Trivial Matters #11

Today I watched “Pygmalion,” nominated for Best Picture at the 11th Academy Awards, and I got to wondering how many remakes of Best Picture nominees/winners went on to be nominees/winners themselves. So here they are:

  • Cleopatra (1934) – Nominated / Cleopatra (1963) – Nominated
  • Les Misérables (1935) – Nominated / Les Misérables (2012) – Nominated
  • Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) – Won / Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) – Nominated
  • Romeo and Juliet (1936) – Nominated / West Side Story (1961) – Won / Romeo and Juliet (1968) – Nominated
  • Pygmalion (1938) – Nominated / My Fair Lady (1964) – Won
  • Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) – Nominated / Heaven Can Wait (1978) – Nominated

Turns out, not too many!

10th Academy Awards (1937) – Part II

(Part I.)
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A Star is Born is the most self-referential nominee I’ve seen yet, starring two Academy Award winners, Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, playing, respectively, a naïve film hopeful from the heartland and an embittered, alcoholic actor whose star is rapidly fading. On his way down, March gives Gaynor a leg up and she repays the favor by marrying him and standing by his side as he falls further and further down–helped along the way by a horribly written and acted press agent whose sole purpose in the film is to scream abuse at with whomever he comes in contact. It’s one of two films this year that teaches the lesson that sometimes suicide is necessary to make it in show business. Kind of dark, even for today, but the studio system was a harsh employer.

What’s odd about this film—to an Oscar nerd, at least—is that it’s clearly set in a universe with recognizable Hollywood stars (she does impressions of Katharine Hepburn and Mae West, and later we hear mention of Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), yet Fredric March plays a fictional star named Norman Maine. Even stranger, she wins an Academy Award at the 8th ceremony, so this is set in an alternate universe that has almost the exact same stars as our Hollywood, only in this one two of them (who, again, had won Academy Awards in our universe) are different people, and Bette Davis doesn’t exist to win Best Actress in 1935.

Also, he busts into the Academy Awards and causes a drunken scene during her acceptance speech for Best Actress, and this is immediately followed by dancing and the end of the ceremony. I understand there was a ruckus but there was still Best Director and Best Picture to announce. Which films won those awards in this universe’s 1935?!

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I was expecting to like Stage Door, which has some great actors in it—Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou—all of whom are perfectly capable of the kind of fast-paced banter this type of film deserves. Unfortunately, the script is pretty lazy, as if the screenwriters spent their days watching screwball comedies, then just categorized every line of dialogue as “witticisms,” “retorts” and “set-ups.”

We have the two characters who hate one another but are best friends by the end of the film, we have the fast-talking sassy supporting characters who speak exclusively in quips, we have the grand moral lessons shoehorned in between repartee to make it a “serious” film, etc., etc. All the tropes of the genre without adding anything to it.

Most galling, though, is the story of Hepburn’s character and the macabre implications of it. She is an entitled rich girl without any acting talent, so her father bankrolls a show with the express intention of getting her to bomb onstage and abandon the theatre. Indeed, throughout rehearsal she shows no talent and a complete lack of understanding for any aspect of show business. Then, on opening night, the actress who should have had the part kills herself, and this imbues Hepburn with the burning emotion required of the part, and she becomes a sensation.

So I suppose the message is, grief plus lack of talent equals talent? I wonder how her future performances will go…there’s only fifteen or so girls left in her boardinghouse, and they can’t all die whenever she needs to tap into emotion or whatever.

But, happy ending! One gets married, another gets a one-line part, and another gets kittens. And a new hopeful comes in and asks for a room just like Hepburn did at the start. Cycles! Yay!

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One Hundred Men and a Girl is another, considerably less interesting, Deanna Durbin vehicle from Universal, only without Ray Milland to class it up. It stars Adlophe Menjou as her father, playing against type as a poor, unsophisticated, and desperate musician. His moustache is considerably less waxed than in his other roles, to emphasize how low he has come in the world

In this one, Durbin plays a plucky young girl who will stop at nothing to get her father a spot in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra, and as the back of the VHS says: “It’s a delightful romp that shows how persistence pays off.” Well sure, but only if you also have an amazing voice with which to impress a world-renowned maestro. Also, she’s supposed to be “persistent”, but throughout the film she gets what she wants by being a goddamned nuisance who just annoys the shit out of everyone until they finally give her what she wants so she’ll shut the hell up.

