The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1936
This is another one of those years where the Academy established what they really consider to be a Best Picture. The Great Ziegfeld has everything you’d expect to see in a Best Picture. Though they were still figuring things out, despite that. Until this point, Best Picture and Best Director only synched up three times, which is the opposite of how we know it to be nowadays. (And it wouldn’t start synching up until 1941, with only 5 of the first 14 Best Director winners synching up with Best Picture.) It seems as though they were still equating Best Director with Best Screenplay at this point (since you’ll notice that a lot of the Best Director winners had stronger writing in their films than they did noticeably superior direction. With exceptions, of course), which explains how they could give Best Director this year to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (talked about here). That film isn’t so much well-directed as well-written, especially next to something like San Francisco or even Dodsworth and The Great Ziegfeld. But even so, at least they knew, for the most part, what they were doing with Best Picture.
This year was also the first year in which the Supporting Categories were introduced. The first Best Supporting Actor Oscar was given out, which went to Walter Brennan for Come and Get It (talked about here), which — who better to be given the first Supporting Actor Oscar than Walter Brennan? Even though they were still figuring out what “supporting” actually meant here. The category was insanely weak. And the first Best Supporting Actress winner was Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse (talked about here), which I don’t much agree with, but, just like the pre-1934 years, you can’t really fault them, since they didn’t yet establish the category. You can tell they didn’t really know what constituted a supporting performance, since they gave Best Actress to Luise Rainer for The Great Ziegfeld (talked about here). Her performance is definitely what we’d consider nowadays to be a supporting performance, even though she was good in it.
The other winner was Paul Muni as Best Actor for The Story of Louis Pasteur (talked about here), which seems too much like a rush to get Muni a statue, since William Powell and Walter Huston had much better years (and performances) than he did (plus, he could have easily won the year after this for The Life of Emile Zola, which would have helped legitimize that film as a Best Picture winner).
In all, though, 1936 is a strong year. One of those years with several potential winners in most categories. That’s always a good year to have.
BEST PICTURE – 1936
And the nominees were…
Anthony Adverse (Warner Bros.)
Dodsworth (Goldwyn, United Artists)
The Great Ziegfeld (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Libeled Lady (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Columbia)
Romeo and Juliet (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
San Francisco (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Story of Louis Pasteur (Warner Bros.)
A Tale of Two Cities (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Three Smart Girls (Universal)
(No My Man Godfrey? What’s up with that?)
Anthony Adverse — This was apparently Tony Curtis’s favorite book. It’s where he got the name Tony for his stage name.
The film begins with an evil nobleman, Claude Rains, finding his wife having an affair with another man. He kills the man, and later, the wife (who got pregnant from the affair) dies giving birth to a son. Rains leaves the kid in a convent and tells his wife’s wealthy father the kid is dead. This kid is Anthony Adverse (played, eventually, by Frederic March). And he grows up in the convent and falls in love with Olivia de Havilland. And one day he becomes an apprentice to his actual grandfather, though neither know it. The grandfather does find out eventually though, but doesn’t say anything to Anthony. And then a bunch of stuff happens — he marries de Havilland, but then leaves to help his grandfather, then ends up in the slave trade and a bunch of stuff. Basically, what happens is, his grandfather dies and leaves him a lot of money. Only he doesn’t know it. But Rains does. Because Rains is now married to the grandfather’s housekeeper, who will inherit everything if Anthony doesn’t go to Paris to claim the inheritance. So Rains does everything he can to keep Anthony from Paris. And of course it doesn’t work and he gets all the money. He also finds out that Olivia de Havilland had a son with him. Though at this point, she’s also sleeping with Napoleon. So Anthony takes the kid and moves on.
That’s the film. It’s good. I liked it. It’s not the best of these literary adaptations of the 30s, but it’s serviceable. I enjoyed it. Wouldn’t vote for it ever, but I enjoyed it.
Dodsworth — Top five hidden gem on this entire Oscar Quest. Not kidding. It’s that good. And everyone who’s seen it will say the exact same thing.
