Next on my quest to WATCH EVERY BEST PICTURE NOMINEE EVER!!! I’ll be reviewing the 12(that’s right, twelve this time! Why? God knows.) films nominated in 1934. The 7th annual Academy Awards were held on February 27th, 1935.
MGM – 1hr 50min
DIRECTOR: Sidney Franklin
GENRE: Drama/Love Story/Stage-To-Screen
NOTES: Based on the play by Rudolf Besier which in turn was based on the real life correspondence between English poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. • Remade shot for shot and in color by Sidney Franklin in 1957. • William Randolph Hearst wanted Marion Davies, his mistress, to be cast instead of Norma Shearer. MGM production head Irving Thalberg, who happened to be Shearer’s husband, refused. Consequently, Hearst refused any of his newspapers to review the film.
PROS: Charles Laughton as the patriarch. He commands the screen whenever he enters a room. Very creepy and dominating in this performance. • Evocative establishing shots. The opening shot of a rainy street, the winter scene, the day at the park. It’s a shame that the majority of the movie takes place in one room because the shot compositions come to life whenever they leave it. • I like how the maid Wilson(portrayed by Una O’Connor, who also played a servant in 1933’s Calvacade) seemingly hovers across the room in her long skirt. • I was impressed with Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance as Henrietta. • Marion Clayton Anderson as Cousin Bella was really funny and annoying.(Anderson only appeared in a few films; not sure why) • Ralph Forbes as Captain Cook is really good at playing the nervous guy.
CONS: This is definitely a stage to screen movie. There is not much attempt to make it feel like a film. It is essentially one long conversation/argument after another and grows tiresome after a while. • There is a lot of dialogue and there is a tendency for Shearer and March to rush through it. • Norma Shearer is always hit or miss with me. Here she is a miss. I think it comes down to her delivery. She has that airy voice and hardly ever says anything plainly. Her acting, if you will, is always front and center. In the film, Cousin Bella tells Elizabeth(Shearer) “You always have a look in your eyes as if you already saw the angels.” In other words, stop being so dramatic! Thank you Cousin Bella! • The camera barely moves as the majority of the film is restricted to Elizabeth’s room.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Danny over at pre-code.
Paramount – 1hr 40min
DIRECTOR: Cecil B. DeMille
GENRE: Historical Epic/Romance
NOTES: Based on a historical adaptation by Bartlett Cormack. • One of 3 movies nominated for Best Picture this year which star Claudette Colbert. • Deservedly, Victor Milner won the award for Best Cinematography.
PROS: Colbert is great as Cleopatra. She, unlike Norma Shearer in my opinion, does not overact. She strikes just the right balance between subtle and exaggerated. Also, her voice is sultry but strong. She exudes the confidence that one would expect of the Queen of Egypt. • Epic set design and camera moves. Most of the film takes place on sets. Really, DeMille is synonymous with epic sets. The design of Cleopatra’s sail barge bedroom alone! • Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Antony gives a fun performance. • The montage of battle scenes towards the end is really impressive. It plays like a lot of montage scenes of the era(quick cuts, multiple exposures, dramatic music) but the special effects and model work especially, put it at the head of the pack. • I thought the stabbing of Julius Caesar was shot very well. Very understated and realistic. • Very cool 3-D looking credits sequence on the base of the sphinx.
CONS: The tone shifts around. Sometimes it is borderline screwball comedy. The drunk hiccup scene comes to mind. Also the 3 ring circus that breaks out aboard Cleopatra’s sail barge seems a little silly.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Danny over at pre-code.
First National – 1hr 37min
DIRECTOR: Frank Borzage
NOTES: Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell’s fifth of seven films together. • Ruby Keeler does not have any dance numbers in this film. • The scenes at West Point were filmed on location. • Tyrone Power plays an uncredited bit role as a cadet.
PROS: Some nice stock footage(I assume) of planes ships and big guns. • Pretty good punch from the Sgt. which even produces a little blood. • “I hope you break your neck” sung to The Farmer in the Dell was a funny moment in an otherwise dull script. • Smooth dolly shots on the Luau dance number. • When Ruby Keeler falls for Powell, she really sells it with her eyes. • Some nice camera moves and shot compositions. The drill scene at West Point comes to mind. • I like the idea that these two rekindle their love through the vehicle of the play at the end. It’s a fun idea even if the play & music itself is forgettable.
