A Star is Born is the most self-referential nominee I’ve seen yet, starring two Academy Award winners, Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, playing, respectively, a naïve film hopeful from the heartland and an embittered, alcoholic actor whose star is rapidly fading. On his way down, March gives Gaynor a leg up and she repays the favor by marrying him and standing by his side as he falls further and further down–helped along the way by a horribly written and acted press agent whose sole purpose in the film is to scream abuse at with whomever he comes in contact. It’s one of two films this year that teaches the lesson that sometimes suicide is necessary to make it in show business. Kind of dark, even for today, but the studio system was a harsh employer.
What’s odd about this film—to an Oscar nerd, at least—is that it’s clearly set in a universe with recognizable Hollywood stars (she does impressions of Katharine Hepburn and Mae West, and later we hear mention of Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), yet Fredric March plays a fictional star named Norman Maine. Even stranger, she wins an Academy Award at the 8th ceremony, so this is set in an alternate universe that has almost the exact same stars as our Hollywood, only in this one two of them (who, again, had won Academy Awards in our universe) are different people, and Bette Davis doesn’t exist to win Best Actress in 1935.
Also, he busts into the Academy Awards and causes a drunken scene during her acceptance speech for Best Actress, and this is immediately followed by dancing and the end of the ceremony. I understand there was a ruckus but there was still Best Director and Best Picture to announce. Which films won those awards in this universe’s 1935?!
I was expecting to like Stage Door, which has some great actors in it—Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou—all of whom are perfectly capable of the kind of fast-paced banter this type of film deserves. Unfortunately, the script is pretty lazy, as if the screenwriters spent their days watching screwball comedies, then just categorized every line of dialogue as “witticisms,” “retorts” and “set-ups.”
We have the two characters who hate one another but are best friends by the end of the film, we have the fast-talking sassy supporting characters who speak exclusively in quips, we have the grand moral lessons shoehorned in between repartee to make it a “serious” film, etc., etc. All the tropes of the genre without adding anything to it.
Most galling, though, is the story of Hepburn’s character and the macabre implications of it. She is an entitled rich girl without any acting talent, so her father bankrolls a show with the express intention of getting her to bomb onstage and abandon the theatre. Indeed, throughout rehearsal she shows no talent and a complete lack of understanding for any aspect of show business. Then, on opening night, the actress who should have had the part kills herself, and this imbues Hepburn with the burning emotion required of the part, and she becomes a sensation.
So I suppose the message is, grief plus lack of talent equals talent? I wonder how her future performances will go…there’s only fifteen or so girls left in her boardinghouse, and they can’t all die whenever she needs to tap into emotion or whatever.
But, happy ending! One gets married, another gets a one-line part, and another gets kittens. And a new hopeful comes in and asks for a room just like Hepburn did at the start. Cycles! Yay!
One Hundred Men and a Girl is another, considerably less interesting, Deanna Durbin vehicle from Universal, only without Ray Milland to class it up. It stars Adlophe Menjou as her father, playing against type as a poor, unsophisticated, and desperate musician. His moustache is considerably less waxed than in his other roles, to emphasize how low he has come in the world
In this one, Durbin plays a plucky young girl who will stop at nothing to get her father a spot in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra, and as the back of the VHS says: “It’s a delightful romp that shows how persistence pays off.” Well sure, but only if you also have an amazing voice with which to impress a world-renowned maestro. Also, she’s supposed to be “persistent”, but throughout the film she gets what she wants by being a goddamned nuisance who just annoys the shit out of everyone until they finally give her what she wants so she’ll shut the hell up.
The screenwriters were generally pretty lazy about her antics, as well. She breaks into Stokowski’s home to persuade him to listen to her father, and he quite reasonably asks, “How do you get into places that you should not be?” Her response could easily have been: “The script!”
In Old Chicago is a slightly better version of San Francisco, set just before and during the fire of 1871 and telling the story of the O’Leary clan (try to guess where that’s going). I say “slightly,” because it falls into the same trappings of San Francisco when it comes to depicting the disaster: all the budget is spent on the spectacle of the city burning, and culminates in an unlikely speech by an uneducated washerwoman with no delusions of eloquence until this point. She waxes poetic about how the city will rise again because no one can stop Chicago and blah blah blah.
I would have said it was a much better version, to be honest, because the story is very good, the acting is splendid, and the characters are for the most part deep, engaging, and three-dimensional. However, a couple of things pulled me out of the film early on and made it very difficult to recover. First was the very, very rapey courtship of the main character and his eventual wife, even by the standards of the epoch. It starts with a kidnapping and assault, a declaration of all-encompassing and eternal love (for a woman he’s only known for five minutes and has literally never spoken to), and her violent and unequivocal rebuff; then moves to stalking, harassment, and an eventual further assault before he plants such a good kiss on her that she changes her tune and falls in love with him. I don’t think I’m overstating anything when I say…ugh.
The film’s second mortal sin was the endless, and I mean endless, allusions and foreshadowing related to the fire, from showing the O’Leary cow’s penchant for kicking, to shoehorning in the word “fire” at every opportunity. Did people really need to be reminded so often that a fire was coming in a film set in 1800s Chicago?
Finally there was the winner, The Life of Emile Zola, which is yet another Paul Muni biographical film in which he plays someone who looks nothing like whoever the hell is on the advertisement (seen at the top of Part I). It focuses primarily on Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, and for the most part it moves along at a steady pace, hitting all the right moments of the “character loses his/her way then finds it again” narrative. Muni’s French accent is the same as his Chinese accent, insofar as he doesn’t attempt either one–and at one point he actually says to another character, “Your accent is not Parisian.” Bold card for him to play, but he carries it off somehow.
I was expecting more of this film, as it was pretty timely considering the kind of things that were happening in Europe (particularly Germany) at the time, but as I’ve pointed out before Hollywood didn’t have a big problem with the Nazis until 1941. In fact, they even allowed the German attache to occasionally review scripts and “suggest” changes. To that end, despite the fact that the Dreyfus mess had a lot to do with Antisemitism, Warner Bros. ordered all references to this aspect excised from the film, and even forbade the use of the word “Jew” (there are some oblique references to Dreyfus’ heritage, but if you didn’t already know about it you wouldn’t get it at all). But studio heads were nothing if not pragmatic, and Germany was a big market for their films and nothing was allowed that might alienate so many moviegoers.
The result is a film that is kind of progressive, but in the context of the time very cagey and a bit cowardly in its execution. As I said at the top, 1937 was an odd year teetering between the Depression and World War II, and the films of this year for the most part reflect the uncertain place Hollywood found itself in the interim. Some addressed social issues, but only Lost Horizon really sold it, and the rest were clumsy at best and dismissive at worst.
And so we come to the end of ten years of the Academy Awards! The journey has only just begun and already I have seen some amazing films, some absolutely awful films, and a whole bunch of merely okay films. So, pretty much what I anticipated. The Awards continue to coalesce into the form we know and ironically love today, and I’m looking forward to the second decade. 1938 features The Grand Illusion, which I have been looking forward to since starting this project, and I remain optimistic that the trend towards better, less escapist films will continue. We’ll see!