*All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)*

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Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander

Director: Lewis Milestone

Summary: During a wave of patriotism, a young man enlists in the army and is visited by horror and despair during World War I

Other Nominations: Director*, Writing, Cinematography

Positives

-Milestone’s direction far exceeds anyone else in the field of war films until at least the 1940’s, and exceeds nearly all his contemporaries in general. The attention to detail and realism from the battlefront is stunning, giving an incredible sense of claustrophobia and tedium from being in the trenches, as well as how pointless any attempts at gaining ground were.

-Fantastic production design and cinematography (such as the frenetic camera movements during a charge showing body after body being mowed down) are still as effective today as they were when it premiered over 85 years ago. That it didn’t win for cinematography (it lost to a documentary about Admiral Byrd at the South Pole) is absurd.

-Strong performances from Ayres (especially in the 2nd half) and Wolheim; while Ayres would act into the late 1980’s, Wolheim sadly would die the year after this film’s release due to stomach cancer.

-The lack of any soundtrack works to its benefit, as it probably would have detracted from how realistic everything felt. Apparently, some post-Hays code, pre-restorations versions had goddamn swing music over the ending which would have been hilarious.

Negatives

-The obvious weak point is the dialogue, which for the first hour and a half borders on taking you out of the film when we aren’t at the front lines. It lacks depth and nuance in regards to expressing its themes, when the other parts of the film do a much better job with. Would be interesting to watch the silent version (which was made concurrently with the sound version) for this reason.

-While Ayres and Wolheim are great, the rest of the cast is nothing to write home about and have stiff line-delivery

Overall

Clearly the best film I’ve had the pleasure of watching so far, All Quiet on the Western Front set new standards in realism and emotional resonance for war films that have seldom been matched since. Highly recommended.

Rating: A-

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The Big House (1930)

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Starring: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery

Director: George Hill

Summary: A convict falls in love with his cell mate’s sister, only to become embroiled in a planned break-out which is certain to have deadly consequences.

Other nominations: Actor (Beery), Writing*, Sound Recording*

Positives

-Although it feels generic now, give the film credit as this was pretty much the first prison movie and was very influential on the genre-most of the scenes and tropes you come to expect (except for the corrupt warden) show up here

-Great finale that’s exactly what you want in a movie like this, definitely the most entertaining scenes I’ve watched so far in this project.

-While I wouldn’t call Beery great or anything, he’s fairly memorable as the violent big galut who runs the joint; originally, this role was meant for Lon Chaney before his death, who would have been awesome here. This ended up being Beery’s star-making turn that led to a great career.

Negatives

-While the finale is great, the hour it takes to get there is very, very dull, especially if you have any familiarity with the genre. If you’ve seen a prison movie, you’ve seen this all before and usually done better

-Beery aside, the other characters are unanimously flat and uninteresting, including Morris who while likable enough, is worse here than in the other two movies I’ve watched for this so far (Alibi and another one this same year that comes up later)

Overall

The Big House’s fun ending ultimately can’t save a movie that’s boring for ¾ of its running time. It’s interesting looking back at the first few Oscar ceremonies and seeing what kinds of movies were considered Best Picture worthy (such as Alibi, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Big House) before the concept of what an Oscar film “looked like” became established. Not recommended unless you’re a big fan of prison films and want to see one of the early trope creators.

Rating: C-

Disraeli (1929)

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Starring: George Arliss, Doris Lloyd, David Torrence

Director: Alfred E. Green

Summary: British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli navigates through treachery home and abroad to purchase the Suez Canal

Other nominations: Actor (Arliss)*, Writing

Positives

-The acting from pretty much the entire cast is a clear level above most anything from Hollywood in this period, especially Arliss who exudes wit and class as Disraeli. This was Arliss’ third turn as Benjamin Disraeli: first in a 1911 stage production, then a 1921 silent film and finally, this sound film from 1929.

-The same praise also goes for the dialogue, which was probably lifted word for word from the original play. While the whole movie feels like a film stage play, that’s not wholly a bad thing as it bypasses the usual poor writing of early sound productions.

Negatives

-While this movie has no major low points (although the odd subplot of Disraeli trying to bring two people he knows together so they can get married reeks of needless filler), it also lacks anything truly entertaining or exceptional in the story department.

-The “British Imperialism is Awesome!” aspect underlying the entire movie has obviously not aged well and ignores the major consequences the Great Game between Britain and Russia would have on the Middle East in the 20th Century.

