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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 1928/29-1929/30)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1928-1929

Alibi

The Broadway Melody

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

In Old Arizona

The Patriot

Analysis:

Alibi is basically a stage play on film. But it’s transition to sound, which is something you have to take into account with all of these movies. This year, of all years. Also the fact that there weren’t “official” nominees this year. This list is the general assumed list of nominees, however they figured that out. I knew at one point but forgot. And it’s not important for me to know at this moment in time, so we’re just gonna power through

It’s your standard “good girl falls for gangster” story. A gang leader marries a policeman’s daughter. She thinks he’s going straight. He thinks, “Shit, this is the best cover.” They go out on a date, he goes, “I’m going to the estroom.” Then he goes and murders a cop. And when the cops come to him, he’s like, “I was at the movies with my wife.” And since she’s a cop’s daughter and is like, “Yeah, he was,” they can’t get him. Though the police then put an undercover officer in his gang to get him that way.

It’s not a bad film. I’m sure it was better at the time because of its use of dialogue and music and different camera positions and stuff. But now it just looks like a stage play hampered by the transition to sound. Definitely not the best film in this category nor is it the most interesting use of the form relative to this particular era. So really the only way I’d vote for it is if a) I liked it the best, which I don’t, or b) it was the most exemplary effort given what the industry was going through at this time, which it is not. So we’re left with a filler nominee, from today’s perspective. This is the type of movie that would just be okay five years from now and be a 70 minute B movie noir fifteen years from now.

The Broadway Melody is a musical. With actual musical numbers. Not great musical numbers, but hey — they had them. That was impressive for an industry just learning how to record people talking, let alone sync up singing and dancing.

It’s about two sisters who come to New York as chorus girls and what happens to them. One is the smarter of the two and the other is more headstrong. And the smarter one keeps making sure her sister is taken care of even as she keeps finding success and her sister doesn’t. And even her sister’s fiancée starts falling for her. And the film is basically about one woman’s devotion to her sister, as they try to make it on Broadway. That’s really what it is.

It’s decent. Not a great or overly memorable film. But in this category, it’s the only one that would in most years actually be considered as a nominee. It was a big moneymaker and showed the things you could do with sound, which is what this year is basically all about. I get why it won, and it might have to be the vote on account of a lack of real competition.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is exactly what its title suggests. MGM takes all their stars and basically puts them in a giant sketch show. Vaudeville.

Here’s the sketches:

  1. A Minstrel chorus singing. Which… yeah. Minstrel is not a good way to start a movie. But it’s big and ornate. It’s meant to grab your attention and it does.
  2. There’s a comedy skit with an emcee being interrupted. Whatever.
  3. Joan Crawford sings a sexy tune.
  4. Two old-timey songs. Not great choreography. Mostly people singing and dancing in that old-timey stage way. Definitely not a Busby Berkeley number.
  5. Jane Purcell does a song and dance. Top hat and cane sort of deal. No Ginger Rogers moves though.
  6. Charles King sings a crooner song about mothers. Those always sound creepy today.
  7. Conrad Nagel sings “You Were Meant for Me” to Anita Page. This is a song later used in Singin’ in the Rain, for those keeping score.
  8. Comedy scene where Jack Benny’s suit gets ripped off. 1929 comedy is interesting.
  9. Bessie Love sings a song. That is Best Actress nominee and star of The Broadway Melody Bessie Love. The song’s very vaudeville, but I’m always impressed by her dedication. She gets all thrown around during this number.
  10. Marie Dressler sings a song. Basically, “I can do whatever the fuck I want” is the gist of this song. It’s funny, and shows someone who’ll become the biggest star at MGM in about three years.
  11. Laurel and Hardy do a “magic act.” It’s pretty funny. Gets them to do their schtick and puts them on screen for the first time.
  12. Then they trot out Marion Davies for the big Act One closer. Then a big military song follows her with soldiers and whatever.
  13. Act two starts with a ballet performance. Sure.
  14. Then we have Buster Keaton. He’s supposed to do a dance but completely falls all over the stage. It’s funny.
  15. Next is “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You,” which is a song meant to scare children. They parade people in costumes of all the characters Chaney played. (Chaney isn’t in the movie because he was dying at the time, though since he was a huge star for them they had to have him in there in some form. Plus, the “man of a thousand faces” he can technically be anywhere.)
  16. Then another ballet ance.
  17. Now for a big scene. Which you can tell because it’s in Technicolor. Norma Shearer, John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore do Romeo and Juliet. But not just Romeo and Juliet. Actors doing Romeo and Juliet. So Lionel Barrymore gets to come on as the director like, “Nobody likes this tired old dialogue,” and changes it to 20s slang. It’s definitely tops in the show, and they knew it.
  18. Now they do “Singin’ in the Rain.” They simulate rain and have a sisters group harmonize it. It’s nice.
  19. Then Charles King, Gus Edwards and Cliff Edwards do a song together. It’s just kinda there.
  20. And then Marie Dressler, Polly Moran and Bessie Love do the same thing. Yup.
  21. Now we’re back to Technicolor, the big number. “Orange Blossom Time.” Ballet dancers all around, lots of different angles and making it look expensive. It’s fine. Not great.
  22. Then the big finale is the entire cast doing Singin’ in the Rain in color.