The screenwriters were generally pretty lazy about her antics, as well. She breaks into Stokowski’s home to persuade him to listen to her father, and he quite reasonably asks, “How do you get into places that you should not be?” Her response could easily have been: “The script!”

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In Old Chicago is a slightly better version of San Francisco, set just before and during the fire of 1871 and telling the story of the O’Leary clan (try to guess where that’s going). I say “slightly,” because it falls into the same trappings of San Francisco when it comes to depicting the disaster: all the budget is spent on the spectacle of the city burning, and culminates in an unlikely speech by an uneducated washerwoman with no delusions of eloquence until this point. She waxes poetic about how the city will rise again because no one can stop Chicago and blah blah blah.

I would have said it was a much better version, to be honest, because the story is very good, the acting is splendid, and the characters are for the most part deep, engaging, and three-dimensional. However, a couple of things pulled me out of the film early on and made it very difficult to recover. First was the very, very rapey courtship of the main character and his eventual wife, even by the standards of the epoch. It starts with a kidnapping and assault, a declaration of all-encompassing and eternal love (for a woman he’s only known for five minutes and has literally never spoken to), and her violent and unequivocal rebuff; then moves to stalking, harassment, and an eventual further assault before he plants such a good kiss on her that she changes her tune and falls in love with him. I don’t think I’m overstating anything when I say…ugh.

The film’s second mortal sin was the endless, and I mean endless, allusions and foreshadowing related to the fire, from showing the O’Leary cow’s penchant for kicking, to shoehorning in the word “fire” at every opportunity. Did people really need to be reminded so often that a fire was coming in a film set in 1800s Chicago?

Finally there was the winner, The Life of Emile Zola, which is yet another Paul Muni biographical film in which he plays someone who looks nothing like whoever the hell is on the advertisement (seen at the top of Part I). It focuses primarily on Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, and for the most part it moves along at a steady pace, hitting all the right moments of the “character loses his/her way then finds it again” narrative. Muni’s French accent is the same as his Chinese accent, insofar as he doesn’t attempt either one–and at one point he actually says to another character, “Your accent is not Parisian.” Bold card for him to play, but he carries it off somehow.

I was expecting more of this film, as it was pretty timely considering the kind of things that were happening in Europe (particularly Germany) at the time, but as I’ve pointed out before Hollywood didn’t have a big problem with the Nazis until 1941. In fact, they even allowed the German attache to occasionally review scripts and “suggest” changes. To that end, despite the fact that the Dreyfus mess had a lot to do with Antisemitism, Warner Bros. ordered all references to this aspect excised from the film, and even forbade the use of the word “Jew” (there are some oblique references to Dreyfus’ heritage, but if you didn’t already know about it you wouldn’t get it at all). But studio heads were nothing if not pragmatic, and Germany was a big market for their films and nothing was allowed that might alienate so many moviegoers.

The result is a film that is kind of progressive, but in the context of the time very cagey and a bit cowardly in its execution. As I said at the top, 1937 was an odd year teetering between the Depression and World War II, and the films of this year for the most part reflect the uncertain place Hollywood found itself in the interim. Some addressed social issues, but only Lost Horizon really sold it, and the rest were clumsy at best and dismissive at worst.

And so we come to the end of ten years of the Academy Awards! The journey has only just begun and already I have seen some amazing films, some absolutely awful films, and a whole bunch of merely okay films. So, pretty much what I anticipated. The Awards continue to coalesce into the form we know and ironically love today, and I’m looking forward to the second decade. 1938 features The Grand Illusion, which I have been looking forward to since starting this project, and I remain optimistic that the trend towards better, less escapist films will continue. We’ll see!

