- It Happened One Night, Frank Capra*
- The Barretts of Wimple Street, Sidney Franklin
- Cleopatra, Cecil B. DeMille
- Flirtation Walk, Frank Borzage
- The Gay Divorcee, Mark Sandrich
- Here Comes the Navy, Lloyd Bacon
- The House of Rothschild, Alfred L. Werker
- Imitation of Life, John M. Stahl
- One Night of Love, Victor Schertzinger
- The Thin Man, W.S. Van Dyke
- Viva Villa!, Jack Conway
- The White Parade, Irving Cummings
This year, the Academy promoted shameless, unadulterated escapism in the nominees for Best Picture. Almost all of the descriptions of these movies on the back of the DVD or VHS mentioned that the Depression was in full swing and people were seeking happy, uncomplicated entertainment. Of the 11 nominees out of 12 I was able to watch (The White Parade is another that will have to wait until my next trip to the UCLA area [1/26/16 Update: It happened! Read all about The White Parade here.]), only one was what I’d call “dark,” and even that had a disappointingly easy denouement. Not that I’m against lightness in film per se…I don’t need every film I watch to be Seven Samurai, and this crop of films contains a few absolute classics. If I go by the average quality of the films, this one is close to the 3rd Academy Awards, but there the films were all just about on the same level; here, the ones on top are very strong and the ones at the bottom desperately weak.
But when they’re good in 1934, they’re damned good. The jump from 1932/33 to here is the biggest since the advent of sound, and the films are starting to look, sound and feel seriously different. The Production Code had taken hold, which meant that in spite of some great noir ahead we’re in for thirty years of ham-fisted morality and shoehorned happy endings, but the technique of filmmaking feels more professional, less experimental this year. It might be the presence of Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and William Powell, but I feel that in 1934 the Golden Age truly arrived.
The first one I watched was Cleopatra. This film is a strange one, not least because the dialogue could have been transplanted into any screwball comedy with little noticeable difference. Seriously, replace the names and the sets and it could be a contemporary story about two rival firms staving off takeover bids, with Claudette Colbert as the plucky, underestimated lady girl who gets both men in the end.
Not that Colbert isn’t great in such a part (she played it in The Smiling Lieutenant and she’d play it again twice more this year alone), but she is the only passable part of this overblown Cecil B. DeMille production. It’s entertaining in the superficial kind of way DeMille was known for, with scenes strung together featuring characters saying and doing exactly what is needed to advance the plot in that moment.
The worst thing about it, though, is even though it’s called Cleopatra, the film regulates Cleopatra herself to a supporting role pretty early on. It takes the Trader Horn view of women, in that a strong one is only strong until a man comes along to relieve her of the stress of independent thought and action. Cleopatra begins her dalliances with Caesar and Mark Antony as the conqueror, but in each quickly and inexplicably fades into the background and allows them to dictate her emotions and actions. As I said, Colbert is good in the part but she could have done much more with it.
Then I had Imitation of Life, another Claudette Colbert vehicle, and this one was difficult to finish. It’s the tale of a white woman, Bea, and her black maid, Delilah, who team up to create a line of pancake batter that makes one of them rich (try to guess which one). It is regarded by people without taste as a classic of race relations, but in fact it is egregiously forced, full of stereotypes, and irritatingly disjointed. It features dialogue that makes Trader Horn look racially sensitive: at one point Bea mentions that Delilah’s daughter is quite smart, to which Delilah responds, ““We all start like that; we don’t get dumb till later on.”
The fact that it is in the film means that an adult person had to come up with it, write it down, read it to himself, and think, “Yeah, that’s something someone would say.” That’s not even the most insulting line in the scene, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that. You wouldn’t believe it anyway.
