[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant

Humor is incredibly challenging to sustain. In the short-term – film-length, say, jokes have to consistently strike a thin nerve and not stray too far away from the central themes or character motivations. A misplaced quip, or a joke that moves the plot off its close course, can derail an entire film. The audience rarely sees these errors because script and screen editors at the highest professional levels catch them and trash them almost as quickly as they are written.

In the medium-term – Oscar-season, perhaps, humor rarely makes buzz. Much humor is anti-erudite, and juvenile, such that taps into the audience’s deepest desires to identify with things they once found humorous; other humor is dry and satirical and the writing and acting work tirelessly to inform their audience of the hyper-specific culture referenced; still other humor does not parade as comedy and is unintentionally funny because either the story is intentionally poorly conceived, or the acting is laughably sincere or insincere, or often a heaping of both. None of these methods sustain the Academy’s wish to best represent the year in culture; gestalt. Worst case: nothing in the year struck a nerve as particularly humorous or even slightly funny. Modern times call for advanced emotions: fear, hatred, sadness, austerity.

In the long-term – the history of film, for instance, humor falls almost unconditionally flat as tastes are elliptical, and follow a long arc around a contemporary locus. Then, after some time, the basis for the humor no long exists as a strain in human consciousness, through no one’s fault. Tastes change. But, in the rare instance a film can track humor as part of a larger, more serious narrative, it sticks, and exists outside the general theory of relativity. Consider Chocolat. This film is a serious take on historical racism and family dynamics, but it does so through the lens of a loose, and well-intentioned, albeit funny, vagrant. Chocolat, was also one of a handful of films with even slightly humorous undertones nominated, since 2000. Some films, like Chocolat, use humor to their advantage, but are not comedy films, by the reasoning that the larger social and historical implications outweigh jokes. But a curious film from the 5th Academy Awards (1931/32) called The Smiling Lieutenant, seems to have broken all the rules on route to obscurity. Continue reading “[1931/32] The Smiling Lieutenant”

[1931/2] Grand Hotel

We trace ensemble casts back through Shakespeare to Ancient Greece and most likely to the earliest days of storytelling; they say ‘it takes a village for a reason.’ Most likely, in the earliest days of our anthropological past, the concept of community was not a distinction between the haves and the have-nots or the 99% vs. the 1%, but a necessity to survival. I won’t go so far as to equate ensemble casting to fending off warring factions of neighboring tribes or to compare the plague of paranoia and petulance of Hamlet to actual Plague. But the concept is old and has been reworked countless times. Its origins trace roots to 1932’s Grand Hotel.

Of all the casting combinations available, if the choice is available, strong, recognizable ensemble casting rewards the audience more than an unruly cast of misfits and vagabond actors. To justify spending time and money on a two-hour film, a viewer will make a few snap judgments: does this subject matter resonate with me? Has this studio produced films before that I know and like? Do I know the lead actors in this film? From where? Has their work impressed me before? With ensemble casting, the actors both bolster and cover each other. With MGM not a performance risk, the team behind Grand Hotel attracted a huge cast – to audiences in the early 1930s – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore.  Probably, any one of these actors could have drawn a huge audience his or herself, but instead, to the delight of the audience, all five get a chance to interact and command the screen.

Quite the feat then, to crowd the screen with raw talent and still create a cohesive story that doesn’t feel like a “best of” performance. The titular Grand Hotel is fictitiously set in Berlin, but could be anywhere. The actors play archetypes, and types well, but the story keeps the fluid fivesome afloat. From the rising action we compartmentalize each character according to some personality trait and motivation. Both are clear and subtle; because of the long (and thereby expensive) runtime, Grand Hotel‘s pacing allows space for director Edmund Goulding to establish clear motivations and interactions that feel like they could have happened (in the ’30s). Sometimes the characters stay out of each other’s way and sometimes they’re purposefully in the way. Our one static character, whose function it was to stay out of the way states it clearly:

People come and go. Nothing ever happens

which is simultaneously true, as nothing of grand importance happens, but for the characters involved the interactions are life and death defining. But for Doctor Otternschlag, who’s a permanent resident of the Hotel, he’s seen this before and will see it again. The ‘slice of life’ motif is quite interesting when combined with ensemble casting. It creates a huge scene for almost nothing to happen.

