Looking Back at Oscar, #7

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1934:

Affairs of Cellini
Barretts of Wimpole Street
Cleopatra
Flirtation Walk
Gay Divorcee
Here Comes the Navy
House of Rothschild
Imitation of Life
It Happened One Night
Of Human Bondage
One Night of Love
Thin Man
Viva Villa
White Parade

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 10 of the year post:
Gay Divorcee
It Happened One Night
Thin Man

The following films are currently unviewable:
White Parade (only at UCLA)

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1934 Year in Review post.

Affairs of Cellini
The 7th Academy Awards’ Best Actor category started off on a truly great note with two very similar characters played by two wonderful actors at the top of their game getting nominations, with one of them happily winning. They even had similar vehicles, wise cracking tough men in some truly excellent comedies. Unfortunately, the Academy felt the need to soil the field a little, and included Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz himself, for a film called The Affairs of Cellini that has essentially been forgotten nowadays, and in a role that was practically begging for a yet to be created supporting category to boot. The movie also received attention in plenty of other technical categories, making its exclusion from the Best Picture race the big snub of the year. While Gregory La Cava as the director seems promising on paper, the movie is a run of the mill bedroom farce and comedy of manners set during the sixteenth century, featuring Fredric March as a sculptor trying to seduce the Duke’s wife, with Morgan playing the Duke of Florence. I badly wanted to like this performance out of love for that greatest of children’s movies and thinking Morgan’s characterization is a key part in the movie’s success, but this film tries far too hard to be something it is not. The rest of the cast seems fun on paper-Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, and March-but the first could not bring the charm she had in King Kong over to this picture, the second rests on pretty, and March’s performance feels like a weaker take on his rapscallion charm from something far better, such as underrated near masterpiece Merrily We Go to Hell, in part due to his character being a swashbuckling murderer. The most ridiculous nomination on the technical spectrum for this particular work (which went zero for four in its nominations) has to be the nomination in Cinematography, which is frankly bland and reliant on the standard shot, reverse shot, wide take of both parties pattern. The sets and costumes are nice, but I would recommend the DeMille version of Cleopatra over this on a pure visual level even with this movie’s script being more competent despite certain dated jokes in the realm of the screwball. The sneakiest highlight is Wray’s mother, who has a beard. Tremendously dumb and probably not a good thing to laugh at, but still hilarious.

Barretts of Wimpole Street
The Barretts of Wimpole Street starts off as being something we have all heard about before. Two poets, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, have a meet cute and fall in love even though the former is an invalid. They inspire each other and the usual romantic nonsense ensues to bore us all to death unless we think that a movie about history is inherently great. They are played by Academy favorites Norma Shearer and Fredric March. You get the idea. However, this movie has something that most others do not have in the shape of Charles Laughton as Barrett’s father, who is cruel and controlling. Not in the sense of “I am opposed to you dating this man,” think more along the lines of “I am an insane, abusive, hypocritical, pious, and incestuous lunatic.” (Laughton on playing the part, which actually was toned down from the original stage play: “They can’t censor the gleam in my eye.”) Sinful behaviors being alluded to were not acceptable by the time this rolled around, with the Hays Code stifling the screenwriters, so simple pleasures for some were aimed for. You also get some enjoyable wardrobe nonsense, mostly in March’s character getting an outfit that looks like a creation that they would have worn at a costume party even for the time. Alas, he gets smothered by the cartoonish behavior of Laughton’s role and Shearer’s performance that is just plain better, with soft sensitivity despite her getting stuck in yet another dull part that appeals to the Academy’s sensibilities. Her Elizabeth shows no resistance to the romance and is a purely saintly individual, but she manages to convey quite a bit with how she is stuck in the couch for so long and the movement of her uncertain body when she recovers enough to stand up both metaphorically and physically (not exactly a subtle device). The movie’s most unappealing trait is the duration, which has absolutely no reason to be as long as it is, nearly two hours of people in the same location and with the unappealing camerawork that marked the early sound films for so many years and crowded up the Academy Awards. With the last few ceremonies at least acknowledging more technically accomplished works with a nomination, one has to be grateful that a few slipped into the lineup rather than a full dozen of endlessly boring material like this mess.

