Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1936

All right, let’s see if I remember how to do one of these.

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Evidently, the Academy felt that twelve nominees for Best Picture was a tad too much; the field was trimmed back down to ten this year, and would remain so for several years going forth. In what many assume was a direct response to Mutiny on the Bounty’s triplicate Best Actor nominations the year before, 1936 saw the introduction of the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, with Walter Brennan’s good standing with the extras union and their ability to vote for the category netting him his first of three wins in the category. Ultimately, the big one went to The Great Ziegfeld, which became the longest film to win the award up to that point.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Anthony Adverse

Anthony Adverse ended up getting the most awards come Oscar night, as well as being one of the films with the most nominations. For the life of me, I cannot understand why; this film, adapted from a 1,200 page novel, was a slog to get through. No entertainment value, and almost no redeeming features, and this gets nominated for Best Picture? Please.

Romeo and Juliet

-This one too. William Shakespeare will go on to have a pretty decent reputation with the Academy in terms of film adaptations of his work, but this Romeo and Juliet version should definitely not be one of them. George Cukor has himself a reputation as one of the most consistent directors of old Hollywood, but for me, I can amend that statement to include the word “poor” after the key word there; his films are well put together enough, but they’re just not entertaining, and I’m still having a hard time trying to figure out exactly why.

Three Smart Girls

-Now we start to run into nominees that weren’t necessarily bad, but definitely shouldn’t have been nominated for this regardless. Three Smart Girls has some things going for it; unfortunately, if pressed for further explanation as to what the film really does have as selling points, I’d probably stutter and look slightly dumbfounded as a response. I didn’t dislike the film, but neither did I find it all that great, and that’s not one of the best pictures of the year for me, in any year.

The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur ends up as low as it does because of its similarities in faults to other prior Best Picture nominees, such as Disraeli and She Done Him Wrong; aside from the lead performance, this would not, and should not have, been nominated for Best Picture. Muni makes this worth watching, and if you remove him from the picture, you absolutely have no reason to bother sitting through it. Biopics come and go in this category, and I have a feeling many more future nominees will end up making the same mistakes that this one did.

A Tale of Two Cities

-I described A Tale of Two Cities as a “smear of grey” type of film in my review, and I stand by that; it’s decent, but if you’re pressed for elaboration on what makes it decent, your brain will more than likely come up blank. Ronald Colman wasn’t insufferable to watch, though, so there’s one for the win category.

Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady is ending up in this spot simply by virtue of my ranking the other films either above or below it. I liked it, but it was thanks to the charms of the stars in the picture that I did, and not really because of the film itself, and I can’t really place it any higher because of that reasoning. Still, for this to just manage to make it into the fold if the field were reduced to five, that’s probably enough of a win for it anyway.

The Great Ziegfeld

The Great Ziegfeld has a long-ass running time, a middle section with production value out the wazoo, and enough star recognition to certainly fill the seats at every theater it can. Should that mean that this should’ve won Best Picture? Evidently, according to the Academy that year, but not according to me; ignore all that the film wants to tout as selling points, and you have a rudimentary biopic with some solid performances from the cast; that’s it. As I said in my review of this, as well as plenty of other long-ass films; just because it has more of something, doesn’t automatically mean it’s better because of it.

San Francisco

-Now we’re getting into at the least potentially viable nominees. San Francisco surprised the heck out of me, both with how it subverted my expectations, and for the actual production value of the eponymous 1906 earthquake. I sincerely believe this got nominated for this award solely because of the earthquake sequence and everything that came after, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t ultimately successful at what it tries to do, and in that the film is better than any of the other nominees up to this point in my ranking. It just so happens that there are other, better films that also manage to succeed at their established goals.


-If I were to allow it to be so, this might be the first year of my doing this that I’d end up with a tie for first place. However, since this is just me ranking the nominees, for me, I have to come down on one side or the other, just for the sake of keeping everything in an order. To that end, I’m placing Dodsworth second just for the virtue of the other film I’m placing above it. If it hadn’t been for the other film, this should have won this award, as well as potentially a few others; it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill nominee, and the only other thing I’m left to say about it is that this is one that is certainly worth seeing.

