Friday, December 18, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1934

The Contenders:

The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Flirtation Walk
The Gay Divorcee
Here Comes the Navy
The House of Rothschild
Imitation of Life
It Happened One Night (winner)
One Night of Love
The Thin Man
Viva Villa!
The White Parade

What’s Missing

These years with 12 nominees…I can barely comprehend the necessity of this many nominees, especially when so many of them don’t really belong. It’s also a year where I haven’t seen a great deal outside of the Oscar nominations. The only two I would really consider are Of Human Bondage, a film I didn’t like much but that seems like an Oscar film and The Affairs of Cellini. I suppose The Goddess might work here, and I enjoyed It’s a Gift, but both seem like stretches.

Weeding through the Nominees

N/A. I don’t really know anything about The White Parade other than the very sparse summary on Wikipedia and the fact that it exists only in an archive at UCLA and is in bad shape. I support the idea of film restoration as something that should be done, and while there are certainly films that deserve it more than one that is evidently best summed up as “Young nurses in love,” one would think that an Oscar nomination for Best Picture has earned the right to be spruced up and shown every now and then. Until that happens, though, here we are.

11. I didn’t expect to like the operatic One Night of Love, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t expect to dislike it as much as I did, though. Grace Moore had a great deal of talent as a singer, but opera does nothing for me. She also had some good comedic timing, but it’s used to no effect here. This is a movie that believes sincerely that love grows between two people when they sing high notes directly at each other’s faces as loudly as possible. If you’re into that, well, this movie is here for you.

10. If you forgive Cagney doing a scene in Here Comes the Navy in blackface as a product of its time, the movie still sucks. The plot, such as it is, is that Cagney’s character joins the Navy more or less on a bet, hoping to get assigned to the same ship as a guy who gave him a hard time while he was building the USS Arizona. Yes, that Arizona. Worse, Cagney, who is fun on screen in almost everything, comes across in this movie as a complete jerk and someone impossible to sympathize with. That’s a serious issue.

9. If you thought Here Comes the Navy had to be the extent of movies about someone joining a branch of the military to effectively say, “I’ll show you!,” allow me to introduce you to Flirtation Walk. In this case, though, it’s a likable Dick Powell instead of a surly Cagney, and the object of affection is Ruby Keeler. But herein lies another problem. We’re presented with Ruby Keeler as being the end-all, be-all of voluptuous womanhood, and she ain’t. She’s cute and all that, but by the reactions she gets through the film, you’d think she was walking around nude.

8. The best thing you can say about Viva Villa! is that Wallace Beery is having a really good time in this role. That’s pretty much also the only really positive thing you can say about this movie. Again, as with the blackface in Here Comes the Navy, you can possibly (maybe) forgive the whitewashing of putting Beery in the role of a Mexican revolutionary as a product of its time. But there’s not a lot that is interesting that happens here, and that’s a problem for a film about an interesting and exciting historical figure.

7. I’m honestly a little surprised that The House of Rothschild made it this high in the list, except that it’s actually a well-made movie. What it isn’t is a movie that has an obvious audience. I have no idea the point of this movie, which genuinely seems like a propaganda film made for (and possibly by) the Rothschild family. It extolls the virtues of the Rothschilds and somehow credits them with controlling banking by using the emergent technology of…carrier pigeons. That’s like claiming that banks today are unfairly using email.

6. It’s perhaps unfair to compare this version of Cleopatra to the Elizabeth Taylor vehicle of several decades later, but it’s also nearly impossible not to do so. It’s very much the same story in a lot of ways, but this feels condensed and a lot smaller. This is should be all about the pomp and spectacle, but instead, it’s much smaller than it should be, and a lot flatter. I wanted to like this, but for it to be even remotely interesting, it needed to be a lot bigger. Also, and this is personal, I don’t really get the appeal of Claudette Colbert.

5. I’ve been told that I should really see the remake of Imitation of Life and it’s on the list of movies I should watch. But I haven’t seen it yet, and while I didn’t dislike this version from 1934, it’s hard to muster up the enthusiasm to see the later version. This is the first of these nominees I can say I genuinely liked, but this is very much a film that feels mired in its time and its politics. It’s fine. It’s completely serviceable, and it does genuinely cement Claudette Colbert has having had a damn good year.

