Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Patent Leather Kid (1927) & The 1st Academy Awards

How can we discuss The Patent Leather Kid, and not dedicate a few paragraphs to the very first iteration of the Academy Awards? We can’t, so hang in there and we’ll get to the film shortly — err … eventually.

The brainchild of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was originally formed to nullify (or mollify, if you prefer) the labor unions that were threatening to wreak havoc on industry production. As things turned out, Mayer’s cadre of power players didn’t have that kind of juice, but ever the pragmatist, he recognized that the Academy might still have some value as a PR mechanism. Concerned citizens all over the country were editorializing about the evils of the motion picture business, so Mayer imagined that the Academy could intervene with the Hays office and effectively self-police the business. The idea for the Academy Awards came a little later, after Mayer, his attorneys, and president Douglas Fairbanks managed to push $100 Academy memberships off on almost 250 more actors, writers, directors, producers, and technicians. The idea of an annual awards banquet is a natural outgrowth of such organizations, and the Academy Awards of Merit became Hollywood’s ingenious way of glamorizing itself and promoting its product to the world.

Nobody knew what to expect that first year, except for a good meal. The 270 attendees at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel that May evening were absolutely unconcerned about winning and losing — the results had been announced ninety days before the actual banquet was held — on the back page of the Academy Bulletin. (It wasn’t until the following year that Mayer realized the tremendous upside in keeping the results a secret until the big night.) The nomination and voting process had been painful to all involved — such things are hard to get right the first time around. Ballots actually had to be administered twice: many members failed to follow directions and nominated films from earlier years like Stella Dallas and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, both from all the way back in 1925. Then the whole affair was almost ruined by Al Jolson and  The Jazz Singer — committee members decided it was unfair to put the landmark talkie up against silent fare, so they ruled it ineligible and instead recognized the Warners with the Academy’s first special prize. Likewise for the cinematic juggernaut known as Charles Chaplin. He was eligible in multiple categories, but the committee decided to remove his name from consideration and give him an honorary award as well — killing four separate birds with one stone by recognizing his “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus.” Chaplin was the inarguably the most famous man in the world at the time; he would have certainly swept the awards. Some authors have suggested his name was removed from ballots due to his abrasive reputation in industry circles, but this is rubbish — had Chaplin and The Circus swept the very first awards, other industry players may have lost interest and the whole enterprise could have died. It is also important to remember the depth of friendship that existed between Chaplin and Fairbanks. Regardless, for the sake of the awards themselves it proved a wise decision.

The first banquet was also a private affair — the only one not broadcast in some way to the public. For the five-dollar ticket price, guests danced and enjoyed a sumptuous meal, all hosted by master of ceremonies Fairbanks. When it was time to recognize the evening’s winners, Mayer took only five minutes to call each of them to the head table to collect their statuettes. Best Actor Emil Jannings missed the ceremony — he had already received his award and was on a steamer bound for Germany, making him officially the first winner in the awards history.* At the time performers were nominated for their body of work over the course of the eligibility period; Jannings was up for his roles in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh, while his only fellow nominee was the much younger Richard Barthelmess, nominated for The Noose and the other subject of this essay, The Patent Leather Kid.

Twenty-one year old Janet Gaynor was named Best Actress for her work in a trio of features: Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise; besting Louise Dresser and Gloria Swanson, each nominated for a single performance. The practice of nominating actors and directors for multiple films would only last through the first three ceremonies, as it skewed votes towards the nominee with the most work under consideration, making an apples to apples comparison impossible. All in all, fifteen statuettes were awarded that evening in twelve categories, including Chaplin’s special award and one for the Warner Bros., for bringing The Jazz Singer to the screen. (Both cameramen recognized in the Cinematography category for Sunrise received a statuette.)

Wings was named Outstanding Picture on the strength of its commercial success, while Sunrise was given the prize for Unique and Artistic Picture. In one intriguing legend about those first awards it is said that the Board of Judges (comprised of one delegate from each of the five branches, plus Mayer) had originally selected King Vidor’s The Crowd as the winner over Sunrise, but Mayer was the lone holdout, arguing that Vidor’s depressing study of New York city life was not the credit to the industry that Sunrise was. After an all-night debate, the other judges finally gave in. Ironically, though Mayer is remembered as being rough around the edges and a something of a tyrant, he got that one right. Although The Crowd is a truly extraordinary film, Sunrise is … astonishing. What’s even more noteworthy is that The Crowd was an MGM product while Sunrise came from Fox. The shrewd foresight displayed by Mayer in arguing against his own film for one of the Academy’s most prestigious awards ruled out any possible suggestions of collusion, legitimizing the awards before they even got off the ground. The rest is history.

