Sunday, February 24, 2013


When a film is only the second film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s bound to claim some historical firsts. Simply by default, “The Broadway Melody” is noteworthy in this regard. It is the first talkie to win Best Picture. It is the first musical to win Best Picture. And it is also the first crappy film to win Best Picture.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh in that last statement. As I noted in my entry about “Wings,” watching a really old film can be tricky business because decades of hindsight can render that film primitive and weak. But in judging “The Broadway Melody” on its own terms, I’m still not convinced it isn’t altogether dull and wooden, no matter what age you watch it in. 

Directed by Harry Beaumont, “The Broadway Melody” won Best Picture in 1928/1929, and stars Charles King, Bessie Love and Anita Page. The latter two play Hank and Queenie, a sister act from the Mid-West looking to make their mark on the New York stage. However, when Queenie’s ingénue sweet looks capture the attention of a slick playboy, loyalties and bonds are put upon perilous ground.

From a narrative standpoint, the story barely dips below the surface and if any of the characters turned sideways, they might disappear altogether from lack of development. Instead of portraying real flesh-and-blood characters, the actors end up merely playing Broadway caricatures: Bessie Love is the tough-talking broad always pointin’ her finger in somebody’s face. Anita Page is the “aww shucks” cutie pie with mile-long eye lashes and a downward gaze. Charles King is the cool crooner of the theater with his thumbs hooked into his suspenders. Without any depth between them, the plot just skips ‘round and ‘round until it comes to a predictable end. 

I have this obvious speculation that early filmmakers traveled a learning curve when it came to understanding and drawing out the latent creative potential within this new medium. I’m talking more about the impact of the basic elements of film, such as lighting, editing, framing a shot, could have, and not more advanced elements like special effects. When you watch really old films, like “The Broadway Melody,” it can feel like they are just filming a piece of theater. The scenes are long and play out with a minimal number of edits. The shots are always wide and unvaried, encompassing most of the scene into one frame, much like watching actors on a stage. And, in many examples, the actors seem driven by the old adage that you have to act to the back of the theater, which on celluloid results in messy overacting. 

From left to right: Anita Page, Bessie Love and Charles King in "The Broadway Melody."

In the case of “The Broadway Melody,” it seems to me that the filmmakers behind it had not even started the car to begin the journey toward the learning curve of making a picture. Of course I realize at that point Hollywood was still a juvenile industry. But other films like “Wings” and “All Quiet of the Western Front” displayed far more advanced technical and narrative savvy. For one thing, the sound recording is awful. Why does everyone have to sound like Betty Boop?! Then there is next to no camera work, such as character close-up shots, robbing the film of any emotional impact. (To be fair, it’s not like it was in any danger of having any emotional heft anyway.)  And finally, even the musical numbers are plain and stale, which is inexcusable for a film about backstage, Broadway life. 

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my opinions regarding “The Broadway Melody.” From a variety of Google searches, other reviewers and Oscar experts have generally pegged the film as one of the weaker Best Picture recipients. But the fact that it emerged victorious, despite delivering a steady stream of clichés and melodramatic moments, made me wonder how bad the competition was in 1929. The other films nominated that year must have just been a bunch of “War Horse” and “Juno” equivalents.

However, for all of my griping about “The Broadway Melody,” there were a couple of things that I did find interesting about it. For starters, whenever the location changes in the film, a title card is displayed with a brief description of where the proceeding action it to take place. This caught my interest because I think it shows that in the transition from silent to talking pictures, not all elements from the silent era were immediately discarded. 

The second point of interest from “The Broadway Melody” concerns Anita page. As I mentioned, in the film she plays Queenie, a baby doll blonde who all the fellows are sweet on. Throughout the film, a good percentage of the dialogue outlines how beautiful and inspiring Queenie’s looks are. But here’s the thing, and this is where watching a really old movie can definitely be tricky business, Queenie isn’t really anything to write home about. To be perfectly frank, in the movie I thought she looked like a bit of a disheveled frumplestiltskin. 