10th Academy Awards (1937) – Part I

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  • The Life of Emile Zola, William Dieterle
  • The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey*
  • Captains Courageous, Victor Fleming
  • Dead End, William Wyler
  • The Good Earth, Sidney Franklin
  • In Old Chicago, Henry King
  • Lost Horizon, Frank Capra
  • One Hundred Men and a Girl, Henry Koster
  • Stage Door, Gregory La Cava
  • A Star is Born, William A. Wellman

Sorry for the late entry…I’ve developed something of a social life at just the wrong time for this project. I will endeavor to turn down all offers of companionship on Wednesday nights from now on, to avoid this egregious mistake.

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I’m sure my viewer was devastated.

Anyway, the 10th Academy Awards. I had a fleeting hope at the end of 1936 that the promise of Mr. Deeds and Dodsworth would be fulfilled this year, that I would see more socially conscious films and issues in this weird limbo between the Great Depression and World War II. Alas, I was disappointed. Sure, this year’s Best Picture winner was the most dramatic, realistic, and dark since All Quiet on the Western Front, and sure, there are other good points sprinkled around the other nominees, but only one did it in a really interesting way and all in all I found this year to be rather weak; the peaks of 1934 and 1935 are long forgotten.

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First out of the gate was The Awful Truth, the only real comedy on the slate this time around. It won Leo McCarey the Best Director prize and destroyed all the valuable lessons taught by Dodsworth about love and marriage. It’s a screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, which breaks them up in the first ten minutes then builds no suspense whatsoever regarding their eventual, inevitable reconciliation. Not to say it isn’t a good film; led by Cary Grant doing what he does best (play Cary Grant), the film steers itself into Lubitschian territory and has a lot of fun with an established Hollywood premise.

Unlike other films that reconcile a couple that is clearly toxic just for the sake of promoting The Institution of Marriage, The Awful Truth presents us with two people who are more clearly meant for each other than almost any other film couple I have encountered. This aspect is the one that truly encouraged me to give it a pass on the predictable storyline. The joy of the film comes from watching Grant and Dunne display their undeniable comedic talents, and their characters’ reactions to their estranged lover’s antics is consistently as hilarious as the antics themselves. And each of them, in their own way, schemes clandestinely to bring about a reunion, rather than films like The Divorcee in which the husband sits back and waits for his wife to “come to her senses” while she knocks herself out to fix everything that was his fault to begin with.

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Captains Courageous came next, the story of a spoiled rich kid and the Portuguese seaman who saves him. Spencer Tracy took home Best Actor for this film (even though his role is clearly supporting), and it’s a well-constructed and ably-directed adventure/coming-of-age story. Set a film on a fishing boat and I’m already halfway to loving it, so even though none of the actors is particularly taxed by their role (Lionel Barrymore continues to challenge himself by playing crusty old men with hearts of gold) and the sequences before and after the boat times are rather boring, I found it engaging and delightful.

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Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon was a really, really good film, although if you’d seen it during World War II it would have only been a pretty good one. That’s because about half an hour was cut for its re-release during that time, excising all the pacifist bits about “laying down arms” and such. Wouldn’t want people to think war was useless or wasteful or anything.

I was able to see the fully restored version, so all the bits that had been cut and inadequately preserved were obvious. It’s interesting to consider the change that comes over the film without the edited sequences: with these scenes back in, the film is a timely, rather urgent exploration of the increasing possibility of another world war and the problems with European politics (on all sides) that make it inevitable. One speech even foresees the atomic bomb.

Without these, the film becomes timeless, but in a far less engaging way. Suddenly it’s just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy about a mountain retreat where nobody ages or worries about things that dominate life in the “civilized” world. It stops being relevant and turns into escapist, “gee-wouldn’t-this-be-great” fare, and it’s really upsetting because that’s usually exactly what Frank Capra made and it was refreshing to see him take on a more ambitious project. Obviously such peacenik, pinko nonsense couldn’t be allowed during wartime. The restored version is a thoughtful, opportune meditation on the world of 1937.

Not that the restored film is above criticism, of course. For one thing, the white settlers being in charge of the “natives” in Shangrai-La is more than a little disingenuous, as is the film’s insistence that these white Christians showed up in the valley and “taught” the natives about peace and whatnot. Pretty sure the Buddhists knew about that already.

