The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1934

(Note: THIS CATEGORY IS NOT FINISHED. I still need to watch one of the nominees. I still have not been able to find The White Parade in any cheap/acceptable format. If anyone has it or knows where it can be procured, let me know, so this category can be finished.)

All right, now we have “The” Oscars. Now the Oscars are a man. Baruch atah adonai. None of that foundation stuff anymore. Now they know what these awards are about and what the criteria for them are, they can just start voting the way we do now. This year really solidified that. They got rid of the double years, all films nominated were for that singular calendar year, and they also gave a film the “big five,” which is like wiping the slate clean and saying, “Okay, now we know what we’re doing.”

It Happened One Night won everything this year. Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra (talked about here), Best Actor for Clark Gable (talked about here) and Best Actress for Claudette Colbert (talked about here). And of course, Best Screenplay. Hence the big five. I have absolutely no problem with any of these decisions, and they were all well-deserved. Though my favorite film of all time (The Thin Man) was on almost all those lists (still kind of upset about that Best Actress snub), so despite me being okay with the result, I still won’t vote for it. Still though, this is one of the best Academy years.

Two things to point out — this year and the year after this were the only two years in Academy history in which they allowed write-in candidates (that is, on the final ballot. After nominees were announced). These two years also happen to be the two years with the most Best Picture nominees (12).


And the nominees were…

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Cleopatra (Paramount)

Flirtation Walk (First National)

The Gay Divorcée (RKO Radio)

Here Comes the Navy (Warner Bros.)

The House of Rothschild (20th Century, United Artists)

Imitation of Life (Universal)

It Happened One Night (Columbia)

One Night of Love (Columbia)

The Thin Man (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Viva Villa! (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The White Parade (Fox)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street — This film is about the actual romance between Robert Browning (played by Frederic March) and Elizabeth Barrett (played by Norma Shearer). It takes place in the home of the Barretts, run by domineering father Charles Laughton. All his children are adults and none of them are married. Shearer, the eldest child, has just recovered from a serious illness. Laughton does just about everything he can to keep her confined to her room (since he has forbidden all of his children to marry. He’s very tyrannical). All the kids are terrified of him. And one of the younger sisters (Maureen O’Sullivan) wants to marry, but can’t (or won’t) until Shearer marries. (It’s sort of a, once the oldest defies the father and does it, then the rest will feel okay doing it.) And then she meets March and falls in love. And eventually, she stands up to her father, saying he’s a tyrant and that she hates him. Then he confesses why he’s been the way he was, and she goes off to marry March, finally free of his rule.

It’s a pretty good film. It has its moments. Particularly Laughton’s performance. He’s really good here. The one thing I liked about it is that the father says the reason he’s been such a tyrant is because he has a sort of sex addiction and can’t control his carnal desires. And he’s suppressed all of that and wants his children to do so as well so they don’t give into it. And the way Laughton plays it (the fact that they even cast him is a big tip off), it’s as if the father is gay and ashamed of himself. (It seems as though that’s the interpretation, since they cast John Gielgud when they remade the film.) I really liked that aspect of it.

Anyway, the film is pretty good, but it had no shot here. No one would vote for this here. It’s a one (though for my money, two) horse race, 1934.

Cleopatra — Ever see the Liz Taylor Cleopatra? Well, this is an earlier version of that. Claudette Colbert plays Cleopatra. It’s the exact same story. Cleopatra, meets Caesar, loves Caesar, Caesar is killed. Then Antony. Same as the other version. Colbert is great here.

I’m actually kind of surprised the film didn’t come closer to winning. Mostly because it feels like a film that would win Best Picture. Though seeing what won in this era, they weren’t yet big on these epic stories. Plus it’s the Depression, so they were looking for some escapism. So it makes sense they didn’t vote for this. But it’s really good. Both Cleopatra‘s are really good.

Flirtation Walk — This is a simple musical. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. He’s an army man and she’s the general’s daughter. They start seeing each other, it causes some problems, and then there’s a big show put on at the end and everything works out. Standard musical from the 30s. Early 30s.

It’s a decent enough film. On a strict list of ten, this probably doesn’t make it. This is easily the weakest film on this list, in terms of what people would vote for. I can guarantee, out of 100 people who saw all the films, exactly zero would vote for this film. (Seriously vote.)

The Gay Divorcee — Ah, Fred and Ginger. This was their first real film together. It’s also one of their best. (Their best four are this, Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance. I’ll change the order each time I do it, so I’m not even gonna try to rank them.) But, they made ten films together. Their first was Flying Down to Rio, where they weren’t the stars. They were supporting players and had a dance number together. Then RKO realized they were magical together and put them in this. So this was their first real movie. And then they had the run of this, then Top Hat, then Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree and finally The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. (And then they reunited a decade later for The Barkleys of Broadway.) Anyway, the film…

Ginger Rogers is a woman who wants to get a divorce from her husband, whom she’s been separated from for a while. But he’s refused to sign the divorce papers. So what she does (with the help of Edward Everett Horton, a mainstay of these films) is hire a man to pose as a lover, whom she’ll be caught with, which will naturally lead to her husband filing for divorce. And what happens is, Fred Astaire happens upon the hotel where they’re staying, and Ginger mistakes him for the man. So she brings him up to her room, planning this elaborate ruse, and he knows nothing about it. It’s a great screwball comedy. This doesn’t have as many memorable songs as some of their other films, but it’s definitely one of their more entertaining plots.

