The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1930-1931
My favorite thing about these early Academy years is that you can see Hollywood becoming — Hollywood, essentially. At least as we know it today. You can see them perfecting sound as the years go along. I think of these double years as a set of training wheels. And then when the Academy got the hang of doing things, they shed the wheels and just hit the ground running. These double years are Forrest Gump with the braces. These were their magic shoes. They would take them anywhere.
One other thing I haven’t mentioned yet about these early years that also has to be taken into account is — Hollywood still hadn’t perfected the screen story yet. That is — when things were silent, they had their own method of performance and storytelling. Now, with sound, they didn’t quite know how to do it yet. So what you saw at the beginning was a reliance on the stage. A lot of the big stars of this era came from vaudeville or from the stage (the “legit”), so a lot of the acting and stories were performed rather than acted. There’s a lot of stage acting on film in this era. You start to see less of it as we move forward. Here, the films are definitely more cinematic than those of previous years. So in judging these films, you have to realize that Hollywood had not yet figured out how to do cinematic and sound. (Be lenient, is the point.)
As for this year, Cimarron takes Best Picture (which I’ll talk about in a second), Lionel Barrymore takes Best Actor for A Free Soul (talked about here), which makes perfect sense, given that he was a very respected stage actor (part of the Barrymore acting dynasty) and gave what is essentially a 14-minute speech in the film in a single take. Marie Dressler won Best Actress for Min and Bill (talked about here), which also makes sense, given her status as one of the top stars in Hollywood. And Norman Taurog won Best Director for Skippy (talked about here), which, holy shit was that an amazing decision. I’ll gush over that film in a minute.
So that’s 1930-1931. Everything makes sense, and there’s really nothing to quibble about. Which is nice.
BEST PICTURE – 1930-1931
And the nominees were…
Cimarron (RKO Radio)
East Lynne (Fox)
The Front Page (Caddo, United Artists)
Trader Horn (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Cimarron — It’s fitting that this was the first western to win Best Picture, since, when you look at the history of the western genre and what the “story” of the west was, this film is basically the beginning of that story. People got the call to go out west, manifest destiny and all that, so they ventured out west in search of adventure, and they had to go out into the wilderness and tame it for civilization. The theme of the earliest westerns were about taming the west. Man vs. nature.
This film begins with Yancey Cravat, an adventurer who packs up his family in order to move west and stake a claim on open land in the west. So they move out there, and along with a bunch of other people, they establish this makeshift town. It’s basically just a group of wagons. There’s the guy with all the dried goods for a general store. A doctor. A barber. And Cravat is there to start the town newspaper. And we follow them over the years as that line of wagons eventually becomes a town (they way you’d think of a western town, with the cardboard in the streets and thin wooden buildings). And Cravat’s newspaper becomes a huge deal. There’s a great transitional moment where, early on in the film, a bunch of people are like, “We need to separate the area so people don’t start fighting over the land,” so they create streets. And they basically stick a pole in the ground and are like, “This is –” and they make up a street name. And then when the town gets bigger, the street name starts appearing on some of the businesses, and then later, when the town is fully formed, we find out it’s the name of the town. And it’s just a name they threw together just so they could name the street!
Anyway, Cravat helps build up this town and his newspaper, and then when the town starts growing rapidly, and they’re settled there (since a big point of contention early on was his wife wondering why he’d trade a stable home life to go out west with all their money. She was worried they’d fail and have nothing), he leaves his family to go out in search of adventure. The film is really about this guy being unable to resist the call to adventure. So he leaves his wife in charge of the newspaper and goes further west to find some adventure. And then years pass, and eventually the wife becomes one of the most respected business people in the county. And one day when she’s being honored for her contributions to the creation of the town, we find out that her husband died. He was drifting around and ended up in town, and was helping a woman move her wagon out of the mud when a horse kicked him in the head and crushed his skull.
It’s actually a really entertaining movie, and, in terms of the genre, it’s very fitting as an early western. This is exactly what it was about — the call to adventure and the settling of the wild west. And you also see hint of the next phase, which is about the dude who is unable to settle down with a woman because he’s bound by this call to adventure. That’s the basis of the cowboy. Like Shane. They can’t live in society because they’re bound by the wild. They don’t fit in civilization.
So it’s a really great film from a genre perspective. And it’s epic enough in scale to where it fits as a Best Picture winner. When you look at the nominees this year, this is the only one that fits as a winner.
East Lynne — It took me forever to find this film. But I finally did, and I watched it.
It’s about a woman who marries a lawyer and moves to the country. And she likes to have fun and be frivolous, and he’s pretty — you know, proper, unchanging. She’s the one rolling around with her son in the yard, pretending to be a bear, and he’s entertaining the neighbors like, “Honey, don’t embarrass me in front of the Chestertons.” It’s that kind of marriage.