And, quickly, the “neglected subplot romance we’re supposed to give a shit about” trope is getting real old real fast, and I’m pretty sure Sherpas would know not to make loud noises in avalanche country. Ah well.

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Then came Dead End, which should have been great: it’s an early Humphrey Bogart piece directed by William Wyler, set in a back alley of New York’s gritty east side. The whole film takes place in this half-block, and sets up a confrontation between the city’s slum dwellers and the rich elite who have started building luxury apartments on the border of the shanties.

Instead, the film offers up an hour of set-up, most of which never pays off, followed by thirty minutes of morality that culminates with everyone learning a valuable lesson and not much else. Bogart’s character never develops beyond being a vague, seedy threat to the spiritual well-being of the children, and the halfhearted attempt to give him a backstory falls flat and is never used in any meaningful way. The rest of the characters are all similar archetypes (the streetwise urchins, the concerned older sister, the reformed hero, the shallow rich girl, the slightly confused Irish cops, etc.). I expected more of Wyler, I really did. Didn’t he just do Dodsworth?

Also, why do movie protagonists insist on telling the villain their every thought and intention? Just so they can get beaten up more often? Sometimes you can just think to yourself, “I’m going to go straight to the police after this tense stand-off ends,” without letting your target know and affording them a chance to get away/kidnap your loved ones/kill you. But I suppose plots must move forward.

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The Good Earth was one of two Paul Muni vehicles this year, and won Luise Rainer her second consecutive Best Actress award (for playing a Chinese peasant woman with a strong German accent). I read the novel a couple of years ago and was definitely wondering how the film would go about portraying the deep-rooted familial and sexual dynamics of Chinese peasant farmers presented in the book. To my surprise, these aspects of the story were considerably toned-down and smoothed out to create a more palatable three-act story.

Despite just about every Hollywood film of the period treating its female characters as one-dimensional foils, they apparently read The Good Earth and thought, “Man, those Chinese sure are sexist,” and decided to completely gloss over the more unsavory parts to make the marriage of the two main characters more “equal.” O-Lan, the wife, is far more assertive and crafty than in the novel, and Wang Lung’s second wife, whom he marries when O-Lan is no longer attractive enough, is swiftly expelled in the film and never heard from again once Wang Lung realizes how much he prefers O-Lan (whereas in the book he remains unapologetic and she never leaves).

Then O-Lan dies, and that is Wang Lung’s big moment, when he finally realizes how wonderful she was and compares her to the earth that he loves so much. In the book, he acknowledges that his second wife was bad, but he and O-Lan never have this big Hollywood romantic moment. The film also excises the bleak ending of the book, wherein it is obvious that once Wang Lung dies his sons will sell the land—the film also leaves out their ambitious, greedy personalities that ultimately will destroy what Wang Lung has created.

It’s an odd mix of stereotypes, some Chinese, some Hollywood, to create an “epic” tale of farming and related activities. It waters down its source material in much the same way David Copperfield and Anthony Adverse did, although in spite of it all the story that results is, unlike those two, largely coherent.

The story continues, and gets a lot more “meta,” in Part II.

Trivial Matters #10

To date, only twelve performers have won acting Oscars in both lead and supporting categories. At this year’s 87th Academy Awards, only Robert Duvall (Best Actor, Tender Mercies [1983]) is poised to join the list.

Here they are, in order of achievement:

