The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1932-1933

This was the last year of the “double years” of the Academy, and it’s fitting. 1932-1933 was the last year before everything became completely “classical” as we know it to be. By around, 1932, Hollywood had perfected sound and started telling stories freely. However, the issue that then arose was one of censorship. There were many scandals out of Hollywood in the 20s and it soiled the industry’s reputation. So they basically started self-censoring, creating a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” of things filmmakers should avoid putting on screen. It wasn’t something that had to be adhered to, so some people didn’t necessarily listen to it. So you had these “Pre-Code” films, as they came to be known, which were, in the words of Dick Powell in The Bad and the Beautiful, “liberally peppered with sex.” And the government was fixing to come down on them if they didn’t stop it, fast. So after 1933, they passed the Production Code (enforced by Will Hays. Which got it the nickname “Hays Code”), which was basically a list of things that couldn’t be shown on screen (and was basically an early form of the MPAA, in that, if you didn’t follow the guidelines of the system, you couldn’t get your film distributed in major theaters. Not having a production code seal was like being rated NC-17.) So this is the real last year of the party, so to speak. Which is fitting that this was the last year before the Oscars really became “the Oscars.”

This last year was basically a free-for-all for Best Picture. It was the first year of ten nominees, and I don’t think the Academy quite knew what to vote for. I think they fell back on classy stage material, which can explain how Cavalcade won Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Lloyd (talked about here). Best Actor was Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII (talked about here), which I don’t particularly like as a decision (based on the category), but was a helpful decision in that it kept him from winning in other years where he really shouldn’t have won. And Best Actress was Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory (talked about here), which — the category only had three nominees, and she was really the best in the bunch. It was a star-making performance, and it showed. I understand that completely.

The real question about this year is the Best Picture decision. It’s not that it’s a bad film, it’s just that one other film held up better. So, in a way, it feels like one of those years where they go with the “Academy” decision and overlook the film that’s clearly a better choice. And as a result, this is one of the weakest Best Picture winners of all time, and is certainly one of the two most forgotten (next to The Broadway Melody).

BEST PICTURE – 1932-1933

And the nominees were…

42nd Street (Warner Bros.)

A Farewell to Arms (Paramount)

Cavalcade (Fox)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Warner Bros.)

Lady for a Day (Columbia)

Little Women (RKO Radio)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (London Films, United Artists)

She Done Him Wrong (Paramount)

Smilin’ Through (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

State Fair (Fox)

42nd Street — One of the epitomes of the backstage musical. This and Gold Diggers of 1933 are the two big ones. They’re amazing. The suggestibility of the dialogue, plus the Busby Berkeley numbers — I love this movie.

The film is very simple — Warner Baxter is a Broadway producer. He’s putting on what will probably be his last show. And it’s beset with problems. Just about everything goes wrong and then at the last minute, the female lead of the show leaves and he has to put on a chorus girl. Which leads to that famous line, “You’re gonna go through that curtain a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.” And — just see it, it’s amazing.

This film is really great, and I’m strongly considering voting for it. It’s really between two films for me.

A Farewell to Arms — They’ve made this film twice, and it’s a famous title, so chances are people have heard of it.

It’s about Gary Cooper as an American soldier on the front in World War I. And he falls in love with Helen Hayes, a nurse. And the film is mostly a romance, them falling in love and stuff. And she dies at the end. That’s pretty much the film. Romance, tragic, war. Borzage directed this version, and he knows how to wring emotion out of a film.

It’s a solid film. Should not have won at all, but it’s well-done. Just on-the-nose for me. I just don’t get that feeling of “Best Picture” from it.

Cavalcade — Cavalcade is — the story of a mother, essentially. We follow a family over the course of about 30 years. From New Year’s at the turn of the 20th Century to present (1933) day. And we follow this family over time, as major shit happens. The Titanic, World War I, Queen Victoria dying. Stuff like that. And this family lives through it.

It’s a good film. It is. I don’t think it’s something I’d want to vote for as Best Picture, but I can understand why the Academy would. It’s — yeah, that’s really all I have to say. I understand it, but I wouldn’t vote for it. I like two films better than it. (It’s like The King’s Speech. I can understand it, but I wouldn’t vote for it. And it’s in my upper range of rankings, since it is a terrific film.)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang — And, this film. I feel like history has determined this to be the best film on this list. 42nd Street is probably the most well known and beloved film on this list, but this one is the one that’s good and works as an Oscar winner. Which is why it’s weird to me that it didn’t win. (Or actually, no it’s not. I say that from a 2012 perspective. It actually makes some sense why it didn’t.)

