Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1940

Note: The ‘What Should Have Won’ section has always been rather redundant, and as a result has morphed into a recounting of nominees that should’ve made it or otherwise missed the ballot; hence, it has been renamed ‘What Should’ve Been Here’.

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

The press room, where the names of the Oscar winners were given to the papers for publication the next day, suddenly became a thing of the past; to stop agents and producers from sneaking into the press room and getting leaks, the Academy hired accounting firm Price Waterhouse to count ballots and seal the winners in envelopes, only to be opened on the night of the ceremony (leading to the now-famous Oscar decree, “May I have the envelope, please?”). The newly-forged suspense of opening the envelopes meant many races were considered open going into the ceremony to honor the films of 1940, but that wouldn’t stop David O. Selznick from trying to become the first producer to helm consecutive Best Picture winners, which he would succeed in doing by putting his weight behind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, to date the last film to win Best Picture without any additional awards in acting, directing, or writing (claiming only one other award for its black-and-white cinematography).

-Ranking the Nominees-

Our Town

-Its interesting to see the field from 1939, realizing there’s really not a poor film among the bunch, and then jumping to the following year, which had several films that, while not poor per se, were absolutely filler for the Best Picture category. Chief among these is Our Town, which despite being a mere 90 minutes or so, isn’t really worth the watch; it’s far too disjointed, and as I said in my review, seemed to make all the wrong decisions as to how to go about presenting the film/story it wanted to present. Some pretty work with how the film goes about its ending and a somewhat-choice turn from a nominated Martha Scott don’t do nearly enough to save this film from how many times it tries to swing its bat for the fences and ends up clocking itself in its own head.

The Long Voyage Home

The Long Voyage Home, being one of two films John Ford put up this year for Best Picture, has much in common with the films Ford has had up for this award in the past: some pretty stellar production work, that unfortunately overshadows what should be the film’s real strengths like plot and script and dialogue and performances. While Ford was up to this point certainly capable of overcoming such pitfalls (see the other film he has in this field, as well as Stagecoach the year before), this one opts to just exist, and to serve as a testing ground for cinematographer Gregg Toland and his later work on Citizen Kane. Best Picture could’ve done without this one in the fold.

All This and Heaven Too

-This one too. All This, and Heaven Too opted to go for the Gone With the Wind strategy of trying for this award; only problem is, this is no Gone With the Wind, in like any way. It’s only two hours and twenty minutes, and it feels even longer; the black-and-white cinematography was too muddled and samey to stand out, and aside from Bette Davis, the performances are too easily forgettable. It might’ve served as a very slightly better nominee for this award than the previous two films, but it’s probably the less rewarding and entertaining picture among them.

Kitty Foyle

Kitty Foyle differs from the previous nominees in that it’s actually a fairly passable film, just entertaining enough to justify a run-through should one want to see it. That, and Ginger Rogers is pretty good, though I don’t know if I’d argue she deserved her win for Best Actress. Other than that, though, this ends up as more filler for the category than anything else.

Foreign Correspondent

-I liked Foreign Correspondent, as I tend to generally like Hitchcock’s films. Problem is, I don’t think I’d ever have the need or desire to see this a second time, and if I did, I don’t know how much I would get out of a second viewing. A film that one need only see once and never get anything more from it does not a Best Picture winner make to me, and really, that it got as high as it did in this ranking speaks more about the films that ended up below it than anything else.

The Letter

-I may have actually pained myself trying to figure out which of the next two films to put above the other; it was that close in my reckoning. Ultimately, I’m placing The Letter below the next film for a couple of reasons: namely, while what it does is definitely well done, it just doesn’t do enough to really win this award. The other reason is that this film’s chances for Best Picture are staked almost entirely on Bette Davis, and when you have a film that ultimately holds itself aloft on a single performance, here’s what you do: remove said performance from the film in your mind, and then go over what you have left – is it still a good film, or possibly a great one? With The Letter, the answer is unfortunately no, though it does come a lot closer than other films that try to bank on single performances, so I’ll give it a little more leeway for that.

