(I split this one into two parts for ease of viewing. Here’s the beginning.)
Next, Frank Capra burst onto the Academy scene with Lady for a Day; we’ll be seeing a lot of Mr. Capra in the years ahead, and I certainly hope he gets better than this syrupy mess. And I mean really syrupy, perhaps more so and with less to offer than It’s a Wonderful Life. It starts really, really well: scrappy, silver-tongued sexagenarian Apple Annie is a homeless apple-seller on the streets of Manhattan, a living legend in her community and a favorite of a local semi-hood Dave the Dude (no, really) who thinks her fruit brings good luck. She has a daughter who has grown up in a Spanish convent (just go with it), and through letters Annie has lead her to believe she, Annie, is a wealthy socialite. So when Apple Jr. announces she is coming to New York with her fiancé, our heroine must rise up and, with the help of her friends and Mr. Dude’s entourage, stage a weekend of extravagance so her daughter’s fiancé’s father will assent to the marriage.
At least, that’s what should happen—unfortunately, the film goes off the rails but hard at this point. Instead of, as I said, rising up and taking charge, Annie immediately starts drinking herself stupid and wallowing in suicidal self-pity, losing all her agency and letting others make up her mind. From this moment on, she has about five lines in the remaining 75 minutes as the film ghoulishly strips her of all personality. All the ideas and inspiration come from Dave the Dude and occasionally from Annie’s homeless friends, who doll her up and install her in a swanky apartment, while Annie herself just sleepwalks through it all and does nothing of her own free will. Instead of seeing her battle wits with the upper class, giving the downtrodden a chance to show their worth, we just see the Dude forcing his hoods to practice their diction and their bowing for six hours. There’s no reason shown for this sudden shift from plucky to catatonia, so Capra must have cut the scene where she either watches a puppy get tortured to death or suffers a traumatic brain injury.
In the end, when it looks like it is all for naught, Annie is about to simply tell her daughter, her fiancé, and his father the whole scheme, which is the realistic and proper thing to do. But because this film is really, really stupid, the plan improbably works out in the end with the assistance of the mayor, governor, and the rest of Manhattan’s elite, and the young couple returns to Spain without ever finding out the truth. And that’s good, because obviously if they think Annie is a rich New York social princess who is close friends with all its prominent citizens, there’s no way they’ll ever come back for a visit and force her to repeat the whole charade again and again.
So in essence, this is a film regarded a classic, even though it turns its protagonist into a passive, limpid sad sack and contemptuously brushes aside the many chances to turn the story into a first-rate satire of the American class system in favor of schmaltz, cheap laughs (ooh, the gangsters are so funny trying to pronounce “meet you” without elision) and insults to intelligences everywhere discovered and undiscovered. How Frank Capra could possibly think he won Best Director for this is a testament to how huge his ego was even then.
Fortunately, along came the always-impressive Norma Shearer in Smilin’ Through and I once again felt good about film in 1933. Based on the title, I was expecting another madcap musical romp in the vein of 42nd Street, but instead got a seriously bizarre three-dimensional love triangle (love pyramid?) involving lust, hatred, murder, and the moustaches of World War I. Shearer plays both the niece of an old, wealthy hermit (Leslie Howard), whose fiancé was murdered some thirty years prior, and his fiancé in flashback, in what must have been a very confusing and uncomfortable home life for the poor bastard. Seriously, imagine your lover is killed and twenty-five years later your niece looks exactly like her…it’s a short jump from a stray thought—“Well, we’re not strictly related, are we?”—to roleplaying, so perhaps he’s lucky melodrama intervened.
Anyway, she falls in love with Fredric March, the son of the murderer, who is also played by Fredric March. Uncle does not take kindly to this and refuses to allow them to be happy because, the film would have us think, his years of bitterness have left him a soulless monster.
