Archive | May, 2011

The Academy Awards: Best Picture Winners During the 1920s

1 May

So shiny!


A few months ago, after watching the 83rd edition of The Oscars, my husband – who works in the movie industry – sheepishly admitted he hadn’t seen a good deal of the films awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. To correct that, he and I decided we would embark upon a quest: We would watch all of the Best Picture winners, in order. While my husband went to film school and can appreciate all those countless elements the casual moviegoer like myself don’t even think of, I figured the most interesting approach this particular project would be to see how I react to each film as the product of a 21st century upbringing. I’m genuinely interested in how someone like myself – who considers Clueless a masterwork of cinema and will always defer to Finding Nemo over any film that seems remotely scary – would react to what over three generations of film professionals and critics have deemed the best work in the business. I’ve only seen 16 Best Picture winners (about 19%), so I’m obviously venturing into uncharted regions of pop culture.

I’ve decided to share my reactions with you each time we finish a decade of winners. While I’m by no means a film critic, I’m really excited and interested to see what each decade thought was awesome, whether I – decades later – share that opinion, and to finally see some classic films I myself am ashamed to having yet to take in (I’m looking at you, “Casablanca”!).

Let’s begin!

Wings 1927/1928

“For there was chivalry among the knights of the sky.”

Wings, the only silent film to ever win Best Picture, was my second foray into the silent film era – my first was the original vampire film Nosferatu I sat through with my husband and mostly ignored because it was super creepy. Sadly, Wings is one of the two Best Picture winners that as of now has yet to be released on DVD in the United States. In order to prevent our project from getting derailed before it even began, we wound up having to watch the entire film in 10-minute clips on YouTube. It was an unorthodox, but memorable experience.

Wings centers around Jack and David, two rival teenagers from Small Town America who both vie for the affection of the same girl, and Mary, Jack’s tomboy best friend who secretly loves him despite him treating her like dirt. When The Great War hits, both Jack and David enlist in the Air Service and head off to training camp. The horrors of World War I don’t take long to sink in, melting Jack and David’s rivalry and molding it into a brotherly love. Meanwhile, Mary joins the war effort as an ambulance driver. The film’s climax takes place at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when David is shot down behind enemy lines. Surviving the crash, David manages to steal an enemy plane and pilot it back toward the American camp. Mistaken for an enemy fighter by Jack – furious over the presumed death of his friend – David and his best friend engage in a heated aerial dogfight that ends with Jack sending David down to his death. Returning home from the war with a newfound maturity and respect for life, Jack winds up recognizing Mary’s true friendship and love and they live happily ever after.

Several things surprised me about this film. As a history major, I was shocked movies were being made about the Great War so soon after it ended (this particular film came only nine years after the war drew to a close). I would have thought it might take a while before people wanted to pay money to see the horror of war on the silver screen. Another shocker? During one scene, for a quick minute, you get a glimpse of Clara Bow’s (Mary) breast when she’s changing, making Wings was one of the first widely released films to show nudity. Scandalous! Especially for the 20s. I didn’t think we would encounter nakedness so soon on our quest. Another first for Wings is that it contains the first male-on-male kiss on film, and it’s a biggie!  Jack finds David lying in the wreckage of his aircraft after their fatal dogfight, and in his agony over sending his friend to his death plants a long, big, wet one. It’s awkward.

I can barely remember a movie that doesn’t have CGI or some kind of digital special effect, so watching an old film like this made me respect the crazy stunts and fight scenes. According to my extensive research (let’s be real, I just read Wikipedia and IMDb), no one was injured during the filming, which contained explosions, tons of aerial dogfight scenes featuring scores of planes, and thousands of extras pretending to stab each other in trenches. We can’t even stage a stupid Spider-Man play today without people getting hurt!

I was not, however, impressed by the ever-present and cheery Wurlitzer pipe organ, from which there was no respite. Not even as people were bayoneted in the face. Clara Bow’s extremely exaggerated mannerisms also grated on my nerves, and by the end I was happy we wouldn’t have to sit through another silent film. I’m definitely not a fan.

