The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 1930/31-1931/32)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
The Front Page
Cimarron is one of those movies I accept as a Best Picture winner because it won. Knowing it won, I can come up with all the reasons in the world why it did. On its own, this could just be a regular movie.
Richard Dix plays a man named Yancey. Let’s let that sink in before we get to the plot. Yancey Cravat. So Yancey Necktie. He feels the call to adventure and hears about an upcoming land run out west. A land run is basically — here’s a thousand people, all behind a starting line of sorts. And whoever gets to a piece of land first and claims it — it’s theirs. That’s it. So he uproots his family to go do this, and he get his piece of land in this small town built around the settlers. And we watch as this small town turns into a small city and then a big city. And he starts a newspaper which turns into a giant newspaper business and makes him a rich man. But then the call to adventure comes for him again and he leaves his family to venture further out west into uncharted territory. And we watch as his wife takes over the business and tries to uphold his legacy.
It’s almost a romanticized version of Manifest Destiny. The American Dream playing out through the story of this family. It’s a good film. I understand it winning, as I said, though I don’t know if I love the film enough to take it. Though this year is one of those where — is there anything truly great enough to vote for? I mean, sure, there’s stuff we like but I don’t necessarily think there’s a choice that holds up historically as well as this one. Though I know there’s one particular argument that can (and will be) made against it.
East Lynne is a movie that most people haven’t seen, and one that’s been almost totally forgotten.
Ann Harding is a fun-loving woman who marries a lawyer. You know the type. Refined and steady, but not prone to doing interesting things. The type always trying to keep her from embarrassing him in public. She gets bored, naturally, and leaves her husband. He (and his sister, mostly) assume it’s because she had an affair with a guy she was flirting with at a party, and ruin her reputation. And it’s one of those movies where she suffers quietly, and all she really wants is to see her son. So after she suffers, she finally gets to see her son one last time.
It’s one of those early melodramas. A lot of those these years. Look at the first handful of Best Actress categories. A lot of these. It’s just okay. Nothing great. Kind of surprised they nominated it, but sure. At best this is a fourth choice, if not outright fifth. I doubt anyone watches all five of these movies and chooses this one.
The Front Page is the movie in this category that everyone knows and is the one everyone would vote for because of that. Which I understand.
Most film buffs know this, but in case you don’t, the movie His Girl Friday is based on this movie, which is based on the play “The Front Page.” The story is about a morally flexible newspaper editor who doesn’t really care what rules need to be bent in order to get the story. His star reporter (here a man, in His Girl Friday, his ex-wife) is about to quit to get married. And all of a sudden the story of the decade falls into his lap, and he’s gotta keep his reporter on the case so he can get the most out of the story. It’s great. Every iteration of this story is great.
Most people would take this because of what it is. Which I get. There’s nothing strong enough to take outright here. So this being the most famous film on the list, I understand it. It’s probably my third favorite film overall in this category, and potentially second I’d consider as a good winner. So it’ll be in the conversation for me in the end, but I’m not sure if I end up taking it. We’ll see.
Skippy is a film that I love. I get why it wouldn’t have held up or been a particularly good winner, but I love this movie.
It’s based on a comic strip, apparently. It’s a precursor to those Our Gang shows. The main character is a child. And we watch him in his daily existence, hanging out with his friend from a nearby shantytown, all that sort of stuff. He and his friend find a stray dog, which is great… until it’s captured by the local dogcatcher, who tells them they need a certain amount of money to get the dog out before he kills it. And they run around, trying to get the money without their parents knowing.
It’s a really entertaining movie. Something about it really spoke to me and I fell in love with it. Definitely a third choice at best in terms of how well known it is in the category and how well it would have held up as a winner. But I do love it, and that does mean a lot. Since, you know… voting, and all.
Trader Horn is a jungle adventure film. It was a big prestige picture at the time, and I imagine that had a lot to do with the nomination. Plus it was shot on location in Africa.
We watch an adventurer traverse the jungle and see his adventures. They come across a white jungle queen and murder some lions and swing over some crocodiles. You know, jungle stuff.
The film is all about them shooting on location and it’s a decent enough adventure film. I’m sure it would have been more impressive in 1931, but now — ehh. Fourth choice for me, just because it’s more theatrical than East Lynne. Either way, not something I like enough to take or something I think would have held up particularly well historically.
