A while back, I noticed that I haven’t seen a lot of the big-name movies of American film history. Oh all right. I saw ads for a Godfather marathon on AMC and realized I’d never seen any of the Godfather films.
So, being the slightly OCD person I am, I decided to watch all of the films that won an Academy Award for Best Picture. In order. I’m sure there are jokes in here somewhere, but I don’t feel like looking for them just now.
Wings (Best Picture, 1928)
This is the longest silent film I have ever heard of. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, Wings is an occasionally relentless story of two World War One fighter pilots who happen to be in love with the same girl. David is actually favored by Sylvia, but she takes pity on Jack and lets him think she likes him. Jack has a fervent admirer in his neighbor, Mary, played by the expressive and adorable Clara Bow. While David and Jack begin by disliking each other, the war and their joint reputation as flying aces bring them together until they are close friends. When David’s plane is shot down across enemy lines, Jack is distraught and takes revenge by shooting down the first enemy plane he sees, not knowing that the pilot is his friend – David had survived the first crash and managed to steal a plane to fly home. David dies in his friend’s arms, and Jack, devastated, returns home at the end of the war to profess his grief to David’s parents and his love for Mary.
The story is engrossing and moving, a powerful presentation of the love and friendship possible between two young men in adverse circumstances. Furthermore, the final minutes as David dies and Jack returns home are raw with survivor guilt. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched it about the population of Hollywood, and how many of the men and women involved in the production of films found pain or catharsis in making such films. Many must have been veterans at this time and many must also have lost someone in the war. The film is not fast-moving by current standards, but the long shots of soldiers marching and tanks moving slowly down the roads of Europe amongst explosions stay just barely clear of boring. Instead, they highlight the endless, end-of-days feeling of the war and support the depth of the friendship between the two young men.
Broadway Melody (Best Picture, 1929)
I have to be really honest here. I’m not sure what to do with this one. Broadway Melody is either astonishingly feminist and before its time or it’s the most appallingly sexist thing I’ve ever had the misfortune to see. Stage-struck sister act of Hank (a girl, I promise) and Queenie come to New York, hoping to make it big on Broadway. Hank is engaged to song-and-dance man Eddie, who finagles them into the revue for which he currently works. Everyone, including Eddie, is all over Queenie because she’s so pretty and kind (if a little dim and not very talented), while Hank is set aside because she’s hot-tempered and not as pretty (though way more talented than her sister). Queenie, trying to maintain harmony and get Eddie to stop drooling all over her, goes on dates with wealthy show investor Jacques Warner, while Hank’s role in the show is reduced.
It takes Hank a disturbingly long time to notice that Eddie is in love with Queenie, at which point she tells him she was just playing him and that he’s a coward for not fighting for Queenie. Eddie goes off to the party Warner is having to celebrate Queenie’s new apartment and walks in on the wealthy man trying to get Queenie to “repay” him for all the “nice things” he’s done for her (read: I bought you stuff! You owe me sex!). Contrary to expectation, Eddie gets the stuffing knocked out of him and gets tossed from the apartment, but Queenie goes after him and they end up married. Hank gets a new partner for her act and goes back to performing.
The thing about the movie is this: It’s obvious that Queenie gets stuff because she’s pretty, kind, and innocent in a childish sort of way. Hank, far more savvy and belligerent, sacrifices everything to make sure Queenie gets what she wants, even if that’s Hank’s own fiancee. Hank’s reunion with Eddie is awkward, but she seems genuinely happy that the two of them are married. It’s very odd, and I can’t decide whether or not it’s realistic. So on the one hand, Queenie gets everything because she’s pretty and Hank has to keep working hard because she’s less attractive, though far more talented. On the other hand, each of the women expresses regrets about how things turned out, though not to each other. And the movie somehow makes its message clear without attaching a value judgment. Is it endorsing or condemning the way the sisters’ lives have gone? I really can’t decide.
Next up: All Quiet on the Western Front (Best Picture, 1930)