Monday, September 10, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1936

The Contenders:

Anthony Adverse
The Great Ziegfeld (winner)
Libeled Lady
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Romeo and Juliet
San Francisco
The Story of Louis Pasteur
A Tale of Two Cities
Three Smart Girls

What’s Missing

This is another one of those years where there are a lot of nominations, and since it’s an early year in film history, it’s one were I’ve seen far fewer than I probably should have. Still, there are a number of changes I’d love to make. While I’m not a huge fan of My Man Godfrey, I’m a little surprised it wasn’t nominated. I can say something similar about Swing Time, although I like the film a lot more. Sequels were certainly a thing in 1936, and After the Thin Man is one of the better ones from this year. In these early years, foreign language films always had trouble getting noticed, which explains the absence of The Story of a Cheat. Artistic value aside, it would have been a longshot for the Academy to recognize an essentially silent film like Modern Times. The move I’d love to see here, though, is the little-known Theodora Goes Wild, which is absolutely a charmer.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. Anthony Adverse is one of those movies that I look at and wonder what the Academy was thinking. It’s not that I think it’s a bad movie for modern times; I have trouble believing this was seen as a quality movie in 1936. It’s overlong, overcomplicated, shows scenes that could easily be handled with a title card, and relies on coincidences of Dickensian proportions. The only thing I genuinely liked about it is that there is a character named Denis Moore. If you are at all a Monty Python fan, you know exactly why that is funny.

9. In the best of worlds, I’m not a fan of Romeo and Juliet. I don’t like the story. One of the problems with staging it is in finding believable people to play the title characters. You want them to be good in the roles, and young enough to be in those roles. In this case, we have the bland 43-year-old Leslie Howard playing the 17-year-old Romeo and the 34-year-old Norma Shearer playing the 13-year-old Juliet. With the best will in the world, there’s absolutely no way that is ever going to work. And it doesn’t.

8. Ultimate winner The Great Ziegfeld probably won because of the amazing amount of pomp and the huge musical numbers contained in its massive running time. I’ve never been the biggest fan of musicals, and so it comes as something of a shock that by far my favorite aspect of this movie is the huge musical numbers. This movie sings when we’re seeing what made Ziegfeld famous. It becomes stodgy and boring when the focus switches to Ziegfeld’s life outside of his dealing with things on stage. And since that’s a huge part of the movie, that’s a problem.

7. Why, precisely, was The Story of Louis Pasteur nominated for Best Picture? I think this is a case of politics in no small part. Paul Muni was snubbed in 1935 for Best Actor, not getting a nomination but getting huge support as a write-in candidate. Because of that, he won for this, and perhaps the Academy was under the impression that the only way to legitimize Muni’s Oscar was to nominate the film itself. It’s oddly short and ignores the main contribution of Pasteur’s life. I genuinely don’t understand it.

6. It would be possible to suggest that my problem with San Francisco is the predictable trope of the nasty, unfeeling atheist character falling to his knees, thanking God, and reforming himself by the end of the film. That’s partly true, but it’s because that rings so hollow in this film that I simply don’t buy it. There are aspects of this film—Clark Gable playing a rogue—that are fun, but the music is operatic and annoying, and the part of the film worth seeing, the Great San Francisco Earthquake, takes forever to get to.

5. I remembered that Three Smart Girls was the film that made Deanna Durbin a star and that because of that it involved musical numbers. That’s literally all I remembered about it until I went back and looked at my review. That this managed to still get to 5th place on this list says a great deal about the movies that were nominated for Best Picture in 1936. This is a harmless bit of fluff and Deanna Durbin was a charming actress who managed to leave Hollywood on her own terms. It’s not bad; it’s just not memorable.

4. I’ll say something similar about A Tale of Two Cities making it all the way to fourth place. It’s not that I dislike this movie or the story, but that I have never been a huge fan of Charles Dickens. He depended entirely on coincidence and it’s clear that he was paid by the word. Anyway, this is a pretty good story and it’s nicely acted all the way through. I also, surprise, surprise, like the way this story ends, and the movie nails the ending with just the right amount of tragedy and pathos. This is the first movie on this list where I wholly agree with the nomination.

3. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is so clearly and obviously a Frank Capra movie. It features both that which makes his movies work and that which makes his movies fail. It’s corny and sappy, and it works despite and because of this. My problem with Capra is that a little of him goes a long, long way. There’s always a chance that you’ll leave a Capra film as a diabetic. And yet it all works for some reason and it’s easy to walk away from this film with a smile and whistling a happy tune.

2. Libeled Lady is a film that I expected to be sort of a proto-noir. It’s not; it’s a pure screwball comedy, and it’s exactly what a screwball should be. It’s one of those rare movies that was nominated for Best Picture and nothing else, and that’s a shame, because it certainly could have been up for a few other awards without raising an eyebrow. Libeled Lady still works as a comedy and still works as a movie. It’s a pure pleasure to watch it, and of the nominations, it’s probably the one I’d most enjoy rewatching. But while it might be the one I enjoyed the most, it’s not what I’d call the best movie.

My Choice

1. My winner is Dodsworth for one simple reason. This is a movie that comes from the absolute heart of the Great Depression, a time when pretty much everyone was desperate and broke. And here we have a movie (just like many of the movies of the time) with main characters who are fabulously wealthy dealing with relationship problems…and it works completely. Fifteen minutes into watching this, I was completely hooked and completely invested in the story. That’s a hard sell for me, and yet I went with it completely. It’s my clear choice because it works despite every indication that it shouldn’t.

Final Analysis


  1. I looked at my IMDB list for favorite movie from 1936, and I was kind of surprised to see Follow the Fleet. I must have put it on the list before I saw it the second or third time. It's about half a great movie and repeated viewings sort of highlight that it gets kind of boring and formulaic towards the end.

    I'll probably change that. I like Modern Times a lot. And I love this version of Romeo and Juliet! Lots of points for the sheer audacity of casting a 60-year-old Mercutio! And Barrrymore is awesome! I remember liking Libeled Lady but it's been a while and I only saw it once.

    The only one of these films I haven't seen is The Life of Louis Pasteur! So I'm doing pretty good on 1936.

    1. Follow the Fleet is one I haven't seen and don't have a huge desire to see, although I likely will someday.

      I've seen multiple versions of Romeo and Juliet and this one is almost certainly my least favorite. I hate the story going in, and having a cast that is two or three times the age of the characters just makes it all ridiculous and a waste of time.

  2. I liked Dodsworth well enough and it definitely deserved it nomination unlike Anthony Adverse and Louis Pasteur but it would never be my winner.

    As to the winner The Great Ziegfeld, and I say this as a big fan of musicals, UGH. It’s not just that it should have been in color but it criminally wastes its cast and it’s both endless and dull.

    While they’re not exactly geriatric Howard and Shearer make R&J ridiculous and I’ve never warmed to Mr. Deeds as I do to most other Capras. Deeds is just TOO gullible.

    San Francisco is a fun big studio adventure/drama-though I think Jeannette MacDonald is the completely wrong actress for the lead, Alice Faye or Joan Blondell would have made much more sense-but that’s all it is.

    I love Deanna Durbin but Three Smart Girls isn’t even her best picture by a long shot let alone worth a nomination.

    So that leaves A Tale of Two Cities and Libeled Lady both of which I really enjoy and admire. I’m with you in that Libeled Lady-and its flawless cast-is the one I would and do rewatch more frequently and had it won I would have been delighted but my vote goes to A Tale of Two Cities which took Dickens solid but wordy story and refined it to its best elements.

    With 10 nominees some of what was left out is incredible.

    Modern Times is the biggest head scratcher silent or not since artistic merit is supposed to be the guiding force. But I suppose it was seen as antiquated in its day. From that angle it makes sense but it just doesn’t make sense. I liked Theodora Goes Wild but I don’t see it as a real contender certainly not on the level of Libeled Lady. And My Man Godfrey is all about the performances to me. I love Swing Time which is probably my favorite Astaire & Rogers film but it’s no Top Hat in overall cohesiveness.

