Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2017 Oscar Fest - The Broadway Melody

The second movie in my New Year's resolution to watch all the Oscar Best Pictures in order. Today is the winner of the second Academy Award, given out in 1930.

What's of note with The Broadway Melody of 1929, is that the original theater cut debuted with a Technicolor sequence, one of the first musicals to do so. It's likely that cinematic sorcery is what elevated this movie over its contenders. Sadly, that copy has been lost. The only surviving copies are all black and white. There was also a silent version because many theaters didn't have sound technology. Marinate on that for a second - a silent musical.

Competition was fierce that year. Broadway Melody beat out the gritty Howard Hughes movie about police corruption, The Racket. This movie was banned in more than one market because of how it portrayed the police. I'm guessing there were some politics at work there. Both in the nomination and in the loss. All art has a political component.

The Racket is exceedingly rare. I've only been able to find it in college library film collections. I will SO be checking it out.

Broadway Melody, the first all-talking MGM musical, also beat out the other MGM musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which was a cavalcade of talent. But, it had no plot. It was just a compilation of musical numbers, including Joan Crawford singing and dancing on stage. It's also rather rare, but on my must-see list. It is said that Hollywood Review was the beginning of the end of the line for many of the silent film stars when the voice didn't match the image.

What's cool about this project is not just seeing the evolution of movies and technology, but the studio politics and the social mores.

Obligatory plot summary: The Mahoney Sisters, plucky Hank and glamorous Queenie, arrive in New York City for their "big break." They've been on the county fair-dinner theater circuit to save enough money to rent a huge two-room apartment in a "theatrical hotel" that would probably rent for $5000 today (if you could find it.) But the girls have an ace. Eddie, a hometown boy who made good as a song and dance man, has got them an audition for the Zanfield Review on BROADWAY. *confetti* Eddie is also the high school sweetheart of Hank and hopes that she will finally marry him.

Until he sees Queenie. No longer a gawky teen, Queenie is now a statuesque platinum blonde with a farm girl's naive and open heart. Poor Hank. She always thought good old Eddie would always be there for her. She never realized that she was the third point on a love triangle until the very end.

The "big break" audition is awkward and almost painful to watch, but Zanfield says he can find something for the blonde, but not the "little clucker." Queenie, in a burst of girlish defiance, says they are a team, so The Mahoney Sisters are signed.

Queenie, however, becomes the toast of the show when the key sea goddess falls off the ship set in rehearsal. Suddenly, this small town girl is scantily clad in a Lady Godiva wig, on the prow of the ship, gesturing to the singer. SHE'S A HIT! And, of course, catches the eye of Jacques, the smarmy millionaire who is financing the show.

Hank loves Eddie. Eddie loves Queenie. Queenie loves Eddie but refuses to hurt Hank, so she throws herself into a whirlwind of New York glamor while ducking and dodging Jacques' ever more aggressive advances.

In the end, it's Hank who sacrifices herself for her sister's protection and happiness. *sniff*

Romance! Music! Broken Hearts! Skimpy Costumes! Wisecracks! Wacky Mayhem!

Yeah, it's as thin as it sounds, but there are two saving graces. The first is New York in the 1920s. The Art Deco glamor of the scenes and sets is just luscious. The second is an oddly satisfying musical number of a cast dancer, in what looks like a sexy mouse costume, tap dancing en pointe in toe shoes. TAP DANCING IN TOE SHOES.

The cast included the gamine Bessie Love and the glam girl Anita Page. Love received a nom for Best Actress for her, um, enthusiastic performance as Hank.

The caddish Eddie was played by Charles King, a vaudeville showman, who couldn't convert his stage career into box office gold.

Viewed through a contemporary lens, the three had an awkward comedic chemistry that was occasionally painful to watch but overall carried the story through to the expected ending. I had to remind myself that the audiences were seeing PEOPLE TALKING ON FILM. Some for the very first time. The exaggerated city accents and over-dramatic breathless presentation was par for the course. All the director and actors had to go on was stagecraft, which lacking the intimacy of film, required the extra drama to play to the balconies.

What is fun is the look behind the scenes of a low-budget Broadway review, done as a movie. The costumes and props had a cheesy realism and the character actors decorating the background were delightful.

"Is it safe?"

