me that I would need to watch it again to write this lengthy post about it. I don't know what I was thinking.

So I scoured the internet for usable quotes (the witty observations, fortunately, were firmly embedded in my head), came up empty at the usually reliable Internet Movie Database, then found a very useful and interesting blog called "The Criterion Contraption," written by Matthew Dessem who is attempting to watch and review every movie in the Criterion Collection catalogue. Obviously, he's even crazier than I am, which is saying something, and my hat's off to him. It's a good blog and if you're interested in the sort of movies Criterion sells on DVD and are looking for an in-depth review, I recommend you head on over there.

Anyway, his review of Le Million is chock full of good quotes, not to mention several screen captures of the movie itself, and I relied on his good work as a research tool. Hopefully, he and you are okay with that.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Happy 115th To Gladys Brockwell

Gladys Brockwell is another of those names I confess I didn't know until I started working on this blog but now that I know it, I think you should know it, too.

Born to chorus girl Lillian Lindeman on this day in 1894, Brockwell started working on the stage in New York at the age of three and made her first movie at the age of nineteen. Brockwell made 115 movies during the Silent and Early Sound eras, but she's primarily known now for two performances, as the mad Sister Gudule in the 1923 silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (starring Lon Chaney), and as Janet Gaynor's brutally abusive sister in 1927's 7th Heaven, one of the three movies the Academy cited the year Gaynor won her only Oscar.

You can also look for Brockwell in Chaney's 1922 version of Oliver Twist, in the early talkie Lights of New York and in a bit part with Louise Brooks in Howard Hawks's A Girl in Every Port.

Brockwell died in 1929 of peritonitis after being seriously injured in an automobile accident.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Monkey Visits Relatives

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I went to TCM's screening of the new hi-def print of The Wizard of Oz at one of our local theaters last night. Who knows how many times we've seen the movie but it was the first time either of us had seen it in a theater. As always, it makes a difference even if the woman sitting next to us carried on a nonstop conversation in a normal tone of voice from the moment the lights went down until they came back up again, and some guy in the third row with a phosphorus flare of an iPhone screen kept checking, well, something, maybe for updates on this blog.

Anyway, I offer up this photo of the evening—that's me on the left, Katie in the middle and our Chatty Cathy neighbor on the right.

Blogwise, we'll get to The Wizard of Oz in 1939. I foresee nominations for best picture, actress (Judy Garland), director (Victor Fleming, who also directed Gone With The Wind) and supporting actor (Bert Lahr).

Next up: the best screenplay of 1930-31.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Katie Award Nominees For 1930-31

August 1, 1930-to-July 31, 1931, was one of those movie years where looking at the list of the Academy's nominees and winners, you'd walk away with a completely distorted idea of what was actually going on in movie history.

1931 was a pivotal year. James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Clark Gable all went from bit players to stars within the space of twelve months and in so doing, they gave the cinema a distinctly American feel for the first time. Instead of actors aping polished stage performers with British or faux-British accents, audiences heard for the first time the inflections and rhythms of urban wise guys like Cagney and Gable, or in the case of Robinson, who was born in Romania and raised in New York's Lower East Side, the voice of the American immigrant experience.

It was also the year of the gangster picture, a genre that dominated the rest of the 1930s. The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, starring Cagney and Robinson, respectively, proved to be big, if controversial, hits with critics and audiences both. Censors were not so thrilled, however, contending that the films (and Howard Hawks's Scarface the following year) glamorized crime, and Hollywood, as usual, proved to be of two minds on the subject, happy to bank the money that was rolling in while paying lip service at Oscar time to the notion that gangster pictures were bad for us.

It was the same story with Universal's cycle of great horror pictures, which began in 1931 with Dracula, and continued in November of that year (too late for a Katie nomination) with Frankenstein. Their stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, would dominate the genre and box office for years to come without either ever receiving any recognition from the Academy.

There was also the groundbreaking Western The Big Trail, starring an impossibly young John Wayne and featuring the first widescreen movie in history; two Joans—Blondell and Crawford—established themselves as major stars; and René Clair followed a winning lottery ticket from hand to hand in the French comedy Le Million.

And, of course, Groucho Marx gave us what was perhaps the most famous monologue of his career, confessing to audiences, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

If, however, you look at the list of winners and nominees from the Academy Award ceremony held on November 10, 1931, you won't see any of these films or performers. It wasn't the first time the Oscars would prove to be so clueless, nor the last. But if you care about this sort of thing, it's galling nevertheless.

Admittedly, although the Academy failed to recognize the revolution in their midst, the only truly inexplicable award was giving Norman Taurog the Oscar for direction. Skippy is a pleasant enough comedy with a fine performance from child star Jackie Cooper, but in terms of what went on in the director's chair, it isn't much unless you count Taurog's threat to shoot Cooper's dog if the kid didn't cry on cue (he cried buckets and earned an Oscar nomination). Nothing compared to the accomplishments of Charles Chaplin and René Clair, who were eligible for the award, or Josef von Sternberg and Lewis Milestone, who were actually nominated.

