The Life of Emile Zola is the second biopic to win Best Picture after The Great Ziegfeld won the year before. Its impact led many to believe it was the greatest biographical film made up to that point. Only through the movie did I learn Émile Zola was a famous French author known for his naturalist writing and muckraking scandals. Zola exposed the truth in France and the film mostly explores his rags to riches story. The Life of Emile Zola is very deserving of all its admiration and double digit Oscar nominations at the 10th Academy Awards.
Though there is a shadow of controversy that hangs over it. The other half of the story focuses on the Dreyfus affair of 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish Army officer accused of treason. Although the reason was strongly anti-semitic, the movie barely acknowledges it. Since the Nazis rose to power around the time, many believe Hollywood was afraid to speak against their actions. The only reference to Dreyfus as a Jew is a piece of paper showing his religion and parallels to Jesus.
Despite the omission, The Life of Emile Zola is well written enough to have won Best Screenplay. Performances are also stellar with a transformative portrayal of Paul Muni as Zola. Muni captures Zola’s enthusiasm for writing and bravery when faced with the dangerous task of exposing Dreyfus’ false arrest. Joseph Schildkraut won Best Supporting Actor since Dreyfus goes through the most turmoil. Zola’s open letter “J’accuse…!” leads to a powerful court case that left me hanging on every word. The Life of Emile Zola proves the pen is mightier than the sword.
Emile Zola defends himself in court
The Great Ziegfeld is a lavish production filled with glitz and glamour. Such was the taste of the man the movie is based around. The Great Ziegfeld is the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It tells the life story of the great Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ve seen the impact of his extravagant shows. The Great Ziegfeld is so larger than life that it took 3 hours to tell. Making it the longest Hollywood sound picture made at the time. Although Ziegfeld passed away in 1932, his widow Billie Burke sold the rights to make a film almost immediately.
A lot of money went into the massive sets and flashy costumes. Making fellow musical The Broadway Melody look almost pedestrian by comparison. I fully understand why The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture, but a lot of its strengths become weaknesses overtime. We see Ziegfeld’s life as a struggling producer scouting for talent wherever he can find it. A great deal of it is exaggerated and not entirely historically accurate. Ziegfeld first promotes a strongman named Sandow, he later meets Polish performer Anna Held, he gets the idea for Ziegfeld Follies, and produces multiple Broadway shows. All while competing with his friendly producer rival Jack Billings.
William Powell captures Ziegfeld’s determination and passionate love of women. Including his desire to give them expensive jewels and show them off in his Follies. Luise Rainer deserves her Best Actress win for playing his first wife Anna Held. Although Burke was a working actress at the time, her role went to Myrna Loy instead. Ray Bolger does play himself during an extended tap dance. The Great Ziegfeld may be excessive, but that’s the star attraction (and the main reason why it’s so long). The “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” sequence is the best that classic Hollywood has to offer. Earning a now outdated Oscar for Best Dance Direction. There are so many performers and the “Wedding Cake” set is simply astounding. The Great Ziegfeld is showy in the best way.
The Wedding Cake
Top Hat is a good old fashioned excuse to sing and dance. After the success of The Gay Divorcee and Roberta, Top Hat was written especially for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s arguably their most well known pairing and it’s the film I wanted to see the most. Even though it’s very similar to The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat was a Best Picture nominee with a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The director Mark Sandrich, almost the entire cast, and the general theme is the same as The Gay Divorcee.
Top Hat is also about a misunderstanding between dancer Jerry Travers and the mysterious Dale Tremont. This time Rogers’ character mistakes Astaire’s character for the husband of her older friend Madge. If Alice Brady played Madge instead of Helen Broderick, then the entire Gay Divorcee cast would be complete. Edward Everett Horton plays Madge’s mixed up producer husband, Erik Rhodes plays Dale’s fool hardy Italian fashion designer, and Eric Blore plays the hilariously incompetent valet. It’s another fine screwball romance that works itself out in the end.
Song and dance are very much the star of the musical with catchy songs from Irving Berlin and showstopping dance numbers. Truly a winning combination. The relationship only takes off when Jerry taps above Dale. Astaire is a high energy acrobat, but Rogers keeps up very well in heels no less. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” puts them on equal footing and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” gives Astaire time to shine in his titular top hat. The most classic number will always be the joy filled “Cheek to Cheek” recognized for Rogers’ feather dress and the lyric “Heaven, I’m in Heaven.” Top Hat is top notch entertainment.
Jerry dances with Dale
The Gay Divorcee is a gay old time. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the biggest dancing duo in the Golden Age of Hollywood. They danced together in over 10 different musicals, but this was only their second time sharing the screen and dance floor. After Flying Down to Rio, a Broadway musical titled Gay Divorce was the next project with them in mind. Since the Hays Code was implemented at the time, the original title became controversial.
