The Love Parade

The Love Parade

Anything to please the Queen!

It’s been a while since my last Ernst Lubitsch film, but man, did he ever crank up the pre-Code shenanigans with this one. The Love Parade seemed to be a film that existed for the sole purpose of flagrantly dissing the Hays Code before it was fully enacted, as well as an excuse for its stars, screenwriter, and especially director to have as much smarmy fun as they could on the silver screen. More than anything, this film seemed to exist merely for its own sake, an inevitability in the wake of the Hays Code’s upcoming implementation. That’s not to say that the film wasn’t enjoyable, because it was, mostly because the people behind it knew what they were doing as well as how to keep themselves from overdoing it. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like this was another example of people getting together just to make a film for the sake of making one, as opposed to filmmakers getting together eagerly to make sure a great film is made from the sheer passion for the material.

Maurice Chevalier is Count Alfred, one of the officers assigned to the (fictional) Sylvanian Embassy in Paris, who at the start of the film is ordered to return to the country after being discovered having an affair with a higher-up official’s wife, one of the many affairs he’s been having. Upon his return, he appears before the country’s young and unwed Queen Louise, who is amused by Alfred’s actions instead of appalled, and after a lively discussion with the man, decides to “punish” him by marrying him and thus taking him as her royal consort. Things would seem to be headed to a happily ever after… only the film at this point is only halfway over; the rest deals with the ramifications of Alfred’s decision to marry, as well as subverting certain tropes that films much like this one tend to employ to surprisingly amusing effect. I should say, I knew when I started the film that it was a musical, at least of sorts, but when the film started by immediately cutting into a butler singing a song while setting a table, I was still slightly taken aback. Even the first actual song had me questioning whether I was going to enjoy the film as a whole at all… at least, until the part of the song that had the dogs of Paris singing to each other, which I had to admit was clever and quaint. And that’s when I realized that, even though this was an early sound era musical, it was still an Ernst Lubitsch film, and that would seem to supersede the negative aspects of the film’s musical genetics. For instance, the characters of the film tend to break the fourth wall if the situation calls for a good quip or an address of the audience, and as many storytelling tropes that it falls victim to, it also subverts just as many. It was well-written also, even if it still seemed like the writers were doing so arbitrarily. There was a distinct sense that the film knew how funny it was, or at least was supposed to be, but it never felt like it was snidely looking down on the audience or expecting them to laugh with stern looks if they didn’t; it channeled how funny it was expected to be into a charming production that ended up genuinely amusing at many moments. Jeanette MacDonald did feel a little miscast as the queen of a country, even a young one, but she certainly wasn’t miscast as the love interest of Chevalier; the two definitely have chemistry together, at least when given a script like this one.

I wasn’t as taken with this as I had expected to be when the film really got going, mostly because of the second half of the film, which seems to go down a very unpleasant route unbecoming of the film up to that point, and then the ending, which made up for the troubles of the second half somewhat, but it didn’t feel completely earnest and wholehearted. Still, I was surprised by this, and I was pleased that this second odyssey of mine would in fact be able to have a few surprises for me like this one, especially so early into the chronology. In all fairness, I pretty much had to take a point off for the somewhat abrupt shift in mood and tone the film opts to do halfway through, even if it did so in order to make a point about gender relations (a point some have seen as undermined by the ending, but I saw as merely the two opposing ideologies coming together mutually before irreparable damage could be done). Even so, one could certainly do worse than a film like this, even with it being technically a musical, so there’s that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Disraeli

Disraeli

A ditch dug in sand grows the very best celery.

Given how much of a standout year the prior ceremony’s list of nominees turned out to be, my expectations were somewhat lessened going into the 3rd ceremony’s list. In particular, I was left rather stymied by the acting in last year’s nominees, especially considering the field of Best Actor. I guess it turned out to be very fortunate, then, that I started off this year with Disraeli, which features George Arliss reprising the role he made his own on stage and previously on the silent screen. Arliss was apparently a huge fan of doing this role, so much so he secured the screen rights to it years before the first silent-cinema depiction of the famed British Prime Minister, just to make sure he was the only one who could do it, and do it justice. Well, he does the role justice, all right, but one might have a hard time arguing the rest of the film is up to matching Mr. Arliss’ efforts.

