Armchair Oscars – 1929-30

Best Picture

All Quiet on the Western Front (Directed by Lewis Milestone)
The Nominees: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade

All Quiet on the Western Front (Directed by Lewis Milestone)
My Nominees:
The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey and Joseph Santley), The Big House (George Hill), Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst), The Virginian (Victor Fleming)


The very first film to be selected for the top prize at the Oscars was William Wellman’s Wings, a pro-war epic about the friendship between a pair of pilots during the first world war.  Two years later, in the third year of the academy awards, the selection would be another war epic that takes place during the very same conflict, but All Quiet on the Western Front would be as different from Wings as night is from day. In the decade that would follow this remarkable film, hundreds of anti-war films would offer the same message as Lewis Milestone’s epic but few held it’s brutal power.

All Quiet on the Western Front contains no subtleties. In an industry the prides itself on glorifying war, here is a film that charges headlong into a war that you don’t want anything to do with.  This is a movie that is so angry in it’s message and so mesmerizing in it’s depiction of the horror of “The Great War” that it is sometimes inconceivable that it was made in 1929. Here is a film that has such a knowing hindsight about the realities of trench warfare that you can scarcely believe that it happened in the 20th century.

The soldiers in the film are Germans but they could have come from almost any country. The point is made that every war is the same, good people die, bad people die, that war is the same thing over and over and the only thing that changes are the uniforms. The fascinating thing about All Quiet on the Western Front is that it is seen from the Germans point of view, the character have a variety of accents.  They are meant to represent the idea that all sides fight the war with the same disillusionment and heartache.

Sixty countries experienced what goes in this film: Young naive boys with wonder in their eyes listened to patriotic speeches in which war was presented as a glorious adventure, that doing one’s duty was simply a matter of putting on a beautiful uniform and riding into battle on horseback with a saber flashing in the sun. But we know the reality. We know that the first world war was a contest of endurance, that it was a pointless and bloody and that it was a constant unceasing stalemate that never moved in either direction. We know the degradation of humanity and the waste of millions and millions of lives for nothing.

Having revisited the film again I find that I could argue that the movie reinforces this point over and over for nearly the entire length, that war is nothing more than a grueling bloody, pointless exercise in hoping you aren’t where the bomb hits. However, the movie depicts how the soldiers in the trenches saw it. They saw it day to day, month to month, one year into the next for four unbelievable years. They went for the romantic adventure and quickly found themselves knee-deep in mud, decay, rats, starvation, bullets, bombs, rain, blood and death. To desert would have meant being shot.

This is, of course, the best anti-war film ever made and it never pulls away from it’s message nor is it shy about how propaganda led to a great deal of the carnage. As the film opens, we meet the classroom full of young men being spirited on by a jingoistic teacher who tells these naive lads “You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys — you are the iron men of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called to do so. It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads.” He concludes boastfully that “Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland. Now our country calls. The Fatherland needs leaders. Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country. Here is a glorious beginning to your lives. The field of honor calls you.”

We meet this man twice, once at the beginning of the film and then again just before the third act. From what we’ve seen it becomes uncomfortably clear, by the second visit, that this man (like many men like him) has never set foot on a battlefield. Then again, no one could have understood the sheer gory magnitude of this war. In recent years, there had been The Boar War and the Spanish American War with it’s romantic tales of glorious battles on horseback with the saber flashing in the sun. No one understood the impact of 20th century warfare, of tanks and bombs and mustard gas.

We meet these boys with a sparkle in their eyes. They have fantasies about the spoils of war and that’s mostly what urges them to join the cause. As they march off to the front, as they fight, as they quickly become disillusioned by the horrors of war they begin to die one by one and their number dwindle. At first, our focus isn’t on any one particular soldier but as the body count goes up one soldier, a nice kid named Paul (Lew Ayres) comes into focus. He doesn’t seem as naive as his classmates but none-the-less he goes off to fight for glory. He is more thoughtful than those around him and we see that most especially in one bone-chilling scene in which he finds himself alone in a trench with a French soldier (the first Frenchman he’s ever seen) that he has stabbed in the chest. Feeding him water to keep him alive he finds that it doesn’t work and as the soldier dies Paul asks his forgiveness and promises to send news of his bravery to the man’s wife and daughter when he finds their photograph in the his coat.

Paul’s growing disdain for the whole mess reaches further than even he can understand. After being wounded he returns home to see his mother and finds that he doesn’t fit anymore, that the war has torn something from his soul and that he can’t return to his life, therefore that he must return to the battle. During the trip he finds himself back in the classroom where he confronts the professor who inspired his classmates off to war all those years ago. We find the professor again boasting of the glory of battle and the spoils of war to a group of boys who look even younger than Paul and his classmates had been. Urged by the professor to tell the boys about the greatness of fighting for one’s country he instead tells them: “It is dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it is better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country and what good is it?”