Cleopatra
Claudette Colbert was the toast of 1934, and it was a mostly well deserved crown. As someone who ranks among the best actresses of that era and location, as well as someone who was so unusual looking as to make her stand out from the pack no matter the role, she was up for participating in three of the whopping twelve Best Picture nominations that year, as well as winning one of the most richly earned trophies for Lead Actress that has ever been handed out for her part in that year’s correctly appointed grand champion, It Happened One Night. Her role in the original take on Imitation of Life, while a movie idea that would be taken and improved upon by Douglas Sirk and his mad color palette, was still a very worthy take on the material and ideas that further cemented her status as a great actress. Then we come to…Cleopatra. Not the version that destroyed an entire studio, the much briefer edition that is also in black and white. Cecil B. DeMille, epic director, had to work around Colbert’s illness from a previous film she had shot in the year that had left her only able to stand up for a few minutes at a time before needing to lie down. Even without that being factored in, and she deserves credit for working anyway even if she probably had no other choice, it is still a pretty lousy performance that theoretically puts her in the running of the races for both the Academy Award and the Golden Raspberry if the latter had existed at the time, in part due to the absolutely lousy dialogue she gets saddled with and does not try to overcome beyond declaiming pompously. Yet this somehow ranks among the better titles in a weak crop of nominees for a very simple reason: the photography. The ponderous Roman epic, which puts in a half-cameo in the greatest film ever made, just looks gorgeous and racked up some well earned nominations in the technical categories for that alone. The composition may be the most stereotypical Roman props, costumes, and sets made for a movie, and they look too clean, art deco, and glitzy to be fully convincing, but skipping through the pointless plot just for the pretty sets makes the piece of work look much better. Ignore the words that come out of people’s mouths, and watch the picture on mute.

Flirtation Walk
Flirtation Walk is the sort of title that lets you know exactly what you are in for, and while Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler did make the absolutely amazing 42nd Street together, that was the exception to the rule, and making a movie in the same vein but focused on the United States army was never going to sit well, particularly with filmmakers of 1934 still not being in a particularly political mood when they produced works. Frank Borzage was a director for hire on this one, and it shows, with a decidedly non-romantic worldview except when looking at Keeler’s most cutesy behavior, or Powell trying very hard to be charming by pulling plenty of faces. Most of the jokes are pretty banal stuff that vaguely resemble jokes and are delivered like someone trying to be funny, but they just come off as off putting. You can tell this was a fairly large production that was determined not to let the armed forces down, but watching this is like watching the worst kind of mass produced product. If It Happened One Night, that year’s winner, is the movie equivalent of Nutella in that it was made by a factory of sorts (obviously there was more Capra personality allowed in) and is totally delicious, then this is pure spam in a can, filled up with a sort of unappetizing liquid runoff that also happens to be totally colorless. Some other sins committed include not giving us a proper view of 30s Hawaii’s sights and sounds despite being absolutely beautiful and occasionally throwing in some lazy guitar for cheap atmospherics, the running time that is way too close to hitting two hours for something so minor, and above all the songs are the highlight, yet not very good and still take too long to show up. (In addition, the popcorn was terrible and served in a small bag.) I’ve always viewed Petting in the Park as a bit of a low point in Gold Diggers of 1933, but it’s admittedly catchy in its own horrible way, and none of the musical numbers in this go for strong laughs, impressive physical choreography, or vocal/lyrical talent. This is a walk that goes on and on until your feet are bleeding from overuse, and the men who flirt with you are all ugly and patriotic in the worst way possible. Make it stop, please.

Here Comes the Navy
James Cagney was always rather hit and miss for me as an actor, with his two modes of either tough guy or dancer being very variant in quality. I am not much of a fan of his works in the former department, but the latter tended to bring out his better side. I also recently attended the Off Broadway musical that was essentially a biopic of his life, with some truly ghastly hero worship musical numbers that catered directly to the sort of people who fall for Academy bait but some of the most impressive tap dancing you could imagine. Here Comes the Navy falls directly into the first category, unfortunately, and here he plays a rather unpleasant person who decides to join…you guessed it, the Navy, because he got pissed off about his job for completely stupid reasons. The plot is also centered around him joining out of spite, only to realize he cannot exactly go around fighting his supervising officer that he tried to get on the ship with just for the purpose of him stealing a girl he was trying to seduce at a dance hall. I am amazed he did not get killed by friendly fire after a little while for disrupting everyone on board the crew so often, but we continue anyway, arriving on…the USS Arizona, a ship that was destroyed during Pearl Harbor. How retrospectively awkward, but not as ridiculous as all the cliches relating to the Cagney character and his rival, played by Pat O’Brien, feuding over the same woman (O’Brien’s sister, played by Gloria Stuart). After an absence without leave that nearly causes a dishonorable discharge and a court martial, there is the typical heroic rescue that saves the day and restores his status. Sort of depressing that most other movies about the military have not advanced past this kind of stupid and simplistic storytelling. Thankfully, this one does not assault us as much with the patriotism of it all, insofar as it is mostly restricted to the way that people just happen to talk. The naturalism that flows into a film with such an aggressively contrived scenario is what makes it merely mediocre as opposed to something actively disastrous, with a few interesting tangents focused on the lead’s potential dislike of the patriotic levels within the system being a potentially better movie that would likely go nowhere as far as its single Academy Award nomination.