CONS: There really isn’t a big musical number until an over hour into it. Unless you count the Luau scene. • “Say listen here see” type dialogue. • The humor is pretty broad with a touch of slapstick. • Luau dance number goes on a bit long. Stops the narrative dead in it’s tracks. • Not much in way of plot which highlights even more the scenes where nothing moves forward.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: Over at filmfanatic.org
RKO – 1hr 47min
DIRECTOR: Mark Sandrich
NOTES: Based on the (hard to find)book by Dwight Taylor. • The first of 9 starring role pairings for Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire(they both had minor roles in 1933’s Flying Down To Rio). • “The Continental” took home the prize in the new category of Best Original Song.
PROS: Astaire’s dancing is still impressive to this day. • Mimi(Rogers) playing hard-to-get works well. There are lots of funny little touches to show it too(like driving off with the beverage basket still on her car) • Edward Everett Horton is pretty darn funny as Egbert. Trying to decide what to eat for breakfast, the whistling bit with the hotel porter: “Have you time for an encore?”. • A silly but fun scene where Hortense(Alice Brady) and Mimi go to see Egbert in order to work out the terms of Mimi’s divorce. Lots of innuendo and miscommunication here. • A blasé view of divorce which is common at the time. “You can’t have a divorce on an empty stomach.” • The Waiter(Eric Biore, who appears in 5 Astaire-Rogers films) is a total scene stealer!
CONS: Episodic to a fault. • “Needle In A Haystack” dance routine was a little boring. No fault to Astaire. Just in comparison to the big set pieces of something like 42nd Street, this felt lazy. • Dialogue is unrealistic & a bit silly but this being a musical, it’s forgivable. • A god-awful song called “Let’s k-nock k-nees”(with a very young Betty Grable no less) and it’s accompanying overlong dance number which contains a not so discreet message of “Let’s get it on”. Watching Edward Everett Horton prance around in short-shorts, tank top, and sandals with socks here is not something I care to see ever again! • The big finale dance number set to “The Continental” is so damn long! And again, underwhelming compared to other musicals of the day.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Danny over at pre-code
Warner Bros. – 1hr 27min
DIRECTOR: Lloyd Bacon
NOTES: Sections of the film were filmed on the USS Arizona which would famously be sunk by the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. • The USS Macon, a Navy scout dirigible which would crash the following year, is also featured. • Gloria Stuart would receive an Oscar nomination 63 years later for her performance in Titanic(1997). • The character Droopy Mullins(Frank McHugh) shares my surname! I’ve only come across a couple characters in cinema history with the last name “Mullins”.
PROS: The biggest drawing factor to this film is that most of it was filmed on location at various Naval training centers and of course on board the famous, and ill-fated, USS Arizona. • I like the idea of a silly movie taking place in a realistic setting. Reminds me of Monty Python & The Holy Grail(1975) in that way. • Lots of creative camera set ups and shot compositions; looking down ladders, inside a phone booth, a POV shot from inside the 14″/45 barrels as they shoot armor piercing rounds. In fact that whole scene of the process of loading the guns was fun to watch. • I wasn’t expecting the dramatic action scene at the end.
CONS: Dialogue consists mostly of generic wisecracks. Although there are some good lines like “What are you? A couple of violets?” and “Get up on your pins sucker!”. • One of the most stereotypical black characters I’ve ever seen. With the stuttering pidgin language and dumb looks on his face as he easily takes a bribe. And no this not “just how it was back then”. Watch The Champ(1931) or Arrowsmith(1931) and how they handle black characters • Cagney in blackface as he tries to sneak off the boat. Racially insensitive yes, but more to the point would that really fool anybody??
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Kevin over at kevinsmoviecorner
20th Century – 1hr 28min
DIRECTOR: Alfred L. Werker
GENRE: Biography/Period Piece
NOTES: Based on the play by George Hembert Westley. • This film came out 2 years after Hitler came to power in Germany. This hangs like an ominous cloud. • Joseph Goebbels had the film re-edited in Germany in order to highlight the anti-semitism.
PROS: Detailed set design. • Good scene where the family tries to disguise the house in order to fool the tax collector. • George Arliss in a double role. • A four way split screen moment. • I didn’t even recognize Boris Karloff at first. He is sinister even without makeup • The last scene is shot in three strip technicolor(a technique also used that year in The Cat And The Fiddle). Studios were testing out the new technology after two strip technicolor failed to take off.
