The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1937

Yeesh. What happened here? I can’t explain at all what happened in 1937. The best I can figure is that at this point, the Academy became self-conscious and was trying to do the “Academy” thing, but didn’t really have a choice there. That’s really all I can come up with because I don’t understand it at all.

It’s not that The Life of Emile Zola is a bad film — far from it — it’s just a weak Best Picture winner. It doesn’t hold up at all, and is now one of the worst ten Best Picture winners of all time because of that. The film also won Best Supporting Actress for Joseph Schildkraut (talked about here), which is a bad decision in execution, simply because Schildkraut is barely on screen in the film, but a good one in theory, since the role (Captain Dreyfus, of the Dreyfus Affair) is one that would win this award. Add to that the weak category and it does make some sense. Then, Best Actor was Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous (talked about here), which I don’t understand but can accept, given the category. It’s really his win the year after this I don’t like. Then Best Actress was Luise Rainer again for The Good Earth (talked about here), another one where she sneaks in. It’s not a particularly good decision, and yet, I can see exactly how it happened. (Still don’t like it, though.) Best Supporting Actress was Alice Brady for In Old Chicago (talked about here), which makes sense, since she was a respected character actress and was playing Mrs. O’Leary (her cow was allegedly what started the great Chicago Fire), but I still feel like Andrea Leeds should have won there. And Best Director was Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth (talked about here), which was a great decision, only for the wrong film. If you’ve ever seen Make Way for Tomorrow, you know that’s the film he really won for this year. Either way, he deserved it.

So, overall — 1937 — probably one of the weakest years in Academy history, in terms of winners and nominees. It’s just not very memorable. Again, this is one of those years that’s memorable for what didn’t win instead of what won. That’s never a good situation to be in.


And the nominees are…

The Awful Truth (Columbia)

Captains Courageous (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Dead End (Goldwyn, United Artists)

The Good Earth (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

In Old Chicago (20th Century Fox)

The Life of Emile Zola (Warner Bros.)

Lost Horizon (Columbia)

One Hundred Men and a Girl (Universal)

Stage Door (RKO Radio)

A Star Is Born (Selznick International, United Artists)

The Awful Truth — This is a comedy of remarriage. And that subgenre of comedy is amazing.

Cary Grant arrives back from a business trip and wasn’t where he said he was. His wife, Irene Dunne, meanwhile, happened to have stayed over at the house of another man. And both suspect each other of having an affair, and they’re so stubborn they just divorce each other without talking about it. But the thing is, they still love each other. So Dunne starts dating Ralph Bellamy, the heir to an oil fortune. And Grant ends up screwing it up. Then, he ends up dating a wealthy socialite, and Dunne, both upset at him for screwing up her engagement and also in love with him, sets out to screw it up for him by pretending to be his sister. It’s hilarious. It’s seriously (pun) one of the funniest movies of all time. It’s amazing.

This, honestly, is a film I can’t fault anyone for voting for. I mean, I will, but, I also can’t. I understand. Though, for my money, A Star Is Born is more classic than this. So I lean toward that for a win. But in terms of films that are better than the film that won, this is definitely one of them.

Captains Courageous — This film is about a spoiled rich kid who falls off an ocean liner and is picked up by a fishing boat. And since they’re not scheduled to go back to land for a while, he’s stuck with them. And they basically make him work for them and teach him how to be a decent person. He learns the value of a hard day’s work, and becomes a less annoying kid because of it. And the kid strikes up a close friendship with Spencer Tracy, who dies while they’re out at sea, and the kid is very upset about it. And then he’s reunited with his father, and is now a completely different person. But his father eventually finds a way to communicate with the boy, and they end up on good terms again.

I’m not doing a great job of describing it, but it’s a great film. It’s really strong. Against The Life of Emile Zola — I don’t know if it would have been a better choice, but it’s a film I’d probably vote for instead. I definitely like it more than Zola. But there are still at least two other films that are worth voting for instead. So either way, this doesn’t win. But it’s definitely one of the strongest films on this list.

Dead End — This film is a weird two-headed beast. The main story of the film is intended to be about the Dead End kids, a group of teenagers in the vein of The Bowery Boys. And we follow them as they do stuff and learn lessons and whatever. But the actual interesting part of the film is the Humphrey Bogart half. He plays Baby Face Nelson, who is hiding out from the law in his old neighborhood, and he goes to see his mother, who wants nothing to do with him, and his old girl, who is now a prostitute and has syphilis. And the film wants to be about the kids, but we want it to be about Bogart. So it’s this weird mix of both. Still, it’s an interesting film. It’s actually watchable and pretty solid all around.

I can’t vote for it, though. I am just not interested in the Dead End kids. Even in Angels with Dirty Faces (same kids), I didn’t really like them. That’s just, not my thing at all.

