The 1930s

 

gay-divorceeIf you’ve missed the explanation for the FOSCARS list, look here. I’m doing this one year at a time.

The biggest trend of the 1930s was the adjustment to new technologies, particularly sound. Many stars and directors would not last out the decade. Noticeable movements included Universal Horror (with 5 nominees and 1 win; James Whale and Boris Karloff were the major players) and screwball comedies (with a lot of noms and wins—it’s hard to say precisely how many since the term is so vague). Besides Karloff, the most dominate actors were Ronald Colman (in 4 of the best film nomminees, 1 of which won) and the pairs of William Powell & Myrna Loy (4 noms plus a solo nom for Powell, and 2 wins) and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (5 noms, 1 win). The major players in the ‘40s began to appear at the end of the decade: Cary Grant (3 noms, two of those with Katharine Hepburn), Humphrey Bogart (1 nom), and the finest director in cinema history, Michael Curtiz (2 noms, both with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, 1 win).

The ’30s is often given the label of the greatest decade in cinema history, but it doesn’t live up to that. The first half is rather weak with me struggling to come up with five nominees. Things turn around by 1934 and the second half does sing, but I wouldn’t place it above the ’40s or ’50s.

1930
1931
1932
1933
1934
1935
1936
1937
1938
1939
Top 10

 


1930

  • All Quiet on the Western Front  oscar600

  • The Dawn Patrol
  • The Devil to Pay!
  • King of Jazz
  • Raffles

 

Allquiet1930 was one of the few years the Academy got it right with All Quiet on the Western Front, but there really was no choice. The other Oscar nominees (Disraeli, The Big House, The Love Parade-released in 1929, The Divorcee) are lesser films, mostly forgotten now. All Quiet on the Western Front is an emotional, exciting, frightening, and philosophical picture. The others are none of those things.

Even my four other nominations are no real competition. They’re just better than what the Academy came up with. The Devil to Pay! is a cute comedy and Raffles is the definitive gentleman thief film, and both of those work primarily due to star Ronald Colman. The Dawn Patrol is a moving war film (a superior re-make came out a few years later). King of Jazz is the runner-up that stands out. It isn’t a great film (there was only one great film in 1930), but it is interesting. It was shot in two-strip Technicolor, giving it a wonderful, unreal look. It’s a musical review built around once-popular bandleader Paul Whiteman. The production gives us dancing girls, surreal scenery, comedy skits, and a lot of music. It’s a time capsule of 1930.

But even with King of Jazz, it was a one film year. The consensus is that Hollywood had nearly perfected silent films, but there was a steep learning curve when sound came; the needed skills were very rare in 1930 and wouldn’t exist in abundance for several years.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Lewis Milestone {All Quiet on the Western Front} oscar600
Screenplay: All Quiet on the Western Front
Actor: Lew Ayres {All Quiet on the Western Front}
Actress: Barbara Stanwyck {Ladies of Leisure}
Supporting Actor: Louis Wolheim {All Quiet on the Western Front}
Supporting Actress: none
Cinematography: All Quiet on the Western Front
Art Direction: Just Imagine
FX: Just Imagine
Score, Non-Musical: The Blood of a Poet (Georges Auric)
Song: Happy Days Are Here Again {Chasing Rainbows}
Musical Routine: Moon women dance {Just Imagine}
Animated Short: Swing You Sinners! (Fleischer)
Animated Feature: Le roman de Renard {aka The Tale of the Fox}
F&SF Feature: Just Imagine

Just Imagine is not a good film, but it’s a fascinating flick (a sci-fi musical comedy), with an incredible look, and for that alone it should be seen (My review). With Just Imagine the only other film besides All Quiet on the Western Front making any headway in the categories, it’s even clearer that 1930 is a one film year.

Film scoring had barely begun as studios were still uncertain how audiences would react to Non-diegetic music, so there’s little to choose from. Europe was ahead of Hollywood, so I’ve gone to France for my nominee.

Happy Days Are Here Again was written and recorded for Chasing Rainbows in mid-1929, but the film wasn’t released until February 1930. Between those times, the song was released and became a hit separately from the film.

While the year was filled with musicals, there wasn’t great dancing, just a lot of chorus lines, simple tap numbers, and singers standing and swaying. So for Musical Routine, I’m stuck looking for something that is interesting, leaving the electrical number on a zeppelin from Madam Satan, the performance of Rhapsody in Blue from King of Jazz, and my winner.

I’m stretching the rules for Animated Feature. Le roman de Renard was completed in 1930, but the French soundtrack was damaged and the film wasn’t released until 1937 in Germany with a German soundtrack, but I’ll count it as a 1930 film. It’s the oldest existing sound animated film. It’s a fairy tale, but with a much darker and twisted tone than we are used to in the United States.

 

Alternate Schedule

The Academy had yet to adopt a yearly schedule (they’d do that in ’33), counting films from Aug 1929 to July 1930. If I adopted their date range, my winner would not change (it was the Oscar winner after all) but I’d lose two of my nominations that came out later in ’30. Under these restrictions, my nominees would be:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Animal Crackers
  • Blackmail
  • King of Jazz
  • Raffles

The additions give us Hitchcock’s first talking picture and an early middle-of-the-pack Marx Bros. comedy.

 

 


1931

  • Frankenstein  FSF2

  • Dracula
  • Little Caesar
  • M
  • Svengali

 

This is a year for horror. I’ve 3 horror nominations (arguably 4); that won’t happen again. It was the year Universal Horror was born (or reborn if you want to count the silent films). Frankenstein and Dracula still have a foot in the silent era (Dracula was released in some theaters as a silent film), but they were still a revelation of what talkies could be. They would change Universal studios, cinema, and pop culture. Dracula has beautiful moments (My review here), but Frankenstein is the clear winner with quirky James Whale behind the camera (My review here).

While Universal would rule the genre for the next twenty years, others would dip their toes in. Svengali was Warner Bros shot at horror, and they hit the target, giving John Barrymore a place where his broad acting style would be a boon (My review here). Others have called M a horror film, though I do not. It is a precursor to the Film Noir movement, with complicated directing from Fritz Lang and a layered performance from a young Peter Lorre—it is perhaps more interesting than enjoyable. Little Caesar is an iconic gangster film, one of the foundations of that genre that everyone should see. Edward G. Robinson gives an unforgettable performance that he would reference for the rest of his career. It’s over-the-top, not only when compared to modern film styles, but for 1931. It’s not a subtle film.

