Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.

*****

  • Film & Year: Alibi (1929)
  • Standing: Nominated for Best Picture for the 1928/29 season
  • Type: Crime, Drama, Pre-Code
  • Other AA Wins: None
  • Director: Roland West
  • Studio:United Artists
  • Producer: Roland West
  • Cast: Chester Morris, Mae Busch, Eleanor Griffith, Regis Toomey, Purnell Pratt
  • Production Notes: Written by Elaine Sterne Carrington, Cinematography by Ray June
  • Viewing Order: 4/270

Alibi.jpg

Summary & Viewing Experience:

Former gangster Chick Williams (Chester Morris) has just been released from jail and hooks up with some old friends, including Joan Manning (Eleanor Griffith), the daughter of a policeman (Purnell Pratt). Chick appears to have mended his ways and he and Joan marry, much to the dismay of her father and policeman Tommy Glennon (Pat O’Malley), who is in love with her. Meanwhile, another policeman is killed in a robbery and the cops are certain Chick is involved. Joan, who is confident her new husband has left his former life of crime, provides the cops with Chick’s alibi: two ticket stubs from the theater that they had attended together on the night in question. Only not all of Chick’s time that night was accounted for…

Aside from Chester Morris as Chick and Mae Busch, who played Joan’s sassy friend Daisy, I found the acting horrendous. Considering that this was during the earliest stages of talkies and most of the actors in Alibi came from the stage with little to no experience yet in film, I tried my best to be generous and objective. This is easier said than done. Possibly the worst drunk scenes I have ever witnessed onscreen were acted out in Alibi by Regis Toomey, who played undercover cop Danny McGann. Part of his cover was appearing intoxicated, and unfortunately this meant the majority of his time onscreen was spent slurring unrealistically. Morris was undoubtedly the best of the bunch in terms of range, charisma, and naturalism (something I’d never pegged Morris with before, though I always enjoy him onscreen). Considering that this was his first sound film, his first lead role in a picture, and he had only acted in 4 films prior to this over the course of 12 years (he’d been filling the time with Broadway and vaudeville), I’d say he did pretty darn good. I wasn’t the only one with this impression. Morris was nominated for a Best Actor award by the Academy for this performance, though he would not win.

I’m sorry to say I did not appreciate the sound quality or camera angles that director Roland West apparently experimented with. In fact, I found the film visually bleak and boring. A gray one note wasteland of static and overacting. I’m not sure if the original sound quality was as terrible as it was on the copy that I watched, but mine was so bad that not only was I not able to understand much of the dialogue, neither could the closed caption subtitles. After a couple rewinds I realized that “well we got your leftover lolly” was actually “well we’ve got to uphold the law,” though I still don’t know what “Fagin helping makes good time to play princess,” is supposed to mean.

Unfortunately, there were some interesting levels to the plot, but none felt fully developed. The conflict between possibly corrupt cops and possibly reformed gangsters had potential to add depth to each group but none of the characters, aside from Chick, were developed enough to really connect with. When one of the seemingly sympathetic main characters meets their end (with histrionics abound), in what is supposed to be the climax of the film, it’s really hard to care.

Probably the most interesting thing about the film is the confusion over who are the protagonists and who are the villains: Chick Williams or the cops. Several times it’s stated or shown that the cops are prone to shady practices such as planting evidence (which is how Chick claims he was put in jail in the first place) and using threats to force confessions. On the other hand, Chick is far from honest and upright himself.

Screen Shot 2019-11-22 at 6.02.53 PM
Chick vs. The Law

Behind the Scenes:

The film was based on the popular play Nightstick, written by Elaine Sterne Carrington.

This was the film debut or first starring film role for the majority of the cast, who were mostly plucked from Broadway.

Why was it nominated for Best Picture?

It’s interesting how my modern perception differed so much from that of critics of the time. Where I found the acting either overdone or non-existent, 1929 critics praised the acting across the board. Where I was unimpressed by the sound quality, 1929 critics hailed it as one of the best sound films yet made. People marveled at the fact that all of the actors spoke their lines and that music accompanied the nightclub and theater scenes.

“Thrilling” was a word used often to describe this film. While there was some action to go around, I can’t say that would be the word I would use. However, the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre had only occurred a couple months prior to the film’s release and gangsters were a major fascination to audiences. Critics would praise Alibi for its realistic portrayal of the underworld crime scene.

Would this be my pick for 1928/29’s Best Picture?

Not a chance. Wanna fight me on it, Mac?

UPDATE: Click here for my full ranking of 1928/29’s films.