- The Great Ziegfeld, Robert Z. Leonard
- Anthony Adverse, Mervyn LeRoy
- Dodsworth, William Wyler
- Libeled Lady, Jack Conway
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Frank Capra*
- Romeo and Juliet, George Cukor
- San Francisco, W.S. van Dyke
- The Story of Louis Pasteur, William Dieterle
- A Tale of Two Cities, Jack Conway
- Three Smart Girls, Henry Koster
The 9th Academy Awards were interesting for two reasons. First, this year introduced the categories of Best Supporting Actor and Actress, giving Hollywood bit players and character actors who, in the studio system, would never advance to the level of Leading Man/Lady a chance to take home Academy Awards just like the big kids. Walter Brennan won three of the first five Supporting Actor awards before the Academy realized that they shouldn’t let extras vote. With the introduction of these awards, I doubt we’ll ever see a repeat of Mutiny on the Bounty’s…bounty of three lead nominations in a single category.
Second, after three years of escapism, the nominees this year offered a hint of what was to come in the post-World War II years, an era of timely, socially-relevant films nominated for and winning Best Picture. It’s a small hint, just two films, but it serves to separate 1936 from the two years before it, as Hollywood began to step out of the Great Depression and trust that audiences would watch films that were a bit more mature, a bit darker than the ones that dominated the years prior. This isn’t to say that these films didn’t still dominate…the decision to award Best Picture to the comically bloated The Great Ziegfeld is easy to understand in the context of the time but regarded today as one of the biggest mistakes the Academy ever made.
First up in 1936 was the delightful Libeled Lady, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’d seen this one before and picked it specifically to start the year, as I was sick of kicking off each slate with crushing disappointment. It’s not as good as Powell’s other classic from this year, My Man Godfrey, but it’s still a solid screwball Powell-Loy pairing that, just for good measure, includes Spencer Tracy as well (I must say, I’ve always liked him more as a comic actor). It’s full of witty repartee, comic misunderstandings, and slapstick, juxtaposed with a surprising amount of attention to character that I kind of wish they’d given more screentime.
I will say, though, that the denouement is rushed and unsatisfying. Zooming in on a character who is surrounded by everyone talking at once is something I associate with Three Stooges shorts (it may not actually happen in Three Stooges shorts, but I have a mental image of it occurring at least once so I’m going with it), and I think a few more minutes wouldn’t have been out of order to see how everything worked out. But I may be wrong…maybe they tried that very thing and realized the best way to end it was the version we have today.
Next, Romeo & Juliet, as staged by George Cukor, MGM’s attempt to beat Warner Bros. at Shakespeare. Coming off A Midsummer Night’s Dream I was not expecting much, but here, instead of watching James Cagney and Dick Powell stumble through Shakespeare’s rhythms, we have Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, both of whom have the skill set necessary to pull it off. The end result is not at all bad; Cukor was one of those directors who could make a decent film if he had a decent cast. The biggest issue I had with it was the ending, which seemed tacked on and unrealistically happy, so I assumed it had been foisted upon the film by the Production Code. Turns out it’s in the original (which I haven’t read yet), so Shakespeare didn’t always end his plays well.
The biggest issue most people had with this film, and some Hollywood pedants continue to have, is that the actors are all too old: Leslie Howard was 43 and Norma Shearer was 34 (the most jarring is John Barrymore, playing Mercutio at a spry 54). Again, I haven’t read the play so I didn’t know that these people are supposed to be teenagers, and when I found out it didn’t strike me as odd—which in itself I found odd, and I realized it was because I have become accustomed to this kind of laziness through immersion in these and other Hollywood films.
On the one hand, it would be more realistic if the actors were the same age as their originals, since teenagers tend to have such an immature, unsophisticated view of love and life as these. But on the other hand, this kind of story—meet and fall in love immediately after a few pleasantries, then defy all attempts on the part of those who care about you to dissuade you from such an idiotic course—is exactly the kind of time-saving arc that Hollywood used and continues to use, so it isn’t that jarring to see two movie characters act like this even if the actors are of an age where they should know better.
I suppose it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this kind of ridiculous story would only work with teenagers in Shakespeare’s time…what happened in the interim, when we can watch such a thing happen to adults and consider it a “romance”? So I can’t criticize this film for casting older people to play these roles. They’re definitely too old to be Romeo and Juliet in real life, but in Hollywood they are just right.