Not to mention Taurog might be the worst director to ever win the award—aside from nabbing the Oscar itself, Taurog is mostly remembered now for directing, among other things, nine Elvis Presley movies (and not the good ones either). Well, okay, he directed Boys Town, I'll give him that. But that hardly makes up for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

The award for best picture went to the now largely reviled Cimarron. Based on Edna Ferber's prize-winning novel, it's actually a pretty entertaining yarn as historical potboilers go, and if I don't think it's the best movie of the year, I do think it's unjustly underrated.

The story begins in 1889 with the Oklahoma Land Rush—where 50,000 people lined up at the border of Oklahoma and raced to claim the two million acres the U.S. government had opened up for settlement, a perfectly insane way to parcel out land—and ends in 1930 with the descendants of these settlers marinating in oil money. (The movie is mute on the question of how the Indian tribes who were living in Oklahoma at the time of the Land Rush felt about having their homes stolen out from under them. Reportedly, when the tribes complained the action violated long-standing treaty obligations, President Benjamin Harrison replied, "You f*cked up! You trusted us!") Plenty of people in the audience would have been old enough to remember the events depicted, which were roughly as distant in time to them as the moon landing is to us, and the movie was a popular hit.

As hard as it is to believe, given that the intervening years gave us Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Red River, Shane, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, The Wild Bunch and many, many more, Cimarron was the last Western to win the Oscar for best picture until Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves in 1991, and if you ever wonder what motivates otherwise seemingly sane people to start handing out crazy alternate Oscars like the Katies, there's a good part of your answer right there.

Cimarron was also the first of five Oscar nominations for Irene Dunne (no wins)—she lost to Marie Dressler in Min and Bill, one of the best performances of Dressler's career (I gave her a Katie for her supporting performance in Anna Christie just last year).

Lionel Barrymore won for best actor in A Free Soul, which was not just the only win of his career, but his only acting nomination (he got a best director nom the year before with Madame X). I have one problem with his win though: he's only the second best actor in the film, behind Clark Gable in a star-making performance.

The writing awards went to John Monk Saunders (for his original story, The Dawn Patrol) and Howard Estabrook (for his adaptation of the aforementioned Cimarron). Director Howard Hawks said later that Saunders hadn't written any of The Dawn Patrol, claiming instead that Saunders received $10,000 to attach his famous name to the screenplay to help Hawks get studio backing for the project. You can't prove it by me one way or the other.

Finally, I'll mention Fritz Lang's crime thriller, M, which premiered in Berlin on May 11, 1931. It didn't arrive on America's shores until 1933 and thus wasn't eligible for an Oscar this year, but when it comes to handing out Katies, I prefer to nominate them at the time of their initial release —gives you a better idea of their place in film history. I think that even if a general American audience hadn't seen it, the ideas and techniques Lang used in M were already percolating through the bedrock of Hollywood and had already influenced the movies by the time it officially premiered here. Thus, the three Katie nominations for M here rather than in 1933.

These are my nominees:

Animal Crackers (prod. Adolph Zukor)
City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin)
Dracula (prod. Tod Browning and Carl Laemmle, Jr.)
M (prod. Seymour Nebenzal)
Le Million (prod. Frank Clifford)

James Cagney (The Public Enemy)
Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
Bela Lugosi (Dracula)
The Marx Brothers (Animal Crackers)
Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar)

Joan Crawford (Dance, Fools, Dance)
Marlene Dietrich (Morocco)
Marie Dressler (Min and Bill)
Irene Dunne (Cimarron)
Norma Shearer (A Free Soul)


Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
René Clair (Le Million)
Fritz Lang (M)


Clark Gable (A Free Soul)
Peter Lorre (M)
Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page)


Joan Blondell (Sinners' Holiday, Other Men's Women and Night Nurse)
Margaret Dumont (Animal Crackers)
Sylvia Sidney (An American Tragedy)


Morrie Ryskind (Animal Crackers)
Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
René Clair (Le Million)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Recap Of The Katie Award Winners For 1929-30 And The Year's Must-See Movies

Picture: All Quiet On The Western Front (prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)
Actor: Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)

Actress: Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl)
Director: Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front)
Supporting Actor: Wallace Beery (The Big House)
Supporting Actress: Marie Dressler (Anna Christie)
Screenplay: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Dell Andrews (All Quiet On The Western Front)
Special Awards: Hallelujah! (prod. King Vidor) (Best Picture-Comedy or Musical); Maurice Chevalier (The Love Parade) (Best Actor-Comedy/Musical); Jeanette MacDonald (The Love Parade) (Best Actress-Comedy/Musical); "Swanee Shuffle" (Hallelujah!) and "Falling In Love Again" (The Blue Angel) (Best Song); Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front) (Cinematography); Rouben Mamoulian (Applause) and C. Roy Hunter and Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front) (Special Achievement In The Use Of Sound)

