Sunday, June 12, 2022

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1935: Best Picture

Mutiny on the Bounty was the biggest hit at the box office. It had the most nominations going into the 8th Academy Awards. It should be no surprise that it won - certainly when you see its name under a list of Best Picture titles, you go, "Well, of course, that sounds correct." And yet it came close to not winning - indeed, The Informer seemed to be the favorite that night, despite not being as big a hit. A sigh of relief, I'm sure, when they eventually won the Big Prize:

It was the last time a film would win Best Picture and nothing else.

Twelve films were nominated that year, and so I've decided to do something different from my usual summary-star rating-big reveal at end. I'm gonna rank 'em. Before I do, let's meet the twelve nominees:
  • Alice Adams - A working-class girl is thwarted and embarrassed in her attempts to move up socially by her gauche family and unstable father. Also nominated for Best Actress.
  • Broadway Melody of 1936 - Young producer stages a new Broadway show, but the leading role is desired by both his high school sweetheart and his financier; meanwhile, a gossip columnist tries to knock him down. Won Best Dance Direction, also nominated for Best Original Story.
  • Captain Blood - After treating a rebel against King James II, an Irish doctor is exiled as a slave to Jamaica where he captures a Spanish galleon and becomes the most feared pirate in the Caribbean. Also nominated for Best Sound Recording; a write-in candidate for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Score.
  • David Copperfield - A gentle orphan discovers life and love. Also nominated for Best Film Editing (Robert Kern) and Best Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman).
  • The Informer - An Irish rebel informs on his friend, then feels doom closing in. Won Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Score, also nominated for Best Film Editing (George Hively).
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer - Three British soldiers on the Northwest Frontier of India struggle against the enemy - and themselves. Won Best Assistant Director (Clem Beauchamp / Paul Wing), also nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier/Roland Anderson), Best Film Editing (Ellsworth Hoagland), and Best Sound Recording.
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream - Two couples and a troupe of actors encounter mischievous fairies in the woods. Won Best Cinematography (Hal Mohr, as a write-in) and Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson), also nominated for Best Assistant Director (Sherry Shourds).
  • Les Misérables - An ex-convict who failed to report for parole is hounded for decades by a relentless policeman. Also nominated for Best Cinematography (Gregg Toland), Best Film Editing (Barbara McLean), and Best Assistant Director (Erin Stacey).
  • Mutiny on the Bounty - First mate Fletcher Christian leads a revolt against his sadistic commander, Captain William Bligh. Won Best Picture, also nominated for Best Director, Best Actor (thrice), Best Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Film Editing (Margaret Booth).
  • Naughty Marietta - Escaping a prearranged marriage, a French princess sheds her identity and escapes to colonial New Orleans, where she finds unexpected love. Won Best Sound Recording.
  • Ruggles of Red Gap - An English valet brought to the American west assimilates into American life.
  • Top Hat - An American dancer romances a model who mistakes him for her best friend's husband. Also nominated for Best Original Song, Best Art Direction, and Best Dance Direction.
And now, starting with my #12 pick...:

12. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Oh, this movie did absolutely nothing for me. Maybe it's that, despite it being about Brits in colonial India, the three leads of the film (Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell) aren't just Americans, they don't even attempt an accent, a detail that makes the politics of it more uncanny than it already is. Maybe it's that the characters aren't even interesting for the most part, though even such sketchy stereotypes could be interesting if played interestingly - Cooper, weirdly, doesn't seem to go for more than broad strokes and seems to actually wince through some of his lines. Action-packed climax features unearned sacrifices but great explosions.

11. Ruggles of Red Gap

The inspiration for Fancy Pants! A paean to the American dream, allowing Ruggles the Valet to arrive "in service" but eventually find his way on equal footing and, finally, in a position of actual power, albeit suited to his particular skills. Charles Laughton is just lovely in it. Makes a real plot point out of its wardrobe: one's threads are the difference not just between master and servant, but gauche and stylish, nouveau riche and old money. I don't want to say it's slight, but it's...I don't know, I liked it, but it didn't have a lot of staying power with me. It feels like it would with others, though.

10. Mutiny on the Bounty

I said this before - I would probably have been more into this if I had seen this before the 1962 remake, which I quite liked. Of course, it also has Franchot Tone, and I suppose it's fair to say I'm not into him as a presence. But there's nothing particularly wrong with this movie, either. Clark Gable, of course, is a terrific lead, the sequences where storms hit and crew members try to survive and are still punished by Bligh and then they all relax in Tahiti - that's all great! It's a solid, well-made movie.

9. David Copperfield

Also solid and well-made. An engaging all-star cast in top-notch period sets and wardrobes. They really lucked out in finding Freddie Bartholomew, who gets rooting for David from the beginning, he's just terrific. Beautifully made, fun performances. Episodic, sure, but it still feels like a full story.