The Oscars were a horrible mess this year, with the winner, Cimarron, generally accepted—and correctly so—as one of the worst Best Picture winners ever. It is a plodding western with plenty of racism tossed in for good measure. The rest of the nominees are little better, except for The Front Page, which  comes in 6th for the year from me, but is  eclipsed by its far superior remake, His Girl Friday (1940). Frankenstein, Dracula, and to a lesser extent Little Caesar have become part of our culture, and everyone knows the term “a svengali.” Cimarron, East Lynne, Skippy (actually worse than Cimarron), and Trader Horn (known only due to clips being used to fill out Africa in Tarzan The Ape Man) have faded away.

Category FOSCARs

Director: James Whale {Frankenstein}
Screenplay: Frankenstein
Actor: Bela Lugosi {Dracula}
Actress: Marian Marsh {Svengali}
Supporting Actor: Boris Karloff {Frankenstein}
Supporting Actress: Aline MacMahon {Five Star Final}
Cinematography: M
Art Direction: Frankenstein
FX: Frankenstein
Makeup: Frankenstein (Jack P. Pierce)
Score: Street Scene (Alfred Newman)
Animated Short: Bimbo’s Initiation (Fleischer)
F&SF Feature: Frankenstein

A strong showing for Frankenstein and James Whale. Best actress nearly added to this dominance as my choice for second best actress of the year was Mae Clarke, who co-starred in Frankenstein, but was more impressive in another James Whale picture, Waterloo Bridge. None of my winners were nominated for Oscars (though Supporting Actor/ress and Makeup were not yet Oscar categories). It’s ridiculous that Karloff was never given any attention by the Academy. His performance as The Monster was one of the greatest in film history. Karloff took the top two spots in Supporting Actor, the second one for his performance as a sleazy reporter/fake priest in Five Star Final.

 

Alternate Schedule

Again, the Oscars were not synced up with the year, instead counting films released from August ’30 to July ’31. If I followed this, it would make a major change, taking away the winning film, and greatly weakening the year. This version would give:

  • Dracula  FSF2
  • The Devil to Pay!
  • Little Caesar
  • M
  • Svengali

 


1932

  • Island of Lost Souls  FSF2

  • Grand Hotel  oscar600
  • If I Had a Million
  • Kongo
  • Trouble in Paradise

 

islandoflostsouls1931 in film had been an improvement over 1930, but 1932 sank a bit, with few good movies and fewer great ones.  Island of Lost Souls is powerful and intense (My review), but is also the weakest FOSCAR winner of the decade. Only four of my five nominations receive 4 stars; Grand Hotel is just the best of what was left. It’s is an all star ensemble piece including every big name MGM could jam in. It’s full on elegant escapism that leaves you with nothing when it’s gone, but it is amusing enough while it lasts.

Kongo is a different kind of film than will normally make my top lists. It’s exploitation as art, taking a seedy story and depraved characters and turning everything up to 11. The Production Code would snuff out anything that came close to it for the next 30 years (My review).

Trouble in Paradise is a step up and one of director Ernst Lubitsch’s best. It’s wildly romantic and unlikely, with a gentleman cat burglar, a beautiful pickpocket, and a sublime millionairess. The script is sophisticated fun, and it stars Kay Francis, one of the unfairly forgotten stars of early Hollywood.

The second place trophy goes to If I Had a Million. Who’d have thought there was a time when a studio would pull out all the stops for an anthology film, but this one is filled with the top talent Paramount had under contract: Charles Laughton, George Raft, Charles Ruggles, Jack Oakie, W.C. Fields, and Gary Cooper among others appearing in front of the camera, and Ernst Lubitsch and Joseph L. Mankiewicz behind it. And not only is each story good, but the combination, how each plays against the last, makes them all better. They shift tone from comic to sentimental to tragic, yet fit perfectly, and each is only as long as it needs to be. They are framed by the story of a dying millionaire who decides to give away his fortune to random strangers, with each million he hands out a separate story. My favorite is a brief one of a prostitute finding she can now sleep alone, though the Charles Laughton vignette is probably the finest shot. In several cases, I think this is the best work of those involved, most notably W.C. Fields.

The Academy Award went to Grand Hotel, which, for them, was a pretty good choice from what they had to work with (since there was no way they would honor a horror film; Trouble in Paradise—critically considered one of the greats now—would be eligible in 1933, but they ignored it then as well). They raised the number of nominees to eight, but the remaining seven are three star or less pictures. Five Star Final (from 1931) is the best of them, a stagy melodrama starring Edward G. Robinson with a great supporting performance by Boris Karloff. Next would be Shanghai Express, one of those “exotic” Marlene Dietrich films that nearly becomes something great due to co-star Anna May Wong, but fails due to a terrible lead male actor and character. Then there’s The Smiling Lieutenant (from ’31), the first of two Ernst Lubitsch-directed, Maurice Chevalier-fronted musicals, this one with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins as the other two corners of a triangle where, unusually for a romantic comedy, none of them are villains. Failing even to get three stars is the drab and saccharine Arrowsmith (from ’31) that even Ronald Colman can’t save, forgettable Bad Girl (’31), which has no bad girl in it, and Lubitsch’s second nom, One Hour With You (’31). Those three shouldn’t have been close to an award, but they shine next to The Champ (’31), a film that contains two of the most annoying performances in film history. Jackie Cooper has the excuse that he was a child; Wallace Beery was just a bad actor, yet they gave him a Best Actor Oscar for this abomination.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Ernst Lubitsch {Trouble in Paradise}
Screenplay: Trouble in Paradise
Actor: Walter Huston {Kongo}
Actress: Virginia Bruce {Kongo}
Supporting Actor: Charles Laughton {Island of Lost Souls}
Supporting Actress: Miriam Hopkins {Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde}
Cinematography: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Karl Struss)
Art Direction: The Mask of Fu Manchu
FX: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Makeup: The Mummy (Jack P. Pierce)
Score, Non-Musical: Vstrechnyy (Dmitri Shostakovich)
Song: Isn’t it Romantic? {Love Me Tonight}
Animated Short: Flowers and Trees (Disney) oscar600
F&SF Feature: Island of Lost Souls

 

Alternate Schedule

Oscar eligibility was running from mid-year to mid-year, for the final time. Following their rules gives a much different set of FOSCAR noms. Out go Island of Lost SoulsIf I Had a MillionThe Mummy, and Trouble in Paradise. The additions include À Nous la Liberté from ’31, René Clair’s farcical satire that has some amazing and often copied moments, but has structural weaknesses, and the first and best of the A Star is Born films, What Price Hollywood?, starring Constance Bennett, and directed by George Cukor, who would direct the ’54 version as well. Also added is Tarzan the Ape Man,  which was a significant film for pop culture; it’s this version, rather than the Tarzan of the novel, that’s become iconic. Johnny Weissmuller is an impressive Tarzan, but the film belongs to Maureen O’Sullivan. It’s a fun film, but crudely crafted even for ’32, and would be greatly improved upon by its 1934 sequel, Tarzan and His Mate. While this is a weaker group of nominees, the adjustment also adds Frankenstein, giving the year a stronger winner.

