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.

Pygmalion

-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.

Jezebel

-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.

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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.

Dodsworth

-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.

Cleopatra

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

Flirtation Walk

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

One Night of Love

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

Here Comes the Navy

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

Viva Villa!

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

The House of Rothschild

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

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

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

Imitation of Life

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

The Thin Man

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

It Happened One Night

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

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

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

-How Did Oscar Do?-

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

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.

Cavalcade

-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

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.