Thursday, August 4, 2022

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1936: Writing Awards

The dance and music categories are done. We move on to the writing awards. One is Original Story, which honored the original concepts dreamed up by writers, not all of whom would get to translate their stories into script form. The other is Screenplay, honoring authors of scripts that were either based on pre-existing works, such as novels, plays, and short stories, or working off of one of the aforementioned Original Stories.

In 1936, the story of both categories was a single film. Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney were nominated both for their concept of how to depict the life of Louis Pasteur for film and for their script executing that idea. They won both. It was the first and last time either man would be nominated. Collings died of pneumonia in 1937, six months after winning his Oscars; it is believed he pawned one of them out of desperation, a nervous breakdown and descent into alcoholism having kept him from work. Gibney would later be blacklisted, though he served as president of the Writers Guild - twice!

Their winning work and the nominees they went up against after the jump.

Let's begin with the nominees for Original Story:

Norman Krasna
second of four nominations

The movie: A man is mistaken for a kidnapper by a too-vigilant small town and is lynched; months later, he comes back seeking revenge. An angry film that reminded me, in different ways, of The Visit and Dogville. Urgent in text, but also urgent in its shooting and editing styles: breathless, terrifying.

The nominee: As a story, what have we got here? The tale of an innocent man who survives a lynching and gets revenge by exposing his would-be killers on a public stage is stark stuff. Any hint of catharsis is made hollow by the depiction throughout of mankind's pettiness, viciousness, fear. Love it. The only thing that troubles me is this barely-there subplot in which our hero's brothers run around with small-town gangsters. The only purpose it serves is to show how much being "good" and moral is a choice Spencer Tracy specifically makes, but like...I don't know, the fact that it never comes up except in two scenes makes it feel under-developed.

The Great Ziegfeld
William Anthony McGuire
first and only nomination

The movie: To be discussed further later on. Also nominated for Dance Direction (won), Film Editing, Art Direction, Actress (won), and Best Picture (won).

The nominee: As a story, an interesting series of ups and downs, with Ziegfeld always either at the top of the heap or about to fall off the last rung. Repetitive, sure, but insightful regarding its subject's ambitions and gambles. Unconcerned with his relationships except for his first great success Anna Held: such a development was the result of his widow Billie Burke's involvement, but it also emphasizes that the great love of Ziegfeld's life was show business.

San Francisco
Robert E. Hopkins
first and only nomination

The movie: A saloonkeeper falls for a beautiful and talented singer in 1906 San Francisco. To be discussed further later on. Also nominated for Assistant Director, Sound Recording (won), Actor, Director, and Best Picture.

The nominee: A template for disaster films to come: a man and a woman from different worlds with different expectations, the push-and-pull of their love, a rival for the man's affections, and major historical trauma to put everything into perspective (and off a few characters). This one even has a literal "come to Jesus" moment. It's a template that's often repeated because it's one that works.

The Story of Louis Pasteur
Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney
their first of two nominations

The movie: Louis Pasteur fights to convince the medical and scientific communities - and the world! - that microbes and germs are the cause of diseases, and rabies and anthrax can be treated and cured. To be discussed further later on. Also nominated for Screenplay (won), Actor (won), and Best Picture.

The nominee: Not a cradle-to-the-grave biopic, but a controversial-figure-to-esteemed-icon one. All the doubters are embodied by the fictional Dr. Charbonnet, giving Pasteur a chief antagonist to overcome - and the audience a villain to hiss at. Childbirth bookends the film: this is where Pasteur as a controversial figure begins, as he advocates for - gasp! - hand-washing and sterilization; it is also where he must his theories to the real test, as his daughter gives birth home! Smartly done, an approachable and succinct summing up of his contributions and why they matter.

Three Smart Girls
Adele Comandini
first and only nomination

The movie: A trio of sisters travels to New York City to stop their estranged father from marrying a golddigger. To be discussed further later on. Also nominated for Sound Recording and Best Picture.

The nominee: Purely on a story basis...I mean, here we have classic mixups and mean-wells. The rich man they think is a poor man, the poor man they pass off as a rich man, the aristocrat who's too drunk to be of use, the pull of the City distracting the girls from their mission, a man being shaken into his fatherly duties. Quite nice. Not sure about the ending, but this is a "happy" film, after all.


A close race for Original Story, but my final vote goes to:


On to Screenplay:

After the Thin Man
Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
based upon characters created by Dashiell Hammett
their second of four nominations

The movie: Nick and Nora return to San Francisco, where Nora's wealthy family becomes embroiled in murder.

The nominee: Not just an implausible solution, but impossibly deducted. And your point? This is Nick and Nora, as long as the twist makes you gasp and the one-liners make you laugh, what's to complain about? The writing of Nick and Nora as a couple - their conversation, their jokes, their ability to help each other along a train of thought - isn't just hilarious, it's genuinely sexy, their patter rather refreshingly driven by mutual admiration and lust. The mystery is fine, but the construction of their relationship is worthy of study.

Sidney Howard
based upon his play and the novel by Sinclair Lewis
second of three nominations

The movie: Now that auto manufacturer Dodsworth is retired, he realizes he and his wife want very different things out of life. To be discussed further later on. Also nominated for Sound Recording, Art Direction (won), Supporting Actress, Actor, Director, and Best Picture.

The nominee: This is what people mean when they say "adult drama" - real adults dealing with daily life issues in a way that acknowledges the complexity and messiness of human emotions. Dodsworth can refer to the husband, a man who's worked so hard for so long that he truly hasn't noticed how unsatisfied his wife is, or to the wife, a woman who's realizing just what it is she wants out of life. The conversations are so real, the decisions so true.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Robert Riskin
based upon "Opera Hat" by Clarence Budington Kelland
third of five nominations

The movie: A regular guy from a small town is the unexpected heir to a multi-million-dollar fortune. To be discussed further later on. Also nominated for Sound Recording, Actor, Director (won), and Best Picture.

The nominee: Longfellow Deeds is written to be so good, it's almost frustrating - and I'm not sure someone would fall in love with him so much as they'd just feel bad about mocking him. Courtroom sequence is hilariously written, introducing "pixelated" and "doodle" to great effect. Moral clarity.

My Man Godfrey
Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind
based upon the novel by Hatch
Hatch's first and only nomination, Ryskind's first of two nominations

The movie: A kooky heiress takes on a "forgotten man" from the slums as a family butler, but there's more to him than meets the eye. Utterly charming, a breezy, enjoyable watch from start to finish. Also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director.

The nominee: As much as I like the movie as a movie, as a screenplay, I don't know that I entirely buy the romance, and I've always found it annoying that Godfrey's "forgotten man" status is more or less self-inflicted. 

The Story of Louis Pasteur
Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney
based upon their original motion picture story
their second and final nomination

The movie: See above. Also nominated for Original Story (won), Actor (won), and Best Picture.

The nominee: We clearly like the structure of the story, but a screenplay is really where we see the strength of characterization and dialogue. And that's...fine, really. Some elements stronger than others. Pasteur is always right, true, but everything that's frustrating about such a focused, correct individual is bluntly, if lovingly, presented. Does a rival's late-film turn make total sense? Actually, yes, as it's presented as more of a grudging admiration than it is a complete change of heart. 


My winner for Screenplay? A no-brainer:


On Sunday, we look at the nominees for Best Director: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Capra), Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), Robert Z. Leonard (The Great Ziegfeld), W.S. Van Dyke (San Francisco), William Wyler (Dodsworth).

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