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.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

I’m going out and have a real life! I’m gonna be somebody!

It’s a little disorienting to look at groundbreaking films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and realize that they aren’t as much the groundbreakers you thought they were. Two years before those two films changed the canvas and introduced color to the public, it had already been done by 1937’s A Star is Born, which incidentally was also produced by David O. Selznick, and which became the first all-color film to be nominated for Best Picture, even winning a special Oscar essentially for being so. Now, you’d be forgiven if you heard the title A Star is Born and thought immediately of the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, since I’d absolutely be one of the people who would do just that, but I gotta say; this original screen version, with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, does have a lot going for it.

Esther Blodgett moves to Hollywood to chase her dream of becoming an actress, despite discouragements from her family (save for her appreciative grandmother). Starting with nothing, Esther winds up serving at a party and meets Norman Maine, one of her favorite actors, who’s entering a downslope in his career thanks to his persistent drinking. Immediately taken with the young wannabe, Norman wrangles her a screen test, and later persuades his producer friend to give Esther the lead opposite him in a picture, which (after some rebranding of her farmgirl roots and a new stage name: Vicki Lester) catapults her to stardom. Of course, with every shining star comes a cloud to darken its light, and after she and Norman are married, that cloud threatens to be Norman himself, who can’t kick his drinking habit, nor his indignation at his own career coming up in shambles in comparison to Esther’s. Then again, if you know Hollywood and Hollywood pictures, you know this story already, either from this one or one of the remakes. So, what does this have that the other versions of this story don’t? To be honest, not all that much, but for once, it really didn’t matter; this was not only enjoyable, but it was a damn sight better than most of the riff-raff that’s been nominated for Best Picture in the past few years of my odyssey or so. Both Janet Gaynor and Fredric March earned nominations for this film, and they are both well deserved; March in particular was overall better and more grounded than I’ve seen him in a few films of his, which considering he’s made his name for being pretty good and grounded as an actor, is saying something about this film and his work in it. Of course, the film is in color, and the color photography is very nice, but it doesn’t punch you in the face with the fact that it’s in color, which I was even more appreciative of.

Now, just because this film does have a lot going for it, as I said in the opener, doesn’t mean that it’s better than the ’54 remake, and in my opinion, I don’t think it is. But, thankfully (given the lesser Best Picture fare thus far), it’s not by much. This is a really solid picture, and the fact that it was in color just made the overall solidity of its quality even easier to admire and appreciate. This isn’t a fine picture because it’s in color; it’s a fine picture first, and the color merely adds to it. That’s some damn fine praise from me for an early color picture, outside of the absolute pinnacles of the genre like the two supposed groundbreakers I mentioned in the first line of this review. This isn’t one of those, an absolute pinnacle of the genre, but it’s still pretty darn good, and I was thankful as hell for that, and just as entertained by this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Good Earth

The Good Earth

The land is our life.

It’s nice to see that Paul Muni would eventually get the recognition I always felt he deserved, even if it did come a few years later than I would’ve liked. He won Best Actor for Louis Pasteur the previous year, and was nominated again for Best Picture winner Emile Zola in ’37. Not only that, he also starred in this, The Good Earth, another Best Picture nominee that year. I haven’t rewatched Zola yet (though I probably should fairly soon), so I can’t compare Muni’s performances between the two films all that much. But, for what it’s worth, I was fairly pleased that The Good Earth managed a nomination for the big one, even if it’s not too much of a surprise when you look at its credentials for the era it was made in.

Muni is Wang Lung, a farmer in the northern farmlands of China, sometime just before the Chinese Revolution. Scraping by enough on his own, he is thrilled when he is selected to be married to one of the servant girls of the Great House, the rich people’s abode in the nearby village. He and his new wife O-Lan soon make a family for themselves, and the film details their trials and hardships as they try and survive whatever life happens to throw at them. There’s really not much more to the narrative than that, though plenty does happen in the film for Wang and O-Lan to persevere through, or try to in some cases. What the film lacks in a standardized narrative, it more than makes up for in sheer production value, as well as the performances of the leads, and a few of the supporting players as well. Being a 1930s historical epic, so to say, the rustic and thorough production value is the main draw, used to fully realize the setting and era the film takes place in, and indeed the production value is very well utilized; cinematographer Karl Freund even won an Oscar for his work capturing it all. Even with the film using Western actors to play the lead roles of Chinese characters, Muni and Luise Rainer (who plays O-Lan) do exceptional work, especially for it being as reserved as it is. Rainer, indeed, would win her second Best Actress Oscar for this, becoming the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, which might be a bit much considering how low-key her performance is here, but as I said earlier, it’s still very good and certainly memorable.