    One that I’m surprised didn’t make it since it sort of screams Prestige Production is The Petrified Forest. While I don’t love the film it’s certainly better than several that made the cut. But along with Modern Times I’m most surprised by the exclusion of Fritz Lang’s Fury another one that now seems right up their alley but might have been too incendiary at the time.

    1. I get what you're saying for a number of the unnominated films. For me, everything that people see in a film like My Man Godfrey is what I see in Theodora Goes Wild. It would never be a really serious contender for me, but I like it more than virtually all of the actual nominees.

      Fury and The Petrified Forest are two I should probably catch up with.

  3. Dodsworth is one of those (few) old movies I regularly rewatch. It works 100% and does not feel dated. It would be my winner as well.
    Hitchcock's Sabotage is my suggestion for a nomination. Not his best, but quite daring.

    1. I thought about putting Sabotage on the list, and I probably could have, since I like it more than some of the nominees. Ultimately, though, I don't know that I'd nominated it.

    2. I thought about suggesting Sabotage too but it didn't come out in the States until January of 1937 so it wasn't eligible.

    3. Well, there ya go. Different release dates make this such a pain in the ass sometimes.

  4. William Powell both helped the winning film while hurting the chances of comedies "My Man Godfrey" and "After the Thin Man." Oh, and wasn't he one of the best parts of "Libeled Lady?" That was probably the best year ever for one actor. And I agree with you about "Theodora," but it was just too risque/double standard for mainstream America.

    1. Absolutely true of Powell. 1936 was a monster year for him.

      Even my favorite year for James Mason--1959 (North by Northwest and Journey to the Center of the Earth) pales in comparison. Barbara Stanwyck's 1941 would rate, though--Ball of Fire, Meet John Doe, and The Lady Eve makes for a pretty solid year.

    2. And now that I think about it, Michael Stuhlbarg was in three out of the nine Best Picture nominees for 2017. He had roles in The Post, Call Me by Your Name, and The Shape of Water. That's pretty astonishing for a guy who himself went unrecognized come award season.

  5. "Dodsworth" also suffered due to its brilliant pedigree. The novel was one of the best of the 1920's (and of Sinclair Lewis's career), and then it became a first-rate play starring Walter Huston. So, its early, and well-deserved, accolades probably hindered its later Oscar chances. Had it been filmed earlier (right after publication), I think it should have, and would have, won.

  6. Couldn't agree more! You really must see Fury. Some others from my own top ten list are Swing Time, Cesar (very highly recommend the whole "Fanny" trilogy!), Renoir's The Lower Depths, James Whale's Show Boat, Ozu's The Only Son and Mizoguchi's Sister's of the Gion.

    And the winner would STILL and always be Dodsworth.

    1. Why does Dodsworth work? I haven't figured out the guts of what makes it a film that I like so much because it should have everything against it, and yet I love it.

  7. I really like »Dodsworth«, and »Mr Deeds« isn't bad at all. The rest of the nominees remains unseen by these eyes, unfortunately.

    Regarding what is amiss, I am quite fond of both »My man Godfrey«, »Modern Times«, and that elegant little gem »Le roman d’un tricheur«. Not as enchanted by »Swing Time«, though.

    Two possible contenders: »Sabotage« and maybe »Une partie de campagne«.

    1. Of the other nominees, Libeled Lady is worth tracking down and A Tale of Two Cities is surprisingly good. The rest you can probably skip unless you want to watch every Best Picture winner. If so, bear down for the three hours or so that is The Great Ziegfeld.

    2. If you are a fan of either William Powell or Myrna Loy, "The Great Ziegfeld" is still a must watch. As for its winning, I think it was a token win for the end of vaudeville that was still fresh in everyone's minds and so many in Hollywood had come from a vaudeville/Broadway background. I know my favorite actress Ruby Catherine Stanwyck was one of Ziegfeld's Girls and enjoyed much success in his Follies.

    3. I can see the argument even if I don't fully agree. There's so much of The Great Ziegfeld that feels like dross to me. It's the musical numbers that are the exception.

      I try not to be too snobbish about certain things, but this is clearly a case where filming in color would have made a huge difference. It just seems like not all of the choices here were the right ones.