Friday, September 3, 2010

Year in Review: 1929

Despite the fact that sound had come to the movies by 1929 - and the Academy pretty much gave the cold shoulder to all silent films - it really was the silent films that were the best from this year. As with many of the years of the 1920s, not all the great films of the year are available on DVD, but I did the best I could. (Just a note – I know some websites and other sources list alternate years for some of the below titles so don’t bother to point it out.)

10.The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey & Joseph Santley)
The first film by the Marx brothers is not nearly as good as what would come later, but is an hilarious comedy just the same. This film is set at a hotel in Florida, that Groucho runs with the help of Zeppo (still pretty much as useless as always – sorry Zeppo), when conmen Chico and Harpo arrive planning to steal from the guests. The movie is admittedly a little bogged down at times by the other people in the movie – not to mention the musical interludes – but when its brothers at center stage, the film is as wickedly smart and hilarious as some of their best work (some great gags include why a duck and stucco). No, The Coconuts is not the best the Marx brothers were capable of – but considering it was their first film, and an early sound film at that, it works marvelously well.

9. Asphalt (Joe May)
One of the last great silent films from Germany, Joe May’s Asphalt is a love story set in the criminal underworld. Betty Amann is a jewelry thief who is caught stealing a precious jewel from a shop. The owner wants to let her go, but the cop who catches her refuses. But Amann seduces the cop, who against his better judgment falls for her – but because of their conflicting backgrounds, their romance is doomed – and murder comes into the plot. In many ways, Asphalt is just as melodramatic as many silent films of the time were. However, this one has some major advantages. For one thing, Amann is daringly sexual for a silent screen star. For another, the production design is meticulous and wonderful to look at. Most of all though, it is the direction and cinematography – full of shadows that the camera moves through seemingly effortlessly. While I do not think that May is quite as good as many of his German expressionist peers, Asphalt is a wonderful little film – one that not nearly enough people have seen.

8. Queen Kelly (Erich von Stroheim)
Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly is one of the infamous “unfinished” films of all time – and it effectively ended his career as a director (he made part of Hello Sister in 1933, but was never really given the chance to move into the sound era after making such silent masterpieces as Greed). Gloria Swanson has the title role in the film – not a queen but a regular student at a convent who is kidnapped by a wealthy prince who is supposed to marry the real queen. The two do fall in love, but when the Queen discovers this, she throws Kelly out of the castle. That is really about as far as Von Stroheim got in making the film. If you watch the DVD, they recreate the ending he envisioned by using still photographs of Kelly travelling to Africa and becoming the madam at a brothel. Swanson complained about the direction the movie was taking, and production was shut down. Yet, even with all those distractions, you can see what a master filmmaker von Stroheim really was, and how great Gloria Swanson was as well. You see a clip of this film in Sunset Blvd. where von Stroheim played Swanson’s former husband and director, and current butler, as he complains about what happened to his career. The film, though unfinished, is still masterfully directed. Too bad von Stroheim didn’t get to finish it – or anything else – after.

7. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov)
Man with a Movie Camera is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time – it would most likely top most lists of the best films of 1929. But stubborn old me, I prefer movies with characters and plot to movies like this, that are really just a series of images. I do not mean that as a criticism of the film, or director Dziga Vertov, but simply an observation. Vertov thought that films were too much like filmed plays, and wanted to create something completely different. He made the choice that his film would have no plot, no dialogue, no characters – it would simply show the day in a life of one city. It took him four years to get that, and the films moves along at a rapid pace – his editing is as quick as Michael Bay’s, which was innovative and daring (and somewhat disconcerting) to audiences at the time who had seen nothing like this before. There is no doubt in my mind that Man with a Movie Camera is the most innovative, and most influential film of 1929 – the film invented the jump cut, which Godard would be credited with in Breathless 31 years later, but no it started here. But while Man with a Movie Camera belongs on any list of the best films of this year, it is one of those films that once you see it once, you don’t really have to revisit it. Yes the film is brilliant, it’s style innovative and unforgettable. No, I don’t really want to see it again.

6. Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock’s first sound film is actually the first sound film ever made in England. Although he considered the idea of using sound in the film stupid, he actually makes the most of it – his use of sound here is superior to most other sound films of the era, and actually much better than the following year’s Murder, which he also directed. The plot of the film is about a young woman (Anny Ondra) who has an argument with her Police Officer boyfriend (John Longden), who runs off with an artist – who she kills when he tries to assault her. A petty thief knows that she is the killer, and tries to blackmail the couple – now reunited – but things don’t turn out the way he planned. Hitchcock’s direction of the film is wonderful – he creates a vivid atmosphere, and keeps the proceedings moving along quickly. Out of all of Hitchcock’s early films (between his debut and about 1934), Blackmail falls behind perhaps only The Lodger and is an innovative and wonderful little thriller.

5. Spite Marriage (Buster Keaton & Edward Sedgwick)
Most people think that once Keaton signed with MGM, his career was all downhill. And while that is generally true, he did make two great films for MGM – The Cameraman, which is rightly regarded as one of his best, and this film, which is largely ignored in his filmography. Keaton plays his regular stone faced character, which is in love with a stage actress. She ignores him because she is in love with her co-star, but when he dumps her for a younger model, she impulsively asks Keaton to marry her. He is overjoyed, but she soon knows it was a mistake and wants out. Keaton then falls into the hands of criminals, and eventually out at sea, where he tries to forget his love, only to have them thrown back together. I’m not claiming that this is as good as The General or Steamboat Bill Jr. or The Cameraman or Our Hospitality or several other Keaton masterpieces. But it is a wickedly funny movie from beginning to end, showing Keaton, as both a star and a director in top form. For people who love Keaton – and I consider myself a devoted fan – Spite Marriage delivers.

4. Hallelujah! (King Vidor)
King Vidor was always a little bit ahead of the curve. He is one of the few major directors who was able to make the transition from making great silent films – like The Crowd – into the sound era with ease. Hallelujah was his first sound film, and one of the first films to feature an all African American cast (this was after all in the years when it was not uncommon to see performers in blackface). Watching the film today, you may think that the film is slightly condescending towards it characters – something Vidor admitted in later years – but mainly his tremendous sympathy towards his characters comes through. Vidor believed in the movie so much, he invested his own salary in making it. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is just a culture movie here for historical significance – it is a wonderful movie musical in its own right – and has Vidor marvelously using sound brilliantly. Yes, the story is a little clichéd at times, but that doesn’t distract from the film – or the performances by Danel L. Haynes or Nina Mae McKinnely. At the time, it was thought that this could be a watershed film for African American performers – but sadly, no one followed up on what Vidor did here for years.

3. Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst)
The second teaming of Pabst and star Louise Brooks may not quite as good as their first (see my #1 film from this year), but it is still a masterpiece nonetheless – one of the last great silent films. Brooks plays a naïve young woman who is seduced by her father’s assistant, and gives birth to an illegitimate child. When she refuses to marry the father, she is sent to a strict school for “wayward” girls. She escapes, finds out that her baby has died, and becomes a prostitute. And that’s just the first half of the film! Pabst was a master filmmaker, more at home in silent films than in the sound era. His film is daring in terms of subject matter, and also breathtaking in its visual compositions and storytelling. In Brooks, he found his muse – a beautiful young woman capable of being both innocent and sexual – who had a haircut that started a trend for years to come. Yes, I think Pandora’s Box is the better of the two films they made together, but Diary of a Lost Girl is magnificent as film unto itself.

2. Spies (Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang’s epic silent film Spies is every bit as good as his Dr. Mabuse films, and concentrate once again on the criminal underworld. The film stars Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr. Mabuse himself) as a criminal mastermind hellbent on world domination. He wants to get his hands on a Japanese peace treaty. The secret service knows this, and assigns Agent 326 to go undercover as a bum to try and stop him. But Rogge knows this, and sends a counter spy – a beautiful Russian woman to seduce Agent 326, only to have her fall in love with him instead. The film is nearly 3 hours long and is silent, but it doesn’t feel old or dated, and certainly doesn’t feel long. Lang is a master at directing movies like this – with intricate plots, vast sets, great cinematography and vivid characters (so much more surprising considering this is a silent film). Spies is not quite the film that Metropolis or M is – but then again, how many films are – but it does rank among Lang’s best achievements.

1. Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst)
Louise Brooks oozes sexuality in every frame of G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Here, like in Diary of a Lost Girl, she plays a wild child – a woman of tremendous beauty who immediately sweeps the audience off their feet, although we know she is bad for us. That wildness could not be taught, but Brooks had it because she was just as wild in real life. The best thing Pabst ever did was find Brooks and make these two films with her. Pandora’s Box is the better of the two films – it is darker, with a camera that moves along the London streets at night watching as Brooks does precisely what she pleases, right up until the finale, when she is killed by Jack the Ripper. But this is not the story of a woman who gets what she deserves, but a story of a woman who does what she wants, and right or wrong, she accepts the consequences. Brooks is the most modern seeming of all silent movie stars – and she gives that feeling to movie to, which although it was made more than 80 years ago, and is a silent film, doesn’t feel dated in the least. Hell, a movie with this plot would still look daring today. It is a silent masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Alibi (Roland West).

Notable Films Missed: Arsenel (Alexander Dovzhenko), City Girl (F.W. Murnau), Coquette, Disraeli (Alfred E. Green),The Divine Lady (Frank Lloyd), The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Charles Reisler), The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch), People on Sunday (Richard Siodmark & Edgar G. Unger).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: The Broadway Melody
It’s too bad that the Academy decided, in only its second year, to pretty much forget about silent films and concentrate on sound films. The best films this were silent – there were some fine sound films to be sure, but they had perfected silent films by this point, and came nowhere close to perfecting sound yet. But the Academy wanted to show off, so they gave their award to this “All Singing, All Dancing Extravaganza!”. The movie would have long been forgotten had it not won this award. It isn’t just that the film is merely mediocre – with sound work that is average at best – but that it looks and feels like yet another generic early talkie musical. There really is very little on interest going on in this movie. Out of the nominees, I suppose I would have went with Alibi, which is a little less creaky, but the Academy really should have admitted that sound wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be yet. Oh well.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady
I haven’t seen The Divine Lady. I’m not even sure it is available on DVD, and to be honest I have never really checked into all that closely. Lloyd has always struck me as one of those journeyman directors of the early studio era – good behind the camera, but the films of his that I have seen lack energy and life (except possibly Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935). I guess I should be happy that they gave the award to a silent film, but I cannot help but think there were better people this could have gone to (like King Vidor for Hallelujah, who was actually nominated), and that Lloyd won this because he was one of the founders of the Academy.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona
Despite two quality directors billed – Irving Cumming and Raoul Walsh – In Old Arizona suffers from a lot of the same problems that many early talkies do. They try so hard to get some really cool sounds (this one was bacon frying) that they seem to forget everything else. In addition, Baxter seems to barely register that he is in a talkie – he acting is the type of over the top melodramatic turn you expect to see in silent films. I guess the movie is historically significant – it was the first Western talkie, and the first talkie to be shot outside – but unless that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat, there is no reason to watch this stilted, dated, boring film.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Mary Pickford, Coquette
I haven’t seen Coquette, so I cannot tell if silent screen icon Pickford deserved to win the Oscar or not. What does appear clear though is that Pickford became the first star to ever lobby hard for an Oscar win. She was one of only 3 female founding members of the Academy, but she was snubbed at the first ceremony, so she went out of her way to woo voters the second time around – hosting lavish lunches at her home, apparently called Pickfair. Some even went as far as to call the film the first “lifetime achievement award” the Academy handed out. Whether she deserved it or not, I cannot say. But the story behind her campaigning is certainly groundbreaking as far as Oscars go.

No comments:

Post a Comment