This isn’t a typical Hollywood film, of the times or otherwise, and that I think is what makes this as easy to appreciate as it is. The stars underact instead of over, there’s no real formula or strict adherence to customary narrative, and there isn’t even really a bad guy or villain of the piece (though the uncle character is pushed close to this territory a few times); this is merely a simple tale about people trying to survive in the wake of a hard life that never lets up, both in human obstacles and natural ones. Normally, I’d probably appreciate the shift in difference between a film like this and a typical Hollywood picture of the 1930s, but with The Good Earth, I only felt a little bit of gratification at both the difference and the film’s inherent value. I definitely did not come out of this singing its praises, as should be evident, and for all that it does do well, I just couldn’t get all that invested in it. It’s a solid picture, but it’s not an altogether entertaining one, and it’s really a shame that it almost has to be this way for the picture to even work as well as it does manage to do. Still, while this wasn’t exactly one for the win column, it absolutely wasn’t a loss, and given the lesser fare of these Best Picture noms that I seem to be trudging through, I’ll take whatever I can get in terms of pictures like these.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon

I think I’m going to like it here.

Every director in Hollywood has that big, epic movie production they’ve always wanted to do, and in many cases eventually get the chance to do, and it seems not even hometown, quintessential Americana director Frank Capra is excluded from this conjecture. Capra evidently wanted Lost Horizon to be his grandest picture yet, and no expense was spared him, even when the production went over-budget and he turned in an initial cut of the film that was six hours long. Apparently, his producers finally said enough and cut the film down themselves, to its release running time of just over two hours, which is the version I watched, though some small sequences of film have been lost to time and replaced by still images to the still-existing audio. Even watching this version, though, I could not surmise to any extent why Capra had such a hard time cutting the film down; even at two hours, it feels like it doesn’t get enough done during the running time to justify its own length.

Ronald Colman stars as Robert Conway, a novelist and important British diplomat who is fighting to get a series of planes into China to export a group of Westerners in the midst of an armed conflict. Succeeding, he boards the last plane out, but unbeknownst to him, the plane is hijacked by an unknown pilot, and the plane ends up crashing in the mountains when it runs out of fuel. Facing certain death, the crash survivors are amazed when a small group of sherpas meet them and take them to their refuge, Shangri-La, a remote and isolated paradise secluded by mountains on all sides. Faced with a thriving, idyllic community the likes of which he’d always dreamed of, Conway and the others must now uncover the mysteries of the utopia that has taken them in, and figure out when, or indeed if, they’re going to be able to leave. For an epic, or at least a purported one, this had a surprisingly smaller, hometown mindset to most of it, though considering it’s Capra that is probably more to be expected than I initially thought. There’s no excessive production value to this one that is so typical of Hollywood epics, and indeed the scope of the story itself is rather confined, hopping from the plane to Shangri-La and then pretty much staying there for most of the rest of the picture. There are a few times, mostly during the beginning and ending sections, where the music swells up to seemingly offer a heightened sense of danger or conflict, but never when this happened did it feel genuine or accurate, instead feeling manufactured by the film to cover up the fact that there wasn’t as much to the plot as there could’ve been. Added to this is the actual ending of the film, which if you don’t mind some mild spoilers, opts to not dramatize what likely should’ve been the third act of the film and instead have a chance character regale what happens to a group of people, instead of actually showing us what happens. It felt particularly lazy of the film to do this, and spoiled a lot of what good will I’d had with the film up to then, but I didn’t take it too harshly, as if all of what this chance character describes had actually made it into the film, the picture likely would’ve indeed run six hours, and been justified in doing so.