Other Stuff

-Arliss’ wife plays Disraeli’s wife Mary in this movie, despite Mary Disraeli having died three years before the events of this film took place.

Overall

The acting and dialogue make Disraeli stand out against most of its contemporaries and Arliss absolutely deserved the Oscar he received for the role. While certain aspects of the movie have not aged well, this is one of the better films on the list so far.

Rating: C+

The Divorcee (1930)

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Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Summary: When a woman discovers that her husband has been unfaithful to her in the past, she decides to respond in a regrettable way.

Other nominations: Director, Actress (Shearer)*, Writing

Positives

-Wow, this film tackles a heady subject with a remarkable amount of fairness and nuance, especially through the first two acts. The film focuses around how the two leads react when when a long ago one-night stand comes to light, and both characters viewpoints feel reasonable given the circumstances and are treated as such. I can’t really go into too much detail without spoilers, but the film does a great job of making you feel for both the characters-not always evenly, but very fairly.

-Norma Shearer does a great job and successfully portrays a happy, innocent babe of a housewife, and a woman who has this festering feeling of betrayal that won’t go away. She has this kind of attainable quality, like she’s someone you could meet anywhere (unlike say, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, etc. who feel like these awesome women who almost feel like they came from some alternate plane of reality).

-This film is very much pre-code: it explicitly deals with sex, a car crash with blood and disfigurement, lots of infidelity-“lurid” themes you wouldn’t see in Hollywood for a while which is a shame.

Negatives

-The third act feels weak because it’s predictable and mostly abandons the neutrality towards the characters that was the strength of the first two acts. Really a shame.

-Most of the performances outside of Shearer are mediocre, although Chester Morris (who keeps popping up in this countdown) is okay.

Overall

First surprising gem to come out of this exercise, a movie that for the most part felt very mature and kept me interested from beginning to end.

Rating: B

The Love Parade (1929)

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Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Summary: A womanizing diplomat returns home and settles down with the queen of his country

Other nominations: Director, Actor (Chevalier), Sound Recording, Cinematography, Art Direction

Positives

-Maurice Chevalier is absurdly charming, handsome, likable, funny and had a sexy French accent-in other words, an ideal romantic leading man. He completely carries the movie and is the reason to watch. While I wouldn’t say he’s especially good as a pure actor, everything else about him makes up for it.

-I didn’t know what to expect from the non-musical portion of the movie, but it’s surprisingly funny with some genuine laughs. I would have enjoyed this even more if it was simply a straight romantic comedy, rather than a musical romantic comedy, as the humor stands well enough on its own

Negatives

-I’m not much for musicals in general, with a couple of exceptions and this is not one of them. The film for me screeches to a halt when the musical numbers hit. Also, while MacDonald has a fine singing voice, I don’t think Chevalier is all that good a singer (he just kind of speaks in his sexy voice in rhythm mostly)

-Didn’t like the ending, as it felt pretty misogynistic and undermined what was previously a fun dynamic between the two leads.

Overall

If you enjoy old-school musicals and especially old-school musical comedies, The Love Parade is something you should definitely go out and watch. For those like me who aren’t musical fans, there’s enough humor to enjoy the movie, but be warned there are enough “meh” songs that it might bore you at times.

Rating: B-

1929/30 in Review

Other notable films from 1929/30

Pandora’s Box: Excellent German silent film which made Louise Brooks a star in her turn as a woman who leads multiple men to ruin. Was released in an edited form in the U.S., and was also hurt by being a silent film when everyone wanted talkies

Anna Christie: A highly popular film in its time starring Greta Garbo in her first talkie. Nominated for Director, Actress and Cinematography, but not Picture

1929/30 Nominees in Review

All Quiet on the Western Front: A- (Winner of BP)

The Divorcee: B

The Love Parade: B-

Disraeli: C+

The Big House: C-

After a generally lousy selection of movies from the 2nd Academy Awards, we get a much better slate this time around. This year’s pick also makes the Academy 3/3 (imo) for picking the Best Picture among the nominees. All Quiet on the Western Front is a must-see (and our first great movie) and The Divorcee and The Love Parade are worth watching if you’re the right audience. Will next year’s crop be equally as good? Well, I haven’t watched them yet, but looking at the list, I am not optimistic.

Next time: the nominees from the 4th Academy Awards, starting with the Best Picture winner.