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Worst Best Picture: Is Cavalcade Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1932/1933 winner Cavalcade. Is it better than Crash?

What’s the first “modern” movie that won an Oscar? What does that even mean? Cavalcade is a great place to start that discussion, mostly because it’s basically impossible to approach Cavalcade without engaging the fact that it’s nearly a century old.

Cavalcade is about a high society British family dealing with the events of the first 30 years of the 20th century. This involves a bit of history lesson at times, since an American in 2014 can be forgiven for not knowing the intricacies of the Second Boer War offhand. No one should be completely lost, though, because it eventually shifts to a love story about the Titanic and a dramatic climax involving World War I.

You can’t deal with Cavalcade the way you deal with Rain Man or Platoon. This is another world of movies, and it’s not really something you can judge by today’s standards. Cavalcade was the sixth winner — just a few years after the silent film Wings won the first Oscar — and it won in a generation where people wanted something entirely different out of a film. Lines are stepped all over, characters are never established, and huge diversions from the plot are common. That last one is the strangest trend about early Hollywood: everything made the final cut, no matter if it mattered for characterization, or the plot, or neither.

Cavalcade wanders around in a lot of ways, but it benefits from being the story of how a family changes through time. So, unlike the half-hour diversions in Wings, everything in Cavalcade is at least part of “the story.” A family experiences loss and a family grieves. Some of it is really strange — people just die in all of the early movies, it’s shockingly common for someone to just get hit by a truck or die in a plane crash or get shot — but it’s all part of a bigger thing.

I enjoyed it, largely. It won’t stick with me, and I know that because I watched it a week ago and I already am losing little bits of it. I feel like this is one of the few that’s on the fence for me. It’s a fine movie within the context of the 30s, but its one you can skip if you’re not a completionist.

The Best Part: There’s a haunting scene where soldiers are shown walking through time passing as they die in World War I. One of the most interesting terms in history is that of the “lost generation” in World War I. It means different things to different cultures, but the British use it to refer to the fact that nearly an entire generation of young men died at once. Cavalcade may not be an essential movie, but there’s no better way to illustrate that terrifying idea.

The Worst Part: You know how people sometimes say that Forrest Gump is a little silly because Forrest was “somehow” at every major world event in his lifetime? Well, that, but not a joke. There people really got the full British experience. Like, too much of it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashIt’s tough to even compare these. Cavalcade makes absolutely no attempt to deal with race or class — it’s about early century London, so duh — and I still say no attempt at all is better than the one in Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: The Guardian

Worst Best Picture: Is Wings Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1927 and 1928 winner Wings. Is it better than Crash?

The story of movie history isn’t the story of how we got to 12 Years a Slave any more than it is how we started with Wings, the first Best Picture winner. Different movies achieve immortality for different reasons. Wings was the first Oscar winner, back before they even called them that, but is it anything more than that?

It’s surreal to watch Wings in 2014. I try to keep the time period a movie is from in my mind when I watch it, but that’s not the challenge here. Rain Man is a fantastic movie that someone spilled 80s all over; Wings is pure 1927. It’s the only true silent movie to win (The Artist doesn’t count and should be ignored), for starters. A two-and-a-half hour silent movie seems like it would be a tough sell in 2014, but it’s worth exploring the first Best Picture.

Wings is the story of two boys who love the same gal, Sylvia. They both want to date her, but she only likes one back. The other guy’s cute friend is into him, but he’s only got eyes for Sylvia. I had to look up Sylvia’s name because she’s in about sixteen seconds of this movie. The boys go off to World War I, plucky female friend goes off to drive an ambulance in the war, and Sylvia presumably dies of Spanish flu, or something. Everyone kinda forgets her. It’s weird. The movie is unbelievably long, but that’s the end of that plotline, let’s go to war.

If Wings has a claim to fame beyond the first Best Picture Oscar, it’s two million dollars worth of plane combat effects. They’re impressive (to a degree, don’t expect much) considering what they had to work with in 1927. The conventions of silent film mean that you’re going to watch a lot of flying time, so at least it’s well done.

The main characters — Jack and David — are completely nondescript. They both love America, flying, this possibly dead woman, and just about nothing else. Wings is a patriotic movie before it is anything else, and it too often is willing to forego any interesting characterization to sell that patriotism. Of particular interest is a German-American character played to be incompetent and useless. He consistently mucks up simple tasks and has to demonstrate that he belongs in the war because he has an American flag tattoo. The creators of Wings knew that people wouldn’t buy him any other way.  The third or fourth time that happens, though, you start to wonder if this might have even been too long for people in 1927.

Clara Bow got top billing on Wings. She was a movie star of the highest order, and her portrayal of the rough-and-tumble “best friend/love interest” for Jack is as close as the movie gets to “interesting characterization.” It never quite gets all the way there, but she at least gets to drive an ambulance around and tell Jack that he’s brave and strong. Hoo-boy, that sentence really tells you where 1927 was at, doesn’t it?

The Best Part: Wings is not especially worth your time in 2014, but if you decide to watch it you’ll end up with a compelling movie. It’s way, way too long (largely because it feels totally unedited) but it eventually turns out an interesting climax that is somewhat surprising.

The Worst Part: Jack and David get some leave from the military and go to Paris to get drunk on champagne. They’re called back to provide needed air support, but Jack is too drunk to remember what the military is. Internet tells me that Charles “Buddy” Rogers, the guy that plays Jack, had never been drunk before the scene. To create a realistic portrayal, they just got him drunk in real life. It comes through like that, and it’s as hard to watch as any real-life drunk. Clara Bow eventually shows up to try to get him to go back to war, which helps, but the scene ends with Jack seeing “bubbles” everywhere. The mixture of a real drunk person on screen and some terrible bubble special effects creates a really, really bad scene.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashThe discussion of race in Wings is one of “real” Americans. The German-American is hated because he is not “authentic.” The women are hated because they are not men. Men are hated because they are not “real soldiers.” The world of Wings has no room for diversity, and it’s roughly as interested in a positive message about diversity as Crash is. But there’s 78 years between Crash and Wings, and honestly, I felt like Wings was a little more progressive. The only message of Wings is “be a man, fly a plane!” Crash would be improved by being just about that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.