Not for the word “gay,” which meant happy or joyful at the time. Calling a divorce gay was controversial since it was disparaging marriage. A gay divorcee on the other hand is perfectly fine. Ginger Rogers is said gay divorcee who’s more bitter than gay in the beginning. Mimi is seeking a divorce from her absentee husband in England. Fred Astaire is a famous dancer who falls madly in love the moment they meet. Guy Holden almost obsessively searches for Mimi, but they conveniently wind up staying at the same continental hotel.
Together they team up with Alice Brady as Mimi’s chatty aunt, Edward Everett Horton as their confused lawyer, Erik Rhodes as a bumbling Italian co-respondent, and Eric Blore as a half witted waiter. They all end up sharing a connection through a series of ironic misunderstandings. The romance is swell and the comedy is fun, but it’s obvious the entire movie centers around song and dance numbers. “Night and Day” is a great song for the couple’s first dance, but “The Continental” was the first song to win Best Original Song. The 17 minute long sequence is a major production that gives The Gay Divorcee its pep.
Guy dances with Mimi
Cavalcade is another decade spanning epic worthy of winning Best Picture. Cimarron seemed to set the precedence for movies like this. Cavalcade was the last film to win the Academy Award when 2 release years were eligible. After awhile it made more sense to stick to 1 year. As the second to last pre-Code winner, Cavalcade might have inspired stricter Hollywood guidelines. The film has some scandal, but it was mostly light swearing like “damn” and “hell.” Cavalcade is based on a play that covers three decades of a British families life until it reaches modern day. Starting with the turn of the century in 1900.
A cavalcade of soldiers march in the background as a metaphor for time marching on. A big reason why the movie also won Best Art Direction and Best Director for Frank Lloyd. Important historic events include the Second Boer War in South Africa, the death of Queen Victoria, the tragic sinking of the Titanic, and the devastation of World War I. Of course these events mostly play out in the background and only affect the main characters to increase drama. Cavalcade is more slice of life from the perspective of the wealthy Marryot family and their less fortunate servants the Bridges.
Jane and Robert are well off, but they aren’t snobs. They love their sons Edward and Joey and respect those who work for them. Their equally wealthy friend Margaret Harris and her daughter Edith are also important to their story. Ellen and Alfred have their own problems, but their daughter Fanny ends up doing pretty well for herself. It’s sentimental, but tragedy comes when you least expect it. Diana Wynyard earned a Best Actress nomination since Jane goes through a lot as a wife and mother. Cavalcade is full of hardship, but it makes sure to highlight hopeful moments at the same time.
Jane and Robert celebrate New Years
Grand Hotel is a grand Hollywood drama. Based on another 1929 German novel titled Menschen im Hotel, it was quickly followed by a 1930 Broadway play. 2 years later, Grand Hotel essentially became a play put to film. Except that it features an all-star cast and spectacular shots of the circular Grand Hotel in Berlin. Despite terrific performances, top notch writing, and excellent direction from Edmund Goulding, Grand Hotel has the unique distinction of winning Best Picture without a single nomination in any other category. That may have something to do with the increased number of movies nominated.
Grand Hotel stands out since it takes place entirely in the titular hotel where people come and go, but nothing ever happens. Lewis Stone plays a disfigured war veteran who witnesses most of the film’s events. There are at least five important players with their own separate escapades that only converge at a slowly approaching climax. I didn’t always understand what was going on, but Grand Hotel is very engrossing nonetheless. Since every character has a distinctly German name, it helped that they were all played by recognizable actors. John Barrymore is a Baron, a gambler, and a thief in desperate need of money to pay off a debt.
John appears alongside his brother Lionel Barrymore as a dying accountant trying to live life to the fullest. Lionel is so pathetic, yet so likeable at the same time. Greta Garbo plays a depressed dancer who just wants to be alone. This was my first time seeing Garbo in something and she doesn’t disappoint. The Baron plans to steal from the dancer and accountant, but he falls for the former and befriends the latter. An easier mark would be Wallace Beery as a sleazy industrialist or a young Joan Crawford as his passionate stenographer. Let’s just say I didn’t expect the Baron’s story to end the way it did. Grand Hotel is a clever concept that practically inspired its own genre.
The Grand Hotel
Cimarron is the first western to win Best Picture. Surprisingly, it was the only western to win until Dances with Wolves won nearly 6 decades later. Westerns are such a big part of early Hollywood that I guess I figured there were more. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, Cimarron is based on a 1929 novel and is epic in scope. RKO risked the success of a big budget western in the midst of the Great Depression and it mostly paid off. Cimarron was nominated for every eligible Oscar including Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Cinematography.