  • Helen Hayes
    • Best Actress, The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931/32)
    • Best Supporting Actress, Airport (1970)
  • Jack Lemmon
    • Best Supporting Actor, Mister Roberts (1955)
    • Best Actor, Save the Tiger (1973)
  • Ingrid Bergman
    • Best Actress, Gaslight (1944)
    • (Best Actress, Anastasia [1956])
    • Best Supporting Actress, Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
  • Maggie Smith
    • Best Actress, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
    • Best Supporting Actress, California Suite (1978)
  • Robert de Niro
    • Best Supporting Actor, The Godfather Part II (1974)
    • Best Actor, Raging Bull (1980)
  • Meryl Streep
    • Best Supporting Actress, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
    • Best Actress, Sophie’s Choice (1982)
    • (Best Actress, The Iron Lady [2011])
  • Jack Nicholson
    • Best Actor, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
    • Best Supporting Actor, Terms of Endearment (1983)
    • (Best Actor, As Good as it Gets [1997])
  • Gene Hackman
    • Best Actor, The French Connection (1971)
    • Best Supporting Actor, Unforgiven (1992)
  • Jessica Lange
    • Best Supporting Actress, Tootsie (1982)
    • Best Actress, Blue Sky (1994)
  • Kevin Spacey
    • Best Supporting Actor, The Usual Suspects (1995)
    • Best Actor, American Beauty (1999)
  • Denzel Washington
    • Best Supporting Actor, Glory (1989)
    • Best Actor, Training Day (2001)
  • Cate Blanchett
    • Best Supporting Actress, The Aviator (2004)
    • Best Actress, Blue Jasmine (2013)

Trivial Matters #9

Here are a few Oscar “onlys”:

  • The only person to direct two films that received nominations in every acting category is David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook in 2012, and American Hustle in 2013).
  • The only film to score four female acting nominations: All About Eve, 1950 (none was successful).
  • The only nomination for a Marx Brothers film: Best Dance Direction for A Day at the Races, 1937 (the third and final year this award was presented).
  • Cabaret (1972) is the only film to win eight Oscars without winning Best Picture; less well-known, but still worth knowing, is the only film to win seven without winning Best Director: Shakespeare in Love (1998).
  • The Best Picture winner with the lowest win percentage is Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) at 12%–just 1 win out of 8 nominations. The only others below 30% are Rebecca (1940) at 18%–2 out of 11–and The Godfather (1972) at 27%–3 out of 11.
  • The only year featuring two films with nominations in every acting category was 1967: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde (each won one).

9th Academy Awards (1936) – Part II

(Part I.)

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One good literary adaptation did come out of 1936, however, by the same bloke who brought us Libeled Lady, Jack Conway. Here it’s A Tale of Two Cities, and after seeing it I can’t really countenance Anthony Adverse and David Copperfield, because this one took on a novel with an epic sensibility and managed to fit it perfectly into two hours. Ronald Colman is typically brilliant, and the pacing never flags. I think the reason it succeeds where the other two fail is that instead of concentrating on the scope of the source material, Cities instead emphasizes the characters and their humanity, which gives the film a focus that the others sorely lack.

I’m not entirely sure why this wasn’t nominated at the 8th Awards, seeing as it was released in December 1935 (IMDb lists no 1936 release date for the United States), but there you are.

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Three Smart Girls is nothing special, but it’s solid Depression-era entertainment—unsurprising, given that it is nothing more than a vehicle for Universal’s “new discovery” Deanna Durbin and her singing ways. It’s about, if you can’t guess, three smart girls who scheme to reunite their divorced father and mother, even leaving the tranquil beauty of their Swiss chalet for the rough-and-tumble streets of New York to do so. It’s predictably silly, although Ray Milland adds a touch of class and actual comic ability to the proceedings, which saves it from such ill-advised set pieces as our heroine staving off arrest by charming an entire police depot with her songbirding, and from the stereotypical “two people divorced are actually perfect for one another” narrative.

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Dodsworth is a fantastic film, not least for finally breaking (but not fixing) the Hollywood perception of matrimony as inviolate and always salvageable; it’s the first film I’ve seen in this project that suggests that sometimes marriages end and it’s a good thing. Granted, it goes about making this point with little more subtlety than its counterparts—merely transferring the “evil” persona from the interloper to the current spouse—but it’s a step in the right direction for realism, at least.

One thing that is refreshing, though, is that Dodsworth doesn’t go down the usual road this type of film takes—by “this type of film,” I mean the ones where the protagonist realizes he/she is in the wrong relationship, usually when the one they were “meant to be with” shows up and smites them. In most of those films, the “wrong” relationship slowly deteriorates and ultimately ends merely because of the intervention of the “right” person (oh, superficial signs of discord are present, but usually nothing serious unless it’s a Lifetime original movie).

