Monday, July 30, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1932/1933

The Contenders:

42nd Street
Cavalcade (winner)
A Farewell to Arms
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Lady for a Day
Little Women
The Private Life of Henry VIII
She Done Him Wrong
Smilin’ Through
State Fair

What’s Missing

For a year—technically almost a year and a half since this Oscar covers August, 1932 through December, 1933—that includes 10 nominations, it’s a really sad list in a lot of respects. I can’t replace the entire list (and wouldn’t want to), but there are plenty of replacements to make here. A movie like Duck Soup is a longshot for a nomination, but there are a few actual nominations here that I think are equally longshots. The miss on Footlight Parade and Love Me Tonight are more surprising. The Academy’s dislike of things outside of the realm of basic reality goes back to these early years; this is the only explanation I can think of for the miss on King Kong. Aside from Kong, the one I’m missing the most is Queen Christina.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. We can talk about what influence Mae West may have had on movies or entertainment or anything else, and a lot of that seems to have come from She Done Him Wrong. And I wonder why, because this movie is a giant nothing. The only thing that I find notable about it is that it was the big break for Cary Grant. Beyond that, I appreciate the fact that it’s short, which meant that at least the pain was minimal. Sure, it’s important to know who Mae West was. Look at pictures, because this is not worth your time.

9. Little Women fought for the bottoms spot for this Oscar, and it’s for a lot of reasons. A big chunk of that is the casting. Little Women has a substantially good cast on paper, but not in practice. This includes a 23-year-old Joan Bennett playing a 12-year-old girl. Toss in the fact that Katherine Hepburn shouts “Christopher Columbus!” every couple of minute and you have a movie where everyone is playing far below her real age (Jean Parker’s 18-for-14 is the closest we get) and everyone is annoying as hell. This couldn’t end fast enough for me.

8. State Fair isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s also not a very good one or a very interesting one. Essentially, a family goes to the fair and stuff happens. It’s interesting in the sense that Will Rogers plays the patriarch, so that’s worth seeing, but I’m not sure that a lot of the rest of it is. It’s wildly overacted in a lot of places, particularly in the person of Janet Gaynor’s Margy. It feels like this is supposed to be a corn-fed version of Grand Hotel and it’s not even close to that. It’s just stuff that happens until the end.

7. There’s a part of me that understands the win for Cavalcade. In many respects, it is the most ambitious of the ten films that were nominated, attempting to more or less create a brief history of the 20th century to this point through the eyes of a single family. But it is so damn dull, since virtually all of the film happens in the drawing room of that family in question. We don’t actually see a lot of these events. We see people standing in a room either reacting to them or talking about them. That’s it, and man, is it dull.

6. Based on conversations I have had with some others, I appear to dislike Lady for a Day far more than most other people do. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s one that I’m not sure knows what it wants to be. Most of the cast seems to think that this is a comedy, and it may well be. May Robson, who is the titular lady, appears to think this is high drama, though. She also (or at least her character does) thinks that getting a new wardrobe means getting an entirely new personality and way of speaking. Too much of this doesn’t work or goes unanswered for me.

5. I understand why people like 42nd Street, but for me, it’s absolutely the sort of musical that for years made me say that I don’t like them. This is a musical about musicals and about the people who make them. It’s entirely self-referential, and I find that incredibly frustrating. It’s got a great cast and it has some great moments. Make this actually about something other than itself and it would absolutely move up a few spots on the list here. Add to that the fact that some of these people are powerfully dumb, and you get, well…a film that lands in fifth place.

4. Probably the most contentious or unpopular placement here will be putting a slim nothing like The Private Life of Henry VIII as high as fourth place. I freely admit that there’s not really a great deal going on in this film. There is one reason to watch this movie. That one reason is Charles Laughton, who was almost always great and was frequently (as here) the best part of the film in question. He’s having a great time in this movie, and for that, it’s worth seeing and why it gets to fourth place.

3. I have said for years that I like Hemingway’s short stories a great deal but tend to dislike his novels. A big part of the reason for my dislike of his novels is that Hemingway couldn’t write a woman character to save his life or anyone else’s. That’s a problem that isn’t specifically solved by A Farewell to Arms. The story is an interesting one almost in spite of Hemingway’s limitations in terms of character. While this hasn’t aged very well, there are moments in it that I think still work very well in terms of cinema in the grandest sense.

2. It doesn’t say a great deal for the year in question when something as syrupy and gloppy as Smilin’ Through hits second place. This isn’t a movie that I liked very much, but it was one that I liked at least a little, or at least didn’t hate. In a year with these nominations, it appears that that’s enough to get you to second place. This is absolutely a vehicle made for Norma Shearer, and she’s the main reason to like it. I suppose I also give it a little credit for making Leslie Howard at least not as bland as he normally is.

1. Of the ten nominations, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the only one that deserves to be here. While very much a product of its time, this is a film that really translates well to the modern age in a lot of respects. It’s one of the great roles of Paul Muni’s career and while it is dated and hasn’t aged perfectly, it still works. It also has one of the great endings of its era and one of the great final lines of all time. Given the ten, it’s my choice and it would certainly rank in an open field, but it wouldn’t win.

My Choice

Seriously, there’s no other choice for this year beyond King Kong. I could have lived with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang as the winner at least as a film being worthy of the nomination, but Kong is the one that people still know, still care about, and still gets remade for modern audiences.

Final Analysis


  1. I can never decide between King Kong and Duck Soup as my favorite film for 1933.

    Out of what was actually nominated, I would definitely pick 42nd Street, but I sure wouldn't make a fuss if I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang had won.

    I didn't find Cavalcade to be dull. I don't think it's a great movie by any means, but I thought it was at least a little better than watchable.

    1. I have a particular fondness for Duck Soup, so I don't have an issue with that. Best Picture isn't always my favorite movie of the year, though.

  2. Agreed with the malaise this field generally caused, and really the whole qualifying period in general; it was the first 'year' of my Judging Oscar segments that I didn't have a clear-cut winner in my head, and I ended up defaulting my potential vote to either Chain Gang or King Kong, same as you did. The early years of the Academy were not an altogether inspiring fare.

    1. I agree, except in places. There are moments in these early years where there's a clear winner or at least an exceptional film. But yeah, there's a lot of dullsville.

  3. There really should have been no other winner this year than I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang from this list. Cavalcade was positively sleep inducing.

    King Kong is a fine film but even if it had gotten a nomination, which it should, Chain Gang would still come out on top for me.

    With these weird early years I'm never sure what should fall into which where but I'd suggest Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, it opened in the States in January of '33, as a better inclusion than most of the list.

    1. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a GREAT film! I've seen it a couple of times

    2. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is probably a miss on my part. I don't really strongly object to Chain Gang taking the win, but I think Kong has a continued influence on the film world, so it's where I'd go.

  4. Both Queen Christina and Footlight Parade should have been included and would rank very high on my list. I am not as infatuated by Kong as most people and the Academy has always disregarded this type of movie. Even in an open field I would place Fugitive first.

    1. It certainly wouldn't be the worst choice--and of the 10 nominations, it's clearly the best choice.