Mr. Deeda Goes to Town

-But, so is this one. Frank Capra ended up winning his second Best Director Oscar for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and if it had been up to me, from the nominees, he would’ve gotten Best Picture too. Like I said, though, I’m really torn between this and Dodsworth for who should really come out on top, and I’m only picking this one because I think it has a better and more accessible message. Don’t get me wrong, both films are very good at what they’re trying to do, but to me, Deeds is a more likable film for what it’s trying to do, and that’s pretty much why I’m placing it on top, and for little other reason. You can disagree with me if you want, and I wouldn’t fault you for it, but gun to my head, I’m picking this one.

-What Should Have Won-

Well, aside from that Ziegfeld shouldn’t have won it, there’s a few potential nominee (and award) misses here. My Man Godfrey springs up immediately; it became the first film nominated for all four acting categories, as well as the only such film not to be nominated for Best Picture, so there’s a huge miss right there. Greta Garbo’s work still would avoid this category for the time being, given Camille wasn’t nominated. Given the category’s general liking of Astaire-Rogers, I’m surprised Swing Time didn’t make it in, but I wouldn’t argue for it. But all of these pale in comparison to the Academy’s narrow-minded dismissal, I can only assume, of the silent nature of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which despite being silent was absolutely the best film I’ve seen out of 1936.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

Among the nominees, I would’ve voted for Deeds; otherwise, Modern Times all the way.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Once again, aside from the very tip top of the field, this was a largely forgettable field of nominees, Academy. I can only hope that we’ll get to a point where things will be a little less so in the future.

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1935

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

The unions took their toll on the Academy, with membership dropping to a scant 40 members, along with the studios’ insistence the Academy be financially responsible for the ceremony this year. Still, with the Best Picture field remaining at twelve nominees, there was plenty of chances of all types of films to get some love at the Oscars, of which this ceremony was officially the first in which the award statuettes themselves were called by that name. Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty took home the top prize, being the last film to date to win Best Picture and no other category. This was also the second, and last, year that write-in nominations were allowed, which gave way to the first and only write-in winner in the Cinematography category.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Naughty Marietta

Naughty Marietta can leave the fold immediately. I only had a passing tolerance for One Night of Love, whose coattails this film seemed to be riding to a nomination for this award, so with this having absolutely nothing that even that film did okay on, I was left aghast that this had even managed the nomination. If you’re ever curious as to how an early-Hollywood-era musical can take things too far, watch this film; that’s all that need be said. In a field of ten nominees, this shouldn’t have made it, and really, it shouldn’t have even with twelve.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer suffers from numerous maladies, the prime one being: it only gets by, and does nothing more than that. I opined in my review for this about at what point does a Best Picture nominee serve as being only good enough, and this film is an excellent example of that mentality; it’s okay, and some might even consider it good given the right push, but it’s not great, and it’s absolutely not the best picture of the year.

Alice Adams

-As much as Alice Adams has going for it, it has one big thing that definitely doesn’t; it’s unlikable. Well, okay; the film itself can be likable for being fairly well made, and for having Katharine Hepburn in one of her better performances. Other than that, though, this was cringeworthy in every respect of the term. And yes, that it was is pretty much the point, but that still doesn’t make it pleasurable to watch, and while a Best Picture winner doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasurable, for me, it should at the very least be entertaining. Any way you look at it, though, there are better films from this year contending for the prize.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield is ending up where it is largely because I do have a little respect for the film; it’s fine, but any more or other compliments from me would be drawing blood with a syringe. This also feels like a nomination that was only earned because of the expanded field, and while George Cukor does tend to be pretty prevalent in the annals of Best Picture, I personally can’t really agree with his repeated presence in the category; his films are mostly just okay, and that to me shouldn’t mean it’s one of the best pictures of the year.

Top Hat

-I’m in a bit of a quandary with Top Hat. On my first viewing of it for the 1001 list, I seemed to enjoy it enough, and I checked it off without any troubles. Problem is, now that I’ve seen other Astaire-Rogers films I haven’t enjoyed, like Swing Time and The Gay Divorcee, I don’t know which way I should fall in regards to this one. What I ended up doing was placing Top Hat in my list for this segment, along with the other two 1001 films that I rewatched for this segment to get a clearer picture on, and added the other nominees either above or below it accordingly. Now, Top Hat isn’t exactly supposed to be a benchmark film by my standards, but at least I didn’t hate it nearly as much as the Astaire-Rogers film from last year, so there’s that.

