In the history of the Academy Awards, East Lynne is a curiosity.
Released in 1931, East Lynne was one of the five films to be nominated for Best Picture at the fourth annual Academy Awards. Best Picture was the only nomination that East Lynne received, which of course leaves you to wonder just what exactly was so good about it. Why was it nominated as opposed to something like A Free Soul, which received nominations for Best Actress and Director and which won the Best Actor Oscar for Lionel Barrymore? East Lynne was a success at the box office but so were The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface. None of those classic gangster films made much of an impression with the Academy but all of them are better remembered today than East Lynne.
One reason why East Lynne has fallen into obscurity is because it’s not an easy film to see. There is only one complete print of East Lynne still in existence. It’s housed at the UCLA’s Instructional Media Lab but it can only be viewed by appointment. There are, however, a few bootleg copies on DVD. The picture is grainy. The sound is inconsistent. Even worse, the bootleg is missing the last 12 minutes of the film. Still, for those of us who don’t live near UCLA, that bootleg copy is the only convenient way to watch East Lynne.
That’s how I watched it. (I also looked up how the film ended so I know where the story eventually led, despite those missing 12 minutes.) Having now seen the film, I can now say that it makes even less sense that the film was nominated because it’s pretty bad. I can only imagine that it received its nomination as a result of Fox Film Corporation (which would later merge with 20th Century Pictures to be come 20th Century Fox) demanding that its employees vote for it.
Based on a Victorian novel that had already been filmed several times during the silent era, East Lynne tells the story of Lady Isabella (Ann Harding), a British noblewoman who marries a stuffy attorney named Robert Carlyle (Conrad Nagel). From the beginning it’s an awkward marriage. Isabella is sociable and popular and wants to enjoy life. Carlyle is a humorless jerk. Not even the fact that they live in a nice mansion called East Lynne provides much comfort.
When Isabella accepts a kiss from a cad named Captain William Levinson (Clive Brook), Isabella’s sister-in-law uses it to drive a wedge between Isabella and Carlyle. Carlyle, being a jerk, kicks Isabella out of the house and takes custody of their child. Now viewed as being a figure of scandal, Isabella goes abroad with Levinson. (Since this is a pre-code film, going abroad amounts to going to a then-racy show in Vienna.) However, through a series of improbable events, Levinson ends up dead and Isabella ends up very slowly going blind. However, Isabella is determined to see her child just once more before losing her sight so it’s up to her to convince a maid to sneak her back into East Lynne late at night….
And then the bootleg version of the film ends! Now, I did my research and I discovered — here’s your SPOILER ALERT — that the film apparently ends with a blind Isabella stumbling over a cliff and her husband realizing too late that maybe he was kind of a jerk. I’m kind of sorry that I didn’t get to see that. I may have to book a flight to UCLA.
Anyway, from what I did see, East Lynne is a creaky old film. This is one of those films where you can tell that the cast was still adjusting to the new sound era. Ann Harding’s screen presence is a bit too insubstantial to keep the film’s melodramatic story grounded and neither Conrad Nagel nor Clive Brook seem to be worth all of the trouble that Isabella goes through. Frank Lloyd’s direction is painfully slow and stagy, though things do pick up briefly when the action moves to Vienna. Worst of all, the film is pretty much on Carlyle’s side. He’s a jerk, the movie says, but Isabella should have made more of an effort to keep him happy. Welcome to 1931!
East Lynne lost the best picture race to Cimarron, which was another fairly forgettable film. Though there were plenty of good films to choose from in 1931, it doesn’t appear that the Academy nominated any of them. Of course, that wouldn’t be the last time that would happen.