Armchair Oscars – 1928-29

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
The Broadway Melody
(Directed by Harry Beaumont)
The Nominees:
Alibi, Hollywood Revue, In Old Arizona, The Patriot


MY CHOICE:
The Wind
(Directed by Victor Sjöström)
My Nominees:
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton), The Valiant (William K. Howard), Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bunuel), The Thirteenth Chair (Todd Browning)

1928-29-TheWind

In the first year of the Academy Awards, a decision had been made to disqualify The Jazz Singer from the Best Production category because it had the unfair advantage of being the only qualifying film that had sound and dialogue. In the second year of the Academy Awards the influx of sound had produced such a bumper crop of talkies that no such restriction was necessary.  The five nominated films in the second year of the Academy Awards were all wired for sound save for The Patriot, which had gone into production as a silent, but had sound effects added.

By 1929, Hollywood studios had moved into the sound era in full-force and with this new technology came the advent of the movie musical. When the public made it clear that musicals were profitable, the studios were eager to provide them. Often, the results were spotty, at best. Most of the early musicals were nothing more than a messy, plotless hodgepodge of studio contract players pushed in front of a camera to sing something, anything, whether they had any musical talent or not.

When MGM’s The Broadway Melody came along, it was something special because it was one of the few musicals at the time that actually had a plot, albeit an ancient tale about two sisters experiencing the triumph and heartbreak of Broadway. It featured memorable songs by Nachio Herb Brown and George Cohen that are still remembered today, including “You Were Meant for Me” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Plus, it had a further innovation by having one scene in technicolor.

It is easy to see how these new innovations would have dazzled the public as well as the academy voters. Yet, a movie that is best known for its technological innovations will inevitably fall victim to the ravages of time. The Broadway Melody hasn’t aged well; it was a product of good timing but a casualty of time itself.

Sadly, my choice for Best Production was a great film that was the victim of bad timing. Victor Sjöström’s epic The Wind blew in just as silent films were blowing out. Both The Wind and The Jazz Singer went into production at the same time, but how could Sjöström have seen the tidal wave of new film technology was about to wash in, dooming The Wind to seem dated before it was even released. That’s too bad because The Wind is probably one of the last great works of the silent era.

Sjöström, working from a novel by Dorothy Scarborough, makes great use of light and shadow that seems borrowed from the works of German directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. This film, along with John Ford’s The Informer, are probably the closest that any early American film came to the stark surrealism of the German Expressionists. The Wind also features the last great performance by Lillian Gish (this was her last silent) who expands on the kind of anguished angel character that she created in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms in 1919.

In The Wind, she plays Letty Mason, a good-hearted girl who moves from Virginia to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) and his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) at their Texas ranch in the midst of the dust bowl. Letty is barely in the door before Cora begins to resent her, especially with her warm affection for their children.

Letty has come west into the unrelenting Texas desert. Mesmerized by sandstorms that never seem to let up, she soon finds that it only complements a larger problem, the fact that even before she can exit the train, she is the object of scorn and lust. Nearly every man who approaches her does so with all the subtlety of a shark at feeding time. For poor Letty, this is a landscape that comes packaged with the misguided belief that if she gets married, she won’t invite such libidinous advances.

All the while, the wind still blows, the sands toss back and forth signifying the claustrophobia that is dooming Letty’s fragile spirit. Like the lecherous forces of the males that attack from all sides, she cannot find a port in the storm. Letty’s madness is wrought from her inability to find any peace. Realizing that this is a place that can only grant her any peace if she gets married, she marries Lige, a well-meaning suitor who wins her hand in a coin toss. She soon finds that bliss with Lige is impossible and turns her attentions to Roddy, a man she met on the train. He seems to be a better catch until he rapes her, and then she kills him and buries him in the sand.  But the wind refuses to be her assailant, as it keeps uncovering Roddy’s decomposing hand.

The film’s original ending was changed. In Scarborough’s novel, Letty kills Roddy and buries the body in the sand, then walks off into the sandstorm to die. Sjöström was happy with this ending, but after a test audience complained that the ending was too sour, the studio bosses at MGM demanded that a happier ending be filmed. The director obliged and, now, most prints feature the tacked-on alternate ending in which Letty reunites with Lige. As they stand in the doorway of the cabin, the film ends with the message that their love can conquer the winds. It is a nice image but if you’ve been following the narrative structure of the rest of the film, these last two minutes strike the wrong note. Letty’s fate is not her fault but her circumstances thrust her into a world she doesn’t understand, and that will not relent nor allow to her live on her own terms. The message of the tidier ending is that a woman’s happiness depends on her man.

