4 Shots From 4 Inaugural Oscar Winners: Wings, Sunrise, The Last Command, Seventh Heaven

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards ceremony!

On May 16th, 1929, a private dinner was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The dinner was largely meant to celebrate the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the AMPAS was founded to help mediate labor disputes between the studios and the unions.  As almost an afterthought, it was decided that AMPAS would also give out annual awards to honor the best films of the year.

12 awards were handed out on May 16th, before an audience of 270 people.  The entire awards ceremony took 15 minutes.  That’s quite a contrast to what the Academy eventually became.

In honor of that 15-minute ceremony, here’s….

4 Shots From 4 Films Honored At The Very First Oscar Ceremony

Wings (1927, dir by William Wellman) Won The Outstanding Production Awards

Sunrise (1927, dir by F.W. Murnau) Won Best Unique and Artistic Picture

The Last Command (1928, dir by Josef von Sternberg) Won Best Actor — Emil Jannings

Seventh Heaven (1927, dir by Frank Borzage) Winner Best Actress — Janet Gaynor

Along with her performance in Seventh Heaven, Janet Gaynor was also honored for her work in Street Angel and Sunrise.  Emil Jannings was honored for his work in both The Last Command and The Way of all Flesh,

Here’s what else won at the inaugural Oscar ceremony:

Best Direction, Comedy Picture — Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights

Best Direction, Drama Picture — Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven

Best Original Story — Ben Hecht for Underworld

Best Adaptation — Benjamin Glazer for Seventh Heaven, based on the play by Austin Strong

Best Art Direction — William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and Tempest

Best Cinematography — Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for Sunrise

Best Engineering Effects — Roy Pomeroy for Wings

Best Title Writing — Joseph Farnham for Fair Co-Ed; Laugh, Clown, Laugh; and Telling the World.

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Winner: All Quiet On The Western Front (dir by Lewis Milestone)

“When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”

— Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres) in All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

Tonight, I watched the third film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture, the 1930 anti-war epic, All Quiet On The Western Front.

All Quiet On The Western Front opens in a German classroom during World War I.  Quotes from Homer and Virgil, all exalting heroism, are written on the blackboard.  The professor, a man named Kantorek (Arnold Lacy), tells his all-male class that “the fatherland” needs them.  (It’s all very patriarchal, needless to say.)  This, he tells them, is a time of war.  This is a time for heroes.  This is a time to fight and maybe die for your country.  He beseeches his students to enlist in the army.  The first to stand and say that he will fight is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).  Soon, almost every other student is standing with Paul and cheering the war.  Only one student remains seated.  Paul and the others quickly turn on that seated student, pressuring him to join them in the army.  That seated student finally agrees to enlist, even though he doesn’t want to.  Such is the power of peer pressure.

A year later, a visibly hardened Paul returns to his old school.  He’s on furlough.  He’s been serving in a combat zone, spending his days and nights in a trench and trying not to die.  He’s been wounded but he hasn’t been killed.  He can still walk.  He can still speak.  He hasn’t gone insane.  He is one of the few members of his class to still be alive.  (That student who didn’t want to enlist?  Long dead.)  When Kantorek asks Paul to speak to his new class, Paul looks at the fresh-faced students — all of whom have just listened to Kantorek describe the glories of war — and Paul tells them that serving in the army has not been an adventure.  It has not made him a hero.  The only glory of war is surviving.  “When it comes to dying for one’s country, it’s better not to die at all!”  Kantorek is horrified by Paul’s words but he needn’t have worried.  The students refuse to listen to Paul, shouting him down and accusing him of cowardice and treason.

(This scene is even more disturbing today, considering that we live in a time when accusations of treason and calls for vengeance are rather cavalierly tossed around by almost everyone with a twitter account.)