The Good Earth The Good Earth is an adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel. It’s got Wang Lung and O-Lan, and it’s about how great land is. Chinese people. It’s hard to explain. It’s based on that book. I personally think the book was better. I almost never say that. Normally I think the two are separate entities. But here, I actually felt the film, while well made and having all the earmarks of a good film, is missing something. It doesn’t feel like it’s about anything. It just feels like it’s an adaptation of the book and that’s what it’s trying to skate by on. So, it’s solid and all, but it’s something I cannot vote for. Because voting for this, to me, is like saying, “All you need to do is adapt a famous book. Doesn’t need to be a good adaptation, doesn’t need to carry over all the themes of the book. Just do it, and we’ll give you a statue.” So I can’t vote for this.

In Old Chicago — This film is kind of like San Francisco in that, it’s 2/3 mostly generic story and 1/3 major destruction. This film is a story about two brothers and their mother, one going on one side of the law and the other going on the other side. And eventually the Chicago Fire happens. They’re the O’Leary’s, and, as legend has it, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the fire. So we follow the story, and then the fire happens. The story is mostly inconsequential. But the fire sequences are nice.

The film is pretty good. Not as good as San Francisco, but good. Shouldn’t have won at all, though. It’s not that interesting. It would have been a worse winner than The Life of Emile Zola. That’s how I rate this category. Which would have held up better than the actual winner. I found two or three films. This isn’t one of them.

The Life of Emile Zola — I hate having to talk about this category, because it invariably leads to me speaking ill of this film, which is not a bad film at all. It’s just that it shouldn’t have won, and in saying that, it feels like I’m saying it’s bad.

The film is about Emile Zola, who is a crusading journalist in 19th century France. And he writes these books showing the seedy side of French life, as sort of a way to be like, “Look, the government isn’t all that good. Look at all the crap poor people have to live with.” He was a social reformer. And the film deals mostly with his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer was convicted of treason for allegedly selling secrets, meanwhile it was pretty much a cover up the whole time. So Dreyfus is thrown in prison and Zola is informed of the case and fights for him for several years until he is released. It’s a really strong film.

This film, while strong, shouldn’t have won. It just shouldn’t have. You know how I know? Look at it. Has this held up as a particularly strong winner? No. Most people don’t even know what this is. A Star is Born, however — people would know. So I can’t vote for this, because I don’t think it is (or has been) a winner that holds its own. You may not like some of the winners, but at least they hold up. If I had to rank the winners in terms of which ones people don’t even know, this would be a top five or top ten at worst. Off the top of my head, I bet most people have no idea what The Broadway Melody, Cavalcade and this are. so I can’t vote for this.

Lost Horizon — Lost Horizon is a great fantasy and a great Frank Capra film, even though you might not immediately think of this as a Capra film.

A plane full of people goes down in the mountains of China and they happen to come across Shangri-La. So they go around Shangri-La, where the people don’t age. So they go around this place, and the head of the group (Ronald Colman) finds out from the leader of the place that he wanted him to take over for him when he dies (which is, of course, right after he tells him that). And they hang out in Shangri-La, and it’s a paradise. And eventually Colman’s brother falls in love with a woman and wants to escape with her. And Colman, unable to say no, goes with them. But as soon as they get past the lands, the woman (who is 200 years old), ages rapidly and dies. And the brother, seeing her disintegrate, essentially, falls off the mountain and dies. And then Colman goes back to the real world, but then decides he wants to go back to Shangri-La, and then does.

It’s a really great film. I’m not doing it justice with this synopsis. It’s amazing. It might be good enough to win on its own, this year, but, honestly — Capra pretty much owned the 30s. I refuse to vote for Capra so many times. It’s overkill. So, while I love this film, I can’t vote for it. I just can’t. In terms of the Oscars, there is such a thing as too much Capra.

One Hundred Men and a Girl — This would also make for a great porno title. (Wouldn’t want to watch that one, though. Ouch.)

This film is about an unemployed musician who lies to his daughter and tells her he got a job in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra. But then she finds out and organizes an orchestra of 100 unemployed musicians and then even gets Stokowski to conduct them. It’s your standard 30s musical plot. Deanna Durbin is in it. She’s charming. Other than that — very standard stuff. You can guess what happens, beat for beat.

Not gonna win here at all. In fact, the single weakest film in the field. Which begs the question — why this over Make Way for Tomorrow?

Stage Door — This is a story about actresses. They all live in this one boarding house as they try to make it on the stage. And Katharine Hepburn is a rich girl who moves in, hiding her identity because she doesn’t want anyone prejudiced against her (and also doesn’t want any help because of who her father is). And we see her trying to get a part in this play, alongside Ginger Rogers, who is sleeping with a high profile producer, and Andrea Leeds, who hasn’t gotten a role in over a year and is starting to lose faith. And we follow them as this one play is being cast and rehearsed, and — well, stuff happens. Basically, Hepburn wins the role over Leeds because her father backs the play (I believe she doesn’t know this), and she’s a good actress, but for the most part she can’t make the audience feel what she’s supposed to be feeling. And then what happens is, since she got the lead, Leeds, who had been hoping to get it, kills herself. And Hepburn, who is so upset over this, gives an amazing performance, and then dedicates the performance to Leeds.