I'm sure plenty of that actually happened. The costumes were an absolute scream.

I couldn't find a good screen cap of the mouse-costumed toe shoe tap dancer. It was a WTF moment, inserted into a dance routine. It was like, "I dunno, but she's good, get her on stage now!"

What's fun about these movies looking back is that the old folks were pretty damn hip. No matter what we think today.

The dancers were healthy and robust. Curvy legs, real girl thighs, soft rounded shoulders and zoftig curves were in evidence in tiny shorts and skimpy costumes. Tons of peroxide platinum and elaborate beautiful cosmetics, coupled with an absence of, um, foundation garments conveyed the lush image of the flapper who managed to be naughty and innocent at the same time.

As with Wings, I was amused by the use of kissing in Broadway Melody. I don't know about y'all, but I never kissed my sister like this.

There was an also openly gay costume designer. Today, he would be seen as a flamboyant cliche, but there was no closet here. When he chucked another man under the chin and called him a cutie-pie, there was no doubt what the director was saying.

If our society could have kept the open free society of the 1920s, I think we'd be in a lot better condition now.

So, is The Broadway Melody high art? Absolutely not. It hasn't held up nearly as well as Wings or other classics of the day.

But, it's the beginning of:

Talking movies.
The screwball urban comedy.
The first use of the New York skyline/aerial shots in a movie.

And the music from the movie is still being played. This was the film debut of "Give My Regards to Broadway," by George M. Cohan. How many big budget blockbusters will be able to say that in 90 years?

Next up - All Quiet on the Western Front. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

2017 Oscar Fest - Wings

I have a good friend who sets up adventurous New Year's Resolutions. Fun stuff like decorating for and celebrating every last holiday or doing something new every day, even if it's taking a different route to the supermarket. Inspired by her, I set up my own for 2017. I'm going to watch all of the Oscar Best-Picture winners. I'm far from the first to do this (and blog about it,) but it's a big deal for me. Without being maudlin, events kept me away from doing many fun things these last few years and I'm on a mission to reclaim that time. I was watching a documentary about the history of the Oscars and was struck by how much I missed watching movies and how much I love old movies.

I have the technology to change that. I decided to wind it all the way back to the beginning. A combination of eBay, Netflix, (and Vimeo in a pinch,) are yielding up the treasures of yesteryear. A few are harder to find than expected, but so far so good.

Movies are our stories. They are our fables around the campfire and it's only right they be kept alive and passed on. So, let's get in the wayback machine and set it for 90 years ago:

*whirring noise*

The very first best picture Oscar was awarded on May 26, 1929, for the 1927/28 movies. Wings, a Paramount production took home the first award.

My 2017 resolution is totally worth it because it brought this gem into my life.

Produced in 1927, Wings was the first and only totally silent movie to win for Best Picture. And given the technology of the times, it not only holds up, but exceeds many modern movies. It also has some amazing tidbits that tell tales of how American societal and entertainment mores have evolved and not necessarily for the better.

A quick plot synopsis:

A small town boy named Jack is loved by a small town girl named Mary, yet he is too stupid to see it. He pines for the exotic Sylvia who is "visiting from the city." But Sylvia is smitten with David, son of the wealthiest family in town.

OH! NO! WAR! In the form of WWI, shown in a flaming panel, just in case you didn't know.

David and Jack join the Air Corp to become pilots. Jealous and distrustful of each other, they settle matters in the boxing ring, where Jack, after pounding David, says, "You've got game." Now the best of friends, they perform great acts of derring-do. Plucky Mary joins the Women's Motor Corp and serves the war effort in France. Sylvia, played by Jobnya Ralston, looks languid and ethereal.

The friend zone was a very real thing, even in the 1920s.

Cue mayhem, shenanigans, and romance (and bromance, but more about that later.)

*NOTE - from here on out, there be spoilers - ye be warned*

Mary is played by Clara Bow, Paramount's "It Girl." Shunned by Jack, she can portray the sorrow of the ages just with her eyes.

She was the consummate silent movie screen star. She also wasn't afraid to get dirty or show some skin. Working in a rough men's world, she should be regarded as a feminist icon.

She hated this role. She rightfully saw herself as the whipped cream on top of the bromance and felt she was too big a star for this. But damn, she is awesome. AND THOSE BOOTS.