I understand why it won Best Picture, Writing, and Art Direction, but it’s another product of its time. One of the young black servants is a definite stereotype and the Indians aren’t treated much better. The opening Oklahoma land rush is the most ambitious and impressive scene in the movie. Cimarron is all about the settlers who came to the unoccupied territory to purchase land. Don’t let the poster fool you, Yancey Cravat may be quick on the draw, but he’s no rugged cowboy action hero. He wears many white hats that include being a lawyer, newspaper editor, and even preacher.
Yancey drags his wife Sabra to Osage, but she’s the one who ends up carrying the movie in the end. Richard Dix was nominated too, but it’s Irene Dunne who goes from timid housewife to powerful business woman when her husband abandons her twice. Cimarron spans 40 years in Osage, Oklahoma. A lot of the movie reminded me of Giant, since the attention shifts to oil and an interracial marriage with an Indian woman. Just as much attention is given to the Carvat’s children and an unliked town prostitute. Objectively speaking, Cimarron captures early western creation rather well.
Yancey and Sabra in Osage
All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless anti-war message. It was the first sound war film to win Best Picture after the silent Wings. All Quiet on the Western Front is also the first (but far from the last) Best Picture winner based on a novel. The 1929 book of the same name was almost immediately followed by the Hollywood adaptation. I read the book in school and watched the movie, but I completely forgot that it was from the perspective of German soldiers. It’s hard to tell considering the American accents. Bare in mind this was World War I. The book and movie’s anti-war themes got it banned and/or burned a decade after Nazis rose to power.
All Quiet on the Western Front is all about the loss of innocence affected by the war. A school professor convinces a class full of impressionable youths to join the Army with what can only be called propaganda. It’s all fun and games at first, but reality hits them as soon as the first bombs start to fall. As a pre-Code 1930 movie, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t hold back on depicting the very real tragedy of war. Thanks to the direction of Lewis Milestone who won the Oscar for Best Director. Young soldiers are blinded, blown up, shot, and amputated on.
They’re forced to fight in dangerous trenches while dealing with giant rats and mustard gas. The only fleeting moments of levity are the soldiers getting back at their drill instructor, getting double food rations, and seducing French dames. As the 2nd Company starts to die out, Paul is one of the few who survives. He really starts to question the war when he fatally wounds an enemy soldier who’s no different than him. Things come full circle when Paul returns home, only to realize the front was all he had left to live for. There is a follow up book and movie called The Road Back, but it’s not as well known or acclaimed. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best war movies ever put to film.
The 2nd Company in the trenches
The Broadway Melody is a product of its time. It was the very first sound film to win Best Picture at the 2nd Academy Awards. Making Wings the only Silent Era film to win the Oscar. The Broadway Melody is also the first musical to win. There was even an early Technicolor scene that inspired more color in cinema. I think The Broadway Melody mostly won for its technical achievements. Hollywood was so ready for sound that story and/or performances weren’t as important. The Broadway Melody is a fine production on its own, but it hasn’t aged too well.
It centers on a Broadway performance produced by Francis Zanfield. An obvious take on real life theater producer Florenz Ziegfeld (more on him later). The Mahoney Sisters dream of taking their vaudeville act on Broadway. Hank is the older sister dating singer Eddie Kearns and Queenie is her younger more naive sister. Since it’s pre-Code, the sisters are given unnecessary bathing scenes. The Broadway Melody is an early musical that isn’t entirely dominated by music. Songs like the titular “Broadway Melody” or the original “You Were Meant for Me” more or less remain on Broadway.
More attention is arguably given to love triangles centering around Queenie. Despite dating Hank, Eddie is kind of a jerk who turns all of his attention to the younger, more beautiful Queenie. The producer chooses Queenie over Hank and Queenie gains the attention of a playboy named Jock Warriner. I feel bad for Hank, but Bessie Love gives the best performance out of anyone. Enough to earn a Best Actress nomination. The Broadway Melody is dated, but it puts on a good enough show to inspire many more sort of sequels for years to come.
The Singing Fool tries to replicate the success of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. By essentially making the same movie all over again. Although it lacks the name recognition of The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool did cement the staying power of talkie pictures. The 1928 film has way more sound moments than silent moments. Sound continues after the first song and it remains that way for a majority of the story.
Though the only song I recognized was “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Jolson got so popular in Hollywood that pretty much every character he played had to be named Al. This time Al Stone is a waiter turned singing fool who wants to make it in show business. This time his strained relationship is with his fickle wife Molly and his most loving relationship is with their son Sonny Boy. Precocious young child actor Davey Lee became very successful after the film’s release.
The Singing Fool is another objectively great movie with an unfortunate use of blackface. This time it comes at the last minute and ruins a heartfelt song that Stone sings for his son. The Jazz Singer is still well preserved on all forms of media, but The Singing Fool was very difficult to find. Luckily the library had what may be the last known copy in existence. Although it didn’t receive any Oscar attention, The Singing Fool was another key contributor to talking in cinema.
Al sings for Grace