The unrelenting desolation forced on Letty, mind, body and soul, is what makes The Wind work, not a tidy happy ending. Sjöström creates a canvas that is desolate and forbidding, not just in the physical landscape but the social landscape as well. Nearly every male that approaches her does so with salacious intentions. When she meets a seemingly nice man on the train, his intentions turn out to be anything but honorable. When she meets two cowpokes on the train platform, they get into a shooting contest to see who gets to sit next to her on the wagon. Later, one of the men wins her hand in marriage on a coin toss. She finds no comfort in female companionship because the closest thing would be Cora and she dismisses the poor girl before she even meets her. When Beverly tells Cora that Letty has arrived in town, Cora coldly responds “What’s the rush! She’ll be here awhile!” These elements create a narrative that make the film’s alternate ending arrive with a clang.  Why would such a brutal and unforgiving landscape suddenly relent in the end just because she has a man in her arms?

Still, despite the meddling ending, The Wind is a superior work of early filmmaking. Sjöström uses light and shadow, to create the swirling maelstrom of Letty’s deteriorating mental state. He manages to create a sense of claustrophobia from the moment she steps into the forbidding landscape, both from the land itself (the sandstorms never stop) and from those who dwell upon it. It is one of the best portraits of a woman struggling through a fierce environment that intends to do her nothing but harm. The original ending, as glum as it may have seemed, seems appropriate for what Letty has been through. If she wanders into the wilderness to die, at least it seems better than the winds of fate that await her if she stays.

Best Actor

Warner Baxter (In Old Arizona)
The Nominees:
George Bancroft (Thunderbolt), Chester Morris (Alibi), Paul Muni (The Valiant ), Lewis Stone (The Patriot)


MY CHOICE:
Douglas Fairbanks 
(The Iron Mask)
My Nominees:
Lon Chaney (Laugh Clown Laugh), Harold Lloyd (Speedy), Paul Muni (The Valiant)

1928-29-DouglasFairbanks

As the 1920s were coming to a close, silent film star Warner Baxter’s career was in danger of being gunned down by the advent of talking pictures. However, he got a lucky break when 20th Century Fox’s first all-talking western, In Old Arizona, went into production and the film’s original star Raoul Walsh had to be replaced after an accident in which a jackrabbit jumped through his car windshield and blinded the actor in his right eye. From Walsh’s misfortune, Baxter’s career was revived and he received the second Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Warner Baxter was an actor who seemed born for movie stardom. He had a winning smile, a commanding screen presence and matinee idol looks. Yet, as far as talent, he came up a little short. His performance as The Cisco Kid in the drippy western In Old Arizona, like the rest of his work, was serviceable but nothing really special. He wasn’t a bad actor but wasn’t worthy of an Oscar either. It is harsh to say, but I think he got by on his looks.  Possibly for that reason, he is more or less forgotten today.

For my Best Actor award, I was initially tempted to reward Lon Chaney for his work as lovelorn  Tito Beppi, a circus clown who is stricken with fits of uncontrollable weeping in Herbert Brenon’s Laugh Clown Laugh, but I admit that my decision would have been based mainly on the fact that I don’t have many opportunities to reward him (he died a year later). It is a nice farewell performance but I cannot say that it is his best, nor is it worthy of an Oscar.

Some would say the same of my choice, but watching Douglas Fairbanks leap about and maintain that trademark smile at 44 is remarkable. Not that 44 is old, but for an action star to still be moving as fast in his 40s as he did in his 20s, attention must be paid. His performance in The Iron Mask is pretty much everything audiences had come to expect from him. He’s dashing, he’s handsome, he’s quick with a sword. The film is also noteworthy because this is the film in which Fairbanks bids farewell to silent pictures.

The Iron Mask would mark the end of his greatness as an actor. After this film, he began a short, unsuccessful career trying to make the transition from silent films to talkies in forgettable fare like Mr. Robinson Crusoe and The Private Life of Don Juan. Those films show an actor who had simply lost his passion for his work, but The Iron Mask is a reminder of his great screen presence.

