One good literary adaptation did come out of 1936, however, by the same bloke who brought us Libeled Lady, Jack Conway. Here it’s A Tale of Two Cities, and after seeing it I can’t really countenance Anthony Adverse and David Copperfield, because this one took on a novel with an epic sensibility and managed to fit it perfectly into two hours. Ronald Colman is typically brilliant, and the pacing never flags. I think the reason it succeeds where the other two fail is that instead of concentrating on the scope of the source material, Cities instead emphasizes the characters and their humanity, which gives the film a focus that the others sorely lack.
I’m not entirely sure why this wasn’t nominated at the 8th Awards, seeing as it was released in December 1935 (IMDb lists no 1936 release date for the United States), but there you are.
Three Smart Girls is nothing special, but it’s solid Depression-era entertainment—unsurprising, given that it is nothing more than a vehicle for Universal’s “new discovery” Deanna Durbin and her singing ways. It’s about, if you can’t guess, three smart girls who scheme to reunite their divorced father and mother, even leaving the tranquil beauty of their Swiss chalet for the rough-and-tumble streets of New York to do so. It’s predictably silly, although Ray Milland adds a touch of class and actual comic ability to the proceedings, which saves it from such ill-advised set pieces as our heroine staving off arrest by charming an entire police depot with her songbirding, and from the stereotypical “two people divorced are actually perfect for one another” narrative.
Dodsworth is a fantastic film, not least for finally breaking (but not fixing) the Hollywood perception of matrimony as inviolate and always salvageable; it’s the first film I’ve seen in this project that suggests that sometimes marriages end and it’s a good thing. Granted, it goes about making this point with little more subtlety than its counterparts—merely transferring the “evil” persona from the interloper to the current spouse—but it’s a step in the right direction for realism, at least.
One thing that is refreshing, though, is that Dodsworth doesn’t go down the usual road this type of film takes—by “this type of film,” I mean the ones where the protagonist realizes he/she is in the wrong relationship, usually when the one they were “meant to be with” shows up and smites them. In most of those films, the “wrong” relationship slowly deteriorates and ultimately ends merely because of the intervention of the “right” person (oh, superficial signs of discord are present, but usually nothing serious unless it’s a Lifetime original movie).
In Dodsworth, the protagonist’s marriage is shown already in an advanced state of decay, and the attempt to save it merely exacerbates the problems more; even without the presence of the obligatory other woman, Dodsworth would have left his wife in exactly the same way. It’s a message—that “love has to stop somewhere short of suicide”—not often seen in films of the epoch, or even today.
Then there was the very odd The Story of Louis Pasteur, which is exactly what it sounds like, a story of the man who developed vaccines—although based on the poster, I wouldn’t blame you for expecting it to be about Satan.
It’s a good film, but hardly a suspenseful one—even in a story where the outcome is known, some films are able to keep the audience guessing and perhaps even doubting the end (All the President’s Men comes to mind, or more recently, Diplomacy). This one, however, remains very sedate and never really challenges Pasteur at all. The direction is also strangely cold, keeping at a distance and never developing the characters beyond “good” or “bad about to be good”. This film is, like The House of Rothschild in 1934, stuck in an old sensibility that I thought Hollywood had grown out of by this time.
I’m pretty sure Paul Muni’s win for Best Actor was consolation for not winning for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in which he gave a much more nuanced and powerful performance. In this film he didn’t really have to do much work, as none of the characters was particularly fleshed out or well written. Pasteur is merely a character, while his role in Chain Gang required him to actually act (and I could level the same criticisms of Charles Laughton in Henry VIII, which, as you may recall, was the performance that bested Muni in 1932/33).
Finally, I can’t help but think that the bit of dialogue in the following year’s A Day at the Races (Dr. Steinberg: “This is absolutely insane!” Hackenbush: “That’s what they said about Pasteur!”) was a reference to this film.
And the winner this year was The Great Ziegfeld, a massively overproduced tribute to impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and his massively overproduced shows. It’s the first biographical film to win Best Picture, about a man who had just died three years before production began, but the main focus is on the three or four huge musical productions (one of which, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” takes up about a half hour of screentime). Having to wait two and a half hours for William Powell and Myrna Loy to share the screen together was maddening, but Luise Rainer was fun in the role of Ziegfeld’s perpetually-hysterical first wife.
It’s overblown, glitzy, and probably glosses over a lot of the life of the man it is purportedly about, although considering it was pitched as a form of “filmusical entertainment” (sic) that’s perhaps to be expected. The script mostly feels like a linking device for the musical numbers, pandering to the public’s still-fresh memory of the Ziegfeld theatrical productions. Unsurprisingly for a film of such lofty entertainment ambition, it was the longest talking film in history to that point, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that it was more its scale than its substance that led to its capturing Best Picture this year.
In order to get the rights for the film, MGM allowed William Powell to act in Universal’s My Man Godfrey, which is an absolutely amazing film that deserved to take the spot of eight of these ten nominees. Instead, it was nominated for Best Director and all four acting categories, but didn’t win any of them. I don’t want this blog to turn into an “Oscars oversights” thing, but come on…this one is obvious.
As I said at the top, this year, even with its odd choice for Best Picture, was a step towards the socially-conscious Academy Awards that would follow World War II; after a run of three years in which escapism was all that mattered, 1936 offered a seriocomic contemplation of the American Dream (Mr. Deeds) and a mature, if–by today’s standards–slightly forced, rumination on the entropy of a loveless marriage (Dodsworth). Although neither won the top prize, it’s nice to see them in the running. We’ll see if the trend continues in 1937!
 One of my favorite lines so far!