In Dodsworth, the protagonist’s marriage is shown already in an advanced state of decay, and the attempt to save it merely exacerbates the problems more; even without the presence of the obligatory other woman, Dodsworth would have left his wife in exactly the same way. It’s a message—that “love has to stop somewhere short of suicide”[1]—not often seen in films of the epoch, or even today.

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Then there was the very odd The Story of Louis Pasteur, which is exactly what it sounds like, a story of the man who developed vaccines—although based on the poster, I wouldn’t blame you for expecting it to be about Satan.

It’s a good film, but hardly a suspenseful one—even in a story where the outcome is known, some films are able to keep the audience guessing and perhaps even doubting the end (All the President’s Men comes to mind, or more recently, Diplomacy). This one, however, remains very sedate and never really challenges Pasteur at all. The direction is also strangely cold, keeping at a distance and never developing the characters beyond “good” or “bad about to be good”. This film is, like The House of Rothschild in 1934, stuck in an old sensibility that I thought Hollywood had grown out of by this time.

I’m pretty sure Paul Muni’s win for Best Actor was consolation for not winning for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in which he gave a much more nuanced and powerful performance. In this film he didn’t really have to do much work, as none of the characters was particularly fleshed out or well written. Pasteur is merely a character, while his role in Chain Gang required him to actually act (and I could level the same criticisms of Charles Laughton in Henry VIII, which, as you may recall, was the performance that bested Muni in 1932/33).

Finally, I can’t help but think that the bit of dialogue in the following year’s A Day at the Races (Dr. Steinberg: “This is absolutely insane!” Hackenbush: “That’s what they said about Pasteur!”) was a reference to this film.

And the winner this year was The Great Ziegfeld, a massively overproduced tribute to impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and his massively overproduced shows. It’s the first biographical film to win Best Picture, about a man who had just died three years before production began, but the main focus is on the three or four huge musical productions (one of which, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” takes up about a half hour of screentime). Having to wait two and a half hours for William Powell and Myrna Loy to share the screen together was maddening, but Luise Rainer was fun in the role of Ziegfeld’s perpetually-hysterical first wife.

It’s overblown, glitzy, and probably glosses over a lot of the life of the man it is purportedly about, although considering it was pitched as a form of “filmusical entertainment” (sic) that’s perhaps to be expected. The script mostly feels like a linking device for the musical numbers, pandering to the public’s still-fresh memory of the Ziegfeld theatrical productions. Unsurprisingly for a film of such lofty entertainment ambition, it was the longest talking film in history to that point, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that it was more its scale than its substance that led to its capturing Best Picture this year.

In order to get the rights for the film, MGM allowed William Powell to act in Universal’s My Man Godfrey, which is an absolutely amazing film that deserved to take the spot of eight of these ten nominees. Instead, it was nominated for Best Director and all four acting categories, but didn’t win any of them. I don’t want this blog to turn into an “Oscars oversights” thing, but come on…this one is obvious.

As I said at the top, this year, even with its odd choice for Best Picture, was a step towards the socially-conscious Academy Awards that would follow World War II; after a run of three years in which escapism was all that mattered, 1936 offered a seriocomic contemplation of the American Dream (Mr. Deeds) and a mature, if–by today’s standards–slightly forced, rumination on the entropy of a loveless marriage (Dodsworth). Although neither won the top prize, it’s nice to see them in the running. We’ll see if the trend continues in 1937!


[1] One of my favorite lines so far!