– – – – – – – – – –
The Reconsideration: There’s three choices here. First is The Front Page. This is the film everyone knows best and the one that would have held up in name only. But to me, it’s the third choice in terms of cinematic quality. Not that it’s not a great film. But it’s basically a stage play. And in these early years (anything with two years in it, meaning the first six, I have to take this into account. I just do), that matters. It’s also not my favorite film, so I’m leaning toward not taking it. Then there’s Cimarron, which is cinematic and is part of “America’s genre,” the western. And I do like the movie. So it does feel like a solid choice. And then there’s Skippy, which is about where The Front Page is at, cinematically, but I like how Taurog shot the film from the perspective of a child at times, which makes it feel more cinematic than The Front Page. I love it the most and that carries a lot of sway, but I’m not sure that film holds up particularly well if it wins. Does that matter this early? I don’t know. It’s not like anyone particularly remembers Cimarron.
My heart wants me to take Skippy, and the historical choice is probably Cimarron. I’m going to… I’m going to take a cop out answer that I can only take today and say — I’d have theoretically voted Skippy for Picture and Director in 1931, and since Skippy did win Best Director, I don’t feel bad doubling up on it. Cimarron should probably be the choice, but I’m still gonna take Skippy. I just like it the best.
– – – – – – – – – –
Rankings (category and films):
- The Front Page
- Trader Horn
- East Lynne
My Vote: Skippy
Cimarron is essential as a Best Picture winner. But even then, it’s one of the five least essential Best Picture winners of all time. So there’s that. On its own, it’s a solid recommend as a movie. Almost kinda holds up as a decent 30s movie. Though it still bears a lot of hallmarks of the transition to sound. Though you see them coming out of it. Which is nice. Overall, worthwhile, but the Best Picture winner status is what helps it.
The Front Page is an essential story. His Girl Friday will probably cover you, but this one’s worth watching too. Solid recommend for film buffs, and maybe a third tier essential film all-time. But not something most people need to rush out and see. There’s a level you need to hit before this becomes essential. And if you hit that level, you’ll know when that is.
I love Skippy. I recommend it highly. Though it’s mostly good because a certain section of people will like it and because of how well it’s directed for 1931. Most people needn’t bother with this and it’s only truly essential to Oscar buffs. Otherwise just something I recommend. For most people, if you see a clip from this and decide it’s not for you, then that’s really all you need.
Trader Horn is worthwhile only as a study of films of this era. Shot on location, kinda racist (in its descriptions of Africans) and they kill animals. Outside of watching it with a film history mindset and focus, I don’t really see why most people need to go back and watch it. I guess if you’re into those jungle movies like Tarzan or those adventure movies like King Solomon’s Mines, this is one of those. Otherwise — ehh. Can be skipped.
East Lynne — ehh. Not really something I recommend except because it’s so hard to find. So if you can find it, then it’s worth seeing just because almost no one has the opportunity to do so. Otherwise, as a film, not really something anyone ever needs to see.
The Last Word: Cimarron is the choice, historically. Now, it’s one of the bottom five Best Picture winners of all time. Definitely one of the most forgotten winners. Though to be fair, three of the five most forgotten winners happened in this era, so it’s not like it’s a mark against it. It’s a product of the times. I get it. It’s probably the best choice that holds up the best, though you can make (and I have made) an argument for Skippy as a winner, and you could definitely (and most of you would) make an argument for The Front Page. I can’t really argue against that. I can merely say — I think Cimarron is the choice that holds up best historically. So I think they did the best that they could, which isn’t overly great, all-time.
– – – – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – –
Five Star Final
One Hour With You
The Smiling Lieutenant
Arrowsmith is a John Ford film. His first Best Picture nominee. The first of many.
Ronald Colman is a medical student who sets up a practice in a small town. We watch him cure a cow disease, and then, after there’s a plague outbreak in the Caribbean, he goes down there to help solve that. His wife goes down there with him, so you know she’s gonna die. And there’s some intrigue about another woman down there trying to steal him from his wife, but mostly it’s him working to solve this outbreak.
It’s an okay film. Not something I love. Probably my least favorite film in the category. Also probably the worst or second worst choice in terms of a winner. Not something that should have won, nor something pretty much anyone would take in this category.
Bad Girl is a movie I love. Definitely one that no one remembers, despite a Best Director win.
The set up is — there’s a girl who is constantly hit on by men. She’s beautiful. And she constantly rejects all the men who hit on her. But then she meets the one dude who doesn’t, and is immediately smitten with him. Now, that sounds like a bad romantic comedy made today, but that’s actually just the first three minutes of this movie. She’s smitten with this guy and they hang out together all night and really get to know one another. She sleeps at his place (not with him, just at his place, and because of this, her sister and brother-in-law assume she’s lost her virtue and throw her out of their house. So now she’s got to marry this guy in order to save some face. So they get married, and we watch them deal with the hardships of being married. Neither has any money, the guy struggles to work for the two of them, then she gets pregnant and they really need to struggle for money. Plus, during all this, they wonder if getting married was the right thing to do after all.
