10th Academy Awards (1937) – Part I

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  • The Life of Emile Zola, William Dieterle
  • The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey*
  • Captains Courageous, Victor Fleming
  • Dead End, William Wyler
  • The Good Earth, Sidney Franklin
  • In Old Chicago, Henry King
  • Lost Horizon, Frank Capra
  • One Hundred Men and a Girl, Henry Koster
  • Stage Door, Gregory La Cava
  • A Star is Born, William A. Wellman

Sorry for the late entry…I’ve developed something of a social life at just the wrong time for this project. I will endeavor to turn down all offers of companionship on Wednesday nights from now on, to avoid this egregious mistake.

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I’m sure my viewer was devastated.

Anyway, the 10th Academy Awards. I had a fleeting hope at the end of 1936 that the promise of Mr. Deeds and Dodsworth would be fulfilled this year, that I would see more socially conscious films and issues in this weird limbo between the Great Depression and World War II. Alas, I was disappointed. Sure, this year’s Best Picture winner was the most dramatic, realistic, and dark since All Quiet on the Western Front, and sure, there are other good points sprinkled around the other nominees, but only one did it in a really interesting way and all in all I found this year to be rather weak; the peaks of 1934 and 1935 are long forgotten.

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First out of the gate was The Awful Truth, the only real comedy on the slate this time around. It won Leo McCarey the Best Director prize and destroyed all the valuable lessons taught by Dodsworth about love and marriage. It’s a screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, which breaks them up in the first ten minutes then builds no suspense whatsoever regarding their eventual, inevitable reconciliation. Not to say it isn’t a good film; led by Cary Grant doing what he does best (play Cary Grant), the film steers itself into Lubitschian territory and has a lot of fun with an established Hollywood premise.

Unlike other films that reconcile a couple that is clearly toxic just for the sake of promoting The Institution of Marriage, The Awful Truth presents us with two people who are more clearly meant for each other than almost any other film couple I have encountered. This aspect is the one that truly encouraged me to give it a pass on the predictable storyline. The joy of the film comes from watching Grant and Dunne display their undeniable comedic talents, and their characters’ reactions to their estranged lover’s antics is consistently as hilarious as the antics themselves. And each of them, in their own way, schemes clandestinely to bring about a reunion, rather than films like The Divorcee in which the husband sits back and waits for his wife to “come to her senses” while she knocks herself out to fix everything that was his fault to begin with.

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Captains Courageous came next, the story of a spoiled rich kid and the Portuguese seaman who saves him. Spencer Tracy took home Best Actor for this film (even though his role is clearly supporting), and it’s a well-constructed and ably-directed adventure/coming-of-age story. Set a film on a fishing boat and I’m already halfway to loving it, so even though none of the actors is particularly taxed by their role (Lionel Barrymore continues to challenge himself by playing crusty old men with hearts of gold) and the sequences before and after the boat times are rather boring, I found it engaging and delightful.

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Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon was a really, really good film, although if you’d seen it during World War II it would have only been a pretty good one. That’s because about half an hour was cut for its re-release during that time, excising all the pacifist bits about “laying down arms” and such. Wouldn’t want people to think war was useless or wasteful or anything.

I was able to see the fully restored version, so all the bits that had been cut and inadequately preserved were obvious. It’s interesting to consider the change that comes over the film without the edited sequences: with these scenes back in, the film is a timely, rather urgent exploration of the increasing possibility of another world war and the problems with European politics (on all sides) that make it inevitable. One speech even foresees the atomic bomb.

Without these, the film becomes timeless, but in a far less engaging way. Suddenly it’s just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy about a mountain retreat where nobody ages or worries about things that dominate life in the “civilized” world. It stops being relevant and turns into escapist, “gee-wouldn’t-this-be-great” fare, and it’s really upsetting because that’s usually exactly what Frank Capra made and it was refreshing to see him take on a more ambitious project. Obviously such peacenik, pinko nonsense couldn’t be allowed during wartime. The restored version is a thoughtful, opportune meditation on the world of 1937.

Not that the restored film is above criticism, of course. For one thing, the white settlers being in charge of the “natives” in Shangrai-La is more than a little disingenuous, as is the film’s insistence that these white Christians showed up in the valley and “taught” the natives about peace and whatnot. Pretty sure the Buddhists knew about that already.

And, quickly, the “neglected subplot romance we’re supposed to give a shit about” trope is getting real old real fast, and I’m pretty sure Sherpas would know not to make loud noises in avalanche country. Ah well.

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Then came Dead End, which should have been great: it’s an early Humphrey Bogart piece directed by William Wyler, set in a back alley of New York’s gritty east side. The whole film takes place in this half-block, and sets up a confrontation between the city’s slum dwellers and the rich elite who have started building luxury apartments on the border of the shanties.

Instead, the film offers up an hour of set-up, most of which never pays off, followed by thirty minutes of morality that culminates with everyone learning a valuable lesson and not much else. Bogart’s character never develops beyond being a vague, seedy threat to the spiritual well-being of the children, and the halfhearted attempt to give him a backstory falls flat and is never used in any meaningful way. The rest of the characters are all similar archetypes (the streetwise urchins, the concerned older sister, the reformed hero, the shallow rich girl, the slightly confused Irish cops, etc.). I expected more of Wyler, I really did. Didn’t he just do Dodsworth?

Also, why do movie protagonists insist on telling the villain their every thought and intention? Just so they can get beaten up more often? Sometimes you can just think to yourself, “I’m going to go straight to the police after this tense stand-off ends,” without letting your target know and affording them a chance to get away/kidnap your loved ones/kill you. But I suppose plots must move forward.

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The Good Earth was one of two Paul Muni vehicles this year, and won Luise Rainer her second consecutive Best Actress award (for playing a Chinese peasant woman with a strong German accent). I read the novel a couple of years ago and was definitely wondering how the film would go about portraying the deep-rooted familial and sexual dynamics of Chinese peasant farmers presented in the book. To my surprise, these aspects of the story were considerably toned-down and smoothed out to create a more palatable three-act story.

Despite just about every Hollywood film of the period treating its female characters as one-dimensional foils, they apparently read The Good Earth and thought, “Man, those Chinese sure are sexist,” and decided to completely gloss over the more unsavory parts to make the marriage of the two main characters more “equal.” O-Lan, the wife, is far more assertive and crafty than in the novel, and Wang Lung’s second wife, whom he marries when O-Lan is no longer attractive enough, is swiftly expelled in the film and never heard from again once Wang Lung realizes how much he prefers O-Lan (whereas in the book he remains unapologetic and she never leaves).

Then O-Lan dies, and that is Wang Lung’s big moment, when he finally realizes how wonderful she was and compares her to the earth that he loves so much. In the book, he acknowledges that his second wife was bad, but he and O-Lan never have this big Hollywood romantic moment. The film also excises the bleak ending of the book, wherein it is obvious that once Wang Lung dies his sons will sell the land—the film also leaves out their ambitious, greedy personalities that ultimately will destroy what Wang Lung has created.

It’s an odd mix of stereotypes, some Chinese, some Hollywood, to create an “epic” tale of farming and related activities. It waters down its source material in much the same way David Copperfield and Anthony Adverse did, although in spite of it all the story that results is, unlike those two, largely coherent.

The story continues, and gets a lot more “meta,” in Part II.

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6 thoughts on “10th Academy Awards (1937) – Part I

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