The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1928-1929

1928-1929 (which, for quick reference, use the year on the right side of the double years to know which year it’s really for) is the first really interesting year for the Oscars. The first one was just, “Let’s get this thing set up.” But now — now it’s a thing. Now there are now traditions to uphold and ideals to strive toward. That is — the first year was giving out awards. Now there are precedents. So you have the beginning of what will essentially be a trend that continues to this day, which is, do they vote with what’s best, or what fits in best with the Oscars? (Usually, it’s the latter.) 1928-1929 are the first years where films could be made with the goal of winning an Oscar. Which changes things.

The other reason this year is an interesting year is quite major, historically — sound. The industry as a whole was transitioning to sound. Several films have used the transition to sound as part of their narrative, the biggest probably being Singin’ in the Rain, with the whole “Talk into the plant!” thing. And then The Aviator hinted at it, with Hughes, after the premiere, saying he has to reshoot Hell’s Angels for sound. And then The Artist, of course, covering that period from a talent standpoint. This intro is basically going to be a history of the transition to sound, because I do like to educate as well as inform.

But what makes this period most interesting is that the transition to sound wasn’t this quick switchover . They had a lot of stuff to figure out, technologically. The entire industry was set up for silent films. And now, all of a sudden, they had to, on the fly, start making films with sound. Because that’s what the audiences wanted. And it was basically an experiment for like, four years, them figuring out how to successfully shoot films with sound. (This was even before learning how to tell a story with sound.)

So 1928-1932 (ish) was the industry figuring out how to shoot films with sound. And you had stuff like them hiding mics around the set, in costumes, etc. Which caused its own set of problems in that — if you have mics hidden in certain props, the camera couldn’t move, otherwise they couldn’t pick up the dialogue. So you had these flat tableau shots during this time. Static cameras, just sitting there, and actors talking very slowly to make sure the sound was picked up. A lot of these early films contain more white noise than they do sound.

The other problem was — their sets were set up for silents. Their lights and cameras were not built to pick up sound. They were big and noisy, since they had to be brighter for the black and white contrast. So Hollywood not only had to pick up sound, but they also had to not pick up all the ambient noise from the equipment. And then you add to that the fact that the mics didn’t have much range, either in distance or directionally — everything you hear about people going through a bad film shoot (like Jaws), having to solve problems on the fly, that’s what the industry went through during this time.

What they did at first was — they built these giant soundproof boxes for the cameras to go in, so they’d only pick up the noise from the mics on set. Which posed the problems of — the directors couldn’t hear anything else happening, and after each shot, had to come out of the box, say what adjustments they wanted, then they had to get back in the box — they were basically like prison cells with four walls. And originally, they didn’t have wheels. They also, because the microphones weren’t able to pic up sound in all directions, had to have up to three of those boxes just to get all of a scene. They’d have three cameras going at once — a master, one on one actor and one on another. That’s why, when you watch a lot of early sound films from these years, you’ll see a lot of single wide shots that cover everything in the frame, and then specific close ups repeated over and over. It’s like — wide shot, cut in closer, then close-up, and those same shots repeated, since the camera couldn’t move much when it was stuck in those booths.

Then eventually they put the boxes on wheels, which led to the most awkward camera movement in the world. The scene they showed us for that when we learned it in class was in Applause, which you can see here. Check out that camera movement. That’s what it was like. They couldn’t move the camera yet because they didn’t perfect the sound equipment. And even though it’s shaky as hell, that shot, it’s actually quite impressive when you realize that’s a camera inside a big booth being pushed by several crew members because it’s so bulky.

Another thing about the films of this era, if you notice (which I mentioned before) — there’s a lot of dead air in them. White noise. Like when you put on a record before anything starts playing. And they feel so slow-moving as well, simply because they couldn’t do anything visually and capture sound at the same time. So you had a lot of scenes with just nothing happening until the people started talking. And there would be these pauses in between the dialogue simply so they’d be able to pick up every line and register it on the soundtrack. So people will be talking and there will be these pauses in between all the lines. It really is one of the most interesting eras in film history, simply because you’re watching everyone adjust on the fly. They couldn’t stop making movies while they perfected sound — they had to keep going. (This is also why, the year after this, All Quiet on the Western Front is such an amazing achievement. Watch that film after watching these nominees. You’ll see what I mean.)