4. No one was more surprised than I that I kind of enjoyed The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which I expected to be a glurgey mess. It is ultimately just kind of bland and slow, but it’s well cast, and that helps it a great deal. That there isn’t really a lot happening does make it hard to pay attention to at times, but it is ultimately a slow romance, so that’s kind of appropriate. It honestly doesn’t really deserve to be this high on the list from this year, which speaks to the fact that there are far too many nominees, and far too many of them didn’t deserve nominations.

3. The Gay Divorcee is fluff, but it’s damn good fluff and it’s also really entertaining. This is what movies should be in a time when the world is in crisis. It’s fun and flighty and beautiful, and for people dealing with the collapse of the world’s economy and countries on a direct path to war, it allowed for 90 minutes of escape into great music and dancing. Did it deserve to win? No, but I’m happy with the nomination, because it really is a movie that demonstrates just how good a musical can be, even when it’s not really about much.

My Choices

2. It Happened One Night was the first movie to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay (or whatever that was called at the time). That’s quite an accomplishment, and I understand its winning many of those awards. It’s a very good movie. It’s funny, the chemistry between Gable and Colbert is real and genuine, and the situation is very much the template for road movies, odd couple movies, and screwballs. In that respect, it’s a great winner. It’s just not my winner.

1. No, like most of the awards from 1934, I’m going with The Thin Man, which remains my favorite 1930s screenplay and contains my favorite 1930s pairing—William Powell and Myrna Loy. This is a movie that is still funny, still whipcrack smart, and still runs on all cylinders, like a perfectly preserved performance car from a bygone era. If you haven’t seen this, track it down. It’s a Christmas movie, too—it’s completely appropriate for this time of year. Revel in the performances, the double entendres, and the boozy flirting of the leads.

Final Analysis


  1. The List does not really offer many options for Best Picture this year. Your top two are the only relevant movies so it is simply a pick between them.
    I understand the win of It Happened One Night, but The Thin man is the movie I would want to watch again and that settles that.

    1. I understand the win, too. It's not a bad choice and I do enjoy the movie. And, if I'm honest, It Happened One Night has had a bigger cultural impact than The Thin Man.

  2. My favorite film of that year is L'Atalante by Jean Vigo with It Happened One Night in 2nd as I had no problem with that film winning Best Picture. Plus, how can anyone not enjoy that little leg show Claudette Colbert did? The only other film from 1934 that I have seen is A Story of Floating Weeds by Yasujiro Ozu.

    1. I've seen Floating Weeds from a decade and a half later. I should track down the original one of these days.

  3. It really wasn't a great year for enduring high quality classics despite the fact that the studios were cranking out films at a furious rate.

    I can't believe that Flirtation Walk received a nomination! There probably are worse films on this list but while it has some elaborate numbers it is a very average ordinary picture. As with Claudette Colbert for you I've never gotten Ruby Keeler's appeal-she couldn't sing, was a mediocre to poor dancer and her acting was stiff, a weird sort of triple threat!

    While I think Imitation of Life, Barretts, and Cleopatra were pretty good films I'd never nominate them.

    Which leaves me with the same top three and in the same order though I don't have any strong objection to It Happened One Night taking the prize. It's a very winning picture.

    There weren't that many films that could have taken the place of those nine that I'd cut. I have several that I really like but I think the only two that would have stood a chance with the Academy were Fredric March's Death Takes a Holiday and the Victor McLaglen/Boris Karloff starrer The Lost Patrol.

    1. Death Takes a Holiday was already on my list; I'll add The Lost Patrol.

      This is such a strange year in terms of nominations. So many of these films are decent enough, but certainly not worth seeing more than once, and a few of them aren't worth seeing once.

      I don't hate Ruby Keeler, but she's considerably less than what she's always depicted as being.

  4. I have It Happened One Night on my Blind Spot list for next year. Looking forward to watching that.

    1. I predict that you'll at least like it and probably love it. Saying that I like The Thin Man better isn't saying a lot, because I like The Thin Man pretty much more than just about everything else from the 1930s. While I'd pick a different winner, it's by no means a movie that didn't deserve all of its acclaim.

  5. Any of your top three could be at the top of my own 1934 list on any given day.

    1. I think that's fair. It's very much a year with a few movies on top, a very big gap, and then everything else.