- L Alan Reitano
AND THE WINNER IS... ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Updated: Feb 20
AN ANTI-WAR - WAR PICTURE
All Quiet On The Western Front – was the third film to win Best Picture honors from the 1929 and 1930 film season.
Directed by Lewis Milestone, with a script by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, and C. Gardner Sullivan, it’s based on a novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque.
The budget was $1.2 million and returned $1.6 million at the US box office and $3 million worldwide.
All Quiet On The Western Front, was produced for Universal by Carl Laemmle Jr. the son of the legendary studio head.
A LEGENDARY STUDIO FOUNDER
Born in Germany 1867 – The senior Laemmle migrated to the US In 1889. He worked as an accountant for a clothing company in Oskosh Wisconsin, before quitting to start Independent Moving Pictures, one of the earliest film companies in America.
He began showing films in retail stores, offering the owner a few bucks to rent the place for the night. According to Garson Kanin - in his book Hollywood, Laemmle preferred the long narrow shape of dry good stores, because it was easier to push the counters out of the way, set up chairs, and hang a sheet at one end as a makeshift screen.
Laemmle had no problem finding a venue. His problem – like many other early film companies quickly became -where to get content.
Because of Thomas Edison, independent film companies had a hard time getting movies.
THOMAS EDISON CLAIMED A PATENT ON ALL MOVIES
The inventor had created a monopoly – using his patents to insist that all American films had to be produced through his Edison film company. Laemmle wasn’t interested in Edison's claim. He along with several other indies challenged the Edison monopoly, eventually winning in 1915.
In 1912 – mid Edison lawsuit - Laemmle convinced several independent film companies to merge and form the Universal Film Manufacturing Co, with studios in New Jersey.
He opened the Universal City Studios, in California in 1915 – at the time the largest studio lot in the world. Unlike his competition though, Laemmle and Universal didn’t own any theaters – he been showing movies in dry goods stores - so he offered the market the only thing he could – individual talent.
INVENTING THE MOVIE STAR
Promoting individual movie actors was a stroke of marketing genius. Laemmle essentially invented the movie star. He understood what the public was paying for, so he sold personalities, and image to make up for his lack of theaters.
By 1928 all the marketing had paid off, and Universal - and a stable of movie stars, was well established.
1928 - the same year Universal's stable of stars was gaining traction - Erich Maria Remarque published a semi-autobiographical novel in German called "Van Het Westelijk Front Geen Nieuws"– (In The West Nothing New) an anti-war story – about the horrors of trench warfare.
It was an instant global sensation.
It’s said that - immediately upon reading the book - Laemmle traveled to his native Germany to personally acquire the rights.
A FILM OF FIRSTS
All Quiet On The Western Front became a film of firsts, it was the first Universal film to win Best Picture, and the first film ever to win Best Picture and Best Director.
THE DIRECTOR – LEWIS MILESTONE
Lewis Milestone was a Russian born mechanical engineering student, who dropped out of school in Germany - and moved to New York to find work in the theater.
He also worked as a janitor, and a door to door salesman, eventually finding a job as a portrait photographer.
When the First World War broke out he joined the U. S. Signal Corp, where he served as an Assistant Director, and editor of Army documentaries.
It was a perfect training ground. He later described examining thousands of feet of actual war footage, so he knew exactly what it was supposed to look like when he came to make All Quiet On the Western Front.
The film was shot on Universal lot where huge sets were constructed. Those sets lasted long after the cameras stopped rolling. You can see those same locations in films over the decades – particularly noticeable in Frankenstein.
The trench scenes were shot at Irvine Ranch – south east of L.A., and additional footage was shot in Balboa, and the forest around Lake Sherwood near Thousand Oaks.
The costume department even purchased authentic French and German uniforms, guns, and artillery.
A FILM WITH NO SCORE
Lewis Milestone was looking for realism - and one thing that adds a stark, realistic quality to the film is the lack of a score. By today’s standards this leaves a dry – raw feeling while watching the film. Likely creating that feeling was intentional. There are only a few seconds of harmonica in the final moments before the film’s climax. Otherwise - the film has no music at all. For the original release - Universal had inserted a music cue at the end. Milestone was furious, and insisted it be removed when the film was restored in the 1980s.
There was an international version of All Quiet, with a full score. Milestone shot with two cameras, the second to create this international sound version – where the dialogue was replaced with music, and subtitles were added for translation.
MILESTONE ONLY HAD 150 EXTRAS
With only 150 extras on screen, it took some creative editing techniques to make the battle scenes appear large and more impactful. It also influenced the timing and pace of edits.
French composer Claude Debussy famously stated “[m]usic is the space between the notes,” meaning the notes you don’t play are as important – sometimes more important - than the notes you do play. Space allows music to breathe.
Milestone used that idea in editing - to let his story breathe. The violence of war is interspersed with long passages of relative calm – so the brutality becomes exponentially more visceral by comparison.
AN EXERCISE IN CONTRAST
Home life is contrasted against military life. The romance of war is set against the bleakness of trench life. Pastoral life in a French village comes face to face with desperation and debauchery – when three young women find themselves so famished they’re willing to trade sex with German soldiers, for the opportunity to share their rations.
