Alibi (1929)

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Starring: Chester Morris, Mae Busch, Harry Stubbs

Directed: Roland West

Summary: A strident police captain investigates a murder whose main suspect is an ex-gangster with a seemingly airtight alibi

Other nominations: Actor (Morris), Art Direction

Note: for the 1928/29 Oscars, there were no listed nominees for the first and only time, just the winners were named. Instead, the Academy went back and retroactively determined which films received the most consideration for each award.

Positives

-Chester Morris is perfectly fine as the above-mentioned ex-gangster and may have set the template for future smooth-talking street toughs in future films

-Well, there was one memorable scene at least: the cops bring someone from the gang into the station, and in order to get him to talk, they pull a gun out, put it against his head and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t cooperate! Serious anti-hero cops right there.

Negatives

-Man, this makes The Racket look great in comparison. Most of the acting is poor, but not in that over-done silent film way, but instead with really flat line delivery which is pretty monotone and robotic. One of the actors is trying to play a drunk, but instead comes off as…slow.

-Very cheap production design with bad matte paintings and some bizarre set design. Sort of went for a German-expressionist look, but they kind of went halfway which makes it look lazy instead of artistic

-There are four random singing segments at a nightclub in the movie, which are out of place and are only there because sound was such a novelty at the time

Overall

Boring movie that hasn’t aged well (especially the acting and the sound which is tough to deal with)-at least it’s short (1 hour 23 minutes) and the brutal cop has some entertainment value. If you have to watch one of the two gangster films so far, watch The Racket instead

Rating: D

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*The Broadway Melody (1929)*

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Starring: Anita Page, Bessie Love, Charles King

Directed: Harry Beaumont

Summary: A pair of Midwest vaudeville performers look to get their big break on Broadway

Other nominations: Director, Actress (Love)

Positives

-Considering its reputation (lowest RT score of any best winner), I wasn’t expecting much, so imagine my surprise when it had a solid story and dynamic and fleshed-out characters. It’s nothing revolutionary and the story has been done better since (it shares similarities with A Star is Born), but it was a heck of a lot more than I was expecting

-The sound was as good as you would ever hear for an early talkie, which was much appreciated after watching something like Alibi. I can absolutely understand why this was such a monster hit back in the day.

Negatives

-The dialogue was pretty terrible, even ignoring the amount of period slang used. Apparently, even critics of the time thought the dialogue was its big weakness, and films had only had full dialogue for less than a year at that point

-The acting is uneven-Anita Page is solid (and was nominated for an Oscar) as is Bessie Love, while the rest of the cast is mediocre

-While the music reflects the time (George Cohen-esque show tunes), the song and dance numbers bored me and will probably not do much for most modern audiences

Overall

I went in with very low expectations and was expecting not much more than a series of musical numbers. What I got was a surprisingly well-crafted story with solid characters. A better scriptwriter and actors could have made this a gem, but taken for what it is, it’s a pretty okay movie.

Rating: C

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

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Starring: Pretty much everybody at MGM at the time except for Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney. The hosts are Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny.

Director: Charles Reisner

Summary: there is no plot, this is a series of unrelated sketches and musical/comedy acts in film form

Other nominations: None

Positives and negatives don’t really apply well to something like this. How this was nominated (well, considered) for Best Picture is beyond me-it’s like an old mondo film getting a BP nom. I can understand the appeal of seeing all these big names on screen in one place, but there’s not much else to it. Some of the more interesting skits:

-Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t written for the legendary musical of the same name, and instead was written in 1929 and shows up here (including the finale which is in color)

-Laurel and Hardy’s first sound appearance (as magicians here) is interesting, as is seeing Joan Crawford sing (already looking quite different than she did in The Unknown from 1927) and she’s not bad

-Never thought I’d see Buster Keaton as an egyptian, underwater(?) dancer. Yeah, this thing is weird

-John Gilbert in a speaking role is always notable, as he had a terrible transition to the sound era.

Overall

Not much more to say about this one, other than it’s an interesting historical curio. The comedic sketches aren’t funny, and the songs and dancing for the most part aren’t anything special either. Not recommended for anyone but diehard old Hollywood fanatics

Rating: D

In Old Arizona (1928)

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Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess

Director: Raoul Walsh & Irving Cummings

Summary: A duplicitous woman comes between a bandit and the Army man sent to catch him

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Baxter)*, Writing, Cinematography

Positives

-This was the first all-talkie movie filmed outdoors, and when they do have scenes out in the desert, they’re nice to see

-Lowe feels like a very poor man’s John Wayne, but this is before John Wayne was a thing. Have to give him some credit for that.

Negatives

-Slow and boring, I lost interest about halfway through the film. The acting overall is unexceptional, and worse still is the direction-the camera is static throughout, cuts and closeups are rare and it lacks all creativity. While cinematography was usually not that dynamic in silent films, this was far worse than most

-Warner Baxter is a mixed bag, but is probably more bad than good. He feels miscast as a dashing rogue character despite being just under 40 years old and not particularly attractive, but he has some charm, especially when he’s singing. Interesting side note: Raoul Walsh was set to direct and star, but had to only co-direct when a jackrabbit jumped through a windshield of his car and lost an eye, after which he wore an eyepatch for the remainder of his life.

-Baxter and Burgess are not very convincing playing Hispanic people, Baxter with his accent and Burgess with her darkened up face.

Overall

There’s very little to say about this one. Other than its noteworthy technical achievement, there’s not much to hold the viewer’s interest.

Rating: D

The Patriot (1928)

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Starring: Emil Jannings, Lewis Stone, Florence Vidor

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Plot Summary: An epic portrayal of political intrigue in Russia during the reign of Paul I (1796-1801)

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Stone), Adapted Screenplay*, Art Direction

Sadly, this film is lost except for a couple of short clips and its trailer, which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrdCaqpbc70, and is the only Best Picture nominee with that status. Shame, as Jannings was one of the preeminent actors of his time (well, until he starred in pro-Nazi films in his native Germany) and Lubitsch was one of the top directors of the 20’s & 30’s. Reading the plot summary is hilarious though, as the film paints Paul as this crazed monster who needed to be put down, when he instead was assassinated because of his attempts to reform the Russian nobility and force better treatment of serfs.

1928/29 in Review

Other notable films of 1928/29

The Passion of Joan of Arc: One of the greatest films of the silent era, with a legendary performance from Renee Falconetti; however, I can’t find any information about a U.S. release of the film before 1933 when it was released in a heavily cut form with narration.

West of Zanzibar: Another great collaboration between Lon Chaney and Director Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unknown), also with Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter. Wonderfully dark pre-code film with Chaney playing a crippled man out for vengeance against the guy who took his lover, with tragic results.

Blackmail: Hitchcock’s breakout movie and the first British all-talkie film

1928/29 Nominees in Review

The Broadway Melody: C (Won Best Picture)

Alibi: D+

In Old Arizona: D

The Hollywood Revue of 1929: D-

The Patriot: N/A (Lost Film)

A very poor year for Hollywood, as everything around this time became predicated around the novelty of sound picture, and everything else was deemed irrelevant. In light of this, the Academy made the right choice between the nominees, as The Broadway Melody was by far the best of the bunch, with its solid story and characters, as well as the best use of the new sound technology available.
Next up is the 3rd Academy Awards which covered films released between August 1929-July 1930.