Paul Muni is (a fugitive, from a chain gang. Ohhh!! … rim shot!) an ex-soldier who fought in World War I. He can’t find work and somehow gets caught up in a robbery and gets sentenced to ten years. And he gets put on a brutal chain gang. Like, Cool Hand Luke brutal. (Though, worse. Since there, he just rebelled. Here, it’s actually brutal, whether he tries to do the right thing or not.) And then he escapes, because he can’t take it anymore (it’s really bad. Like, to the point where people watching this would be like, “Man, I know they killed people, but that’s messed up, what they’re doing to them”) makes his way to Chicago, where he gets a job and becomes a decent citizen. However, someone finds out who he is and calls the cops on him. And his argument is — “Look, I rehabilitated myself. I’m a decent citizen, I haven’t done anything wrong. Just leave me alone.” And apparently the different states can’t extradite him or something, since they tell him that they’ll give him a pardon if he turns himself in. So he does it, against his better instincts, and is put right back on the chain gang. Turns out, they were lying to him. And now they’re extra hard on him. And he manages to escape again (the escape is awesome) and now hides out on the streets. And the final scene of the film is a classic, where his girlfriend is walking home and he comes up from the shadows. And he says he’s leaving forever. And she’s like, “But how do you live?” And he just goes, “I steal,” and disappears into the darkness. And that’s the end. It’s amazing.

This is a film that has everything. It’s great, it’s classic, and it’s a film that shines a light onto social problems. It has everything you’d want in a Best Picture. Plus it held up better than the actual winner. So this is the film I think I’m gonna vote for. It’s this or 42nd Street. Those are the two.

Lady for a Day — Frank Capra made this film twice. This was also his last film (renamed Pocketful of Miracles). Neither one really turned out quite right for my money.

The film is about a poor apple seller, Apple Annie, whose daughter is over in Europe (she sent her away to a Spanish convent so she’d be able to live a decent life). And she’s been sending letters to her daughter for years, pretending to be this society woman. She goes and writes the letters out on this hotel stationary like she lives there. And what happens is, her daughter sends her a letter saying she’s engaged and wants the man to meet her. So she’s terrified of the facade being exposed, and what happens is — there’s a local gangster who comes and buys apples from her every day. He feels that they’re lucky. And he finds out about it and agrees to help her. And he basically enlists a bunch of people to help pass Annie off as a society woman. And it’s this very Capra-esque fairy tale where you think it’s not gonna come together, but then everyone works together and it’s this one transcendental moment of happiness when it all works.

It’s a very entertaining story. I don’t think it’s good enough to have won here. It just doesn’t feel quite there. You look at Capra’s real successes — this isn’t anywhere near that. Plus, he won so much in the 30s — he didn’t need this. Plus this just isn’t as good as some of the other films on this list (at least three of them).

Little Women — I feel like everyone has to have seen some version of this story. It’s so ubiquitous. They’ve made major film versions here, in 1949 and in 1994 (with a TV version in the 70s). Plus it feels like everyone reads this book at some point over their academic career.

Basically, it’s about a group of sisters. And stuff happens to them over the years. And typically the girl who plays Jo gets all the notices and the one who plays Amy is cute and charming. There’s really no way to explain it. It’s “Little Women.”

It’s a good movie. I like this version better than the 1994 version. I still haven’t seen the ’49 one yet, but I will soon. But this version, of the two that I’ve seen, is my favorite. Though, it shouldn’t have won Best Picture. It just wouldn’t have held up. Cavalcade doesn’t hold up particularly well, but it holds up better than this would have. So I can’t vote for this.

The Private Life of Henry VIII — This is… surprisingly… not an interesting film. (For me.)

I love Anne of the Thousand Days. I love it. So I’m interested in the subject matter. But this film — it feels like a play on film designed to let Charles Laughton act. We basically follow Henry VIII over the course of several wives. The whole film feels like, “Watch Charles Laughton!” Plus, the film is shot like a 1929 transition to sound film. Maybe that’s just the condition of the existing print, but this film was just not interesting to me on any level. Even Laughton’s performance. I’m watching him act. I’m not watching a performance. I’m watching Charles Laughton give a performance.

So yeah, not a fan of this. It’s okay, just not particularly interesting to me. So, no, not voting for it.

She Done Him Wrong — Mae West was the queen of sex in the 30s. Here’s a woman who didn’t (and couldn’t, since there was sort of a production code in place) say what she meant, yet you knew. Maurice Chevalier was the wiggle the eyebrows type. She was the, “Hey honey, why don’t you come up and see me some time (and we’ll  fuck)?” type. You know.