Must-See: All Quiet On The Western Front; The Big House; The Blue Angel; The Cocoanuts; Diary Of A Lost Girl; Hallelujah!; Pandora's Box

"Must see" in this case depends on what you mean by must. If it means "boy, you're absolutely going to want to see it no matter whether you're a casual movie goer or a film fanatic," then we're talking All Quiet On The Western Front and possibly nothing else. It's not just an intense, insightful and historically important movie, it's also one of the most entertaining and watchable movies of the entire era. I've written about it at length here, here and here.

If, on the other hand, by "must see" you mean "what you'll need to see to get a real sense of this moment in movie history and prepare you for what comes next," then I'd say the movies on the above list would do you.

Pandora's Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl show Louise Brooks at her peak. The Big House was Hollywood's first great prison drama, it's packed with action and it features a career-making performance by Wallace Beery. The Blue Angel and The Cocoanuts introduced Marlene Dietrich and the Marx Brothers, respectively, to audiences for the first time. And Hallelujah!, the King Vidor musical starring an all-black cast gives you a chance to see talent, particularly Nina Mae McKinney, that thanks to Hollywood's racism you might never see again.

After that there are a handful of movies I'd give thumbs up to without necessarily calling them essential.

Anna Christie, Bulldog Drummond and The Love Parade I've written about, although in the case of the latter, not extensively. Judging by my readers' reaction to Maurice Chevalier, perhaps that's a good thing.

Our Modern Maidens, which along with Our Dancing Daughters and Our Blushing Brides forms what I'd call Joan Crawford's Flapper Trilogy, is a slight but amusing tale of rich kids in formalwear dancing, drinking and, in general, behaving badly. The only downside is that apparently the trilogy is nearly impossible to come by. None are available on DVD and Our Dancing Daughters, the best of the bunch, is selling for nearly fifty bucks as a VHS tape. I happened to catch all three one weekend on YouTube before they were deleted again, not knowing how lucky I was. If any of them show up again, I'll let you know.

Under The Roofs Of Paris is René Clair's oddball French comedy about a few weeks in the lives of four young Parisians—a street singer, the girl he fancies, her abusive beau and a pickpocket. Clair obviously hadn't quite made up his mind how he felt about the introduction of sound into movies and this is a combination musical, silent pantomime and slap-and-tickle love story that amounts to exactly nothing, like drinking and people-watching in an all-night café. But sometimes drinking and people-watching can be an awfully pleasant way to pass ninety minutes and, if you're like me and that's your idea of a good time, so is Under The Roofs Of Paris.

Raffles is an amusing caper flick starring best actor winner Ronald Colman as a retired safecracker who must elude the police one more time to save a friend from ruin. Raffles's nickname, "The Amateur Cracksman," makes him sound more like the star of a straight-to-video porn movie but it's actually a pretty nifty showcase for Ronald Colman and is readily available on YouTube.

You might also check out The Virginian, Gary Cooper's first talkie (which gave us the oft-misquoted line, "If you're going to call me that, smile!"), and Rouben Mamoulian's Applause, starring Helen Morgan as a stripper who reunites with her convent-raised daughter.

And finally, you may recall that I mentioned Man With The Movie Camera during my two-part discussion of the avant garde movies of the late 1920s. This experiment in film editing by Russian Dziga Vertov is highly regarded by some, including Roger Ebert. Not by me, though.

One problem with following the split-year format the Academy used for the first six years it handed out Oscars is that it obscures the fact that between the release of The Jazz Singer on October 6, 1927, and the premiere of Frankenstein on November 21, 1931, Hollywood only produced one truly great talking picture, and that was All Quiet On The Western Front. Everything else I've written about so far is either silent, foreign or flawed.

The next set of awards won't change things much—1930-31 pretty much shakes out as a three-way slugfest between Charles Chaplin's silent masterpiece City Lights and two foreign-language films, M, Fritz Lang's portrait of a serial killer, and Le Million, René Clair's delightful musical comedy—but at least the stars who eventually gave us the great movies of the Early Sound Era (Cagney, Robinson, Gable, Crawford, Stanwyck, Blondell, etc.) finally make their mark.

I, for one, am ready.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Best Picture Of 1929-30: All Quiet On The Western Front (Prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)

In the Twentieth Century, no war seemed like a better idea beforehand and a worse idea after than the First World War. Most of Europe, and eventually the United States, marched merrily into what turned out to be a highly-efficient meat grinder destroying for many nations an entire generation of young men, all in the pursuit of what turned out to be not much. I think we Americans don't fully grasp to what degree war ravaged Europe in the Twentieth Century. Britain, for example, during World War I suffered 2.6 million dead and wounded out of a population of 45 million; and France's loss of 6 million dead and wounded out of 40 million would be the equivalent of 45 million casualties for the present-day U.S., losses not only unthinkable today but incomprehensible.