Okay, so now that that’s all covered, let’s segue into what this means for the Oscars. Since there are a lot of things to take into account here. First — you have to give them a bit of leeway. You have to view these films in context. Which — it’s actually impressive that they managed to figure out sound within four years and still churn out halfway decent product all the while. (Plus you also get to play the fun game of “guess where the mic is.” That’s always fun to do, especially with all the dead air you have in which to do it. There are actually a lot of creative shots where the actors will move inside the frame in order to cover up where the microphone is hiding.) And, even after they perfected sound, it wasn’t that long after that they started telling great stories with sound. Considering they had to radically change the way they told stories on screen, visually and narratively, to perfect both the technology aspect and the storytelling aspect within five or six years is actually a tremendous achievement.

Anyway, for these films — you need to ignore the stories, for the most part. Hollywood couldn’t focus on telling stories here, because the technology was first and foremost. You couldn’t write snappy dialogue, just because the mics couldn’t pick it up (and people’s ears weren’t trained to listen for it yet). And since they’re only a year removed from having to change a firmly entrenched method of production (since: 1896-1903 were those cinema of attractions films, then 1903-1908 were the one-reels. Then 1908-1913 were the multi-reels. Then 1915-1927 were silent features. By 1927, they had silent cinema down. They knew how to do it and do it well). Look at the movies from the first Oscars. Now, they have to abandon that. Filmmaking is no longer streamlined here. It wouldn’t get streamlined again until 1933. You can’t expect amazing things that quickly. So what you need to do for the films this year is really just pick which one does the best job of adapting to sound. Which film uses sound the best and tells the most coherent and interesting story.

One last set of things I’ll also point out, before we get to the nominees, is that this year — there were no official Oscar nominees. It’s the only year in which this happened. No one’s really sure why, but apparently they did some research and found what we now consider this unofficial list of nominees, simply based on the records of what the members considered voting for. Also of note is that this was the first Oscar ceremony where the winners were not announced in advance, and also there were only seven categories on the ballot (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Cinematography and Art Direction), and this was the only year in which no picture won more than one Oscar. Oh, and — this ceremony was held almost a year after the period of eligibility (which was between August 1928 and 1929). So what they did was, they had the next Oscars in November of this same year (1930), which would cover the films of the next period (which was 1929-1930). It was the only time two Oscar ceremonies were held in the same year. And it helped them get on track to the point where, by 1934, they were able to drop the double years and just have the eligibility period be a calendar year.

Oh, yeah, we also have to cover the winners from this year… Best Actor was Warner Baxter for In Old Arizona (talked about here), which was the best choice. In hindsight, I mean. Since he’s the only nominee who had the most distinguished career. So that was good. Then Best Actress was Mary Pickford for Coquette (talked about here), which makes sense, since she was Hollywood royalty. If you want to legitimize that award, you give it to Mary Pickford. And then Best Director was Frank Lloyd for The Divine Lady, which is just baffling to me, and you can hear me discuss my confusion about this decision here.

Okay, after all that, now let’s get to the nominees:

BEST PICTURE – 1928-1929

And the nominees were…

Alibi (Feature Productions, United Artists)

The Broadway Melody (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

In Old Arizona (Fox)

The Patriot (Paramount) (LOST)

Alibi — This is your typical criminal film of the era, and it does do a good job of trying to be artistic, but just can’t because of the technical limitations preventing it from doing everything it wants to do. There are some nice aspects to it, like its opening sequence (which used to be online but is not anymore), that’s a symphony of sounds done in rhythm. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a very nice touch. It’s a sound showcase. And then there are nice shots in the film that are added to spice up the frame. And the set design is nice. It looks expensive despite the limitations. You see a film in here that wants to be a better film.

The story itself isn’t particularly interesting (but what was, in 1929?) — a man gets released from prison, wants to marry a song and dance girl (good excuse to get some music in there. Music really was the bread and butter for early sound films), whose father wants her to marry a nice policeman. And the guy quickly gets suspected of killing a cop, so now he has to figure out an alibi (get it?) to save himself. And the plot goes through the motions. The story is really inconsequential. The industry had to learn how to make sound films, not tell sound stories. That would come later. This was an era in which you just got a story down and then figured out how to tell it. Then when you figured out how to tell a story correctly with sound, then you can get creative with the scenarios (which is why there was this renaissance of storytelling in the late 30s). Most of the films of this era leaned toward gangster, musical, and melodrama.