9th Academy Awards (1936) – Part I

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  • The Great Ziegfeld, Robert Z. Leonard
  • Anthony Adverse, Mervyn LeRoy
  • Dodsworth, William Wyler
  • Libeled Lady, Jack Conway
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Frank Capra*
  • Romeo and Juliet, George Cukor
  • San Francisco, W.S. van Dyke
  • The Story of Louis Pasteur, William Dieterle
  • A Tale of Two Cities, Jack Conway
  • Three Smart Girls, Henry Koster

The 9th Academy Awards were interesting for two reasons. First, this year introduced the categories of Best Supporting Actor and Actress, giving Hollywood bit players and character actors who, in the studio system, would never advance to the level of Leading Man/Lady a chance to take home Academy Awards just like the big kids. Walter Brennan won three of the first five Supporting Actor awards before the Academy realized that they shouldn’t let extras vote. With the introduction of these awards, I doubt we’ll ever see a repeat of Mutiny on the Bounty’s…bounty of three lead nominations in a single category.

Second, after three years of escapism, the nominees this year offered a hint of what was to come in the post-World War II years, an era of timely, socially-relevant films nominated for and winning Best Picture. It’s a small hint, just two films, but it serves to separate 1936 from the two years before it, as Hollywood began to step out of the Great Depression and trust that audiences would watch films that were a bit more mature, a bit darker than the ones that dominated the years prior. This isn’t to say that these films didn’t still dominate…the decision to award Best Picture to the comically bloated The Great Ziegfeld is easy to understand in the context of the time but regarded today as one of the biggest mistakes the Academy ever made.

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First up in 1936 was the delightful Libeled Lady, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’d seen this one before and picked it specifically to start the year, as I was sick of kicking off each slate with crushing disappointment. It’s not as good as Powell’s other classic from this year, My Man Godfrey, but it’s still a solid screwball Powell-Loy pairing that, just for good measure, includes Spencer Tracy as well (I must say, I’ve always liked him more as a comic actor). It’s full of witty repartee, comic misunderstandings, and slapstick, juxtaposed with a surprising amount of attention to character that I kind of wish they’d given more screentime.

I will say, though, that the denouement is rushed and unsatisfying. Zooming in on a character who is surrounded by everyone talking at once is something I associate with Three Stooges shorts (it may not actually happen in Three Stooges shorts, but I have a mental image of it occurring at least once so I’m going with it), and I think a few more minutes wouldn’t have been out of order to see how everything worked out. But I may be wrong…maybe they tried that very thing and realized the best way to end it was the version we have today.

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Next, Romeo & Juliet, as staged by George Cukor, MGM’s attempt to beat Warner Bros. at Shakespeare. Coming off A Midsummer Night’s Dream I was not expecting much, but here, instead of watching James Cagney and Dick Powell stumble through Shakespeare’s rhythms, we have Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, both of whom have the skill set necessary to pull it off. The end result is not at all bad; Cukor was one of those directors who could make a decent film if he had a decent cast. The biggest issue I had with it was the ending, which seemed tacked on and unrealistically happy, so I assumed it had been foisted upon the film by the Production Code. Turns out it’s in the original (which I haven’t read yet), so Shakespeare didn’t always end his plays well.

The biggest issue most people had with this film, and some Hollywood pedants continue to have, is that the actors are all too old: Leslie Howard was 43 and Norma Shearer was 34 (the most jarring is John Barrymore, playing Mercutio at a spry 54). Again, I haven’t read the play so I didn’t know that these people are supposed to be teenagers, and when I found out it didn’t strike me as odd—which in itself I found odd, and I realized it was because I have become accustomed to this kind of laziness through immersion in these and other Hollywood films.

On the one hand, it would be more realistic if the actors were the same age as their originals, since teenagers tend to have such an immature, unsophisticated view of love and life as these. But on the other hand, this kind of story—meet and fall in love immediately after a few pleasantries, then defy all attempts on the part of those who care about you to dissuade you from such an idiotic course—is exactly the kind of time-saving arc that Hollywood used and continues to use, so it isn’t that jarring to see two movie characters act like this even if the actors are of an age where they should know better.

I suppose it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this kind of ridiculous story would only work with teenagers in Shakespeare’s time…what happened in the interim, when we can watch such a thing happen to adults and consider it a “romance”? So I can’t criticize this film for casting older people to play these roles. They’re definitely too old to be Romeo and Juliet in real life, but in Hollywood they are just right.