The Philadelphia Story

-I first saw The Philadelphia Story pretty early for this blog, and after a number of screwball comedies that I really didn’t care for; both things combined were probably a mistake, as I ended up not taking much of a shine to this film, or at least not nearly as much as generally everyone else seemed to. My rewatch for this segment did much to improve this film’s standing in my eyes, though it might also have been my having seen more than a few lesser films up for Best Picture over the years as well, but it didn’t overcome all my apprehensions about the picture. Here’s my thing with The Philadelphia Story; the screenplay is gold, and deservedly won its Oscar, and though James Stewart’s Best Actor win was almost certainly compensatory for his not winning the previous year, I guess I can’t fault the Academy for wanting to do what it did. Other than these two aspects, this is a fairly average comedy of remarriage; take away the screenplay and the charms of the three main actors, and this film would’ve been completely forgotten in a decade or two. While I’ll happily back the Best Screenplay win this managed, I can’t say this is the Best Picture of its year.

The Grapes of Wrath

-John Ford won Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, and it’s easy to see why, especially with how good a picture it is. It’s depressing, I will say that, but it’s supposed to be and needs to be, given the source material and the point of it. While it may not necessarily make for a pleasurable watch, it is still an excellent one, and it is absolutely one of the rare films that manages to overcome the normal traps that literary adaptations tend to have that are up for this award. I could see this potentially being a Best Picture winner in some other years, but here, there’s a couple other films that have a better impact than this one does.

The Great Dictator

-Man, did I want to give this to Charlie Chaplin. I technically have in the past, in the What I Would’ve Picked section, but this time, he actually had a film legitimately in the running, and it’s a damn fine one to boot. The Great Dictator is regarded by many as one of Chaplin’s best and most beloved, and with scenes like the closing speech, the globe dance, and the wonderful interplay between Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel and Jack Oakie’s Napoloni, it makes a strong case for itself. Unfortunately, it’s not perfect, but that hasn’t stopped other less-than-perfect films from being the best picture of their year before, so why now? Well…


-This is why. Selznick may have wanted back-to-back Best Picture winners a little too badly, but he threw his weight behind a hell of a film to get it. Alfred Hitchcock had his first real masterpiece with Rebecca, and that’s saying something; even among his later classics that weren’t up for this award, Rebecca is extremely memorable, and my rewatch of it confirmed the power and effectiveness of the film over all the other nominees this year. Sure, Hitch would go on to make better films, but this is the first real indicator of the heights that he could achieve when he was on, and he was really on with this one.

-What Should’ve Been Here-

1940 had plenty of winners, both those on the ballot and those that somehow missed a spot. I spoke back in 1931 about Best Picture nominee The Front Page and how it was unfortunate that the remake was better, so it’s a little surprising not to see His Girl Friday among the nominees here. Same with The Shop Around the Corner, a film I haven’t seen but have heard mention of quite a bit. The 1001 list is pretty sparse this year for potential nominees, but it does have two animated films that could’ve seen some love in Pinocchio and Fantasia, if the Academy considered animated films at this point. It also has James Stewart vehicle The Mortal Storm, which could’ve replaced a nominee fairly easily. Off-list, the star power and box office returns of Boom Town are impressive to see, but it may not have been well-received enough to get a nom for this award. I am a little surprised to see films like The Sea Hawk and The Thief of Bagdad ignored, given how much love they did get from the Academy outside Best Picture.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

It’s a closer call than last year, but I would’ve voted for Rebecca, even if Selznick never asked me to. And he probably would’ve.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

It’s hard to look at this year without comparing it to the year before, which is unfair, but inevitable. Still, the field from this year isn’t as soul-crushing as some years have been, even if it took me an inordinately long time to get through it for reasons outside the films themselves, so I won’t hold this year against the Academy too much.


Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1939

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

If ever a year of cinema could, or should, call for the need of the expanded Best Picture category, it damn well better be this year: 1939 – The Golden Year of Hollywood. And truthfully, it does; the field that did get nominated is unquestionably the best the Academy has managed thus far, and there really isn’t a bad film among them – it’s just to what extent some films are better than others. Still, none could match the extravagance and spectacle of Gone With the Wind, the longest film ever released up to then, which would net eight competitive and two honorary Oscars, including Best Picture, as well as the historical win for Hattie McDaniel in the Supporting Actress category.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

-It seems I’ve had a rough history in these segments with literary adaptations, so maybe I should’ve been more wary of Goodbye, Mr. Chips than I was. That’s not to say that this is poor or bad, because it’s actually quite likable. But thats the thing; thats all it is. Likable. It features a likable character having likable things happens to him, with one or two misfortunes that are ultimately shrugged off thanks to everyone supporting him because he’s so likable, and there is literally nothing else to this. I was partially through it when I started to wonder how it managed a Best Picture nomination amid the field it was in, and it’s that that puts it at the bottom for me.

Of Mice and Men

-Not very much room separates the prior nominee and Of Mice and Men; while I still enjoyed it, there wasn’t much to it that really stood up and shouted at me that this was Best Picture material. Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. are certainly worth the watch, but they’re not enough to elevate this any higher than it’s ending up.

Wuthering Heights

-Continuing this segment’s woes with literary adaptations of classic novels, we have Wuthering Heights, which while being rather atmospheric and consummate, helped along a lot by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, ends up falling into many of the same pitfalls as other literary Best Picture nominees of the past. It’s rudimentary and melodramatic, and doesn’t do enough to rise above that, so it’s unfortunately ending up below the fold for me.

Love Affair

Love Affair might be better remembered as the basis of the later remake An Affair to Remember, also directed by Leo McCarey. Remakes always tend to do one of two things; either they’re bad, and thus shouldn’t have even been remade at all, or they’re good, and they thus threaten to or successfully overshadow the previous version of the film or story. This is unfortunate in Love Affair’s case, because this is actually quite good; it’s got plenty of emotion and romance, and really doesn’t misstep at all with its story, and at an hour and a half, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Really, the only reason it’s not higher is because of how good the remaining films are.

Dark Victory

-This is another one that’s also no higher because of the remaining films, and not because of any faults with it. Dark Victory, I suspect, managed a Best Picture nom because of Bette Davis’ performance, but it’s actually a lot better than it really has a right to be, given how thrifty the actual story is, but it more than makes up for that in how it tells what story it does actually tell. Coupled with Davis doing her thing at the level she’s accustomed to doing it, and this is definitely worth the watch if one is inclined to seek it out.


Stagecoach is largely considered the progenitor of what the Western genre would build itself out of in the years to come, and the genre could’ve picked a much worse film to do so from. Stagecoach originates many of the conventions and tropes of good, solid Western films, complete with John Wayne being his best John Wayne, and director John Ford would revisit the genre several times. So, does that mean it’s a good enough film to win Best Picture? In my opinion, not quite, and not against most of the remaining films; this would end up being another example in these segments of a film that is a great and worthwhile viewing, but just doesn’t do enough to really warrant a win for the big one. I will say, though, that I’m glad it was at least up for the award.


-Ernst Lubitsch’s films in this category have so far been mostly lacking, almost as if the director were giving perennial warmups up for the award instead of the home run he and the Academy clearly wanted him to give them. Ninotchka might not be the absolute home run the Academy wanted out of Lubitsch, but it is damn close; not to mention however many times the latest Greta Garbo picture has been mentioned in the potential nominations section, and one of her films finally gets a nom for Best Picture, as well as one for her for Best Actress. Still, while this is a winner, and unquestionably the best Lubitsch film yet nominated for the big one, there are still better films that wrangled a nom in this golden year, and so Ninotchka ends up here.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

-The 30’s absolutely belonged to Capra. That said, I was hesitant about where to place Mr. Smith Goes to Washington before my rewatch of it, almost as if I didn’t want to give Capra yet another award, like I was tired of doing it or something. Well, Capra never fails to deliver when he really needs to, and this ends up above the one before it for a somewhat-backwards reasoning; while this doesn’t have the Lubitsch touch going for it, it makes up for it and then some with a whole lot of heart, an amazing amount of relevance that still shines today, and more feel-goodiness than a film like this really has any right to. Add to it the never-better James Stewart, and in any other year, one could easily put this one smack at the top of the leaderboard.

