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The Universal Pictures Blogathon: «All Quiet on the Western Front» (1930)

This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

Original release poster
Directed by Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) tells the story of a group of German schoolboys, led by the sensitive Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), who decide to join the Kaiser's Army after their patriotic teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy), convinces them of how «sweet and fitting it is do die for the Fatherland.» Their romantic delusions are soon shattered, when they reach training camp and are bullied by their sadistic drillmaster, Corporal Himmelstoß (John Wray). Arriving at their billets, Paul and his friends meet a group of already hardened and cynical veterans of the war, including Stanislaus 'Kat' Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), Detering (Harold Goldwin), Tjaden (Slim Summerville) and Westhus (Richard Alexander). 

The troops then move to the trenches, where they soon experience the full violence of the Western Front. In an attack on a cemetery, Paul stabs a French soldier, Duval (Raymond Griffith), but finds himself trapped in a shell-hole with the dying man for two days. When the Frenchman dies, Paul cries bitterly and begs the dead body for forgiveness, promising to help his family after the war. Paul eventually manages to crawl to safety and the company marches into a new town, where they enjoy a brief romantic interlude with a group of French farm girls. While marching out of town the next morning, they are attacked and both Paul and his friend Albert Kropp (William Bakewell) are injured. In the hospital, Albert's leg is amputated, though Paul soon recovers and is allowed home leave. Back home, Paul finds his mother (Beryl Mercer) ill and is shocked by how misinformed everyone is about the actual situation of the war. Visiting his old school, Paul sees Kantorek still delivering the same patriotic speech and angrily tells the students that «when it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all.» Accused of cowardice, Paul returns to the front before his leave expires and learns that only Tjaden and Kat remain alive. However, Kat is soon injured by a strafing aircraft and dies as Paul carries him to a field hospital. Back on the battlefield, Paul sees a butterfly just beyond his trench and as he tries to reach it, he becomes to exposed and is shot and killed by an enemy sniper. All is quiet on the Western Front.

 Paul Bäumer: Up at the front, you're alive or you're dead and that's all. You can't fool anybody about
that very long. And up there we know we're lost and done for whether we're death or alive. Three years
we've had of it... four years! And every day a year and every night a century! And our bodies are earth
and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death! And we're done for
because you can't live that way and keep anything inside you. 

Erich Maria Remarque was only eighteen years old when, in November 1916, he was drafted into the German Army along with some of his classmates from the Catholic Teachers' Seminar. Following eight months of training in the Caprivi Camp in his hometown of Osnabrück, he was sent to a position behind the Arras Front in France, shortly before being assigned trench duty near Houthulst Forest in the Belgian region of West Flanders. On July 31, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres), Remarque was wounded by British shell-splinters and taken to the military hospital in Duisburg, Germany. He stayed on for some time as a clerk at the hospital and then returned for training to Osnabrück, where he remained until the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. After the war, Remarque completed his teacher training and even taught for a short time, but he soon realized that his passion lay somewhere else: writing.

Starting in 1920 with The Dream Room (Die Traumbude), Remarque wrote fifteen books during his 50-year career as a novelist. The majority of his works dealt with the theme of war and its aftermath, though none had the impact of All Quiet on the Western Front (originally Im Westen nichts Neues). First published in serial form in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung between November and December 1928, All Quiet on the Western Front was released in book format the following year to great international success. However, many of Remarque's countrymen censored the novel for being defeatist, due to its strong anti-military sentiments and its desolate vision of a generation that had been «destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells,» and it eventually became one of the first «degenerate» books to be burnt publicly in Nazi Germany. In contrast, pacifists declared it a seminal anti-war book, hailing Remarque as a valuable spokesperson for the 'Lost Generation', «a generation that could not and would not forget the faults of those who had created such a senseless war.»

Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim
While All Quiet on the Western Front was dividing opinions around the world, Carl Laemmle, president and founder of Universal Pictures, gave the job of head of production at the studio to his son, Carl Laemmle Jr., as a 21st birthday present. Notorious for his expensive taste, «Junior» Laemmle persuaded his father to bring Universal up to date by converting the studio to sound production and change its focus from low-budget «short stuff and potboilers» to high-quality prestige pictures. Little did he know that this fooray into first-class production was going to bring the end of the Laemmle era at the studio. 

Laemmle Jr. was an avid reader and as soon as he came across All Quiet on the Western Front, he knew it had to be filmed — and at a studio whose president was German-born. After purchasing the screen rights to Remarque's novel for $25,000, Laemmle offered the picture to Irish-born director Herbert Brenon, notable for such silent classics as Peter Pan (1924) and Beau Geste (1926), both filmed for Paramount Pictures. When Brenon asked for a higher salary than Universal was willing to pay, Laemmle hired Lewis Milestone instead. 

Born in Moldova in 1895, Milestone emigrated to the United States at the young age of seventeen and had his first exposure to filmmaking during World War I, when he served in the Army Signal Corps, editing newsreels and photographic images of the front. After the war, he moved to Hollywood and worked as a film cutter and screenwriter, before making his directorial debut in Seven Sinners (1925), which he wrote in collaboration with the future founder and studio chief of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck. Two years later, Milestone became the first and only person to receive an Academy Award for Best Comedy Director for the wartime comedy Two Arabian Nights (1927), starring William Boyd, Mary Astor and Louis Wolheim.

Lew Ayres as Paul Bäumer
Feeling that Maxwell Anderson's initial screenplay strayed too far from Remarque's original story, Milestone decided to rewrite it with the help of Del Andrews, a close friend from whom he had learned how to edit film before he had started directing. They delivered a treatment, then asked Anderson to add in the necessary dialogue. Renowned stage director George Abbott, whose successful 1926 play Broadway had recently served as the basis for Universal's first talking picture with Technicolor sequences, was later brought in to complete the script for All Quiet on the Western Front to Milestone's satisfaction.

Both Milestone and Laemmle Jr. wanted to cast Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the leading role of Paul Bäumer. Fairbanks, however, had a lucrative contract with United Artists and the already financially stressed Universal would have to pay an excessive amount of money to secure a loan-out. Unable to reach an agreement with Fairbanks's home studio, Universal decided to hold auditions to find another actor the part. Meanwhile, 20-year-old Lew Ayres, who had just made his screen debut opposite Greta Garbo in her last silent film, The Kiss (1929), had read the novel and like so many young actors was desperate for a role in the film. When Ayres showed up for an audition two weeks before production was scheduled to begin, he immediately caught Milestone's attention. The director proceeded to tell Universal that he wanted the role to go to Ayres, but Laemmle was reluctant to cast «a nobody.» Determined to get Ayres, Milestone ordered additional screen tests and even had the film's dialogue coach, future director George Cukor, to shoot the test which ultimately convinced Laemmle Jr. to sign the newcomer.

I watched this boy [Ayres]. It was not even a close shot, it was kind of a mid-shot. But I liked everything I saw about this guy — I liked the way he stood, I liked the way he talked and I liked the way he impressed the lieutenant with the justice of their demand.
(Lewis Milestone)

For the role of the boys' mentor, Katczinky, Laemmle Jr. wanted to cast James Murray, the star of King Vidor's critically acclaimed The Crowd (1928), but Milestone insisted on hiring his friend and popular character actor Louis Wolheim, who had appeared in the aforementioned Two Arabian Nights as well as the director's The Racket (1928). Despite his rough physical traits, which often relegated him to roles of thugs or villains, the 50-year-old Wolheim was a caring and well-educated individual who had spent six years as a mathematics professor at Cornell University in New York before deciding to enter the film business in 1914.