The Iron Mask is actually a sequel to 1921’s The Three Musketeers. Here again, Fairbanks plays D’Artagnan, who falls in love with Constance, the Queen’s pretty seamstress. As they meet, Constance is going to the castle to be at the side of Her Majesty, who is about to give birth to the future heir to the throne of France. Unfortunately, a complication puts Constance’s life in danger when she becomes the bearer of privileged information – the queen has given birth to twin sons and no one must know because two sons could lead to an eventual civil war. One boy is raised to be the King of France while the other is sent to be raised in secret by a family in Spain.

The mother is locked in a convent and when D’Artagnan hears news of her whereabouts he gathers Aramis, Porthos and Athos to storm the convent and rescue her. But they are too late, because Constance is killed – killed! – by the wicked Milady de Winter when she discovers that the woman is a criminal on the lam. It is a wicked turn of events that sends D’Artagnan into service of the king (he doesn’t know about the twins) and the other three musketeers back to their various provinces.

Years pass and we find D’Artagnan in the new king’s service as his personal guard and confidant. They form a lifelong bond and by the time the king is in his 20s, D’Artagnan is grey-headed, still dashing and still possessing his ever-present smile. The brother, meanwhile, returns from Spain, takes the king’s place , forces his majesty into a horrible iron mask and locks him in a castle. Locked in his cell, the incarcerated king scratches a note to D’Artagnan onto the surface of a metal plate and tosses it to a passing fisherman. D’Artagnan gets the note and sends word to retrieve his old musketeer buddies to come and help.

In the raid on the castle, the King is rescued but it costs three of the aged musketeers their lives. D’Artagnan aids the King in defeating his brother and returning to power before he is stabbed in the back by a traitor. In a rather awkward closing passage, a mortally wounded D’Artagnan stumbles from the castle and looks skyward to see his brothers in Heaven urging him to join them. He dies and, arm in arm, they march off to glory – all for one and one for all.

The reason I choose Fairbanks for my Armchair Oscar is because The Iron Mask is a prime example of the reason he was such a popular actor. He has a great smile, he looks terrific and there are moments when you can feel the pure joy of performance. Unlike many actors who get so far down into their character that they forget their audience, Fairbanks knew to have fun on the screen. This made him perfect to play heroes like Zorro, Robin Hood and D’Artagnan because he was a commanding presence on screen, he had the smile of a rascal and if his stunts were all done by doubles, than I’ll admit I’ve been fooled. It is amazing, for me, to watch him in his mid-forties still as quick and dashing as he had been in his younger days. The Iron Mask was his final silent film and the only one in which his character dies. That is fitting because it bids farewell to his stint as the king of the silent films.

Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Mary Pickford
(Coquette)
The Nominees:
Ruth Chatterton (Madame X), Betty Compson (The Barker), Jeanne Eagles (The Letter), Corinne Griffith (The Divine Lady), Bessie Love (The Broadway Melody)


MY CHOICE:
Lillian Gish
(The Wind)
My Nominees:
Jeanne Eagles (The Letter), Bessie Love (The Broadway Melody)

1928-29-LillianGish

It is hard to dismiss Mary Pickford’s contribution to the world of motion pictures, even if you aren’t overly fond of her work. She was a pioneer, one of the co-founders of United Artists, she was one of the founding members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and she was a savvy businesswoman who was guiding the path of her own career at a time when Congress was battling over whether or not to let women vote.

During the silent era, Pickford was one of the most recognized faces on the planet, and it was she who created the institution of the mass media celebrity. That is probably because her films were always accessible to a mass audience. Her image was created in her most famous film roles in which she played wide-eyed precocious little girls in films like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Rosita, Little Lord Fauntleroy and Pollyanna.

Yet, by the late 1920s, when sound became the new technological revolution, Pickford – now 35 – decided that she was outgrowing the preteen roles that had made her famous. She wanted to try something more adult and made a media event out of the fact that she would be cutting off her trademark curls and replacing it with a far more adult (and admittedly unflattering) Marcel wave. She told the press: “I’m sick of Cinderella parts, of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover.” She was urged to buy the film rights to Coquette, a stage play that had brought great success to Helen Hayes. When the public saw Pickford in the role of Norma Besant, a shameless flirt who falls for a mountain man but gets tangled up with his disapproving father, she got fan mail advising her to get the curls back.