Wizard of Oz

-Unfortunately for the previous film, and really all the other nominees, this is 1939, the Best Year in Hollywood History, and director Victor Fleming isn’t gonna give up this award without a fight. The Wizard of Oz became an annual tradition on television in the late 50’s, and it wasn’t long before it was a staple of American cinema classics; thus, it is quite difficult to look at the film through any eye but a nostalgic one, let alone critically. If one does manage it, though, Oz is still an excellent film, filled with fantasy and wonder, and perhaps the greatest attention to detail of any film up to that point in time. This wasn’t just a film; this was an achievement, and while the Academy might’ve been a little scoffed at for awarding Best Picture to what was ostensibly a children’s film, the reputation of this one over time would’ve seen their decision validated… save for one other picture.

Gone With the Wind

-Really; was there any doubt this was gonna end up on top? Gone with the Wind is monumental; a staggering achievement in literally every way, a groundbreaking color film, and a massively entertaining picture all in one. I’ll echo the thoughts of some that the film’s second half doesn’t match up to the first, but this is a piddling criticism in the face of just how amazing Gone With the Wind is as a whole. With this and Oz, Victor Fleming had one of the best single years of any director in history, so his win for Best Director was absolutely unquestionable; and, I’ll go ahead and say it, so was this film’s win for Best Picture. The Academy basically had no other choice. It really is that good.

-What Should Have Won-

While GWTW absolutely deserved the win, and even with the field being as exemplary as it was this year, there are a few films that could’ve reasonably made it into the fold. The 1001 List’s field from this year includes Only Angels Have Wings, Destry Rides Again, and Gunga Din, each of which might’ve stood a chance, and certainly would’ve in other years. It also includes Babes in Arms, which I don’t think would’ve. On the foreign front, Jean Renoir gives us The Rules of the Game, which many consider the best foreign language film ever made, and after his previous film managed a nom last year, the Academy could’ve seen fit to add this one as well, if it weren’t so busy reaping the spoils of the English language fare. If they had looked to box office, they might’ve considered the Henry Fonda vehicle Jesse James, or the Charles Laughton picture The Hunchback of Notre Dame; they evidently did consider producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Rains Came, which was nominated for six Oscars, including beating The Wizard of Oz for Best Special Effects, but not Best Picture.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

Seriously; would I pick any other film than Gone With the Wind for this year? Would anyone?

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Finally. Finally, you managed a great field, Oscar, even with the expanded category. Of course, it only took the greatest year in Hollywood history for you to do it, and I have no pretenses that the next few years are going to match this in any way. But still, I will give you this year, Oscar. Well done.

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1938

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Several firsts occurred at the Academy Awards for the films of 1938. Frank Capra became the first three-time winner of Best Director, Spencer Tracy became the first back-to-back winner for Best Actor, and indeed this ceremony was the first of only two in which three of the four acting categories were repeat winners. There were also a couple of multiple nominees this year, in director Michael Curtiz and actress Fay Bainter, who’d end up winning for Supporting. We also had the first ever foreign language nominee for Best Picture in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. As noteworthy and groundbreaking as that was, the 30s would prove to belong to Capra, who would helm another Best Picture winner in You Can’t Take It With You.

-Ranking the Nominees-

The Citadel

-That The Citadel ended up in last for me is not all that big of a shock; the film never really surpassed its literary sources, and I said in the closer to my review of it that it seemed to be a mix of Arrowsmith and Anthony Adverse, while being only slightly better than those two films. So yeah, The Citadel ended up last, and I’m not in the least bit surprised by that.