Broadway Melody of 1936

-While there was one major reason I ended up liking Broadway Melody of 1936, that being Eleanor Powell and her world-class tap skills, there was actually quite a bit to appreciate about the film, mostly that it had a great stage presence and a production value that was well-utilized. Still, if you manage to not be taken by what charms the film does have, then besides Eleanor Powell, there really isn’t very much else to this one. I can appreciate the nomination, but there are still better films here.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is notable for its magical cinematography, which won it the only write-in Oscar winner in history, and a well-utilized Felix Mendelssohn score. Does that make it the best picture of the year? Not really, or rather, it shouldn’t, and it doesn’t do so here. Shakespeare will have plenty of opportunities to win this award, and future contenders will be better overall pictures than this one was.

Ruggles of Red Gap

Ruggles of Red Gap is that rare comedy nominated for this award, and also gives Charles Laughton one more out of three chances to star in a Best Picture winner this year, which is pretty exemplary. But, I would say that Laughton’s other two films up for this year’s award are better, and while I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would, it still didn’t feel like it had done enough to actually win the award. Leo McCarey will have a few more chances at this, so this will mostly serve as a ground-breaker for his future awards contenders. Still, it’s funny, so it’s worth a watch at least.

The Informer

-I went into The Informer expecting it to contend for the top spot in this segment. I came out of it wondering why it was as highly regarded as it was. I’ll be completely honest; I’m only placing it here because of John Ford and the production itself; otherwise, this would probably have ended up below the fold for me. That may not be all that fair in a Best Picture ranking, but I did feel like the production itself was well done, even if the film itself had barely enough content to justify its own meager running time.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables, on the other hand, impressed me more than I thought it would. Though the primary reasons to see this over other adaptations are Fredric March and Charles Laughton, that doesn’t mean this is a poor picture, because it’s definitely not. While other films in the running this year have plenty of style and not enough substance to win the award, this one is the other way around; there’s enough substance here to easily carry the film, even if the production itself seems somewhat timid. That in and of itself is why this ended up as high as it did, and I’m actually pretty fine with that.

Captain Blood

Captain Blood has a lot going for it, mostly that it’s pretty darn entertaining, as well as well made, with the final battle scene being a particularly standout example of well-utilized production value. Heck, director Michael Curtiz came in second in the voting for Best Director, despite not being on the official ballot. Does that mean it should win Best Picture? In the ideal world conjured up by the general moviegoing populace, quite possibly; the Academy has gotten a lot of flack over the years for not nominating popular entertainment, especially well-made and received pictures, let alone having such films win the big one. Unfortunately for Captain Blood, there are other films this year that are not only better made and more entertaining, they also had a more substantial impact with the Academy.

Mutiny on the Bounty

-Other potential nominees aside, this was absolutely Mutiny on the Bounty all the way. I know a lot of it is probably my love for seafaring/exploration films, but for me, this was the best made, most entertaining, and most substantive film of the field. Even rewatching it for this segment, I still had more fun than with a majority of the other nominees, and that will almost certainly get my vote for best picture of the year every time I can manage it.

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

While my vote would still have likely gone to Mutiny on the Bounty, there were a few misses among the nominees, even with the large field. The biggest miss in the fold was almost certainly Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, though Hitch would finally get some love a few years later. Greta Garbo’s vehicle Anna Karenina probably could’ve wrangled a nom over some of the actual nominees, considering how successful it was commercially and critically. And while she won an Honorary Oscar the year before, I’m surprised a Shirley Temple film didn’t manage to net a nomination, but maybe her films weren’t seen as weighty enough to contend with fare like The Informer and Les Mis.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

The top few nominees aside, this whole expanded category thing has to go away, Academy. You’re not at the point yet where there are more than enough worthy films to justify it, and my being forced to sit through at least half of the nominees this year only emboldens that fact. Next year, it’ll be merely ten instead of twelve, but I’m not holding out too much hope that it’ll mean that you’ve completely come to your senses.

