Armchair Oscars – 1930-31

Best Picture

Cimarron (Directed by Wesley Ruggles)
The Nominees: East Lynn, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn

City Lights (Directed by Charles Chaplin)
My Nominees:
A Free Soul (Clarence Brown), The Front Page (Lewis Milestone), Morocco (Josef Von Sternberg), The Public Enemy (William Wellman)


The new decade was inaugurated with a flurry of bad news, and not just at the movies.  Just nine weeks before the 1920s came to a close the stock market crashed and threw the country into a depression from which it would not recover for 15 years.  Still, Americans went to the movies as they did in times of joy and sorrow, and in 1930 the magic that had vanished from the landscape of the good old USA was still ever-present at the movies.

Sadly, that magic was not present on the roster of Best Picture nominees.  The new decade began with one of the worst lists of Best Picture nominees in the history of the award.  Aside from Lewis Milestone’s brilliant adaptation of The Front Page, the choices for Hollywood’s first official “Best Picture” were all pious, respectable prestige films that were completely unworthy of award consideration.  Does anyone remember Skippy?  East LynneTrader Horn?   Me neither.

The least deserving of the nominees for Best Picture was the academy’s final selection.  Cimarron was an interminable, dusty old piece of western bullflop pried from the pages of Edna Ferber’s popular novel about the evolution of the Oklahoma frontier as seen through the eyes of a married couple played by Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

How much did I hate Cimarron?  Let me count the ways: It is too long; the narrative is muddy; the performances are wooden; the story is cornball; not to mention the film’s appalling attitude toward both African-Americans and Native Americans.  You can admire the much-hailed look of the western landscape, photographed by Edward Cronjager, but there have been so many westerns that came along since that have made much better use of outdoor photography (see Red River) that it seems pointless to single out this one.

The win is something of a mystery.   Cimarron received glowing critical acclaim and would receive two other Oscars for the script and the art direction, but it was a box office flop, further cementing the fact that the win was an inside job.

Making my choice for the best film of 1930 was easy.  Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights is generally lauded as the master’s finest achievement, yet, the academy punished him for his refusal to move into sound films.  By 1930, he was virtually alone in his opinion that talkies would die out within five years. He made two silent films in the 1930s, City Lights in 1930 and then Modern Times in 1935, neither of which were embraced by the balking academy voters despite the fact that they were both box office successes.  The irony is that both City Lights and Modern Times, despite the absence of sound were surprisingly more contemporary than many of the talking pictures that opened at the same time.

City Lights is universally acclaimed as Chaplin’s most accomplished work, while a movie like many of the year’s nominated films have long-since passed out of common knowledge.  Here on display are all of the notes of Chaplin’s artistic greatness.  You can see the work of a meticulous craftsman who spent years perfecting his films down to the last detail.  It is as close to perfect as his great works ever came.

The story finds the Little Tramp in the big city. He is almost invisible because the other citizens pretend he doesn’t exist.  He falls in love with the only person who doesn’t greet him with disdain, a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who sells flowers to support herself and her grandmother (Florence Lee).  Of course, this sightless woman doesn’t have the capacity to dismiss The Tramp because of his appearance, but through a simple misunderstanding she thinks that The Tramp is a millionaire and looks forward to his daily visits.  And through a mistaken assumption on his part, he thinks that she won’t talk to him if she thinks that he is a penniless tramp.

The Tramp takes odd jobs to help the woman to pay her rent.  While working as a street cleaner, he saves a suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers) from drowning.  The millionaire becomes his bosom pal but only recognizes the Tramp when he is drunk.  The Tramp takes advantage of the situation, and soon has enough money to pay for an operation that will cure the girl’s sight. Unfortunately the millionaire is knocked in the head by burglars and it is the Tramp who looks guilty.  Desperate, The Tramp hands the money over to the blind girl and beats it out of town, both out of fear of getting caught and out of fear that when she regains her sight, she will be repulsed by his tattered appearance.