I give Wings 3 out of 5 golden nude men.

The Broadway Melody 1928/1929

 “Those men aren’t going to pay ten bucks to look at your face; this is Broadway! ”

“The Broadway Melody” was awful. As you would expect with such a title, it was a musical – making it the of course the first musical to win Best Picture. While I don’t hate musicals, I’m by no means a huge fan. If you had to make me choose my favorite, it’d probably be an animated Disney film.

The film follows two sisters, Harriet and Queenie, as the now clichéd small town girls who move to New York looking for their big break. They’re helped out by Harriet’s fiancé Eddie, a moderately successful Broadway songwriter. Queenie, the “hot” one, is immediately vaulted into the spotlight thanks to her attractive, flirtatious manners, leaving her sister in the dust. Harriet tries her best to protect Queenie from the dirty millionaires and playboys courting her – which she does mainly by whining. Queenie eventually comes around to common sense, but not before stealing Eddie from her sister. Harriet seems to be fine with the whole thing, as the film ends with her moving in the newly-married couple. Hooray!

The female characters in this film were terrible role models. Harriet spends 95 percent of the film moping and crying over Queenie’s antics. I understand that times have certainly changed since then, so perhaps I can’t understand the full nature of how scandalous it was for Queenie to be something of a gold digger, but Harriet was just so pathetic. I understand that women’s suffrage and voting rights were still a newfangled thing at the time (recently made law in 1920), and women still did not have as much voice or as many privileges as men, but I was horribly disappointed in her idiotic, dim-witted portrayal. She was written as the brains behind the operation, and yet she couldn’t even realize her fiancé was obviously into her sister, even after walking in on Eddie virtually on top of Queenie. She just kept crying (Justin Timberlake would approve), giving me a strong desire to walk into the television and slap her in the face.

Also, I don’t care what century or time period you are from, it’s never okay for your little sister to steal your fiancé! Nor should you live with them after they return from their honeymoon. That’s just cruel and unusual.

The Broadway Melody gets 1 out of 5 golden nude men.

All Quiet on the Western Front 1929/1930

“We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed, but sometimes we are. That’s all.”

I’m not into war movies, which is likely due to the fact that I despise war – especially the pointlessness of WWI. Just hearing the phrase “trench warfare” makes me sick, thinking about the thousands and thousands of men who died fighting for mere inches day after day. As a result, I haven’t seen many war films. Seeing as war films are so revered by the Academy, I knew I’d be sitting through more of them during this project than I have throughout my entire life.

Made simply to expose as many people to the pointlessness and horror of war, All Quiet on the Western Front has a message I can really get behind. The film follows a group of young German men, inspired into to enlist in the Great War by their school teacher who instills in them the value that it is glorious to die for one’s country. It doesn’t take long for the group of young men to have their lives shattered by the constant bombings, gassing, and trench warfare that begins to send them into madness and violent death one by one before their eyes.

I was stunned by the amount of violence and gore in the film, as I’ve seen R-rated films today with less violence. However, the film strikes the heart of its message not from the epic scenes of war, but in the quiet, intimate moments when the young men are forced to confront the situation they’re in. One of the most intense scenes is when Paul, the main soldier whom the story follows, is stuck in a hole for a night with a French soldier he has mortally wounded. He isn’t able to comfort the dying Frenchman, as he doesn’t know the language. The Frenchman dies scared and helpless in his arms, breaking Paul’s spirit and nearly driving him insane. On leave, he returns to the schoolroom where he was originally brainwashed into enlisting. He explains, much to his pro-war school master’s horror, the utter pointlessness of the war being fought before literally being shouted out of the classroom – his message falling upon deaf ears.

I was happy to read on Wikipedia that when the film was released, it was written in Variety of the film that “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.” Indeed, if anyone wants to question just how much glory goes on in war, they should watch All Quiet on the Western Front.

All Quiet on the Western Front gets 3 out of 5 nude golden men.

Stay tuned as we trudge through the Best Picture winners during the 1930s, including Gone with the Wind, which I can’t believe my husband has never seen!