{* And it couldn’t have gone to a more rotten guy. In the wake of talking pictures Jannings’s thick accent made a career as a Hollywood unlikely, so the Swiss-born actor decided to head for Germany. He wrote to the Academy, asking to be given the award in advance of his ship sailing, “I therefore ask you to kindly hand me now already the statuette award to me. I want to take this opportunity to extend to you my heartfelt thanks for the honor bestowed upon me, which fills me with pride and joy which I shall cherish all my life as a kind remembrance in recognition of my artistic activities in U.S.A.” After he returned to Germany, Jannings continued to make films, most notably The Blue Angel (1930) with Marlene Dietrich. He would also sympathize with the National Socialists. Throughout the thirties he appeared in one Nazi propaganda film after another; in 1941 Goebbels bestowed upon him the title of “Artist of the State.” Jannings tried to reconnect with Hollywood after the war, but this was obviously impossible. He relocated to Austria and became a citizen of that country in 1947. He died of liver cancer three years later. His Academy statuette remains in Berlin.}

Richard Barthelmess’s Hollywood story began in 1916, when stage star Alla Nazimova cast him in the screen adaptation of her hit play War Brides. Barthelmess’s matinee idol looks and effortless screen presence ensured not only more roles, but stardom: he made eleven films the following year, and signed a contract with D.W. Griffith in 1919 and immediately appeared opposite Lillian Gish is a pair of films: Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, cementing his stardom. Gish would gush, “He has the most beautiful face of any man who ever went before a camera.” Barthelmess would continue as one of the biggest names in the industry, even becoming one of the original 36 founders of the Academy.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Barthelmess discovered he wasn’t nearly as well suited for the talkies, though he held on to his career a great deal longer than many: appearing in twenty sound pictures — though never in a notable performance. Barthelmess retired from acting in the mid-thirties, but returned to perform in the 1939 Howard Hawks classic Only Angels Have Wings. All in all, Barthelmess enjoyed a Hollywood career that lasted 25 years, with his greatest role coming in The Patent Leather Kid, a First national blockbuster released in 1927.

It’s a long movie, coming in at well over two hours, and it takes the acquired taste of a silent film enthusiast to get through it in a single sitting. Barthelmess plays the unnamed title character (if he’s got a real name, we never learn it), a Hell’s Kitchen prizefighter eyeing a shot at the title. Everyone in New York is rooting against him though — he’s an arrogant pug who fancies himself a dandy and insists on having his hair combed between rounds. Barthelmess looks the part: he’s an attractive and statuesque man who moves around the ring like he’s had some training. Had the movie been made a decade later, Barthelmess’s part undoubtedly would have gone to James Cagney, though the two actors are dissimilar. All of the fight scenes come over as authentic, with large crowds and believable atmosphere. It’s at one of his fights that the Kid meets Curley (Molly O’Day), a dance-hall girl who like everyone else in the arena came in hopes of seeing him knocked on his ass. Their eyes meet between, and just before putting his opponent down for the count, the Kid shouts at Curley to hang around after the fight. Intrigued, she ditches her date and lolls by the locker room door. A romance is born.

The US entry into the war is announced in one of the film’s best scenes. The Kid hears a commotion in the streets below and shouts down to the newsboy for a copy of the Times. As he scans the cover and begins to search for the sports page, we see the headline: “War Declared!” Curley enters the room and asks he’s heard the big news, but the Kid thinks she’s talking about the latest prediction of his defeat in the fight columns. The extent to which director Al Santell is able to milk the Kid’s reluctance to join the war effort is surprising, particularly given the film’s extensive running time and how abruptly it transitions from the New York fight game to the trenches of the western front. At first we think the Kid is simply disinterested in the world outside the ring — a fighter who only thinks about the fight game. Before long, as his friends enlist or are drafted, we realize he’s just scared. More than scared — he’s a coward, terrified of “guns n gas n bayonets.” After he refuses to doff his cap as the flag marches by on the street below Curley finally gives up on him, writing in a note: “I’m only a girl and can’t fight but I can dance and sing so I’m goin’ to France to cheer up the boys till I learn to be a nurse.”

Eventually the Kid is drafted, right alongside his stuttering trainer Puffy. The pair head for France as newly minted doughboys, the Kid constantly on the lookout for ways to avoid the front lines. When joining the assault becomes inevitable, he hangs back during the charge, hiding behind a tank as the men around him are chopped down. When Puffy gets hit, he implores his protégé to “give ‘em Hell!” and at the expense of the older man’s life the youth finally discovers his courage. He rises from his foxhole, grabs a satchel of grenades, and charges…

The film’s final sequence is patriotic, sentimental and a little corny, but you don’t mind so much. O’Day chews every piece of scenery in sight, frantic to score dramatic points before time runs out. Barthelmess’s final scenes are characterized by restraint, an actor understanding that the second half of the film is a great deal less about his ego than the first. This sort of redemption narrative would become the worst kind of dead horse in the years to come, beaten again and again by Hollywood as the decades, and the wars, accumulated. Big male star after big male star would make like Barthelmess in a Tinseltown rite of passage, playing arrogant, self-centered kids who go to war and learn what really matters.

The Patent Leather Kid (1927)
Directed by Alfred Santell
Starring Richard Barthelmess and Molly O’Day
Released by First National Pictures
Running time: IMDb: 130 – 150 minutes, my copy: 130 minutes.
Availability: Very Rare, though experienced film foragers can find it.

1 comment:

  1. I just watched this and loved it! Barthelmess was exquisite!