Workin' hard here, folks
All Quiet on the Western Front
Despite this being a pretty good year on the whole for nominations, Milestone's film overwhelms the competition in what must be the most lopsided and unfair matchup in Oscar history. Most early talkies you have to make apologies for and/or adjust expectations. This one you just marvel at. As much as I think the production code actually helped make classical studio-era Hollywood films the greatest of all cinemas, a movie like this, with its running blood and amputated limbs, really gets the mind working on the "What if"s...
the Big House
A very strong blueprint for the prison movie, with gruff action and keenly-tuned dialog. Wallace Beery steals the show with his Eddie Haskell "Who me?" prisoner, and Robert Montgomery makes a good rat. It's funny to look at the film's morals, which, while realistic to the no snitching maxim respected criminals operate within, still rub up against what Hollywood will start preaching in a few years' time.
Typical of many early Hollywood talkies, this is basically a night at the theatre. George Arliss is not much of an actor in the cinematic sense here, but it's easy to see how his method would translate with those Best Actor voters eager to legitimize sound productions. The strengths of the film rest solely on the base material, which is mildly entertaining, and everything else is a fairly dry and forgettable dress rehearsal through such.
A fun little pre-coder with a game spirit and real heart behind its brazen whoredom-inducement. The Life's A Party atmosphere of the first half is missed when it gets Srs in the second, but the film never really wrongs itself off its chosen course. Robert Montgomery makes a good cad. Shearer didn't really do anything outside of what she normally does, so this is one of those
the Love Parade
I remember reading in some film book as an undergrad about the scene where even the dogs join in the lovelorn singing and chuckling to myself while thinking, "That's hilarious, but now the best part's been ruined." Of course, once I actually saw it, I had to remind myself that it's a Lubitsch movie, so there's nothing but
best parts. The funniest and liveliest Chavalier/Lubtisch matchup, by far.
My Vote: All Quiet on the Western Front
All the King's Men
Hollywood took a welcome turn here and the following year by rewarding a pair of bile-spewing vicious films that still kick today. While in retrospect Rossen's film cannot compete with the claws-out brilliance of the following year's Best Pic, All the King's Men
does still manage to pack more punches than it pulls, and the cynical political sentiment being rewarded by the academy is in many ways a more important historical distinction than quality or prestige. And even apart from the political importance of such a win, there's something fresh and hopeful about a second-string character actor and a relatively obscure radio actress scoring acting wins above their prettier and more popular competition.
At this point in my film viewing life, I have seen a lot of Hollywood war movies, so a film like this that comes along and gives so many fresh little details and moments really is a laudable achievement. I was enraptured by Wellman's take, which has a dour pall cast (I'm surprised to see other members call it out for jingoism-- uhhh) over the heroics and a finely-tuned sense of the novel and observed-- sergeants tearing off their stripes when they hear of a sniper threat, the hilarious extended business with the eggs, the fevered exchanges of verifiable "American" knowledge between passing companies to determine if they're friend or foe ("Who's Betty Grable going with?"), &c &c &c. This is a compendium of small joys painted against the larger canvas of battle.
A okay film, better than most of Wyler's other period excursions (he is such a grand director in present-tense, and such a laborious one in past), with competent performances, though... I must admit, I felt a little "Been there, done that" with the rotten people muddying the lily-white naif thing while the film crept onward. De Havilland's put in some loose and interesting perfs (the Snake Pit
, the Dark Mirror
) in the years leading up to her win here, and it's a shame that she picked the award up again for the role that required her for most of the running time to play the same lost little doe she always portrayed.
A Letter to Three Wives
I like Mankiewicz more than most, but what an utterly beguiling Oscar winner this is. Best Director and Best Screenplay? I can understand wanting to throw some awards his way by this point in his career, and the academy had no way of knowing he'd be earning those awards the next year for All About Eve
, but this is really a film that you have figure out your own theory about so many years after the fact. My best guess: Kirk Douglas' show-stopping rant against radio found favor with a voting body governed by a competing industry. Too bad nothing else in the film matches it.
Twelve O'Clock High
A good post-war war film that unfortunately often confuses draggy with somber. The film only really picks up about forty minutes in when Peck finally gets his assignment and swoops in with all the wonderful orders-barking. It's kind of funny that apparently this film has such a strong legacy in leadership classes and seminars given that Peck's nervous breakdown seems born of him growing attached to his squadron and not wanting to send them out to their deaths-- the very kind of emotional clinging to the charges that his leadership was supposed to alleviate!
