The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1929-1930
These were the 3rd Academy Awards, and this was really the point where Hollywood figured it out. The first awards were just laying groundwork, and the second was sort of a period of chaos, since after the first awards, Hollywood had to shift from one style of filmmaking (silent) to another (sound). Here was really the first year where Hollywood started getting sound down pat. It shows. The films, of course, were not perfected yet, but they’re definitely a marked improvement from the films of 1928-1929. You see more complex sound design, and more dialogue. The films of the year before this were more silence than dialogue. Here, they were able to tell stories.
The great thing about this year is that this was really the first year where there was a quintessential “Best Picture.” (Grand Hotel was the first “Academy” decision.) All Quiet on the Western Front is the total package. It’s a big, epic picture. Classy, based on a novel. And it also happens to be one of the greatest achievements ever put to film. The reason for that is — when you see what films of this era looked like (and watch the other nominees to see what I’m talking about), what Lewis Milestone (who won Best Director for the film, talked about here) was able to accomplish with sound design and staging and camera movement — I said it in that Best Director article, but this film is one that, were it made at any point in the first eleven years of the Academy Awards, it would still be better than just about every other film nominated. It’s incredible. And this was an important film for the Academy because it did also establish the classical “Oscar” film (which we really wouldn’t see again until maybe Grand Hotel and then for sure with The Great Ziegfeld). There wouldn’t be another slam dunk winner until Gone With the Wind.
The other winners this year were George Arliss as Best Actor for Disraeli (talked about here), which makes sense (it’s the kind of role that would win Best Actor), and Best Actress was Norma Shearer for The Divorcée (talked about here), which also makes sense, given that she was an actress who would basically become the first lady of Hollywood and was a huge star in the 30s. So, in all, it’s a very solid year, and really the first that you can point to as being representative of the classical Oscar decisions.
BEST PICTURE – 1929-1930
And the nominees were…
All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal)
The Big House (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Disraeli (Warner Bros.)
The Divorcée (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Love Parade (Paramount)
All Quiet on the Western Front – This is a perfect film. It’s also based on a really famous book, and is a film that most people generally see, so you should know what it’s about.
To put it simply — a young boy goes off to fight in World War I, told it will be a great honor to fight for his native Germany. He goes off to the trenches, and encounters the horrors of war, and the film is about being disillusioned by war. It’s — jaw-dropping. The story itself is worth an Oscar, but the way it’s shot, and the fact that it’s actually better than almost all the films that would win Best Picture for the better part of the next decade — that’s special. You also know a film is special when, after 80 years, they still haven’t made a better version of it than this one. I don’t know if any other film can say that. (Maybe Phantom of the Opera.)
The Big House – Far cry from All Quiet. Watching this after that makes you realize that they’re still having trouble shooting sound on film. This one looks like a film from the year before this.
It’s about a dude, played by Robert Montgomery, who accidentally kills someone while driving drunk, and is sentenced to ten years in prison. And we follow his prison life. He ends up in a cell with Wallace Beery and Chester Morris, who are basically the two alpha prisoners. Beery is the muscular guy who can be mean or friendly depending on his mood, and Morris is basically a nice guy. And one day, Morris is about to be paroled. And Montgomery is jealous, so he hides a knife in Morris’s mattress, and gets his parole revoked and is thrown in solitary. And he vows revenge against Montgomery. Though he ends up escaping by pretending to be a dead guy. He runs off and meets Montgomery’s sister, and starts to fall for her (and she for him). He gets a job and starts to go straight, but is caught and thrown back in prison. Then Beery organizes a jailbreak, and Morris says he doesn’t want any part of it, because he’s going straight. But Montgomery, a douchebag, tells the warden about it. Though the break does work despite the guards being aware of it, the men are stuck inside the prison, as the guards have sealed off the exits. And a standoff occurs, and tanks are brought in. Beery starts shooting the guards, and is told by Montgomery that Morris is the one who tipped them off, so Beery goes to kill Morris. Montgomery is killed by the guards, and Beery and Morris have a shootout, and Beery dies, but after finding out it was actually Montgomery who was the rat. Then Morris, having saved the rest of the guards by locking them in a cell, is given a pardon and is able to go back to Montgomery’s sister.
