Remember how I said at the top that this year was a massive sequel to 1934? Nothing I saw illustrated this more than my next film: Top Hat. Watching it was a strange experience, because every five minutes something else appeared that was lifted directly from The Gay Divorcee. Immediate, of course, is the starring pair (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), then the reappearance of Edward Everett Horton as Astaire’s trusty, hapless sidekick, and that’s enough to make this a Gay Divorcee clone. But then it became apparent that someone had been waiting outside the set of Divorcee with a sign-up sheet for Top Hat.
Same editor, cinematographer, producer, director…and, as soon becomes apparent, the same script, even if the credited writers differ between the films. While the characters names and the exact circumstances vary, the plot points and various inciting incidents are almost identical.
There is even the obligatory dance-with-all-the-extras right after things work out marvelously well for our heroes, although this film surpasses Broadway Melody of 1936 by having the decency to show us the resolution. It also surpasses it by having better acting, dialogue, pacing, and musicality, and although the plot is a bit more contrived than The Gay Divorcee it delivers solid Astaire-Rogers entertainment.
By far the worst film of this year was the inexcusable Ruggles of Red Gap, which tries hard to be a screwball comedy but instead plods limply through a collection of badly-written scenes only vaguely tied together with caricatures of the staple archetypes of the genre, poorly paced and without motivation or substance. In fact, even with films like Here Comes the Navy and Trader Horn behind it, it is high in the running for the worst nominated film so far, although it is inexplicably well regarded today.
For ninety interminable minutes the film stumbles from one loathsome contrivance to the next, never allowing any kind of character development at the expense of advancing the clichéd plot. A scene towards the end where Ruggles improbably recites Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a pubful of awed and tearful patriots is frankly embarrassing and rather than set up a triumphant final sequence just grinds the film to a halt and leaves it languishing in neutral for the rest of its run time. Charles Laughton was wise to limit his attempts at comedy, because if this was the kind of performance he was capable of he may have singlehandedly killed the entire industry.
Fortunately, he redeemed himself by playing what he plays best (a complete cock) in Les Miserables. This is a solid film that, beyond seeing Laughton and Fredric March at the top of their game, is one of the few films with a Production Code-enforced ending that really works. Things turn out well for the main character, but Laughton imbues the antagonist with such humanity and depth that his defeat by his own conscience makes for an unusually downbeat climax, one that, I think, plays better than the novel.
The Informer won John Ford his first of four Best Director awards (if they went by the poster alone, it would have won Best Picture easily), and I don’t disagree with the choice—he was up against Frank Lloyd, who already had two, and Henry Hathaway and Michael Curtiz for Bengal Lancer and Captain Blood, respectively, and the success of all three films was mainly due to their stars, not their directors. Of course, The Informer also won Best Actor (Victor McLaglen), but I think that it should certainly have been any of the three stars of Mutiny on the Bounty (if I had been around then my vote would have gone to Charles Laughton). However, as has happened five of the six occasions when one film has generated three nominees in a single category, they canceled one another out.
It would be hard to argue, on the other hand, that one of the other nominated directors deserved the Oscar more than Ford, who took what was honestly a rather boring story—a very dim Irishman turns his fugitive friend in to the British, then blows all the blood money on a night of binge drinking—and made it deep and compelling. Ford, of course, was one of an emergent wave of directors who, as the novelty of film was wearing off, began to emphasize character over plot and spectacle (William Wyler was also getting his start around this time—we’ll come to him in 1936 and he’ll be around for some time).
On top of all that, out of 1935’s nominees this is the one that feels the most dated. Like The House of Rothschild it has the distinct air of 1933 about it.
It’s hard not to love Captain Blood, as indeed it is hard not to love most Errol Flynn swashbucklers. Now that I think about it, this is not only the year of literary adaptations but also period films: half the nominees are from that wonderful time known as “the past,” and I don’t think it would be a stretch to attribute it to the economic climate of 1935 (when the Depression was beginning to abate, but not enough to really notice yet). Anyway, Captain Blood is not only dashed entertaining, but comes replete with expressionistic, artistic use of shadows and angles, courtesy of up-and-coming Hungarian director Michael Curtiz.
All in all, a classic Golden Age adventure story, in which the hero gets the girl and vanquishes his foe with little more than pluck, derring-do, and an uncanny aptitude for swordplay. It’s one of those lovely films with a stirring, music-drenched climax which, if the film lasted five more minutes, would surely turn unbelievably dark (in this case, a hanging is sure to result from Blood’s antics).
I knew of Mutiny on the Bounty by reputation going into this year, as it is the only film in the history of the Academy Awards to receive three nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role (and now that I think about it, one of only three films to receive three lead acting nominations, the other two being From Here to Eternity and Network). This came, significantly, in the last year before the Oscars for supporting performances were inaugurated, and that provides me a chance to directly address Awards esoterica in a way that hasn’t come around since The Divine Lady. Had this come out the following year it is certain that Franchot Tone’s nomination, though it is for a hell of a performance, would have been in the Supporting Actor category.
But it came out this year, and though my personal favorite this year was Top Hat it is clear why this film won Best Picture in this, the sequel to 1934. It’s not a screwball comedy but it encapsulates everything that It Happened One Night heralded. Laughton, Tone, and Clark Gable are quintessentially Golden Age here, and the script, a tense, literary adaptation of the 19th-century maritime incident (incidentally my favorite type of incident), flows masterfully along at a steady three-act pace.
This year showed me that the first six Oscars came during Hollywood’s warm-up act; the clear continuity between 1934 and 1935, on the other hand, heralds a Hollywood that is settling into itself, comfortable with what it is and what is expected of it, prepared to weather the storm of the Great Depression with a winning formula. But I may be wrong—time for a double-dose of Powell and Loy in 1936!