  • Frankenstein  FSF2 [‘31]
  • À Nous la Liberté [‘31]
  • Grand Hotel oscar600
  • Tarzan the Ape Man
  • What Price Hollywood?

 

 


1933

  • King Kong  FSF2

  • Dinner at Eight
  • Duck Soup
  • Flying Down to Rio
  • The Invisible Man

 

kingkong19331933 was a step in the right direction, though the decade would have to wait a year to really shine. Flying Down to Rio is a great film, but there are multiple better Astaire and Rogers films. The Invisible Man is classic Universal Horror, but at least four are superior. Duck Soup is one of the best Marx Brothers films, but can’t compare to the comedies that would come in the next years. And Dinner at Eight barely makes the list. While the nominees as a whole are worthy, though not outstanding, King Kong is a masterpiece that changed cinema.

The Academy shifted to a yearly schedule, but that made for a long season: all of 1933 plus the last 5 months of 1932, with 3 of the 10 noms coming from the earlier year. But the change interested the Academy less than proving the Oscar’s uselessness. King Kong shaped the imagination of a generation but the Academy ignored it as well as The Invisible Man. Its winner, Cavalcade, is a stagey, stilted, overly earnest “prestige” picture that has aged badly (that the theme is “Things were better in the good old days when we could slaughter Africans in peace” doesn’t help). It isn’t as horrible as its reputation would suggest, but it is always a topic in discussions of the biggest Oscar mistakes and that’s fair.

They missed all of my choices which is a bit strange as Dinner At Eight is Oscar-bait. It’s less surprising they skipped the rest, no matter that almost every top film list includes King Kong and Duck Soup.

Outside of that, the nominations were slightly better than in the past. I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (from ’32), Lady for a Day, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Little Women, and A Farewell to Arms (from ’32), are all reasonable films (if not reasonable award nominees), and any one of them should have beaten Cavalcade. Far weaker are Smilin’ Through (from ’32), She Done Him Wrong, and State Fair. The conservative nature of the Oscars is shown with the nom of 42nd Street, one of those “putting on a show” musicals, this one with just one good song (though that song is performed well with a routine that is the film’s saving grace). This sort of Busby Berkeley show was made obsolete by the coming of Astaire & Rogers, whose first pairing is on my list and was ignored by the Academy.

Category FOSCARs

Director: James Whale {The Invisible Man}
Screenplay: The Invisible Man
Actor: Claude Rains {The Invisible Man}
Actress: Jean Harlow {Dinner at Eight}
Supporting Actor: Humphrey Bogart {Three on a Match}
Supporting Actress: Marie Dressler {Dinner at Eight}
Cinematography: The Invisible Man
Art Direction: The Invisible Man
FX: King Kong
Choreographer(s): Dave Gould, Hermes Pan, & Fred Astaire {Flying Down to Rio}
Score, Non-Musical: King Kong (Max Steiner)
Song: Music Makes Me {Flying Down to Rio}
Musical Routine: Carioca {Flying Down to Rio}
Animated Short: The Old Man of the Mountain (Fleischer)
F&SF Feature: King Kong

Bogart slides into the Supporting award with little competition. There was no Oscar supporting categories at the time; John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight is the usual choice now-a-days in a generic drunk performance.

Alternate Schedule

If I followed the Oscars schedule, I would be working with a year and a half, counting all of ’33 as well as the last half of ’32.  I’d add three of the FOSCAR noms from ’32 and drop Dinner at Eight (making this the first year with my max of 7 nominees), but the winner would not change.

  • King Kong FSF2
  • Duck Soup
  • Flying Down to Rio
  • If I Had a Million [‘32]
  • The Invisible Man
  • Island of Lost Souls [‘32]
  • Trouble in Paradise  [‘32]

 

 


1934

  • The Thin Man

  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Death Takes a Holiday  FSF2
  • The Gay Divorcee
  • It Happened One Night  oscar600
  • Tarzan and His Mate

 

thinmanHere the decade begins to deserve its reputation. The FOSCAR winner is an all-time-great in the strongest field so far. The Thin Man is great comedy, great mystery, great character work, and simply brilliant. William Powell had already done the gentleman detective bit in a string of Philo Vance films. The missing component was Myrna Loy and together they were magic. The mystery takes second place to the relationship between the two leads, giving us the greatest film marriage. There would be five sequels, with the first two being nearly as good as the The Thin Man, and Powell and Loy would appear in 14 films together.

Taking second is The Gay Divorcee, the second pairing of Astaire and Rogers and their first as the leads. It solidified their position as the best dancing team in film history. It works so well because surrounding the top notch dance numbers is solid comedy and a fantasy Art-Deco world. It must have been a welcome escape to Depression-era audiences, and it still is.

Death Takes a Holiday is a moving look at life with an ending that must have shocked audiences; it is the ultimate goth film (My review). The Count of Monte Cristo is the first top notch Swashbuckler of the sound era, which has a bit more talk than swash (My critique). Tarzan and His Mate is a surprisingly good (and surprisingly sexy) adventure yarn that works due to Maureen O’Sullivan combination of innocence and sensuality. It’s a major step up from it’s predecessor in story, emotion, and most significantly character. The series went down hill rapidly after this, and was not helped by the Production Code which did it’s best to remove the sensuality apparent here. Finally, It Happened One Night is a fun screwball comedy that tends to get overrated but is still excellent.

The Academy did a passable job, awarding the big prize to It Happened One Night. They also managed to nominate The Thin Man and The Gay Divorcee, although they had raised their number of noms to twelve, so it is hard to image how they could have missed those. While It Happened One Night is a top five film, it can’t stand up next to The Thin Man. Few movies can.

With twelve, they still missed my other nominations, instead giving the nod to a trio of truth-bending bio-pics: the drab The House of Rothschild, the unintentionally comedic The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and the ludicrous Viva Villa (was Wallace Beery ever good?). Additionally they added Flirtation Walk, a silly military-based musical with no memorable songs, if you don’t count the Star-Spangled Banner, and looks ridiculous next to The Gay Divorcee. Here Comes the Navy is a watchable B-movie, Navy-propaganda pic with Jimmy Cagney. Then there is the message film Imitation of Life, about a light-skinned Black woman wanting to pass for White. Its heart is in the right place, though little else is with its subpar acting, a melodramatic script, and a White protagonist. I suppose it gets some points for being far less racist than most films of the time. I admit to enjoying Cleopatra, which comes off as a parody of costume epics. It is effective as a last hurrah for the pre-code era; I’d be willing to nominate it for “Most Hot Babes in Cute Costumes,” but not Best Picture. Clearly hot babes and cute costumes were DeMille’s primary concerns.

