Highest Grossing Film: The Jazz Singer- $7,630,000
Best Picture: Wings
What happened this year?
This was actually a pretty important year for film. Not only was The Jazz Singer released, aka the first major popular ‘talkie’ feature film (and following in the footsteps of Birth of a Nation by being both incredibly important in film history and also being reaaally kinda racial awkward), but this was also the year where the Academy Awards were first established. And in true Academy Award fashion, rather than award the movies that actually ended up having lasting cultural impact and longevity, they gave it to Wings. A movie that, while I’m sure it’s very good, is probably more-or-less only remembered today for being the first Best Picture winner. Oh, and Laurel and Hardy made their first movie too, which is neat.
Meanwhile, in other news, Charles Lindberg made the first solo transatlantic flight, work started on the Mount Rushmore sculptures and both Ireland and Iraq officially gained independence from the United Kingdom (which, I’ll admit, the latter surprised me more than the former.) Also, in regards to famous births, we’ve got Barbara Rush, Sidney Poitier, Emmanuelle Riva, Pope Benedict XVI, Janet Leigh, Roger Moore and the ever classic George C. Scott.
Got all that? Good. Now, on with the movie.
Plot: In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the touchy-feely son of the city’s mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences. Also robots. Robots are cool.
Trivia: Film included more than 37,000 extras including 25,000 men, 11,000 women, 1,100 bald men, 750 children, 100 dark-skinned people and 25 Asians. 310 shooting days were required. Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.
Helped Inspire: Almost every sci-fi movie in the last 90 years. And Superman’s home city.
Okay, let me start by saying that I respect the hell out of this movie.
Seriously, while a lot of the visual design and sci-fi elements can easily come off as cliche and overused in media, it’s important to realise that almost all of said visual design ideas were actually outright created by this movie and that, much like Blade Runner pioneered the neo-noir visual style, this movie more or less pioneered the sci-fi visual style, period. Which is seriously damn impressive.
That said, in case this whole ‘no srsly I did like it’ intro didn’t tip you off, I do have to admit I have a fair share of issues with it.
For one, the movie is too long by half and it especially feels it in the first half. While I have no issues with setting up the world and characters and the great visual designs of the sets and backdrops and the like, the movie doesn’t really get going with the plot until about an hour in and a lot of what we get before that does kinda feel like padding. We didn’t really need to see the journey of that one guy Freder replaced on the machines or of the assistant who got fired or the Thin Man (as much as I love the guy for being creepy as shit). It felt drawn out and unnecessarily slow and really kinda bored me. Fortunately, it definitely does pick up in the second half, which really redeemed the movie for me, but it was something I had an issue with.
The second issue was with the protagonist, Freder, who is kind of a foppish, lovestruck idiot incapable of a having a conversation with someone without more or less groping them. Seriously dude, personal space is a thing. Can you not hold a single conversation without draping yourself over the nearest person? (Although admittedly, I found that more hilarious than anything else). And I get what they were going for with his character, making him an innocent naive rich boy slowly coming to learn and understand the darker underbelly of his world. But he’s also almost entirely useless and spends most of his time having mental breakdowns at the most innocuous of stuff. Again, part of this might be heavily to do with how stretched out the first act was, since he’s the main focus for much of it, but still I really couldn’t stand him.
Honestly, a lot of the acting in general leans a bit too strong to the hammy side of things. The worker extras in particular seem to switch emotions on a dime, going from celebratory to heartbroken to bloodthirsty to celebratory again and all completely 100% over-the-top. Made it hard to take the emotional moments seriously with background extras cackling like a bunch of coked-up loons. The only actors I think I unambiguously liked were Jon Frederson (who almost reminded me of a proto-Tywin Lannister at times) and Maria/Robo-Maria for whom the hamminess actually really worked to make her unsettling. The way Robo-Maria unnaturally moved and twitched in particular gave me strong flashbacks to the Bride of Frankenstein, making me wonder whether the latter in fact took a lot of inspiration from the former. Considering how much else this movie has inspired, it really wouldn’t surprise me.
Also, on the negative side, the resolution of the conflict was kinda shite. The politics of where the line lies between fair work and exploitation in regards to the working class and the rich is a complex subject and not really something that can be fixed by going ‘maybe we should hold hands and be friends!’ But, then again, apparently Fritz Lang agreed with me that the ending was kinda poorly thought out, so… eh?
But now that I’ve finished talking about all the problems I had with it, what about the stuff I did like? Because there was actually quite a lot. As mentioned, the visual look and design and setting of this movie is outstanding and even to a modern view something impressive to behold. Rotwang’s Machine Man, in particular, was amazing, even if it didn’t appear in that form nearly as much as almost every movie poster would lead you to believe. The scene where it first rose from its chair and started moving was actively haunting and easily one of the best scenes in the movie. And Robo-Maria was just tons of fun, even if the ‘Whore of Babylon’ stuff was piled on a bit strong. (Honestly, Maria in both forms was a pretty awesome character who probably should’ve been the main instead of Freder.)
Also, while I wasn’t fond of the first act, I did really enjoy the story once it got going into the second half. It was tense, dramatic and had some great destruction shots as everything started blowing up and flooding and so on. Sure a few bits got dragged on a bit long, but it was really engaging and absolutely fantastic to watch. If the first act was maybe a C or so, I’d definitely give the latter half an A.
In conclusion, while I may have spent most of this review ranting about the things I disliked about it, this movie is actually pretty damn good and not just for the influence it had on the sci-fi genre going forward. It has a great visual design, a solid plot once it gets going, some good characters and sequences and is overall a relatively fun watch. B+
- Battleship Potemkin- A+/A
- Sherlock Jr- A
- The Adventures of Prince Achmed- A-
- Nosferatu – B+
- Metropolis – B+
- Safety Last – B+
- The Goat (1921) – B+
- The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – B-/C+