Academy Award History, Part Three: 1929-1931

Academy Award History, Part Three: 1929-1931

Norma Shearer, Best Actress 1931
Norma Shearer, Best Actress 1931

MGM’s Irving Thalberg’s claim that “talking pictures [were] just a fad” proved to be wrong as 1929’s The Patriot became the last silent film to be nominated for 82 years (you’ll just have to wait if you don’t already know). 1930 marked the year that Hollywood fully embraced full sound pictures. It was the year that the Academy changed the name of the top prize to Outstanding Production, a change that would hold until 1940. It was also the year that there were two Academy Award ceremonies. The 2nd Annual Academy Awards were held on April 30 followed by the 3rd Annual on November 5. The former was for films released August 1, 1928 – July 31, 1929, while the latter was for films August 1, 1929 – July 31, 1930. One reason for doing this was because audiences were confused when awards were being given out to films that were nearly two years old. The Academy wanted to “catch-up” by awarding films that had been recently seen by the audience. The other reason for the quick turnaround was to quiet a controversy that had risen up at the second awards. For the first two Academy Awards ceremonies, the winners were chosen by a committee. This did not cause a problem at the first awards when everyone who won seemed to deserve it. But at the second ceremony, when all of the awards went to films that had been produced by members of the awards committee, Hollywood was not happy.

It was decided that the committee would be done away with and all members would get a vote. Cinematographer and sound recorder votes carried as much weight as those of directors, actors, and—more importantly—studio executives. Also, there was more care taken to keep the winners a secret until the ceremony. The first awards had been announced three months in advance; the second had been kept secret, but obviously the fix was in. The third awards were kept quiet and out of the papers, though publicity photos of Best Actress Norma Shearer (The Divorcee and Their Own Desire) and Best Actor George Arliss (Disraeli and The Green Goddess) holding their awards were strangely taken three days before the ceremony. Shearer was married to Thalberg, and MGM employees who happened to be Academy members were “strongly advised” to vote for her. Some “fixes” were still in.

But outside of the Shearer controversy, the Academy did pretty well, awarding Outstanding Production to All Quiet on the Western Front. In a first for the awards, the film also won Best Director (Lewis Milestone). The World War I drama still holds up. The film tells the story of several young German men, all fellow students, who are inspired by their teacher to enlist in the army to “save the Fatherland.” The film balances drama with humor as it presents the horror of war. The film also makes its audience sympathize with the German soldiers, the enemy. We see them as young men doing their part for their country, not as the evil villains they are so often presented as in television and film. We see most of the film through the eyes of Paul as he loses friends, fears for his loved ones, and returns home to realize that the people there actually have no idea what is really going on, but are still caught up in blind patriotism. His final speech to the students in the classroom is passionate and a wonderful bookend scene to the opening of the film.

One characteristic that makes the film so successful was building on the “show, don’t tell” aspect of filmmaking. The film was shot “as if” it were a silent film, using occasional title cards that could be changed out and translated into different languages for international release. This tactic helped make the film a box office smash. The battle scenes are breathtaking as the camera tracks along the battlefield, establishing a visual motif that would appear in subsequent war films. While watching the film, I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Kubrick’s film is rightly praised for its cinematography and ability to capture trench warfare. But All Quiet on the Western Front did it twenty-seven years earlier and obviously influenced Kubrick. Though much has been written about these battle scenes, the claustrophobic bunker scenes are an often overlooked element of the film. As the men sit trapped in their bunkers with no food, listening to the shells explode around them, the audience feels trapped with them. For cinematographer Arthur Edeson and director Milestone to capture both the sweeping expanse of the battlefield and the terrifying closed quarters of the bunker is an amazing feat. The film is without a doubt the first great epic best picture.

The following year, Cimarron became the first western to take the top prize. Though it was a critical and commercial success at the time of its release, the film has not fared well over the years. It often ranks towards the bottom of best picture lists and is generally condemned for its racism and slow pacing. The basic plot revolves around Yancy Cravat (Richard Dix) as a man with wanderlust who sets out to stake his claim in Oklahoma. Over the years, he marries, has a family, starts a newspaper, but can’t ever shake the desire to roam. So, he occasionally takes off without his family to scout out new frontiers. The odd thing about the movie is that it doesn’t follow Yancy when he leaves but stays with his family and their attempts to carry on without him. In many ways, it’s the first best picture winner in a long line of films that focus on a family over a course of several decades, Gone with the Wind being just one example. It’s not a great film; it’s a little long and slow going, and yes, there are racist stereotypes in its depiction of African-Americans, Native Americans, and Jews, but honestly the film is better than current critics give it credit for. Contemporary stereotypes aside, the film was actually trying to address the issue of racism. Yancy is a progressive thinker and fights for civil rights, particularly for Native Americans. He uses his newspaper as a forum to criticize their treatment as well as the treatment of other disenfranchised groups. His passion affects his family as they mourn the loss of their young servant, Isaiah, as if he were one of the family. His son marries a Native American who had previously been a servant in their home. They make a local Jewish man, Sol Levy (George E. Stone), a full partner in the newspaper. His wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne), becomes the first female congresswoman of the state. The film also deserves credit for its technical prowess. It is one of the first westerns to move out of the studio backlot and shoot on location in open country. The opening Oklahoma Land Rush scene (about 5:00 into the below clip) predates John Ford’s Stagecoach by eight years. The tracking shots through the town are impressive as well.

All in all Cimarron is a flawed film, but to condemn it solely for its unintentional racism when it’s actually trying to make a comment about racism is ludicrous, especially if we continue to overlook the intentional racism of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. After the disappointment of The Broadway Melody, the 1930s were off to a good start.


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