The stars of the movie are Charles "Buddy" Rogers as the irrepressible Jack and Richard Arlen as the suave, yet sensitive, David. Their tag lines of "All Set?" and "O.K." play through the movie, including a hilarious scene at the Folies Bergere.

Don't we all wish we had someone who looks at us the way Jack and David do each other?

And in their leather pilots coats and goggles, well, sigh . . . . .

Another note is that in 1927, the screenplay was co-written by a woman, Hope Loring, and she got full screen credit for it alongside her husband.

Wings is a visual masterpiece. Instead of the usual 30 days it took to crank out a "matinee masterpiece," Wings was in production for 9 months. With an unheard of budget of $2 million and the full support of the War Department, the director, himself a skilled aviator, created a vivid, accurate, and exciting look into the lives of the pilots of WWI.

Filmed in San Antonio, Texas, the movie pioneered camera techniques for filming planes in flight as they looped and swooped through the mock dog fights with the Germans. Arlen was already a pilot and Rogers took enough training to be able to film their open cockpit scenes in real time in the air. Those are not on-the-ground glass matte scenes. The guys are behind the stick of those rickety little biplanes.

Given the era, the equipment, and the state of technology, the aerial scenes rival anything put out today. Wings was the Top Gun of its day.

They also wheel out a German Gotha, a two-story tall biplane that was the "dragon of the sky" bomber. It was stunning.

With the Air Corp behind the production, you get an inside look at the training methods of the day and those amazing little airplanes that so many risked (and lost) their lives in the part of the war that doesn't get as much coverage on the History Channel.

What sets Wings apart is the story-telling and the cinematography. Yes, the story is fairly predictable, but it is very satisfying, managing to tug nearly every heartstring.

Hidden in it are also some tidbits that surprised me. Well before the infamous Code and eschewing the bowlderizing of so much of the media, Wings is far from prudish.

I burst out laughing at this scene at the military induction center.

As recruits were filling out paperwork, a door in the background kept opening and closing to reveal a line of fine young men wearing nothing but their birthday suits.

Never referenced, just that line of taut butts flashing in the background as one of the comedic bits played out in the foreground.

I'm sure that got some shocked intake of breath and titters in the theater.

A fabulous sequence plays out in "Paris" with lush sets and superb camera work as our young heroes blow off some steam at the Folies Bergere. As the camera marches down the tables, we see an elegant lesbian couple, a couple that looks like a man and a trans-woman, and all the gorgeous 20s decadent glam you could want. There are even some early "generated effects" as Jack gets so drunk he "sees" bubbles coming out of not only the champagne but also the musical instruments.

David scoops up a satin clad girl and yells "All Set?" to which Jack clutches his cutie and replies, "O.K." Oh my. Oh la la . . . Enter Mary in her staid, but sexy, uniform and puppy dog eyes.

The kisses were quite open and passionate, including a rather uncomfortable one between David and his mother (played by Hedda Hopper in an uncredited cameo.)

But it's this kiss that showed just how far ahead of its time, or actually, how real Wings truly was. Unlike the later WWII stock John Wayne type war movies, giving a dying man a cigarette and a salute, this is how Jack says goodbye to David, and, in that way of early movies, his youth and innocence. He is no long "the shooting star."

Come on, we knew that David, for all his veneer of sophistication, was too pure and sensitive for this world. He was the designated victim. We knew it the moment David took the little bear from his mother after planting one on her.

Toss in a guest appearance by Gary Cooper as "Cadet White" and Wings is a party.


It's all handled with dialogue panels and music.

And isn't afraid to show a close relationship between men that isn't all drinking beer and chasing chicks.

And isn't afraid to show a woman in uniform who is performing a vital and dangerous role in a combat zone. Who, while she is "whipped cream" to the main plot, isn't just there to hang her boobs out and be a prop.

In 1927. 

Yeah, we're so hip these days.

This is one of those movies you didn't know was missing in your life. So, suspend belief and scare up a copy of the DVD or hunt it down online.

I'd say my foray into the land of the Oscars is off to an excellent start. Next up, Broadway Melody from 1929. It is the first taIkie and the first musical to win for Best Picture. It includes a scene of tap-dancing in toe shoes. What's not to love?

PS: These posts will be filed and labeled #OscarFest2017 if you want to follow along.