“Forgotten film” means more in 1934 then in other years. I’ve never seen The White Parade, and few others have either as this nursing-propaganda film appears to only be available at UCLA. I also have never seen the opera-based One Night of Love, nor have I met anyone who has.

 

Category FOSCARs

Director: W.S. Van Dyke {The Thin Man}
Screenplay: The Thin Man
Actor: William Powell {The Thin Man}
Actress: Myrna Loy {The Thin Man}
Supporting Actor: Edward Everett Horton {The Gay Divorcee}
Supporting Actress: Minna Bombell {The Thin Man}
Cinematography: Cleopatra (Victor Milner) oscar600
Art Direction: The Scarlet Empress
Choreographer(s): Fred Astaire & Hermes Pan {The Gay Divorcee}
Score, Non-Musical: The Lost Patrol (Max Steiner)
Song: The Continental {The Gay Divorcee} oscar600
Musical Routine: Night & Day {The Gay Divorcee}
Animated Short: The Goddess of Spring (Disney)
F&SF Feature: Death Takes a Holiday

Some notice needs to be given to The Scarlet Empress, a film that pulls you in, but the plot is simple and the acting is overly broad. It is the look of the film that is amazing, a fantasy Russia with doors that look as heavy as a car and gargoyles and religious iconography all around. It was a close competition with the other-world of The Gay Divorcee.

Max Steiner, the Father of Film Music, wins his second FOSCAR in a row.

 

 


1935

  • Top Hat

  • The 39 Steps
  • Bride of Frankenstein  FSF2
  • Captain Blood
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

 

tophatBride of Frankenstein is superior to its prequel, which won the FOSCAR in ’31. In most other years, Bride of Frankenstein would be a shoe-in, which shows how very good Top Hat is. It is the perfect dance film and has only one competitor—Singin’ in the Rain—for greatest classic film musical. 1935 was a two picture year (three if you ask other current film critics who would put The 39 Steps with the pair), and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who swapped the order of Top Hat and Bride of Frankenstein. Captain Blood is a solid nominee, a prelude to the Swashbuckling masterpiece that the major cast members and crew would release three years later. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is an old-timey, imperialist adventure film that’s an also-ran.

For the second and last time, the Oscars had 12 Best Picture nominees, allowing them to nominated a number of the FOSCAR noms: Captain Blood, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and Top Hat, along with some decent lesser works, Ruggles of Red GapAlice Adams, Broadway Melody Of 1936, David CopperfieldThe Informer, Les Miserables, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Naughty Marietta. But they failed to name either Bride of Frankenstein (not surprising) or The 39 Steps. The Oscar for Best Picture went to Mutiny on the Bounty (which won no other Oscars—a very rare occurrence), an expensive and competently-made picture; it doesn’t make the FOSCAR top 5, though it might make my top 10.

Category FOSCARs

Director: James Whale {The Bride of Frankenstein}
Screenplay: The Bride of Frankenstein
Actor: Boris Karloff {The Bride of Frankenstein}
Actress: Ginger Rogers {Top Hat}
Supporting Actor: Ernest Thesiger {The Bride of Frankenstein}
Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester {The Bride of Frankenstein}
Art Direction: The Bride of Frankenstein
FX: The Bride of Frankenstein
Makeup: The Bride of Frankenstein (Jack P. Pierce)
Choreographer(s): Fred Astaire & Hermes Pan {Top Hat}
Score, Non-Musical: Captain Blood (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)
Song: Cheek to Cheek {Top Hat}
Dance Routine: Cheek to Cheek {Top Hat}
Animated Feature: The New Gulliver
Animated Short: The Band Concert (Disney)
F&SF Feature: The Bride of Frankenstein

The categories would indicated that Bride of Frankenstein was the best film of the year, but a film is a complicated combination, and you can’t always choose the best by adding up the parts. But as I stated, I can understand anyone who choosing it at the top film.

The art direction from Top Hat is arguably the second best of the decade, but Bride of Frankenstein’s is the best of the decade. The Actor category is also impressive, with Charles Laughton {Mutiny on the Bounty} an easy winner in other years. The Actress category, however, is particularly weak, with Rogers winning only because no one else qualified (though that’s a bit unfair to Rogers, as dancing is part of an acting performance and her dancing was wonderful).

What the hell did they have against Cheek to Cheek? The Oscar for Best Song went to Lullaby of Broadway, which isn’t a bad choice, but definitely a second place entry compared to the also-nominated Cheek to Cheek. Weird enough for it to lose as best song, but not even being nominated for Dance Direction (a category the director’s lobbied to have dropped as they didn’t like it using the word “direction”) points to weird politics. It is remembered as one of the absolute best dance routines in cinema history. And there were thirteen nominees! The winner was I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Fooling from Broadway Melody of 1936, which in a normal year would have been fine. But not in 1935. If not Cheek to Cheek, then one of the two dances nominated from Top Hat (Top Hat, White Tie, and TailsPiccolino) should have taken it.

With Best Score I can only shake my head. Korngold is the greatest of all film composers and this was the first full symphonic score for a film and it changed everything. It is a magnificent score, the first of many for Korngold. Apparently even Academy members were confused by the lack of a nomination and gave it enough write-in votes on the final ballot for it to come in second (which retroactively has been labeled a nomination). If not Korngold’s, then the Oscar should have gone to Franz Waxman’s score for Bride of Frankenstein, but it wasn’t nominated either. Max Steiner’s winning score for The Informer is nice enough, but is feeble by comparison.

The Animated Feature winner is the lone entry for the year and comes from the Soviet Union. It’s stop-motion mixed with live-action and involved 3000 puppets, some with 300 heads. It’s a take on Gulliver’s Travels, with a Soviet political tweak.

 


1936

  • My Man Godfrey

  • After the Thin Man
  • Libeled Lady
  • The Petrified Forest
  • Swing Time

 

mymangodfrey1936 was a great year—perhaps the greatest—for screwball comedies and William Powell dominated the year (starring in the screwball comedies My Man Godfrey and Libeled Lady, the hybrid semi-screwball mysteries After the Thin Man and the unnominated The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, as well as the non-screwball The Great Ziegfeld). He was the ultimate cinematic suave gentleman, who could also play tough. And he pulled out all the stops for My Man Godfrey, which mixes romance and humor with commentary on the economic state of the nation, creating one of the great comedies. The hobos of the dump, those who the great depression had stripped bare, live in quiet dignity while the rich are childish, frivolous, and vulgar. But they aren’t bad; they’ve just lost their way. And Godfrey is the ribbon between them, a rich man, fallen due to his own foolishness, and now acting as a butler. He can bring a little hope to the fallen men, and a bit of perspective to the wealthy, and can do it all with humor. No wonder depression-era audiences loved it. It has a strong social message, but it’s a gentle comedy, making everyone likable under the right circumstances, and everyone worth following.