Overall, it’s a fun movie. Not something you can ever vote for in this category, because to do so would be a step backwards. Film came from the stage, and to give Best Picture to what is essentially a vaudeville show would be a disservice to what the point of this category is. I’m not even necessarily sure I’d nominate this, but technically it wasn’t nominated. This is one of those where, it’s one of my favorite films in the category on an entertainment level, but for historical purposes, I could never vote for this. Even if this were 1929, I wouldn’t want to vote for this.

In Old Arizona is a western. I like intellectually how this category is set up. You have a biopic, a musical, a revue, a gangster picture and a western. Honestly, if you swap the revue with a melodrama, and that’s every Hollywood movie in this era. But anyway….

Warner Baxter plays The Cisco Kid, who is a singing cowboy. He’s the fun kind of outlaw constantly on the run from the law, but he’s not a bad guy and he’s fun, so we root for him. He’s a cartoon character. The scene I always bring up is him in the barbershop getting a shave and the sheriff sitting next to him talking about how he’s gonna catch the Cisco Kid, and how the Cisco Kid is a menace, and all that, not realizing he’s sitting next to the Cisco Kid. And he gives the sheriff all this false information and then skips off, and the sheriff realizes he’s been had. It’s funny. And the movie is about him getting into all these situations, eventually being betrayed by his girlfriend, having to run off and leave her in order to stay free.

It’s a decent movie. Fine enough western that does good stuff with sound. Not a great movie by today’s standards. Definitely not something I’d vote for, though I get why it’s a “nominee” this year.

The Patriot is a LOST film. So no one can have seen it. Meaning we have to skip it, can’t vote for it, and have to rank it fifth by default. Fortunately this is the only lost film

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is the strangest year in the history of the Oscars. Since there are no set nominees. I’m not exactly sure how voting went. I guess people voted for whatever they wanted to vote for and whatever got the most votes won. I could use that and say “Well I can pick any movie from 1929 and vote for that.” Which I’m not gonna do. Because how do you know which movies were actually released in the US during the eligibility period? The Love Parade is 1929. It was nominated at the Oscars the year (or ceremony, since technically both ceremonies happened in 1930) after this. Then people would just go and look at the movies all over from 1929 and just vote for the most well known ones. (“The Man with a Movie Camera is 1929!” Yeah, okay. Way to put forth a valid opinion. It came out after the ceremony took place.) And I can’t do that. So since this is a de facto list of nominees that the Academy themselves acknowledge, I’m just gonna pick from them.