Walter Huston is a self-made millionaire and is now retiring to live the good life. He’s been working nonstop for thirty years and is now finally taking time off. He and his wife book a trip to Europe. And as soon as they get there, he realizes that he and his wife have nothing in common. He wants to go see the sights and take in the world, and she wants to party and talk to high society people. He realizes that he’s poured himself so much into his work that he never realizes how little he and his wife have in common. And they grow apart really quickly. She goes off, hanging out with a count. And Huston ends up meeting an American divorcée and finding that he has a lot in common with her. And eventually he decides he wants to go home, and his wife stays with the count, expecting he’ll leave his wife like he says and marry her. And Huston comes home and lies to his kids, saying their mother will be back in a bit and just wanted to spend more time there. And what happens is, she eventually comes crawling back to him because the count never intended to marry her and just wanted a fling. So Huston goes to take her back, but by chance runs into the divorcée again, who says she’s taking another trip. So he has to decide, at the last second, whether to meet his wife or go meet this divorcée. And he ends up choosing the divorcée and it’s great and it ends happily.
No joke, this is one of the best movies almost no one has heard about. It is so fucking good. This is a film that I am seriously going to consider voting for here, because it is that good. I’m not kidding at all.
The Great Ziegfeld — This is the obvious winner here. I love Dodsworth, but from an Academy’s perspective, this is your only choice. It has everything. Classy biopic, music, grandness — this was the choice. That said — it’s got a lot of competition for a vote. (Would’ve had more if My Man Godfrey were here.)
The film is a biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, played by William Powell, a man who was so mercilessly snubbed for Best Actor this year. And we follow him from his early days in carnivals all the way to his death. And we follow him through two marriages, one to Luise Rainer and the second to Myrna Loy (oh… Myrna). And in between we see a bunch of his acts (including actual Ziegfeld performers lik Fanny Brice. Which is great that she played herself because you really see how good Barbara Streisand was in Funny Girl), and there are a bunch of grandiose musical numbers. And when I say grandiose, I mean — the sets here look huge. The scale of these numbers are so big, it’s like — just give them the Oscar right now.
But, the film is amazing and even though it’s three hours, it doesn’t feel slow at all. I really loved it. I think the reason it didn’t slow for me is because — the first 90 minutes are interesting on their own. All the stuff with Sandow the Strong Man at the carnival (great character actors here, too. Nat Pendleton and Frank Morgan) and him getting people for his shows, that was all good. And then after 90 minutes, when you think it’s gonna drag, Myrna Loy shows up. And when Myrna Loy and William Powell are on the screen together, magic happens. So to me, this film was great all the way through. I loved it. Some might not, but I did. So this, to me, is gonna probably be the finalist for the vote with Dodsworth. And maybe one more might slip in there and I’ll get to that in a second. (And it’s not the one you’re thinking, either.)
Libeled Lady — Another Powell and Loy film. Not their best (outside of The Thin Man films, their best two, for me are I Love You Again and Love Crazy. Those two are perfect. God, I love them) overall, but a very solid film.
The film is about a newspaper printing a story that Myrna Loy (a wealthy socialite) is responsible for breaking up a marriage. The report turns out to be false. So she sues the paper for libel. This lawsuit can break them, so Spencer Tracy, the editor, hires William Powell, a ladies’ man reporter, to go and scheme his way into getting alone with Myrna and having his wife catch them, so she can be labeled a home wrecker. But Powell’s not married, so Tracy goes, “Marry my fiancée.” So he marries his fiancée (Jean Harlow). And it’s a screwball, so you can imagine what happens. Bill and Myrna fall in love, and Harlow decides she loves Powell and would rather have him than Tracy. And then there’s a whole series of divorces and non-divorces, and essentially everyone who is supposed to end up together ends up together.
It’s a lot of fun. (Not as good as My Man Godfrey, but…) I can’t vote for this over Ziegfeld, so this is pretty much out where it stands. But it’s a Powell and Loy film, which, for my friendship, makes it essential viewing.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town — This would be one of the best porno titles ever.
P.S. You need to have seen this movie.
P.P.S. If you think seeing the Adam Sandler version is enough and that you don’t need to see this one, fuck you.
Romeo and Juliet — Well, you know what it’s about. That’ll save me the length of a synopsis.