The film is a two-fold story, and surprisingly, it manages to balance the two stories well against each other, by essentially tying them together midway through the film. Disraeli is the current Prime Minister of Britain, a man of great standing and character, and with an even greater amount of criticism from those who oppose his policies. The film itself zeroes in on Disraeli’s efforts to acquire the Suez Canal from Egypt, thereby securing Britain’s presence and shipping routes to India, and the opposition to his efforts by both those in other powerful positions in the government as well as foreign spies situated in positions close to Disraeli himself. Alongside this is a pseudo-love story between Lady Clarissa, an admirer of Disraeli’s, and Lord Deeford, who proposes marriage to Clarissa but is rejected as being too mannered and haughty by the manner of his proposal. Disraeli, for whatever reasons he has, takes an interest in the burgeoning romance, and aspires to set the pair up to be together by giving Deeford a role to play in the Suez Canal affair. For similar reasons as when I’ve done so in the past, I go into particular depth with the plot because the film, as a whole, doesn’t have very much in terms of features to talk about, with the exception of Arliss himself. I wouldn’t say the screen lights up whenever Arliss is on-screen; more like, the film seems to become more of an actual film whenever he’s there, instead of a caricature of one. Arliss, at least, knows how to act; he comes off as a consummate stage actor who knows how to translate his skills to the medium of sound filmmaking, and for the first time in this Best Picture odyssey I can see how an actor won or got nominated for Best Actor. Kudos to him, though Lord knows he could’ve done with a less comparatively on-the-nose hairstyle. The rest of the film is more or less a run-of-the-mill of background biopic material and filmmaking, and thankfully the film seems to know this soon after it sets up the middle section, after which we are focused almost entirely on Disraeli and his actions, so kudos there as well.

As much as I enjoy a film with a strong central performance, it does make it that much harder to judge the film as a whole, or even the rest of the film outside that central performance, since it becomes that much more unremarkable and forgettable because of the actor in question. Disraeli is probably the perfect example of such a film that was made in the earliest of the sound era; unremarkable, but good enough, made more so by the acting of its lead. Plus, the film is short, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It might treat its material with a little bit of the built-in reverence that tends to plague most biopics, treating Disraeli as the central figure of the whole thing and as a man who, being always in the right, can do no wrong; I don’t know if this was what actually, historically, happened or not, but the film, even with doing this, doesn’t seem to suffer that much as a result. This is probably more of one to seek out for its acting rather than its nomination for Best Picture, which I’m still unsure if I agree with or not, but it’s not really a bad film, should you decide to go ahead and watch it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona

Dios mio!

In Old Arizona is a film with quite a bit of novelty to it, being the first all-talkie western, and the first sound film to be shot outdoors; these advances in the cinematic palette being the chief sell of the film, as evident by the talking points of the poster up there. I hadn’t really considered the novelty too much when I started the film, wanting to judge it on a more complete and finished level, but the novelty of it is made all too apparent for almost every second of this one’s running time. This one somehow tied with the now-lost The Patriot for the most nominations at the Oscars that year. I use the word “somehow” to emphasize just how incredulous I was after watching it for myself that this did in fact happen, and at how much novelty this one tries to cram into its scant hour-and-a-half length.