Both After the Thin Man and Libeled Lady costarred Myrna Loy, a partnership that produced gem after gem. After the Thin Man is the second in the six film series, and is nearly as good as the first, with Powell and Loy once again as the perfect married couple and the perfect detectives. Libeled Lady is four-way romantic comedy, with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow the extra couple. Loy is the rich girl, suing Tracy’s newspaper for defamation and Powell is the trouble shooter hired to seduce Loy. It contains what is probably my favorite performances by both Harlow and Tracy, yet the film belongs to Powell and Loy.

Swing Time is yet another screwball comedy, this time mixed with music. It was Astaire & Rogers’s 6th collaboration, and their forth musical to get a FOSCAR nod. It won’t be the last. This one lacks the magical Art Deco design of some of their other films, and the humor doesn’t always land, but it contains several of their finest dance numbers.

The single non-comedy, The Petrified Forest, was the first great Bogart film, though the lead is Leslie Howard; Howard wouldn’t take the part unless Bogart was cast, and this gave Bogart his big break. It’s a mix of philosophy and crime drama as a group of people, including a poet (Howard), a waitress (Bette Davis) and a rich couple are trapped in a last chance diner by the ruthless gangster Duke Mantee (Bogart). It’s a thoughtful drama, with a little romantic spice and even more from danger; Bogart is chilling.

The Academy dropped down to 10 Best Picture nominations, and managed to miss most of the best films, including My Man Godfrey—a bizarre oversight at the time (it received 4 acting nominations as well as ones for directing and writing) and one that is incomprehensible now, at least from an artistic standpoint. It seems likely it was due to the power of MGM, which pushed for its films, and as it had two films with William Powell, they were going to make sure that the big noms went to their Powell flick instead of Universal’s. That also explains the only nomination the Academy got right, Libeled Lady, as it was MGM. A Tale of Two Cities was also nominated, though it came out in 1935, and it’s a reasonable nominee—perhaps not great, but good, with an excellent performance by Ronald Colman; with a better director it would have made my list.

The other eight nominees were taken from the weak and the passable. The weak include the non-adventurous adventure film, Anthony Adverse (it took special skill to create such a slow-moving, boring movie of self-discovery) and the overwrought biopic The Story Of Louis Pasteur, in which science is abandoned and truth is mislaid, presenting Pasteur as a lone-wolf fighting primarily against being insulted. They also gave a nom to the poorly planned Romeo And Juliet, with forty and fifty-year-olds prancing about as teenagers. (My review of several versions) And there’s San Francisco, an appallingly-acted and ridiculous melodrama that has tough-guy Clark Gable chasing opera singer Jeanette MacDonald while childhood friend Father Tim Mullin gets in the way. What was it about ‘30s movies and pairs of childhood friends with one becoming a crook and one becoming a priest? (My review) Three Smart Girls is like a weak version of The Parent Trap crossed with a weaker The Gay Divorcee, in which the titular daughters attempt to get their long divorced parents together, and cut a gold-digger out by hiring a Russian to fake being an aristocrat, but they mix him up with a real aristocrat. I suppose someone could find amusement in the farcical goings-on, though I was overpowered by my annoyance with the three girls. This was the debut of 14-year-old Deanna Durbin, who became known for her operatic voice. It’s not a musical, yet she (and she alone) bursts into song multiple times, which doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the picture.

Better are Dodsworth and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Dodsworth is rather slow, and the constant discussions of what it means to be an American or Midwesterner vs a European overly simplify and stereotype the world. If you can drum up sympathy for an aging rich guy who’s not sure what to do with himself, it’s reasonably engaging. The Capricorn (i.e. a populist, cliché-ridden flick directed by Frank Capra) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a schmaltzy sermon on the moral superiority of small town life, with Longfellow Deeds both knowing everything and nothing simultaneously. How amusing you find it is determined by your patience for Gary Cooper in full “aw shucks” mode.

The winner was The Great Ziegfeld, another MGM film with William Powell and it even has a minor role for Myrna Loy. It’s a faux-biopic, sanitized for your protection by a protective widow and the Production Code. It has little plot, can’t decide if it is a biopic or a variety show, and overstays its welcome by over an hour (it’s 3 hours!). Powell brings a charm to the movie it doesn’t deserve, and the flamboyant musical numbers are amusing if you are in the proper mood. Common wisdom holds its win as a travesty, though The Great Ziegfeld isn’t nearly as bad as other winners, such as Cimarron and Cavalcade. It’s just that with three other better films starring Powell (and two of those with Loy) in the same year, it status as the wrong winner stands out.

Category FOSCARs

Director: James Whale {Show Boat}
Screenplay: The Petrified Forest
Actor: Ronald Colman {A Tale of Two Cities}
Actress: Myrna Loy {After the Thin Man}
Supporting Actor: Humphrey Bogart {The Petrified Forest}
Supporting Actress: Gail Patrick {My Man Godfrey}
Cinematography: The Garden of Allah
Art Direction: Things to Come
FX: San Francisco
Choreographer(s): Fred Astaire & Hermes Pan {Follow the Fleet}
Score, Non-Musical: The Garden of Allah (Max Steiner)
Song: The Way You Look Tonight {Swing Time} oscar600
Musical Routine: Let’s Face the Music and Dance {Follow the Fleet}
Animated Short: I Love to Singa (Tex Avery, Merrie Melodies)
F&SF Feature: The Devil-Doll

The awards are spread out this year. Whale wins his 4th directing FOSCAR in six years, but his star was falling, and he’d be out of the business in 1941. Max Steiner is back on top with the score for The Garden of Allah (score and cinematography are the only reasons to watch it). It’s close between that and Korngold’s Anthony Adverse (which won the Oscar), as well as Chaplin’s Modern Times—all quite good, but none would do better than 4th if placed in 1935. While I give the Best Actor award to Colman for a single role, if I had an Actor-of-The-Year award, it would go to William Powell.

There is no F&SF film in ‘36 that qualifies as great. The best is The Devil-Doll (My review).


