8th Academy Awards (1935) – Part I

220px-Poster_-_Mutiny_on_the_Bounty_(1935)

  • Mutiny on the Bounty, Frank Lloyd
  • Alice Adams, George Stevens
  • Broadway Melody of 1936, Roy Del Ruth
  • Captain Blood, Michael Curtiz
  • David Copperfield, George Cukor
  • The Informer, John Ford*
  • Les Misérables, Richard Boleslawski
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Henry Hathaway
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle
  • Naughty Marietta, Robert Z. Leonard and W.S. Van Dyke
  • Ruggles of Red Gap, Leo McCarey
  • Top Hat, Mark Sandwich

Back in the introductory post to this little endeavor, I said something to the effect that I was expecting a lot of booms and busts, seeing mostly mediocrity and meretricious missteps with occasional flashes of brilliance, and as I move through the age of twelve nominees this has been more apparent than ever. 1935 is, in terms of film evolution, 1934 Part II; any one of these films would have fit right in with the 1934 nominees, and just like that year, there’s a few classics and a whole bunch of faff. That said, the good/bad alternation of Best Pictures has finally been broken, and the quality of the good films I’m watching is really starting to become apparent. In 1927/28, the good films were all “good for 1927,” but by 1935 Hollywood had figured out this whole “filmmaking” thing and the good ones need no qualifier.

This year’s winner Mutiny on the Bounty is interesting from an Oscars point of view for two reasons. I’ll get to the first one second, and here at the top I’ll just point out that it was the last film (to date) to win Best Picture and nothing else. Way back with Grand Hotel I explained my theory for the relative frequency this occurred (this was the third of the first eight Best Picture winners to do so), and it makes sense to me that this was the last year this happened. Watching these films right after the 1934 nominees reveals to me that Hollywood was hitting its stride, comfortable with a clear idea of what successful films should be, and the Academy Awards consequently began to settle into the form we recognize today (including the expectation that the Best Picture and Best Director awards will go to the same film, a downright novelty in the mid-1930s[1]).

Also, 1935 was a ridiculously fruitful year for literary adaptations, and they made up a big chunk of the nominees for 1935: eight of twelve, to be precise. This is compared to one in 1934 (The Thin Man) and four in 1936 (one of which was released in 1935). 1935 also saw the release of the un-nominated Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo, Crime and Punishment with Peter Lorre, and The Call of the Wild with Clark Gable, to name a few more.

David_Copperfield_(1935_film)_poster

I think I mentioned in the last post that I hoped my journey through the 1935 nominees started strong. Well, it didn’t. David Copperfield was another George Cukor fluff piece I had to endure, and while its first half is solidly mediocre it tails off considerably in the middle and never recovers. I’ve not read the novel so I don’t know if Dickens was as disjointed, random, and peevishly uneven as this…if he was, then the film captured the source material perfectly. But having read other novels of his, I suspect this was not the case, but merely another instance of film taking on a novel too long to adequately adapt in 90-120 minutes and getting a bit schizophrenic in the editing.

The greatest crime of the film was the waste of Maureen O’Sullivan as Copperfield’s wife; again, without knowing how she is portrayed in the novel, she is presented in the film as a young woman with the mentality (and speech patterns) of a four-year-old child, and a rather dim one at that. The idea of Copperfield doing anything remotely, ahem, marriage-related with her is downright creepy. When she dies of the A Farewell to Arms disease (being alive in the third act), she even refers to herself as a “child bride,” adding yet another layer of eeeeewwwwwwwww to their relationship.

Fortunately, she only has a grand total of six minutes of screen time in this rambling mess, so more attention can be paid to the filmmakers’ lack of vision and economics. Again, I’ve not read the source material, but I imagine there were probably scenes in between the ones chosen for the film that gave the narrative some semblance of cohesion and the characters some of motivation. Still, it was an adaptation of a very popular novel by a very popular director and producer, so it must have been heavily promoted by MGM; it is a “classic” now only in the pejorative sense of the word.

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Next was Alice Adams, which is only better than David Copperfield due to the stalwart talents of Fred MacMurray and Katharine Hepburn, even though the script doesn’t give them much to work with. Hepburn plays a rather colorless middle-class girl whose only distinguishing characteristic is her burning desire to have a distinguishing characteristic, while at the same time marching rigidly in line with the expectations of those around her (i.e., those who couldn’t give a toss about her). MacMurray falls in love with her because the script tells him to, and even when the script tells him not to—literally: she actually tells him that he doesn’t love her at one point just to get us to the third act—he remains steadfast in his weirdly unmotivated affection. It’s a very lazy script that feels cliché is enough in a film as unabashedly formulaic as this, so nothing about any of the characters rises above a vague sense that they are x-type characters expected to behave in y manner.