Louis Wolheim in a publicity still
The supporting cast members of All Quiet on the Western Front included a mix of experienced actors and newcomers. Theater-trained actor Arnold Lucy signed on to play the boys' overly patriotic professor, while real life World War I veteran-turned-actor Pat Collins, who had appeared with Wolheim in The Racket, was cast as their company officer, Lt. Bertinck. Character actor John Wray, briefly considered for the role of Paul, was hired as the boys' jovial town postman who later becomes their abusive drill instructor. Popular comedians and frequent co-stars Slim Summerville and ZaSu Pitts were cast as Tjaden, an older soldier in the boys' unit, and as Paul's sickly mother.

Renowned silent film comedian Raymond Griffith took on his first sound role, appearing as the French soldier who slowly dies in a foxhole as Paul watches (due to a childhood respiratory disease that permanently damaged his vocals chords, Griffith could only speak with a husky whisper, making him perfect for the part). Finally, a number of up-and-coming actors, including Ben Alexander, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis Jr. and Walter Rogers, were all cast in secondary roles as Paul's fellow soldiers, the last of whom was on the original advertisements and posters.

Lew Ayres and Raymond Griffith
From the beginning, Milestone and Laemmle Jr. were determined to make their portrayal of World War I Europe as authentic and realistic as possible. Consequently, Universal's set and art department spent months transforming a large area of a ranch in Laguna Beach into a stand-in for the «no-man's land» of the Western Front. In addition, the studio hired expert cameraman Arthur Edeson, who had created a «quiet sound camera" that allowed talkies to be shot outside a soundstage, and commissioned a special camera crane which could be placed on tracks to film the battle scenes from above. During pre-production, Milestone also made sure that authentic weaponwry and uniforms were used and employed over a thousand extras, including hundreds with actual military experience, to fill the trenches and play small supporting roles in the film. To train the young cast for their battlefield sequences, the studio hired former German Army drillmaster Otto Biber, who taught them actual German military exercises and basic training maneuvres to the point that «each could perform on command a perfect Goose Step.»

Principal photography on All Quiet on the Western Front started at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1929, exactly eleven years after the end of World War I. An authoritative but always prepared and self-confident director, Milestone was respected by the entire cast and crew, particularly the young men playing soldiers, who called him «Millie» and referred to him as their Captain. Although he was rather introverted on the set, Ayres developed friendships with Alexander and Bakewell, who would remain his closest friends for the rest of their lives. He would also occasionally approach Wolheim between takes and chat with him about academia and his previous work as a teacher. When Ayres commented about his own developing interest in the study of philosophy, Wolheim kindly sent him a book on the subject after the film finished production.

Beryl Mercer and Lew Ayres
Both Laemmle Jr. and Milestone had intended to remain faithful to Remarque's novel and conclude the film as originally written, with Ayres dying on camera. However, the scene did not work on screen and was subsequently scrapped. Pioneering German cameraman Karl Freund, who had replaced Edeson in the last few weeks of shooting, then suggested the iconic ending they filmed, in which Paul is killed by a sniper while reaching for a butterfly he sees just beyond his trench. During the editing process, Milestone decided he needed a close-up of «Paul's» hand to make the scene more powerful, so he simply shot the scene using his own hand as a stand-in. 

By the time production wrapped, All Quiet on the Western Front had gone several weeks over schedule and $557,863 over budget, bringing the final cost to an extravagant $1.45 million. When the picture previewed at a Universal City theatre, audiences burst out laughing at the sight of ZaSu Pitts in the role of Mrs. Bäumer. Despite her tragic and acclaimed performance in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), which had led to a brief reign as a dramatic leading lady, she had returned to comedy by the advent of sound and was so recognizable as a comedian that the moment she appeared on screen, audiences automatically expected a funny scene. As a result, Universal immediately withdrew all domestic prints of the film and proceeded to reshoot her scenes with Spanish-born actress Beryl Mercer, who later became known for a series of motherly roles in several high profile pictures. However, Pitts can still be seen in European prints and the trailer for the film's silent version, which was produced simultaneously.

