by David Krauss
It's Oscar time! Thor helped read the nominees, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, and Tom Hanks have all been snubbed, so Oscar season is officially underway and the race to the big night - Sunday, March 2 – has begun!
I'm not ashamed to admit I'm an Oscar junkie. I love the politics, history, handicapping, glitz, and even the glamour of the storied, often stodgy, always star-studded Academy Awards. You can have the Super Bowl; I'll take the Oscars and its beautiful train-wreck of a telecast any day of the week.
In the 36 days leading up to Oscar Sunday, High-Def Digest will chronicle the 85-year history of the Academy Awards through all the Best Picture winners that have been released on Blu-ray. We'll start at the beginning, in 1929, when the first awards were presented at a modest dinner at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel (the winners were notified three months earlier), and each week we'll focus on a decade – or two – and the Oscar-winning films that distinguished them. From 'Wings' to 'Argo,' we'll cover them all, saluting old and new favorites, remembering lost gems, and shaking our heads over some of Oscar's controversial and downright bone-headed blunders. Though, sadly, not every Best Picture winner has thus far enjoyed a Blu-ray release (some of the omissions may shock you), enough are available to provide a fascinating overview of Oscar history and satisfy the cravings of the most voracious film aficionado. (To see a full HDD review of the movie and the disc, click on the link that accompanies the description.)
So let's get started. This week, we honor Oscar's roots, the 1920s and 1930s. In 12 short years, the film industry moved from silence to sound and black-and-white to color, and Oscar appropriately honored the progressions. Back then, Best Picture was called Outstanding Production, and between 1927 and 1939 a dozen films received the coveted award. Unfortunately, only six are available on Blu-ray, and they are…
'Wings' (1927) - "Go big or go home" has often been Oscar's mantra, and the Academy's penchant for large-scale, sprawling, breathtaking epics was evidenced at the very first awards. This thrilling, stunningly photographed aerial spectacular about two best friends (Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen) and their adventures as fighter pilots in France during World War I holds the distinction of being one of only two silent movies to take home the Best Picture prize. (The other was 'The Artist' in 2012.) Director William Wellman mounted cameras on biplanes to capture the midair dogfights and the result is some of the most exciting and realistic aerial sequences ever committed to celluloid. The film's emotional core is also strong, making 'Wings' a moving and memorable experience. The 1927-28 Oscars also featured a category that would be abandoned the following year: Most Unique and Artistic Picture. The winner of that statuette would be F.W. Murnau's 'Sunrise' with George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor, who would win the first ever Best Actress prize for her portrayal in this film, as well as 'Seventh Heaven' and 'Street Angel.'
'All Quiet on the Western Front' (1930) – Quite possibly the greatest anti-war film of all time, this impeccably produced and supremely affecting drama, based on the classic novel by Erich Maria Remarque, focuses on a young German student (Lew Ayres) swept up in a patriotic wave of battle fever at the dawn of World War I who becomes increasingly disillusioned and disgusted after witnessing horrible and senseless acts of violence. The scope and scale of the battle sequences are extraordinary, the brutal depiction of trench warfare is difficult to watch, and the film's humanistic and pacifistic message remains as powerful today as it surely was eight decades ago. Director Lewis Milestone also won an Oscar, and the movie received additional nominations for its screenplay and cinematography.
'Grand Hotel' (1932) – MGM producer Irving G. Thalberg invented the all-star film with this glamorous look-in on the lives of a group of disparate people staying at a posh Berlin hotel. Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and Lewis Stone comprise the high voltage cast, and all the actors try their best to steal the spotlight. Though the film would give Garbo her signature line, "I want to be alone," the young Crawford makes the biggest impression as a "stenographer" who's hired for after-hours duty. The movie epitomizes MGM's slick style and would help coin the studio's famous catchline – "more stars than there are in the heavens."
'Cavalcade' (1933) – One of the least known Best Picture winners, this sprawling adaptation of the Noel Coward play charts the changing fortunes of a single upper-class British family from the turn of the 20th century up through the Great Depression through such noteworthy historical events as the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and the trying times of World War I. Reminiscent of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' and 'Downton Abbey,' 'Cavalcade' is about as stiff as England's proverbial upper lip, but the production's scope is impressive and the performances are first rate. Director Frank Lloyd also won an Oscar and leading lady Diana Wynyard received a nomination for Best Actress.
'Mutiny on the Bounty' (1935) – This absorbing sea epic about a tyrannical captain (Charles Laughton) who's overthrown by his rebellious crew is based on a true-life incident and features plenty of action and adventure, as well as stirring performances from Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone. All three received Best Actor Oscar nominations, the only time in Academy Award history three stars from the same film were nominated for lead actor. (It's no coincidence the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories were created the following year to make sure such a situation never happened again.) Ambitious and brilliantly executed, the original adaptation of 'Mutiny on the Bounty' far outclasses the bloated remake starring Marlon Brando.
'Gone With the Wind' (1939) – The movie that coined the term blockbuster, 'Gone With the Wind' was bigger, longer, more sumptuous, and more grandiose than almost any film to date, and it captured the fancy of American audiences like nothing ever had before. Producer David O. Selznick's almost four-hour adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's bestselling opus chronicles the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the tempestuous life of one of literature's most iconic heroines, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a headstrong belle who weathers war, poverty, and a humdinger of a romance with the macho Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Though it creaks a little around the edges, 'GWTW' remains one of the all-time great Hollywood movies, featuring excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, and a knockout production design. Frankly, my dear, it's impossible not to give a damn about this sensational picture, which reaped a whopping eight Academy Awards (the most to date), including a Best Director award for Victor Fleming (who also helmed 'The Wizard of Oz' the same year!) and acting honors for Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar.
Best Picture Winners of the 1920s and 1930s Not Yet Available on Blu-ray:
'The Broadway Melody' (1929)
'It Happened One Night' (1934)
'The Great Ziegfeld' (1936)
'The Life of Emile Zola' (1937)
'You Can't Take It With You' (1938)
Best Picture Nominees of the 1920s and 1930s Available on Blu-ray
'In Old Arizona' (1929)
'Lady for a Day' (1933)
'A Farewell to Arms' (1933)
'A Star Is Born' (1937)
'Grand Illusion' (1938)
'The Wizard of Oz' (1939)
Next week: The 1940s and 1950s