Though I will say, Basil Rathbone is perfectly cast as Tybalt.
Anyway, the film itself — meh. It’s okay. It’s just “Romeo and Juliet.” Nothing particularly outstanding. The sets and costumes and stuff were nice. It’s technically very sound. But it’s very telling of what Hollywood was like at the time. All of these standards keep getting nominated. Because they haven’t yet established themselves as their own entity. We’re only four years into sound. If you wanted a great and classy film, you tell “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet.” After this? The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Sunset Boulevard. They’re still in a theatrical mindset here. Plus, the film is “acted,” and just reeks of stage. A lot of these films did. So it’s very reminiscent of what Hollywood considered “prestige” in the 30s to me.
Not gonna vote for it. I’ve always steadfastly refused to vote for these films for Best Picture. That doesn’t change here.
San Francisco — Ah, San Francisco. A film I like to call 90 minutes of generic, and 30 minutes of greatness. Or whatever the numbers are.
The first 2/3 of the film are standard musical drama fare. I guess drama. Clark Gable is a saloon owner who is also kind of a gangster. A nice gangster though. The one who owns the club and stuff. Not the killing people kind. And his best friend is Spencer Tracy, a priest. And they differ in beliefs (a major point in the film is that Gable doesn’t believe in God), but they’re friends. And Tracy knows Gable is a good guy, in all. And Gable meets Jeanette MacDonald, who is a great singer who wants to be in the opera. And he hires her for his club, knowing how talented she is. And she becomes a huge hit. Only she still wants to work for the opera. And when she gets accepted to it, Gable, not wanting to lose her because she’s a big moneymaker for him, marries her. Or proposes to her. And she has to decide between him or the opera. And Tracy tries to reason with her (without actually telling her Gable’s only doing it for himself), but she marries him anyway. But then she eventually goes to the opera, and Gable gets pissed. It’s all standard stuff. You watch this film and go, “This is all pretty generic. I know what’s gonna happen.” But it’s good enough to not be bad or boring, and the fact that the three leads are who they are, you like it. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but you like it.
Also, I made a pun just there, and only the people who know the film will have caught it.
So the whole thing culminates at this competition for best club in the city. And Gable is there, but without MacDonald to sing for him because she doesn’t work there. But she, still loving him (he stubbornly won’t talk to her because she left his club), goes and sings her song (“San Francisco”) and helps him win the prize. But he, again, is stubborn and walks out. Doesn’t know how to take a favor. And then — the San Francisco Earthquake hits. (The one in 1906.)
The last third of this film is literally the San Francisco Earthquake hitting and shit just being destroyed. It’s amazing. The special effects here blew me away. They felt so much more advanced than 1936. It was something to see the earthquake scenes. I was really blown away by how good they were. (In a way, this was like the Titanic of 1936, in that it tells a fairly generic story, but then completely wows you with its special effects, and that redeems whatever problems the story has.) Seriously, watch this film (all the way through), you’ll see what I’m talking about.
I loved this film a lot. I think it can hang with just about any film on this list. It’s definitely a finalist for me. Though most likely the 2/3 of so-so story will eventually eliminate it against the other finalists. But still, this is amazing. I recommend this to everyone. The special effects are just — top notch. Absolutely top notch.
The Story of Louis Pasteur — This is the story of… oh forget it. You get the joke.
The film is about Louis Pasteur finding a cure for anthrax, despite everyone thinking he’s nuts and trying to stop him. That’s pretty much all it is.
It’s amazing. Paul Muni is great, the film is great. It’s very solid. It really is. Don’t go by how simple the narrative is. It’s a very captivating film. However, it winning here is like — well, I can tell you exactly what it’s like. It’s like The Life of Emile Zola winning the year after this. They’re very similar films. You know how Zola is a terrible Best Picture choice and doesn’t hold up as a winner at all despite being a really good film? Well, this would have been exactly the same. So I have no reason at all to vote for it. Not to mention at least four other ones in the rest of the category.
A Tale of Two Cities — Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” Want to know what it’s about? Read a book.
I was bored to tears during this film. This and David Copperfield are the two 30s literary films I hated the most. I just did not like this at all. Was totally bored, didn’t like it, and I always steadfastly refuse to vote for films like this, so this film has less than a zero chance of me voting for it.