There were some things to like about this picture, but there were just as many things to not like about it. The major one for me was that it didn’t feel like a complete picture, instead feeling like the released print is, say, parts one and three of a six part story smushed together, with the description at the end of the film filling in whatever blanks the film has by not actually having the plot in the film itself. This, more than anything, is why I felt, as I said in the opener, that the film hadn’t done enough to justify the length it was; oddly enough, it was because the film had too much material, didn’t film enough of it, and then tried to stretch what it had done out to 3 or 4 hours before the producers finally pulled it away from Capra’s hands and tried to make do with what Capra had done up to that point. It was extremely disjointed, and I absolutely was not expecting that from a Frank Capra film. Maybe he did let this one get away from him a little too much. Still, aside from once again not being taken by the supposed charms of Ronald Colman, there’s enough of Capra in here to make it a somewhat decent watch, though it definitely isn’t one you absolutely have to see, so for that, I’ll be nice and put it right in the middle of my ratings scale. It could’ve been worse, and it could’ve been better, but really, what it actually is is just… incomplete. That’s all.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago

We O’Learys are a strange tribe…

It seems a running theme among these early Best Picture nominees is films that pretty much try and copy the critical or commercial success of an earlier nominee by very nearly ripping off from the earlier nominee, if only in idea at the least. Case in point: In Old Chicago, a fictional account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a film that almost surely wouldn’t exist were it not for the success of the prior year’s nominee San Francisco, of which this tries to be the newer version of. Not only that, this pretty much tries everything it can to be the quintessential picture, including just about everything a film of this era seemed to think it either needs or wants in order to be successful and popular. If that’s all it takes to automatically win accolades, then I guess I can’t blame the producers and filmmakers for doing so. But I can still call the film out for what it is; derivative and pandering in almost every way.

For those who don’t know about the Great Fire, it was allegedly started by a cow, owned by a Mrs. O’Leary, knocking over a lantern. I bring this up as probably the only historically accurate thing in the film, which is otherwise entirely fictional. In the film, the O’Learys arrive in Chicago without the father, who was killed during the trip, but they quickly recover and become a notable family in the city’s rougher area, known as the Patch. In particular, the two eldest O’Leary sons, Dion and Jack, respectively come to operate a saloon in the Patch and become a reform lawyer for the city. When Jack goes on to run for mayor, this brings him in conflict with Dion, when Jack wishes to reform the city by wiping out the crime-ridden Patch, including Dion’s power-hold in the area, and everything comes to a head, of course, when the fire breaks out and more pressing matters arise. I’ll say this first off; this tries to cash in on the success of San Francisco, and while the fire segment of the film is certainly a spectacle (like San Francisco’s earthquake sequence), everything else the film tries to copy its predecessor for, it does in much lesser quality, mostly because the film knows that it’s following up a previous film, and doesn’t even try to be a better film because of it. I really wish there was more to say about the film than that, but that basically sums up the entire thing: it’s like San Francisco, but not as well done, and it is so because it intentionally tries to do everything that previous film did and no more than that.

There’s some other weirdness in this one, especially with how Dion O’Leary is shown to woo his love interest in the first section of the film, which I had some problems with, but really, this is an unnecessary and redundant film made even more so by the film not being better than its spiritual predecessor in any way. I’ll give it a point for matching San Fran in its disaster sequence, if only barely, but that’d be it. I imagine this won’t get too high on my nominee ranking, and it really shouldn’t, unless the remaining films from this year are absolutely god-awful, and at this point, I can only hope that they’re not. Anyway, moving on.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Dead End

Dead End

You never brought nothin’ but trouble.

For a while now, I’ve been wondering how to frame my review of Dead End, a William Wyler picture starring the eponymous ‘Dead End Kids’, as well as the first appearance of Humphrey Bogart in this Best Picture odyssey for me. I didn’t have a lot to go on; the film itself is very unassuming, even as it does have quite a bit of selling points to it. I was mainly bugged by one main thing about the film, however, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I’d ultimately focus on this as my framing device; the inevitability of it making an impact with me. That framing device is this: the difference, at least in film, between plot and narrative. I bring this up here because Dead End is only the latest example of a film that, while having plot, is rather short on narrative, and what kind of a film it ultimately amounts to as a result of this filmmaking decision.

