Looking Back at Oscar, #6

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1932/33:

42nd Street
A Farewell to Arms
Berkeley Square
Cavalcade
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Lady for a Day
Little Women
Morning Glory
Private Life of Henry VIII
She Done Him Wrong
Smilin’ Through
State Fair

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
42nd Street
A Farewell to Arms
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Little Women

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1932/33 Year in Review post.

Berkeley Square
With Berkeley Square, we enter that most popular of genres from the Hollywood of the 1930s before the Code had strangled mainstream cinema in a way it never really recovered from: a time travel movie. No, I am not exaggerating. The formerly lost film focuses on Leslie Howard’s Peter Standish (what a loaded last name), who is transported back from “modern” America to before the American Revolution, where he gets to meet his ancestors. It is an outlandish premise that could be amazing if it were not for the film skimming over the surface in a way that makes the lack of effort to preserve it more understandable. Part of the problem is the decision to have Mr. Standish simply replace his prior relative rather than the two having interactions, as the topics potentially worth pursuing are very much limited with one person running around England who does not belong rather than an odd couple situation. Far more unforgivable is the technological regression on display. With plenty of films coming out the same year where the camera moved around a bit, there is no excuse for this kind of staged play nonsense that was so popular with the Academy for unfathomable reasons back in the early days. Weirdly, this movie inspired an H.P. Lovecraft story, but this particular piece of work does not play like a horror picture, it feels like Cavalcade with a fictitious premise (they had the same director, which is not remotely surprising since he was utterly pointless outside of Mutiny on the Bounty-he also cursed us with Madame X). The Academy sure was in a nostalgic mood that year, I suppose? Whatever it was, it is not an appealing attitude to take, with Leslie Howard hamming it up by mentioning things that have not happened, signaling it in the most obvious way, and getting side eye from the others. It is a very stupid joke the first time that we hear it, and it gets repeated endlessly over what comes across as an incredibly long 88 minutes. Even stupider is the concept of falling in love with the wrong sister despite what destiny says, which could be an intriguing concept if it was not for all the headaches that this sort of intricate plotting would bring up. Either delve into the ideas that this raises or do something stupider but don’t hedge your bets and try to cover both when you are a lousy writer.

Cavalcade
For perspective: the Academy had eighteen months of movies in a period that was not exactly weak in the selection of pictures to choose from in their well planned transition from the bizarre double year layout to the calendar year format that we use today. 42nd Street was right there, among plenty of other worthwhile choices. Nick Davis made a chop of the poster with the tagline being changed to “Subtle As a Horse-Kick to the Head,” and this is accurate. It starts with THAT soundtrack you hear all the time in epics, and ends with the final scene being focused on the day that the movie itself came out! Gasp! How breathtaking…and how boring. This is just Forrest Gump without the magical elements (do not misinterpret my use of that word, I hate that film too), and with Diana Wynyard bizarrely getting an Oscar nomination for constantly looking into the camera and making a big show of putting on her British stiff upper lip face, Norma Shearer looking like what she wants to curl up into a ball and die, some of the most laughable foreshadowing ever written in the form of the scene where the newlyweds pledge eternal love to each other endlessly before revealing a life preserver that says TITANIC on it (sorry, spoiler alert), borderline incestuous sexuality among the main family which probably pushes it ahead of Broadway Melody and Cimarron in the Worst Best Picture Ever race just for the laughs (there is also a gay bar when they reach the Jazz Age at the end of the unceasing two hour running time which makes me wish I had watched this with some wine), and an attitude towards life in the United Kingdom that borders on the level of the propaganda we are fed in Triumph of the Will. Watching all the talent who got roped into this subscribe so fully to this hideous vision is exhausting. Don’t even get me started on the script unironically peddling that Fanny was a great singing talent when she is arguably even worse than the two aspiring starlets in The Broadway Melody. The entire picture is an incoherent piece of garbage that feels like a parody of everything the Academy is known for going for in their taste in movies. It’s About History, So It Is Important! There is nothing historic about this wasting a perfectly good honor for film.

Lady for a Day
My Brief Year in Review piece for Lady for a Day: Exceptionally good first half that feels like it will lead to perfect Capra collapses upon itself and becomes two dimensional.