I then watched Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which netted Frank Capra his second Best Director award. It’s his most blatant All-American Success Story, starring Gary Cooper, the most blatant All-American actor, but unlike some of his other work (Lady for a Day, It’s a Wonderful Life), this one manages to tell its story without losing itself or its sense of humor in overblown sentimentality. The sentimentality is there, certainly, but even in the Capraesque Stirring Climax the film stays grounded.
The story is simple: noble small-town boy inherits a fortune, moves to New York City and tries not to lose himself and his small-town innocence under its materialistic glare, and manages to teach everyone a lesson in the end about morality and selflessness. The film spends a good deal of time ruminating on the disparity of wealth and the responsibilities of those who have it, certainly a timely issue in 1936; I was pleased to finally see a film deal with Depression issues instead of merely offering up uncomplicated, escapist entertainment (like, for example, this year’s Best Picture winner).
The film I watched next, by contrast, does not deal with Depression issues in a mature way. Instead, it combines escapism with a misguided attempt at social commentary or a stirring moral or some such nonsense that isn’t even done well enough to be called ham-fisted. It’s another piddling mess from W.S. van Dyke—who has given us some of the worst films so far (Trader Horn) as well as some of the best (The Thin Man), mainly because he had no talent as a director other than being able to point the camera in the right direction. This may have been enough in 1931, but by 1936 there is no excuse for nominating him for Best Director.
Anyway, this film could have been a fine, if hardly groundbreaking, film, if it had just remained consistent instead of veering off into pathos and over-the-top-even-for-1936 ridiculousness about an hour and a half in. Until that point, it was a typical boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-then-gets-her-back story, told with aplomb by Clark Gable and Jeannette MacDonald, with laughs and song that only she can provide. Just when their relationship reaches its lowest ebb, suddenly the 1906 Earthquake hits. From there we get fifteen minutes of Gable stumbling through the ruined city in search of her, and when he finds her (leading a musical eulogy, because Hollywood), the inferno that has engulfed the city magically goes out. Then, the entire surviving population cheers as one, thanks heaven for ruining their lives, destroying their homes, and killing their loved ones, and looks to the future with hope bordering on dementia. Fade to modern San Francisco in all its glory, music swells, The End.
Yeah, I get that it’s an allegory for rising up out of the ruins of the Great Depression stronger than ever, but it’s still clunky and unconvincing. I make allowances for the “period” as much as possible, but there are better films with the same themes (Mr. Deeds, for instance) that are actually wrought with some degree of skill and respect for the audience.
Anthony Adverse tells the charming tale of a little boy who grows up to be Fredric March, and a little girl who grows up to be Olivia de Havilland. That’s about as coherent as I can be about it, as it continues the David Copperfield tradition of taking on too massive a literary narrative, adapting it by picking scenes at random, and explaining away gaps in the story through intertitles. In this film, these gaps are where all the most interesting plot developments occur—for example, Anthony sets off for Africa to collect a debt, and then we flash forward three years and the film informs us that he is now a power-hungry, deviant, terrifying slave trader. Such a transformation would probably have been very compelling to see, but the film has no time for that.
Nothing about the disconnected third act addresses this rather dark period of Anthony’s life, which makes it very hard to root for him in whatever the film believes is his goal. Of course, being a rather limp and badly paced adaptation, he reverts immediately to his dashing, heroic personality as soon as the African episode ends, so once the film leaves it behind the audience is not meant to be too concerned about it. Instead we watch as he is cuckolded by Olivia de Havilland in favor of Napoleon, and there the film ends. Was there a point to all this in the novel? Soon I’ll read it and find out, because if it was ever present in the film it was cut before release.
It was definitely a surprise, and not a pleasant one, to see Mervyn LeRoy, who has given this blog such great films as Five Star Final and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, both tightly-constructed and well-directed dramas, founder so badly with this material. It’s a testament to how much early Hollywood films relied on script and cast more than directors, until the likes of Capra, Ford, Wyler, and Hitchcock emerged.
The rest of the year, however, was pretty solid (I await with pleasure the time I can stop splitting these too-large-for-one-post years into “bad-to-meh” and “meh-to-great”). Part II continues the story.