The film is about Mae West, who works in a bar and sleeps with a lot of men. But she’s not a whore (which we know because her boss employs prostitutes, and she’s not a part of it). And her former boyfriend, a fugitive, shows up (he went to jail because he was trying to steal diamonds to give to her). And he’s pissed because he thinks she’s the reason he went to jail. But then the cops (Cary Grant is the main cop) show up and arrest him, so it’s all good.

The film’s like, an hour long. 66 minutes. It’s the shortest film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. I’m amazed it’s even here. It’s not a film that should be nominated for Best Picture at all. But it is. So, whatever. But I can’t vote for this. Come on, now.

Smilin’ Through — I’ve always described this film as slow death. That’s what it is. Leslie Howard was going to marry a woman, but she was killed on their wedding day by her drunken ex. So he got really sad and depressed. And he stayed that way for thirty years. Now, his niece (played by Norma Shearer, who also played his wife) is in love with the son of the ex (Frederic March, playing both roles as well), and he’s upset. And he goes to a cave and talks to his dead wife, and the film is basically a slow crawl toward death, where he gets relief from the pain of life. That’s literally the film. And the two kids go get married. But oh man was this slow death. I really did not like this at all.

Yeah, I’m not voting for it. Just in case that wasn’t clear.

State Fair — This might be one of the simplest films ever nominated for Best Picture. And I love it.

A family goes to the fair for the day.

That’s it. That’s the movie.

I fucking loved it. Sure, stuff happens, and the daughter (Janet Gaynor) finds love, but whatever. It’s literally a family going to the fair. Winning large pumpkin contests and prizes and shit. That’s all it is. (You might not think that’s much of anything, but if you’ve watched 700 movies on this Oscar Quest, you will fucking love this movie. It’s like sorting through 400 black pens. And some of the pens are nice and some aren’t. Most are the same (we’re speaking narratively and of quality, of course). And then comes a green pen. And it’s a squiggly pen. That’s fucking awesome. Who doesn’t like a squiggly pen?

This movie is the squiggly pen of the Oscar Quest.

But it shouldn’t have won. It’s awesome and all, but it clearly shouldn’t have won. It’s just a breath of fresh air amongst a sea of the same films.

My Thoughts: Cavalcade is a good movie, and I understand the Academy thinking they should vote for it, but I just can’t. To me, the only films worth voting for are either 42nd Street or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. And honestly, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is just so much stronger. It’s gritty, it’s got the message to it, I think that would have been a much stronger choice than Cavalcade.

My Vote: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Should Have Won: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Is this result acceptable?: I don’t know. Is it consequential enough to even matter? It’s a bad decision, but I don’t know if it’s unacceptable. It doesn’t really matter enough to be unacceptable. But I will call it a poor decision.

Ones I suggest you see: You need to see 42nd Street and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. They’re essential.

Cavalcade is a good movie and definitely worth seeing. The fact that it won adds to that. Just because it’s a weak winner does not make it a bad film.

Little Women is really good. Somehow I’ve liked all three film versions of that story. They’re all worth checking out because you have a big ensemble of actresses in each one. It’s like a generational thing. So I like them for that. I think you should see this one, even if you’ve seen the ’94 version.

State Fair is amazing. It’s so simple and entertaining. Some people will hate it, but I don’t care. I recommend it highly. It’s so different from everything else, narratively (and in terms of its pacing), and that was a huge breath of fresh air for me. I loved it.

A Farewell to Arms is a classic, and I say this version is better than the ’57 version, simply because that version, despite being sexier (Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones), is just too overdone. This one just felt better. Plus you get Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. They’re both the same story, though. I say this is better, watch whichever you like. (Both are on the Quest, so, if you’re doing it, you’ll see both.)

She Done Him Wrong is entertaining. It’s got Mae West, Cary Grant, has a famous line, is a Best Picture nominee and is only 66 minutes long. There’s no reason to not just watch it.  None at all. It’s an hour.

The Private Life of Henry VIII — Alexander Korda — meh. I didn’t particularly care for it. It’s basically a play. Not a particularly interesting one. But Laughton won for it, so I mention it.

Smilin’ Through — it felt like slow death. I can’t recommend it that much, but some people may like it.


10) Smilin’ Through

9) The Private Life of Henry VIII

8) She Done Him Wrong

7) A Farewell to Arms

6) Lady for a Day

5) State Fair

4) Little Women

3) Cavalcade

2) 42nd Street

1) I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

One response

  1. Great write-up! I’m similarly writing a blog reviewing all of the Best Picture winners–feel free to check it out here! :-)

    May 25, 2013 at 4:40 pm

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