1937

  • The Prisoner of Zenda

  • Easy Living
  • Shall We Dance
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • Topper  FSF2

 

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those films you know even if you haven’t seen it. It has seeped into every part of our culture. It is hard to find a sitcom that hasn’t done its own version of the identical cousin or identical royalty. It gave Ronald Colman his perfect role, though Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stole all of his scenes as the most charming of film villains. (My review)

Topper marks the rise of Cary Grant. He was a bankable actor before, but from this point, he would be THE Hollywood leading man for the next 25 years. He and Constance Bennett play a pair of ghosts doing a questionable job of performing a good deed. The real star is Roland Young as Cosmo Topper (though he was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor), a banker who they try to loosen up. It’s Depression-era escapist fun, very frothy and quick, and filled with wit. It’s success lead to a steam of supernatural wacky comedies (that became less serious with the coming of WWII) that tie in with the subgenre known as Film Blanc.

Shall We Dance is the 5th and final nom for Astaire & Rogers as a team, though they’d still make three more films together. It’s a return to the fantasy feel of Top Hat. Everyone is ridiculously wealthy, dress impeccably, and live in an Art Deco paradise where marble is far more common than cement. The music was all new, written by George and Ira Gershwin specifically for the film, and includes both some of their best songs and wonderful background music, much of which hasn’t been released in any other form.

The importance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cannot be overstated. It was the first Hollywood animated feature and first cel-animated feature, the biggest hit of 1937, the highest grossing animated film of all time, and changed how the world saw animation. It’s also beautiful.

While everyone knows Snow White, Easy Living is an obscure FOSCAR nom; it’s a nearly forgotten screwball comedy written by Preston Sturges and starring Ray Milland and Jean Arthur. While, like Topper, it was made as fun in the time of the Depression, this one takes it on more directly, with money and investment being the background for everything, and a mini-stock market crash is a major plot point.

With so many great FOSCAR-nominated films, the Academy once again failed to nominate any for Best Picture. While the lack of The Prisoner of Zenda is the worst offense, the strangest when looking back from 2017 is Snow White, but in 1937 the Academy was not used to animated features, and avoided thinking about it by giving it a “special” Oscar (its only normal nom was for score, not even song).

Some of the Academy’s ten nominations were not embarrassments and a few were even good: A Star is Born is my second favorite of the perhaps too-many versions of this story, and The Awful Truth is the second big Cary Grant comedy of the year, and makes my top 10. Dead End shocked me (another top 10 film) as I knew the teen actors as the Stoogies-like Bowery Boys, so didn’t expect a film with such teeth. It’s a day in the slums, and while the leads are OK, it’s stolen by the supporting cast, including Bogart as a bitter gangster and Claire Trevor as a prostitute.

Still not an embarrassment, but scratching to be considered decent is Lost Horizon, which has a nice fantasy idea and some good photography, but it’s a bore, with Ronald Colman putting in a much weaker performance than in Zenda. Poorer still is Stage Door, one of those melodrama’s about stage/film production that Hollywood loves, this one with a boarding house filled with actresses all dreaming of their big break. I can’t warm to it, but it’s made well enough for what it is, and at least it is better than 100 Men and a Girl, the second Deanna Durbin vehicle nominated in two years. Yes, she’s cute and sings well, but the film is sentimental sleaze, and she’s given nothing to distract us from her dubious acting talent. The minor embarrassment continue with In Old Chicago, a fabricated account of the Great Chicago Fire that’s another of those flicks where one childhood friend/brother is good while the other goes bad. Tyrone Power is miscast, as he often was.

But all of those look good next to Captains Courageous, which is an hour and a half of Spencer Tracy with a horrible accent putting in a weak performance chatting with Freddie Bartholomew with an annoying character putting in a dreadful performance. I hate watching this film, and really had to force myself to do so for this project. I won’t again. The Good Earth is an embarrassment of a different sort. An overlong epic, parts of it are quite good, with some fantastic scenes of the farmers fighting rain and locusts. But there’s no way around the ethnic stereotypes, and even that fades away next to the yellow-face. I can almost handle Paul Muni futilely pretending to be Chinese, but Luise Rainer is a nightmare out of a racist handbook. The makeup is gruesome.

The statue went to yet another fake-bio pic, The Life of Emile Zola. At least the film has the grace to start out by saying it is all a pack of lies, which is the case in multiple ways, though removing the anti-Semitism from the real world case is the worst offense. As it’s supposed to be about real people, it would be nice if a single character spoke like a human. It’s an engaging pack of lies, if oddly structured, but it looks foolish when put next to Topper, much less Zenda.

 

Category FOSCARS:

Director: Jean Renoir {The Grand Illusion}
Screenplay: The Prisoner of Zenda
Actor: Ronald Colman {The Prisoner of Zenda}
Actress: Janet Gaynor {A Star is Born}
Supporting Actor: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. {The Prisoner of Zenda}
Supporting Actress: Olivia de Havilland {It’s Love I’m After}
Cinematography: The Grand Illusion
Art Direction: Shall We Dance
FX: The Hurricane
Choreographer(s): Hermes Pan & Fred Astaire {Shall We Dance}
Score, Non-Musical: The Prisoner of Zenda (Alfred Newman)
Song: They Can’t Take That Away From Me {Shall We Dance}
Musical Number: They All Laughed {Shall We Dance}
Animated Short: The Old Mill (Disney) oscar600
Animated Feature: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
F&SF Feature: Topper

Sweet Leilani? What the hell? They gave the Oscar to a silly little song from Waikiki Wedding while They Can’t Take That Away From Me is one of the greatest works from the American Songbook. It is likely there was a reaction away from the obvious choice because two of the previous four winners had been from an Astaire/Rogers movie. Shall We Dance would also be the clear winner if I included musicals in my best score award as it includes many unique pieces beyond those sung.

And continuing the ridiculousness, the Best Actress Oscar went to Luise Rainer in yellow-face.

Topper takes Best Fantasy & Science Fiction feature in a time where Hollywood had nearly given up the fantastic genres. The Production Code had shut down horror and science fiction without mad doctors was still a rarity.

 


1938

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood

  • Bringing Up Baby
  • The Dawn Patrol
  • Holiday
  • If I Were King
  • Pygmalion

Four actors dominated the year: Errol Flynn who starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Dawn Patrol, Basil Rathbone who was a supporting actor in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dawn Patrol, and If I Were King, and the pair of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn who starred in both Bringing Up Baby and Holiday.

The winning film is the startlingly beautiful The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is the adventure film perfected; in that genre, it has never been equaled. Starting with the major cast and crew from 1935’s Captain Blood, it added beautiful Technicolor, crisp editing, a focused story, and humor. Erich Wolfgang Korngold created his finest score and arguably the finest film score of all time (My critique).