But, this film is okay. It’s not great, but it’s doable. Though, honestly, in terms of which films did sound better — it’s ultimately gonna come down to the ones with music. Which isn’t this.

The Broadway Melody — This film is basically a musical melodrama. It’s about two sisters trying to break into vaudeville. And the older one starts dating a song-and-dance man, who discovers them, but then as they become successful, he starts falling for the younger sister, and there’s a love triangle, and then the older one takes up with a shady character — it’s one of those films you’d see during this time period. There’s nothing new about the story at all. However, there are song and dance numbers. And this is actually the closest thing to a Hollywood film there was this year, so it makes sense that they’d go with it.

This category is like tying an artist’s hands together and making him paint in the dark. You’re gonna take the thing that most closely resembles anything even remotely similar to his original work.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 — Oh, this is fun. A film without a plot. It’s basically a revue of all the stars of MGM doing vaudeville bits on a stage on camera. The reason it’s here is because they have music and captured sound very well. Though I’ll tell you right now, the lack of a plot really eliminates it against The Broadway Melody, because that managed to do music and tell a story.

But I will go down all the bits in the show and what I thought of them, as a sort of synopsis. Plus you can then look up the interesting bits on youtube (since they’re all on there. Or were, anyway).

Actually, a note after the fact. I realized I could link to the videos after I wrote them up. So I’m gonna do that. Watch them, they’re pretty good.

The film opens with The Palace Minstrel Show. And it looked good. I get leery of anything with “Minstrel” in it (you know, blackface and all), but this did look good. The set design was really great. And it was very inventive, cinematically, for 1929. I’m pretty sure they did — what’s that called — negative stock or whatever. Something like that. Or maybe they overexposed it. I forget. I’m going by my notes. But it was very trippy. And the sets were also big and ornate like a Busby Berkeley number. Only for this opening, though. Like — here’s our big sets, all our people in this big space, now we’ll cut in and do all our little bits until the very end.

The second bit was Joan Crawford’s number. I love the look she gives the piano player at the beginning of this. That’s my favorite part. And the song isn’t bad either. It’s a fun little ditty. She gets a bunch of men to come out and then dances. Not quite sure what the dance was, but she’s got her legs spread apart during it like she’s gonna drop a baby. Though I did note her footwork as being solid.

Next was Old Folks at Home and Old Black Joe. Apparently they were both one big dance number. My only notes on this were, “Makes you really appreciate what Busby Berkeley was able to do.”

Next was Jane Purcell, who was good. Nice song and dance. Apparently she doesn’t do much of the dancing. She’s got a top hat and cane on but doesn’t go Fred Astaire on it. Which I imagine is a shame.

Note: All the clips from Joan Crawford to Jane Purcell are here:

“Your Mother and Mine” was next. Charles King. I wrote, “Yeah — it’s there.” It’s one of those crooner songs. I also wrote, “If I heard it correctly, this is either a forerunner of “Mother Lover” or it’s about their dead mothers. Which, either way — kind of creepy.”

Next was “You Were Meant for Me,” Conrad Nagel singing to Anita Page. Nice song. I really like the song. I also noted that Page goes from looking completely disinterested, to in love, to, “just fucking drunk.” Apparently she has that expression on her face that a drunk person has when they’re fixated on your face, trying to keep up and understand what you’re saying, which requires absolute concentration to do. And also there’s apparently a nice little kiss at the end. So, I liked this one.

Note: This video contains pretty much all the musical numbers in the film. So you can catch most of them from this one:

Next I have “Cut Up,” with Haines and Jack Benny. It’s basically a scene where Benny’s suit is ripped off. Not particularly funny. The suit is just ripped off. More vaudeville than anything.

Next was “I Never Knew I Could Do a Thing Like That,” by Bessie Love (who Oscar-nominated this year for Broadway Melody). It’s a nice ukulele interlude. It’s very vaudeville, but I really enjoyed it. There are mariachi dancers and crowd surfing. I also wrote, “That’s a girl who knows how to take a fall. They just throw her around. That’s a dedicated lady. A+.”