Some time later, after he has been released from jail, The Tramp returns to the city looking even more ragged then he had been before.  He returns to the street corner where he initially met his blind friend, but finds that she has moved on.  In a tussle with some teasing newspaper boys, he happens upon the girl by accident.  This time her sight has been cured, but she doesn’t recognize him.  She tries to give him a flower and when she touches his hand, she suddenly realizes who he is.  “You?” she says.  “You can see now,” he says. “Yes, I can see now,” she replies. Happily, he was wrong about her.  With sight, she accepts his kindness and his love. The film ends with the unmistakable smiling face of the Tramp, finally seen for his heart and not his tattered rags.

The beauty of that final scene is that it challenges the notion that love is blind.  That scene speaks volumes about the selflessness of true love without saying a word.  It speaks to kindness and the purity of the human heart.  It speaks of generosity where no reward is expected in return.  It is a statement that love doesn’t come from expenses and luxuries.  It comes from the purity of a man who has no physical riches but only has the kindness and tenderness in his heart.  City Lights is a simply-told story, spoken only in broad strokes, not a long, labored speeches.  Simple gestures are what make the magic here.

What makes the movie stand out among Chaplin’s work is that it moves beyond the theme of most of his adventures with The Little Tramp.  In every other movie, The Tramp struggles for basic human survival, to get work to put foot into a hungry stomach.  Here the motivation is much greater, to give the woman that he loves the simple gift of her sight, to open the door for her to enter the sighted world despite the fact that he has nothing to offer her.  It is a pure and beautiful statement.

Best Actor

Lionel Barrymore
(A Free Soul)
The Nominees: Jackie Cooper (Skippy), Richard Dix (Cimarron), Frederich March (The Royal Family of Broadway), Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page)

Peter Lorre (M)
My Nominees:
Lew Ayers (The Doorway to Hell), John Barrymore (Svengali), James Cagney (The Public Enemy), Charlie Chaplin (City Lights), Boris Karloff (The Criminal Code), Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), Edward G. Robinson (Smart Money)


My favorite movie characters in the first year of the new decade were men who operated just outside the law.  Nineteen thirty-one was a great year for villains, from James Cagney’s gun-happy Tom Powers in The Public Enemy to Edward G. Robinson’s Little “Rico” Caesar in Little Caesar to Lew Ayers gangster in the little-seen The Doorway to Hell to Boris Karloff in The Criminal Code and even John Barrymore as a sinister hypnotist in Svengali.

Yet, in this great year for villains, the academy voters chose a man of nobility.  Lionel Barrymore won the year’s Best Actor Oscar for playing Stephen Ashe, an alcoholic Defense Attorney in A Free Soul who was trying to get Leslie Howard off the hook for the murder of mobster Clark Gable.  The film ended with Ashe dropping dead on the courtroom floor after delivering his closing argument – a move that was said to be the entire reason that Barrymore won the Oscar.  The performance and the movie offer only second-rate Barrymore.  He had done far better before and after this film and it is a little sad that this was the first and last time that he got an acting nomination (his only other nod was for Best Director for Madame X in 1929).

My first – and somewhat knee-jerk – instinct was to reward Charlie Chaplin for his work in City Lights but I feel that I’ve given him credit by rewarding his film, so it came to a choice between James Cagney for The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson for Little Caesar.  Both of these actors defined their careers by playing violent psychopathic gangsters, but those are extremely well-known and studied performances.  My choice may not be so well-known, but played no less a scumbag, Peter Lorre’s pathetic child murderer in Fritz Lang’s unforgettable M.

With limited screen time, Lorre creates a character that is despicable beyond reason, a murderer of innocent children.  His Franz Beckert is an unassuming man with a sweet face who walks the streets fully aware of the chaos that he is creating.  His community is in an uproar, someone is killing their children and no suspect can be identified.  We see Beckert carry out his crimes, leading children to their doom using candy, toys, whatever means he can and kills them for no other reason than some damaged inner compulsion.

As the movie opens we follow a child from a playground and into town where she has a fatal meeting with Franz who buys her a balloon. We never see the murder, we never see the body, but the way director Fritz Lang signals a child’s death is chilling. We see a series of eerie shots: an empty playground; her empty chair at the dinner table; her ball rolling into a clearing and finally the balloon briefly caught in the power lines.  That last image will give you chills.

Beckert doesn’t appear in the story with any significant time for the first 45 minutes.  He is seen mostly in fleeting glances and we see the back of his head as he writes a taunting letter to the newspaper.   We see him buying a balloon for the little girl who will soon turn up missing – in a chilling moment, his  shadow falls across his own wanted poster as he looks down at her.