Warner Baxter stars as the Cisco Kid, a bandit in the Southwest who holds up stagecoaches without robbing the innocent passengers of their hard-earned goods; the American Robin Hood indeed. The film, I had assumed, would be the tale of his adventures and misdeeds, as the authorities are hot on his trail, but he always outwits them until the final showdown, yadda yadda, etc. Turns out this wasn’t the case; this didn’t really have a story, and only barely a narrative. What it was was mostly an excuse to get the actors to perform scenes together, despite and in some cases in direct affront to the concept of a narrative thread that should run through any fiction film. Each scene seemed so out of place with the rest of the film, with only certain pieces of dialogue tying the whole thing into what amounted to the story’s structure. For instance, the scene near the beginning with the Cisco Kid and the sergeant in the barbershop seemed to go on needlessly long, like the film were trying to milk as much so-called comedy from the idea that the two men, official enemies, were being unknown friends to each other as it possibly could, and then went further after that. It didn’t help that the acting was extremely stilted from just about everyone involved, especially the leads. Baxter’s accent and manner of gesturing every time he said anything was incredibly hammy at the beginning, so much so I began to wonder immensely how he had won the award for Best Actor, and I was a bit let down to discover that this hamminess didn’t fade the more the film went on. Indeed, everybody else seemed to be taking their cue from it, delivering each line very carefully and in a very precise manner, and it got extremely annoying whenever I would pick it out, which was all the time.

This film reminded me of a slightly more well-made Alibi, which is not a comparison a film should be making from me; it was very blocky in how it operated, filmed, and acted, though it benefited from the production value added by the external shooting locations. It was almost as if the film knew it was going to be the first all-talkie western and wanted to make sure that you and everyone who watches the film knows it, pointing its finger into your chest every time it did something to emphasize its own merits. Of course, knowing the studio heads of the time, this is likely exactly the case with this film, and it would take a few years before studio bosses started to outgrow this almost macho-esque posturing with the films they made, if only a little bit. Still, this exists as a relic, a fossil of how they used to make films at the advent of sound, and little more. Really, if it weren’t for the inexplicable Oscar nominations it garnered, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this had been forgotten in the annals of film history altogether. Oh well; one more for the books, I guess.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

You’ve got to make love with words and music… You’ve saved your money, haven’t you?

Even for someone whose cinematic palette is as multi-cultured as I’d like to think mine is, there’s some things that just will never sit well with me. There might be the occasional neorealist film I can appreciate and enjoy, and even screwball comedies sometimes hit it right on the mark with me every now and then, but… what exactly did I just watch? I’m pretty sure it was a two-hour excuse for one studio to get together all of its name stars and force them to dance and sing and act “amusingly” humorous like trained monkeys, but apparently this is what’s known in the Hollywood circles as a revue, or variety show. My uncouth metaphor aside, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 somehow got nominated for Best Picture, or, according to my research, was “considered” for the award, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why. What’s more, I really don’t even want to try to understand it. This type of… do I dare even call it a film? Well, this type of… “film” is one thing that I just will not click with, in any way shape or form, and I’m just gonna have to try and accept that.

There is no plot for this; it’s a variety show, and for two whole hours you are going to be subjected to musical numbers, comedy acts, and big choreographed dance sequences to show off the MGM contract players’, um, talent. I guess that’s why this sort of thing has never jived with me; it possesses the notion that, if it’s not singing or dancing or musically (or comedically) inclined in some way, it doesn’t count as talent or entertainment. That’s a notion that I, as an eternal fan of the cinematic art form, reject, and I am made fully aware by films like this that my notion is not one that is aligned with the notions of the timeframe that this film was made in. I guess what I think I’m saying is, this film is unfortunately very dated, having been made with 1920s audiences squarely in mind, so it is almost required to watch a film like this in that dated mindset, something I was unfortunately unable to do this time. It was just so extremely weird seeing screen stars, supposedly known for their acting, singing and dancing rather awkwardly pretty much for no reason other than they were compelled to by their contracts with MGM. Granted, a few have gone on record saying that it was enjoyable to at least make the picture and do their numbers, so again, it’s probably just me and my modern sensibilities. The one sequence I actually did enjoy, amusing enough given my earlier comments, was the “modernization” of the Romeo and Juliet scene featuring director Lionel Barrymore; probably because it was the closest to being an actual film, with acting and written comedy, instead of being nothing but song-and-dance.

