Friday, July 10, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1930-1931

The Contenders:

Cimarron (winner)
East Lynne
The Front Page
Trader Horn

What’s Missing

This is such a disappointing collection collection of nominations for Best Picture. Movies from August 1, 1930 through July 31, 1931 were eligible, which leaves out some classics to the next year, like M and some pre-code joys like Night Nurse. Films that were nominated for other Oscars but not this one include Min and Bill and The Criminal Code, both of which I like as much or more than all five nominees. The Blue Angel was available, and absolutely better than everything on the list, even if Oscar wasn’t ready for foreign movies at this point. Oscar also wasn’t ready for horror movies, leaving out both Dracula and the Spanish-language version of the same. But why did Oscar dislike gangster classics like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy? And while talkies were still new and exciting for people, was City Lights really worth ignoring?

Weeding through the Nominees

5. As much as I wanted to dump our eventual winner in last, I simply can’t with Trader Horn in the list. Not only did the crew literally kill a rhino and a lion in the course of the film, they also seemed to decide that Africa was a single unified country. The only reason I can think of to nominate this film is that it was the first film to shoot on location in Africa—that unified country where evidently the Zulu and the Maasai, despite being separated by a good 1000 miles of continent, are ready to war on each other. I hate this film.

4. As mentioned above, I really wanted to put Cimarron in last, but I simply couldn’t. Part of the reason is that there really is a great sequence in this film. The land rush at the start of the film is a truly great film sequence, especially for the time in which it was made. It’s also mildly remarkable for having a much more progressive view of women than you might expect for this era. Everything else about the movie is not worth your time, though. It’s loud, dumb, brash, and arrogant…much like its lead character.

3. That East Lynne has managed to reach third place is rather surprising. This is a depressing and melodramatic film that is probably what passed for a tear-jerker 90 years ago. Today, it’s a gloopy, syrupy mess of a film that has no business being talked about in the same sentence as pretty much everything I mentioned in the first paragraph above. In fact, it’s actually surprising that there were two nominated movies I liked less than this one. Oh, I suppose it’s not terrible, but it doesn’t rate anywhere close to good.

2. The Front Page has the benefit of at least having an interesting story that is worth seeing. It has against it the problem that, a few years later, it was remade as His Girl Friday, a version of the story that is superior in every possible way. Had I seen this in 1931, it might well have been my choice for Best Picture. Now, with the knowledge that something so much better was coming nine or ten years down the road, it’s hard for me to see this as anything but a pale rough draft of an eventual classic.

1. For the five nominations, I’m giving this to Skippy, and it’s a very unenthusiastic endorsement. However, it’s really the only one of the five nominations that I really liked, even a little. Skippy hasn’t aged well, but it’s still a decent film with a really solid child performance from Jackie Cooper. I wouldn’t really want to give the Oscar to Skippy, though, and had I been an Oscar voter at the time, I’d have been really tempted to write something in…and probably would have.

My Choice

Anything I mentioned in my first paragraph with the possible exception of Min and Bill would be a better choice than any of the five nominations. I’d be very tempted by Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and I’d have loved the chaos of seeing either (or both!) versions of Dracula nominated, but ultimately, City Lights should have clearly won this.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen any of these films. And how the hell do you not nominate City Lights? That is a masterpiece.

    1. You are missing nothing by skipping all five of these.

  2. What an uninspiring collection of celluloid!

    I don’t like condemning something that I haven’t seen but I know enough about East Lynne’s lineage-it was such a staple of traveling repertory companies from the 1860’s through the 1920’s that if their play didn’t go well at the end of the performance the actors would promise the audience “Next week, East Lynne!” but it is also reputed to be the height of Victorian melodramatics. So with that knowledge I feel certain it wouldn’t bowl me over. I’d still like to see it (with zero expectations) because it was nominated and just plain curiosity since I’ve heard it referenced so often.

    Trader Horn is garbage but good land rush scene or not I detested Cimarron more. I loved the Edna Ferber source novel and was so disappointed when I saw the complete hash they made out of it. I suppose they could have done worse than Irene Dunne as Sabra even if I didn’t think much of her take on the character but Richard Dix was the absolute pits as Yancey. But worse than the performances was the deadly seemingly nonexistent direction. After the headache inducing Around the World in 80 Days I think it’s the worst Best Picture winner of them all.

    I agree that Jackie Cooper is appealing in Skippy but not enough to hand the win to his picture.

    Which leaves The Front Page. It may be the skeletal bones of His Girl Friday but it is loaded front to back with a great array of character actors working the material into an enjoyable whole. It isn’t the equal of the remake but out of this group it’s the best written and at least it’s still rewatchable.

    In an open field though none of these would make the cut. My five would be in this order:

    The Public Enemy-Winner
    Little Caesar
    City Lights
    Under the Roofs of Paris

  3. Frankenstein wouldn't be eligible--it came out later in the year, so it would be eligible for the next year. The November release date leaves it out of this Oscars.

    That said, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and clearly City Lights would make my five, along with one of the Dracula versions and The Blue Angel.

    I ranked the Oscar Best Picture winners a few years ago. Cimarron came in fourth from the bottom for me, ahead of only The Broadway Melody, Gigi, and Around the World in 80 Days. I like nothing about the first of these and find Gigi to be morally reprehensible and indefensible. Around the World in 80 Days is a pure garbage fire, aside from the presence of Cantinflas, who was (naturally) ignored in the States.

  4. This may be one of the most depressing reviews you've written. I guess Hollywood has the occasional bad-hair year.

    1. It's absolutely dismal. Skippy isn't bad, but hardly great or worth seeing more than once, and it's clearly the best of the lot. Whe there were so many better possibilities, it's a depressing collection.

  5. You have a handful of movies up there in the introduction which would make up a decent list of nominees. Of those City Lights would also be my pick.
    Maybe Chaplin had already enraged the establishment at this time? Maybe the Academy figured a comedy was not a worthy entry? Who knows.

    1. That can't be the case with Chaplin, because he earned nominations in later years, specifically for The Great Dictator. I think it's more likely that they didn't want to nominate a silent movie.