House of Rothschild
The House of Rothschild is the same blatant propaganda for how wonderful the British history is as last year’s Best Picture nominee Cavalcade, except with an even more awkward element thanks to the fact that the family in the center of the drama was Jewish and World War II was only a little while away, complete with Adolf Hitler using the picture in a propaganda work about how terrible the Jews were. The real groaner is the fact that the leading role is played by professional dullard George Arliss as Mayor Rothschild, father to five sons that would go on to inherit his financial empire, with Boris Karloff taking on his first serious role alongside Loretta and Robert Young. Worst of all is the decision to continue the leading man’s part in the production once Mayor’s death occurs by having him also play the eldest son, Nathan, for some reason that has no real logic behind it. The production is very…goy-gaze? Did I just invent that term? It is a fitting description of the condescending sort of charity that the filmmakers offer when dealing with the inspirational tract that the family managed to make their way to the top as money lenders and merchants despite living on the ghetto that was Jew Street in Frankfurt, located in the anti-Semitic Prussia at the time. The father dies, telling his children to open up banks, and his reincarnation winds up battling the Allied Council, led by the Karloff character and openly Jew hating in their policies. Due to his great skill in controlling financial policy (thrilling cinema, I know), he manages to get Jewish people basic rights and the ghettos are shut down, but biopics make terrible cinema for precisely the reasons that are being covered in this plot summary. Most interesting is the movie predicting a far better utilization of the technique in Andrei Rublev by switching from black and white to a Technicolor final scene…by showing Nathan’s knighting by King George III (well, you got what you wanted) and his daughter’s long desired marriage. In between, we get a whole lot explicit statements about the nature of being discriminated against in England, which would be a lot more impressive if not for the horribly exaggerated makeup designed to force the Arliss character to look like a caricature. No wonder this was used in the discrimination that led the Holocaust, for the innocent stupidity behind it.

Imitation of Life
My Brief Year in Review piece for Imitation of Life: Deeply dated stance on race, but the bare bones are strong enough to make the Sirk’s existence even more delicious.

The Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life was viewed immediately after seeing this version, and it was such a remarkable improvement that I am now struggling to take on this take on the tale, even with the racial issues worth dissecting alongside the countless male writers, including Preston Sturges, and the Production Code Office trying to slash the picture down for the idea that people of all races could intermingle. Unfortunately, the story is just too 1930s to really endure, with Louise Beavers doing her best with a role that is nevertheless deeply condescending material of the sort that feels like a predecessor to the worst stereotypes related to Gone With the Wind’s slaves (there is a blatant Aunt Jemima reference that is completely grim to the modern eye thanks to Beavers not being able to show sadness at her reduction to a stereotype, whether by choice or by director’s decision) and Claudette Colbert’s richer material paying off in spades for her performance (as opposed to the 1959 film deliberately draining the life out of Lana Turner and her boring white people problems). One has to wonder if the gutlessness of the writers was due to ignorance, cowardice, or censorship…or some combination thereof. Where this edition succeeds is in its themes of maternal sacrifice. The writing related to Peola’s racial identification issues when she is called black as an insult by Colbert’s awful brat of a daughter is intriguing and would get a thorough dissection when it was redone in the 1950s, but here, it simply gets brought up a few times and is basically an undernourished B-plot, with her mother getting stuck with the thankless idea of refusing a 20% share of the product just because she is so childlike, even though both the women have started their business from the ground up in what is a fairly equal partnership. Still, the scene where “black” first gets hurled as a slur leads to a fascinating monologue that acknowledges in a very roundabout way that racism is systemic and blaming one person for an ill-considered choice of words although it stretches back further than anyone could have realized at the time is electric stuff. Shame that a man enters the picture and things predictably start to revolve around the romances with him. He is as bland as you would expect, and it signals a sharp downturn in quality for the story.

Of Human Bondage
My Brief Year in Review piece for Of Human Bondage: Waiting for Bette Davis to blow up at boring Leslie Howard is part of the fun of this slight but strong work.