Words really cannot express how bored I was watching this. I tried as hard as I could to legitimately watch the whole thing, but there were a few times that I found myself alt+tabbing and merely listening along instead of visually watching the performers strut around the stage; I did actually watch a majority of it, but even so, chalk an asterisk next to this one as being watched for me. Even the comedy acts by notable names like Laurel & Hardy and the pratfalls of Buster Keaton ended up being cringeworthy, and I spent a majority of the running time (two hours, need I remind you) wondering when it would finally be over. Oh well; I got through it, I guess, so there’s something to that. Be a fan of variety shows, and watch it as a 1920s audience member, and you might get quite a bit out of this; otherwise, I wouldn’t bother, and if it weren’t for its Best Picture (again, really?) nomination, I wouldn’t have.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10

The Broadway Melody

The Broadway Melody

It’s her life; she couldn’t live without it!

I’ve heard it said numerous times from numerous people that 1929’s The Broadway Melody is the worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars. Well, my first impression upon starting this film, especially coming off the last film I watched for this blog, was one of pleasant refreshment; here, at least, was a film that knew what it was doing, and knew how to be a film and to use the resources it had at its disposal. The Broadway Melody was the first musical to win Best Picture, a fact that is trumpeted a little more than it should be, given it was only the second ever winner of the award at all. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about this film, especially about how it’s not worth the award it was given, and after having seen it, I can see what these people are talking about. I, however, didn’t hate the film nearly as much as it seemed like I should’ve, and it was for a number of reasons why.

One of the headliners of a Broadway act, Eddie Kearns, has a new musical number he’s sure will knock the socks off of any crowd, and so he takes the opportunity to bring in his gal Harriet “Hank” Mahoney and her younger sister Queenie to be in the number with him. Only thing is, he hadn’t seen Queenie since she was small, and he falls for her almost the instant he sees her for the first time again, which is made even more complicated when Queenie gets another admirer after replacing an injured showgirl in another number. The love triangles are tested against existing friendships and relationships, all against the backdrop of a make-it-or-break-it Broadway act for all involved. In case it wasn’t readily apparent from that summary, the film uses a similar (if not the same) storytelling device as later films like 42nd Street and All That Jazz, taking place behind the scenes and during the development of a Broadway show, a revue to be exact, so expect plenty of dapper songs and modest numbers. Only thing is, when this so-called musical does get around to the numbers, they’re only okay at best, and time-draining at worst. The title track, at the very least, is a toe-tapper, though the film seems to know this a little too well and decides to do the number a few more times than it really should’ve. I was also a fan of the production itself; while it wasn’t anything to wow at, it was very thrifty, knowing where to use certain assets and where to put the talent to good use, especially for a film at the dawn of the sound era. Apparently this was a convert from a silent picture to a sound one, and I watched the film with this knowledge in mind, and I couldn’t tell the difference at all, which should earn the film some bonus points considering when it was made.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the merits of this film, like how it’s billed as a musical and ends up spending most of its running time not singing and dancing, or how most of the conflict for the two lead females revolves around their guy troubles. But you know what? I liked this. And what’s more, I seemed to like it for many of the same merits that others had questions about. Sure, the film focuses almost entirely on relationship issues, is often a tad melodramatic, and doesn’t focus enough on the songs. But because of that, scenes like Hank’s climactic blowup at Eddie end up working way more than they should’ve given when the film was made, and when the film does focus on the music, it ends up faltering, so to end up not focusing on the music and focus on the relationships is what ultimately makes the film succeed overall. I guess the best way I can sum up my feelings about The Broadway Melody is: what should’ve won Best Picture in its place? Having watched Alibi and seen what that had to offer, films like The Broadway Melody end up shining that much brighter, and while it doesn’t give me enough hope for the rest of the year’s offerings to offset what Alibi gave me, if I put myself in the year that this was released, I can definitely see how it ended up winning the big one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Alibi

Alibi

You’re a great little guy, ain’tcha?