Next was “I’m the Queen,” which involved Marie Dressler. And I wrote, “Anything with Marie Dressler in it is just hysterical. She’s like the Judi Dench of the 30s.” The song is basically her saying, “I’m the queen, I can do whatever the fuck I want. And I’m gonna tell you about it.” And it does what it needs to do. Dressler gets to show off her great expressions. This was, after all, a woman who was MGM’s biggest star in 1932 and 1933.

Then Laurel and Hardy come on. And they’re great as always. This was their first appearance in a sound film. It was a nice way to get them involved too. They go to introduce the act before them, and the curtain opens, showing them preparing a magician’s skit, fixing up all the tricks. Putting stuff in their pockets and under their hats and stuff, and then they realize they can be seen. And then they do their act. They do their act, and then their “magic” act. It’s great stuff. I loved the candle trick.

Next was the Military March with Marion Davies, who’ll you know most as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, who was the inspiration for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. (And also, apparently, “Rosebud” was Hearst’s nickname for her clitoris. Which really is all you need to explain why Kane is the greatest film ever made.) Anyway, she does “Oh What a Man” and “Tommy Atkins on Parade.” Apparently the military march brought back fond memories for me of Russian films and old film music. I also really liked the Busby Berkeley bit here between the legs. It was a nice in-camera trick. And I also thought her dancing was weird. I wrote, “Watch how she dances. I’m pretty sure only hipsters dance like that now.” And apparently they also pull a “Smooth Criminal.” The Michael Jackson lean. I wonder how they did that. They must have been stuck to the floor, since Jackson had to invent special shoes for him to do that. Oh, and she also tap dances on a snare drum. That was really cool. So, overall, a nice little bit.


Next was Buster Keaton. And I actually though this was pretty weak. It’s really obvious here that he was too good for MGM. This is on the heels of them hiring him and making him do things their way instead of his. After The General, he had to sign with MGM and when he made The Cameraman, they wouldn’t let him do it his way and made him conform to their studio style. Which then led to him getting really depressed, becoming a hardcore alcoholic. It’s clear that he can’t do what he wants to do. Watch this Keaton and then watch early Keaton. There’s no comparison. Though this does show you how amazing he is, though.

Next was “Nobody But You.” It’s a ukulele song. Pretty good. Standard. There was a nice bit with the dancers here, one row hopping up a step and the other hopping down a step. I liked the dancing and the song was pretty good. Though the part at the end with the falsetto was a bit much.

Next was “Lon Chaney’s Going To Get You,” which is basically a song to scare children. The sets were really great on this one. So was the lighting. Though the dude sings the song to a bunch of girls, which is really creepy. It sounds like Lon Chaney’s gonna come rape them. I’m just gonna pretend they’re all chorus girls, like in Phantom of the Opera, the ones listening to the stories of Joseph Buquet. It also sounds like one of those songs they’d give an evil black person in a Disney movie. (I’m sorry, the coded black person. Since it’s not directly racist, they’re just reminding you of stereotypes.) Then they have a parade of monsters, of all the characters that Chaney played (none of whom are Lon Chaney, since he was dying at the time). And the monsters do a dance, which is worth the price of admission alone. And also there’s apparently an overhead Busby Berkeley shot in this, which is very reminiscent of him, to the point where I wondered if it was him. Oh, and everyone goes to hell at the end of the number, which is pretty fucked up. (I liked this one.)

Oh, and apparently they put ballet on either side of that number.

Then they did Romeo and Juliet. In two-strip Technicolor! Which is pretty awesome. They start it with really bad acting, which at first you think is just them not knowing how to act with sound on film, but then they bait and switch midway through and make it be a scene they’re shooting for a film. Which is clever. It’s meta humor. Also, Lionel Barrymore is here. And they have “Hollywood” humor, having them change the title to make it more “Hollywood.” They change it to “The Neckers.” And they’re like, “The public doesn’t want old fashioned lines. Keep the story. Don’t change a thing with it except the title and the dialogue.” And then they go back and do it the “new” way, and Juliet’s like, “Now listen, boyfriend!” and they do it like a song. It’s really great. “Julie, baby, I’m gaga about you!” and, “You talk like a pawnbroker.” And he’s like, “No, on the level, honest.” It’s really good. Highly recommended. This is the best skit in the bunch so far. They knew it too. That’s why it’s in color.