CONS: George Arliss is a good actor but feels like one from a different time. Feels old-fashioned for 1934(yes I know he’s playing 19th century here) • Dull shot compositions. Yet another stage-to-screen adaptation that fails to utilize the medium as far as camera technique is concerned. • Boring subject matter for me at least. Loans?… blechh!! • Artificial chemistry between the family. • They try to shoehorn in the love story between Julie & Fitzroy. • Probably a slanted view of the history of the Rothschild family painting them in the most favorable light possible. • Everyone seems to laugh a little too heartily. It’s as if… oh I don’t know… they’re acting or something.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Danny over at pre-code
Universal – 1hr 51min
DIRECTOR: John M. Stahl
NOTES: Based on the bestseller by Fannie Hurst. • One of the first films to deal frankly with miscegeny. • Remade in 1959 by Douglas Sirk with Lana Turner and John Gavin. • One of 3 movies nominated this year that star Claudette Colbert.
PROS: Very progressive subject matter. For a change, the black actor’s emotional problems are front and center. Hard to say if it was intended but the discrepancy of “Fairness” between the races is on display. Even though the two women are on somewhat equal terms, Delilah(Louise Beavers) is paid less, lives in the basement, and maintains her servant duties despite the fact that it was her pancake recipe that led to the fortune. • The relationship between Colbert and Beavers feels very natural. There is an equal respect and admiration for each other even though Delilah is relegated to the role of servant even despite success. • Peola(Fredi Washington) is beautiful and her story is really the thrust of the film(or should be rather). • Ned Sparks would certainly be employed by the Coen Bros. if he was alive today.
CONS: Just doesn’t quite live up to it’s potential. • Many scenes go on too long. Very dialogue heavy. • Kind of descends into a “weepy” towards the end. Could use some tighter cutting. • Tries to squeeze in a dull love triangle which is not nearly as interesting as Peola’s story.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Marilyn Ferdinand over at ferdyonfilms
Columbia – 1hr 45min
DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
NOTES: First film to win in all 5 main categories(Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Writing). Only 2 other films have accomplished this feat; One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest(1975) and The Silence Of The Lambs(1991) • First comedy to win Best Picture(and a rare thing still) – One of 3 movies nominated this year in which she starred. Despite this, she didn’t show up to the Oscar ceremony being convinced that Bette Davis would win • Clark Gable made this film on loan from MGM and under protest. • Colbert called this “the worst clanker of my career”. • Gable’s performance was an inspiration for Friz Freleng in creating Bugs Bunny.
PROS: Really the prototype for all romantic comedies to follow. If you can get in the right headspace, you’ll notice how far ahead of it’s time it is. • Rapid pacing right off the get go. • There are many locations and set ups in this film. A nice change from the stuff one-room dramas that I’ve been watching. • Gable’s got some great monologues. His undressing scene and the hitchhiking scene for instance. • The breakfast scene is stands out and may be one of my favorite scenes of all time! • There is a wonderful tracking shot of Colbert making her way to the public showers. • My favorite line comes via the annoying bus rider Oscar Shapeley(Roscoe Karns): “When a cold mama gets hot, boy how she sizzles!”
CONS: Colbert ends up going all weepy for Gable. This frustrated me because I find her to be such a strong character and above all that emotional fragility. • I felt that it starts to lose some steam towards the end.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Michal over at rogerebert.com
Columbia – 1hr 23min
DIRECTOR: Victor Schertzinger
NOTES: Adapted from the story Don’t Fall in Love by Charles Beahan and Dorothy Speare. • Grace Moore was a classically trained operatic soprano and did her own singing.
PROS: Moore has a funny physicality. I am thinking of that scene where she is rolling around on the floor. She also has a funny bit where she pretends to have laryngitis. • Tullio Carminati’s overbearing nature is hilarious. • I was surprised by the amount and length of the opera pieces considering that this is not really a musical. Reminded me of Amadeus(1984). • I enjoyed the scene where Moore first arrives in Milan and steps out onto her hotel balcony. There is a cacophony of various practicing musicians. When she starts singing everyone begins to join along.
