Monday, August 20, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1935

The Contenders:

Alice Adams
The Broadway Melody of 1936
Captain Blood
David Copperfield
The Informer
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Les Miserables
Mutiny on the Bounty (winner)
Naughty Marietta
Ruggles of Red Gap
Top Hat

What’s Missing

When there are 12 nominees, especially when it’s this far in the past, finding some additional possible nominations is difficult at best. As much as I love the insanity of Mad Love, it probably doesn’t really belong here. I could say the exact same thing about A Night at the Opera. The 39 Steps is a dandy early Hitchcock film, one from before he was getting the sort of acclaim he would eventually receive. The biggest miss, of course, is The Bride of Frankenstein, which is exactly the sort of film that would never earn a nomination in 1935.

Weeding through the Nominees

12. I hated everything about Alice Adams. I had the exact opposite position the film wanted me to on every single character in the film. Everyone I was supposed to like was someone I disliked, and the film’s “villain” was clearly the nicest guy in the movie. I cannot imagine why or how this film was nominated for any awards at all, let alone the top Oscar. Our title character is little more than a veneer of pompous social conventions slapped over a base of someone who wants to be constantly told she is special.

11. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of those Shakespearean plays that pretty much everybody knows. It’s a dandy story, filled with the sort of fanciful goofiness that Billy the Shake could give us when he was at his best. Unfortunately, for all of the good production qualities and moments that this offers, it’s terribly miscast and too damn long. By the time we get to the play within a play at the end, it’s already gone a good 15-20 minutes beyond its sell-by date. There are better Shakespeare films and better versions of thisthis play out there.

10. It’s perhaps not fair of me to put Les Miserables as far down as 10th place, because I can’t say that this is a terrible version of this story. My issue with it is that I just don’t like the story itself. I’ve never felt that the story was that great. It makes a huge deal about pretty much nothing, and (I can’t believe it’s me saying this), this version doesn’t even have the benefit of the truly magnificent songs and production pieces that the later versions of this story have. I get the nomination, but I’m not a fan.

9. If I could give an award for best casting (and really, there’s nothing stopping me), I’d give strong consideration to David Copperfield for 1935. The reason for this is specifically for the placement of the great W.C. Fields using his real voice and not a fake accent for Mr. Micawber. That’s damn brilliant, and the best thing about this film. Truthfully, I am probably penalizing this for the same reason I did Les Miserables. I’m not a fan of Dickens in general, and I’m not a fan of the story.

8. Mutiny on the Bounty eventually came out on top in this contest, and, well, you can see my opinion of that here. I’m not letting it move above 8th place, putting it just above the bottom third of the nominations. Truthfully, there’s not a great deal here that is a serious problem for the story or the film. It might be that the film suffers from the presence of the great Charles Laughton, who casts such a huge shadow over the rest of the proceedings that everyone else falls into the background. It’s fine; it’s just not that great.

7. Place me back in the time of 1935/1936 and give me a vote on these Oscars, and it’s entirely likely that The Informer would be moved higher in my estimation. The problem with this film isn’t anything specifically inherent in the film itself; it just hasn’t aged very well. Our title character is the sort of character that today works only in bad comedies—someone who says something incriminating about himself and then corrects himself, assuming that no one heard the first thing he said. I get that it’s better than I think it is, but it would have been a lot better 80 years ago.

6. There’s additionally nothing specifically wrong with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer other than age. Produced today, this is a movie that would be loaded down with action sequences, and it’s action that is really needed here. It does quite a bit well, though, including a surprisingly touching scene regarding father trying desperately to connect with his son and not finding a clear way to do it. It’s well-written and well-acted throughout. The biggest issue is that this is a war film and there’s not enough action to really make it work.

5. Probably the biggest shock in terms of placement is Naughty Marietta coming in all the way up to here, the top of the middle third. This is a Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald film with all of the operatic warbling that entails. And yes, it’s the music that is the worst part of the film for me. And yet, everything else here works. The light comedy is a great deal of fun, and I stand by what I have said in the past—MacDonald was a wonderful comedian and I wish she’d gotten more work like this.

4. The Broadway Melody of 1936 is exactly the sort of musical sap party that I tend to dislike. And yet here we are. The biggest reason for this is the casting, which is almost staggering. Buddy Ebsen in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, Jack Benny, Robert Taylor, Una Merkel, and especially the incomparable Eleanor Powell, arguably the greatest dancer (male or female) to lace up a pair of shoes in a film. If this movie were complete pap (and it’s not far off), it would still rate high for the presence of her. She’s that great.