The film focuses on the end of a dead end street (get it?) in a slummy block of New York City, where a high-rise apartment building towers literally and figuratively over the poor and destitute residents of the rest of the street, which ends at a dock on a river. Here, several stories take place; a small group of kids who live on the block cause rows and make trouble, aspiring to be greater than the block they grew up on, while a former such punk turned gangster named Baby Face Martin returns to seek out his mother and old flame, and one of Martin’s old friends (who still lives on the block doing odd jobs) tries to get out his own way with one of the girls from the high-rise he’s having an affair with. So, what’s the actual story being told here; the point of it all? Well, therein lies the main issue with Dead End; there really isn’t one. Things happen, characters do stuff, dialogue is said; that’s plot, what actually happens in a film, but Dead End has no real narrative, no overarching storyline that the plot serves to advance to a conclusion. In Dead End, things just happen; it’s slice-of-life, but under the pretense of having a story to tell, so a percentage of viewers (like myself) end up a little flummoxed that at the end of it all there wasn’t anything substantive to it. I suppose some could make an argument that the whole point is to tell the story of the people on the block, as a sort of cautionary tale to not be like the punk kids or the gangster in the film. Indeed, this might’ve even been the intention of the filmmakers. But, when it’s a point like this that almost doesn’t need to be made at all, then where’s the real narrative then?

I think I expanded a little too much on my original point, since I didn’t really get to the technicals of the film itself; things like the very well utilized production design, and reserved but effective performances from the likes of Bogart and Joel McCrea, as well as some of the negatives, like the kids themselves, who seemed to have gotten all their acting skill by watching James Cagney and Edward Robinson and doing their most caricatured impressions of them. Still, though, this had more to it than it had detracting from it, in my eyes, so for me, it ends up in the win column, if only just. Not sure how it’ll end up falling in the ranking, though; while this was above the average for me, I can still see plenty of other films that stand a better chance at the big award than this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Stage Door

Stage Door

Maybe if you tried to do something for the theater, the theater would do something for you.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Stage Door, especially given how tepid the title of the film was. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, among a generally-sized cast of women, and doesn’t have all that much in terms of plot and the development of it. Still, it seemed to be relatively well-regarded, from what I was able to find, and it was short, so I started it hoping it wouldn’t be too troublesome. Well, it definitely wasn’t, that’s for sure. In fact, I was surprised at what this did have to offer, which started out one way and ended entirely differently. All told, the film was just about the opposite of tepid that a film like this could’ve gotten.

Stage Door is ostensibly the story of the Footlights Club, a boarding house in New York City for aspiring stage actresses. Katharine Hepburn’s character shows up at the beginning, looking for accommodations, and she is boarded with Ginger Rogers; the two don’t get along at their first meeting, because this is a Hollywood film, after all. The film basically tells the story of the young actresses living under the Footlights roof, focusing mainly on the two leads, but featuring a few other of the boarders as well, one in particular who is responsible for the film’s dramatic shift of genre in the third act. The first thing that jumped out at me during my viewing of Stage Door was the dialogue, and how inordinarily improvisational it all seemed. The opening scene, for example, has a bunch of the tenants arguing and talking over each other in the main gathering room, a squabble of women gabbing and cavorting and generally not caring who else is talking or who they have to out-volume, which seemed to be exactly the opposite of the precise and controlled screenwriting typical of the era. As the film went on, though, I got the distinct impression that not only was the improv-style script the film’s main selling point, but that the film sure as hell knew it, perhaps a little too well. That the film’s script was written improvisationally was impressive and novel at the beginning; that the film kept such a script dialed up to eleven through almost the entire running time grew rather annoying as it went on, even with the film being only an hour and a half long. Thankfully, for me at least, the film seemed to know that it couldn’t remain one-note literally the whole time, and something happens to shift the film’s center of gravity away from snarky comedy and into more dramatic territory, where the film seemed to really come into its own, thanks to all the world-building that had taken place up to then.

This was a surprise, absolutely, but it wasn’t as much of one as I really felt it could’ve been. For one, with the film’s script being what it was, it thus didn’t have all that much in terms of actual narrative, especially with the short running time; the film feels like 15-20 minutes worth of plot carried by a full hour and half of snarky, sarcastic, improvisational dialogue in between. Then the third act happens, and suddenly the film wants to be more than what it had been up to that point. I just so happened to welcome the change, mostly because the constant non-stop speed of the dialogue was getting tiresome, but the film is fairly uneven as a result of the decision to do things the way the film does them. Ginger Rogers was a definite surprise, considering I didn’t think much of her at all in prior films, as was supporting player Andrea Leeds, but aside from them, I’m not sure how to recommend this one; it seems like two films inordinately sewn together, and thus everything I could point to on one side to recommend it to someone would be offset by something else in the other portion of the film. Still, this was pretty enjoyable for me, so I won’t consider this one as a loss or fault, at least too much.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10