Three Smart Girls — Three Smart Girls is, essentially, The Parent Trap. Not exactly, but there are definitely seeds from this film that were used in that one. Basically, a father is planning on remarrying, and the daughters don’t like the new bride, so they scheme to get their parents back together. And they do. That’s basically the film. And it’s a Deanna Durbin film, so she sings.
It’s a good film. I enjoyed it. Deanna Durbin is very charming. But let’s be serious here — this had no shot. (And nothing against this film, but, was this better than My Man Godfrey? Really?)
My Thoughts: This category really only comes down to four films: The Great Ziegfeld, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Dodsworth and San Francisco. A lot of people would just say Mr. Deeds just because, but I think that’s really the wrong way to go. Keep in mind, It Happened One Night has already won, You Can’t Take It With You is going to win (which also shouldn’t have happened), and a lot of people would vote for It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946! I know these are all classic films, but — all of them, seriously? (Thank god for Gone With the Wind (and to a lesser extent, The Wizard of Oz), otherwise people would vote for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 too!) This is definitely one that shouldn’t have won. These are the Oscars, not the Frank Capra Appreciation Awards. So I refuse to vote for that, as much as I love the film. Then — San Francisco is really about the direction. It’s a great film, but, among the remaining competition, it’s definitely the weakest.
To me, this comes down to either Dodsworth or The Great Ziegfeld. And right there, the choice is easy. The Great Ziegfeld is the best choice in this category. It’s an amazing film, and epitomizes everything a Best Picture winner is, classically. I love Dodsworth a lot, but I don’t think it should have won. Maybe the year after this, but not here. Ziegfeld is the right choice. It has everything.
My Vote: The Great Ziegfeld
Should Have Won: The Great Ziegfeld
Is this result acceptable?: Yes. It’s the only real choice. I know a lot of people will go Deeds here, but you can’t just go Capra for everything. They don’t all need to win. This was the better choice.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, you don’t really love movies.
You really should see The Great Ziegfeld. It’s amazing. And for that matter, let’s throw in Libeled Lady as well. The former you should see first and foremost because it’s a Best Picture winner. You should see both because they’re films that feature William Powell and Myrna Loy. Those, to me, are essential. They are one of the premier film partnerships of all time, right up there with Fred & Ginger. Them together on screen was lightning in a bottle. You need to see these movies.
Dodsworth is so, so good. One of the hidden gems of the Oscar Quest. This is a film that so few people know about, yet, when they see it, everybody loves it. It’s amazing. This is one of the most underrated films of all time, and that’s not an overstatement.
San Francisco is terrific. The first 2/3 are solid and the last third is just incredible. Those special effects — you need to see this. Trust me. The effects are so good for 1936.
The Story of Louis Pasteur is really good. It’s like The Life of Emile Zola — strong films, almost impossible to dislike, and this one doesn’t have the stigma of having won Best Picture when it probably shouldn’t have. It’s really good, and I highly recommend it.
Anthony Adverse is actually a solid film. These literary adaptations of the 30s are hit or miss for me, but this one is a lot closer to hit than the others. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn solid. Definitely worth a watch.
Romeo and Juliet is — Romeo and Juliet. You know what you’re getting. You’ve seen it before. The best straight version of this is the Zeffirelli version. And then the Luhrmann version is the other great one. This one just is. You see this because you want to see it done by this specific set of actors in this specific time period. It’s not like you don’t know the story, so your reasons for seeing it or not are purely your own. I don’t need to recommend it.
Three Smart Girls is enjoyable. Not of any substance at all, but definitely enjoyable. It was actually a forerunner of The Parent Trap. It’s basically the same story. And Deanna Durbin is so damn charming in this it’s crazy.
I don’t like A Tale of Two Cities at all. I was bored to death during this. But it’s a famous story, so some people will really like it.
10) A Tale of Two Cities
9) Three Smart Girls
8) Romeo and Juliet
7) Anthony Adverse
6) The Story of Louis Pasteur
5) Libeled Lady
4) San Francisco
2) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
1) The Great Ziegfeld