But you know, it seems to me that perhaps the reason for Leslie Howard’s aversion to his niece and the son of his love’s murderer winding up together is not the one the film presents, and it’s to do with the bizarre double casting of Shearer and March. I mean, sure, you’d be upset with such a coupling, and your hatred for the one who cost you your happiness would eat away at your soul, leaving you a loveless, broken husk…but holy shit, they look exactly like their counterparts. This goes beyond creepy and becomes psychological torture. Not only has he had to live with a woman who looks just like the love of his life, who he can’t bone because she’s his goddamn niece, but on top of that, he has to watch her fall in love with the man who killed her. It’s quite fucked up.
I can think of no more tragic character in all of cinema than this poor bastard. In the end the selfishness of his niece and her suitor wins out and he gives them his blessing so he can “die happily” or something. The poor, twisted world of Hollywood love destroys another one (though admittedly, my interpretation probably did not occur to many people in 1933). This is definitely the most compelling character I’ve seen through six Academy Awards.
Then it was Little Women, which was an early hit for Katharine Hepburn (she won her first Best Actress award this year for Morning Glory). It’s an unchallenging, Depression-friendly film, full of Hepburn pluck and Cukor comedy. Honestly, I don’t have a great deal to say about it; it follows the novel fairly faithfully, at least as far as my 15-year-old memory of the novel could tell, and none of the actors really put much more effort in than George Cukor generally demands. At least 42nd Street had that wonderfully surreal climax; this one just kind of occupies space, provides some light entertainment, and fades away like London fog. Only for Hepburn completists, if such people exist.
I was quite looking forward to State Fair because it brings Janet Gaynor back into this narrative. It’s a lighthearted film in the spirit of these Awards, about a farm family heading to a state fair with their hog Blue Boy. Typical of films I’ve seen starring Gaynor, there is no real possibility of anything ending badly; all the family’s entries to the various contests win top prize and she meets the love of her life on a rollercoaster. It feels the most dated amongst this crop of nominees, looking and feeling for all the world like 1928, when films were just experimenting with sound recording and coming across to modern eyes as clumsy and amateurish. In 1928, they had the excuse of having no idea how to really make the most of the new technology, but there’s no excuse for this kind of shoddy production value in a Best Picture nominee from 1933. But I’m glad it’s here: having watched these films organically mature, artistically and technologically, over the course of this endeavor, State Fair is a nice, if jarring, reminder of how far they’d come in a relatively short period.
My take on his film would not be complete without mentioning that Janet Gaynor is as adorable as ever, although hearing her voice was a bit discomfiting at first and put me to mind of the musical 1776 (“Janet, please, your voice is hurting my foot”).
And after all that, I came to the winner, Cavalcade, which is so well regarded nowadays that I had to watch it as an online video ripped from a Betamax tape with Portuguese subtitles. This was funny at first, but when it became the most entertaining thing about the film I got very depressed. To be fair, though, that took about thirty minutes. I was delighted by the Boer War portion of the film, particularly the doddering old lady servant who constantly brought everyone down with tactless and hilarious stories of loved ones being killed and maimed.
After that, Cavalcade lives up to its name by parading a stream of English milestones across the screen with very little attention paid to just how these disparate elements flow together. The result is, of course, that they don’t. Characters resurface awkwardly after long absences only to disappear again when they no longer serve the historic event in the background at that precise moment, while the historic events themselves are similarly cast aside without any kind of reflection or consequence in favor of a quick cut to three years later and a new set piece.
Just three years ago, the Academy awarded Best Picture to a realistic, depressing portrayal of the horrifying physical and mental effects of World War I on a generation of young men; in Cavalcade, our stiff-upper-lipped British infantryman goes through three years of the conflict and is still in full-on “Oh, everything’s dashed marvelous, dashed wonderful” mode. I defy anyone to watch this film and feel a connection to any of these meretricious caricatures. The endless stream of melodramatic schlock was so overwhelming that I was happy when two of the main characters, young optimistic newlyweds on their way to America for their honeymoon, died on the Titanic.
Whew. As I said at the top, this was a particularly unchallenging year for the Academy, with one dark, socially minded film and nine feel-good fillers of various levels of mediocrity. Of course, these were the worst years of the Great Depression, so it’s not surprising that Hollywood was erring on the side of escapism; I don’t expect much change in 1934. Still, as we move more firmly into the Golden Age, I hope for a higher percentage of decent films than 10%.