Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1934

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

I don’t even think I need to write anything for this section; anyone who’s anyone who knows about the Oscars knows about this year, the first ever year a film would win what would become known as the Big Five Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. That film, It Happened One Night, was not seen as the front-runner going into the ceremony; really, there wasn’t a front-runner, and many did not know who or what would take home several of the major awards. Some were still aghast that Bette Davis hadn’t even received a nomination for Best Actress for Of Human Bondage, and the backlash from this prompted the Academy to allow write-in candidates during voting for the first time ever. This year also saw three new categories added to the awards; Editing, and the two musical categories for Original Song and Score. Shirley Temple would also win the first ever Juvenile Award given, making her the youngest recipient of an Academy Award in history.

-Ranking the Nominees-

The Gay Divorcee

-I can’t speak for nearly-lost nominee The White Parade, which exists only as a single copy at UCLA and is thus outside my reach, but I can speak for The Gay Divorcee; this should not have been nominated for this award. Like, at all. I understand the appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing, especially for audiences in 1934, but it’s one that has never jived with me; add to that the hilariously out-of-line actions of Astaire’s character in this, which Rogers’ character falls for simply because it was required of her as part of the film, as opposed to calling the police on him several times like a normal person would do, and you have a film that fights so hard to be charming without understanding that the decisions it makes are the exact opposite of that. As I’ve said for poor nominees in the past, get this outta here.

Cleopatra

-I was also surprised to find that Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra wasn’t as good as I was expecting it to be either. Not that I was expecting it to be all that amazing, but I expected to get through it easily enough, mostly thanks to the film’s visual splendor, but this turned out to be almost as difficult a watch as the previous nominee, and the visual splendor wasn’t even utilized properly; it was excessive for the sake of being excessive, and that was all. As much as it was nice to see Claudette Colbert in three Oscar nominees for Best Picture, the category could’ve lost this one and not been any the worse for it.

Flirtation Walk

-I ended up on the other side of Flirtation Walk frankly a little bemused that, one: I had watched it right after another nominee with similar sensibilities toward its plot, and two: that the film, despite its cast and crew, failed in almost every regard that a film can fail. I don’t mean to say that Flirtation Walk was bad, because it wasn’t; what it was was nothing, just a whole bunch of nothingness for an hour-and-a-half. It wasn’t worth the time put into it to watch it, which is one of the major sins a film can make, and while I didn’t hate it, at the other end I didn’t feel anything about it; depending on your viewpoint, that could be good or bad. Either way, I certainly can’t recommend you watch it, and it certainly isn’t getting my vote for this award.

One Night of Love

One Night of Love ended up failing in similar ways, but largely ended up not working for one different reason: it’s cheesy. It starts off well enough, with Grace Moore well cast as an opera singer looking to make it big, but then when we get into the romance angle of the film, it sinks like a weight, opting for melodrama and stupid/petty decision-making by the characters. This film had the most nominations going into the ceremony, which considering the supposed innovations with sound recording it pioneered I could maybe see, but this is one nomination it probably shouldn’t have gotten.

Here Comes the Navy

-I’m putting Here Comes the Navy above the previous film for one reason: I like James Cagney. Otherwise, this film does just about as much things wrong as One Night of Love did, but in totally separate categories; where One Night of Love was sappy and overly concerned with image, Here Comes the Navy fails in being too of-the-era with its hokey and caricatured lines of dialogue, as well as getting James Cagney to do too much of what he was at the time known for. Either way, the slightly impressive qualities of how the real-life Navy’s resources were used in the making of this film does little to overcome the fact that the film that is made from it is mostly just about two guys being assholes to each other for supposed entertainment value. That may have been the cup of tea for 1930s audiences, but it wasn’t for me.

Viva Villa!

-I’m actually a little surprised Viva Villa ended up as high as it did. Now granted, with the missing nominee The White Parade, Viva Villa’s spot ends up being exactly in the middle, but after I had watched the film I was expecting it to end up in the lower half of the rankings. There’s some things that definitely don’t work here, but there are other things that do. I guess this middle-of-the-road mentality I seem to have when I try and assess this film’s merits ends up working out quite well with its placement in this list; it’s okay, and not any more or less than that, so that’s why it’s here.