Four Daughters

Four Daughters also seemed destined for the bottom of the pile, even before I actually watched it; this seemed to be one Deanna Durbin away from being yet another Deanna Durbin film up for this award. Then I watched it, and couldn’t get over how unabashedly intelligent the film exuberantly expressed itself as, like the film was smarter than you and better at writing than you and wanted to absolutely make sure that you knew it. Even the more dramatic territory it tried to dip into in the last section didn’t seem warranted. All of it really seemed like it was just to show off everything that it could, so that it could get a bunch of awards, or at least nominations, and I guess it succeeded. But it really shouldn’t have.

Boys Town

Boys Town falls into much of the same territory as the first two off my list; it’s okay, but nothing special, and ‘okay but nothing special’ really shouldn’t be up for Best Picture, even dealing with an expanded category. Tracy and Rooney make it what it is, but even they aren’t really worth the price of admission; Tracy is basically just warm and fuzzy and little more, and Rooney is, well, Rooney. Watched it, scratched it off the list, and moved on.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

-The Academy likes musicals, so the nomination for Alexander’s Ragtime Band seemed obligatory, especially when you look at the other nominees and, with the possible exception of Four Daughters, realize there isn’t a musical among them. It’s pretty good, and enjoyable, which is why it ended up above the other films it ended up above. But that’d really be it. Give the category size a trim, and this would absolutely leave the fold.

You Can't Take It With You

-Eventual winner You Can’t Take It With You is technically ending up below the fold for me, and it’s actually not because it’s a poor film, though I wasn’t all that huge a fan of it. For once, it’s because the other remaining films are better, which says quite a bit about those films, but also just as much about this one. The 30s absolutely belonged to Capra, but for this one year, maybe he could’ve settled for just the nomination, because this really shouldn’t have won the big one.


-All I knew about Pygmalion going in was that it was the pre-musical basis for My Fair Lady, and that star Leslie Howard was also the co-director of it. I came out of it fairly impressed, especially at how British a film it was, in a good way. There’s a lot to it, and it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which is more that can be said for many of the other nominees for this award, even among this year. This one can stick around.


-The nomination of Jezebel could be seen as largely a nomination for Bette Davis, and indeed she’d end up winning her second statuette for Best Actress. But Jezebel the film actually has more going for it than just Davis; it’s smart, and not overbearingly so like Four Daughters, and it knows what it needs to be and doesn’t try to be more than that. It’s honorable, and that wins it points with me that it otherwise wouldn’t have. I’m pretty pleased it ended up as high as it did, but I wouldn’t put it any higher, as redundant as that statement is.

Test Pilot

Test Pilot is director Victor Fleming’s foreshock before the veritable earthquake that he gave Hollywood the following year, and you know what; even for a foreshock, this still has a heck of an impact. I went into it thinking it would be largely riding the coattails of first Best Picture winner Wings; I came out of it amazed at how mature and forward-progressing it was for dramatic films, especially the script. Sure, the aerial sequences aren’t enough to get in a twist about, but the film more than makes up for its technical shortcomings with how well-written and well-performed the actual material is. That it is ending up third in my rankings says a lot, both about this one and about the films above it.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

-My rewatch of The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be, given how I’d reacted to it when I first saw it for the 1001 list. But, I kept with it, and by the end, I couldn’t say that I hadn’t still had a good time even though I’d already seen the film. There’s a certain magic to Robin Hood, a cavalier sense of whimsy about the adventure it gives us, that’s almost infectious; the film knows it has to be a little bit over-the-top for it to work, so it channels that energy to keep it from going way too over, and coupled with the charms of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, not to mention some gleefully colorful cinematography, and you’ve got a film that can stand the test of time and influence countless other films that will come after.

Grand Illusion

-We’ve got an interesting conundrum here. Grand Illusion was technically a 1937 film, but is included in this field of nominees by virtue of not having an American premiere until 1938. Technically, this should be among last year’s flock, but according to Academy rules, it ended up here, and since I am merely ‘Ranking the Nominees’ I’m given, then I’m putting Grand Illusion at the top here, and not even flinching about it; that this is the first foreign language nominee for the big one should say a lot about the response this managed to get even in America, and it was absolutely well deserved. Jean Renoir would up his game with 1939’s La Regle du Jeu, but Grand Illusion is just solid, solid entertainment, while also being a technical masterwork nearly if not on par with Renoir’s follow-up. The Academy probably figured that this one had won enough just by being nominated, and for being the first foreign film to be so. I say nay; this should have won the award, hands down.

