An Honor To Be Nominated: À Nous La Liberté

THE CONTENDER: À Nous La Liberté (1931)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Art Direction (Lazare Meerson)

Number of Wins: Zéro

In the last column, I discussed how focusing only on the top categories of Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film does a disservice to the complete history of foreign films at the Academy Awards. Many, many excellent international productions have competed in nearly every category. As near as I can tell, only the Visual Effects category has never nominated a foreign language film. Sure, the UK, Australia and New Zealand have been represented but it seems kind of weird that there’s never been anything nominated from Asia or non-English-speaking Europe.

At any rate, the topic got me to wondering: what was the very first foreign-language film nominated for an Academy Award? Turns out, it was a lot earlier than you may have thought. At just the 5th Academy Awards, René Clair’s influential social satire À Nous La Liberté became the answer to a future trivia question when it became one of three films nominated for Best Art Direction. It would be over a decade before a foreign-language film would actually win anything but it was a start.

Clair had been a journalist and film critic whose first two short films, The Crazy Ray and Entr’acte, firmly established him as a key member of the French avant-garde. Over the course of the 1920s, he became one of the most highly regarded silent filmmakers with films like An Italian Straw Hat. Clair was initially resistant to the arrival of sound but it didn’t take him long to master it, becoming one of the most innovative directors of the early sound era.

À Nous La Liberté was his third sound film and, in many ways, it remains his best work. Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy star as Émile and Louis, cellmates in a French prison. They plot an escape but only Louis makes it to freedom. Once back in society, Louis takes a job selling phonograph records on the street. He’s successful at it and over time, the street corner job turns into a storefront, which in turn grows into a factory, replicating phonographs using the same assembly line techniques Louis learned in prison.

Years later, Émile, now released from prison, is arrested for loitering. Through his jail cell, he hears the singing of a young woman, Jeanne (Rolla France). He’s immediately smitten and, after managing to escape the cell, he follows her back to Louis’ factory, where she works. Émile ends up in the employment line, stuck with another assembly line job that he didn’t really want. His disruptions land him in hot water and end up reuniting him with his now rich and powerful old cellmate. At first, Louis assumes Émile has turned up to blackmail him by exposing his secret past. But it doesn’t take long for him to be reminded of his old friend’s inherently good nature and Émile is welcomed back like a brother.

The two friends pick up where they left off, singing their old prison song, “À Nous La Liberté” (literally, “Freedom For Us”). Louis promises to help Émile win Jeanne’s heart by helping out financially but Émile eventually decides to let her go after realizing she truly loves another. Meanwhile, Louis has attracted the attention of another ex-prisoner and this one has less-than-honorable intentions, threatening to blow the whistle on him.

There are any number of elements in À Nous La Liberté that could be singled out for praise, starting with the performances of both Marchand and Cordy. Movies with this kind of structure don’t often work. Clair starts with both characters, then drops Marchand entirely to focus exclusively on Cordy. Eventually, Marchand comes back in and we forget about Cordy for awhile. Finally, after a long time apart, the two characters are brought back together. For this to work, we have to be invested in both Marchand and Cordy equally. This is harder to pull off than it seems and works here thanks to the two actors’ magnetic screen presence and chemistry that establishes their friendship within seconds.

À Nous La Liberté also became the source of controversy a few years after its release when the French studio Tobis accused Charles Chaplin of plagiarizing Clair’s work in his own Modern Times. It’s hard to deny the similarities between the two but we’ll never really know for sure if it was an influence. The suit was eventually settled out-of-court and Chaplin always maintained that he’d never even seen the picture. For his part, Clair wanted nothing to do with the lawsuit, professing his own admiration for Chaplin and saying he’d be honored even if Chaplin had ripped him off.

Whether you’re Team Chaplin or Team Clair, the French director was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to sound. Chaplin was one of the last holdouts of the silent era and he managed to produce some of his best work after everyone else had switched to talkies. But Clair overcame whatever reservations he had about the technology early on and pioneered innovative use of music, sound design and dialogue, blending them into a seamless tapestry of sound. Keep in mind, the Academy didn’t even have music categories at this time and the award for Sound Recording was given to the entire department of the studio, not to individuals for work on specific films. Hollywood would spend another year or two trying to catch up to Clair.

Instead, the Academy chose to honor Lazare Meerson with a nomination for Best Art Decoration. Again, it’s hard to complain about this choice. Meerson’s sets, particularly in the prison and factory sequences, are truly spectacular, all streamlined angles and curves. There were only three nominees in the category and À Nous La Liberté ended up losing to a Grand Hotel-style comedy-drama called Transatlantic. I couldn’t tell you if it was robbed or not. Transatlantic is a tough movie to track down, having never been released on video in any format. It’s my understanding that it’s received some kind of restoration, so I hope it’ll become easier to see at some point because it sounds genuinely interesting. Any movie that beat À Nous La Liberté for Art Direction has to interesting to look at, if nothing else.

