So, here I am, at the end of the first decade of the Academy Awards. Or, maybe I’m at the start of the second decade. Either way, I’d like to take a moment, if I may, to consider the films I’ve seen so far, a few ones from the era that went un-nominated for whatever reason, and the general evolution of the Awards from the first through the tenth. I’ve (we’ve? Maybe?) seen some great films, some bad films, and a lot of mediocre films, and it would be remiss for me to not occasionally pause and think about them as a whole.
This retrospective is here because it is absolutely something important and necessary that I intended to do from the start and not at all because I have fallen behind in watching these films and needed to give myself some breathing room.
What was most interesting about these years from a purely Academy-oriented viewpoint was witnessing the evolution of the Oscars from a small, rather slipshod affair into a more coherent attempt to award filmmaking excellence. This came from the concurrent evolution in what constituted a good movie in the sound era. Nowadays there is a high correlation between films nominated for Best Picture and the other major awards, but this was not the case in the Academy’s first decade. Among the most anachronistic trends:
- Best Picture and Best Director were awarded to the same film only three times: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30), Cavalcade (1932/33), and It Happened One Night (1934).
- Three films won Best Picture and nothing else, and one, Grand Hotel, wasn’t even nominated in other categories.
- Four films won Best Picture without a nomination for writing: Wings, The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel, and Cavalcade. In the 82 years since Cavalcade, only three further films have won without a writing nomination (this year, only Selma could be the seventh).
- Three won Best Picture with no acting nominations: Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Grand Hotel.
- This still happens occasionally–the two most recent were Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003.
But a lot of things have remained the same, first and foremost of which is that the Academy often screwed up and awarded the top prizes to undeserving films and people. Examples include:
Best Picture, 1930/31 – Cimarron (should not have been any of the nominees; it should have been City Lights)
Best Picture, 1932/33 – Cavalcade (should have been Smilin’ Through)
Best Actor, 1932/33 – Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII (should have been Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang)
Best Actress, 1932/33 – Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory (should have been Norma Shearer, Smilin’ Through)
Best Picture, 1936 – The Great Ziegfeld (should have been Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; or, if we include un-nominated films, it should have been My Man Godfrey)
So now, what about the films themselves, independent of the Oscars? Well, I’ve watched 77 films for this project so far (out of 80 nominated films; you may recall that one is lost, and two are only available at UCLA), and there have been some amazing ones that I’d never heard of until now–Dodsworth, The Love Parade, Top Hat, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Smilin’ Through, etc.–and some ones that I am now sorry to have heard of–Here Comes the Navy, Imitation of Life, Cimarron, Ruggles of Red Gap, Trader Horn. But then again, I shouldn’t be too hard on them…after all, they were recognized by the Academy for such amazing scenes as these:
I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: after 1933, the films began to get really good, really fast, and the ones at the top more than compensate for those at the bottom. Even though I cited 1937 as a weak year overall, looking at the nominees there was none that I absolutely loathed, while it was a struggle just to get through the nominees for 1930/31, and even in 1934, a year I ranked as among the best so far, I hated four out of the eleven I was able to see.
What do I expect in the second decade? Well, I know what films won in those years, and I know that following World War II the Academy got very serious (then very silly, but we’ll come to that). So I expect that during the war years we’ll see a lot of patriotic fervor (Yankee Doodle Dandy) mixed with grim, realistic dramas (The Grapes of Wrath) and screwball comedies (The Philadelphia Story). And, of course, Citizen Kane.
The 1940s were extremely fruitful years in Hollywood, and I fully anticipate having an amazing time watching the Best Picture nominees from the war and postwar years. In fact, I think this will be the best period until I reach the fifth decade, when the Academy finally came to terms with the New Hollywood filmmakers. This project has been fantastically fun so far and I don’t think it will let up for some time…onward!