225px-PosterBroadwayMelody1936_01

This same trick is used in Broadway Melody of 1936, but here the genre is much more forgiving. In Lubitsch-inspired musicals, a ridiculously predictable story can be saved by an abundance of catchy music and, by 1935, equally entertaining dance and dialogue, and that assurance is taken to its extremes here. Basically, the story is an odd blend of The Broadway Melody and 42nd Street, with less sisterly affection and more Jed Clampett. The film hurtles along with a pleasurably entertaining yarn about a girl pretending to be a non-existent European starlet in the hopes of breaking into Broadway, reaches the obligatory climactic production number just as her scheme is about to fall hilariously apart…and then it ends. The song and dance lasts for about ten minutes before we get a brief shot of her and her producer happy together before fading to black.

It’s as if the filmmakers decided, to hell with actually showing how these threads resolved themselves; people know they’ll get resolution in this kind of movie, so let them fill in the gaps and throw in a bigger number at the end. Perhaps it was deemed a more prudent use of the budget to film a bunch of extras than invest in more dialogue scenes with the above-the-line talent.

Despite this laziness, being the direct sequel to The Broadway Melody the film is a valuable landmark insofar as it demonstrates how far the film musical had come in the six years since the first one. Here, the narrative is similar, but 1936 incorporates new elements such as extensive dancing, diegetic songs whose lyrics advance the plot and do not simply exist as performances in the show-within-a-film, and snappier, post-It Happened One Night dialogue. The influence of that film, and of The Gay Divorcee, is clear, with the old-fashioned Broadway Melody plot running underneath a torrent of screwball comedy shenanigans. There were two further installments in this series, in 1938 and 1940, and although neither was nominated for Best Picture I think I’ll have to watch them when I reach those years just so I have closure on the Broadway Melody arc.

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The Lives of a Bengal Lancer came next, which finds Gary Cooper reprising his Farewell to Arms soldier-who-takes-no-guff character, only this time in the British Raj rather than the trenches of World War I. They explain his presence in a British unit by giving him Canadian ancestry (Cooper was born in Montana, so the producers figured that was close enough), and quickly he becomes instrumental in saving the day despite his insubordinate antics. In fact, the more I think about it the more this film emerges as an exotic remake of Here Comes the Navy…hell, Gary Cooper even wins an unlikely medal at the end, albeit posthumously (and more deservedly).

This film has a dark legacy nowadays, as it was a particular favorite of Adolf Hitler—with so many Aryan-looking troops subjugating native populations, it’s not hard to see why—but this was not as big a deal in 1935 as it would become. In fact, I bet you there was an advertisement for this film plastered all over Los Angeles proudly declaring “‘Best Film of the Year!’ Raves Time Magazine Man of the Year Adolf Hitler.”

220px-Poster_-_Naughty_Marietta_05

The most interesting thing about Naughty Marietta was the fact that a character actually reacted with surprise to another’s ability to sing. To put it in context: Nelson Eddy is an operatic colonial officer in French New Orleans who is wooing recent runaway and erstwhile princess Jeanette MacDonald, and at one point he is aided by the townsfolk in a little serenade at her window. So far, musical business as usual, with everyone strangely in tune and knowing all the lyrics to a song that presumably had not existed until this moment. Then she breaks in and starts singing, and he abruptly stops and looks at her in amazement. He didn’t think she could sing!

It’s weird that such a small thing could strike me as so significant, but in the musical universe it’s really bizarre. In all others, every character takes it for granted that even total strangers will join them in a spontaneous exclamation of their feelings, and they always do. Here, one tiny sliver of reality creeps in…just for a moment, of course—they’re harmonizing within seconds—but enough to be noticed. Aside from that, it’s a funny film and I was pleased to see Jeanette MacDonald again, but nothing else of particular merit.

Also, a reference to Peter Cottontail in colonial New Orleans? I think not! Followed immediately by a play on “There Once Was a Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” first published fourteen years after the setting. For some reason I can buy a singing garrison but not historical anachronisms.

220px-Nmidnight_1935

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a bizarre film in which Hollywood actors try desperately to perform Shakespeare in the clipped, zealous tone of the 1930s, and the result is about as you’d expect. I don’t mind a bit of interpretation here and there but Shakespeare really does require a certain set of acting skills that most performers, particularly studio-owned Hollywood stars, simply do not have. Dick Powell is particularly bad, and I’m not a fan of his work to begin with–although I am assured he is actually quite good as a film noir lead, this remains to be seen–and the film failed with audiences and critics alike (except for the music of Felix Mendelssohn, which all agreed was top notch).

Also, the film is set in ancient Athens but everyone is dressed like 18th-century Britons. What gives? I would call this the low point of the 1935 nominees, but stay tuned for the real loser in Part II.


[1] Although we recently saw, for the first time in over 60 years, the two awards split two years in succession, the post-It Happened One Night years also brought about an increased identification of a film’s success or failure with its director, and hence an increased correlation between the awards for Best Picture and Best Director. But we could be in the midst of another shift: In the first ten years of the Academy Awards they aligned only twice; between 1938 and 1997, inclusive, they synched 50 years out of 60, or 83%; but since 1998 they have been awarded to different films six years out of sixteen, or 37%, a frequency unheard of since the earliest days of the Awards.

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