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.


-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.

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1932/33

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Several goings-on within the Academy happened this year, including a shakeup in the membership that led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, as well as the statuette award being referred to as an Oscar publicly for the first time during this ceremony. There was also a highly amusing gaff by ceremony host Will Rogers upon announcing the winner of the Best Director Oscar, which if I end up going through Best Director I will detail, but for those who are still curious, you can check the Wikipedia page for this, the 6th Academy Awards.

Once again, the field of nominees for Best Picture was increased, this time to ten; thus, several more films that otherwise wouldn’t have seen a nomination ended up with another laurel to tout. This was also the last year the Academy would use an August-to-July qualification period for films, moving to simple calendar year eligibility the next ceremony, and thus the field of films eligible for this year was expanded to the end of December, making it a 17-month pool of films to draw from. Thus, there are quite a number of films that could’ve seen a nom; some that did, and some that didn’t. Evidently, the Academy still was wising up to this whole expanded-category deal, as they ended up giving the award to Cavalcade; perhaps being a British-set period piece detailing the history of a family against the expansive backdrop of a country’s own history was enough to win top honors back then, but… oh hell, it’s probably enough to still win (or get nominated for) top honors today.

-Ranking the Nominees-

State Fair

-As much as I didn’t care for it, and saw the purpose of making and watching the film even less, I was a little surprised State Fair ended up at the bottom for me; not because it didn’t deserve to be there, but because I honestly thought some other film would end up in last. With this, though, you have a film that’s as tepid a watch as I’m sure it was to make, and with the expanded field, this seems even more superfluous a nomination. The Academy can easily lose this one.

She Done Him Wrong

-With my placement of She Done Him Wrong here instead of higher on my list, I’ve finally crossed that line that I’d hinted at crossing with last year’s fare; I’m going out of order in terms of the bare number rankings I’ve given the films in question. So, why is this lower than the next two films? For one reason: this is a vehicle for Mae West, and for almost no other reason should this have been nominated for Best Picture. It’s an amusing trivia bit nowadays, being the shortest film to ever be nominated for the award, but one single notable feature does not the best picture of the year make. This can leave the fold as well.


-Eventual winner Cavalcade has things going for it, both in the Academy’s eyes and as a film itself. However, everything it has going for it should be enough for the film to win Best Director, not Best Picture, and it did; Frank Lloyd did end up taking the honors for directing, which I would probably agree with. But nowhere is this the best picture of the year; it may be the most ostentatious, which is probably why it won, but that’s all. I’ll succumb to leaving it as a nominee if really pressed, but this shouldn’t have won; no way.

Smilin' Through

Smilin’ Through suffers from a common malady with Best Picture nominees; it’s far too forgettable. I enjoyed the mystery angle of the film’s central premise, but aside from that and some lovely cinematography in the garden location of the film, I barely remember any of this. Re-reading my review of the film, I was surprised to recall that Norma Shearer was even in this, which is a very bad mark against this film if I completely forgot her presence despite her being top-billed on the poster. I could see arguments made either for or against this nomination, but I don’t know if I could come down on one side or the other.

42nd Street

-With 42nd Street, we have another example of a type of film I’ve reviewed that somehow gets nominated for Best Picture despite some gaping flaws, the largest of which is: it is technically not a well made film. I said in the Judging Oscar segment that featured The Big House that the best picture of the year needed to not only be entertaining, but well-done and accomplished as well, and in that, 42nd Street fails. This has charm, and a winning personality, and it’s about Broadway, which is as close to Hollywood as a film can get without being about Hollywood, so I can see the nomination through. But that’d be it.

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms provided me with another surprise placement in this ranking. I went into the film thinking it would potentially be in the top three of the nominees, and ended up on the other side wondering why it was as well-regarded as it was. It’s another ‘nothing’ film, with no real benefits or rewards other than the consistently standout direction of Frank Borzage, who didn’t even get nominated for Best Director with this, so where’s the love for this one (and the nomination) coming from? I really can’t say, and if I can say that about the nominee, it’s not the best picture of the year.