Robin Hood easily wins against what normally would be impressive competition. I elsewhere ranked The Dawn Patrol as the 5th greatest war film ever made. The 1930 version received a FOSCAR nomination, but it made it due to there being so little competition; this version earns it. The combat scenes are both exciting and tense, but it’s the interpersonal drama that elevates the picture. We get the heroics expected in such films, but along with that, we are given an image of the pointlessness of war. A great film, but it can’t stand up to Robin Hood. Nor can Bringing Up Baby, which is a top screwball comedy and about as crazy as the subgenre gets, with Grant in drag and Hepburn walking a leopard on a leash. And it’s a Howard Hawks film, with the rapid fire and overlapping dialog that suggests. Holiday is a more restrained comedy with a more powerful message on life. It too is a remake of a 1930 film (based on a 1928 play by Philip Barry, who’d also write The Philadelphia Story in 1939, the film version of which would be a greater success for Grant and Hepburn in 1940). As it tackles class and money as they relate to how one lives one’s life, it was more topical in 1930, but Grant and Hepburn outshine Robert Ames and Ann Harding. Edward Everett Horton plays the same role in both versions and was the standout in the first. Here the rest of the cast has caught up (My review). If I Were King is a witty costume dramedy that is really a series of brilliant conversations between Ronald Colman (as a roguish poet) and Rathbone (as king).

Pygmalion takes second place for the year. If you are going to adapt it to the screen, having George Bernard Shaw write the screenplay from his original is the way to go. Every word is wonderful. Unfortunately he keeps the ending that was forced upon him (that Eliza comes back to Henry), but I’m willing to ignore that final minute when the rest is so good. Leslie Howard owns the part of Professor Higgins in a way Rex Harrison couldn’t—it’s the perfect role for him, and he injects that proper amount of disdain and intelligence, ego and pettiness. It was Howard’s finest performance, making his awful work in the following year’s Gone With the Wind all the more notable. Wendy Hiller matched him as the perfect Eliza, even topping Julie Andrews and leaving Audrey Hepburn in the dust. She’s beautiful, and can switch from elegant to guttersnipe effortlessly.

The Academy nominated The Adventures of Robin Hood and Pygmalion for Best Picture, but it skipped the other FOSCAR pics. With ten nominees, how did they miss Bringing Up Baby and The Dawn Patrol? And for what? The saccharine and silly Boys Town with Spencer Tracy playing annoyingly pious? Or Test Pilot? It’s a passable film I suppose, but that’s it. It again stars Tracy doing nothing compelling, partnered with Clark Gable—who rarely did anything compelling—obscenely overacting. Then there was The Citadel which is so very, very sincere I thought I’d choke. It wants you to know that greed is bad in doctors! Oh no! It’s made quite well. On whatever objective scale I can cling to, I feel I can call this a good film, just a good film that I wanted to shut down halfway through and never watch again. They also nominated Four Daughters, which is a movie that could only be made under the studio system. It’s a small picture of a professor of music with four musically skilled daughters and the problems that their romances create. It’s a very slight drama that takes itself seriously without having anything to say (I’d expect this kind of material to be made into a comedy or musical), but it’s made well because the studio could shuffle real talent into third rate projects like this. In particular, they assigned both Michael Curtiz and Claude Rains to it—a spectacular drop for both after Robin Hood. And why did the Academy have such a fondness for pictures with Tyrone Power miscast? Alexander’s Ragtime Band had the same director, trio of stars (Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche), and cinematographer as the previous year’s slightly embarrassing nominee, In Old Chicago. It’s a musical, with Power who doesn’t sing or dance or give any indication of being able to play an instrument. It’s a minor improvement over In Old Chicago, partly due to a young Ethel Merman belting out some tunes, but is mildly amusing at best, and I can’t imagine how this got a place over Bringing Up Baby. Which leads us to the 8th nominee, Jezebel. Bette Davis plays the Bette Davis character, but in a red ball gown. She’s a nasty, greedy, rich, southern bell who is peeved that she can’t get Henry Fonda in the days when Fonda wasn’t being given any good roles. This is the kind of film that made Davis a star, but it’s unpleasant to watch, and lacks human characters and meaning. It’s on my list of films not to watch again.

In the year of The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Oscar for best picture went to Frank Capra’s mutilation of the wonderful Kaufman & Hart play, You Can’t Take it With You. Because he’s Capra, he can’t stick with the comedy, which held the meaning just fine, and had to add in speeches given straight to the audience. Lionel Barrymore was the wrong choice for the lead (and yes, he’s the lead, not Jimmy Stewart), which is clear to anyone who knows the play, but wasn’t clear to Capra or the Academy. Seek out the 1979 version—apparently it is available on Amazon Video streaming—to see how the play should be done as a film.

There’s one more Oscar nominee that I mention last because it’s unusual: Jean Renoir’s anti-war Le Grande Illusion. It was released in ’37, but the Oscars work off of when a film is shown in LA. Not many foreign language films get nominated. If you went to film school, this is one you’d study. It’s a very good film. but I didn’t find it had the power that other’s had claimed. It may be a matter of time. In 1937 it was certainly relevant.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Michael Curtiz {The Adventures of Robin Hood}
Screenplay: Pygmalion oscar600
Actor: Errol Flynn {The Adventures of Robin Hood}
Actress: Wendy Hiller {Pygmalion}
Supporting Actor: Basil Rathbone {The Adventures of Robin Hood}
Supporting Actress: Dame May Whitty {The Lady Vanishes}
Cinematography: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Art Direction: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Carl J. Weyl) oscar600
Choreographer(s): Hermes Pan & Fred Astaire {Carefree}
Score, Non-Musical: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Erich Wolfgang Korngold) oscar600
Song: Change Partners {Carefree}
Musical Routine: Hypnotic Dance {Carefree}
Animated Short: Brave Little Tailor (Disney)
F&SF Feature: none

The Adventures of Robin Hood picked up the Oscars for art direction, editing, and score; it should have been nominated for directing, cinematography, and all four acting categories. Curtiz pushed himself out, somehow being nominated instead for Four Daughters as well as for Angels with Dirty Faces—losing out to Frank Capra.

Howard puts in the finest performance of his career in Pygmalion, but Flynn manages to do something no one else could, appearing charming, dangerous, seductive, and masculine in tights, and generally gets no respect for it. Howard is a very strong second place. The Academy at least nominated Howard, though not Flynn, but they gave the Oscar to Spencer Tracy for the second time in a row for an unworthy performance.

Pan & Astaire owned the choreographer award in the 1930s, winning 6 times. Carefree was one of their weaker efforts, and still no one could touch them.