Afterwards, the debate centered not so much on the question of "Should we have fought the war?" as on "How did we get suckered into it?" The level of disillusionment, grief and revulsion was so great, the key European powers sat back while Hitler gobbled up one country after another, and even after the Nazis had overrun most of Europe, invaded Russia and were bombing Britain on a daily basis, America's president, Franklin Roosevelt, had a hard time convincing the nation to even prepare for war, much less fight it. By the time the United States entered the conflict, it was damned near too late—and was, in fact, too late for millions of people.

The effort to make sense of World War I and the political, social and economic upheaval of its aftermath inspired some of the finest art and literature of the Twentieth Century—cubism, surrealism, Picasso, Hemingway, Proust. Possibly the best novel about the war itself was Erich Maria Remarque's best-selling novel, All Quiet On The Western Front, the story of a classroom of German schoolboys on their journey from enthusiastic volunteers to disillusioned veterans to buried corpses.

Carl Laemmle, the legendary head of Universal Studios, quickly bought the rights to the novel. Laemmle had worked as a bookkeeper for twenty years before investing in a string of nickelodeons, eventually founding his own film distribution company, Laemmle Film Service, which after a merger with three other film studios became Universal. He put his son, Carl, Jr., in charge of production and it was "Junior," as he was widely known, who produced All Quiet On The Western Front.

In adapting the novel for the screen, writers George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews retained the story's focus on the boys who fought and died in the war rather than on the generals and politicians who sent them, a focus that gave the book so much of its power. Director Lewis Milestone made the significant and (given that the studio was investing more than a million dollars in the production, a huge amount for the time, just weeks after the crash of the New York stock market) risky decision to cast young unknowns in the primary roles—and not in a J.J. Abrams, populate-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise-with-GQ-pretty-boys sort of way either.

This choice, casting schoolboys to play schoolboys, is nearly unique in the history of Hollywood.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five that the problem with war stories is that instead of being about the children who actually manned the front lines they all pretend wars were fought by grown men, "played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men" which he said made war "look just wonderful, so we'll have lots more of them." And indeed, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne and William Holden and many others were too old, too mature, too poised, too experienced, for the parts they played. Even the superb Saving Private Ryan relied on a cast—Tom Hanks (42), Tom Sizemore (37), Edward Burns (30), Matt Damon (28)—too old for the parts they played.

With the exception of Louis Wolheim, a veteran of fifty movies including the Oscar-winning Two Arabian Knights, the cast of All Quiet On The Western Front is nearly as young as the parts they are playing. When the film went into production in November 1929, Russell Gleason and William Bakewell were twenty-one, Lew Ayres was twenty, Ben Alexander, eighteen. Richard Alexander (no relation) was the old man of the group at twenty-five.

These are boys, raw recruits who soil their underwear during their first patrol, kids who've never been away from home, never had a drink, never so much as kissed a girl. Played by grown men, you might feel regret at their deaths, but you'd never get the same sense of how much is lost, how much of even the most basic aspects of life they've missed out on as when these parts are played by boys. The effect is tragic and poignant even now almost eighty years on.

The other significant choice Milestone made was to focus strictly on the war from the point of view of the unglamourous foot soldiers who fought it. No strategic overviews, no explanations of political objectives, not even a crane shot of the battlefield to let you know where the men are headed. Just a boot's level view (often literally) of the hunger, sleeplessness, fear, filth, lice, loneliness, rats, madness, amputations, shelling and unheroic death that was the daily routine for millions of men. Without a greater sense of the war's purpose, Milestone forced his audience to focus on the only goal that mattered to these boys, their survival.

Milestone strove for an unprecedented level of realism as he directed the action, drilling his actors like soldiers and casting veterans of the German army in supporting roles. The effort especially paid off in an extraordinary sequence late in the film: an attack, counterattack and counterattack repulsed, nearly all of it shown from Lew Ayres' point of view as he shelters in a bomb crater, with, first, French soldiers leaping the hole in one direction, then leaping it in the other as the Germans drive them back, finally one unfortunate French soldier leaping on top of Ayres leading to a desperate struggle with a bayonet. Then during the day and night that follow as Ayres is trapped in no man's land between the two lines, he watches the French soldier's life slowly drain away, the plight of the Frenchman told in sound from his screams, his cries and finally his silence.

The movie concludes with a shot long thought lost but rediscovered in 1998 when the film was finally restored to its original length: the silent, ghostly image of the boys we've come to know marching off to war superimposed over acres of white crosses.

