Looking Back at Oscar, #10

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1937:

The Awful Truth
Camille
Captains Courageous
Conquest
Dead End
Good Earth
The Hurricane
In Old Chicago
Life of Emile Zola
Lost Horizon
Night Must Fall
One Hundred Men and a Girl
Stage Door
Star is Born
Stella Dallas
Topper

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
The Awful Truth
Camille
Dead End
Night Must Fall
Stage Door
Star is Born
Stella Dallas

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1937 Year in Review post.

Captains Courageous
Captains Courageous has some really gorgeous opening credits, with waves of the ocean hitting the side of a boat and washing away the old text so we can see some new people’s names. Pretty and relaxing! Unfortunately, the rest of the movie will set you on edge, ranging from Spencer Tracy being the lead (ENOUGH ALREADY) and playing…a Portuguese sailor, complete with brownface. Yikes. Even more intolerable is the child who goes through the emotional arc of former spoiled brat to not terrible, which…well. I am sort of allergic to child actors since they already tend to be pretty obnoxious, but I am not so opposed to the idea of one who is playing an awful creature that the servants refer to as “it.” Look at Bonita Granville in last year’s These Three. But Freddie Bartholomew, who was plenty bad in Anna Karenina and David Copperfield, really dials it up here, partly his own devices and the other half due to the script’s wheezy cliches in the coming of age realm. Favorite moment of the whole movie is another kid punching him in the face. He eventually falls off a ship (very satisfying until it turns out he lives), and is rescued by Tracy’s fisherman. Despite supposedly being humble and uneducated, Tracy plays the character in the most absurdly smug way, and with a dreadful accent to boot. What could have been a withering study of white rich male privilege and a spoiled brat who only values his absentee father as a source of ridiculous sums of money (they own the original copy of Treasure Island to which I can only say, what the hell?) loses all merits thanks to the racism, casting, and cliches of the story. I was genuinely surprised at how many people like this even today, but I suppose this sort of story still has fans for an easy to swallow dramatic arc and rampant sentimentalism (hi Dead Poets Society). Worst of all is the running time, which induces panic at near two hours. I watched this shortly after finishing the Roy Andersson trilogy for the 333 Great Directors project, and it was an alarming contrast in length, wit, and talent behind and in front of the camera. Surely the people in You the Living could have gotten more money than the cast of this dreadful thing? (I choose to give Victor Fleming a pass for directing this.)

Conquest
Clarence Brown and Greta Garbo were like the most blandly unpleasant version of chocolate and peanut butter that you could think of, with the problem being that she relied on a specific if enjoyable schtick for a lot of her work, and he was not much of a director until he became acquainted with children and their animals, with their works together ranging from good (Anna Karenina, the only one I outright like) to awful (Romance is seriously dire stuff). The majority were just fine, although I’m not exactly seeking out the ones that have gone unseen at the moment. They were a darkest timeline edition of Von Sternberg and Dietrich in their seven collaborations, but while The Devil is a Woman is the weakest of those masterful works by a few hairs, this was merely on the lower end, in part thanks to Garbo’s inability to outshine her male costar. Charles Boyer, playing Napoleon, may have not been a particularly great Oscar nominee even by the standards of what could have realistically gotten attention, and was hamstrung by both the complete lack of anything resembling a timeline and the odd distance that is kept by the script, but he is not afraid to inject a rather wry sense of humor or the appropriate amount of proper behaviors when interacting with Garbo’s character, a Polish countess who he is in a relationship with thanks to the forces of politics. The film infamously lost a ton of money for MGM as a result of the complete lack of chemistry the two leads had combined with the excessive budget for sets and costumes that resemble The Scarlet Empress with any humor or pathos sucked out with a vacuum tube, and you can tell just how strong the need to rip off that movie is in the very nature of the story, weird attempts at wit that punctuate all the very important history rather than going for the intense and the surreal emotions that would make the story more productive. Why mix the tones so strongly? You cannot have it both ways with two such sharply different genres. At least the Academy recognized that the finest hour for Garbo that year was in Camille and nominated her for that instead. Justice is served in such small ways, and I’d think that this movie would have been instantly improved by the Dietrich persona than the one we got.