Career-wise, she was not having a good year. Her other film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (with husband Douglas Fairbanks) got even worse reviews. So Pickford, worried about her chances for an Oscar, invited the central board of judges to Pickfair, her mansion, for tea and thus created the institution of the Oscar campaign. When she won the Oscar, many were skeptical that the voting practices were on the up and up and that her victory was merely a pat on the back for trying to change her image (the tea probably wasn’t bad either). As a result, the central board of judges was dissolved and thereafter, the entire body of the academy would be eligible to vote.

As for the performance, it’s pure vanilla.  Norma Besant isn’t exactly the most original character in the world, especially when you consider that it’s the type of character that seemed to show up in every other film in the 1920s – the good girl who tempts fate and finds only disapproval and misery.  It was a standard trope at the time, but sadly Pickford wasn’t the right actor for the part.  I find that movie to be a chore to sit through, although it must be said that I admire her attempts to play more adult roles.

The person responsible for encouraging Pickford to buy the rights to Coquette was my choice for Best Actress of the year, Lillian Gish who gave one of her greatest screen performances in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, a great silent film that had the misfortune of going into production just at the moment when the sound revolution was about the sweep silent films right into the dustbins of history.

In her last silent film, Gish plays Letty Mason, a character not that far removed from the characters she’d played for D.W. Griffith in films like Broken Blossoms. Here she is still a victim, but the difference is that she doesn’t let her damaged spirit bring her to her knees.  Moving from Virginia into a supposedly better life out west, she finds that it is a forbidding landscape with no room for a woman of her fragility.

Even before the train stops, the signs become obvious that even the landscape itself is against her with relentless sandstorms that twist and turn outside – the sandstorms almost become another character. Before arriving at the house, where she is to board with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) and his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming), Letty becomes the victim of the advances of three men and throughout the film she will become the scorn of women and the object of lust from men.

Nothing Letty can do is enough to escape the winds of chance. From Cora, she finds no comfort because the woman has already dismissed her before she arrived at the house. From the men, she finds only misery and despair. She meets a man named Lige (Lars Hanson), but turns down his offer of marriage. Then she meet Roddy (Montagu Love) who seems nice but then rapes her, forcing her to murder him and bury the body in the sand. She begins to lose her mind, trapped in a cabin as the sandstorm outside gets worse and worse.

Originally, the film was to end on an appropriately melodramatic note. After she kills Roddy, she buries the body but realizes that the winds keep blowing the sand off the corpse. Delusional, she wanders into the forbidding wilderness to die. That ending fits the narrative structure of the rest of the film but, unfortunately, after the film was screened for a test audience, they complained that the ending was too sour. So, director Victor Sjöström was forced to reshoot the ending to something more upbeat. In the alternate ending, after Letty kills Roddy, she is reunited with Lige and they stand in the doorway of the cabin. The film ends with the message that their love can conquer the winds.

In spite of the hackneyed ending, Lillian Gish still gives one of the best performances of her career. She was an expert at expressing the inner turmoil in an age when movies didn’t talk. We sense that the characters she played, like Letty, are the victims of outward turmoil, but this time she fights against a landscape that scorns her. Though she may fall into the traps of a letch, she never does so willingly. She’s strong-willed but not overtly stubborn and even in the film’s tacked on ending, she returns to her husband willingly. The original ending gives a much better but much bleaker ending in which she chooses suicide over a life of compromise.

The Wind, Gish would later recall, was one of the most difficult films she ever made, with airplane propellers blowing the sand which burned the skin and tore her outfit in the scorching heat of the Mohave Desert. Added to that were the problems she had with the studio, getting backing for the film. She made The Wind in order to finish out her contract with MGM. She wrote a treatment of the script, hired Frances Marion to write the screenplay and Victor Sjöström to direct it. Very few women had this kind of power in Hollywood in the 1920s, but by this time, Gish had the pull to make any project she wanted.

This also helped in a power struggle with MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer.  When the film flopped (mainly because the studio wouldn’t promote it) Mayer told her that she needed to have her image tarnished to boost her sagging career. But Gish wouldn’t hear of it, and he dismissed her. She returned to New York for the theater but kept working consistently in films and on the stage up until 1987’s The Whales of August. She would not be acknowledged by the academy until 1946 with a supporting actress nomination for Duel in the Sun and in 1971 with an honorary award.

 

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