(Here’s Part I.)
For the sake of my sanity I’m glad I finally came to The Barretts of Wimpole Street, just as I was about to write off 1934 as the most horrible year in Academy history (worse even than the 4th Awards). Fortunately, I got a nice little tale about Elizabeth Barrett and her wooing by Robert Browning (although once you see this, it is impossible not to grin during their scenes together) to cleanse my palate and prepare me for an end run that instead established this 7th Academy Awards as the finest so far.
The film was a bit constrained by the Production Code, but still Norma Shearer is typically brilliant as the poet Elizabeth Barrett. She once again displays fine chemistry with Fredric March, but their relationship is not nearly as important (or creepy) here as it was in Smilin’ Through. It’s not important at all, really, except as the MacGuffin that moves the plot forward. What matters in this film is the development of her relationship with her abusive father (terrifyingly played by Charles Laughton), as she matures, mentally and emotionally, to the point where he has no choice but to reveal the depths of his cruelty and psychopathy. Her escape from his clutches (figurative, but it would have been literal had the film been made in 1930) is what drives the film, not the romance between her and Robert Browning, even if that is the catalyst.
Although once Elizabeth decides to abscond with her maid (and her dog) to marry Robert in secret, having spent the entire film in utter terror of her father and his reactions to her impudence, she escapes her prison through the brilliantly deviant tactic of walking out the front door. I’m not saying I needed a high speed pursuit (unless they got Harold Lloyd to choreograph it) but providing a little suspense, just the vaguest idea that perhaps she wouldn’t make it, shouldn’t have taxed the screenwriters that much.
The Gay Divorcee was next, and for the first time in this jaunt through Oscar history I came away with the feeling that I had just watched a classic. This film came out some time after It Happened One Night solidified the screwball comedy as a legitimate genre, and the combination of that style of witty repartee with Fred Astaire’s nimble footwork is as good as it gets…at least until Gene Kelly comes on the scene in a few years; he’ll get a lot of space on this blog whether his films were nominated or not, because damn it, he deserves it.
Astaire can deliver a one-liner in a tuxedo like no one else except William Powell (stay tuned), and Edward Everett Horton, he of Fractured Fairy Tales, plays the straight man to perfection. These two films established a new order in Hollywood and spawned a sea of imitators that I am positive I will be watching ad nauseum for the next several Oscar years. I shouldn’t complain, though…after all, wasn’t the whole point of this project to establish a narrative of American cinema through the lens of the Academy Awards? Mustn’t forget that.
Oh, I have to tell you that this film contains, and may very well be the source of, my favorite geology joke: “This little island of Great Britain is 500,000,003 ½ years old.” “How can you be sure of the exact year?” “Well, Professor Brown told me it was 500,000,000 years old, and that was three and a half years ago.”
Trivially speaking, this film’s title was one of the first victims of the Production Code: it was based on a play called Gay Divorce, which isn’t what you think it is, and the Code forced a change to a more specific title so as not to “make light” of the whole concept of divorce. In this, the Escapist Oscars, this is one of few nominees where escapism works and doesn’t a) make you feel like you’ve wasted your life in watching it, and b) date the film like a bottle of moldy milk (like these).
The Thin Man was the first of these nominated films that I had seen before beginning this project, and I welcome any chance to see it again. The film would earn its place in my good graces simply by pairing William Powell and Myrna Loy for the first time, but it goes above and beyond by delivering a first-rate screwball detective story that is widely acknowledged as the best film of the year (or if not, it should be…it’s much better than It Happened One Night, the film to which it owes its existence. That’s so often the way, isn’t it?). It’s the sort of film to be enjoyed with an extremely dry martini close at hand, and several more waiting in the wings.
The Thin Man was just one of five films for Powell and six for Loy in 1934, including two others together. I don’t really have a point beyond that, but I don’t think I need one.
Finally, the winner, It Happened One Night, in which Frank Capra solidified his place as a preeminent Hollywood director with a firm hand that was rare for the age–I’ve seen it in John Ford but that’s about it so far. It was the first Best Picture to win for acting, and indeed swept the top five awards (Picture, Director, Writing, and both lead acting Oscars), deservedly so. Interestingly, during production both Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were convinced they were ruining their careers by appearing in it (they must have seen Lady for a Day).
This string of three films (The Gay Divorcee, The Thin Man, and It Happened One Night) represent the strongest consecutive run I’ve witnessed during this little endeavor, and knowing what I do about 1930s Hollywood I can already say that they are the most innovative of the nominees this year. While they are still lighthearted and designed with formulaic, Depression-friendly entertainment in mind, they are so well made and so exemplary of their genre that they are elevated far above the other eight extant films of this entry. The Barretts of Wimple Street is strong primarily due to the performances of its talented cast, while this triptych faced filmmaking forward in a way few films since The Jazz Singer had done.
So despite being, as I said at the outset, an escapist year, and despite seven of the twelve nominees being rather bad, 1934 managed to be the most revolutionary year in Hollywood since 1928. The era of the Production Code was, paradoxically, the era of some of studio filmmaking’s greatest triumphs, and I am very excited to be poised at its threshold now. 1935 awaits!