Anyway, she gets bored, and has a chance to sleep with a guy she used to flirt with at a party, but doesn’t. Eventually she leaves her husband because she thinks his sister is trying to dominate her life (since she dominates his life). They assume she had an affair with and throw her out of the house. So she is socially ruined by scandal and goes to take up with that guy anyway. But he’s a dick, and she quietly suffers (it’s a woman’s picture, after all). They end up poor and she yearns for her son. That’s all she really wants. To see her son. (It’s a woman’s picture.) And during a bombardment (Franco-Prussian War), she ends up having her eyes damaged. So before she goes blind, she sneaks into her old house to see her son one last time before her eyesight goes away forever.
The film is all right. It’s very early sound. The plot takes too long to develop, the writing isn’t great. This could have been made much better as a melodrama ten years after this. I’m actually kind of surprised no one has attempted to remake this.
But yeah, the film’s not bad. Not incredible. Definitely not vote material, but it’s all right. Solid fourth on this list. I’d say there are three very obvious choices above this for a vote, and it all comes down to how you feel between this and another one for fourth place.
The Front Page — You know His Girl Friday? (You should.) Well, this is that same film, for the most part.
Walter Burns runs a newspaper that has been advocating the innocence of a murderer, Earl Williams, claiming he was clearly insane at the time of the murder and that the mayor is having him executed in order to get extra votes in the upcoming election. And the film takes place the day before Williams is to be hanged. And during this day, Burns’s top reporter, Hildy Johnson (here a man. Only in His Girl Friday do they switch the part to a woman), is quitting to go get married. And Burns spends the day keeping Hildy from leaving while also dealing with Earl Williams’s escape. And Williams ends up hidden in the roll-top desk of the reporter’s room across from the prison. Honestly, you should know this movie.
It’s a good film, this version. But honestly, nothing comes close to His Girl Friday. This film just feels like a weak version of that. It wouldn’t have held up here at all as a winner.
Skippy — Oh, Skippy. I fell in love with this film so much.
The film is told from the perspective of a child. Skippy is nine years old and we follow him over the course of a few days. And it’s just incredible. The film is shot from a child’s perspective. So the world becomes limited to his world. And the story details him being friends with a boy who lives in a shantytown nearby (Skippy is from a typical middle class family), and his father doesn’t want him playing with the other boy, but he does anyway. And one day, while they’re playing, they accidentally break the window of the local dog catcher, who is upset. And then, the next day, the other boy’s dog is suddenly taken by the dog catcher, and they think it’s on purpose. So they need to raise the money to free the dog or else it will be taken away and killed, basically. So we follow them on their quest to do this. And a bunch of other stuff happens too. It’s basically what it’s like to be a child, this film. It’s — incredible.
I really loved this movie. Anything told from a child’s perspective — I love that stuff. Plus, Jackie Cooper’s performance here is — he carries the film at ten years old! I’m not even gonna pretend like this isn’t what I’m voting for. I love this too much.
Trader Horn — The film is about the adventures of Trader Horn. We basically follow him around for like, 70 minutes in the jungles of Africa. The film was the first non-documentary to be shot on location in Africa, so they basically just spend most of the film showing you the jungle. And then toward the end (literally, toward the end), they discover the missing daughter of a missionary, who disappeared years ago, who is now a jungle queen.
It’s a two hours film, and man does this drag. It’s basically a film that shows you shots of Africa and then throws in the jungle queen for some extra adventure. I really didn’t like this film at all. It also seems like it had no shot at winning, which is fortunate.
My Thoughts: It’s Skippy all the way for me. I love that movie so much. Though I can see why Cimarron won. That was probably the best choice, all things considered. But I still need to vote Skippy.
My Vote: Skippy
Should Have Won: Cimarron (and also Skippy)
Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. It makes the most sense. They had to establish the “Oscar” film, and this was that film. So it is acceptable, even though I love Skippy.
Ones I suggest you see: You need to see Skippy. You might not love it as much as I do, but man — it’s amazing. It’s a film I’ll make people see. It’s so good. Even if you don’t like the story, the direction is incredible for the era.
You should also see Cimarron. It won, it’s fun, it’s a western, and it’s quite good. So I highly recommend that you see this one.
The Front Page is worth seeing purely because you’ve seen His Girl Friday (and if you haven’t, stop watching movies, because you don’t know what you’re doing). So you get to see, essentially, the same film done earlier. This film actually is very similar to Billy Wilder’s 1974 remake of it. (His Girl Friday is hands down better than the pair, but they’re both still worth seeing.) It’s a lot of fun to watch. You get to see a story you know done in this transition to sound era. Which allows you to then pay attention to how they did it, rather than just watching the story. That’s useful. So I say you should see it.
Trader Horn was really long. I wasn’t much of a fan. I mention it, but you can probably skip it unless you’re interested in doing this Oscar Quest.
And East Lynne — just because you can’t find it is reason enough to see it.
5) Trader Horn
4) East Lynne
3) The Front Page