Little Women

Little Women finally crosses that threshold of films that I could reasonably see a chance that they could take home the top honors. Does that make Little Women the best picture this year? Nope; it wouldn’t get my vote, and I was surprised to find out it placed third in the actual overall vote for Best Picture. Maybe it’s just my natural resistance to the supposed charms of George Cukor, who did field a Best Director nom from this; aside from the cast, I had little else to praise the film for, and seeing other reviews and comments toward the film, I wasn’t as alone as I thought I’d be.

The Private Life of Henry VIII

The Private Life of Henry VIII was the first all-British production to be nominated for the big one, as well as the first to take home an Oscar; this time, for Charles Laughton in the lead role. While I’m glad that this was nominated, both for being technically a comedy nominated for Best Picture and for being a non-Hollywood film to net a nomination, I don’t really see this winning; comedies are certainly valid, but they don’t have that heft, that impact that dramatic films usually have that resonate with viewers, as well as Academy voters. It’s this that I think makes it so hard for a comedy to get a nomination, and even harder to see it through to a win, and Henry VIII doesn’t do enough to challenge that mindset.

Lady for a Day

-While Lady for a Day has a lot of selling points, from May Robson to the deft handling by both director and screenwriter to the admittedly schmaltzy mood, it wasn’t a clear winner in my mind; I said as much in my review, and looking back on it now, I think I can stand by my comments. That said, the somewhat lesser fare it was nominated against puts it here in my list, and considering how much I enjoyed the film and its selling points, I’m all right with that. Frank Capra may have jumped the gun for a Best Director win when the name was announced, but he and his picture certainly deserves to be among the nominees. I just wouldn’t give it the award.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

-Considering my merely-moderate reaction to the film when I watched it for the 1001 list, I’m just as surprised as you that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is ending up in the top spot. I rewatched it for this segment, and found my opinion of it hadn’t really changed… so why is this the best out of the nominees? If I were to wager a guess, it would be: it’s the most evenly constructed of the nominees, and still manages to be pretty entertaining even with the just-above-average technicals. I won’t go into the potential messages and morals that are at play with the film’s story and all that, but of the ten films presented here as official Academy nominees, I feel this is the best of the bunch.

-What Should Have Won-

Thanks to the extended qualifying period, there’s quite a few films that could’ve seen a nomination. Probably the most glaring omission to classic movie fans would be King Kong, though it would seem to be such a genre film that the Academy wouldn’t take notice… except that it ended up being the 3rd highest grossing film of the year. A similar fate befalls the highest grossing film, Queen Christina with Greta Garbo, which might get a nom over some of the actual noms but wouldn’t personally get my vote. I could see arguments made for both Love Me Tonight and Trouble in Paradise, though I’d personally argue that this type of film’s days shining in the light of the Academy’s sunbeams should be over by now. Still speaking of 1001 list films, 42nd Street got a nod while its twin films, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, were left out. And on the comedic side of things, The Marx Brothers’ own arguable masterpiece Duck Soup was released, which with the extended field I could’ve seen getting a nom.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

For once, there is no clear-cut winner in my head as the best picture of the year. Of the nominees, I guess my vote would be forced to Chain Gang; of the missed nominations, it would either go to King Kong or Duck Soup, neither or which stood a remote chance with the Academy. Others will likely have some favorites of those I mentioned missed with the Academy, but for me, this was just a mild year all around.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

With the field expanding again, I still fail to see the solid point behind it, Academy. If you’re going to force yourself to nominate more films, make sure it’s a banner year before you do; otherwise, you get this ceremony’s fare. Next year, it’s up again to twelve, and something tells me I don’t have a lot to look forward to. Surprise me, Academy.

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1931/32

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Evidently, the field of films for Best Picture was so overwhelming that limiting the field to five films was deemed to be just too sparse. Or, more likely, they agreed to expand the field after the prior ceremony; either way, we ended up with a total of eight films nominated for the big one in the 5th ceremony. Do all of them deserve the honor? Probably not; I feel I could trim this field down to five nominees fairly easily, but these are the cards we’re dealt. Regardless, Grand Hotel ended up winning, becoming the only film in the history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture without being nominated for any other categories. Walt Disney would also get an honorary award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, and fittingly this would also be the first year that short films, both live-action and animated, would be awarded Oscars as well.