What happened between those two days in the classroom is that Paul saw combat.  He spent nights underground while shells exploded over his head.  He watched as all of his friends died, one by one.  One harrowing night, spent in a trench with a French soldier who was slowly dying because of Paul stabbing him, nearly drove Paul insane.  In the end, not even his friend and mentor, Kat (Louis Wolheim), would survive.  From the first sound of bombs exploding to the film’s haunting final scene, the shadow of death hangs over every minute of All Quiet On The Western Front.  By the end of it all, all that Paul has learned is that men like Kantorek and the buffoonish Corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray) have no idea what real combat is actually like.

All Quiet On The Western Front may be 87 years old but it’s still an incredibly powerful film.  There are certain scenes in this pre-code film that, after you watch them, you have to remind yourself that this film was made in 1929.  I’m not just talking about a swimming scene that contains a split second of nudity or a few lines of dialogue that probably wouldn’t have made it past the censors once the production code started to be enforced.  Instead, I’m talking about scenes like the one where a bomb goes off just as a soldier attempts to climb through some barbed wire.  When the smoke clear, only his hands remains.  And then there’s the sequence where the camera rapidly pans by soldier after soldier falling dead as they rush the trenches.  Or the scene where Paul literally watches as one of his friends, delirious and out-of-his-mind, suddenly dies.  Or the montage where a pair of fancy boots is traded from one doomed soldier to another, with each soldier smiling at his new boots before, seconds later, laying dead in the mud.  Or the harrowing scene where Paul tries to keep a French soldier from dying.

All Quiet On The Western Front remains a powerful film.  It’s perhaps not a surprise that, when it briefly played in Germany, the Nazis released live mice in the theaters to try to keep away audiences.  (Both the film and the book on which it was based were later banned by the Nazi government.)  Sadly, we’ll never get to see All Quiet On The Western Front the way that it was originally meant to be seen.  A huge hit in 1930, All Quiet On The Western Front was rereleased several times but, with each rerelease, the film was often edited to appease whatever the current political climate may have been.  Over the years, much footage was lost.  The original version of All Quiet On The Western Front was 156 minutes long.  The version that is available today is 131 minutes long.  But even so, it remains a harrowing and powerful antiwar statement.

With all due respect to both Wings and Broadway Melody, All Quiet On The Western Front was the first truly great film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Sadly, it remains just as relevant today as when it was first released.

The Fabulous Forties #42: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (dir by Lewis Milestone)


The 41st film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1946 film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  While The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is definitely a superior example of noir and features Barbara Stanwyck in one of her best femme fatale roles, the film is best remembered for being the film debut of a Hollywood icon.

In December of this year, Kirk Douglas will turn 100 years old.  He is one of the few stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood left.  (Olivia De Havilland is another.  She’ll be turning 100 on the 1st of July.)  Though he’s had his share of health issues over the past few years, it is somehow not surprising that Kirk Douglas is going to make it to a hundred.  In fact, it probably wouldn’t be surprising if he lasted for another hundred after that.  Regardless of how old or young he may have been at any point in his career, Kirk Douglas has always epitomized virile masculinity.  Whenever you see Kirk Douglas in a film, you know that you might not like or trust his character but you definitely want him around if things start to get tough.  That remains true whether you’re watching Kirk in The Bad And The Beautiful or in Holocaust 2000.

That’s why it’s interesting to see Kirk cast very much against type in his very first film.  In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Kirk Douglas plays Walter O’Neil.  Walter is the district attorney of a Pennsylvania mining town called Iverstown.  He is married to Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck), the niece of the widow of the man who founded Iverstown.  Walter owes almost all of his success to the influence of the Ivers family and he knows it.  He’s also in love with Martha but she doesn’t love him.  And he knows that as well.  Walter deals with his insecurity by drinking.

Walter and Martha have a secret.  Seventeen years ago, Walter witnessed Martha murder her abusive aunt.  (The aunt is played by Judith Anderson, the creepy housekeeper from Rebecca.)  Walter helped Martha to cover up the crime, lying that he saw a burglar beat the aunt to death.  As a result of their lies, an innocent man was executed for the murder.