-What Should Have Won-

There’s not a whole lot released in 1938 that screams “how did this not get nominated”, especially given some of the films that did manage a nom. I can think of a few films that are at least somewhat conspicuously absent, though. Chief among them is the James Cagney vehicle, Angels with Dirty Faces, which managed one of Michael Curtiz’ two nominations for Best Director but didn’t manage a Best Picture nom even despite its swimming in the wake of Dead End’s nomination the previous year. Some would include Bringing Up Baby as well, though as an anti-fan of screwball comedies, I’m not sure I would be the one to do it. I’ll also throw in another Hitchcock potential, The Lady Vanishes, as Hitch would seem to be finally getting into the first of his prime periods of his career with it.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

If we’re going by release year, Robin Hood would get my default vote; among the actual nominees, though, it’s Grand Illusion with nary a second thought.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Some winners and some losers, as per usual, Academy. I’d say something about how you need to up your game for next year, but seeing as how next year is generally regarded as the greatest year in Hollywood history, I’ll hold off until we close out the 1930s proper.

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1937

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Several firsts occurred at this year’s Academy Awards, such as Zola becoming the first film to net ten nominations, and Luise Rainer becoming the first actor to win more than one acting award, as well as consecutively. This would also be the first year the official Screen Extras Guild got to vote on all the nominees, which they’d have the power to do for the next eight years. Best Picture, though, would go to Zola, becoming the second biopic in a row to win the award.

-Ranking the Nominees-

One Hundred Men and a Girl

One Hundred Men and a Girl ends up in last place pretty much for being the most ‘nothing’ film of the myriad of nothing films that have been graciously chosen to fill out the still-expanded roster of Best Picture nominees, especially this year. It’s films like this one that I think have contributed significantly to my much slower pace as of late; I’m just tired of sitting through films like this, that are supposedly Best Picture material, when they are very clearly not, and not even getting anything whatsoever out of it on the other end. Films that are a complete slog to get through shouldn’t be anywhere near Best Picture, this included.

In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago falls into the category of Best Picture nominees that are clearly riding the coattails of previous Best Picture nominees. In this case, 1936’s San Francisco, the success of which sparked this film’s conception, creation, and commercialization. To say that this film wouldn’t have existed at all had San Francisco not been the success it had been is an absolutely massive understatement; the film doesn’t even really try and hide it, and films that exist entirely to be derivative are absolutely not what the best picture of the year should be.

Dead End

Dead End has a lot of soul to it, and by that I mean that the production value of the set/location, added to the pace of the script and the performances by the names of the picture, combine together to make a pervasive mood that the film keeps consistent through the whole running time. That, I think is the primary selling point of this one, and may even be why it got this nomination at all, considering there really isn’t any other reasons or selling points to this. While I liked it for its mood, there was no real story told here, and it’s very difficult to have a chance at winning Best Picture (i.e. being nominated) when your film doesn’t actually tell a story. There are exceptions, of course, but this is certainly not one of them.

Stage Door

-I’m actually a little surprised Stage Door ended up as low as it did, considering how I’d appreciated it when I watched it. But, re-reading my review, there’s really not a whole lot to this one aside from the rapid-fire pace of the dialogue and a couple of turns from supporting players. That, coupled with the feeling that the film’s shift in genre partway through, while effective for me at least, wasn’t part of the film’s intention, means that this is about as high in the rankings as this one is going to get.