Though we only see him in small doses at first, it is primarily to give us the same point of view as the townspeople.  Beckert is so normal and so sweet-looking that we would never suspect that he is capable of such evil.  We hear conversations about this monster – whom everyone assumes must have escaped from an institution – and he reciprocates in an effective moment when he looks into his mirror and pulls down the corners of his mouth in order to see himself as the monster he is projected to be. The movie offers only fleeting glimpses into his madness, especially in a later scene when he gazes into a shop window and thinks he sees his victims staring back at him.

Beckert only occupies half of the film because most of the action involves the police and the general public who argue over the problem. They make silly accusations among themselves; they make false accusations based on fear and confusion.  Fear breeds baseless conclusions, the townsfolk fight one another and point fingers.  The Police employ the criminal underground for help and soon we see that both the cops and the criminals in this community work pretty much the same way.  In the end when the criminal world catches Franz, they don’t bother the courts they decide to work as a kangaroo court and punish Beckert themselves.

The irony is that with all the paranoia in this community, the man who identifies Beckert is a street balloon vendor who is blind. The man overhears him whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” which has become the killer’s calling card.  He recognizes the tune that Beckert was whistling when he bought a balloon for the little girl.

In a filthy basement, Beckert is surrounded by hundreds of accusing ugly, dirty faces.  In a brilliant shot, Lang’s camera pans across a sea of jeering faces.  This is where Lorre’s performance really comes to life.  Fearing his own life, he falls on his knees and proclaims the torment in his brain that makes him commit such unspeakable acts and screams as he proclaims “Who knows what it is like to be me?” This sniveling little man who brought about a reign of terror now begs for his own life.

Peter Lorre was only 26 at the time and this was only the third film in which he appeared. His performance is small but unforgettable.  For years after he would be typecast as the villain, usually in supporting roles in films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.  He had a voice, a stature and a bug-like facial structure that would pigeonhole him for the rest of his life and made him the favorite target of impressionists and cartoonist.  After working for Fritz Lang, Lorre left his native Germany (he was born in Austria and was Jewish) and fled to Paris and then to America in 1935. He would become a dependable actor even if he remained in the role of sneaky, underhanded fools.

It was in Germany that he did his best work mostly because he got to play the lead. In Hollywood it was hard to find a wide range of leading roles. He starred in smaller parts and rarely had a lead (He played the lead in the Mr. Moto series). But M would be his defining work because it is so effective (though it is limited).  It was so effective that Joseph Goebbles, Hitler’s Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda used the film and Lorre’s performance (and especially his speech about the uncontrollable murderous torment in his brain) as an example of the fearful Jew.

Lorre is well known today as one of the most dependable character actors in the history of the movies. He never received an Oscar nomination but I think that if he had, it would have been for Supporting Actor (though who would have supported in this film?) Looking at Lorre’s performance again recently it suddenly struck me why he’s so perfect for the role. You have to see this man through the eyes of a child.  He has the girth of a jolly old elf, the large eyes of a doll, he has a soothing voice.  He has a round fleshy face and his manner isn’t quick, it is very polite.  We see that his very being is his trap because we as adults understand how an adult is smart enough to trap a child – we know the warning signs. I would imagine the media hoopla after Beckart was captured and the neighbors who would say “Such a quiet man, he always kept to himself”.

Best Actress

Marie Dressler (Min and Bill)
The Nominees: Marlene Dietrich (Morocco), Irene Dunne (Cimarron), Anne Harding (Holiday), Norma Shearer (A Free Soul)

Marlene Dietrich (Morocco)
My Nominees: Silvia Sydney (An American Tragedy)


Sixty-two year-old Marie Dressler was Hollywood’s least likely star.  She was heavy-set with the girth of a prison matron and a mug that could stop a clock.  But despite her less-than-dainty physical appearance, she was a wonderful actress and a delightful comedienne.  Born Leila Marie Koerber in Ontario, Canada in 1868, the daughter of a musician mother and a music teacher father who was also a veteran of the Crimean War, she left home at 14 with the ambitions on being an actress.