From the moment it premiered at the Manhattan Central Theatre in New York in April 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front was lauded by audiences and critics alike as a masterpiece. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune called it «courageously bitter,» Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times deemed it «a notable achievement, sincere and earnest,» and Variety described it as «a harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness that [it] becomes at once a money picture.» As expected, the film was banned by the Nazi government for being «anti-German» and would not receive proper screenings in Germany until 1956. Ironically, it was proscribed in Poland on the grounds that it was «pro-German.»

Louis B. Mayer and Carl Laemmle Sr.
at the 3rd Academy Awards
At the 3rd Academy Awards held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on November 5, 1930, the first Oscar of the night, Best Director, was presented to Lewis Milestone. Later on, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer pronounced All Quiet on the Western Front Best Picture, «adding, with a touch of hyperbole characteristic of the night, that it might win the Nobel Piece Prize.» The film also received nominations for Best Writing and Best Cinematography. Over the next six years, there would be few more nominations for Universal, but no more Oscars until 1937, a year after the Laemmle era at the studio ended. 

All Quiet on the Western Front proved to be pivotal in Lew Ayres' life a decade later when the United States entered World War II. A confirmed pacifist ever since playing Paul Bäumer, Ayres caused a wave of controversy by declaring himself a conscientious objector after being called up for military service. The announcement that a Hollywood actor opposed to the war was a major source of public debate and Ayres found himself being shunned by the studios (in some cities, exhibitors even refused to show his films). He said that to bear arms would cause him «to live in a nightmare of hypocrisy.» Following two months at a labor camp, Ayres joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps as a non-combatant and was one of the sixteen medics who arrived during the invasion of the Leyte to set up evacuation hospitals under fire, providing care to both soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea. For his efforts in the Pacific theatre of war, Ayres received three battle stars and later donated all the money he had earned as a serviceman to the American Red Cross.  

Shortly after the film's release, Carl Laemmle Sr. said: «If there is anything in my life I am proud of, it is this picture. It is, to my mind, a picture that will live forever.» Although he had nothing to do with the picture's being made, Laemmle Sr. was right: All Quiet on the Western Front remains one of Hollywood's most durable testaments to the cruelty of war. By presenting the war as «slaughter and waste» rather than «victory or glory,» and confirming that «the ordinary soldier on one side [i]s equal to those on the other,» the film comes across as arguably the most important anti-war pictures ever made, providing a long-lasting message of peace and hope.

At a time when warfare and genocide have reemerged [...] there is a continuing need to remember and to warn. In the absence of personal witnesses [...] the arts provide this service. And as the most popular of arts, the cinema reaches the widest audience. Out of the thousands of films made about the war, only a few can be described as classics. All Quiet on the Western Front is the most important of them all. It comes down through the years with an ever-timely message: where cinema exists, this most disastrous of wars, this appalling waste of a nation's youth, will never be forgotten. It is a memorial — and an ever-present warning — as fitting and honorable as any that grace a village, town, or city.
(Andrew Kelly)

This post is my contribution to The Universal Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes. 
To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE.

'All Quiet on the Western Front': The Story of a Film by Andrew Kelly (I.B. Tauris & Co, 2002)
City of Dreams: The Making of and Remaking of Universal Pictures by Bernard K. Dick (The University Press of Kentucky, 1997)
Lew Ayres: Hollywood's Conscientious Objector by Lesley L. Coffin (University Press of Mississippi, 2012)
The War Film edited and with an introduction by Robert T. Eberwein (Rutgers University Press, 2005)
War Cinema: Hollywood on the Front Line by Guy Westwell (Wallflower Press, 2006) 
TCM's article of All Quiet on the Western Front 
The New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall 
Variety review by the Variety staff 
Lew Ayres' obituary on The New York Times


  1. Excellent piece - I've learned a lot here that I didn't know. I hadn't realised there was a silent version, or that ZaSu Pitts originally played the mother - it's interesting to wonder what she would have been like. This must be one of the greatest anti-war films, haunting and powerful.

  2. I learned a lot about the background of the filming that will serve me well on my next viewing of this heartbreaking and important film.


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