All Quiet On The Western Front premiered in Los Angeles on April 21, 1930, and was a critical and commercial success, grossing $3 million, more than twice its budget. The National Board of Review named it one of the ten best movies of the year, Photoplay magazine awarded Laemmle, Jr. the Medal of Honor for producing the best movie of the year. The movie even won Japan's Kinema Junpo Award for best foreign language film. On November 5, 1930, the Academy awarded it two Oscars, for best picture and best director.

Decades later, the National Film Preservation Board included All Quiet On The Western Front in the National Film Registry. In 1998, the American Film Institute included the film on its list of the 100 best American movies ever made and ten years later ranked it seventh among the list of best "epic" features. Steven Spielberg later acknowledged its influence on Saving Private Ryan. In my opinion, not only was All Quiet On The Western Front the best picture of 1930, it's one of the five best (anti-)war movies ever made and arguably was the best film of the entire Early Sound Era (1927-33).

Lew Ayres was so moved by the experience of making All Quiet On The Western Front that he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War, a controversial stand that led the U.S. military to broaden its definition of conscientious objection. After serving in the Medical Corps in the South Pacific, Ayres returned to Hollywood and was better than before he left. Already a star of the Young Dr. Kildare movies, Ayres went on to receive an Oscar nomination in 1949 for his role in Johnny Belinda. He worked steadily until 1994 and died in 1996 at the age of eighty-eight.

Although Ayres was the only member of the cast to enjoy stardom after the film's successful run, the rest of the cast continued working in small roles, some well into the television age. Pat Collins, who played Lt. Bertinck, fought in both world wars and was a regular in Westerns until his death in 1959. Ben Alexander played Officer Frank Smith on the first television run of Dragnet in the 1950s, and Harold Goodwin, Richard Alexander and William Bakewell made regular appearances on television into the 1970s. Russell Gleason and Owen Davis, Jr., worked in the movies until they were killed in separate accidents, Gleason from a fall in 1945, Davis by drowning in 1949.

Louis Wolheim, the veteran actor who so memorably played Ayres's mentor, Sgt. Kat Katczinsky, died of stomach cancer within a year of the film's premiere.

For producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., All Quiet On The Western Front ushered in an era of big hits for Universal Pictures including Dracula, Waterloo Bridge (1931), Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein and Show Boat. Unfortunately, Junior routinely spent more on his productions than they ever hoped to recoup at the box office and despite the lasting appeal of his films, Universal was virtually bankrupt by the mid-Thirties. In 1936, Universal's New York backers forced the Carl Laemmle and his son into retirement. Until his death in 1939, the elder Laemmle, himself a German Jewish immigrant, provided the financial support and political influence to bring hundreds of Jews from Nazi Germany to the United States. Carl, Jr. died forty years to the day after his father. Neither man ever again produced another picture.

Postscript: Arthur Gardner and Glen Boles, who had small, uncredited parts as students, are the only cast members still living as of this posting. Gardner, who went on to produce two long-running television series, The Rifleman and The Big Valley, later recounted his experiences working on All Quiet On The Western Front. "[Carl Laemmle] brought a man over from Germany who trained all of us in German military drills for two weeks on the back lot. That man was an early Nazi. I was a very happy-go-lucky kid, had a sense of humor which thank God I still have, and played practical jokes. One day, I played one that he didn't appreciate and he lost his temper, and said, 'Goldberg, you goddamn Jew, I warned you not to do that—you're fired.' The man was an idiot. Lewis Milestone, the director, was Jewish. George Cukor, the dialogue director, was Jewish. They called him up and fired him on the spot and put me back on the picture. But from then on, I was not quite so playful."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Buster Keaton Double Feature On TCM, Monday, September 21, 2009

Starting at 8 p.m. on Monday, Turner Classic Movies is showing a pair of Buster Keaton classics, Sherlock, Jr. from 1924 and Steamboat Bill, Jr. for which Keaton took home the Katie award for best actor of 1928-29.

Highest recommendation. Four Monkeys out of four.

From the TCM website:

8:00pm [Silent] Sherlock Jr. (1924) In this silent film, a movie projectionist dreams himself into a mystery movie. Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane, Joseph Keaton Dir: Buster Keaton BW-44 mins, TV-G

9:00pm [Silent] Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) In this silent film, a student tries to win a rival captain's daughter after taking over his father's riverboat. Cast: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Tom McGuire Dir: Charles F. Reisner BW-69 mins, TV-G

Happy Birthday, Greta Garbo

I only mention Greta Garbo (or "Gerta Garber," as the teenage girl put it when Turner Classic Movies came to the local mall a few years ago and held games and handed out prizes) (Katie-Bar-The-Door won the TCM edition of "Scene-It") to remind you that during the Early Sound Era she was paradoxically at the height of her popularity while doing the worst work of her career.

