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.

The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur

Benefits of science are not for scientists, Marie… They’re for humanity.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Paul Muni film; or, at least, one that I hadn’t seen before. I like Paul Muni, and the man, despite a few nominations, only won one Oscar in his career; for this, The Story of Louis Pasteur. While this won’t be fuel for a potential run of mine through the Best Actor nominees, I have seen all five of the nominees for that award for 1936, and while I don’t know outright whether I think Muni should’ve won over the others, I’m glad that he did; even with the still-short history of the Academy, Muni was overdue for actual recognition, and I’m okay with him getting it for this when he didn’t get it otherwise. That said, while Muni is far and away the biggest and best selling point this film has got, I do feel a little disappointed that he was honored for what ultimately amounts to a sub-par and far too on-the-nose biopic, and the flaws in this film seem to have only grown larger and more noticeable with age.

Muni is the titular Pasteur, who many know for the process of pasteurization, which is incidentally not covered in this film. Here, instead, we follow Pasteur’s attempts to combat diseases caused by what he calls microbes, in particular anthrax in sheep and rabies (or hydrophobia) in dogs and men. Since Pasteur is such a forward-thinking individual, his efforts at finding the causes of disease and fighting them, as well as his efforts to change how doctors and surgeons operate, are met with derision from the established medical community, and this is the prime conflict found in the film itself. First off, fans of Muni will no doubt recognize his face under that thick facial hair, even as he is particularly metamorphosed into the role of Pasteur, hence why I indicated in the opener that I was fine with him winning for this role; it’s certainly not an undeserved award, with what Muni accomplishes here. My problem with this film, and I guess with biopics of the era in general it would seem, is the deification of the subject that they feel they need to do in order to seemingly justify making a biopic of the person in question. Here, Louis Pasteur is not only a man who did great things and should be looked up to, but the film pushes it way beyond this and makes it so Pasteur is always right and everyone around him is hideously, ignorantly wrong; all of the time. There were more than enough scenes in this of Pasteur’s so-called foes in the academic world scoffing to his face and blindly refusing to open their minds even the slightest bit to his claims, or groups of these people literally laughing at the personally-absent Pasteur and how ‘impossible’ the things he’s been saying seem to be. I don’t know how historically accurate this film is, but having everyone against Pasteur literally getting together and laughing at the man and anyone who supports him seems… overdone, to put it nicely, and the film as a result has not aged all that well.

There was one thing to like about this film, and everything else was either par for the course, or had aged very poorly. This is pretty much why I’m ending up on the particular side, rating-wise, that I am. To add to that, aside from Muni’s performance, this was nowhere near what a Best Picture nominee ought to be; of course, that one or two exemplary features alone should net a film a Best Picture nomination is not an uncommon occurrence in the history of the Oscars, but the continued happening of it doesn’t mean that it’s justified or not incorrect for doing so. The Story of Louis Pasteur is but one of these many films; watch it for Muni, and pretty much for no other reason.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

So after some technical snafus, which delayed my watching films on my computer at all, I’m sorted out now (finally), so with that, let’s continue:

So, classical Hollywood; what’s the deal with Ronald Colman? I’d never heard of him before Arrowsmith, which bored me nearly to tears, but apparently, he was a big thing in the early-to-mid 30s, and his name is trumpeted at the start of this film like it’s the film’s biggest selling point. Never mind that this is a film adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel; no, this is all about Ronald Colman and his amazing star power, apparently. Well, as someone who’s never read Dickens’ original A Tale of Two Cities, but who’s had experience with Ronald Colman in the past, my expectations for this one were none too stellar, especially considering how high-falutin’ literary adaptations have been in the 30s so far. So, in that, A Tale of Two Cities (the film) exceeded my expectations; it was better than I thought it was going to be. But not by too much, though.

The story is quite complicated, but basically, this is a story of two gentlemen who are both in love with the same woman, all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. There’s a hell of a lot more to it than that, but I’d run the risk of this plot summary being as long as Wikipedia’s. Still, the film’s story is complicated enough that Ronald Colman, despite being billed as the star, doesn’t show up until a good twenty minutes or so into the film, and from then on he’s on screen for probably only half the remaining running time. Even so, Colman actually does a good job with what he’s given here, even if he isn’t given a whole lot; likely because this was a passion project of Colman’s, and he had a lot of personal investment in it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that he impressed me, but he was one of the better parts of the film, so I’ll give him a check in the win column for that. All told, however, I didn’t find myself too invested in this film, probably because I hadn’t read the original Dickens novel; I definitely feel that I would’ve gotten a lot more out of this if I’d had history with the source material, but I didn’t, so that’s that.

