Sunday, August 14, 2022

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1936: Best Picture

Let's begin this Best Picture talk with a movie that got zero nominations - Ah, Wilderness!. Based upon Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, the film follows a small-town family in 1906, primarily the second son (Eric Linden), a high school senior whose new discoveries in art, intellectualism, and women irritate everyone around him, and the father (Lionel Barrymore), a newspaperman who leads his family patiently. Timeless observations about teen pretensions, familial annoyances, enabling between relatives, and the suspension of time during the Fourth of July. Fine performances, terrific sets and costumes. And it got nothing.

Maybe it was timing. Depending on where you check, it either qualified for the 8th Academy Awards or the 9th Academy Awards. IMDb lists it as a Christmas 1935 release in New York City. Because Academy rules stipulate a film must play one week in LA to be considered, it's possible it did not make it to Los Angeles until January 1936 or later - thus why it shows up on the 1936 Reminder List available at And The Oscar Goes To. But, too, maybe members of the nominating committee were bristling against its history-making Oscar campaign. Never before had a studio had the chutzpah to put out ads begging for awards, but leave it to MGM to lead the charge. 

If indeed it was 1935, then while the Ah, Wilderness! campaign was unsuccessful, Leo still got a trophy when Mutiny on the Bounty won. If it was 1936...Leo still got a trophy when The Great Ziegfeld won. I guess the Academy felt Leo was ready to receive after all!

Including MGM's winning showbiz epic, here are the ten nominees for Best Picture...starting from my tenth favorite and finishing on my winning pick:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
nominations: Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording

I don't think this is the worst, but for me, it's the least memorable. As in any time I blanked on a nominee in any category, it turned out to be this movie. I hope the more retrospectives I do, the more I'll understand their appeal, but despite not disliking them, I've always felt at arm's length from both Frank Capra and Gary Cooper. Something about their brand of...whatever it is they're doing...has always struck me as suffocating and false (though I have liked some things of theirs!).

Three Smart Girls
nominations: Best Original Story, Best Sound Recording

Almost as forgettable as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! But there are a few things going for it: the titular girls are charming if so well-cast that I sometimes couldn't tell who was in which subplot, Alice Brady and Binnie Barnes make great villains, and it's not an unpleasant way to spend 90 minutes. Just not a lot that sticks to the ribs.

Anthony Adverse
Warner Bros.
wins: Best Supporting Actress, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Assistant Director

Jaw-dropping sets, stirring score, effective cinematography; uneven performances, cluttered story, jarring Blackface. Undeniably unforgettable, for better and for worse. Shocked and stunned that it's a Best Picture nominee - no matter what you think of its individual technical achievements, can you really claim that this is among the best movies of any year? The most wins of 1936?!?

Romeo and Juliet
nominations: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction

Some sequences - the Capulet ball, the back-to-back duels, Capulet's confrontation with Juliet, the funeral - are so transfixing, there's no questioning this nomination. Others - that opening, the additional sequences, Friar Laurence - are rather banal. Still others - the balcony, the crypt - are both, depending on the moment. That is to say, Romeo and Juliet is at its best when the two are apart. Yet the performances and the look of it are great; the good outweighs the bad.

Libeled Lady

The only film here nominated nowhere else! Spencer Tracy is the editor of a newspaper that claims heiress Myrna Loy broke up a marriage; she sues for libel, and reporter William Powell hatches a plan to court and seduce Loy...and be interrupted in the nick of time by a fake wife to be played by Tracy's fiancee Jean Harlow. Sounds more complicated than it is; for the most part, it's a joyful romantic comedy between cynic Powell and Loy as the woman with more heart than people give her credit for. I'm surprised it didn't get in for Original Story, but maybe Wallace Sullivan's story is a previously-published one? Go see it.
The Great Ziegfeld
nominations: Best Director, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing

Perhaps it makes sense for the showbiz community of 1936 to honor a film about Florenz Ziegfeld: he was a tenacious showman whose up-and-down fortunes were a testament to "the show must go on," many of his discoveries wound up in Hollywood, he had just passed four years previously, an adaptation of his musical Show Boat came out the same year. And it's a well-made film. This is Powell's best performance of the year, Luise Rainer is terrific, Frank Morgan I love. The opening carny sequence is so beautifully done - succinct writing, detailed sets, great chemistry among the cast. A lot more than just a series of musical numbers. Honestly: the more I wrote about it here, the higher it climbed up!

The Story of Louis Pasteur
Warner Bros.

Sorry, friends, I love a self-important biopic! It's intelligently crafted to highlight Pasteur's accomplishments, give him a nemesis, hint at his eccentricities. I wish the women were more dynamic, but otherwise, it's an excellent film. I realize I've not said much more than that, but, you know...whatever. Facts is facts.

A Tale of Two Cities
nominations: Best Film Editing

David O. Selznick followed up his nominated production of David Copperfield with another Dickens adaptation, this one focusing on a group of people affected by the French Revolution. If you're awed at the spectacle of Gone with the Wind, this one would have prepared you: the storming of the Bastille! The trampling of the peasant child! The guillotine! Blanche Yurka as Madame Defarge! Ronald Colman in perpetual drunk sweats! Epic events expressed in human terms, the explanatory cards offering important context for why the Revolution is good and the Terror is bad! Love this movie!

Samuel Goldwyn Prod. / United Artists
wins: Best Art Direction
nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording

Mature drama, artfully done. No high concept, no historical events, just two people deciding whether to stay together after falling out of love. What do we look for in love, in life? What do we do when faced with the finiteness of time? Sam Dodsworth has lived his life and wants to relax, while Fran Dodsworth wants to live free and frivolously with like-minded Euro socialites. Helmed by that actor's director William Wyler, there's never a false moment - and it hasn't aged a bit, in subject or execution.

San Francisco
nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Story, Best Sound Recording, Best Assistant Director

Yes, my pick. Two lovers, mismatched yet made for each other - he a rough-and-tumble fella, she more poised, courted by a man of means from a good family - their disparate lives and mutual passion exacerbated by a disaster no one could have been predicted. That's Titanic, honey - and San Francisco. And both are great films. Not just because of the spectacle, but because the feeling, the humanity, is there!

There it is! San Francisco is my pick for Best Picture!

Tomorrow: which 1936 films would make perfect companion features to these ten nominees? We'll discuss...

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