What stays with me about All Quiet on the Western Front are the battle scenes.. We see the boys lined up at the trenches, firing out into No Man’s Land, not especially at anything but just in case. Then the enemy emerges from the gas clouds, maybe a hundred, maybe a million, charging at the trenches, some are shot dead, some make it to the trench. The boys fire their rifles and machine guns and sometimes they hit something but how could anyone be expected to fight them all off, there are just so many of them?

Then the enemy reaches the trenches and as they jump into the trench and you are expected to fight them hand to hand, gun to gun, knife to knife. You plunge a knife into a man’s heart but the trench is so packed with soldiers that you have to ask: what’s to keep the soldier behind you from stabbing you in the back? Furthermore the uniforms all look so much the same how do you know that the person stabbing you isn’t one of your own who has stabbed or shot you in a panic? And when does it end? The enemy soldiers pour into the trench in wave after wave, how can anyone expect to be victorious in a situation like that? How could anyone put a human being in a situation like that, especially one barely eighteen years old. How could a survivor sleep at night with those memories? As Eric Remarque put it in the novel: “We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces”.

Best Actor

George Arliss
The Nominees: Wallace Beery (The Big House), Maurice Chevalier (The Big Pond), Maurice Chevalier (The Love Parade), Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond), Ronald Colman (Condemned), Lawrence Tibbitt (The Rouge Song)

Wallace Beery (The Big House)
My Nominees:
George Arliss (Disraeli), Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)


George Arliss had respectability written all over him. He was a legendary stage performer who made his name is silent pictures and was well known for his grand portrayals of historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Voltaire. One of his most famous was his performance as Britain’s 19th Century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, which landed him an Oscar at age 60 in the film simply called Disraeli. Arliss had played the role on stage since 1910 and had even starred in a 1921 silent version which, today, is mostly lost except for one surviving reel. Arliss would became so identified with the role that legend has it that a woman saw a picture of the real Disraeli in a museum and remarked “Look at that wonderful picture of George Arliss.”

He also became so identified with the role that his other Oscar-nominated performance was completely ignored, despite the fact that he was nominated for both. In these early days of the Academy Awards, actors were nominated and won for their work in several films rather than just a single performance.

For the 1929-30 season, Arliss was nominated for his performance in Disraeli and for his work as a raja in the jungle adventure The Green Goddess (both directed by Alfred Green). Arliss held the release of The Green Goddess until after Disraeli so that it could be lauded as his talking debut. Yet, despite the fact that he was nominated for both, he only took home an Oscar for Disraeli. Today there is no explanation for this and nothing in the academy’s records to explain what happened.

Never-the-less, Arliss’ role as Disraeli would become his legacy. It is seen as his masterwork, but for me, the film is like a plate of broccoli. I know it is good for me but I’m not ready to see it again right away. There is nothing really wrong with Arliss’ work but watching the struggle of Disraeli attempting to obtain the Suez Canal from Egypt isn’t one-tenth as exciting as watching Wallace Beery’s Butch Schmidt shoot it out with the cops in George Hill’s The Big House.

Beery had been in Hollywood for a decade playing mostly villains but few took notice of him. He was a reliable actor, mostly typecast in the role of a slob with a heart of gold, but it was a role he played to perfection (despite the information that off-screen his heart was anything but gold). He seemed doomed to stay in the shadows of mainstream Hollywood until Lon Chaney gave him a lucky break – he died, which made room for Beery to take the role.

Butch (by way of Beery) is a red-blooded character, a short, solidly-built bully serving a life-sentence for poisoning his girlfriend Sadie to death. By all accounts, Butch is ridiculous, with his bald head, his chubby features and his wide smile he resembles an over-sized baby – or Curly Howard’s evil twin. We can see that he is somewhere in his 40s but something inside him refused to let him grow up. He’s a grown man but his mind and his mouth reveal a person perpetually stuck in his pre-teen years. He is prone to fits of violent anger but always retracts it with “I was only kiddin'”. He fantasizes about a woman who sends him love letters and he reads them even though we know he is an illiterate.