This was fine, but never once during my watch of it did I feel that this was Best Picture material, which is mostly why I ended up where I ended up with it, just for lack of any other opinion being able to form. This, for me, ended up being another smear-of-grey type of film, the type to be fairly decent in production value and possibly even entertainment, but once it’s over, it quickly vanishes from one’s memory, with no lingering intent to ever watch it again, even if I had the opportunity to. That, I say once again, does not for me the best picture of the year make. If for whatever reason you are a fan of Ronald Colman, and haven’t seen this yet, I feel pretty confident that he’ll impress you with this one. Otherwise, unless you’re a fan of the original novel, there’s not much reason to watch this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force. The Jedi… All of it. It’s all true.

So. Star Wars. Again. Yep, it happened; we got a sequel trilogy, and the expectations and hype for this first installment of it were absolutely stratospheric. Of course, when it came out, I went to see it opening day; I really couldn’t avoid it, being a movie guy, and wanting to make sure I wouldn’t be spoiled as well as being able to keep up with the conversation as it happened instead of being days behind. Was I pleased? Yep; it was entertaining, all right. But there was absolutely a caveat to the entertainment I’d experienced, which I shared with quite a few other viewers and reviewers that I came across. So, let’s get the big question out of the way right off the bat: Does Star Wars: The Force Awakens deserve a spot on the fresh edition of the List? In my opinion, not particularly, and I’ll explain why.

It is some 30-odd years after the downfall of the Empire, and from its ashes has risen the First Order, which is basically the Empire in all but name. Countering them is the Resistance, led by Leia Organa, just like the old days. Missing from the equation this time, however, is Luke Skywalker, who has vanished after his fledgling New Jedi Order was eliminated by a rogue student of his… Sound slightly familiar? Well, the rogue student, now going by the name Kylo Ren, has made it his mission, and the First Order’s, to exterminate Skywalker, and to do that, he needs the only remaining map to Skywalker’s destination; information found inside a droid unit (named BB-8), who ends up on a desert planet, found by a wayward scavenger living in the desert, who becomes involved with the Resistance, and who also finds a new path to destiny through their latent ability to use the Force. In case you’re that one single individual who didn’t see The Force Awakens, I guess I should remind you: no, this isn’t Episode 4, this is Episode 7, but I’d easily forgive you if you read that plot synopsis and got confused as to which film this was. And there you have it; my main issue with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the issue I shared with a good percentage of other viewers I found – it’s Episode 4 all over again. Director J.J. Abrams basically did the same thing he did with the sequel to the Star Trek reboot; he made a love letter to the original, and called it a proper sequel. Now, that’s not exactly a bad thing, since the resulting film is certainly an entertaining one. But it just feels derivative, because it is exactly so, and that’s not what a good sequel, and especially a reintroduction to a franchise, should be. As one last note, and there will be mild spoilers to anyone who can’t infer the plot from the synopsis up there, but: I found it quite hilarious that Mark Hamill was billed second in the credits, when he is missing from literally the entire film until the last 40 seconds or so, and has exactly zero lines; I just got a kick out of that.

I have a feeling Abrams deliberately made this film as a handoff of Star Wars to the next generation, of fans and of characters. I’m not sure that sort of idea can support the beginning of the long-awaited and highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel trilogy, of all freaking things. It’s nice to watch, sure, but it absolutely did not live up to the expectations going into the film; though, I will admit, it would’ve been hard for any film to live up to the level of expectations that this film had to it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfect meld of a J.J. Abrams film and a love letter to the original Star Wars, and that should not have been what this film ultimately amounts to. It might get an extra point onto the rating just for being as entertaining as it is, but I was so let down by how derivative it was of Episode 4 that I ended up not giving it that point, and that I think says a lot more than I’ve actually been able to in this review. Did this deserve to get onto the list, just by virtue of being the Star Wars sequel we ultimately got? No, because it wasn’t the one we should’ve gotten.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

And I guess that’s all for 2015, at least for now. Now, back to my regularly scheduled programming.

The Great Ziegfeld

The Great Ziegfeld

You’re workin’ for Mr. Ziegfeld now, and ya look like a million dollars!