Then they do “Singin’ in the Rain.” In black and white. It’s a ukulele version. Which I loved! They made it rain on stage. Which was nice. They did a nice harmonized version by the Brox Sisters. Sure, Gene Kelly did it better, but having 20 people dance it is almost as good. It also kind of ends like Gold Diggers of 1933 as well — everyone on a perch. Just without the forgotten men walking toward the camera.

Next was Charlie, Gus and Ike. Which was a nice bit. “They’ll offer a comedy song. They’ll offer it, but you probably won’t accept it.” That was nice. The song is whatever. I liked the intro.

Then was “Orange Blossom Time,” in Technicolor. Man to woman song. Ballet dances. It’s whatever. They do take some chances with the camera angles, though. And there’s a reflective stage, which was really nice. Other than that — meh. I can see why it was put in color, but it’s really not one of the more memorable bits for me other than the color. The pull back at the end is nice, though, I’ll give them that.

And then the “Singin’ in the Rain” finale — I’m a big fan. Nice way to go out. Everyone on stage, everyone gets a close-up. Here are our stars. Nice touch. Nice and pink, too.

Fun film, right?

In Old Arizona — And our final film (since the last one is lost). Kind of anticlimactic after that last one, but we’ll push through.

Warner Baxter is the Cisco Kid. He’s an outlaw. A fun outlaw. He is like Bugs Bunny. He evades the sheriff in comic fashion. Like, he’s getting a shave at the barbershop and the sheriff says he’s gonna arrest the Cisco Kid, and has no idea that he’s sitting next to him. So Baxter talks to him and gets him to say all this stuff, and then leaves, and then the guy realizes it was him. That kind of stuff. And the film is basically about Baxter avoiding capture and then his girlfriend betraying him to the law and almost getting him captured, but him realizing at the last second and riding away.

There’s really not much of a plot here, but Baxter gets to play the fun cowboy. It does a decent job with sound, and it makes sense that it’s here. But really — The Broadway Melody had songs. That was always going to win. This is a second choice at best. (It is, though. It’s the film that uses sound and tells a story in the most interesting manner. If it were a musical, it would have had more of a shot.)

The Patriot — Well, it’s a lost film. So we can only guess how good it was. So let’s say it was the best of the bunch. Because why not? It’s a Lubitsch film.

My Thoughts: All right, now. Voting time. Like I said, these are all not particularly interesting films. But we have to do the best with what we have. The Patriot is a lost film, and moreover it’s a silent film, so that shouldn’t have won no matter how good it might have been. We’re in the sound era now, so we have to vote for a sound picture. Next — there are two films that use music, only one of which has a plot. So, Hollywood Revue is out. Then — Alibi and In Old Arizona — basically the same thing. One is more comic than the other. The real clincher here is the fact that The Broadway Melody is the only film to use sound (though respect to Hollywood Revue for having those Technicolor portions) in the most interesting way. They actually stage musical numbers on top of plot. So by default, that makes this the film to vote for. Of course this is one of the three weakest films to ever win Best Picture (the other two being Cavalcade and Chariots of Fire), but in context, this was actually a good decision. It did the best job among the nominees of adapting to sound. Not to mention it became a franchise of sorts. There were Broadway Melody films made for the next decade after this. (Kind of like how there were also several “Gold Diggers” films and “Big Broadcast” films.)

My Vote: The Broadway Melody

Should Have Won: The Broadway Melody

Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah. It doesn’t hold up among the other winners, but when you take it in context, it’s a terrific choice.

Ones I suggest you see: For entertainment? None of them. But, since I want to make you well-rounded film viewers, I say you should watch The Broadway Melody because it won and because it’s an opportunity to watch an early sound film with music and plot.

And then, you should also watch In Old Arizona, probably, because Baxter won for it. The winners are always worth seeing, just because it makes you understand their decision-making.

And then Alibi is a film you should see because it’s a very representative film in terms of what most early sound films looked like. If you wanted to watch a film that best showed the transition to sound, this might be it. Or at least, is one of them. It’s very interesting to watch from an academic standpoint.

And The Hollywood Revue is interesting. Hopefully you just watched all those videos I linked you to. Because if you did that, then you’ve seen the film. Isn’t it great when that happens?

(Also, you should totally watch The King of Jazz. That’s another great revue. That’s also in two-strip Technicolor.)


5) The Patriot

4) The Hollywood Revue of 1929

3) Alibi

2) In Old Arizona

1) The Broadway Melody

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