3. Errol Flynn probably never got the sort of acceptance from the Academy that he really deserved, and Captain Blood is the sort of film that brings this to mind. This is how you did action films in 1935, and it might well be argued that without Captain Blood we wouldn’t have films like The Adventures of Robin Hood. While there seems to have always been the case that there’s been a fascination with pirates, I think it’s fair to say that at least some of that enthusiasm comes from here.

2. How strange is it that, in a year when there are three musicals nominated for Best Picture, I’ve put all three of them in the top five? Top Hat is a wonderful film in so many ways, primarily because of the twin presences of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In truth, Top Hat is a big, dippy film that is ultimately a feel-good without a hell of a lot of substance, and it doesn’t matter in the slightest because this is a pure joy to watch. It’s a thing of beauty, and while the story is meaningless, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

My Choice

1. Ultimately, my choice is Ruggles of Red Gap, a film that I would guess most of the readers of this blog have neither seen nor heard of. That’s a shame, because it could be argued that this film is the absolute height of the great career of Charles Laughton, who is clearly having a fantastic time in this. Ruggles is wildly entertaining all the way through, in no small part because Laughton is playing a truly comic character completely straight. Track this down and see it, if you can. It’s as good as anything from the era.

Final Analysis


  1. That's quite a flock of films to choose from and while I can't argue with the marvelous Ruggles of Red Gap which besides Laughton has the wonderful trio of Mary Boland, ZaSu Pitts and ironically Charlie Ruggles coming out on top it wouldn't be my pick for ultimate winner though it would finish in the top three.

    I like this version of Mutiny on the Bounty more than you do but I'm not sure I'd pick it over Top Hat of the choices on hand.

    I was going to suggest Carnival in Flanders as a miss, and one that would rank highly for me, but I see it didn't hit American shores until 1936.

    1. Top Hat, for all its breezy fluffiness, wouldn't be a bad choice. It's a hell of a spectacle.

  2. Just pencil me in for Bride of Frankenstein. Love that movie.

  3. I'm with you on the top four and in that order. Sternberg's Crime and Punishment, King Vidor's The Wedding Night, and William Wyler's The Good Fairy would be also rans for me. And who but the Academy can resist The Bride of Frankenstein?!

    1. Try as it might (and it's trying mightily these days), the Academy is always hopelessly conservative in what it puts forward. Even when it tries to be progressive, it's baby steps that happen too late. 1989 is my favorite example of this. Best Picture goes to the easy, unchallenging "racism" movie Driving Miss Daisy and the difficult, challenging, still-relevant Do the Right Thing can't even swing a nomination.

  4. Some of these type of posts remind me of how many old movies I haven't seen! A Night at the Opera is my choice for 1935. I love few movie scenes more than the crowded stateroom scene.

    Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a good retrospective choice, but a monster movie wouldn't have been on the Academy's radar back then. I may check out Ruggles of Red Gap based on your recommendation. (So many movies, so little time)

    1. Ruggles isn't going to change your life, but it's fun, and it's clear how much fun Laughton is having with it in every frame. It's hard to resist.

      Honestly, I have to wonder if the Marx Brothers may have been even less on the Academy's radar.

  5. If I may say a few words in defense of Alice Adams …

    It's mostly not a movie to go out of your way to see. I don't have any big problem with it, but it's mostly forgettable.

    But it's got a great Hattie McDaniel scene! To heck with Gone With the Wind! She should have got the Oscar for Alice Adams! And she hardly says a word.

    So Alice Adams is must-see for Hattie McDaniel fans.

    As for 1935 as a whole, you can count my vote for Bride of Frankenstein for the win! (Also, I think A Night at the Opera, Mad Love and Crime and Punishment are great choices.)

    1. Defend away, but I hate that damn film. Rarely have I wanted to reach into the screen and slap a character harder.

  6. I still watch the great "Bride" and "Blood" quite often, but not as often as the great western starring Hoppy, "Hop-a-Long Cassidy," and the best film of 1935, albeit of despicable subject matter, Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." And while "Ruggles" is quite good, "Triumph" is the only true masterpiece of 1935.

    1. I looked at Triumph of the Will long and hard for this, and it's the sort of film that puts me in the same place as Birth of a Nation. There is such skill on display here--things that change the cinematic landscape--and it's done in service of something so terrible.

      I continue to struggle with reacting to films like this just as I do with (for instance) the poetry of Ezra Pound.

  7. Interesting ranking.
    I liked Mutiny a lot better than you do, but for me the movie I would return to is Top Hat and I usually dislike musicals.
    But then, I did not see Ruggles...

    1. Top Hat is a dandy choice. I thought for a good five minutes about the top two positions before I went with what I have.