By the time she entered the movies in 1909, she had made a name for herself after a long and successful career in vaudeville.   She became a box office star thanks to her performance as Tillie Banks in Chaplin’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914. In 1930, George Hill hired her to play the lead in an adaptation of Lorna Moon’s novel “Dark Star”, which he re-titled Min and Bill.  Dressler played Min Divot, a bullish seaport innkeeper who ends up playing mother-eagle to a PYT whose mother is a worthless drunk.  Dressler occupies the role like an old pro but knowing what a delightful comedienne she was, it’s hard to watch her play such a sour character.  You know she has the chops to play the role but there are happier and much more substantial performances elsewhere.  To watch Min and Bill is to understand why this film is all but forgotten today.

While Dressler at least got some love from the academy, my choice for Best Actress wasn’t so lucky. Despite her legendary status, Marlene Dietrich only received one Oscar nomination in her career, for Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco, an adaptation of Benno Vigny’s novel “Amy Jolly”. This film was a milestone in Dietrich career because this was the film that introduced her to American audiences.

I don’t think she could have had a better introduction.  Von Sternberg had guided her film career and made her an international star and he made no less of an impression in the states.  Morocco shows Dietrich at her most daring, not just in content, but in completely baring her soul onscreen.  She plays Amy Jolly, a cabaret singer who has arrived in Mogador by steamer ship from Paris.  What we notice right away is something sad and it is easy to surmise that she is running away from something back home.

She arrives in Mogador just as The Legionnaires are stopping through, rowdy and looking for wine, women and song.  She gets a job working in a nightclub for the portly Lo Tinto (Paul Porcasi) and on her first night marches into the main room sporting a tuxedo and drawing boos from the crowd.  But she wins the crowd over with her fearlessness, her smoky singing voice and her daring to kiss a female patron on the lips.

In the audience is tall and handsome Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) who isn’t like the other men that he has marched into town with – he actually has a brain and a heart.  They meet one night when the audience starts to get rowdy.  The soldier is Tom Brown (a young and handsome Gary Cooper), just another soldier on the way through, but to Amy he seems to be the first man who has ever defended her. Naturally, the two find romance, but there is a problem.  The two realize that while they are in love, the current world situation won’t allow them to be together.  She breaks off the relationship and tries again and again to convince herself that she doesn’t really love him.  She even goes so far as to start an affair with an aristocrat (Adolf Menjou) to get Tom off her mind and out of her heart.  But Amy can’t control her heart and in the end she goes after Tom.  In an unforgettable scene she takes off her shoes and heads off across the desert to be with him.

Normally in a movie so character-driven, an ending like that would seem phony but I have never found anything phony about Marlene Deitrich.  Here was a woman who orchestrated every single facet of her onscreen (and off-screen) image.  That is no better orchestrated than in Morocco in which she has an incredible ability to be so fearless yet so vulnerable almost at the same time.  We see in Amy that she has spent her adult life being treated as an object of lust.  She doesn’t trust men because they have rarely been anything to her but a leering eye.  Her surroundings won’t allow for such sensitivity but she allows herself only what is necessary to sustain her heart.  When she falls in love with Tom, it is the first time that anyone has loved her for her and she is conflicted.

In the era before the Production Code, Morocco shows us Dietrich at her most fearless.  This is the film in which she marches into the cabaret in a tux and plants a kiss on a female guest.  Her wardrobe isn’t simply a parade of outfits to display her legs but a series of different looks that calculate that fearlessness.  It made her irresistible because she never fit the mold of the predictable starlet, all dresses and love-starved whining.  Dietrich was a combination of lady and sex symbol – if you wanted her, you felt that you had to earn it.

I think that Morocco is the film that defines her as an actor.  Her brilliance is her ability to use her sensuous body as a survival tactic in a man’s world.  You sense that she has used it to keep herself alive but her sad eyes suggest a weariness, a hope for something better, some sense of freedom that is eluding her.  In Tom, she seems to view a better future but one that would remove her method of survival and leave her open and unguarded.  That may have given her academy attention for this film but left her out of the loop playing harder-edged characters in Shanghai Express, Dishonored, Desire and Destry Rides Again.  I think they feared her, I think they feared her strength, professionally, sexually, physically and emotionally, she was someone they weren’t comfortable with because she was unlike anything they had ever seen before.


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