The Awful Truth
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
The Life of Emile Zola (winner)
One Hundred Men and a Girl
A Star is Born
Immediately I wonder why Grand Illusion wasn’t nominated, but since it got a nomination the following year, I can let the Academy slide on that one. Still, there are a few films worthy of mention from what otherwise looks like a year with a bunch of films no one has heard of. The first that jumps out at me is Stella Dallas which may be too melodramatic for current tastes, but is a hell of a good film and a lot better than most (if not all) of the nominees. It’s also probably true that most people wouldn’t take Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs seriously enough to consider it a Best Picture nominee in 1937. Pepe le Moko seems like an Oscar film as does Make Way for Tomorrow. Night Must Fall seems like a potential choice as well.
Weeding through the Nominees
10: While I like, or at least appreciate, all 10 of the films on the list, In Old Chicago is the first one to leave. This is a film that has to be suffered through to get to the good part. I recommended in my review fast-forwarding through the lackluster musical numbers to get to the part where the city catches fire. The last bit is interesting and filled with spectacle. The problem is everything you have to wade through to get to that spectacle. Of all the nominated films, this is the one that could be dropped without many people squawking.
9: One Hundred Men and a Girl sounds like a really awful porn title. Fortunately, it’s just a musical, but it’s also kind of forgettable. It’s surprising to hear me say this, but the best part of the film is the musical numbers, and they’re worth the price of admission. The story itself is pretty lackluster and formulaic, even for 1937. There was a brief moment in history when Deanna Durbin could do no wrong. This is in the heart of that. Durbin was a fine singer, but beyond the music and the performance of Adolphe Menjou, there’s not much here.
8: Stage Door is a sardonic theatrical comedy that takes a very dark twist near the end. That dramatic turn is almost certainly what earned this film its nomination, but it’s also what turns me off to the film. Up to that point, this had been a dark, fun picture. To dive so deeply into something that feels thematically off throws the film out of kilter. Coupled with the completely unrealistic ending, we’ve got a film that works in parts but not as a whole. Hell of a cast, though, so at least there’s that.
7: The Awful Truth is a much better movie than 7th place in a list like this (and this is the placement I'll catch the most shit for). So why am I putting it here even if I like it more than some of the films I’m ranking higher? Because this is a fluff film, a silly comedy filled with broad stereotypes and unrealistic characters. I expect a bit more from a Best Picture nominee. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are wonderful on screen, but The Awful Truth is so insubstantial that it comes across as little more than a cinematic soap bubble. It’s too lightweight for me to take it seriously as a nominee.
6: It’s probably also unfair to put Dead End this low, but it’s another film that gives us broad stereotypes and unrealistic characters to further the narrative we have on screen. This is an important film and one worth seeing, because it’s formative for what would eventually become film noir. But because it’s also an early film in the style, it has all of the problems of a film that is feeling its way through the creation of that style. There’s too much focus on the kids (eventually called the Dead End Kids) and not enough on the main action.
5: The biggest problem with The Life of Emile Zola, the eventual winner, is that it’s a film in which all of the action takes place inside people’s heads. There’s a good message here and it’s a message that resonates today and probably always will. The issue, though, is that the movie comes across as dull because of this. It’s actually not a dull movie, but it’s also not one to watch without a strong dose of caffeine going in. That, and the film avoids the entire point of the real Dreyfus trial by not delving into the anti-Semitism at the heart of the real case.
4: It would be easy to knock The Good Earth for putting white actors in Asian roles, but I’m not going to do that. Hollywood’s racism (and the racism of the nation) can’t really be held against the film. No, the reason I’m putting this film in the fourth spot is because of the remaining set of films, it’s the one I’m the least likely to watch again. The performances are good all the way through and the story is pretty interesting, even if it’s over-acted. There’s a lot here worth seeing, and I ended up liking this a lot more than I expected to.
3: The best part of Captains Courageous is Spencer Tracy without question. Tracy went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor for this performance, and it’s one of the best and most memorable of his storied career. It has a deep cast, and even Freddie Bartholomew ends up being not very annoying. Sure, it’s a bit predictable in places, but it’s a solid coming-of-age story anchored by one of the great actors of his era in one of the best performances of his career. I was truly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film.
2: Truth be told, if you sent me back to 1937 with no knowledge of the films that would come in later years, I might well vote for A Star is Born. The problem is that I know there will be another version of this film a decade and a half later and that the remake will be a better one in almost every respect. It’s unfair of me to yank this down from the top because there’s a better remake today, but it’s the truth. This is a story that has been told better, and even though I try to look through the lens of the time, in some respects I can’t dismiss that it’s actually 2015 and not 1937.
1: That leaves us with Lost Horizon, and frankly I’m a bit surprised that it’s the one left standing at the end. I didn’t have a great deal of expectations going into this. It may simply be that I appreciate the message the film is trying to convey. It’s a message of hopefulness and a desire for peace in a world standing on the brink of war. There’s beauty in that vision, and it’s possible that it’s made more beautiful by the fact that it was a dream doomed to die. Even if this has a Hollywood ending, it’s one that works.
The problem I have with 1937’s Best Picture nominees is that I like most of them pretty well but can’t say I love any of them. All but a few of them feel like they should be ranked somewhere between third and seventh because none of them really feel like a film that deserves to win. In a perfect world, The Grand Illusion would have earned a nomination in 1937 and would have walked off with the statue. Based on the films considered eligible, though, I’m giving it to Stella Dallas. I buy into the story completely and also think it’s a film that achieves the rare feat of attaining a bittersweet ending that it actually deserves. It’s my pick, and the Academy should have at least nominated it over at least half of the films we have here.