Incredibly, it only gets worse from there. When the pancake batter becomes a hit and the money begins rolling in, a lawyer draws up a contract that stipulates a 50-50 split in the business, but Delilah turns it down and actually asks Bea if she can go on being her, Bea’s, servant. Seriously. Later, after a high-society party thrown by Bea in her mansion during which Delilah twiddles her toes in her basement quarters, Delilah rubs Bea’s feet, as she has done since her first day in her service. Bea, in the throes of the ecstasy of massage, asks, for no reason at all, “You remember how you used to rub my feet?” Well, she should, considering she occupies the exact same station in life as before. Lest you’ve forgotten, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did, I must reiterate that adults wrote this.
Here Comes the Navy was actually the last film for this year that I watched due to of its relative scarcity, and all I can say is 1935 had better start strong, because this is easily one of the worst films ever made. I had to buy this piece of shit just to watch it, which makes me angry just to type. It begins as another Flirtation Walk, with less singing, then quickly devolves into that pungent “love is a condition” genre I have grown to loathe and despise these past few months. It is basically James Cagney acting like a complete shit for an hour and a half, and I’m talking Ty Cobb-level shit, and still getting a medal, a swell promotion, and Rose DeWitt Bukater despite experiencing no redemptive moment or character growth. My friend pointed out that this plot could have been a Coen Brothers film and been amazing, and I agree, but in 1934 Hollywood, when protagonists were protagonists, villains were villains, and love interests were scenery, it was just badly written tripe. Add to that the constant continuity errors with dates that drove me fucking bananas and all in all it’s the kind of film that should be banned by the Geneva Convention.
Oh well…as long as I’m annoyed, I may as well toss off the rest of the films from this year that pissed me off with their incompetence, their mediocrity, and their selfish disregard for anyone but themselves. I want to rattle them off and get them out of the way, so I can talk about the nominees that I loved without worrying about returning to the abattoir of good taste that these films represent. Here Comes the Navy was the worst film of the year by a long way, but honorable mention must go to…
One Night of Love, a twaddling, twiddling peccadillo of a travesty of a film without any redeeming qualities beyond having an ending. Yes, I get it, back of the VHS box, there was a Depression on, people didn’t want to think, but damn it, they wanted to think a little. I do believe that. But it was 1934, when any film with more than one catchy tune was an automatic hit. Speaking of which,
Flirtation Walk, which apparently starred the same actor as 42nd Street, which I didn’t notice because he is so utterly devoid of personality in both. The lead actress is the same as well, and without even trying she ends up in a Broadway show again, only at West Point. Unfortunately the show goes on, and to the surprise of no one the boy gets the girl without even the cursory effort expected in romantic comedies of the epoch.
Viva Villa! was the latest and, hopefully, last entry in the “Wallace Beery does a strange accent” genre which began with Grand Hotel. In this one, Beery plays Pancho Villa as the dimmest human ever to lead a sociopolitical movement…you know you’re in trouble when the intertitles have more personality than your protagonist. His infantile Mexican shtick gets old about three minutes before the movie starts, and after that the film plods along from one belabored set piece to another with no sense of direction or pacing (“We’ll take Juarez.” Cut to a telegram. “We take Juarez.” Brilliant, just brilliant).
The House of Rothschild wasn’t in the same league as these other films, but it earns a low spot this year because it was stuck in the 1933 style, and George Arliss is simply not a star whose presence portends progress. It purports to tell the story of a prosperous (real life) Jewish banking family, and the troubles they encounter due to anti-Semitism. It’s predictable at best, but one piece of trivia I found interesting was that bits of this film were plagiarized by the Nazi party to make a propaganda piece called The Eternal Jew. Having not seen it, I can only assume that they saw Arliss play two roles in Rothschild—the head of the family in their glory years and that character’s father—and thought that it was a documentary about a Jew who never dies. I don’t think I’ll bother to check if I’m right.
Okay, enough of that. Enough of the ridiculous chaff I had to sift through this time around, all while constantly reminding myself that I was doing so to develop a stronger understanding of American cinematic history, because no one should ever watch such films for entertainment or for fun. I witnessed some great films for the 7th Academy Awards, really, and I’ll discuss them in Part II.