Left to right: Anita Page and Bessie Love in "The Broadway Melody."
By today’s standards of silver screen beauty, Anita Page probably wouldn’t even get a casting call back for a part like Queenie, let alone land it and convincingly pull it off. I think this harsh truth reveals an interesting insight into the definitions and standards of beauty back in the 1920s. I think there has always existed consistencies in the definitions of beauty throughout the ages. However, I think some modern-day definitions have edged what it means to be beautiful more and more beyond a realistic and healthy grasp. The comparison of an actress like Anita Page with Angelina Jolie and her ilk illustrates how times have really changed in that regard. But maybe time periods are irrelevant, as Anita Page must have truly been a knockout because she apparently received several proposals of marriage in letters from Benito Mussolini. 

Anyway, I’ll give my regards to Broadway, but I don’t think I’ll be giving them to “The Broadway Melody,” anytime soon. The only context in which I could ever really recommend this film is if you wanted to be able to say you watched every film that ever won Best Picture. However, if you’re not one of those people, then skip this picture because this is one melody that is off-key from start to finish. 
Favorite Line: After a backstage tussle with a rival chorus girl, Hank shakes her fist and declares, “Another minute and I’m going to lay that dame like a roll of linoleum.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

WINGS - 1927/1928

Through out my movie-watching career, I have only seen a handful of silent films. To be perfectly honest, I feel like watching a silent film puts my artistic stamina to the test. I wish I could say the silent films I’ve watched were enriching, cultural experiences. However, any enjoyment I’ve reaped from a silent film has been more for the time-capsule novelty aspect it offers. And like all novelties, they expire quickly and lose that appeal.

But in the spirit of this blog, I decided to scrub the present of any past prejudices before watching “Wings,” the first film to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1927/1928. (In those days it was referred to as “Outstanding Picture.” The term “Oscar” wouldn’t be officially coined until years later.) The film is certainly worthy of holding this distinction, as it has all the hallmarks of a Best Picture film: It’s a sweeping war epic propped up by romantic adventure. The visuals are vast and ambitious. The performances are intense and forceful; which are all traits that have popped up time and again in succeeding Best Picture champs.

Directed by William Wellman, the film stars Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and features a cameo by a then unknown actor named Gary Cooper. Arlen and Rogers’ characters scrap over their shared affections for the tempting Sylvia Lewis who “had an advantage over the small-town girls. She was a visitor from the city.” However, they soon put their bickering aside and form a brotherly bond as WWI fighter pilots, flying dangerous missions together against the Germans.

Silent film superstar Clara Bow plays the sweet girl next door to Buddy Rogers who does her darndest to pivot his attentions in her direction. It made me wonder if the genesis for the term “girl next door” is rooted in this film. As Mary Preston, Bow embodies many of the adjectives that have come to illustrate those girl-next-door qualities. As one of the biggest box office draws of the day, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think Bow inspired some journalist or producer to coin the phrase. After all, she found fame playing a plucky shop girl in a film called “It,” which led to her being nicknamed “The It Girl."
Clara Bow

Anyway, to watch a movie as old as “Wings” can be a somewhat tricky affair because it poses a challenge to not automatically, and unconsciously, compare it to its contemporary counterparts. Of course it isn’t going to stack up against a modern war film like “Saving Private Ryan.” But it feels almost reactionary to make that kind of comparison, which makes it’s easy to dismiss it as a primitive and cliché piece of work. Without music or dialogue, silent films present narratives in a somewhat different language, which requires more effort to understand. In attempting to make that effort, I think I came to appreciate “Wings” as a clever and admirable achievement.

I’m no historian on the topic, but in 1927 I doubt most audiences had ever flown in an airplane, given the youthfulness of the aviation industry. It seems plausible that aviation of any kind was primarily accessible to the wealthy or members of the military. In fact, Charles Lindberg had only made his famous transatlantic flight just prior to the film’s release; reinforcing a notion that aviation belonged to heroes and not the masses. Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that “Wings” became the first film focused on the war in the skies, which presented a variety of difficulties and dangers for the filmmakers. In filming the dog fights scenes, cameraman Harry Perry devised innovative techniques by strapping the cameras to the cockpits in order to film the pilots and airplanes as they skimmed past one another.

