Cimarron (1931)

Before it’s full review of Cimarron in 1931, Variety magazine described the film as “An elegant example of super film making and a big money picture.  This is a spectacular western away from all others.  It holds action, sentiment, sympathy, thrills and comedy- and 100% clean.  Radio Pictures has a corker in ‘Cimarron.'”  Variety wasn’t completely off-track with their description.  Cimarron is an example of good, old, wholesome Hollywood fare.  Following husband and wife Yancey and Sabra Cravat, as they moved to Oklahoma during the great westward expansion of the United States in the late 19th century, the film highlights the spirit of those early explorers and seekers of the American Dream.

It’s hard not to appreciate Yancey Cravat’s yearning desire for new adventures.  Although the toll it takes on his wife Sabra may lead others to think otherwise.  I know that I, for one, have always been fascinated by how we all got to where we are.  From the Midwest to Texas and back to the Midwest, my story of ending up in Missouri isn’t as interesting as Yancey’s tale of riding along the prairies of Kansas and Oklahoma to find a new home for him and his family.  His embrace of Native American culture is also a refreshing turn, given his wife’s uptight, privileged perspective.  Sabra’s attitudes are so severe, it’s hard to have complete empathy for her as the film progresses.  Eventually, Sabra softens as she carves out her own frontier success, just as Yancey traverses more frontiers of his own.

Cimarron (1931) 123 minutes. Directed by Wesley Ruggles.  Starring Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Eugene Jackson.

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

When watching early films in some kind of chronological order, you can see how quickly filmmakers and producers used emerging technologies to make grander, better films. Immediately, All Quiet on the Western Front resolves all of the sound issues that plagued the previous year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. What may seem small, becomes crucial in a film that must balance the crash of exploding bombs, the squeal as they approach the earth, the yards of bullets making their way through the guns on the ground, and the voices of those trying to stay alive.

Based on the novel by German WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fascinating study in movie studio greenlighting. The film is an empathetic look at the young German boys fighting and “saving the Fatherland.” If we remember our history, the United States fought against Germany in the Great War. One might think that the U.S. film industry wouldn’t feel kindly about making a film on those we fought againt, just as one can’t easily think of the Universal making a war film today about the young boys who fought for Al Qaeda. But perhaps we should. All Quiet on the Western Front reminds us that the casualties in war, far too often fall on the laureled, young heads of boys who have been sold a bill of goods that this is their obligation- to their manhood, their families, and their nations- when all they are, are boys wanting to catch a butterfly on their fingertips.

All Quiet on the Western Front. (1930) 136 minutes. Directed by Lewis Milestone, Starring Lew Ayres, Slim Summerville, Louis Wolheim, Walter Rogers.

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

In less than a year, the Academy Awards went from honoring two silent films in Wings and Sunrise to honoring it’s first musical in The Broadway Melody as the best film of the year.  The success of the film resulted in several more Broadway Melodies, making it one of Hollywood’s first franchises. In watching this film, it’s clear that director Harry Beaumont and the entire production crew were set on using the new technology of synchronous sound in all of it’s shapes, forms, and pitches. If you want to show an audience what sounds they can expect from their ‘new’ movies, a musical is certainly one way to go.

The transition to sound film may have created new jobs like diction coaches and screenwriters, but it also saw the end to many a career. Bessie Love, however, was a silent film actress who was able to make the transition to sound film, working until she was in her 80s. Her Academy Award-nominated performance as Hank Mahoney is full of energy and empathy. You can literally see how her silent film background allows her to use her face in ways that pack a wallop. She stands out amongst the cast as the best and most-fully rounded performer of The Broadway Melody.

For Singin’ in the Rain fans, The Broadway Melody shows us the earliest recordings of several songs later revived for the 1952 musical. Other than that, The Broadway Melody suffers from its flaws. But much like other Oscars that are handed out for reasons other than being the very best of the year, this particular award seemed to be a deliberate nod to future filmmakers that sound was cinema’s future and staying in the silent era was at oone’s own peril.

he Broadway Melody. (1929) 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King, Jed Prouty.

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Wings (1927)

In my task of watching all Best Picture Oscar-winners, I finished up my introductory weekend of viewing with Wings, directed by DGA Lifetime Achievement award-winner William A. Wellman. As the only true silent film to win Best Picture, Wings upholds the powerful affect that silent films can have. Yes, silent films can be as good, if not far better than ‘talkies.’

Starring Clara Bow as Mary, it doesn’t take long at all to understand why Bow was called the “It” Girl of movies. As with all of the stars, Bow captures your eyes and heart with her earnest portrayal of a gal hopelessly in love. But the film truly soars (no pun intended) with the performances of Charles “Buddy” Rogers as Jack Powell and Richard Arlen as David Armstrong, two young men from the same town that become fighter pilots in the first world war. To see their relationship grow throughout the film is a joy to watch, if not frustrating and infuriating at times- just as it should be.

Action-Adventure films have been a part of filmmaking since the beginning. Wings is a classic in the genre and deserves its place in Academy Award annals… and not just for the first Best Picture with nudity. 😉

Wings. (1927) 144 minutes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Robston.

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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

For a few years, I’ve made a resolution to watch all of the Academy Award winning Best Pictures, in order. I finally started, yesterday, with the winner of the 1927/28 award for Most Unique and Artistic Film. The first Academy Awards was an interesting little ceremony. Used primarily as a public relations stunt, the award winners were known beforehand and the best picture race was only between three films. In addition, the Academy decided that they would also award the film that achieved a special level of artistry. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is often ignored in Best Picture lists, but it really shouldn’t be. After all, how could you ignore the film that you said was the most unique and the most artistic? I do not know.

Quite simply, if you want to see one of the most lovely films of the silent era and in filmmaking history, see Sunrise. George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor are so compelling in this tale of a young couple in a strained marriage. Gaynor won the first Best Actress award for her performance in this film, as well as her work in 7th Heaven and Street Angel. Gaynor was nominated for Best Actress a few years later for her work in the original A Star is Born. (Yes, Lady Gaga is not the first “star” to be “born.”)

So, yeah to me, for starting this goal of mine. Today, I’ll be watching Wings, the Best Picture ‘winner.’ In my heart, however, Sunrise will always be the first, best winner.

Sunrise:  A Song of Two Humans (1927) 94 minutes  Directed by F.W. Murnau; Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing.

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