It’s a really terrific film. You think it’s gonna be one thing, but then it’s a drama about two people and some really adult themes. I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it. For sure my favorite movie in the category. Is it the film that would have held up best as Best Picture? Not at all. But I love it. So there’s that.
The Champ is one of the most iconic film stories of all time. This and the 1979 Jon Voight version are incredibly well known to just about anyone who’s watched movies or grew up with cartoons. I feel like I knew this story long before I even knew what the name of the film was. (It’s that final scene. In the locker room. Everyone remembers that scene.)
Wallace Beery plays a former heavyweight champ who is now living in Mexico with his son. He’s a drunk, gambles too much, and fucks up just about everything he touches. But he wants to provide for his son, so he tries to get his shit together, though he constantly fails. One day, they buy a racehorse, and at the track, they meet the boy’s mother, who decides she wants to get the kid out of this squalid existence. After fucking up royally, Beery allows this to happen. And realizing he’s ruined everything, he signs up for a boxing match, the idea being that if he wins, he’ll redeem himself in his son’s eyes, and use the money to atone for past mistakes.
It’s a really great film. One of the all-time classics. On that alone, it hits top three choices in the category. I like it a lot, too, so it’s definitely up there for me. We’ll see if I take it, but this is a hell of a film.
Five Star Final is a drama about tabloid journalism. Definitely not what I was expecting.
Edward G. Robinson runs a tabloid, though he does tend to be more of a classic newspaperman. His boss wants to write articles about an old murder from years earlier. A woman killed a man who knocked her up and wouldn’t marry her. She’s now happily married and her daughter is about to marry into a prominent family. They write a story about it and basically out this woman’s mother, ruining her reputation and ending the relationship. And bad shit happens from there. Like, really bad shit. And it’s about how tabloid reports are good for readership, but they actually can ruin people’s lives.
It’s a pretty good film. Stagey, but solid. Definitely toward the bottom for me, in terms of a film I’d take and a film that would have been a good winner. It’s just… not a Best Picture winner. Maybe fifth choice at best. Definitely not top half of the nominees.
Grand Hotel is the first all-star ensemble film.
The film takes place at a hotel. We watch a handful of guests as their dramas play out. Wallace Beery is a businessman, Joan Crawford is his new secretary. Lionel Barrymore is an employee of Beery’s who is dying and trying to live what life he has left. John Barrymore is a man of title who is out of money, so he robs people to keep himself afloat. Greta Garbo is a depressed ballerina. (“I want to be alone.” That’s from this movie.) And we watch all the stories interact.
It’s a really good movie. I like it a lot. Would I vote for it here? Probably. Is it my favorite film in the category? No. Second or third choice for me. It makes sense as a winner, but I don’t know if I’d want to take it. We’ll see. Definitely the most fitting winner, though.
One Hour With You is a great musical. Pre-Code all the way. The sex is dripping from this movie.
Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are very happily married. Like, about to fuck in a park in the opening scene happy. That’s the opening scene. Cops arresting couples making out and such in the park. And they’re like, “But officers, we’re married!” And the cops are like, “No married couple is that happy.” They throw the sex at you immediately and are not subtle about it.
Anyway, the movie is about them constantly being tempted to cheat on one another. And then eventually he does cheat on her. So she cheats on him. But then they end up happily married again anyway.
I loved this movie. It’s absolutely hilarious. It’s so Pre-Code it’s amazing. It wouldn’t have held up as a winner, but man, this will definitely be a favorite among the nominees. Probably my second favorite film in the category. At best maybe third for a vote, since I have to take more things than just what I like into account, but it’s definitely one of my favorites.
Shanghai Express is a Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg movie. Those are generally well-remembered.
The film takes place on a train, the (insert title here). And it’s pretty much a bit of Grand Hotel and a bit of a Murder on the Orient Express. Each character is an archetype. Dietrich plays a prostitute who used to be with the main character before she was a prostitute. The big story is, there’s a warlord on the train who takes it over. So the romantic story plays out among the warlord being on the train.
It’s not my favorite film. Probably my least favorite or second least favorite in the category. Voting-wise, it’s maybe middle of the pack for me. Not something I’d take, ultimately. People consider this a classic — it’s not for me.
The Smiling Lieutenant is another Maurice Chevalier musical. No Jeanette MacDonald this time. Instead we get Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins.
Chevalier is a soldier who meets and falls in love with Claudette Colbert. During a parade, he winks at her in the crowd. However, at this exact moment, Miriam Hopkins, the princess, is passing by and sees him winking, seemingly at her. The princess immediately falls for him and decides to marry him. He says no. She says she’s gonna marry an American instead, which would cause an international incident. This is a problem, since Colbert and Chevalier are in love. Though of course Colbert sees that Hopkins is truly in love with Chevalier, so she bravely decides to help the princess win him over. How? A makeover.