It’s amazing. It really is. I’d consider voting for it, but the competition is too strong. It doesn’t have a shot against It Happened One Night or The Thin Man. Though I’d imagine, if you put this category to enough people, this would get some votes. It’s definitely a third choice for me.

Here Comes the Navy — This is definitely one of the weaker films in this category as well. But that’s what happens when you have twelve nominees.

The film features James Cagney as a dude who joins the navy just because he’s like, “Pssh, I can do that.” And then he joins and comes to the realization, “Man, I really need to work hard at this.” So the first half is him being a terrible sailor, goofing off and stuff. Then eventually he gets his act together and is cited twice for heroism.

It’s a comedy, so it’s not that boring. It’s actually pretty entertaining. It really had no shot here whatsoever. It’s definitely a film almost no one would vote for.

The House of Rothschild — Oh man, did I find this film boring.

The film is essentially about the rise of the Rothschild family, who all became very wealthy bankers. It’s started by the father, who teaches his sons the value of money. And they all go into the business, which slowly becomes a huge financial empire, even going so far as to help finance the war against Napoleon. But the whole film is really about how they’re all Jewish, and how no one really wants to borrow money from them because they’re Jewish, but they have to, because they’re really the only place that can help. And people are prejudiced against them, which isn’t helped by their stinginess with the money. They’re very firm about their rates and stuff. Basically every kind of stereotype there is about Jews and money — this film includes. I can’t tell if it’s for better or for worse — but it’s there.

I was mostly bored by this, simply because I didn’t see what the story was. It felt like it wanted to say something, but instead didn’t. I don’t know. I wasn’t interested in anything that happened here. They’re Jewish, people don’t like them, they have lots of money. I don’t know. I was bored. I wouldn’t vote for it.

Imitation of Life — This is an earlier version of what would later become one of Douglas Sirk’s classics. (Almost all his best films are remakes of earlier 30s films.)

Claudette Colbert (who you’ll notice is in three of these nominees this year. No wonder she won) plays a widow who takes in a black housekeeper. And their daughters become good friends. And basically what happens is — Colbert’s husband was a syrup salesman. And now that he’s dead, she can’t sell as well as he could. But the housekeeper happens to be really great at making pancakes (yes, it’s very Aunt Jemimah), so they team up and create a really profitable business. Both get rich, but the housekeeper continues to work as the housekeeper. (Or at least, act like it.) Then, ten years later, when their daughters are both 18, the housekeeper’s daughter is very light-skinned, so she starts passing herself as white, and this breaks her mother’s heart. And the real heart of the film is about this conflict, as the girl is deeply ashamed of her mother and pretends she doesn’t exist, because she’d much rather go through life as a white person. It’s a very moving and touching story.

Personally, I think the Douglas Sirk version is much better. The final confrontation between mother and daughter in the Sirk version is so tragic and emotional. This version is good, but doesn’t really have that power the other one has. But it’s still a great film. Though, again, in this category — no shot. No shot at all. But it’s nice to see it here. At least one version of this story got some recognition.

It Happened One Night — Talk about a true American classic.

Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled heiress who wants to get married to a man. But he’s a notorious gold digger and her father refuses to allow her to marry him. So she runs away (the opening scene is her jumping off their yacht off the coast of Florida), intending to go up to New York and marry the man anyway. And she ends up at a bus station in Florida, not having any money and not knowing at all how the real world works (since she’s grown up rich and has never had to do anything for herself). And she’s noticed by Clark Gable, a reporter who has just drunkenly quit his job as he was about to be fired. And he recognizes her (since the entire country knows she’s gone missing and is looking for her). So what he decides to do (very much like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday) is bring her up  to New York, keeping her out of the public eye, in exchange for his job back at his newspaper and a huge bonus (since he’ll have the exclusive, after all). And they travel up to New York together, and of course they fall in love along the way. You know how it is.

It’s a perfect film. One of Capra’s best. Probably — I’d say, of Capra’s films, his three best are It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and this. (And then You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town round out the top five.) It makes perfect sense why this won this year. I’m not voting for it, because it’s not my favorite film of all time, but I totally understand why this won. And in a way, this needed to win. So it makes sense.

One Night of Love — Yeesh, this movie. I’m still amazed that, of all these films, the third one that got nominated for best director alongside It Happened One Night and The Thin Man was this one. This was one of the most boring films in this category.