The final Best Actress race of the hybrid year calendar featured the starlet of the upcoming Bringing Up Baby against the woman who played her aunt, May Robson, along with the star of the year’s choice for Best Picture to round out a rather weak trio. Lady for a Day is the strongest film of the nominees in the leading Actress category, with Morning Glory being too weird and Cavalcade being actively painful, but Robson’s performance as Apple Annie, a lonely old person of age 75 with issues towards alcohol and who sells apples to make a living before becoming, well, look at the title…only fulfills the same criteria by a few thin hairs in a very bizarre year of choices for the category, with her work that turned out to be an enormous breakout hit at the box office just barely able to triumph over Hepburn having an exceptionally strong start, with four films under her belt. The first half is undoubtedly what got her to the top, with the setup and her performance doing great work. Her emotions are extreme and uncontrollable in a way that feels natural, with not a single hint of ridiculousness when she is burdened with a scene as potentially ridiculous as writing a letter while drinking heavily in the middle of the night, or trying to get a hotel manager to lie to her daughter about her death so that her charade of doing just fine economically can be continued, but unfortunately things go off the rails. Annie’s part gets diminished from a complicated, alcoholic lady with issues towards her motherhood to someone who is basically refusing to go any deeper with the emotional complications of the part. She gets turned into a respectable society woman very quickly, without even any scenes of her having funny reactions to all the things she has to do to become a respectable dowager thanks to the help of her gangster apple buying client. It feels like a disappointment to see something throw away what it had going for it, particularly when what wrecks the film a bit is right there in the title. Still, the full blown generosity of her friends and clientele even though she is an incredibly difficult person to deal with are interesting ideas that make the dynamics a bit more loaded and interesting despite the simplistic payoff of “a makeover can solve all your problems!”

Morning Glory
Katherine Hepburn is one of the most widely debated movie stars of the era, thanks in part to all the controversial things that happened to her from her “box office poison” status, to winning a record breaking number of Academy Awards for Best Actress, to her relationship with the far less talented Spencer Tracy, to her tics and rather strange appearance as a brittle and angular figure, and her strange feminism that was simultaneously revolutionary and very much of its era. All a lot of factors to consider, but looking solely at her prizes, we must factor in that three of her wins were not particularly deserved. Morning Glory’s win is a particularly bizarre one considering Little Women was not only right there in the same year, but it got a fairly deserved Best Picture slot. The movie she won for…well. It is thankfully short and slight, but the 1930s were a big time for “small time actress played by someone who is slightly more important” roles since Hollywood wanted to advertise, and this does not stand out, with Hepburn’s Eva Lovelace (not a name or a role that matches her angular appearance in any way) desperate to meet a producer, only to meet an established British talent who becomes her mentor. This culminates in what was undoubtedly her clip for the Oscars: her drunk scene, where she recites Shakespeare while totally plastered and ends up in bed with the producer. She definitely nails this scene, a perfect mix of silly and sincere, but everything else is just Hepburn relying on the cheap gimmick of talking quickly to convey just how single-minded Eva is in accomplishing her goals, with not a lot of variety in the line readings. When she chooses love over a career, you can definitely sense a certain discomfort no matter how much of a feminist you believe Katherine was. She is also stuck with a director who makes everything look boring and a script that pulls an ending out of its ass. She might have been a reasonable winner in her weak lineup, but they could have chosen a real cream of the crop even by restricting themselves to three nominees for some reason. She still gets outshined by C. Aubrey Smith as her new coach in what gets turned into a real attention thief thanks to his clear irritation with the new ingĂ©nue in town.

Private Life of Henry VIII
My Brief Year in Review piece for Private Life of Henry VIII: Deliciously overcooked stuff, with Laughton running the gamut of emotions from A to B in the best way possible. Terrible history lesson, to its benefit.

The Private Life of Henry VIII, in addition to being a terrible way of teaching people about history due to its complete lack of interest in the possibility of time passing, does not even include all six of the wives. (The very first title card before the story heads straight to the original beheading, which might be the funniest joke in the film: “Catherine of Aragon was the first, but her story is of no particular interest-she was a respectable woman. So Henry divorced her.”) It also does not care, as it wishes to be a sexual comedy with elements of tragedy, like sitting around with a pot of tea and gossiping about the goings on of the royalty. Numerous magazines have made their living of stuff more overcooked than this already plenty burnt meal, but sometimes I like my movies charred, especially when get such delightful nonsense as the second wife rambles on losing her head as if she was preparing for a rainy day, and a pair of executioners focused on the lack of respect for the English steel. Charles Laughton’s entrance is worth the brief wait, with the director of Night of the Hunter channeling a little evil priest that he would conjure approximately twenty years into the future, before the head falls and we get to see a commoner husband and wife bicker delightfully, Jane Seymour gives birth, and the king chooses to go hunting rather than attend his long desired son come into the world as an ominous crow flies straight at the camera. Such a huge ominous man towering over his child. The visuals of this may be a tad stagey, but still an enormous step up from only a few years ago with the early talkies, with great uses of crowds and delightfully theatrical sets to make the whole of England seem more to be a tight knit community in the middle of nowhere, ruled by a very localized tyrant, rather than the greatest empire of the age. The cast is shot impressively, recalling the most crowded scenes in modern medieval works in the same vein as Game of Thrones’ crowded festivities and wars that ultimately put their focus on the main character of the scene. We always are drawn to Henry in his enormous furs and hats, thanks to how magnetic he looks and sounds, a born politician through and through in all the worst ways.