That said — this is a rough set of choices. Can’t take The Hollywood Revue. Wouldn’t take Alibi or In Old Arizona. And since I literally can’t take The Patriot — one because it’s lost and two because it’s a silent film and that would really be a step back for them — that makes The Broadway Melody a default vote for me. Don’t love the film, but it’s the least compromised choice for me and, hey, I kind of enjoyed it a little bit. So there. That’s the choice, and I’m not gonna spend time trying to justify it. It is what it is. 1929 is a weird year.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. The Broadway Melody
  2. In Old Arizona
  3. Alibi
  4. The Hollywood Revue of 1929
  5. The Patriot (LOST)

Rankings (films):

  1. The Broadway Melody
  2. The Hollywood Revue of 1929
  3. In Old Arizona
  4. Alibi
  5. The Patriot (LOST)

My Vote: The Broadway Melody

Recommendations:

The Broadway Melody is only essential because it’s a Best Picture winner. Otherwise it’s the least essential Best Picture winner there is and is only memorable because of the transition to sound. I’d say watch it if you care about the Oscars, but even though I saw Best Picture winners should be considered essential, I’d be willing to bend that rule for this one. I still think you should see it as a film buff just because, but it’s just a decent movie.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is fun to watch because of the stars and all the skits. Otherwise one of the most skippable Best Picture nominees of all time. For all. Even many Oscar buffs.

In Old Arizona is only essential for Oscar buffs. Otherwise, not really essential for western fans, or pretty much anyone. Even transition to sound era it’s probably only worthwhile because of the Oscar win. Easily skippable unless you want to focus in on this particular period or on Oscar winners.

Alibi is fine. Only worth it if you’re hardcore into the Oscars or into the transition to sound era. Most people don’t ever need to see it.

If you can see The Patriot — please let me know. Because you’d probably be the first person to see this movie in 70 years.

The Last Word: Pretty much no matter how you slice it, whatever wins here is probably the weakest Best Picture winner in history. But you gotta put it in context, and in context of 1929, it’ll make sense. Outside of that, this is the most forgotten winner of all time, and based on the choices, they made the right one. This was pretty much all they could do. But hey, it’s a musical that shows off sound. That’s what they needed to accomplish here, and they did. So it’s a fine winner for 1929 and 1929 only.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1929-1930

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Big House

Disraeli

The Divorcee

The Love Parade

Analysis:

All Quiet on the Western Front is still a perfect film, over 80 years later. Every time this comes up I pound the table for it and how it was so good and so ahead of its time that it would have legitimately been the best directed film every year between 1930 and 1938. Every single one. That movie wins Best Director all of those years, it’s that well made. Even if you’ve seen this movie before, I think everyone even semi into the Oscars should watch all the Best Picture nominees from 1928/9, 1929/30 and 1930/31 and then watch this movie. And you’ll see how insanely well-crafted this movie is.

Everyone knows (or should know) this story. German students all goaded into nationalism volunteering to fight in the trenches of World War I, and slowly learning the horrors of war.

This movie holds up today. You can show this to a student today and they’d enjoy it. You can’t just put on Disraeli and have a 12 year old not be bored out of their mind. This one still works. This movie legit is one of the greatest American films ever made.

And yes, it’s going to be my vote, because there’s really no other choice in this category.

The Big House is the clink. The slammer. The joint. The pen. The coop. The pokey. The hole. The hoosegow.

It’s also a prison drama starring Wallace Beery. If you’ve never done time.

Amateurs.

Robert Montgomery plays a regular guy who drives drunk and accidentally kills someone. It happens. He’s thrown in prison for ten years and is but in with some real hard time guys. It’s basically 1930s Orange Is the New Black. He’s in an overcrowded prison and his cellmates are Wallace Beery and Chester Morris. And much of the film is about prison life and watching how these inmates get by. If you like stuff like Shawshank and Escape from Alcatraz, you’ll like this. You have to be willing to put up with the way early sound films are made and be aware of the storytelling differences of the era, but if you can do that, it’s very engaging.

As a film, I liked it a lot. It’s a solid entry into the category and I support the nomination. Not a chance in hell it gets within a mile of All Quiet on the Western Front in this category, but I like it as a nominee.

Disraeli is a biopic of Benjamin Disraeli, specifically dealing with the time when he bought the Suez Canal. Most of the film takes place in his chambers, and he’s formulating the plan and meeting with people, and there are spies trying to prevent him from buying it — it’s a play. It’s basically a play. But George Arliss doing Disraeli was the big, classy performance of the year and I get why they’d put it in Best Picture too. It’s like when they nominated Capote in Best Picture in 2005. Did it need to be there? No. But it’s solid and it works.

