Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1930/31

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

What can be said about the films released during the qualifying period of the 4th Academy Awards? Really, what can be said; I don’t have anything. This and the 2nd ceremony’s fare are largely regarded as two of the weakest Best Picture fields in Academy history, and it’s easy to see why. That said, that doesn’t mean that this period in film didn’t have some winners and some classics in it, as I’ll get to later, so really this one is a lot more the fault of the Academy for not getting the nominations right. Still, the big budget epic Cimarron ended up with the prize, becoming the first western to win it, as well as being the only Best Picture winner in history to have lost money in its initial run at the box office. Make of that what you will.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Trader Horn

-The biggest decision I had going into this field was which of the bottom two films would end up in last place for me. Ultimately, I went with Trader Horn, simply because I got something out of all the other nominees, which is more than I can say for this film. I’m positive that it was because it was the first film shot on location in Africa that netted this nomination, and for no other reason, because the film, like Chang, had nothing else going for it. Sorry, MGM; you can do better.


Skippy ends up as second-worst, and it’s mostly just because of how poor a film it is. Director Norman Taurog would win Best Director for this, and I really don’t see why; this film tries to hold itself up almost entirely on the charms of the child actors, and in doing so, ends up shooting off its own leg; the kids in this can’t act worth a damn, save Jackie Cooper, and even then, Taurog had to convince Cooper he was going to shoot Cooper’s own dog to get him to cry on cue, which says a lot about him and this film as a whole.


-The eventual winner of this prize, Cimarron had it all; a massive budget, an epic scope, and a marketing push that sells itself. Unfortunately, the massive budget ended up having the studio lose money on this, the epic scope ended up only lasting for the opening scene, and while the film did get the most nominations and awards of the ceremony, history has cemented its reputation as one of the worst films to win the award. Frankly, it should be flattered it even managed to get this high on my roster.

The Front Page

The Front Page is a film that works, and it works well, so why is it just shy of the top slot? Because the film was ultimately remade a decade later, and the remake ended up being much better in every regard, making this film an unfortunate write-off. Now, that’s not fair to this film, which has a heck of an editing and writing style that largely makes the film work as well as it does. But, it’s the truth; the remake is better than this in just about every way that matters. I guess it seems that hindsight really is closer to 20/20 than I might’ve wanted.

East Lynne

-Now imagine my surprise when, as I ranked these five films as I was watching them, East Lynne ended up in the top slot. This is a film that exists as a single copy in the UCLA Film Archives, has no restoration to it, and received no other nominations at the ceremony… it is very nearly a lost film, and it ended up first. What?! Still, looking back on it, I can say that, in my rankings, I enjoyed East Lynne more than any other film in the nominations list, and the film as a whole works better than any of the others, with the possible exception of The Front Page. If that means that, on my ballot, East Lynne ends up with the prize, then so be it.

-What Should Have Won/What I Would’ve Picked-

Of course, had the Academy nominated a better slew of films in the first place, such a mental conversation wouldn’t have needed to be had. Possibly the herald of the end of the silent age proper, Chaplin’s City Lights may have been up there with the others had the Academy not cemented itself firmly in the sound age by this time. I doubt Frankenstein or Dracula would’ve come close to this category, but they warrant a mention at least. The Big Trail, John Wayne’s first starring role, might’ve warranted a nom, with it’s epic 70mm grandeur that wouldn’t be duplicated for years to come, but it didn’t. Hell’s Angels may have gotten one as well, had Wings not beaten it to the punch a few years before. I could also see arguments made for Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, even though I don’t personally think the latter would see a nomination through. But all of them shrivel in inadequacy at the release of Fritz Lang’s M, which if it indeed had an American release during the qualifying period, would’ve gotten my vote for Best Picture of the Year, and should’ve gotten the prize as well.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

I’m disappointed in you, Oscar. You had an exceptional film win the prize last year, and this was the best you could follow it up with?

Feh. Don’t make me roll up the newspaper again.


2 thoughts on “Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1930/31

  1. The fact that none of these movies made the List says it all.
    In my humble opinion M is so good it would have been a nominee any year of the thirties. It is a standout movie.

  2. Now that you mention it, The Big Trail has everything that Cimarron lacks in terms of epic shots of the settlement of the West. Not that it’s a great movie but infinitely better than Cimarron. I like Hell’s Angels a lot as well.

    I’m with Thomas on M. City Lights is also a masterpiece IMHO. Was going to trot out some other favorites but its so hard to tell where films should fall before the Oscar year and the calendar year converged. I have The Blue Angel high on my list for 1930 and Renoir’s La Chienne in third place following M and City Lights for 1931.

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