Her first sound movie, Anna Christie, came out in 1930 and although Garbo received an Oscar nomination for it, it was actually Marie Dressler in a supporting performance who commands the screen (I gave her a Katie for the effort). Garbo followed up with Romance, Inspiration, Susan Lenox, Mata Hari and Grand Hotel (the last winning the Oscar for best picture of 1931-32), all hits, all showcasing Garbo struggling to make the transition from the overly broad, Kabuki theater style of the Silent Era to the dialed-down style more appropriate to sound pictures.

Ironically, once she got it, with Queen Christina in 1933, American audiences stopped going to see her. Her "I vant to be alone" persona, coupled with the hot house orchid plotlines of her pictures, alienated moviegoers struggling with the depths of the Great Depression. None of her movies after Queen Christina turned a profit domestically and it was only Garbo's huge following in Europe that made her attractive to MGM's paymasters. The moment Hitler's armies closed off that market, Garbo read the writing on the wall and retired.

But she was one of the greats (already with a Katie on her mantle for her performance in 1926's Flesh and the Devil) and although she won't receive another Katie nomination until 1933, she was actually one of the big stars of the Early Sound Era. So here's to you, Miss Garbo. I know you're out there somewhere, alone but not lonely, and never forgotten.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Delaying Tactics: Anita Page

I'm still working on my essay about the best picture of 1929-30. Some of these posts are a snap (Maurice Chevalier took half an hour on Saturday morning), but this one is like passing a kidney stone. And in a little while I'm picking up one of my best friends at the airport, so no work today.

In the meantime, here's another picture of Anita Page, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actresses of the late-Silent/Early Sound eras. You may remember her as the star of The Broadway Melody, which won the best picture Oscar for 1928-29. She was also a Katie nominee for her portrayal as a golddigging flapper in the Joan Crawford silent, Our Dancing Daughters. Her career went off the rails soon after—she famously refused one too many invitations to the casting couch—but we here at the Monkey will never forget her.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Honorable Mentions Of 1929-30

Louise Brooks left a comment this morning suggesting she's impatient for my post revealing the best picture of 1929-30, and I am working on it. In the meantime, take a look at some of the performers I considered for nominations before I decided to go in a different direction:

The Marx Brothers ...

... and Margaret Dumont (The Cocoanuts)

Gary Cooper (The Virginian)

Helen Morgan (Applause)

Anita Page (Our Modern Maidens)

Lilyan Tashman (Bulldog Drummond)

Leila Hyams (The Big House)

I encourage you search each of them out (some, I'm sure you have already). They are well worth the effort.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Maurice Chevalier

Katie nominee, singer/actor Maurice Chevalier, is 121 today, and given the frequency with which long-dead actors such as Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks pop up in the comment section, he's no doubt still out there somewhere, partying like it's 1899.

I mention Chevalier because looking ahead I see it's unlikely I'll otherwise have occasion to write about him and I think that given most people only remember him now, if they remember him at all, for a rather creepy rendition of "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" in the 1958 Oscar winner Gigi, that would be a real disservice to a man who in his youth was really quite a remarkable talent.

Chevalier was born in Paris on this day in 1888 and by the age of thirteen was already a professional singer and acrobat. He was wounded in combat during World War I and taken prisoner by the Germans; during his two years in a POW camp, he learned English from his fellow prisoners and despite what you hear in the movies, actually spoke the language fluently and without an accent.

After the war, he worked on the stage in Paris and London, and yearned to tour America, but he turned down an offer from Douglas Fairbanks to work in silent movies, fearing he wasn't actor enough to succeed without benefit of his singing voice. He worked in France, occasionally making movies there, until the premiere of The Jazz Singer, then finally left for Hollywood.

He made his best movies with legendary director, Ernst Lubitsch, who starred Chevalier in four musical comedies, The Love Parade, One Hour With You and The Merry Widow with Jeanette MacDonald and The Smiling Lieutenant with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. The movies are light, naughty sex comedies and very funny, with Chevalier invariably playing a randy army lieutenant who winds up chasing (and being chased by) a virginal member of royalty who is about to discover what she's been missing.

Jeanette MacDonald is more famous now for her pairings with Nelson Eddy, and I'll write about that Hollywood screen team at a later date, but frankly her pre-Code musicals with Chevalier are much more interesting. The two didn't get along very well, though, Chevalier calling MacDonald a "prude," and MacDonald calling Chevalier "the quickest derriere pincher in Hollywood," and despite making four successful pictures together (including Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight), the two went their separate ways.

Chevalier's Hollywood career suffered after censors began to enforce the Production Code and he returned to France in the late 1930s. After World War II, he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and although acquitted, he was wasn't allowed to return to the U.S. until 1954. He worked in a dozen films after his return, including Love in the Afternoon and Gigi, and continued working until his death in 1972 at the age of eighty-three.