It’s actually a really good film. It’s one that would really only be told during this era. And, despite the technological limitations, is actually a really solid film. It shouldn’t have won at all, but it’s really solid.
Disraeli – This film is, basically a play on screen, but a good one. It details Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s attempts to purchase the Suez Canal. It’s the kind of thing where, he knows it will be a great thing for the British Empire if he does it, but no one is willing to back him, since they don’t think it’s a good investment. (It’s like us and Alaska. Seward’s folly, indeed.) And the whole film is about him trying to make deals and raise funding, while also keeping it silent so no other country jumps up to outbid him. It’s actually quite a riveting film, even though it pretty much takes place in a single room. It’s really good. And it’s a tour de force performance by George Arliss.
The film is really solid, but let’s be real here — nothing was beating All Quiet on the Western Front. Nothing.
The Divorcée – Ah, The Divorcée. One of the epitomes of the term “Pre-Code.”
The film is about Norma Shearer, who, when she finds out her husband (with whom she is very much in love) had an affair, she gets upset. He claims it meant nothing and was just a fling, so she sets out to have a “fling” of her own. She sleeps with his best friend, figuring that’ll even the score. But what happens is, he can’t deal with it (despite having expected her to) and divorces her. And she descends into sleeping with lots of men, and he becomes an alcoholic. And eventually the two realize they love one another and get back together.
It’s quite an explicit film for the time. Plus, Norma Shearer — her playing this role at this time would be like if Taylor Swift played Michelle Williams’s role in Blue Valentine. This was not what was expected of her at all. But the film is really good. Again, shouldn’t have won, but it’s really good. Very explicit for the time, too.
The Love Parade – Ah, the Lubitsch musical. These are so much fun. While films like The Divorcée were explicitly about sex, these films were playfully explicit about sex. Though, they were explicit by being implicit. You watch any of these films with Maurice Chevalier — that man implied sex with every word. It’s amazing.
This film is about Chevalier as an amorous soldier, who we first see sleeping with a superior officer’s wife. He is then sent back to the mythical country of Sylvania to be reprimanded (he worked at the Sylvanian embassy in Paris). He arrives just as the queen is getting fed up with her country over them constantly inquiring as to who she is going to marry (she’s single). So she’s intrigued by Chevalier and invites him to dinner. And they fall in love and get married. Though Chevalier has trouble with the whole concept of obeying his queen, and that threatens to derail the marriage. Though he eventually gets over it.
The story is slight, but the film is great. The whole film is basically about sex. They all are. It’s just hidden. It’s great. Chevalier is like, walking suggestiveness. This film was also Lubitsch’s first talkie. It’s a great film. Not my favorite of the Lubtisch musicals (that’s One Hour With You), but it’s up there. It’s really terrific. Again, though — nothing is beating All Quiet on the Western Front.
My Thoughts: It’s not even close. All Quiet on the Western Front wins this award in any year from 1928 to 1938. That’s how far and away better it is.
My Vote: All Quiet on the Western Front
Should Have Won: All Quiet on the Western Front
Is the result acceptable?: This is one of the top ten best decisions of all time.
Ones I suggest you see: You need to see All Quiet on the Western Front. End of story.
You should also see The Love Parade. All the Lubitsch musicals with Chevalier are amazing. His best was probably One Hour With You, but this is just as good. You really need to see this film. It’s so much fun.
The Big House is a good film and definitely worth checking out. The impatient might not enjoy it, but it’s definitely a good film and comes recommended.
I also highly recommend Disraeli. It’s a very entertaining film, and won Best Actor. So, you should probably check it out. It’s really good.
The Divorcée is good. And it’s Pre-Code, and very racy for 1930. It’s definitely a film you should check out. I recommend all Pre-Code films, just because it’s amazing what they started to get away with before Hollywood self-censored.
5) The Divorcée
3) The Big House
2) The Love Parade
1) All Quiet on the Western Front