We feel something for the poor, pitiful overgrown baby.  Something about his nature suggests that his violent tantrums spark from his lack of knowing any other way to control his rage.  He surprises us, when we first meet him we expect that he will be an intimidating bully.  We’re also surprised when we learn exactly why he is in prison, we assume some bank robbery, or maybe he beat someone to death.  But poisoning?  Does he seem to have the brain power for that?  He’s odd, walks odd, talks odd, his mind is stuck in a case of arrested development.  As co-star Chester Morris observes “From the neck down, Butch, you’re a regular guy”.

Best Actress

Norma Shearer (The Divorcee)
The Nominees: Nancy Caroll (The Devil’s Holiday), Greta Garbo (Anna Christie),Greta Garbo (Romance), Ruth Chatterton (Sarah and Son), Norma Shearer (Their Own Desire), Gloria Swanson (Trespasser)

Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box)
Nominees: Greta Garbo (Anna Christie), Norma Shearer (The Divorcee)


As the 30s began, the two most popular movie stars in the world were Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo so it seemed fitting that the two would be the front-runners for the year’s Best Actress award. Both Shearer and Garbo had successfully made the transition from silent to talking pictures (though Garbo’s debut was delayed because of her thick accent) and 1930 was a year that saw both actresses achieving critical and popular success playing women who make controversial choices involving men. Garbo tries to keep her new lover from finding out that she is a streetwalker in the title role of Anna Christie while Norma Shearer’s Jerry Martin gets wrapped up in messy revenge games against her cheating husband in Robert Z. Leonard’s racy The Divorcee.

For the time, both of these films were controversial which didn’t stop them from becoming extremely popular at the box office. It is hard to decide which performance is better because in terms of style and tone, the two are so similar.

If I were forced to choose one over the other, I would probably choose Shearer just because hers is more daring – Shearer’s Jerry Martin cheats on her husband out of revenge, while Garbo’s Anna Christie becomes a streetwalker out of need. I liked Shearer’s performance but I cannot say that I liked The Divorcee which I find to be a messy, overly complicated series of spite games involving a married couple who both cheat and then find themselves back in each others arms for a happy ending.

Shearer did her best work later in the decade in pictures like in Their Own Desire, A Free Soul, Marie Antoinette, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Smilin’ Thru, so it is difficult not to think that the Academy may have rewarded her a bit too early. But while Garbo and Shearer were both golden ladies of the film industry, Louise Brooks caroused with men, wore short skirts, drank, got into trouble and had no use for Hollywood’s silly rules. For this, the studios would abandon her and when she left the country (refusing to dub her lines for The Canary Murder Case) she would land the lead in a film considered to be one of the greatest of the late silent era, G.B Pabst’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box.

Brooks fits comfortably into the role of Lulu, a profane woman who moves from one man to the other like cars in a bumper car ride. As the movie opens, she is angry that her lover, a certain Dr. Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner), is dumping her to marry a respectable woman and uses her seductive powers to try and change his mind. It works, but on the wedding night, he mistakenly thinks that she is making a play for another man. This leads to a fight that leaves Ludwig dead of a gunshot wound.

Fleeing the law, she takes refuge with Lugwig’s grown son Alwa on a gambling boat, paying a bribe to a nosy journalist until the son loses the money gambling. When he is caught cheating, she and Alwa escape, with the help of an elderly gentleman who has also fallen under her spell, to a small London town without food or money. Lulu is forced to sell herself for money but unfortunately her first (and last) customer turns out to be Jack the Ripper.

Lulu is a fascinating study of the anti-Midas touch, everything she touches turns to crap. Every time she approaches a man, it becomes inevitable that she will eventually destroy him. It can be said that she uses sex to lure them into her web, but she seems to weave a spell that requires her to do almost nothing. She has the ability to turn men to jelly with her sexual energy. Unfortunately, Lulu’s center of gravity is chaos – like a clumsy person knocking things over, she has a nasty habit of causing pain and destruction.

Brooks has an amazing ability to let her aura speak volumes. This kind of screen presence made her irresistible. She speaks with her eyes, her hips, and an unmistakable smile.  She is openly affectionate to everyone. She knows that men can turn weak in the presence of a beautiful woman, and it excites her when she effectively weaves her magic spell. There is also an undercurrent of frustration and anger when it doesn’t work. We know that Lulu is vulnerable but that sex is her defense mechanism. She isn’t mean – she doesn’t destroy men on purpose. She has fun playing with men, watching them squirm and fall under her spell but she can’t seem to grasp the concept that it always leads to despair. She is addicted to her own sexual nature. In the end, when she ends up in London, penniless, cold and without someone to manipulate we sense that prostitution is a way to hang on to whatever sexual power she still has. When she falls into despair, her chaotic nature has dragged several men to their deaths and at least two others to starvation and poverty. What comes of Lulu in the end might seem like just desserts.


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