Lost Horizon

-I feel I can legitimately say that Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s first real misstep in his career. The man imbues such a heart and soul to his pictures, and such a warm feeling of such, that it’s really no wonder he won three Best Director awards in the span of five years, especially considering the 1930’s. This, however, was simultaneously too much and not enough of a film to be a well-rounded picture, which as I said in my review was something I absolutely did not expect from Capra. I placed it in the middle of my ratings scale pretty much out of necessity, and that it ended up just below the fold of the expanded field in my rankings here is not too much of a surprise for me.

The Good Earth

-Now we’re getting into pictures that at the very least stand a decent chance at this award, and can do so without hunching down in their seats or looking around the room in embarrassment. The Good Earth has everything Best Picture would want to fill out the fold of its roster… on paper, that is. On the screen, I was actually a little taken aback at what a different kind of film it was compared to what Hollywood was known for making at the time. That it still got the nomination even with this was quite a pleasant surprise, but I’d imagine it ended up not winning this award for that same reason; it’s just too different a film to be an altogether and overtly entertaining one, and I’d have to agree with that particular line of reasoning.

The Life of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola won this award, and I suppose I can understand why it did for late-1930’s standards. But, that would basically be what I’d be doing: supposing. While this was enjoyable, and effective, for several reasons, I wouldn’t place it on any higher pantheon than that. Simply put, I liked this, but there are better and more deserving films up for this award, so let’s keep this in the fold but look at those other films instead.

Captains Courageous

-I do try and rewatch films I’ve seen previously for each year of this segment, but man was I surprised again at my rewatch of Captains Courageous; this is a really good film. Maybe it’s the charms of Spencer Tracy, or the skills of director Victor Fleming, or the script, or the maritime setting; I really don’t know what it is about this film that makes me like it so much. I’ve heard plenty about what a snot Freddie Bartholomew is in this role, but for me, that’s his character, and that people dislike him so much in this is a testament to how well he pulls it off as an actor, not to mention that he comes away at the end of the story very much changed, which is the mark of a good story well told. That’s what this is, principally: a good story well told, and had it not been for two other films, I could’ve seen this dark-horsing this award.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born has the distinction of being the first all-color film up for the big one, and I think that casts a bit of an unfair shadow over this film. Even if this had been shot and released in black-and-white (instead of merely having the color taken out of it, for example), it’s still a really solid picture, and echoing similar feelings towards films like Grand Hotel, this just feels like a Best Picture winner to me. So why’s it second? Well, keep reading, and I’ll get to that.

The Awful Truth

-I try to be as objective as I can be in these rankings, which (as should go without saying) is a lot harder than it seems. Case in point: this year. I’ve tried to keep these ten films in order of what I can realistically figure is the overall best picture of the year, but sometimes, something happens; you watch a film, or rewatch a film, and it’s just so enjoyable that you’re overcome with subjective emotions as to how and where to actually place it in a rankings such as this. The Awful Truth may not be the best story told this year, or the most even or solid, but, considering its intentions as a comedy, what it isn’t it more than makes up for with what it is: absolutely, genuinely hilarious. In this case, this year, screw objectivity; this picture right here is getting my vote, mainly for being the most fun I had with any of the ten nominees even despite my already having seen it. That’s a winner right there.

-What Should Have Won-

Looking through 1937, there’s not a whole lot that jumps out at someone, but there’s enough to potentially replace some of the lesser fare that got a nomination this year. A big miss for me, and famously for its director Leo McCarey as well, is Make Way for Tomorrow, though given how misunderstood it was when it was released I can see why it didn’t actually get in. Grand Illusion was released this year, but not in the States until next year, when it was nominated, so that one can wait till then. I could see a case being made for Stella Dallas as well, especially over some of the actual nominees. Undoubtedly the biggest miss, however, is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, though the Academy would partially rectify this mistake the following year with an honorary award for Walt Disney for the film, but its omission this year is still pretty glaring.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

As I said, at least for this year, screw objectivity; The Awful Truth is getting my vote.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

There’s some winners and some losers here, Oscar, both this year as a whole and in what you nominated, which is something I get the distinct impression I’m going to end up saying about almost every year up through when the category is finally shrunken down. C’mon now, let’s see you wow me.

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.