The Good Earth
Anna May Wong was rightfully pissed off when producer Irving Thalberg, in his final great production (dedicated to him), offered her the part of O-Lan in The Good Earth when Paul Muni had already been cast in the leading (Chinese) role, calling out the racism of giving her the least naturally likable part in a story that was giving Asian roles to white actors. She had every right, even though Luise Rainer’s performance at least tried to be a reasonable portrayal of a role that frankly skewed to some of the more mild of the misogynistic views of the time, rather than Muni’s incredibly gross need to play his character as stooping and with no effort other than declaiming loudly. No one watches this movie for the cast, however, they watch it for the awe inspiring photography that won and Oscar and probably had an effect on the pinnacle of that form with Malick’s Days of Heaven, with both containing a truly impressive looking storm of locusts that descends like a plague from the pages of the Bible. Shame the story of this one is not on par with Malick’s, with the makeup being truly awful and the script consisting of nonsense relating to the lives of poor and exaggeratedly humble Chinese farmers, written so condescendingly as to make anyone wonder how backwards Hollywood was and with none of the actors save Rainer putting forth their best work thanks to how long the plot is and the amount of airless content found in the original book (prose is a better venue for this kind of thing, otherwise use silent long takes). Rainer’s performance mostly looks good in comparison, and even then, her winning the Oscar in her incredibly stacked lineup, being outclassed by a minimum of three nominees by leaps and bounds. I still have a certain fondness for the work thanks to the full embrace of the melodrama that is badly needed to be injected by the time the movie has trundled by for several minutes with nothing of interest occurring. She is simultaneously a victim of circumstances and someone who will not let anything stand in her way, she makes decisions quickly because they are so apparent to her and not the others. Still seems ridiculous and surreal that she was able to snatch up two Oscars before quitting and becoming a doctor, but that is hardly her fault.

The Hurricane
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Hurricane: Big, dumb, and pretty.

The Hurricane is the sort of John Ford picture that is the perfect ideal for some people who are bigger fans of his work than I am at this point (not enough of his best seen), in that it is a pleasant way to pass the time while giving out little nuggets of things to appreciate along the way, in the shape of technical aspects. First and foremost is the titular event, a marvel of special effects that makes Victor Sjostrom’s silent masterpiece The Wind look like a cheap breeze that makes Lillian Gish’s hair a bit livelier. This is a brisk movie, one that throws everything at the screen as quickly as possible and seeing what sticks before moving along. Some have noticed an indictment of colonialism thrown in there thanks to how horrible the governor of the region is to the natives, but Ford’s racial politics that tend to make his films too hard to sit through at times make me more inclined to say that this is just the result of acknowledging both sides of the argument for the sake of providing a nuanced conflict. Thomas Mitchell, meanwhile, picked up an Oscar nomination for his role as an alcoholic doctor. Sound familiar? He did it better when 1939 rolled around, but at least the two roles do not feel particularly repetitive. Here, he sets the stage as a grim individual who is undoubtedly going to experience a tragedy the minute the title of the story rolls across the opening credit screen. He is forever lively, which causes the irony to become a little too pat but it works anyway. Mary Astor also gives, as per usual, a fun turn that livens things up, albeit lacking the nuance of a Dodsworth or a Maltese Falcon type of turn. The romance is perfunctory but well performed by the stars, making the scene where one ties his another to a tree far more shocking than anything else that is occurring as the winds and rain hit the island. It is all very efficient and entertaining enough, but Samuel Goldwyn’s complete creative control and insistence on using a sound stage for the bulk of the work to keep the budget under control result in something much less interesting than what we could have gotten with full island access. More’s the pity, but disaster movies have never been the highlight of Hollywood’s career in star vehicles anyway.