The ensemble concept has reformed over the 85-year history of film – from pieces like Grand Hotel that give its characters room to explore to films like Ocean’s Eleven (and the remake, Ocean’s Eleven) and The Italian Job (and its remake, The Italian Job), which purposely obfuscates the motivations of its stellar cast. Other series/long-form features will cast lots of unknowns or half-knowns to draw more attention to the plot than to the cast. I’d think it’s easier to promote this kind of ensemble cast in our modern film sphere; more outlets for creative freedom exist, while the number of actors who command as much respect as those five did is probably the same – if not less than in the 1930s. This reformation is a commendable and necessary fact of modernizing film.

Grand Hotel holds a distinctive title of both popularizing a genre and not outliving its own popularity through decades of great, mediocre and poorly executed films. It’s still require curriculum for most film (life) students to cite Grand Hotel as a forerunner for so many of the films we watch, even today. It neither created the hustle-and-bustle genre nor defined it: it neither owns the popularity nor defies it.  Further, in a testament to the symmetry so often secluded from modern film, Grand Hotel starts and ends on two ideas. The first one, Dr. Otternschlag’s shrewd observation, brings a balance to the film. The second one, that a cast can survive within such a grand idea, has bookended film history until this day. See Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Grand Hotel rightfully took home the crown for Best Picture in 1931/2. In a year when it seemed like every film produced earned a nomination (nominees weren’t standardized at 5 until 1944), Grand Hotel is the cream that rises out of the proverbial crop. Some of the films nominated at the 5th awards are so obscure and dated that I’ll want to space out watching them to keep my sanity – but one thing for sure is that Grand Hotel is eons beyond Arrowsmith.

 

[1931/2] Arrowsmith

The thing about motion pictures before the widespread use of color film, morally ambiguous characters and multi-faceted story lines is that they were so bland. Often, as was the case with 1931’s Best Motion Picture nominated film, Arrowsmith, the entire film, characters, sets, dialogue – what have you – the motion picture overwhelms in pushing a particular message; or, as was the case with 1936’s San Francisco, a particularly refined film technique.

Starring Ronald Colman and a young Helen Hayes, Arrowsmith tells the story of young, pragmatic researcher (Dr. Arrowsmith) whose singular focus, and the focus of the movie, revolves around him “making something of his life.” First, he attends medical school, then he gets a wife, then he moves to a small town, then he takes a job at a prestigious research facility in New York, then he travels to the West Indies, then his wife dies, then he gives up. If that sentence seems tedious and overwrought with minutiae, that’s how this movie felt to watch. A singular conflict defines his every move and happenstance tends to take over the storytelling hand over fist.

Though the story’s plot plodded along a one-way track to a nebulous fin, we must not overlook the significance of this film in context. For any amateur film critic, movies crafted before a certain age – whether it be 1939’s Wizard of Oz or 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life – must come fettered with an overwhelming price tag. Before refinement of modern techniques and the consolidation of talent into studios and agencies made the barriers to entry too much for some filmmakers, the motion picture industry could have been the object of an entertainment-based Manifest Destiny. The sheer numbers of films made (and nominated for Best Motion Picture) before the mid-1940s describe this phenomenon without much digging. It’s also why we tend to lionize certain stars more so than we do today as “classic;” both contemporary and modern critics picked the brightest from a pool of talent that was either considered much smaller or much larger than it is today. Whatever the reason, these stars were ubiquitously recognized. Arrowsmith was neither memorable for its plot or its stars or its foray into uncharted themes or techniques. Continue reading “[1931/2] Arrowsmith”