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I then watched Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which netted Frank Capra his second Best Director award. It’s his most blatant All-American Success Story, starring Gary Cooper, the most blatant All-American actor, but unlike some of his other work (Lady for a Day, It’s a Wonderful Life), this one manages to tell its story without losing itself or its sense of humor in overblown sentimentality. The sentimentality is there, certainly, but even in the Capraesque Stirring Climax the film stays grounded.

The story is simple: noble small-town boy inherits a fortune, moves to New York City and tries not to lose himself and his small-town innocence under its materialistic glare, and manages to teach everyone a lesson in the end about morality and selflessness. The film spends a good deal of time ruminating on the disparity of wealth and the responsibilities of those who have it, certainly a timely issue in 1936; I was pleased to finally see a film deal with Depression issues instead of merely offering up uncomplicated, escapist entertainment (like, for example, this year’s Best Picture winner).

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The film I watched next, by contrast, does not deal with Depression issues in a mature way. Instead, it combines escapism with a misguided attempt at social commentary or a stirring moral or some such nonsense that isn’t even done well enough to be called ham-fisted. It’s another piddling mess from W.S. van Dyke—who has given us some of the worst films so far (Trader Horn) as well as some of the best (The Thin Man), mainly because he had no talent as a director other than being able to point the camera in the right direction. This may have been enough in 1931, but by 1936 there is no excuse for nominating him for Best Director.

Anyway, this film could have been a fine, if hardly groundbreaking, film, if it had just remained consistent instead of veering off into pathos and over-the-top-even-for-1936 ridiculousness about an hour and a half in. Until that point, it was a typical boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-then-gets-her-back story, told with aplomb by Clark Gable and Jeannette MacDonald, with laughs and song that only she can provide. Just when their relationship reaches its lowest ebb, suddenly the 1906 Earthquake hits. From there we get fifteen minutes of Gable stumbling through the ruined city in search of her, and when he finds her (leading a musical eulogy, because Hollywood), the inferno that has engulfed the city magically goes out. Then, the entire surviving population cheers as one, thanks heaven for ruining their lives, destroying their homes, and killing their loved ones, and looks to the future with hope bordering on dementia. Fade to modern San Francisco in all its glory, music swells, The End.

Yeah, I get that it’s an allegory for rising up out of the ruins of the Great Depression stronger than ever, but it’s still clunky and unconvincing. I make allowances for the “period” as much as possible, but there are better films with the same themes (Mr. Deeds, for instance) that are actually wrought with some degree of skill and respect for the audience.

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Anthony Adverse tells the charming tale of a little boy who grows up to be Fredric March, and a little girl who grows up to be Olivia de Havilland. That’s about as coherent as I can be about it, as it continues the David Copperfield tradition of taking on too massive a literary narrative, adapting it by picking scenes at random, and explaining away gaps in the story through intertitles. In this film, these gaps are where all the most interesting plot developments occur—for example, Anthony sets off for Africa to collect a debt, and then we flash forward three years and the film informs us that he is now a power-hungry, deviant, terrifying slave trader. Such a transformation would probably have been very compelling to see, but the film has no time for that.

Nothing about the disconnected third act addresses this rather dark period of Anthony’s life, which makes it very hard to root for him in whatever the film believes is his goal. Of course, being a rather limp and badly paced adaptation, he reverts immediately to his dashing, heroic personality as soon as the African episode ends, so once the film leaves it behind the audience is not meant to be too concerned about it. Instead we watch as he is cuckolded by Olivia de Havilland in favor of Napoleon, and there the film ends. Was there a point to all this in the novel? Soon I’ll read it and find out, because if it was ever present in the film it was cut before release.

It was definitely a surprise, and not a pleasant one, to see Mervyn LeRoy, who has given this blog such great films as Five Star Final and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, both tightly-constructed and well-directed dramas, founder so badly with this material. It’s a testament to how much early Hollywood films relied on script and cast more than directors, until the likes of Capra, Ford, Wyler, and Hitchcock emerged.

The rest of the year, however, was pretty solid (I await with pleasure the time I can stop splitting these too-large-for-one-post years into “bad-to-meh” and “meh-to-great”). Part II continues the story.