Friday, September 18, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1937

The Contenders:

The Awful Truth
Captains Courageous
Dead End
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
The Life of Emile Zola (winner)
Lost Horizon
One Hundred Men and a Girl
Stage Door
A Star is Born

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. Your post brings back so many good memories! I just love 1930 movies. I don't care much for Lost Horizon, though - too many speeches. My heart would have gone with The Awful Truth all the way.

    1. I was aware going in that putting The Awful Truth that low would be the most controversial part of this.

  2. I've seen 8 of these. I'm missing 100 Men and a Girl and A Star is Born. I actually watched Dead End about a week ago.

    Of the 8 I've seen I liked several of them, but I have to say that none of them jumped out at me when I read their titles as "that's a great film." Based on this I don't have an issue with The Life of Emile Zola winning. I'd say the same thing if Captain's Courageous had won. I liked Lost Horizon (although the question of how the hell the pilot got to them at the beginning of the movie and how he knew how to fly a plane bothered me - I know, overthinking).

    I am surprised that Stella Dallas was not nominated, especially when they had ten slots open.

    1. My thoughts were the same--there's nothing here that really jumps out as being essential viewing to me, although I actually like most of these films. This version of A Star is Born is good, although it's disappointing after the Judy Garland/James Mason version. One Hundred Men and a Girl at least has really good music, but it's otherwise pretty forgettable. Stella Dallas was completely snubbed based on its inclusion.

  3. I have not seen all of these films, but Grand Illusion and Snow White are worthy choices. Very informative review. I need to check out Lost Horizon.

    1. Just make sure you're getting the version from 1937, not the truly awful one from the '70s.

  4. The Awful Truth is a hilarious film, quite possibly my favorite Cary Grant film, and is no doubt the winner here. I've seen it a bunch of times and it holds up magnificently.

    You must have been in a bad mood when you saw it. That's my only explanation.

    1. Not at all. I just think it's fluff, and it's fluff based on unbelievable and unrealistic characters. I expect more out of my Best Picture winners.

    2. I just think it's weird that you dismiss The Awful Truth as fluff and then give the award to Stella Dallas, which is a great movie for Barbara Stanwyck's performance, but it's mostly pretty ridiculous. It's fluff, too, just a different kind of fluff.

    3. Oh, I disagree completely!

      The characters in Stella Dallas might be a little broad, but they come across like real people living real lives. Stella herself is a woman with particular desires and hopes. She wants to be taken seriously by the people who matter, but she doesn't have the skills to get there. This is a woman who ends up living through her daughter and who makes a genuine sacrifice (albeit one that is pretty melodramatic) for the sake of her child. There's a sense of tragedy in this film. Look at a character like Ed Munn--this is a guy who could easily be a comic drunk, but there's something really upsetting and sad about him, too. There's real pathos in the scene where Stella tries to impress her own daughter and estranged husband after Laurel has spent time with her father's old girlfriend.

      On the other hand, in The Awful Truth we have a couple who literally got married because they both wanted to buy the same dog. These are people with the emotional depth of a saucer, rich beyond anyone's imaginings during the Depression and concerned only with their own pleasures. Name a single moment of The Awful Truth with the emotional depth of the Christmas scene of Stella Dallas.

      Stella Dallas is certainly melodramatic, but it's anything other than fluff.

    4. As much as I love Barbara Stanwyck's performance (and Alan Hale and Anne Shirley), I find Stella's sacrifice to be anything but genuine. Stella the character is all about the drama! It's not at all hard to think of a solution aside from "Stella has to give up her daughter, lie to her and never see her again, also she can't attend the wedding, she has to stand in the rain and watch through the window and the only reason she gets to see the moment of the marriage is because the cop stops being a jerk just long enough for her to see."

      Powerful, yes. And ridiculous and silly.

      The Awful Truth is hilarious. From start to finish. We'll have to agree to disagree about your "emotional depth of a saucer" quip.

    5. I stand by my earlier comment. Stella Dallas is extreme, but it's still in the realm of possibility and has emotional depth. The Awful Truth is entertaining, but has no emotional depth.

      This will almost certainly come up again on future posts like this one.

  5. I have to tell you, Steve, that this is the post I look forward to every week.
    I agree with you on Stella Dallas, it has all the ingredients of a Best Picture winner. It is way too long ago since I saw Lost Horizon, but I remember faintly that it was good. Surprising that it is not on the list.

    1. To tell the truth, I look forward to these posts as well, even the ones that end up being really difficult to do.


  6. ’37 as was true of so many during Hollywood’s Golden Age was a year with tons of quality films and yet they ended up awarding one of the dullest with the big prize. Zola’s intentions were good but I found it a ponderous bore. The academy loved Muni buried under all that makeup, I thought he was a weak link in Good Earth too, but I much prefer him in his modern dress parts finding his work more naturalist there.

    If we were talking performance than I’d agree that Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas should win the prize in a walk even though I thought Luise Rainer’s work in The Good Earth was the redeeming feature of that film and unlike her previous win at least a performance worthy of a prize. But I thought the film a creaky enterprise, though I’d rather have seen it score a nod over several that did make the cut.

    How that list of nominees would run for me:

    Stage Door-Love this film, to me it’s a perfect example of the way a multi character story should work. The dark turn didn’t bother me since Kay carried that heavy shadow right from her first appearance on screen.

    A Star is Born-I agree the ’54 version in its non-mutilated form is better than this but this one is still a superior film and Fredric March is just great. He should have taken the actor prize that year.

    Dead End-This is very close to a great film, Wyler’s direction is fantastic and the cast is studded with brilliance but while I don’t mind them The Dead End Kids weaken the film by being in too much of it.

    The Awful Truth-A wonderfully made and very entertaining piece of fluff but I’ve never thought it was a great picture. First rate performances though.

    Lost Horizon-Good film but the speeches knock it down some in my view. The less said about that horrendous remake the better!

    The Good Earth-Aside from Luise Rainer’s terrific performance and a few set pieces…UGH!

    In Old Chicago-The ending is impressive and while I think I enjoyed the lead up to it more than you the film is nothing special. Incredible that Alice Brady won a consolation Oscar for this, I would have rather seen Dame May Whitty win but any of the other nominees were more deserving.

    The Life of Emile Zola-As I said good intentions but a thundering bore.

    One Hundred Men and a Girl-I actually liked this much better than Zola, although I prefer Deanna in her adult films she’s was a great singer and engaging presence right from the beginning, but for an awards candidate this film doesn’t come close. I think the nomination came because of the success of the film and Durbin’s previous Three Smart Girls.

    Captains Courageous-I hated this and Tracy’s work in it and usually I’m a huge fan.

    As far as what’s missing I’d definitely say Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Make Way for Tomorrow and Stella Dallas could have replaced many of the nominated pictures with Snow White being close to the top if it had been included.

    1. We're really different on how we rank these, but I'm okay with that. It's all about why people think the way they do than about the actual opinion.

      Gun to my head, my two favorites from this year are Stella Dallas and Grand Illusion, even with the second film being nominated the next year. I'd have loved for Snow White, Stella Dallas, and Make Way for Tomorrow to have earned nominations over about half of the films (or more) that were nominated.

      Based on the actual nominations, I'd have been pretty much okay with any of my top five winning, but I still think the Academy dropped the ball on several of these.