In Old Chicago
Nowadays, In Old Chicago is best remembered for Alice Brady’s infamous Supporting Actress win, not because of the quality of the performance (it was a very evenly matched race of perfectly good performances in much better movies) but because her Oscar was accepted by a mysterious man who vanished and was never seen again. Dramatic stuff, but the legend is the most original thing about this movie, which has a title that plays pretty blatantly off the garbage fire from the 2nd Academy Awards In Old Arizona and has a structure that blatantly rips off last year’s San Francisco, with the ticking clock that leads to, in this case, the Chicago fires. Mrs. O’Leary should have really been given the leading part, and Brady’s performance was likely a partial acknowledgement of My Man Godfrey from last year, but she mostly just plays the part of the mother to Tyrone Power’s character, who is an incredibly sexy individual who is also a total creep in how he berates women into sleeping with him. The dialogue is hokey and the opening forces us to endure a crying child for much too long, but when the movie decides to go in on its target of corruption with the government, it really goes for the jugular, decrying everyone who was responsible for the circumstances that could lead to a cow starting a fire that could destroy a whole metropolis. The only other thing noteworthy, and what almost certainly got this into the Best Picture race, were the blaze sequences, which are every bit the match for San Francisco’s earthquake in plausibly making it look like the city is destroyed. Shame that everything else in the film is so static, with scenes of people doing things like knocking over milk and staining dresses as the conflict, as opposed to the legitimately interesting show business stuff that Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald carried over the finish line. The final note that Mrs. O’Leary gets after son dies is touching, but cliched, and comes across as something that was stolen once again…this time from the book version of Gone With the Wind. I know that artistic visions involve plenty of cribbing from your favorites, but none of these works that were taken are unimpeachable, and the scripts cannot capture what makes those moments work coherently in their original contexts except for a few bits from the earthquake disaster show.

Life of Emile Zola
Paul Muni’s career reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence’s, giving one genuinely great performance before vanishing into Oscar crap. Not sure whether Lawrence’s constant starring for someone as awful as David O. Russell is better or worse than Muni’s insistence on playing the most boring roles possible in biopics after adding a whole lot of nerve to I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. In the same year of his dreadfully hammy yellowface performance in The Good Earth, he also played Emile Zola in a biopic that could not even be bothered to use the word Jew to explain just why the man was persecuted. Charming! Still, if we continue with the JLaw analogy, then this movie is his Joy, a weirdly mediocre movie that still has things to recommend even if I doubt anyone could agree on what they are. Muni seems genuinely impassioned when he goes on monologues tailored to show what a wonderful person he is, and I wish that if he absolutely had to get an Oscar for playing a real person, it had been for this rather than the meritless Story of Louis Pasteur. Actually winning the award in the Supporting category was Joseph Schildkraut as the wrongly imprisoned soldier at the center of the Dreyfus Affair, who does not get much to do besides one scene where he reads a letter from his wife, but he does it pretty well. What really irks is the depiction of the villains and the general public. The former try to one-up the declamatory hero and wind up looking like they are about to start twirling their mustaches, while the latter goes back and forth between endorsing Zola’s ideals and hating him and then yo-yoing back again. Nothing more irksome than a biopic that takes this approach to history. William Dieterle got a Best Director nomination, but he thankfully did not win, with editing having some truly terrible cutting choices and whoever approved that treacly score deserved to be fired, not rewarded with an award for the year’s best film just for hitting some cursory notes that actually happened. The verdict of this over Stage Door and The Awful Truth is the strongest indictment of the Academy’s hatred of comedy that has ever been handed down. There is plenty a worse winner, but this certainly makes itself easy to pick on-it’s like if The Imitation Game had won.

Lost Horizon
My Brief Year in Review piece for Lost Horizon: Like Bitter Tea with unnecessary sugar added.

Frank Capra nearly threw away all his favor at Columbia thanks to the insane production difficulties of Lost Horizon, which went way over its huge budget and did not get much profit back to boot. Despite seven nominations, including Picture and Supporting Actor for H.B. Warner, Capra really only managed to save himself off the back of his previous track record of crowd pleasing works and then directing the next year’s winner of the big prize, not to mention a major box office success, in You Can’t Take it With You. Much like Bitter Tea of General Yen, Lost Horizon is another movie of his that has incredibly conflicting racial politics, portraying the Shangri-La where the British plane crash survivors land as an idyllic place that nevertheless goes too far in its enthusiasm for the way of life in the East to the point of deep seated condescension, and Warner’s Oscar nominated performance is for Chang, a character who is basically a tour guide for the ignorant white folks. It is just not as good as General Yen thanks to the lack of complications, from the cast giving fairly neat and tidy performances that do not hold a candle to Barbara Stanwyck, to the technical aspects being used to portray a place that is perfect and a dream that everyone wishes to flee too (it’s a metaphor that basically says “cities bad, country better”) as opposed to a rain and war soaked hellhole. Hard to deny the very simple power of the sound work, with noise being bad and silence as good, and you can tell that the budget was very thoroughly taken advantage of on all levels, with the condition of the existing print (it’s a partially missing film in the same vein as Cukor’s Star is Born), but I definitely wish there was more even with how ahead of its time this was in portraying certain things like homosexuality (Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell wind up in a gay relationship that was almost certainly more downplayed than the photograph that get sewn in) and the East-West dichotomy. In some ways, the movie itself is a Shangri-La, something that is permanently hidden and which few people would ever grab onto. For every person who want a paradise, we are forced to acknowledge that damn few people will ever manage to put their hands on it, or even see it from a distance.