LIFE IS A DRIVING THEME OF THE MOVIE
The battle scenes – as graphic as they are - are used to drive home the message of survival. The violence is flagrant, and some historians believe that the impact of this on-screen violence, and the anti-war message of the film contributed to U.S. isolationism in World War II.
A CAST OF UNKNOWNS
It’s ironic that the company that invented the movie star, won its first Best Picture with largely unknown actors.
There were a few exceptions. One was Louis Wolheim – a well-known character actor – in the role of "Kat." He was specifically cast to offset the inexperience of the younger actors. Another was legendary comedienne – ZaZu Pitts – probably the best-known actor in the film. Unfortunately, she's not in the film.
Originally cast as the lead character’s mother – Pitts was removed from the film after previews - because audiences laughed the moment she appeared on screen.
It’s unclear how much of that laughter was about her comic genius – and how much was a “comic relief” reaction to the violence of the rest of the film.
There was a similar response to an incredibly violent scene in Pulp Fiction, when Travolta – as Vincent - accidentally shoots Marvin in the face. In theaters the entire audience broke into an awkward – almost ashamed – laughter at the scene.
Was the reaction to ZaZu Pitts the same kind of dark comic relief?
Unfortunately – only a single shot of ZaZu Pitts’ performance remains in the original trailer.
Pitts and Wolheim were it for well-known actors in All Quiet On The Wester Front.
THE FILM’S LEADING ROLE WENT TO A RELATIVELY UNKNOWN
Lew Ayres - though well known today - had only been around for a few years by the time he got the lead in All Quiet On The Western Front.
He was raised in San Diego - and began his screen career in 1929.
His first leading role was opposite Greta Garbo, and he would go on to star in film, radio, and TV – with a career spanning seven decades.
His final screen credit was a TV episode of “Hart to Hart,” in 1994.
The most popular role he played in his long career was as Dr. Kildare in the popular film series. Ayres was married three times. His second wife was Ginger Rogers.
HE ALMOST WASN’T IN “ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT”
George Cukor – at the time a casting director – didn’t think Ayers was right for the role - but Lewis Milestone – director of the film - thought he was perfect and insisted.
Because of Ayres role in All Quiet, he became a pacifist, and ultimately a conscientious objector during World War II. When the story hit the press - he was publicly berated for cowardice. The Hollywood gossip press however - had neglected to report that he’d asked to serve as a medic.
After Pearl Harbor - Ayers volunteered – but the army didn’t allow recruits to choose their duty – which forced him to request 4E status as – a conscientious objector. The Army soon figured out they needed every able bodied man they could find - and reversed their stance. Ayers entered the service in 1942.
He served honorably, earning three battle stars, and was one of a handful of medics who stormed the beaches of Leyte to set up evac hospitals.
Later Ayres said –
“(He)never objected to participating in the war. (He) just refused to carry a gun or kill anyone.”
After the war, it was Olivia De Haviland who likely saved his career demanding he be cast opposite her in The Dark Mirror.
THE FAMOUS BUTTERFLY SCENE
The butterfly is one of the most iconic scenes of the film, and it’s one place the film differs from the book.
The idea came about on set – as a call back to an earlier scene where Lew Ayers character Paul discusses his butterfly collection with his sister, while home on leave. The butterfly brings – if only for a moment – a sense of normalcy to the war. Ayers himself once concluded –
“the butterfly, which emerges from being only a caterpillar, is a little bit like - man reaching for his soul.”
That transformation of soul eventually led Ayers to create a documentary called Altars of the World, about eastern philosophy. The film the won Best Documentary Golden Globe in 1977.
NAZI GERMANY DIDN’T LIKE THE FILM
Hitler’s regime, actively protested the film. Brownshirts led by Joseph Goebbels, set off stink bombs, and released rats, and snakes in theaters where the film was showing. Eventually they branded it a Jewish film and began attacking any theater goers who “looked” Jewish.
The film was ultimately banned in Germany 1930. Several other nations banned it as well. Some kept the ban in place as late as the nineteen sixties.
BECOMING PART OF THE AMERICAN FILM LEXICON
Techniques used in this film are still part of the American filmmaking lexicon. Director Steven Spielberg credited Milestone’s battle scenes - as an inspiration for his shots in Saving Private Ryan.
ALL QUIET ON THER WESTERN FRONT HAS A LONG LEGACY
Most people know the phrase “All Quiet On The Western Front” – even if they’ve never seen the movie. It’s become a staple idiom of the English language.
All Quiet On The Western Front, was remade for TV in the seventies - starring Richard Thomas of “Waltons” fame as Paul - and Ernsest Borgnine in the role of Kat. The reboot - won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Made for Television, and an Emmy for editing. The 1929-30 film made the AFI’s 100 best movies list in 1997, and is today part of the Library of Congress National Film Register.
Perhaps the most powerful legacy though came from a Variety critic who wrote –
“The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word "war" is taken out of the dictionaries.”