Monday, August 1, 2022

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1936: The Beginning

Of the 40 feature films nominated at the 9th Academy Awards, I watched 39. The one outlier is General Spanky, a Civil War-set comedy starring the cast of Our Gang. It was not a lack of opportunity that prevented my seeing the film, but rather the terrible taste the film's opening five minutes left in my mouth, one that turned more bitter as I researched the film (opening with a joke calling Buckwheat, a five-year-old Black child, a racial slur genuinely horrified me).

Anyway, that's one movie we won't talk about. The 39 others are all up for discussion, and we'll start with these six:

Banjo on My Knee
nominee: Best Sound Recording - Edmund H. Hansen of 20th Century FOX (lost to San Francisco)

Groom Joel McCrea punches a wedding crasher after the ceremony; believing he's killed the guy, McCrea escapes, leaving bride Barbara Stanwyck to run to New Orleans. An entertaining musical. The sets are the best thing about it: the houseboats, the streets of New Orleans, the CafĂ© Creole saloon, an artist's studio - gosh! what wonderful work from art director Hans Peters and set decorator Thomas Little, everything feels lived-in and carved and genuine.

The Last of the Mohicans
nominee: Best Assistant Director - Clem Beauchamp (lost to The Charge of the Light Brigade)

Adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's novel about the white scout Hawkeye, his friends Chingachgook and Uncas, and the Munro sisters, all trying to survive the French and Indian War. I like Binnie Barnes as Alice Munro, and the deviations from the novel were later used to great effect in the 1992 adaptation, but I confess I had completely forgotten I'd seen this movie until I double-checked my watchlist. The Best Assistant Director category lasted 1933-1937, by the way.
Lloyd's of London
nominee: Best Art Direction - William S. Darling (lost to Dodsworth), Best Film Editing - Barbara McLean (lost to Anthony Adverse)

A young man sees history from his position with the titular insurance firm, including the Battle of Trafalgar. There's an investment in the British Empire that appears to have been in vogue at the time (as war loomed in Europe, did we channel our "patriotism" into stories of the valor and righteousness of a people we felt closer to than the Huns?), and while it sidesteps the "oh, dear," problematics of Clive of India, there are moments where one goes, "Why am I watching a movie about the HMS Victory's insurer, rather than one about the Battle of Trafalgar itself?" Still, it's pleasantly dull: doesn't exactly keep one on the edge of their seat, but it's handsomely made and well-acted. This is the film that made a leading man of Tyrone Power, though he's billed well below child actor Freddie Bartholomew as his younger self. 

The Magnificent Brute
nominee: Best Art Direction - Albert D'Agostino / Jack Otterson (lost to Dodsworth)

Last year's Best Actor Oscar winner Victor McLaglen plays a braggadocious steelworker who blows into town and begins a rivalry with another worker, who then plots revenge. The McLaglen thirsters were having quite a year between his sweat-drenched antics here and his two-fisted lustiness in Klondike Annie. He's great, very much both magnificent and a brute, caring but not obviously sensitive, rough around the edges, and petty, but not really mean. There's a surprising tenderness in his scenes with Jean Dixon and Billy Burrud. With its working class walkups, company town cafes, and fiery foundry, it earns its one nomination.

The Texas Rangers
nominee: Best Sound Recording - Franklin Hansen of Paramount (lost to San Francisco)

Two outlaws join the Texas Rangers as a con but wind up genuinely dedicating themselves to the cause - which pits them against a former colleague of theirs. Fred MacMurray stiffly leads, with Jean Parker a non-entity as his romantic interest and a hostile stance taken against the Native Americans. Ah, but the outdoor photography, the setpieces, the sound work, the central plot, and the performances by sidekick Jack Oakie and villain Lloyd Nolan more than make up for those deficiencies. King Vidor can direct the hell out of a movie (I'm sure you're all suitably stunned by the news).  

That Girl from Paris
nominated: Best Sound Recording - John Aalberg of RKO

Lily Pons plays a French opera star who escapes her arranged marriage and winds up singing in a club with an American band led by a man she falls in love with (Gene Raymond, the future Mr. Jeanette MacDonald)...but who is already in a relationship with Lucille Ball! Lily Pons' previous film I Dream Too Much was also nominated for Best Sound Recording. Now that I've seen both films, I have to say: as actors go, she's quite a singer; as screen presences go, I bet she's great on the radio. 

Tomorrow, we can dig deeper into the individual categories, starting with the six films nominated for Best Original Song: Born to Dance, Pennies from HeavenSing, Baby Sing, SuzySwing Time, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

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