-Ranking the Nominees-


Arrowsmith is the latest film I’ve seen of these eight, and the one I’d really rather forget the earliest. There was nothing to this film, so much so that I really don’t even want to try and write a whole lot about it, mostly because I already did try in my review. Cut this one out, and I don’t think anybody would miss it that much, if at all.

The Smiling Lieutenant

-I’ve generally had good experiences with Ernst Lubitsch, so to watch The Smiling Lieutenant and end up disliking it the way I did was a little disheartening. Not to say that this is bad, but I just didn’t care for it, and what’s more, I still am unable to figure out exactly why or nail it down concretely in my head. This one ends up second-last pretty much solely from personal preference, so if there’s any placement that comes with a smidgen of salt attached, it’d be this one.

Five Star Final

-I liked Five Star Final, but there wasn’t much to it. Basically, it was an excuse to get Edward G. Robinson up-front and potentially net him an Oscar nom, which ended up failing anyways, but he’s really the only reason to watch this. I find it a little humorous that this was nominated a couple years after The Front Page, since it’s basically the twin film to that one in several ways, but I didn’t feel this had really done enough to warrant the nomination, so it ends up just under the line for me.

One Hour with You

-Mirroring what I said before about Lubitsch and his productions, I’m still unable to discern why I didn’t like his previous one and instead ended up enjoying One Hour with You, but I did, so that’s enough to put it here for me. Repeat what I said about Lieutenant here, but flavor it with positive thoughts instead of negative ones, and you have another mini-review all set to go.

Bad Girl

-Frank Borzage won Best Director for Bad Girl, but aside from that, this seemed a very incongruous nomination. The film was very well done, and really didn’t make any mistakes… but this was just so not-normal a film to be nominated for Best Picture that it bears the question of how it did get nominated. That and that weirdness with how it was titled and marketed, but if you ignore that and watch the film on its own merits, there’s a lot to be gleaned from this, so by sheer virtue of its merits, it ends up in the black.

The Champ

-Now we’re getting to films that I can at least see a fighting chance for to win the big one. The Champ is kinda like a couple of the other nominees, in that it’s mostly a vehicle for Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper to do their thing, but it works, and it works damn well, so I’ll definitely give it some extra brownie points. Is this the Best Picture of the year, though? Not really; there are two other films that are better suited for the title, but it’s still a good picture.

Grand Hotel

-I said in my review of Grand Hotel that it just felt like a Best Picture winner, and that this more than anything is why I had said that it ended up winning it. I stand by that statement, and what’s more, I might’ve totally agreed with the Academy here; Grand Hotel is really quite good, and it works on most of the levels that it aspires to work on. In another year, this would be a winner through and through and a rightly-deserving one… It just so happens there’s one other film among the nominees that takes it to a whole nother level.

Shanghai Express

-I had been prepared to potentially have this be the first year where my ranking of the nominees didn’t end up adhering to the number rankings of the films in question… Then I rewatched Shanghai Express, and knew that wasn’t going to be the case; not yet at least. Shanghai Express is getting the nod over Grand Hotel for a few reasons, but the main one is this: it does what Grand Hotel does, but more and better. This is a film that has been described as ‘Grand Hotel on wheels’, and that’s an apt description – while it doesn’t have the breadth of characters that Grand Hotel does, it makes up for it with the addition of political plot devices, as well as the sheer production value on display; the cinematographer ended up winning for this film, and Josef von Sternberg was nominated for Best Director as well. If Grand Hotel was the Best Picture winner that ought to be, just by feeling it, then by virtue of doing it better, Shanghai Express is the winner that should’ve been.

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

There’s not a whole lot that I can see in the qualifying period that didn’t get nominated for Best Picture, especially with the modest expansion of the category. The one big omission I can definitely raise an eyebrow or two over is the original Scarface with Paul Muni, which went pretty much completely ignored at the Oscars. Other than that, everything else ended up falling into the second half of the year, which made it eligible for next year’s ceremony instead. That said, if I’d had a vote in 1932 during this ceremony, it probably would’ve went to Shanghai Express; even rewatching it for this segment, I still loved it more than any of the nominees, including Grand Hotel, so for me, that’s the best picture of the year.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Like I said before, if the category hadn’t expanded and instead been kept to five nominees, I don’t think I would’ve missed out on much if my bottom three had thus been scrubbed off the ballot. Of the other five, I enjoyed each for their own reasons, so; not bad, Academy. Now, next year, let’s see if things aren’t even more extraneous with an even larger field to work with.