This film if 5/5 in this category, just because in these early years, there’s more than just “what’s the best movie.” It’s also about what best represents where this category is headed and what should represent these awards. And a stagey biopic should not be the choice. That’s before you take into account the obvious winner, but this is more me saying why I think it’s a fifth choice among the other films. It’s fine, but it’s not a winner. The Best Picture category is littered with biopics that got nominated that are bottom choices when it comes time for voting. This is no different. It’s just the first in a long line. (The Patriot would have been the first in a long line, potentially, but that film is lost, so we’ll never know.)

The Divorcee is a pre-code drama. Now we’re getting into the juicy stuff.

Pre-Code, for those who don’t know (though I’m pretty sure if you read this site or my Oscar stuff with any regularity — all eight of you — I think you know what I mean) means the era before the Production Code was put into effect, so Hollywood was telling all sorts of stories filled with sex and violence. And they had to self-police before the government stepped in and really put the clamps down. So Pre-Code, which sometimes is used as a catch-all, is used to represent a time when Hollywood blatantly dealt with issues like sex and alcoholism and violence in a much more straightforward way than they would later on. And when you watch the films, you can tell.

This film is about a love triangle. Norma Shearer is best friends with two guys, who are both in love with her. She eventually picks one over the other and marries him. A few years later, she finds out her husband had an affair. So she then goes out and has one herself. They divorce, and once that happens he descends into alcoholism and she starts sleeping around, and eventually starts breaking up the marriage of the other friend, the one she didn’t marry.

It’s a good drama. Only holds up as a Pre-Code movie, but still, very entertaining. Third choice here at best though.

The Love Parade is a Maurice Chevalier/Jeanette MacDonald musical. Which means fun, jaunty, and full of sex.

MacDonald plays the queen of some fictional nation who decides she needs to get married. Chevalier is a soldier transferred to the country because he’s been sleeping with officer’s wives. MacDonald, the virginal queen, sees this “experienced” soldier and thinks, “Oh, he’ll do.” So she marries him, and he struggles with the idea of obeying the queen, so to speak. And they struggle with that, until they fuck. And then everything’s right again.

It’ a fun movie. The Chevalier/MacDonald musicals are fun and always worthwhile. Should this have won Best Picture? No. Maybe I could make a case in 1929, but not 1930. At best this is a second choice for me, but at this point, everything pales in comparison to your winner, so it’s all just logistics at this point.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: All Quiet on the Western Front wins this. End of story. There can really be no argument otherwise here. This movie honestly is the Best Picture of any movie nominated pre-1934. It wins any of those years, it’s that good.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front
  2. The Love Parade
  3. The Big House
  4. The Divorcee
  5. Disraeli

My Vote: All Quiet on the Western Front

Recommendations:

All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most essential films ever made. Every film buff and even casual film fan needs to see this. Even a human being should probably see this, since everyone is exposed to the book during the school years.

The Love Parade is worthwhile for fans of Pre-Code films, early musicals, and Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. It’s a very entertaining film, but I’d only really recommend it for people who can handle films of this era. Definitely worthwhile for most fans of old Hollywood though.

The Divorcee is one of the famous Pre-Code films. Worthwhile for those reasons. Essential for people really into the history of Hollywood. Otherwise just a solid recommend for most general film buffs.

The Big House is very entertaining. Prison films are always interesting, and definitely worth watching if you can handle films of this era. It’s not revelatory in any way, so it’s never gonna be all-time essential. It gets closer to essential when you narrow your focus to this era. But even then, at its most, it’s just a solid to high recommend because of its entertainment value.

Disraeli is only essential for Oscar buffs. Otherwise it’s fine. Decently made stagey biopic. You gotta be really into films of this era to want to see this for any reason other than the Best Actor win.

The Last Word: This is one of the best decisions ever made for Best Picture. An all-time winner. It’s early so people don’t often rank it among the best winners, but it is. All around, it is. The strongest winners are the ones nobody can argue with, even if the competition is strong. You rarely have one of those. Sometimes you have, “Yeah, this is great, but this also would be great.” Here, it’s, “This is the choice, and it holds up 85 years later.” Potentially a top ten decision all time.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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