It’s hard to remember now just how amazing airplanes were in the 1920s. Barnstormers used to cruise from one small town to another, charging impressive fees just to show off their miraculous flying machines. That sense of wonder deeply informs Wings, in a way that’s hard to understand from here in the miracle-jaded future. The story of two young pilots and their service in WWI is nothing new even for the time, but the flying shots are spectacular, and in 1927 they might as well have been magic.
The Oscar Project
What is The Oscar Project?
In mid-2014, my girlfriend and I decided we'd watch every single movie that's ever won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In chronological order. So far it's been a remarkable education in film history, and as of this writing we're not done yet. Once a week, I post my thoughts about another winner; sometimes just a few notes, sometimes a more in-depth review. For each film, I will also include the answers to the question "So what did this beat?" because it's what we always end up asking.
Oscar Project articles
I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated it in a way that started to feel weirdly personal after a while. The title song is repeated every five minutes by someone or other, which would be tolerable if it were a good song, but it’s not. There’s not a single likable character in this movie, which is a serious problem since we’re supposed to find them all charming. It’s about various people trying to achieve true love and showbiz stardom, but I didn’t want anything good to happen to any of them.
This is the earliest Best Picture winner that doesn’t require any apology or explanation before showing it to contemporary friends. It holds up perfectly, a stark and even angry look at the pointless, brutal cost of war. Its characters join the German army as teenagers full of idealism and hope and all that dulce et decorum est crap, and everything goes downhill for them from there.
This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.
Watching Grand Hotel, the 5th-ever Best Picture winner, it struck me how rapidly I was seeing the art of filmmaking develop. An audacious plotline-juggling comedy, this movie makes remarkable use of the camera in ways that haven’t shown up in previous films, but will continue showing up in subsequent ones. (Except for the fact that Greta Garbo has a proprietary lighting system that exists only for her character, as though she’s in a whole different movie by herself. That one’s all Garbo.)
This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me.
This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip.
A scene I’m 100% sure took place in Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM one day in 1935:
“So, last year Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night, and we made… how much money again?”
“All of it, sir. All the money.”
“Oh yeah. That was great. We also won enough Oscars that I had to have my mantelpiece reinforced. Anyway, having said that, what’ve we got this year?”
“We’ve got a picture where Clark Gable is shirtless for literally half the running time.”
“Good start. What’s he wearing the rest of the time?”
Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.
This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.
Of the various films in the genre of “Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart and several other stars in a surprisingly funny drama about socioeconomic injustice”, You Can’t Take It With You may be the least of them. Adapted from a George S. Kaufman play, it feels stagebound and claustrophobic, lacking a strong sense of visual expression. The story is just about a rich guy meeting a houseful of Manic Pixie Dream Anarchists, and some of the jokes don’t really work in the 21st century.
Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.
On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.
On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.
In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.