1938 was in the almost three year horror drought, caused by Joseph Breen of the Production Code lying about British censorship and manipulating the studios. Science Fiction was equally in a coma, and there was almost nothing that could be called fantasy, so 1938 has no Best F&SF film.

 


1939

  • The Wizard of Oz FSF2

  • Another Thin Man
  • Beau Geste
  • Ninotchka
  • Son of Frankenstein
  • Stagecoach

 

wizardofoz1939 is often described as the greatest year in film ever. It’s not. It can’t match the years on either side of it. What it does have is depth. Besides my six nominations, there are multiple films that reach my requirement for a nominee: The Lady Vanishes, The Women, Gunga Din, The Rules of the Game, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Tower of London, and Gulliver’s Travels. But the average of the top films is less than in the years around it. And it isn’t depth that people talk about anyway. Sure, they will correctly mention Stagecoach or incorrectly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it all comes down to two films: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. As this was getting too long, I’ve moved my full discussion of Gone With the Wind to HERE, saying only that it is neither a top film of ’39 nor a great film. The Wizard of Oz is worthy, but in watching it, I find it to be fine. If I was only considering my preference, it would have lost to the enchanting Ninotchka (Garbo laughs, and so do I). But “Best” means more than favorite and I cannot ignore its beautiful colors, its focus, its memorable moments, or Judy Garland at her finest. But taking those into account, I still place The Wizard of Oz in the lower third of ‘30s FOSCAR winners. A lot of that is due to it never escaping being a children’s picture. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a family film, with plenty for young kids, but additional joys that become apparent when you are older. For The Wizard of Oz, all of its charms are fully apparent to a six-year-old. This isn’t meant to pull it from its perch as it is a great film, just to dial down some of the rhetoric.

As for my personal favorite, Ninotchka, Greta Garbo plays a communist agent sent to deal with a legal battle involving a White Russian Duchess’s jewels and a Western playboy.  She wasn’t a comic actress and was afraid of the part, but she turned out to be far better here than in all those dramas and romances. She never completely adapted to sound—until Ninotchka. She’s naturally funny, though it would be hard not to be with the smart and hilarious screenplay, written in part by the greatest screen writer of all time, Billy Wilder. Ernst Lubitsch supplies his “Lubitsch touch,” creating a charming world of romance in a never-never land more graceful than reality, while allowing the satiric bite to come through. Ninotchka rips apart communism, capitalism, Russia, and the West, while being sympathetic toward all of them.

Another Thin Man continues what might be the best film series of all time, with Nick and Nora Charles stuck in the middle of a murder connected to Nora’s wealth. It’s again clever, with great performances from the leads, although it isn’t innovative. It’s the last from the series to get a FOSCAR nom, and the end of William Powell’s reign as the best comic actor. Beau Geste is a stirring adventure yarn of the foreign legion, where three brothers, either responsible for or covering for a crime, separately run off to Africa. It’s theme is loyalty and it’s big on action. It contains Gary Cooper’s best performance, and good ones from Ray Milland and Robert Preston. While director William Wellman advanced the art of filmmaking more with 1927’s Wings, this is his finest picture; following the silent version closely, Beau Geste doesn’t invent anything new, but perfects a type of film that was fading away. Son of Frankenstein brought back horror films after a three year absence. The German expressionist sets are amazing, as is Bela Lugosi’s performance. (My ReviewGulliver’s Travels is an often forgotten animated children’s musical that landed in the shadow of a much bigger children’s musical.

As for the Academy, they did manage to nominate Ninotchka, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz, though handing them statues only in Supporting Role and three music categories.

Their seven other nominations included the Capracorn Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, which shovels it message all over the audience as Jimmy Stewart finds new levels of overacting, Wuthering Heights, which has a fantastic, spooky opening, and nearly as good an ending, but unfortunately has all that middle silliness, Goodby Mr. Chips, which is…fine, and the solid Of Mice and Men (which is good, but like the novel before it, isn’t top tier). Then things got worse with pair of weepies: the Bette Davis vehicle Dark Victory and Love Affair, which was unnecessarily remade as An Affair to Remember. And while I haven’t gone into detail on most of these, I’ve given them more thought that the Academy did. For them, this was a one picture year; it was all about Gone With the Wind. It won best picture, along with a pile of other statues, some in the categories that defined why the film is so bad: editing and screenplay.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Victor Fleming {The Wizard of Oz}
Screenplay: Ninotchka (Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch)
Actor: William Powell {Another Thin Man}
Actress: Judy Garland {The Wizard of Oz}
Supporting Actor: Bela Lugosi {Son of Frankenstein}
Supporting Actress  Margaret Hamilton {The Wizard of Oz}
Cinematography: The Wizard of Oz
Art Direction: The Wizard of Oz
FX: The Wizard of Oz
Makeup: Son of Frankenstein (Jack P. Pierce)
Choreographer(s): Fred Astaire & Hermes Pan {The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle}
Score, Non-Musical: The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)
Song: Over the Rainbow {The Wizard of Oz} oscar600
Musical Routine: Siboney {Another Thin Man}
Animated Feature: Gulliver’s Travels
Animated Short: Peace on Earth (MGM)
F&SF Feature: The Wizard of Oz

Gone With the Wind is a garbage fire, but it was an amazingly produced garbage fire. If I gave a Best Producer FOSCAR, David O. Selznick would win easily. And it’s that production quality which allows it within fighting range of multiple FOSCARS, including Cinematography (its closest to a win), FX, Art Direction, Score. and Actress. Vivien Leigh made her silly lines sound less ridiculous, but Best Actress includes many things, and if the character sings, then her singing counts, which gives it to Judy Garland.

The Best Actor category is like the year—there’s a lot of breadth, with many very good performances of near equal quality, but none as good as the top ones in the surrounding years. As mentioned, Gary Cooper was at his best this year, but then he often wasn’t very good, and both of those statements were doubly true for John Wayne, whose performance in Stagecoach had a lot more to do with director John Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon (who earned his Oscar nomination). If I gave the award for the year’s work, the winner would be Basil Rathbone, who put in quality lead performances in Son of Frankenstein and The Tower of London besides his first two appearances as Sherlock Holmes. And Melvyn Douglas was charming in Ninotchka. I give it to Powell by a hair

Art Direction is a tight award, with the expressionism of Son of Frankenstein licking at Oz’s heels.

 

 


The Top 10 Films of the 1930s

  1. The Adventures of Robin Hood
  2. Top Hat
  3. The Thin Man
  4. Bride of Frankenstein
  5. King Kong
  6. My Man Godfrey
  7. The Wizard of Oz
  8. Ninotchka
  9. Frankenstein
  10. All Quiet on the Western Front