The film is about an aspiring Opera singer (fuck, I hate these opera musicals) who starts working with a famous vocal coach. He’s stern and pushes her hard, but it works. She becomes very successful. She falls in love with him, but he’s unable to admit that he loves her. So they see other people, but of course end up together.

I’ve seen enough of these films to admit that I found absolutely nothing interesting or unique about this film. I found it generic and boring. And the opera music was the final nail in the coffin. I really didn’t like this one at all. I’d also wager that not a single person (in their right mind) would ever vote for this film here.

The Thin Man — Perhaps I’ve waited my entire life for this. Or at least the life of this blog. I could talk about this film for days.

The film is about Nick and Nora Charles. He’s a detective, and she’s a wealthy socialite. They’ve married and now he wants to give up detecting and live off all the money she’s inherited. And he drinks like a fiend, as well. That’s his only goal in life: drink and be married. (I guess, eat, drink and be married would be a good way to say it. Though I guess eating isn’t his top priority. He says in one of the movies, “Let’s get something to eat, I’m thirsty.” He’s such a drunk. I love it.)

The film begins with a scene featuring Clyde Wynant, an inventor. His daughter meets him in his workshop with her fiancé. It’s established that he’s divorced from her mother and has a girlfriend who doesn’t really love him, and is in fact skimming money from him to give to a gangster boyfriend of hers. Then we cut to a bar, where Wynant’s daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) meets up with Nick. She tells him her father’s gone missing and wonders if he’d look into it, as an old friend of his. He says he’s through detecting but he’ll do it as a favor. Then Nora shows up and they banter and drink. A lot of this movie is drinking and banter. Then, the next day, Wynant’s girlfriend is found murdered, and he’s considered the prime suspect. And out of nowhere, it’s a big case. And everyone assumes Nick is on the case, even though he wants nothing to do with it. And no matter how many times he tells everyone he’s not on the case, they won’t believe him. And despite his sincere attempts to not be involved with the case, he somehow manages to end up right in the middle of it. And eventually he starts looking into things, and the whole thing culminates at a dinner party, where he rounds up all the potential suspects in the case and runs through the facts, eventually leading to the reveal of the murderer.

I really have nothing else to say. It’s my favorite film of all time. It’s perfect, from top to bottom.

Viva Villa! — The film is a fictionalized biography of Pancho Villa. We follow him from his days as a bandit to a revolutionary leader. Wallace Beery plays Villa. It’s also similar to Viva Zapata!, the Kazan film from ’52 with Brando.

I don’t really have much to say about this film. It’s here. If there are two subjects I just don’t find interesting in film, they’re China and Mexico. Just not interested in them at all. So this film was just kind of there for me. It had no shot at winning anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

The White Parade — This film is unavailable pretty much everywhere and only exists in print form in an archive. So, when I see it, I’ll let you know what I think about it. Though I think I can safely say that this film, no matter how good, won’t come close to a win.

My Thoughts: It’s my favorite movie of all time. I’m voting for it. (Though It Happened One Night was also a good alternative.)

My Vote: The Thin Man

Should Have Won: The Thin Man. Well, okay, It Happened One Night too…

Is this result acceptable?: Honestly? I plead the fifth. It Happened One Night is a brilliant and great movie, but I can never be completely objective about this answer. (Though the answer is totally yes.)

Ones I suggest you see: If you really need to know whether or not you need to see The Thin Man, stop reading this blog.

You also need to see It Happened One Night. Very essential. A “dead to me” essential, if you haven’t seen it.

If you love movies, you’ll see The Gay Divorcee. One of Fred and Ginger’s best. It’s essential.

You should totally see Cleopatra. It’s awesome. Not as good as the Liz Taylor version, but it’s different. It’s very good and comes highly, highly recommended.

Imitation of Life — not as good as the Douglas Sirk version but also very good. Highly recommended. (They also come in the same DVD package, so just watch both.)

Here Comes the Navy — I enjoyed it a lot. I recommend it. James Cagney. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Flirtation Walk — meh. It’s fun. 30s musical. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Not Busby Berkeley, but it is Frank Borzage. That’s worth it. Plus Delmer Daves wrote it. So it’s got classy people all over it.

Barretts of Wimpole Street — yeah, it’s pretty good. I’ll recommend it.

Viva Villa! — meh. I’m not big on these Mexican Revolution films. Take it or leave it, for my money.

House of Rothschild — didn’t like that much. Some people might.

One Night of Love — did not like. Opera singing is not something I like in a musical. I thought this was really forgettable.

And The White Parade you can’t find, so yeah.


12) The White Parade

11) One Night of Love

10) The House of Rothschild

9) Viva Villa!

8) The Barretts of Wimpole Street

7) Flirtation Walk

6) Here Comes the Navy

5) Imitation of Life

4) Cleopatra

3) The Gay Divorcee

2) It Happened One Night

1) The Thin Man

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