It’s one of those narratives that only exis… well, Grease… but it’s one of those narratives that only exists in 1931. I like the film a lot, but in terms of Maurice Chevalier musicals… actually, this might be the better film of the two, but it’s definitely not the more entertaining of the two. And it’s definitely not the one most people would take. Because One Hour with You… that movie’s amazing.
– – – – – – – – – –
The Reconsideration: Since there are eight, we need to immediately throw a bunch out. Arrowsmith, Five Star Final, The Smiling Lieutenant, Shanghai Express — not voting for them. The first three shouldn’t have won and the last one I don’t really like. So those are out. And we’re left with four films. Though One Hour With You, while I love it, I wouldn’t take it, so really it’s three films.
We have Bad Girl, my unequivocal favorite. We have Grand Hotel, the classy entry and the film that best fits the Best Picture mold, and we have The Champ, which is great and is one of the most iconic stories of all time.
Honestly, at this point, I have no reason not to take my favorites. So I’m voting for Bad Girl. Which, I know. Grand Hotel and even The Champ are better historical choices. But the heart wants what it wants. So I’m not gonna think too much about it and just take what I prefer.
– – – – – – – – – –
- Bad Girl
- Grand Hotel
- One Hour With You
- The Champ
- The Smiling Lieutenant
- Five Star Final
- Shanghai Express
- Bad Girl
- Grand Hotel
- The Champ
- One Hour With You
- Shanghai Express
- The Smiling Lieutenant
- Five Star Final
My Vote: Bad Girl
Grand Hotel is a Best Picture winner and is essential. This is one of the early 30s movies that even the “books” about essential films will tell you is essential. If you’re a film buff, you need to see it.
The Champ is also essential, because you know the story. It’s one of the most famous film stories of all time and is one of the films of this decade that will be on almost every essentials list. Gotta see it.
Shanghai Express is the third film that’s probably considered essential. von Sternberg and Dietrich made some good films together, and at least one of them is essential. Would I say this one? No. But it’s one of them, and some people consider it essential. So it’s more recommended than most. Not gonna say you need to rush out and see it. It’s definitely not as essential as the previous two movies, but when you get to a certain point, this will become essential for you. It’s better to see it than to not.
Bad Girl I recommend highly. I mean, sure, if you hate these early 30s movies, then you can probably skip it. It’s really only essential for Oscar buffs and people who love this Pre-Code era. Otherwise, you’re okay without it. Though it’s Frank Borzage, and I love this movie. I think you should check it out.
One Hour With You I think you need to see. Because you’re gonna love it. It’s so risque with how obvious the sex is. I really love this movie. It’s hilarious. Highly recommended. Also — Maurice Chevalier/Jeanette MacDonald. Don’t we know by now that you should see these and that they’re amazing?
The Smiling Lieutenant is a Pre-Code Maurice Chevalier musical. We’ve had a handful of these so far. This is either of interest to you or isn’t. Only you can make that call. Definitely not essential, but worthwhile if you’re gonna go back to this era.
Five Star Final is interesting as a Pre-Code film, as an Edward G. Robinson film, and just an interesting film that feels somewhat different of its era. What fascinates me now is how many of these Pre-Code films, especially ones like this, seem to fit what would later be the model for the noirs of the 40s. Here, it’s more about sex and stuff, there it tends to be more about murder. But still, there are a lot of comparisons there, and that interests me. But otherwise — nah, not something you need to see unless you were looking to focus on this particular era.
Arrowsmith is only worth it because it’s John Ford. Otherwise just a decent film. Not even essential as a John Ford film. Unless you’re like me, and you’re doing a Directors list, in which case, yeah, see it. Outside of that, you’re good b.
The Last Word: Grand Hotel is probably the best choice for what they want Best Picture to be. It’s an archetypical Best Picture winner, and in years like this, that helps legitimize everything. The Champ was probably the second best choice and also would have been a decent winner. Bad Girl, while I love it, wouldn’t have held up. The Picture/Director pair may have looked okay, but it wouldn’t have held up as historically the best choice. Shanghai Express might end up as third choice just because of how it’s viewed now. The rest — ehh. Movies of the 30s. I mean, they all are. But at least those first two have some legs and are remembered today. So I think ultimately they made a good choice. Because — think about it this way: you know Grand Hotel. You may not have seen it. But you know it. Cavalcade? You have no fucking clue what that movie is. And that’s the point. Take all the first six Best Picture winners. Half of them you know, half of them you don’t. These early years come down to what films you know, and that’s pretty much it.
– – – – – – – – – –
(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)