Now, many years later, Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) has returned to Iverstown.  Sam was a friend to both Martha and Walter when they were younger.  Sam came from the poor section of town and ran away shortly after the death of Martha’s aunt.  Walter has always suspected that Martha truly loves Sam.  When Sam — now a drifter and a gambler — shows up in town, Walter fears that he knows the truth about the aunt’s death.  Walter is scared that Sam is going to blackmail him.  Even worse, he’s scared that Sam is going to steal Martha away from him.

Walter has reason to be worried.  Having met a troubled young woman named Toni (Lizabeth Scott), Sam believe he is no longer in love with Martha.  However, Martha does claim to love Sam and Sam finds himself being drawn back to her.  In fact, Martha loves Sam enough to suggest that maybe he should murder Walter…

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is an entertaining melodrama, one that features great performances from Heflin, Stanwyck, and Scott.  However, in the end, it’s mostly interesting because Kirk Douglas is not only making his debut in a totally atypical role but he also does a fantastic job.  If The Strange Love of Martha Ivers had been made in the 50s, Kirk probably would have been cast as Sam but he’s unexpectedly perfect in the role of the angry, self-loathing, and ultimately tragic Walter.

You watch The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and, even with Kirk Douglas cast against type, you can’t help but think, “No wonder he made it to a hundred!”



The Fabulous Forties #41: The North Star (dir by Lewis Milestone)

The North Star

The 40th film — wait a minute, I’m finally up to number 40!?  That means that there’s only ten more movies left to review!  And then I’ll be able to move on!  It’s always exiting for me whenever I’m doing a review series and I realize that I’m nearly done.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah — the 40th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1943 war epic, The North Star.  This is one of the many war films to be included in the Fabulous Forties box set and I have to admit that they all kind of blend together for me.  Since these films were actually made at a time when America was at war, there really wasn’t much room for nuance.  Instead, every film follows pretty much the same formula: the Nazis invade, a combination of soldiers and villagers set aside their individual concerns and/or differences and team up to defeat the Nazis, there’s a big battle, a few good people sacrifice their lives, the Nazis are defeated, and the allies promise to keep fighting.

It’s a pretty predictable formula but that’s okay because it was all in the service of fighting the Nazis.  Could I legitimately point out that the villains in these movies are always kind of two-dimensional?  Sure, I could.  But you know what?  IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE THEY’RE NAZIS!  Could I point out that the heroes are often idealized?  Sure, but again it doesn’t matter.  Why doesn’t it matter?  BECAUSE THEY’RE FIGHTING NAZIS!

That’s one reason why, even as our attitude towards war changes, World War II films will always be popular.  World War II was literally good vs evil.

Anyway, The North Star was a big studio tribute to America’s then ally, the Soviet Union.  When a farm in the Ukraine is occupied by the Nazis, the peasants and the farmers refuse to surrender.  They disappear into the surrounding hills and conduct guerilla warfare against the invading army.  It’s all pretty predictable but it’s also executed fairly well.  It doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of war.  There’s a haunting scene in which we see the bodies of all of the villagers — including several children — who have been killed in a battle.

The Nazis are represented by Erich Von Stroheim.  Von Stroheim plays a German doctor who continually claims that he personally does not believe in the Nazi ideology and that he’s just following orders.  When wounded Nazi soldiers need blood transfusions, he takes the blood from the children of the village.  His rival, a Russian doctor, is played by all-American Walter Huston and indeed, all the Russians are played by American stars, the better to create a “we’re all in this together” type of spirit.  When Huston tells Von Stroheim that he is even worse than the committed Nazis because he recognized evil and chose to do nothing, he’s speaking for all of us.

Unfortunately, before the Nazis invade, The North Star devotes a lot of time to showing how idyllic life is in the communist collective and these scenes are so idealized that they totally ring false.  Everyone is so busy singing folk songs and talking about how happy they are being a part of a collective (as opposed to being an individual with concerns that are not shared by the other members of the collective) that it’s kind of unbearable.  Not surprisingly, The North Star was written by Lillian Hellman, who wrote some great melodramas (like The Little Foxes) but who was always at her most tedious when she was at her most overly political.