It’s a really strong film. I actually really enjoyed this, after thinking I wouldn’t going in. I can’t vote for it, since it’s not that strong a film, and wouldn’t hold up at all as a winner, but I did like it a lot. (And like I said, Leeds’s performance is the highlight of the film.)

Oh, also, this is the film that features the line, “The calla lilies are in bloom again.” It’s just one of those very memorable lines. It’s a nice bookend opposite, “Norman, the loons!”

A Star Is Born — This story is an American classic. This, to me, is the best version. Or at least my favorite. Though, I consider this version and the 1954 version to be separate entities. Like Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.

The story is about Esther Blodgett, who leaves her small town to go to Hollywood to become a star. There, she meets and falls in love with Norman Maine, an alcoholic, fading movie star. And the film charts their love against her rise and his fall. You need to have seen it.

To me, this film is the only one that holds up in this category (as a winner). A lot of people will go with The Awful Truth here, but — the Academy doesn’t do comedy, and it was never going to win. (See the Best Director article for this year to see why that argument is invalid.) It’s great, but this film actually could have won. So that’s why this is the only film I can see voting for. Plus, I like it better than The Awful Truth.

My Thoughts: To me, this category starts an ends with A Star Is Born. Find me a film on this list that’s as iconic as that film and that story is. I realize a lot of people love The Awful Truth and would vote for that, to which I say — His Girl Friday wasn’t nominated, nor was Bringing Up Baby. If those didn’t win, neither should that. (Though that’s just excess rationalization. I’d totally vote for that if A Star Is Born weren’t here.) The category is weak, and A Star Is Born (and to an extent, The Awful Truth) easily rises to the top of the pack. That, to me, is the only film that should have won here.

My Vote: A Star Is Born

Should Have Won: A Star Is Born

Is this result acceptable?: No. And yes. No because it’s one of the weakest choices of all time, and it shows. And yes because — nobody remembers it, and this year was so weak that the decision was ultimately inconsequential, historically. So it’s acceptable by sheer fact that it doesn’t matter. Though that’s a catch-22. If the category were stronger and this still won, it would be consequential and even worse. So — no.

Ones I suggest you watch: If you haven’t seen A Star Is Born (this version. And also the Garland one, but especially this one), you don’t really like movies. Same for The Awful Truth. Seriously, get on that one too. It’s so good.

(And I’m just going to tell you now — Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the most underrated films ever made. Remember how I said Dodsworth was perhaps the most underrated and underseen film on the Oscar Quest? Well, this is just like that, only this didn’t get a bunch of Oscar nominations. I’d put this film against almost anything ever made, it’s that good.)

Captains Courageous is a terrific movie, and should be seen by everyone. Highly, highly recommended. I feel like that’s a film that will be a personal favorite for a lot of people.

Stage Door is terrific, and I highly recommend it. It has Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Adolphe Menjou and a terrific supporting performance by Andrea Leeds. That performance really stood out to me.

Lost Horizon is a great fantasy. Frank Capra. Just see it. It’s amazing. Whatever is lacking in the film itself is made up for by all the stuff it makes you think about. It’s incredible. (It’s also due for a remake, Hollywood.)

The Life of Emile Zola is a very strong film whose only weakness is having won. It’s terrific, and, just like The Story of Louis Pasteur, is a great biopic of a famous person. Highly recommended.

The Good Earth — I rarely say this, but in this case is true — is actually not as good as the book. It’s a good film, and well-made and all, but the film feels as though it’s lacking a bit. It’s still good, and I totally recommend it, it’s just — it doesn’t feel like it’s about the same stuff that the book’s about. It doesn’t really feel like it’s about anything. It just feels like they put the book on film. Still, though, definitely worth a watch. If only to see whites playing Asian. (That’s always hilarious to me, seeing them do that. Oh, you crazy white people…)

Dead End is worth a watch, if only for Bogart’s storyline. The Dead End kids part (they’re the same kids from Angels with Dirty Faces) doesn’t hold up at all. But on the whole, it’s a decent film and worth a look.

In Old Chicago — entertaining. It’s like San Francisco, only with the Chicago Fire instead. It’s definitely worth a watch, if only for the fire sequence. Check this one out.

One Hundred Men and a Girl — meh. Same as most of these music films. Take it or leave it. Not bad, and you can definitely get through it, so I will mention it. If you want to check it out, it’s definitely something that is watchable (since — Deanna Durbin is always charming as hell), but, comparatively, this one could be skipped.


10) One Hundred Men and a Girl

9) In Old Chicago

8) Dead End

7) The Good Earth

6) The Life of Emile Zola

5) Lost Horizon

4) Stage Door

3) Captains Courageous

2) The Awful Truth

1) A Star is Born


One response

  1. Michael

    Would Make Way for Tomorrow have been your winner if it had been nominated?

    June 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm

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