Given the limitations of special effects in that time, options for manufactured spectacle were few, particularly in filming the dog fight sequences. Essentially, what transpired on screen in “Wings” was the real deal. Thus, at times the actors were required to fly their own airplanes, which posed a major challenge, particularly for Buddy Rogers. Not only did he not have any experience in the air, but each time he was wheels down between takes, Rogers would throw up before doing another round. All in all, it was estimated that he logged nearly 100 hours in the air. I just hope somebody at least offered him a Tums or something.

Charles "Buddy" Rogers
But the motions and dangers that made Rogers’ stomach turn apparently served to turn on the film’s stunt team; a motley crew of daredevil types up for whatever. At different times, the filmmakers weren’t sure if the entire stunt team would even survive the production, due to the lengths they went to make the stunts so thrilling. For example, one well-known stuntman at the time, Dick Grace, became involved in an ugly crash that left him with a broken neck. This type of passion and commitment that Rogers and Grace brought to “Wings” courses throughout the entire cast and crew, creating some genuinely spectacular moments.

However, great visuals alone don’t make a great film, and “Wings” is no different in that regard. Despite its lack of sound, I would wager to guess the story elicited a lot of noise from audiences due to some compelling moments and a tragic twist in the film’s climax. But I don’t think “Wings” stakes its claim solely on entertaining ground because it does attempt to consider the effects of war on the individual and their ability to resume a normal life.

Apart from being the first war picture in the skies, “Wings” is also apparently one of the first widely released films to feature nudity. At one point in the film, Clara Bow is in a Parisian hotel room changing outfits when some men burst through her door at the precise moment she is fastening up her blouse. Although just a fleeting wardrobe malfunction that would hardly go noticed by today’s standards, I have to honestly say it was still a little bit shocking. I suppose it has to do with this sense that all entertainment “back then” was so much more buttoned up, which I think creates a rigid set of expectations. In that context, I think even the briefest nude image has this power to completely pierce your sensibilities and deliver a shock well beyond what it should be capable of.

“Wings” is often referred to as the last great silent film, which is probably true as talkies were already nipping on the heels of their silent counterparts. Despite my earlier admission of not being particularly fond of silent films, I would enthusiastically recommend “Wings,” especially if you have an interest in history and WWI. In terms of detail and depiction of those events, I think “Wings” can lay claim to an authority that modern films can’t, due to the fact The Great War had recently occurred. In that light, “Wings” continues to soar as a film worth viewing.

Favorite Line: Given that “Wings” is a silent film, there weren’t exactly any lines to choose from. So my favorite title card from this film is “Mary Preston had always lived next door. Once Jack had picked her out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it."

Monday, February 11, 2013


The Oscar nominations were recently announced, officially marking the opening of Oscar season! Of course I have gripes and grievances about the individuals the Academy gave shine to this year, as well as the individuals they gave shiners to (Ben Affleck!!). But the controversies contribute so much to the conversation that I suppose Oscar watching wouldn’t be as exhilarating if everything predictably fell into place.

I wish every day began with Oscar nominations, but the obvious reality is that Oscar season will come and go. And while there is nothing I can do to maintain fall weather year round or extend Christmas beyond December, there is something I can do to stretch Oscar season beyond February, which is why I decided to create this blog called “The Best Picture Project.”

Essentially, “The Best Picture Project” entails watching and writing about every film that has won the Oscar for Best Picture. Originally, I thought I would watch every film ever nominated for Best Picture, but then I realized that amounts to over 500 films. So I decided to scale it down to a more manageable size.

This whole endeavor may prove to be a total waste of time, while exposing the depths of my amateur abilities as a writer. And who knows, this idea may have already been done to death and far better than this attempt. But whether this cinematic journey is disappointing or not, I know I’ll be able to look back and say that I saw some pretty great films along the way. And for me, there are few things in life that make me happier than seeing a truly great film.