One Hundred Men and a Girl
I do not have fond memories of Three Smart Girls and the difficulties in getting a copy made it worse in my eyes, and Deanna Durbin’s popularity for a brief spell in the 30s is inexplicable and completely dated to me, so when I saw that she had another Best Picture nominee from the following awards year called 100 Men and a Girl that did not appear to be about a gangbang (sorry), I let out a long, anguished mental groan despite the knowledge that the running time was not very long. I was recently grappling with the fact that I am usually a sucker for “I am poor and trying to escape” pieces of misery on film, which I am sure has something to do with a sort of morbid fascination and existential terror, but then I realized that I primarily like it when directors like the Dardennes or Ozu, etc, tackle it. If a nobody director such as Henry Koster (best known film = Harvey) does it, then who cares? Happily, this movie is at least better than Three Smart Girls and its boring “let’s get our divorced parents back together” idiot plot thanks to Durbin giving a much better performance here, with the desperation of trying to save her father’s job and get an orchestra together resulting in her playing much higher and more desperate emotions, to mixed but mostly enjoyable enough results, even if “plucky” is an adjective that gets excessively used for 1930s heroines with no real personality traits. Her singing is still absolutely awful to my ears no matter how nice her voice was, and the story is ridiculous (how does she know 100 musicians who are all having financial troubles?), but at least the majority of the songs are orchestral rather than opera shrieking. Props to Adolphe Menjou as the father, who makes some effort to keep his character grounded rather than playing into the cliches that Durbin, Alice Brady, etc. fall into frequently. (That last one is a real disappointment considering the sharpness of her instincts in My Man Godfrey and even In Old Chicago.) Still, let us take some time to imagine the NC17 rated version of this movie, which would probably feature operatic shrieking noises all the same, so we lose no matter what whenever Durbin’s cast in a middlebrow crowdpleaser that has nothing going for it outside of being inoffensive.

Topper
My Brief Year in Review piece for Topper: Stupidly funny in its morbidness. Billie Burke the star.

Topper is best remembered for providing Roland Young a nomination for Supporting Actor that frankly could have been in the leading category, as the titular rich man who gets haunted by the ghosts of a couple who were his friends that died in a car accident, who are trying to help him have more fun and loosen up a bit. Norman Z. McLeod’s greatest trick pulled is to make us assume that this is a star vehicle for Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as the ghosts, with some cute special effects involving disappearing thrown in, only to switch it to a four way ensemble drama between the dead, Topper himself, and his deeply unpleasant snob of a wife, played by Billie Burke (Glinda herself!) in a part that frankly should have gotten an Oscar nomination for herself, even if the actual lineup is quite good. Young himself does not have to provide too many variations in his emotions, with his arc basically going from “stuffy and mean” to “stuffy and amusingly befuddled,” but he does it well and is game for whatever screwball jokes get thrown his way, lobbying them back with a trembling but hard backhand into the court of the disembodied voices and trick wires that move around the props in the air. It is a very gentle movie, one that you could show to anyone without anything more scary than the car crash that kills off Grant and Bennett’s characters (which is not even that bad thanks to the Code). McLeod, whose greatest skill as a director was getting out of the way and letting the comedians do their thing, does just that when filming the action here, so everything is nice and neat looking and serves as a good venue for the adorable antics of flying hats and hair getting ruffled up. The ending, with the nearly departed becoming the dearly departed as they ascend to heaven, is weirdly touching despite the methods to earn it being fairly dubious and a little too straightforward in its aims. It is also the kind of ending that resulted in two sequels that featured different spirits helping the character…despite giving us a conclusion that made it seem like he had fundamentally changed and was no longer going to have the same issues. Ah, Hollywood. What a pity you never learned who your real talent was for this sort of thing.

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