(Watching the opening of The North Star, I was reminded that I would be totally useless in a collectivist society.)

So, I have to admit, that I was rather annoyed with the villagers at first.  But then the Nazis invaded and I realized that we’re all in it together!  As I said earlier, you can forgive your heroes almost anything when they’re fighting Nazis.

The North Star is an above average war film and a below average piece of political propaganda.  See it as a double feature with The Last Chance.

Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar-Nominated Films: Mutiny on the Bounty (dir. by Lewis Milestone)


Previously, I reviewed the 1935 Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty, a film that still stands as one of the best adventure films ever made.  However, this was not the only film made about the Bounty to be honored with several Oscar nominations.  In 1962, another version of Mutiny on The Bounty was released and, like its predecessor, received a nomination for Best Picture of the year.  However, while the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty remains one of the most entertaining films ever made, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty is a mess.

As in the 1935 version of the story, we once again follow the HMS Bounty as it sails from England to Tahiti.  Again, the ship’s captain is the tyrannical Capt. Bligh (Trevor Howard) and again, the eventual mutiny is led by Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando).  While the 1935 version presented Christian as the unquestioned leader of the mutiny, this version features an indecisive Christian who is goaded into leading the mutiny by a seaman named John Mills (Richard Harris).  Whereas the 1935 Fletcher Christian never regretted his decision, the 1962 version seems to regret the mutiny from the moment it occurs and literally spends the rest of the film trying to get the mutineers to agree to return to England with him.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions of Mutiny on the Bounty is that the 1935 version was a 2-hour film that felt shorter while the 1962 remake lasts 3 hours and 15 minutes (including intermission) and feels even longer.  The 1962 version was made at a time when Hollywood was attempting to counteract the influences of European art films and American television by making films that were a thousand times bigger then they needed to be.  Whereas the 1935 Mutiny on The Bounty was all about telling the story as efficiently as possible, the 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty was about telling audiences, at every possible moment, that they couldn’t see anything like this on television or in some French art film.  Audiences in 1962 may very well have been amazed by the endless shots of Tahitians dancing and the Bounty rocking on the ocean but, for modern audiences, the entire film just feels incredibly slow and padded.

Another major difference between the two versions of Mutiny on the Bounty is that Marlon Brando, to be charitable, was no Clark Gable.  Much as Clark Gable could never have been a credible Stanley Kowalski or Vito Corleone, Brando could never have been a convincing Fletcher Christian.  Whereas Gable played Christian as the epitome of masculinity, Brando’s internalized, method approach serves to turn the character into something of a wimp.  It doesn’t help that Brando’s twangy attempt at an English accent sounds like every bad Monty Python impersonation that’s ever been heard in a college dorm room.

The 1962 Mutiny on the Bounty was a notoriously troubled production.  Marlon Brando was reportedly bored with the role of Fletcher Christian (which might explain why he gave such an eccentric performance) and he reportedly used his star status to demand and make constant changes in the script.  The film’s original director, Carol Reed, reportedly quit over frustration with Brando and was replaced by Lewis Milestone.  Milestone, a veteran director who had started his career during the silent era, proved just as ineffectual when it came to controlling Brando.  By the end of the film, Richard Harris was literally refusing to film any scenes opposite Brando.  The end result was that the film went wildly over schedule and over budget.

Despite being reviled by even contemporary critics, Mutiny on the Bounty received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  The nomination was a triumph for the studio system as MGM reportedly directed all of its employees to vote for the film. That may have been enough to win Mutiny a nomination for best picture but the actual Oscar went to Lawrence of Arabia.

Film Review: The Racket (dir. by Lewis Milestone)

Originally released in 1928 and produced by Howard Hughes, The Racket was one of the first films to ever be nominated for an Oscar.  It was also one of the first films to miss out on its chance to claim Oscar glory as the first statuette for Best Picture was given to the producers of Wings.