I knew going into The Great Ziegfeld that it was going to be my first real marathon-level watch of this odyssey, clocking in at around three hours. I settled myself down, readying myself for an extravagant, opulent production, with budget galore and production value to warrant such a running time. Well, I got all that… for about twenty minutes in the middle portion of the film. The rest was a fairly simple biopic, and it actually disappointed me that the film wasn’t overly hedonistic with the money invested into it. I didn’t have much knowledge of the man known as Ziegfeld before this film, and knowing what I do about Hollywood biopics of the era (and today’s era, to be honest), I don’t think I have a good enough knowledge of the man now. What’s more, the only real reason I looked forward to this film, to see if it really was worth a three-hour running time, ended up being another failed proposition.

William Powell is Florence Ziegfeld, Jr., a wannabe showman promoting various low-key acts, including a strongman named Sandow, with whom he overcomes his barker rival Billings through savvy business marketing. His business relationships grow, even as his personal bank account doesn’t, and he somehow manages to put together enough contacts and reputation to put forth his own show, the Ziegfeld Follies; all the while, he juggles the affections of various women, all of which, along with his growing debts amid his constant frittering of his money, threaten to chip away at the man from the inside. There’s a bit more to the film than that, but that seemed to be the main issue with The Great Ziegfeld; there was always more to everything, and it didn’t seem like it was really worth all that the film offered us. The film started with an overture, and for the first time I was slightly irked by this, as since it’s a film and there is no live band covering the music while people get to their seats the whole purpose of having an overture felt cheapened and false, but I guess the film wanted to indulge itself with everything it possibly could, because holy cow do the musical numbers in the middle portion of this film scream Hollywood indulgence. It was actually a little incongruous, since the rest of the film was fairly rudimentary and basic in construction, but the Ziegfeld Follies numbers themselves must’ve amounted to a good half of the film’s budget, and considering the film was one of MGM’s most expensive at the time, that says a hell of a lot. The Follies themselves aside, however, this is a pretty standard biopic, which made me wonder why it was so universally lauded upon its initial release. Sure, it’s long, but I’ve always been of the opinion that just because a film is long, that it doesn’t automatically make it better, which is evidently something Hollywood and those who reviewed it back in the day didn’t learn until well after this film was past its heyday. William Powell is standard Powell, which is always enjoyable, but it’s the relatively new discovery of Luise Rainer who steals the show, particularly in one scene which was absolutely the reason she ended up winning Best Actress.

I gave this an extra point pretty much for the sheer volume of effort put into the three-hour running time, and that I think is exactly the reason this doesn’t work as well as it really thinks it does; the film thinks that by including everything it possibly can, that it will make up for its own shortcomings, not understanding that including absolutely everything is in itself a shortcoming as well, and there’s really no better example of this I can come up with right now than The Great Ziegfeld. It’s enjoyable, sure, but it’s ultimately not worth the running time, even with the ridiculously overproduced Follies numbers in the middle portion. Did this deserve a nomination for Best Picture? I guess I can’t really fault the Academy for giving it one. Should it have won Best Picture? No, not really. If you can withstand the running time, this might be a nice watch, but you really need to cut out a healthy section of time for yourself to get through it, and you may not be all that glad that you did.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Jim. You should be careful.

Okay, editors of the list, we get it: you really, really like Steven Spielberg. That pithy dismissal of Bridge of Spies being added to the list was all that went through my head when I found that it had been added, as well as when I went to actually start watching it. I’ve posited the argument before that Spielberg’s films tend to fall into two genres; the feel-good uplifting childlike wonderment type of film that E.T. basically personifies, and the ultra-serious historical epics he does to be seen as a serious director like Lincoln and Schindler’s List. Then there’s the films he makes that seem to want to be both of these two types of Spielberg, such as War Horse, and Bridge of Spies absolutely falls into this latter combo-category. In doing so, however, much like War Horse, the film itself comes across as very perfunctory, an unnecessary watch, and just as unnecessary a production undertaken by the filmmakers.