Personal Note: My own introduction to Maurice Chevalier came not from Gigi but from the movie Annie Hall during the scene where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are watching Marcel Ophuls documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. "Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave," says Woody, "you know? Got to listen to Maurice Chevalier sing so much."

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Musical Interlude: Marlene Dietrich In The Blue Angel

While I was working on my essay about the best picture of 1929-30, it occurred to me I've written about all of the nominees at some length—except for Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, the movie that made Marlene Dietrich an international star.

As stories go, it's nearly a carbon copy of Pandora's Box with Marlene Dietrich playing Lola Lola, a singer/prostitute who leads a stuffy college professor (Emil Jannings) to his destruction. Unlike Louise Brooks's innocent take on her spiritual sister, Lulu, Dietrich plays Lola Lola as more of a vampy femme fatale. Not bad, highly regarded.

There are actually two versions of The Blue Angel, shot simultaneously, one in English for American and British release, the other (Der Blaue Engel) in German for the rest of Europe. This was actually a common practice back in the day, it being technically easier at the time to shoot a scene twice than to dub the film with a foreign language. Which one you choose to see is up to you. Many cinephiles prefer the German version simply because Dietrich and Jannings are more comfortable with their native language, but it turns out I'm more comfortable with mine and so I am more likely to watch it in English.

Which, admittedly, makes me a philistine.

Anyway, the English language version introduced Dietrich singing what became her signature song, "Falling In Love Again," and I present it here for your entertainment.

So, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, Marlene Dietrich and "Falling In Love Again."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Mule Wants More Louise Brooks/TCM Picks Pandora's Box As One Of "15 Favorite Fashion Trendsetting Classic Films"

This is what Turner Classic Movies had to say about Katie Award winner Louise Brooks just two days ago (I lifted the link from our pals at the Classic Movie Blog):

Louise Brooks once said, "A well dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world." That could have been the motto of Lulu, the role that made her a fashion icon for the ages. Brooks had been wearing her famous Buster Brown haircut and dressing in the height of flapper fashion for years, as had many other actresses, but her sleek hairdo and half-naked beaded gowns were such a perfect match for the amoral charmer in PANDORA'S BOX they remain one of the screen's most enduring images. The look would prove just as lucky for Cyd Charisse and Melanie Griffith, who copied it for their star-making roles in "Singin' in the Rain" and "Something Wild," respectively. And in many countries the severe black bob that led critic Kenneth Tynan to call Brooks "The Girl in the Black Helmet" is still referred to as "the Lulu."

This is what the Mule had to say about Louise Brooks just this morning:

Brooks, please.

So one last time, Louise Brooks.

Tomorrow, a musical interlude followed this weekend by my pick for the best picture of 1929-30.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Best Actor Of 1929-30: Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)

The story of the leap from silent to sound pictures is so often one of career-ending failure that it's nice to read from time to time about one of the successes. Ronald Colman may well have made the most successful leap of all and he's my choice for the best actor of 1929-30.

Movie buffs now largely remember Ronald Colman for the dulcet tones of his melodious voice, one the best voices in film history, and trying to imagine him in a silent movie is like imagining Superman without his cape, but in fact, Colman was a silent film star, exuding that same jaunty confidence with a shrug of his shoulders, with the tilt of his head, without speaking. You'd think adding the voice would cement the deal, but it just as easily could have gone wrong—can you picture Ronald Colman as, say, a cowboy?—and it was important to prepare the audience for his refined, English stage actor voice.

Unlike studio chiefs Louis B. Mayer and B.P. Schulberg, who had wrecked the careers of silent legends John Gilbert and Clara Bow, respectively, with inferior first talkies, Samuel Goldwyn spared no expense in creating the right vehicle for Colman. Bulldog Drummond, a big budget mystery based on a popular stageplay by Herman McNeile (who wrote under the pseudonym "Sapper"), proved to be the perfect combination of comedy, romance and adventure to showcase the best of Colman's talents.

To direct, Goldwyn selected F. Richard Jones, a veteran of sixty-one films, including the Douglas Fairbanks adventure classic The Gaucho. Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) and George Barnes (Rebecca) provided the cinematography and William Cameron Menzies justly earned an Oscar nomination for his looming, Expressionistic set design. Sidney Howard, who later won an Oscar for Gone With The Wind, wrote the screenplay.

For Colman, the result was a smash hit, an Oscar nomination and a long, successful career.

"Those who are wont to fling flip comments against talking pictures," the New York Times wrote after the movie's premiere, "had better spend an evening at the Apollo Theatre, where Samuel Goldwyn last night presented before an appreciative gathering his audible pictorial translation of that clever light melodrama, Bulldog Drummond. It is the happiest and most enjoyable entertainment of its kind that has so far reached the screen."