Roland West’s Alibi, a Roland West film by Roland West, was written and directed by Roland West, as well as produced by Roland West, and if the copious screen credits and plastering of Roland West’s name all over this Roland West film and its promotional material weren’t enough to clue you in that this is a Roland West film, then clearly Roland West desires that you should watch this Roland West film a second time; after all, this is a Roland West picture, written and directed by Roland West. By the way, who’s Roland West, exactly? Despite his name all over this film, I’d never heard of Mr. West before now, and when I watched his film Alibi, I so very clearly understood why. Maybe he wanted to be a big one-man name in Hollywood, and considering this was nominated for Best Picture, he might’ve succeeded. Not in my book, though; not only should this never have come within earshot of the phrase Best Picture, but I actually feel bad that money was spent to quote-unquote “restore” this film and give it even the meager DVD release it got.

Chick Williams is a mobster just released from prison, who immediately gets back in with his gang and slates them for a robbery. When a cop is killed during the crime, however, suspicion falls on him; thankfully, he has an excellent alibi (ha, it’s the title of the movie; get it?) in that he was at the local theater with the police chief’s daughter the whole night. The police aren’t buying it, though, and the rest of the film is spent with them trying to poke holes in Chick’s alibi until they finally confront him face to face after an undercover cop gets whacked. I think that mildly in-depth plot synopsis is enough of a gift from me, so now, let’s talk about the film itself, and how horrendously awful it is. For starters, imagine if, for direction, the director (Roland West, who is directing a Roland West script produced by Roland West) had merely told the camera operator, “Okay, now start the shot here, and I’ll have the actors do their thing, and then hold on their faces for a couple extra seconds, and then cut,” cause that’s almost exactly how this was shot and edited together. Now imagine that West’s direction to his actors was, “Okay, now when the shot starts, start acting here, say your line here, in this way, with this facial expression, and then do that for the next line, and so on, and then hold that expression for a couple extra seconds, and then we’re gonna cut,” cause that’s almost exactly how the actors in this film deliver every painful line and every scrawled expression. Almost every aspect of this film was so incredibly blocky that it made me wonder if the addition of sound had caused the filmmakers, every single one of them, to completely forget how to make a film, let alone a good one. The opening montage (can I even call it a montage?) seemed to be designed solely to take advantage of this new-fangled techno-ma-jigger called sound, almost as if the film was crying out “Hey, look at what we can do with synchronized sound effects!” From there, it just got worse with every scene, from the ham-fisted acting by somehow-Academy-Award-nominated-for-this-role Chester Morris, who looked like he kept getting caught trying desperately to eat his own face, to the death of the undercover cop, which is reportedly one of, if not, the longest death sequences ever, and it feels every second of it.

I honestly feel I’m doing this film an unwarranted favor by rating it as highly as I am, but to be completely straight, I ended up giving it this rating by comparing it to other films I also rated this low; that was the only way I could figure out how to do it. I believe I ended up giving it an extra point just for the curveball with the reveal of the undercover cop, which was fairly well done, and for the fact that an average viewer will be able to at least get through it, solely because it was short and in English and for no other reason. But that would be it. Everything else to this one was almost Vinyl-levels of bad, and it only saved itself from being that bad because it was actually trying to be good, even though it failed on an almost disgusting level. Avoid Alibi like the plague. If this is one of the five best films of the 2nd Academy Awards, this does not bode well for the other films in the lineup, and for the first time already, I felt a little indignation, and slightly more than a little regret, at my taking this task on.

Arbitrary Rating: 4/10

7th Heaven

7th Heaven

Never look down– Always look up!

Last up for the 1st Oscar for Best Picture is the film that garnered more nominations at the 1st ceremony than any other: Seventh Heaven, which ended up winning for its director, Frank Borzage, as well as actress Janet Gaynor, who also won that year for Sunrise and 1928’s Street Angel. To best describe my ending emotions about this one, here was my experience actually watching Seventh Heaven: I got through the first half, generally enjoying the setting of the film as well as how the plot was moving along… and then I paused it to eat some lunch. I got back, started it again, and for some magical, mystical reason, the film started to make all the wrong decisions when it came to developing its story further, throwing away everything good it had been doing up to then to instead pile on melodramatic story devices and dialogue. It was an almost disgusting amount of whiplash, and it was only Gaynor and Borzage’s direction that kept me going through the rest of the film.