Bridge of Spies is the story of Jim Donovan, played here by Tom Hanks, an insurance lawyer who is called upon by the U.S. government to be the legal counsel for Rudolf Abel, a Russian citizen in Brooklyn arrested and charged with espionage for the Soviet Union. Knowing the farcical nature of the defense he is meant to put up, Donovan nevertheless does his duty; Abel is still found guilty, but through Donovan’s persistence he is kept from the death penalty in case he may be needed for a future prisoner exchange with the Soviets, should the opportunity arise. Well, the opportunity does, in the form of Gary Powers, a pilot flying a secret surveillance plane shot down in Soviet territory. Donovan, feeling responsible for Abel, is put in charge of the negotiations to secure Powers’ release for Abel’s, which are compounded when Donovan also learns of Frederic Pryor, a U.S. grad student caught on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall, and Donovan sets out to secure the release of two American prisoners instead of just one. I wanted to go into notable aspects of Bridge of Spies, that could be seen as selling points, but to be honest, the whole thing smears together so well that nothing in particular stands out, with the exception of Mark Rylance, who plays Abel, and who somehow steals the screen every time he’s on it without saying much more than a few words per his even fewer sentences, and who notably won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars despite no actual campaign run for him to win the award by studios, producers, or Rylance himself. Hanks is typical Hanks, the cinematography, score, and production design are typical Spielberg; this is just really, really typical filmmaking, but since it’s Spielberg, the level of typical is elevated somewhat above what would otherwise be a typical film. It’s good, but nothing about it is so good as to get in a twist about it, which has been my problem with Spielberg’s perennial releases as of late.

I was left feeling mightily okay by Bridge of Spies; it’s a fine picture, with plenty of positive attributes, but when it’s all mixed together, the final combined result is… well, just okay. I went to check this as watched on Letterboxd, and I skimmed some of the other reviews there to see how my opinion fit into the general opinion, and I found one review that so epitomized Bridge of Spies and Spielberg as a filmmaker that I’m going to steal the key phrase the reviewer on that site used to describe both: Spielberg is the ultimate “dad” director, making “dad films”, i.e. films that you can watch with your dad in a family movie night and not have anybody feeling uncomfortable or left unsatisfied at the end. That’s Spielberg in a nutshell, and that’s also Bridge of Spies in a single phrase: it’s the ultimate dad film, or at least the most so that Spielberg has made up to this point. This won’t survive future editions’ culling of the list’s entries, and really, it shouldn’t, but it was nice to watch, I guess, so no real harm done.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Three Smart Girls

Three Smart Girls

I’m not a gentleman. I’m a father!

It seems I’m starting to get to the beginning of the era of musical nominees for Best Picture, where every other nominee it seemed had song and/or dance to it. I’m pretty much made to think that way when I watch a film like Three Smart Girls, which somehow manages the feat of trying to be a musical and not really succeeding at it. Oh sure, there’s songs, and people sing them, but there might as well not be for how much good they do the film… Then again, maybe this does succeed as a musical after all. Three Smart Girls is touted all over as the big screen debut of Deanna Durbin, and I can see why Universal wanted to make her their newest star, considering how operatic her voice was in this film (if indeed it was actually her voice). Unfortunately, the film as a whole is so hokey and unoriginal that I’m actually a little amazed that it kickstarted Durbin’s career the way it did.

The three girls of the title are the Craig sisters; Joan, Kay, and Penny, who live rather happily with their mother, despite their parents having been divorced some time earlier. When the sisters catch wind that their father is going to remarry, they have their suspicions about the bride-to-be, and so they head off to New York City to break off the new marriage and get their mother and father back together again. A simpler plot would be hard to find, and thus I’m forced to conclude that the film isn’t about the plot, or that it doesn’t boast it among its selling points, which was an easy conclusion to make in the face of how basic the film’s story was constructed. So what is there to watch this for, then? Well, if you were to say the singing, maybe in the 1930s this would count, but I couldn’t help but get the distinct impression that Durbin wasn’t actually singing the songs in the film, but lip-synching to either her own singing or the voice of someone else; which, I happen to know, is how they did film most musicals back in the day, and it unfortunately shows a little too much here. So, if it’s not the singing, is it Durbin, as well as her on-screen sisters, the titular trio themselves? Possibly; the film knows it has to center on the charms of the three young girls, but it seemed to overdo it for fear that underdoing it might have caused the film to fail even more, not understanding the adage that too much of anything is never a good thing. So, then; what is there to tout as this film’s selling points? Well… I really don’t know, and that’s basically Three Smart Girls in a nutshell; not enough (or too much) of any real positive attributes to really cause the film to shine, but instead being merely content to pander in hopes that it will be enough to succeed.

I really don’t want to hate on this film too much, because for all its lack of good attributes, I didn’t really hate the film, and really I can’t say I disliked it to an extended degree either. What I found about it, though, was that it was derivative, hackneyed, and overbearing in whatever it thought it needed to do correctly to succeed as a still-early-sound-era musical, and when such a product ends up not being as entertaining as it ought to be, being instead only tangentially so, then I can’t really give it a good rating as a result. Is this worth seeing? Not particularly, though I won’t rule out a possibility of some enjoyment should you decide to watch this one regardless. Just don’t go into it expecting a real contender for best picture of the year, because this really isn’t.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10