Of Human Bondage is an exercise in waiting for Bette Davis to show up, with the early moments in the film being way too focused on Leslie Howard’s incredibly boring, sexless performance as a mediocre artist with a club foot who is trying to make peace with both of those things by becoming a doctor, even though he struggles with that too. So eventually, we get our reward of seeing Davis with a cockney accent and as a waitress in a tea shop, dispensing mean spirited quips as she goes along, even with a closeup that goes from defensively and steely to the sort of seductiveness that would make you understand why such a bland, sexless individual would fall in love with her for it anyway, no matter how shaky that bloody ‘orrible accent is. The novel was reportedly slashed down to focus on the affair between Philip and Mildred, which would explain certain pacing issues, but there is not much excuse for the lack of control on the cinematography at this point, with all the “unmoving, theatrical camera” issues of the early sound works. Much more interesting are the superimposed images that suggest dreams and hallucinations of the few kind moments that the romance has that are pored over obsessively in an attempt to keep the flames going no matter how damp the kindling is. What we are ultimately here for, however, is what happens as Mildred’s mask continues to drop as the picture continues on, killing all pretenses of caring for the overly affectionate behaviors and ugliness of her beau. First by casually breaking off the relationship entirely and revealing she wants to marry someone else when he proposes to her, then forcing a reunion and breakup before ending things for good with the infamous “wipe my mouth” monologue that single-handedly made her the most iconic star of her era and got her a write-in Oscar nomination that was later translated into an apology victory for the next year. She would outshine two of the three real nominees by a huge measure-by virtue of thankfully not singing opera in one case-so I would call it a delightful case of justice, with the mental image of someone rallying up a campaign of their own for getting write in votes today being an idea that I wish would happen. Imagine a blandly inoffensive star like Jennifer Lawrence pulling that kind of stunt? Impossible.

One Night of Love
There are some people who will find the fact that One Night of Love is an operatic musical to be appealing. I am not one of those people since I cannot stand opera, but the odds of me enjoying it are better in a film since theaters are limited by staging and just listening to it on a CD or a digital file is just a case of concentrating the problems. With a film, visually lush staging and creativity in other respects might be able to make up for the auditory torture. This movie does not go for that in the least. We get a series of static shots of Grace Moore shrieking her lungs out to the titular song in a way that made me realize precisely what I was putting myself through. Predictably, she is in France despite the fact that nobody has an accent for this picture, and after a horrifying group number that sadly does not end after the fat lady sings in notes far too intolerably high for my ears, for which there is inexplicable applause, and we inevitably get around to the business of a famous male singer taking Moore’s character under his wing as his pupil, with some sexist garbage about how the women are unable to resist him because…they are women. Precisely as charming as you would expect, especially with the character being played by a middle aged man while the leading lady is young and pretty, and he proceeds to force her to hold his cock and also the high notes, despite the entire story line being about how if the woman falls in love with him, he will kick her out, because they hate each other thanks to that first tutelage meeting! It is all the most insufferable, contrived romantic claptrap that is not even nice to look at thanks to the static camera work combined with boring sets that look like they were stolen from Rene Clair and transported over on a bumpy ride that banged them up. There is a nice montage of the countryside at a certain point, but otherwise, this is a big waste of time, all shallow nonsense that does not even have the decency to be fun with its idiotic romance plot, particularly due to the leading actors giving two of the most obligatory, write in performances among the entire giant Best Picture lineup.

Viva Villa
Wallace Beery was always a tremendous ham even in his physical appearance that was broader than his sense of comedy, in a way that sometimes worked very well for the film he was in (The Big House being the prime example, since it is an early sound prison picture), but it could also be unbearable to deal with when not restrained properly, and when you make a movie focused on him playing a Mexican, well, you can pretty much guess what is going to happen and groan at it in advance. To make matters even worse, he is not just playing a random character, but one of the most iconic figures in the country’s history: Pancho Villa, who started the Revolution and invaded the United States. Not only is this a relentlessly awful movie, it is also a bad history lesson just for that. The story covers its ass by claiming it is an oral tradition rather than anything solidly written down in an opening title card, but that strikes me as faintly ridiculous, for that is what all of the records were back in those days. The three different directors running the show cannot have helped the process, with Jack Conway and two whole uncredited directors in William Wellman and Howard Hawks all having the sort of viewpoints that seem like a good fit on paper but in practice simply result in unrestrained obnoxiousness and everything under the sun being thrown at the wall to see if it sticks (mostly failures there). Watch The Adventures of Robin Hood instead, for despite the similarities in story, Errol Flynn is effortlessly charming, whereas Wallace Beery sweats and slobbers his way through material that sadly needs the greasiness, particularly in avoiding the disgusting chauvinism of allowing the fictionalized and fat Pancho to be the object of lust and marriage from women way above his league, including Fay Wray in a part that is far beneath King Kong thanks to the preachiness getting pushed so far to the forefront in this patronizing sack of nothing. Viva this film going entirely forgotten nowadays except for the crazies like me who have to watch the Best Picture nominees! To render matters worse, this is fairly high up among the longest nominees ever, and in the same vein as almost any biopic that chooses to run so long, it does not warrant that obscene length in the least.

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