CONS: Despite some exchanges like “They did say something about ‘going crazy'”, this movie is not nearly as funny as it should be. Especially when you compare this to some of the Lubitsch musicals. • Moore was a well respected singer, but her singing voice is like nails on a chalkboard to me. This could be due to the limits of sound recording at the time though. • Yet another quick cut montage scene, so prevalent at the time. This one is not nearly as interesting as others though.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: contemporary review from Morduant Hall over at nytimes
MGM – 1hr 33min
DIRECTOR: W. S. Van Dyke
GENRE: Comedy/Murder Mystery/Noir
NOTES: Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet. • William Powell & Myrna Loy had appeared together earlier in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama(“the last film Dillinger ever saw”) – Five sequels were made: After The Thin Man(1936), Another Thin Man(1939), Shadow Of The Thin Man(1941), The Thin Man Goes Home(1945) & Song Of The Thin Man(1947).
PROS: The chemistry & dialogue between Powell & Loy is fantastic. They are so natural and playful. Really everything thing else takes plays second fiddle.
CONS: The plot is pretty convoluted and it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. • I am not a big fan of denouement. This movie thrives when Powell is “dancing” around the room, so to have him(and everyone else) sitting for the entire last scene is a bit of a drag.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from the late great Roger over at rogerebert.com
MGM – 1hr 55min
DIRECTOR: Jack Conway
GENRE: Biography/Period Piece
NOTES: Based on the (rare)book by Edgcumb Pinchon. • Wallace Beery had already portrayed Poncho Villa in Patria(1917), when Villa was still alive and well and active in Mexico. • Shot on location in Mexico.
PROS: Nice exterior shots in the opening scene. • Surprisingly violent right off the bat. Straight up cold blooded executions • The spit take from young Pancho was not expected • Some stark gritty imagery somewhat rare for the time(seeing as the production code was being enforced much more strictly by 1934) • Beery is a ridiculous choice to portray Pancho Villa, but I love anything Beery does so it works to my advantage at least • Sexual innuendos at their finest(“draw a bull with great big horns”) & a pretty suggestive dance routine too. • The baby swing constructed out of gun-belts!
CONS: Pretty dumb. “Theresa what is it?” She just got shot you numbskull! That’s what! • There is nothing “Mexican” about this film. It plays like a typical American Western really. • Some uneven tonality. • Mostly white actors portraying Mexicans, but alas this is just a sign of the times. • Beery’s Mexican accent is atrocious… even worse than his German accent in Grand Hotel • The inclusion of the annoying newspaper man Johny Sikes(Stuart Erwin) for what I assume is supposed to be comic relief. • I am thinking everyone must shoot tranquilizer bullets that take a second to go into effect. • Donald Cook’s performance as Don Felipe is a real stinker. It stands out even in a stinker of a movie. • Somehow Villa makes a speech to thousands of people without raising his voice above a conversational level.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Matthew over at cinephile-uk
FOX – 1hr 20min*
DIRECTOR: Irving Cummings
*The only print of this film resides at UCLA’s Instructional Media Lab located on campus in the Powell Library building. Apparently you can set up an appointment to view it.
REVIEW FROM SOMEONE WHO HAS SEEN IT: from Matt over at mattvstheacademy
Did the Oscars get it right?
This was a pretty weak group of nominees. So saying that It Happened One Night won is not saying much. I really enjoyed The Thin Man and would be more eager to re-watch it over this. That said, It Happened One Night is an undeniable classic and has been parodied and unofficially remade probably hundreds of times. And from a cinematography point of view, it’s one of the best of the 1930’s.
Here are some well reviewed films eligible that year which weren’t nominated for Best Picture. I compiled the list from various sources and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they were snubbed or not. Have one to add? Let me know and I’ll list it. The ones I’ve seen are marked with an asterisk:
Babes In Toyland – dir. Gus Meins & Charley Rogers
L’Antalante – dir. Jean Vigo
The Black Cat – dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
Death Takes A Holiday – dir. Mitchell Leisen
It’s A Gift – dir. Norman Z. McLeod
Judge Priest – dir. John Ford
Little Man, What Now? – Frank Borzage
The Lost Patrol – dir. John Ford
Man Of Aran – dir. Michael J. Flaherty
The Man Who Knew Too Much* – dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The Merry Widow – dir. Ernst Lubitsch
Of Human Bondage – dir. John Cromwell
The Scarlett Empress – dir. Josef von Sternberg
Them That Hills – dir. Charley Rogers
Treasure Island* – dir. Victor Fleming
Twentieth Century – dir. Howard Hawks