Monday, February 13, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1934

The Contenders:

It Happened One Night (winner)
The Thin Man
Viva Villa!

What’s Missing

With only three nominations, there has to be some room for additions, right? Let’s start with The Gay Divorcee, which is an entertaining little romp of a story, if ultimately not that weighty. Imitation of Life seems like it belongs as well, since I like it better than at least one of the nominations, and since the list is so small to begin with. I didn’t like Of Human Bondage much, but from what I understand, it’s a good adaptation. It’s a Gift probably didn’t have enough weight, either, although it’s quite funny. I can only add Manhattan Melodrama by reputation since I haven’t seen it.

Weeding through the Nominees

3. If I’m limited to just three nominations and am making my own set, Viva Villa! is the one I’d cut in place of something like Imitation of Life. In fact, with five nominations, I don’t know if this one makes it. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s also not a great one, and I don’t find the screenplay that exceptional. Compared with even a flimsy little feel-good like The Gay Divorcee, this doesn’t really hold up and isn’t really that interesting. It’s miles below the other two nominees. It doesn’t belong in the same sentence as either of them.

2. It Happened One Night is a hell of a good screenplay, honestly one of the best from its decade. It’s funny from start to finish and very clever from start to finish. It may well be credited for creating the entire genre of screwball comedies, coming out a few scant months before Twentieth Century. Even if there were similar films before this one, it has cast a very long shadow over the entire comedy genre, and many of the tropes that appear in comedies to this day started here. I’d pick this in almost any other year of the 1930s. It’s just not the best screenplay of 1934.

My Choice

1. That belongs to The Thin Man now and forever. The Thin Man is one of those incredibly rare films that manages to still be just as funny now as it was when it was first made. That’s difficult for comedy in general, harder for a talkie (silents are still funny because pratfalls are funny), and nearly impossible for a film that is more than 80 years old. The dialogue is whip-crack smart and even the parts that don’t advance the plot give us so much about the characters we are seeing. There’s a reason this spawned five sequels. It’s near-perfect from the opening scene to the closing line. There’s no question it’s my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. Somehow I zeroed in on it Happened One Night among the nominees. When I took a second look, the right winner was obvious. With you all the way! The Thin Man script also strays far and delightfully from the tone of Dashiell Hammett's original.

    1. As it should. There are few scripts this entertaining. When paired with two perfectly matched actors with perfect chemistry, there's little better from its decade.

  2. The early Oscars and their weird nomination totals does make you wonder what could have made it in especially since they were adapting so much literature. And with that how the hell did Viva Villa! make it? You didn't find it too bad but I thought it was more or less torture with Wally Beery consuming the scenery right and left.

    I can't fault the win of It Happened One Night because of the reasons you mentioned. It really is a wonderful blending of a good adaptation, the right director and the stroke of luck of the proper actors in the leads whether reluctantly agreeing to appear for a price (Colbert) or being forced (Gable).

    But as terrific as it is The Thin Man really is better with Powell and Myrna Loy surpassing even the marvelous chemistry of Colbert & Gable-which wasn't as strong in their other pairing, Boom Town but Powell and Loy hit it out of the park just being in the same scene. But this isn't about their chemistry but the script which they turn into gold. It's witty and clever and lean and this year should have taken the award.

    Of what else is missing, there were many adaptations of classics that year, Babbitt, Great Expectations, The Count of Monte Cristo all of which are decent if a bit stately or rough around the edges and The Scarlet Pimpernel which wouldn't be my winner but wouldn't be a bad addition. But the two I'd definitely add on are Twentieth Century and the French version of Les Misérables, the Laughton/March take on the same material came the next year and is also a decent adaptation.

    1. I naturally haven't seen the ones you mention at the end--it's what happens when you discover being a film nerd later in life. All those wasted years. I'd likely disagree on Les Miserables, though, simply because I don't like the story much.

      The Thin Man, though, is a script that still sparkles. It would be a good script with a lesser cast, but in the hands of Powell and Loy, it shows just how good it really is.

  3. I love both It Happened One Night and The Thin Man equally, but I do agree with your rankings, and yet have no problems with It Happened winning. Wish mainstream comedies were so sparkling nowdays!

    1. Sadly, we live in a world now where comedy films now are more or less people doing comedy routines at each other. Most lack the wit and the charm of both of these films.

  4. The fact that both "It Happened one Night" and "The Thin Man" works perfectly today actually says it all. Comedies that survive are very rare indeed. I could live with either of them winning, but gun to my head "The Thin Man" has to be the one taking the price. This award is not for acting or chemistry or technical prowess but adaption of a script and man what a script they turned out!

    1. The acting and the chemistry help. Loy and Powell are so good on screen together they're almost criminal.

      But the script is funny even on the page, and that's what makes it my winner.