Where Wings opted for the wow factor, and The Racket was more of a prenatal gangster picture, Seventh Heaven is all melodrama, and has Janet Gaynor and actor Charles Farrell falling in love despite several obstacles, chiefly a very abrupt obstacle thrust into the middle of the second act out of freaking nowhere. Farrell is Chico, a lowly sewer worker in Paris, who dreams of making a better life for himself as a street-washer (apparently the ladder of achievement and progress is not as elevated in Paris as it was in the States back then). Gaynor is Diane, who lives with her domineering and physically abusive sister. When Diane ends up ruining the sister’s chances at getting back in good with her family, she takes Diane out into the street and begins beating her, where she is saved by Farrell’s Chico, who gives her some food and, after feeling sorry for her, lies to the police and says she is his wife to avoid her being taken away. As this is a melodrama, you can see where this is going, and rest assured, obstacle after obstacle are thrown at the pair to challenge their fates of ending up together. The film starts out simple; following the street lives of its two main characters and how they meet, and developing the setting of the film rather nicely. I was really surprised, however, at how slow the plot seemed to develop; when I paused to eat lunch, after Chico had brought Diane to his home, I was actually surprised to find that the film at that point was already halfway over. It seemed the film was eschewing standard plot conventions in favor of laying on the romantic melodrama through its focus on the actions of the characters… Then, all of a sudden, a conscription notice was displayed on the screen, and Chico’s friend comes to tell him that the war has arrived and their regiment is to leave within the hour. Mind you, this is directly after Chico and Diane have agreed to marry each other; there isn’t even a break between segments, it’s the same exact scene that continues into this abrupt intrusion of the war angle of the story. From there, the film turned incredibly awkwardly into the most melodramatic scene in the entire picture, followed by a bunch of war scenes that felt wholly out-of-place with how the picture had been going up to then. I was left stymied at where and why the film had gone so wrong, and the film still continued, opting for the weirdest obstacles to throw into the mix and have the film call it plot development and conflict. Adding to that was the actual writing for some of the title cards, which could’ve been a tad less on-the-nose; there was one title card where a policeman enters the home of the main character, and a dialogue card pops up saying “I am a police detective–” and that’s all, and I had a chuckle at it despite myself.

I had so many problems with the plot of this one that I actually barely paid attention to the third act, instead spending the time avidly typing notes into my Notepad file that would end up becoming this review, having mostly checked out of the film after the unbelievably melodramatic middle scene where Chico and Diane agree to marry. The development of that scene, and really the whole second act, spelled out a good example of what I felt was 7th Heaven’s biggest problem. Where the development should’ve been about Farrell’s character growing accustomed to Gaynor’s presence and slowly but surely falling for her, the film instead opted to excise that notion and kept it to three scenes: one of him reminding Gaynor that after the police come to check on their story she needed to go, the following scene where he tells her after the police come she can stay as she ‘isn’t in the way’, and the scene after that, which has them awkwardly declaring their love and deciding to marry. Where’s the development of the relationship that was supposed to lead to these moments? Wherever it was, it was also the graveyard of the film’s sense of genuine, natural story development, with the war angle thrown against the wall of the film’s narrative so hard I might have actually physically flinched when I fully realized it had happened. I gotta give credit to Gaynor, for being such a darling, and Borzage, who despite the film’s poor decision making does do an admirable job setting the film’s mood and charisma, but other than that, wow did this one hit a straight fastball way into the left-field foul zone, and then proceeded to parade around the bases as if it had just hit a home run. To some, that ball did soar awfully high into the air, but for me, the film may as well have been holding the bat upside-down for all the good it did and how well it went about doing it.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10