Like many films that were made in during the silent era,  The Racket subsequently sunk into obscurity and, for several decades, it was considered to be a lost film.  After the death of Howard Hughes, the last remaining copy of The Racket was discovered hidden away in his vast film collection.  This print has been preserved at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  After several years of restoration, the film made its first appearance on TCM in 2004 and it has since been frequently broadcast on that network.  That’s how I first saw it way back in 2012.

Based on a play by Bartlett Cormack, The Racket is a gangster film.  Nick Scarsi (played by Louis Wolheim) is a powerful and politcally-connected bootlegger.  He’s pursued by one of the few honest cops in town, Captain McQuigg (Thomas Meighan).  When McQuigg proves to be incorruptible, Scarsi uses his political influence to get McQuigg transferred to a precinct in the suburbs.  However, when Scarsi’s younger brother is arrested for a hit-and-run in McQuigg’s new precinct, the captain uses the incident to launch a complex plan to bring down both Scarsi and the corrupt public officials that allow him to run the city.

Seen today, The Racket is an almost quaintly traditional gangster film.  According to the film’s title cards, everyone in the film speaks in hard-boiled slang and the characters — from the honest cop to the cynical reporters to the nightclub singer played by Marie Prevost — will all seem very familiar to anyone who has ever seen a classic Warner Bros. crime film.  That said, The Racket is still a lot of fun to watch and director Lewis Milestone keeps the story moving at a good pace.  At the very least, it’s interesting to see a gangster film that was actually made during the gangster era.  Nick Scarsi was based on Al Capone and, perhaps not surprisingly, the film was banned in Chicago when it was originally released.

The film shows up frequently on TCM and it’s also available on YouTube.  And it can be watched below!

Lisa Marie Looks At The Front Page (dir. by Lewis Milestone)

As part of my efforts to watch every film ever nominated for best picture, I recently watched 1931’s The Front Page (which lost to Cimarron, the first western to ever win best picture). 

The Front Page, which is based on a broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is the story of Chicago newspaper editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) and his favorite reporter, Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien).  Hildy is planning on retiring from the newspaper business so he can get married and take a job in advertising.  Walter is determined to keep his star reporter.  Walter’s attempts to keep Hildy from quitting are played out against a larger background of civil corruption, cynical reporters, and an escaped death row inmate who ends up hiding out at the newspaper. 

It’s odd to watch a film like The Front Page today.  It’s not just the fact that the movie is technically primitive but that the film is such a product of its time and a lot has changed since 1931.  This is one of those old films where African-Americans are continually referred to as being “colored” and the modern-day audience cringes in discomfort and tries to figure out the correct way to react.  As a reviewer, I guess I’m supposed to explain how you should react but I really can’t say.  Personally, I look at a film like this as a reflection of its time and the casual, unthinking racism that was a part of the culture back then.  Then again, I’m not the one being called “a pickaninny.”  This is also another one of those old films where women are presented as distractions and the only work that’s worth doing is man’s work.  Oddly enough, the sexism didn’t surprise me as much as the racism.  Then again, sexism is still socially acceptable while our modern, patriarchal society now insists that people, at the very least, pretend not to be racist.

Still, as dated as many of the film’s attitudes may be, the movie’s cynicism and it’s portrayal of journalists as essentially being a bunch of biased, blood-sucking leeches does give the film a slightly more contemporary feel than most films from the 30s.  As Hildy and Walter, Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou are both well cast and the rest of the film’s characters are played by a strong collection of character actors.  A surprisingly large amount of the cynical one-liners still work and, once you get used to the film’s pre-CGI style of filmmaking, it occasionally show some genuine visual flair.

Personally, I think that The Front Page makes a lot more sense once you acknowledge the unstated fact that Walter and Hildy are former lovers.  Hollywood realized the same thing because The Front Page was later remade as His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell taking over the Hildy Johnson role.

Anyway, for the curious, here’s The Front Page