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.

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1929/30

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

The sound era was still burgeoning, still trying to blossom, but the year in film did have a handful of nominees to offer as sacrifices to the studio heads who were still trying to decide the Oscars for themselves, as opposed to the new rule of one vote to one member each. This year’s nominees would see many first timers of what would be familiar Oscar perennials, such as the biopic and the war film, as well as a well-thought-out musical comedy. In the end, the war film would win out, becoming the first film to win both Best Picture and Best Director, in what would become a common occurrence at the Oscars.

-Ranking the Nominees-

The Big House

-It actually makes me a little sad to put The Big House last on this list, but there are a number of problems with the film that, even though I liked the film as a whole, I had to take into account. If the best picture of the year isn’t just the most entertaining, but also the most well done and accomplished film on the technical side, then The Big House is bopped out of the running immediately; technically, this is not well made, even if the film decides to blow the rest of its budget in the climax of the film by going all out with it. I liked the film, but Best Picture is asking for a little more than this brings to the table.


-A similar problem befalls Disraeli, which I suspect was nominated largely for George Arliss, as well as being a biopic, a genre that would always, and will always, win big points with the Academy. Technically, the film is nothing to brag about, but it has its moments, particularly when everybody gets the hell out of the way and lets Arliss do his thing in whatever way he chooses to do it. A film with a strong central performance would be another typical Oscar film in the years to come, but in most cases then, and in this case here, it’s not enough to win the top prize.

The Love Parade

The Love Parade suffers from one main problem in this race: it’s good, but it’s just not good enough. Amusingly enough, if this had come out and been nominated the year before, either in place of or alongside The Broadway Melody, I could see this one winning; that’s how poor of a year the Oscars had just had. Here, though, there are actually a couple of nominees that have some actual cases to make for the title of Best Picture of the Year, and Ernst Lubitsch’s creampuff of a film, though a smartly engineered creampuff it is, is not one of them.

The Divorcee

-Here, we see the first hints of a film that may actually have the chops to walk away with the award and not be scoffed at for doing so. The Divorcee surprised the heck out of me, not only with its star, who did very well in a role she almost didn’t get, but with how polished and complete a film it was, and thus the viewing experience it ended up being. It’s short, don’t get me wrong, and had the film added maybe another five minutes or so to the ending, it might’ve been even better, but it’s still a really good film with what it does have, which is a lot more than I was expecting. Had the Academy not nominated one other film, this could’ve reasonably won the top prize.

All Quiet on the Western Front

-Unfortunately for the prior film, the Academy did nominate this one, and in the face of the sheer accomplishment Lewis Milestone achieved, it had no choice but to give it the big one. War films are a dime a dozen nowadays, and you can alternately thank or lay all the blame for that squarely on the feet of All Quiet on the Western Front; this became the benchmark, the stone template from which all other war films would follow for at least the next 60 years, and rightly so. Upon my rewatch for this segment, I did notice the acting was sometimes hammy, as custom for the period, but the realism of everything else does succeed in drowning that out for the most part, and the accomplishment of the film as a whole is so staggering for the era when it was made that it still holds up to this day. In the case of All Quiet, Oscar did right by this one.

-What Should Have Won-

For this part of my Judging Oscar segments, I actually go through the Wikipedia article for that qualifying year in film, to see if there’s anything I might’ve forgotten or missed completely that might’ve warranted a nomination, or perhaps a win, in place of the actual nominees or winner. In this case, there’s nothing that is better than All Quiet on the Western Front, and my efforts in looking were that much more misguided in my attempts to. Greta Garbo’s first talkie Anna Christie might’ve warranted a Best Picture nom, considering how much love it did end up getting at the Oscars, but I haven’t seen it to say for certain.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

All Quiet, over and over again.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Some of the noms may not have held up as good as some of the other ones, but for the most part, you’re back on track, Oscar. Now let’s see if you can escalate the level of quality on that track from here on out.