She Done Him Wrong
She Done Him Wrong only lasts a little over an hour, and contains several iconic moments thanks to Mae West that probably earned it a spot in the very flawed 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die listing. Hell, it even opens with a title card called “The Gay Nineties,” as in 1890s but you do not need to know that and can just pretend it’s referring to a newer day and age that still has the rule “legs were confidential.” So why do I not particularly care for it? It starts with a montage of city life that goes on for far too long, before a whole lot of gossip about the state of affairs in the city that does not have anything relating to the titular She, who we are all itching impatiently to watch her do him wrong, as badly as the Pre-Code era will allow even with this banal conversation, only livened up by a woman with a gigantic hat and an accent from Europe that I cannot quite place…wait a minute, that’s Mae West. We then get a truly painful scene with a black woman (played by Louise Beavers) saying that she just loves to work for her character because she buys pretty things, so I am praying for something funny to happen by this point, no matter how much West’s career paved the way for African American entertainers to get something resembling a mainstream spot in entertainment. After an incredibly long period of time where not much happens aside from the infamous line about the uniform and coming up to see her sometime, which is mostly fun for how she spends it talking out of the side of her mouth, but I was promised funny musical numbers and I want them now. But wait, now she is in a prison and all of the prisoners recognize her, making various demands and requests regarding seeing her at some point. Her wit saves this from being the ultimate nothing, but eventually, the numbers come up and the film itself is revealed as a big mask for being a nothing. I do not understand why this most lightweight piece of entertainment was a Best Picture nominee, but depending on what was next in the lineup, we might need to be grateful for this as the quickest of the nominees across the eighty plus years of the Academy Awards.

Smilin’ Through
The title of Smilin’ Through is a borderline lie, although I suppose in the sense of being the start to the expression “smiling through the tears,” it is an appropriate name for a mildly depressing but ultimately lightweight melodrama, with the idea of someone still being totally devoted to his dead wife, who shows up to him as a ghost, after thirty years coming across as just a shade too much for me. Fredric March is one of the best male actors ever and Norma Shearer can be good even with her consistently getting stuck in boring Oscar bait that feels totally aged, but this needed the touch of someone like Frank Borzage (who, fittingly, directed a 1941 remake with Jeanette McDonald that seems to have a fairly mixed reception nowadays). The story then gets into ridiculous levels with Leslie Howard’s son, played by March, dating a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife and him trying to destroy the relationship because he is too bitter and spiteful. So, he is basically Miss Havisham, except when a man wears his wedding outfit for the rest of his life people just think he’s a fancy dresser. There are two scenes that work fairly well, one involving a wedding and a scene that features March’s character returning from the war, but otherwise this is the basest sort of thing that would appeal to the most sentimental of the Academy’s voters. It cannot have been too popular overall thanks to it getting slapped in the face with a single nomination. The extended eligibility period makes this an annoying choice, but with Cavalcade as the winner we should probably be wishing that this bore had won instead precisely for its lightweightedness rather than heavy handed bombardment with The Weight of History. The film does look nice, with the house of Howard’s grief stricken character looking suitably enormous, Gothic, and inky black, but some nice production design cannot compensate for everything else that is lacking. This story should have gone more supernatural in its bent rather than occasionally alluding to horror trappings and sticking with the sticky sweet and sentimental side of the plot. I don’t blame Norma Shearer for enjoying herself, though, since the role consists of her making out with the two men, and who wouldn’t want to do that? March’s performance is mildly disappointing considering he gave us Merrily We Go To Hell and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that same year, but we can’t all bat 100.

State Fair
I just do not see the point of State Fair even with the knowledge that light entertainment is always welcome, which has a few appealing qualities that are drowned out by its complete lack of interest in having anything interesting going on. I should confess to not understanding the appeal of the titular event, which my father raved over numerous times whenever it was the subject of a plot in a cartoon. It certainly looked fun, but in practice it mostly just consisted of us walking around and occasionally watching my siblings go on rides that did not really appeal to me, as we were not allowed to eat the desserts that I was really craving. Who wouldn’t want a fried brownie? We do get a Best Pickles competition that sadly does not take the opportunity to make Gherkin Hotel puns (sorry) and features some of the most hilariously cringe inducing eating noises, complete with lip smacking and slobbering everywhere. We also receive an all star cast (probably the reason for its Oscar attention) of two thirds of the original Best Actress field in Janet Gaynor (!) and Louise Dresser, star of BP winner and masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front in Lew Ayres, Bad Girl Sally Eilers…and some guy named Will Rogers. At any rate, there are two romances going on when the main family heads off to the fair, with the son falling in love with the trapeze artist and the daughter falling in love with a reporter who is also a sleaze that sleeps with numerous women. The relationships will not last because they are only attending for a week and they have relationships back at the farm, and thus the ticking clock of a few of the great screen romances is right there…but sadly, the characters are too bland and silly to make us care for them beyond the cheap laughs, and a large chunk of the drama is too ridiculous, with the most egregious being Gaynor’s character standing up on a roller coaster without seat belts or safety bars because she is upset about something. Yes, okay, she is a country bumpkin, we get it, but I am sure she is not entirely lacking in common sense. If you want to attend this particular hullabaloo, I suggest simply skipping to the pickles contest, then making your own Oscar nominated cucumber jokes. Dillion Dillar Baby? (Sorry.)

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