While many actors in the early talkies sounded as if they were speaking English for the first time (some of them probably were), Colman arrived fully-formed on the screen with an energy and pacing and cheeky comfort level audiences wouldn't see in other actors for another couple of years. His performance was a sensation, both at the box office and with the critics, and I think he might have won the Oscar if Academy voters hadn't demonstrated an all too familiar mindset, bestowing the award on George Arliss for what they perceived as a more "important" film, Disraeli.

The story, ostensibly a mystery, is mostly an excuse for some lighthearted fun. Capt. Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond—mustered out of the army at the end of World War I, and "too rich to work, too intelligent to play, much"—is bored with his aimless existence. "I wish somebody would throw a bomb and wake this place up," he grouses at the funereal gentleman's club where he passes his days. On a lark, he places an advertisement in the London Times seeking adventure. "Legitimate, if possible, but crime of humorous description, no objection. Reply at once." And replies he receives, piles of them.

"Here's one from a woman whose husband raises pedigree goldfish," says his upper-crust sidekick Algy (Claud Allister), who makes Bertie Wooster look like Charles Bronson. "She wants you to kill either the husband or the goldfish."

But the plea that piques Drummond's interest is from a young woman who is in "hideous danger," just the sort of adventure he's looking for, and imagining she's "dark, voluptuous and dramatic," orders his valet to pack his pajamas, his toothbrush and a gun. "On second thought," he says, thinking of the woman, "never mind the pajamas."

Colman's performance sets the tone for generations of wisecracking detectives to come, from Nick Charles to James Bond (and indeed, Ian Fleming later acknowledged the influence).

Drummond and his client (a blonde, voluptuous and overly-dramatic Joan Bennett in her first film) rendezvous in an out-of-the-way inn at midnight, where she tells a tale of a kidnapped uncle stashed away in an asylum. Drummond thinks the girl is delusional until the asylum's director, Dr. Lakington (played by Lawrence Grant, who more than any other cast member, thinks he's still in a silent movie—he does everything but twirl a handlebar moustache), shows up to make crude threats and soon it's clear that Lakington's band is after the rich uncle's money.

Bulldog Drum- mond is mostly a comedic mystery, the kind where the hero pauses to make a wisecrack in the face of certain death, but make no mistake, Drummond is as quick with a gun as he is with a quip and in a scene more reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino than early Hollywood, strangles one of his adversaries with his bare hands.

Admittedly, the eighty year old film creaks with the burdens of early sound technology and a supporting cast uncomfortable speaking lines for the first time, and it may be difficult to appreciate it looking backward through the prism of all that came after but without it, we may never have enjoyed all the fun-stupid movies it influenced and it was certainly highly-regarded in its day. In addition to a pair of Oscar nods, the New York Times, the National Board of Review and Film Daily magazine all included Bulldog Drummond on their lists of the ten best movies of 1929.

And as for those of you who prefer their awards to go to more serious fare, I'd remind you that boredom, midlife crises and wish fulfillment are among the most universal of human emotions, at least since the invention of leisure time. I'd submit Bulldog Drummond has as much to say in its own way about the human experience as, for example, In The Bedroom, which covers some of the same ground by a different route, and it's a great deal more entertaining to boot.

Bulldog Drummond inspired more than a dozen sequels, many of which are available on DVD. Interestingly, the two starring Ronald Colman—this one and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Backaren't available on DVD. To see Bulldog Drummond for this blog, I had to buy it on VHS tape. Set me back 48¢. Don't say I never did anything for you.

Colman was born in 1891 in Richmond, England and initially hoped to study engineering at Cambridge. Orphaned at sixteen, he instead joined the London Scottish Regionals and was severely wounded in combat in October 1914. After his discharge, he went to work on the London stage, mostly because it was one of the few jobs available. He made his first film in 1917, but his breakthrough role came in 1923 when he came to the attention of Lillian Gish who chose him to co-star with her in The White Sister.

Success allowed Colman to be selective and he made only 28 movies in the three decades after Bulldog Drummond, but they included such classics as Random Harvest, A Tale Of Two Cities, Lost Horizon, The Prisoner Of Zenda, Talk Of The Town and his Oscar-winning performance in A Double Life. My old pal, film fanatic bellotoot, also recommends Champagne For Caesar, Colman's last starring role, and it's on my Netflix queue, but I admit I haven't seen it.

Colman was twice married, the second time to actress Benita Hume to whom he remained married until his death. The two had a radio show together, The Halls of Ivy, and briefly a television show. Colman died of a lung infection in 1958 at the age of sixty-seven.

Postscript: The one member of the Bulldog Drummond crew you don't hear much about these days is its director, F. Richard Jones. At the height of his career with the triumph of Bulldog Drummond, Jones contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after the film's premiere. He was just thirty-seven years old.