8. Broadway Melody of 1936

I think this was my first Eleanor Powell, and wow, what a dancer, what odd energy! The performers are great all around, come to think of it, and the songs - not a dud in the bunch. The laughs hit, the numbers impress, does a musical-comedy need to accomplish anything more than that?
7. A Midsummer Night's Dream
Warner Bros.

Almost tempted to say that if this was silent, it would be one of the best films I'd seen. That is how effective it is in capturing the enchantment, the dream of that midsummer night: the costumes, especially Titania's cobweb gown and Oberon's tree branch crown; the lighting, often capturing its images like you're squinting through dewdrops, or maybe the sleep in your eye; the arrangements of Mendelsohn, hypnotic, eerie. But to say it's only a visual feast is to not give enough credit to the performances delivered by Anita Louise, Victor Jory, Olivia de Havilland, Verree Teasdale, James Cagney. It does mean having to sit through whatever on earth Mickey Rooney is doing, I'm not sure he even knows, and no version of this tale can be perfect as long as they insist on the Pyramus & Thisbe stuff (I have never liked any of the stuff with the acting troupe, just grating). But God, what a magical experience!

6. Top Hat

If you think too much about the plot (no one ever says anyone's name?) it's SO dumb. Don't do that. This is champagne frivolity, you know that just by the way they've built the sets: an impossibly huge, lavish hotel room; a clearly soundstage art deco Venice; ornamented doors everywhere! Barb & Star clearly took notes. The songs work, and they work because Fred and Ginger sell the hell out of them, every element of performance just clicking (though I think their best number together this year was in Roberta). Through the nonsense, there's something very apt in its depiction of the pettiness within a mutual attraction.

5. Captain Blood

Errol Flynn, what a star! An impressive finale, clearly the source for subsequent homages such as...well, take the finale of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which borrows wholesale from this film's climax. Everything before that works, too, his dashing heroism, defensible piracy, twinkling eyes, knowing smirk. There's a heightened quality to the performances, score, action, scripting, all of it working together to make for High Adventure! What a thrill!

4. Les Misérables
20th Century

Truncated though it may be (Thénardier and Enjolras, for example, become little more than single-line bit players), it's probably the best film version of this story I've ever seen. Fredric March's intensity certainly helps: it really digs into his Jean Valjean, cutting out the bits around him, breaking it into a three-act tale of his different identities, emphasizing the themes of redemption, forgiveness, and resurrection first brought into the conversation by Cedric Hardwicke's great Bishop of Digne. It's invested so much in the interior of a man's struggle against injustice, it makes the physical battles fought in the name of justice that much more effective. It's a marvelous motion picture.
3. Naughty Marietta

There are a lot of romantic musicals, a lot of switched identities, a lot of colonial adventures, seen on cinema screens in 1935. And I think it says a lot about Naughty Marietta that, when I'm thinking of my favorite parts of those other movies, I go, "No, wait, that was Naughty Marietta." The movie with everything: "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life," which is much more effective than its parodic references hint at; mercenary heroes getting one over on uniformed officers; puppets; wigs; Elsa Lanchester's performance, all cleavage and sneer; a princess disguising herself as a maid disguising herself as a woman of easy virtue; a musical number sung between passengers on a ship and on-lookers on the dock, the sound and score and cinematography sweeping together powerfully, a melodic masterpiece that reminds you why movies are just so great.

2. The Informer

What have I left to say after praising its screenplay, its director, its score, its lead performance? Its sets and cinematography, for another, the mist over cobblestones and torn flyers remind one of a Universal horror, or maybe Shadows & Fog. Wallace Ford gets serious work as the IRA martyr - indeed, everyone in the cast, no matter their screentime, hits, emphasizing that this conversation about traitors and fighters and The Cause isn't all just labels and abstracts - these are your neighbors, your family, your community. It sees the wrong and right of it all, the informing and the chilling reaction to it. And my god what a final scene!

1. Alice Adams

Presented as light comedy, nevertheless an anxiety-inducing flick about people who are humiliatingly intent on presenting their best selves and always coming up short. Wince as Alice Adams serves a hot meal to a suitor on the hottest day of the year, cringe as she baldly says all the wrong things at a society party in an attempt to say the right ones, scream as her father openly licks his wounds even as he opens new ones. And yet! The desperation of the Adamses to just be accepted, their real anxiety over money, the push-pull of family pride and embarrassment - and, despite the conflicts within, they fact that they do care for and love and worry about one another - it all hit.. I dare say it would still hit, today, for a lot of people in similar predicaments, people who feel like they're almost there, the world of better opportunities and connections and money is one rung away... God, it was so heartbreaking and funny and real, I couldn't believe it!

Well, there you have it! That's the end of the 8th Academy Awards, but it's not the end of 1935 - we're looking at some other films released that year tomorrow...

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