The House of Rothschild

The House of Rothschild ended up third in the Academy’s vote for this award, and I guess I can see and understand why, even if the film itself is only impressive in certain ways, ways which are matched almost identically in previous Best Picture nominee Disraeli: George Arliss, and the credentials of being a historical drama, and that’s about it. Several people have noted how this film basically seems to exist as nothing but a propaganda piece for the Rothschild family, which I guess I can’t disagree with, but I did like this one overall, so it had to have been doing some things right. Still, though, same with Disraeli, it’s not the best picture of the year.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

-I gotta say, I was not expecting to be as impressed with The Barretts of Wimpole Street as I was. I went into it thinking it was going to be stuffy and dry and far too uptight to be entertaining, and while at the lowest level it was all these things, it somehow managed to transcend the stuffiness to be genuinely engaging and entertaining, with a central romance that wasn’t contrived and solely demanded by the script. Same as I’ve said about numerous other nominees this year and others, it’s not the best picture of the year, but it’s absolutely not the worst, and given the slew of nominees in these expanded fields, that’s definitely not something to be ashamed of.

Imitation of Life

-I was on the fence for a good long while about which of the next two films to place above the other. Ultimately, I’m putting Imitation of Life here not because I feel that the other two nominees are better-made (though they are exceptionally made), but because they are more enjoyable watches. I try to be as objective as I can be when it comes to evaluating a film’s value to the average viewer, but sometimes, objectivity ends up falling out the window in the face of a subjectively good time, and that’s the case here. That’s not to say Imitation of Life is not worth your time, because it absolutely is. But, of the three remaining nominees, as much as I enjoyed it, it’s probably the one that I’d rewatch the least.

The Thin Man

-Now here’s a film that can withstand a rewatch or two. The Thin Man is a film where everything is exactly as it should be; from a brazenly quick-witted script, to actors with the repartee and knowhow to capitalize on such a script, and the capable hands of a director deft enough to know how to put it all together while still staying out of the way enough to let the individual elements do their thing. My rewatch for this segment was more pleasurable than my initial viewing of several of the other nominees, and it’s this that has it placed above the previous film; even after my rewatch of it, I had the distinct feeling that I could easily rewatch it again in the near future. That’s a winner of a film in my book.

It Happened One Night

-Speaking of winners, even against The Thin Man, it’s hard to top just how much of a winner this film is. I mentioned in last ceremony’s Judging Oscar that comedies rarely tend to have that heft or weight behind it to really resonate enough with the Academy to field major Oscar nominations like Best Picture. It Happened One Night is a great example of a comedy that does actually have that impact, and so much of it that it swept the 5 major awards it was nominated for, which I would and will happily argue it rightly deserved to do. Others can very easily make persuasive arguments against this winning one or two of the nominations, but I’m still behind this film for all five; the script is note-for-note perfect, Gable has never been more winning and charismatic, and Colbert was by and large the best of her field of nominees (though Myrna Loy was still snubbed in that category, among others). Capra’s expert finesse and handling of the material rightfully got him the win for Best Director, and this film rightfully deserved its win for Best Picture.

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

With the field expanded again to twelve, basically every film that had a shot at being nominated ended up in the running; so much so that there really aren’t a whole lot of great or outstanding films from this year that didn’t make the fold, at least the ones that stick out. Bette Davis’s snub for Of Human Bondage was well-documented; perhaps the film itself might’ve warranted a nom as well. Also, Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much with Peter Lorre was released, which was well-received in England. Manhattan Melodrama picked up an Oscar for Best Story, but was passed up for the big one despite this and an all-star cast (largely, I suspect, due to being overshadowed by The Thin Man, which had the same director and two of the three main stars). Even with these, though, I don’t think anything was going to top Night’s sweep, and I would’ve voted for it regardless of potential changes to the nominations.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

I’m kinda on the fence about how to call this one, Oscar. There’s some winners here, but the expanded field makes even the brighter spots seem diluted somewhat. I still have yet to see some good evidence and worthy entries to justify the continued expansion of the category, and this year didn’t change that. Hopefully, I’ll be eating my words in the years to come, but as of right now, that’s all I’ve got to go on for that; hopes.

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3 thoughts on “Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1934

  1. At least you know that by the end of the thirties the field gets more interesting. Can’t wait for you to get to 37/38/39.
    Having only watched your top two there is not much to comment one except that I would have been in doubt which of the two I would place on top. I have rewatched both and for me The Thin Man has more staying power.
    I also looked through the List to see if there was anything I would add and, sadly, there is not.

  2. I sure can’t argue with your top two. I’d have The Gay Divorcee much, much higher. I like Imitation of Life too. I haven’t seen the rest of the films.

    Some non-List films from the year that made my favorites list were L’Atalante, Les Miserables, The Story of Floating Weeds, Of Human Bondage, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Treasure Island. I loved Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow when I saw it but that is now years and years ago.

    • I can’t really say that having The Gay Divorcee higher in your own list is the wrong thing to do; that one was all personal preference for me, so I can give others some leeway if they’re particular fans of Astaire-Rogers. I just think all their films are the same, so I was looking for something really unexpected and seriously good about this one as to why it got nominated, and the lack of that plus the problems I had with how Astaire goes about “wooing” Rogers made the film, for me, very easy to dislike.

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