My Vote: Battleground
the Greatest Show on Earth
Unsurprisingly, conventional Oscar wisdom is wrong once again. By no means is this the worst film to ever win Best Picture. It's actually a pretty entertaining, if overlong, piece of good ol' fashioned star-studded Hollywood spectacle. The film works best when DeMille indulges the documentary aspects of the picture, and there are certainly no shortage of interesting diversions up on the screen. The narrative itself is a little silly and of little consequence, but that's hardly why anyone came to see this anyways. Gloria Grahame is sexy fun and Cornel Wilde always shines in showboat roles like this. Apologies to modern cinema pundits, but it would have been far more embarrassing for High Noon
If Grace Kelly came a matrimonying at my door, I'd say screw the town. Gary Cooper thinks otherwise. Moral lesson ensues. Thomas Mitchell stars in the only good scene, where he single-handedly turns a church congregation away from their christian instincts-- it's a moment of intelligence in a film otherwise devoid of such pressing matters. But really, the problem above all else, and this cannot be understated, is the combination of Zinnemann's direction and the "modern" editing style. High Noon
is still popular because it comes across like a crummy contemporary film-- but that's not continued relevance, that's the first shot fired in a war we lost. As far as I'm concerned, this film's horribly cut, fast-paced nightmare of a climactic fight ruined motion pictures.
Overcomes Thorpe's unimaginative direction and an overbearing, trite score to be quite entertaining. The cast is well-utilized and though I only have a passing familiarity with the source text, the dialog and narrative thrust of the film is very strong. This ostentatious spectacle is way more fun than the so-called entertainment of Curtiz' Robin Hood
to my eyes.
The highest compliment I can pay this one, beyond saying it's the best film nominated this year or one of the best films ever nominated in this category or that it's John Huston's best film, is that it made me forget I was watching a Hollywood biopic. All of the rest is true though-- Houston's vulgarity gets a full workout here, but the film utilizes this tendency in his direction to play as strength, not weakness, to grand result. The two fantastic performances here were both correctly nominated. Jose Ferrer disappears into the role and distracts from what could have been gimmick set-up after gimmick set-up to hide the mechanics behind his dwarfism with a genuine panache and gusto. Colette Marchand, though, steals the film with her intense and complicated streetwalker, and the wonderful emotional abuse the two lovers play out is as realistic and intriguing as any found in a studio film of this era. While Oscar generally did right by this film with seven noms, two of its best attributes, its witty script and jaw-dropping visual palette, went neglected.
the Quiet Man
A charming, quaint film that sums up most of Ford's strengths as a filmmaker. Maureen O'Hara was never lovelier, and John Wayne really dials it back for a change. The rest of the Ford regulars do what you'd expect, and a good time is had by all. This is Ford's most beautiful film, though that's more of a hypothetical proclamation given the dire state of all available releases of the pic.
My Vote: Moulin Rouge
A competently made film, but one that never rises above said competence. Putting two scenery-chewers like O'Toole and Burton together onscreen should have been dynamite, but both really only go off when separated from one another, and while I guess the source material mandates this, it still feels like a missed opportunity. John Gielgud's King Louis must be up there among the shortest performances ever to be nominated-- is he even in the film for more than two minutes?
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I'm not dumb or lacking a sense of humor, but I didn't smile once or nod appreciatively or think anything occurring onscreen was particularly funny, clever, or smart. People who name this among the greatest films of all time mystify me beyond comprehension. I understand its historical context and can appreciate what it does, but like most Kubrick, that's as far as any praise can go.
On the whole, one of the better musicals nominated for the top spot. Most of the cast is game fun, particularly Glynis Johns (but isn't she always?), with the weak link, of course, being the one who won the Oscar. It's one of the worst kept secrets of the awards that Andrews only won Best Actress because she got screwed over on My Fair Lady
, but her "character," if you can call it that, isn't given anything to do but have everyone else talk about how amazing she is. It's like that Simpsons
episode where Homer instructs the writers of Itchy and Scratchy
that every character should be talking about how amazing Poochie is and, when he's not onscreen, asking where he is. We're told over and over how amazingly awesomely wondrous Mary Poppins is, but there's not much proof in what she actually does. Hell, Dick Van Dyke's Bert might actually be in the film more than the titular character and has the added benefit of not being up his own ass like Poppins-- why doesn't everyone talk about him instead? I'd watch Bert
(and I think I just did).
My Fair Lady
INTERMINABLE. I've already said it ad nauseam but the Academy really did go out of their way to reward musicals that are as far removed from what musicals can achieve at their greatest. Cukor directs all action with a leaden, drab inattentiveness to pacing, with the film's mantra reduced to "Everyone loved the show, so let's make it as long as we can." Broadway productions need the fat trimmed by half when being adapted for the cinemas, period, and this one is just too much of a bad thing. Rex Harrison, who I normally love, is stuck doing his Leslie Howard impression, to no good end.
Zorba the Greek
Full of life and zeal and vigor otherwise missing in the nommed films this year (surprisingly so, given that two musicals, the ultimate source of such cinematic energies, were nommed), this one sets itself apart from the pack pretty handily. I know the Academy had already given him the award twice before, but Quinn really was robbed here, in what is surely his best-known and admired role. Though the film gets my vote, I was not able to reconcile my earlier admiration with what happens to Irene Papas 2/3 of the way through the film. I understand that Cacoyannis is trying to show a more complicated and ultimately negative view of small town Greek culture by unwrapping the touristy trappings, but the film does so in too disturbing a fashion and at the cost of a previously sympathetic character-- after that scene, I could honestly give a shit what the passive Alan Bates does for the rest of the picture.
My Vote: Zorba the Greek