René Clair only made a couple more pictures in France. Then, like most European filmmakers during World War II, he traveled to the UK and America, making English-language features like The Ghost Goes West and I Married A Witch. Clair returned to France as soon as the war was over and continued making films, some of which were well-received. But eventually, Clair would run headlong into the French New Wave. His style seemed quite old-fashioned compared to the work of young auteurs like Godard and Truffaut. He retired from filmmaking in 1965 and concentrated on writing until his death in 1981. But even today, audiences continue to discover and appreciate Clair’s innovative, ahead-of-their-time masterpieces from the 1930s.

À Nous La Liberté is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and is currently available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Skippy

THE CONTENDER: Skippy (1931)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Picture, Actor (Jackie Cooper), Director (Norman Taurog), Writing, Adaptation (Joseph L. Mankiewicz & Sam Mintz)

Number of Wins: 1 (Director)

This week, Comic-Con International 2014 invades San Diego for another year. So I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a Best Picture nominee with roots in the world of comics. The Dark Knight was famously passed over but I thought perhaps something based on a graphic novel, like Road To Perdition or A History Of Violence, might have snuck in.

In fact, only one movie based on a comic book, comic strip or graphic novel has ever been nominated for Best Picture and you need to go all the way back to 1931 to find it. Skippy was based on a comic strip by Percy Crosby than ran from 1923 to 1945. Today, it’s almost forgotten, save for the peanut butter that continues to bear its name. But its influence runs deep and can be felt in virtually every kid-centric comic strip that followed, from Peanuts to Dennis The Menace to Calvin And Hobbes. At its peak, the strip was wildly popular, inspiring books, scads of merchandise, and a radio show. A feature film was a no-brainer.

For the title role, Paramount nabbed young Jackie Cooper, who had been making a positive impression in Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts. Indeed, Skippy often feels like an extended Our Gang episode with added pathos.

Skippy is a mischievous lad who, despite stern warnings from his doctor father (Willard Robertson), enjoys hanging out with the poor kids in Shantytown. He befriends a new boy, Sooky (Robert Coogan), whose mutt is soon captured by a cantankerous dog catcher. The bulk of the film consists of Skippy and Sooky’s attempts to raise the three dollars it’ll take to get Penny the dog out of lock-up.

Director Norman Taurog had a unique method of getting the performance he wanted out of young Cooper. When he refused to cry during a key scene, Taurog, who was also the boy’s uncle, told a crew member to take Cooper’s dog out and shoot him. The nine-year-old broke down sobbing and Taurog got the shot. Borderline child abuse aside, it worked. Cooper not only got a title for his 1982 memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, he scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, becoming the youngest person ever nominated in a leading category to this day. Taurog himself won the award for Best Director.

Despite all this, Skippy remains one of the most obscure films ever nominated for Best Picture. In fact, a glance at the complete list of 1930-31 nominees reveals a lineup shocking in its banality. The winner, Cimarron, is one of the most tedious Oscar winners you’ll ever punish yourself by sitting through (yes, it’s even more boring than The English Patient). The other nominees included The Front Page, which would be overshadowed a few years later by its remake, His Girl Friday; the adventure movie Trader Horn; and East Lynne, a melodrama I had never even heard of before starting to write this article.

What happened? Were these really the five best movies the Academy could find? If so, they weren’t looking very hard. Among the other films eligible but not nominated were such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. I’m not saying Skippy is a bad movie. It’s cute and fairly charming. Jackie Cooper does give a remarkably confident performance for his age. But Best Picture material it is not.

Comics and graphic novels have long since gained the respect and admiration they were denied for so many years. But it’s remarkable that no film based on a comic has been nominated for Best Picture since Skippy. They’ve done well in other categories, primarily technical ones although several have garnered screenplay nominations, including American Splendor and Ghost World. But the Academy seems reluctant to invite them into the biggest category of them all. Frankly, I can’t say that I blame them.

Comics have grown up but with rare exceptions, the movies based upon them have not. For now, Hollywood seems content to milk the superhero genre for all its worth. Iron Man may boast Oscar-caliber visual effects but, as entertaining as it is, no one would take it seriously as a Best Picture candidate. The Dark Knight has come the closest, but even that was a flawed movie. Many felt it was unfairly overlooked at Oscar time but I think it received exactly what it deserved: lots of technical nominations and a posthumous salute to Heath Ledger.

There are hundreds of non-superhero comics just waiting to be adapted into feature films. The graphic journalism of Joe Sacco could provide the basis for an extraordinary war movie, while Eric Shanower’s Age Of Bronze could become an stunning epic in the vein of Gladiator. All it takes is the right filmmaker to connect with this raw material. One day, another movie based on a comic will receive a Best Picture nomination. When that day comes, I’ll be thinking about Skippy and I’ll be smiling.

Skippy has never been made available on DVD. It does turn up on TCM from time to time and Netflix has had it on their streaming service in the past, although it is currently unavailable. But the entire film is available in ten-minute segments on YouTube, which is how I watched it. If you’re curious, here’s part one to get you started.