"I must have more steps" - the vision of Florenz Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The 9th Academy Awards, for the year 1936.  The nominations were announced on February 7, 1937 and the awards were held on March 4, 1937.

Best Picture:  The Great Ziegfeld

  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Dodsworth
  • Libeled Lady
  • The Story of Louis Pasteur
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Three Smart Girls
  • Anthony Adverse
  • San Francisco

Most Surprising Omission:  My Man Godfrey

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Modern Times

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #74

The Race: MGM was coming off its third Best Picture win at a time when no other studio had won more than once.  But they had gold in the pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy.  Having already put them in two Thin Man pictures together (and thrown them in with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow in Libeled Lady), they were placed in starring roles in MGM’s $2 million epic, The Great Ziegfeld.  The money was well spent as the film made an enormous profit, becoming the second biggest film of the year.  In the meantime, William Powell was also loaned to Universal to make My Man Godfrey.  The biggest was the other 1936 film for their Lady co-star, Spencer Tracy, the MGM epic San Francisco.  Over at Warner Bros. their biggest hits were the costume romance Anthony Adverse and their biopic The Story of Louis Pasteur.  But it seemed most of the news was at MGM, where they also were releasing David O. Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities and Irving Thalberg’s comeback vehicle for his wife, Norma Shearer, Romeo and Juliet.

The National Board of Review ignored all of these films, instead giving their Best Picture to Frank Capra’s new film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, although Pasteur and Romeo did manage to make it into their Top 10 (as did Charlie Chaplin’s magnificent film, Modern Times).  The New York Film Critics also gave their top award to Mr. Deeds, while giving Best Director to Rouben Mamoulian for The Gay Desperado and their acting awards to Walter Huston for Dodsworth and Luise Rainer for The Great Ziegfeld.

The Results: When the nominations came out, there were some shockers.  Chaplin and Mamoulian were completely ignored and neither film earned any nominations.  MGM was king of the world, with all 5 of their films in the running.  Ziegfeld was tied with Adverse and Dodsworth with 7 nominations, leading the pack.  My Man Godfrey managed to pick up 6 nominations, for Director, Screenplay and all 4 acting categories as the categories were expanded to include supporting players, yet somehow, ended up out in the cold for Best Picture to Libeled Lady which didn’t earn any other nominations.  The other Best Picture nominees were critics choice Deeds, Warners hit Pasteur and Universal’s debut film with their new singing star Deanna Durbin, Three Smart Girls.

In the end, MGM took home for the second straight year and for the fourth time overall with The Great Ziegfeld, though for the second straight year MGM failed to take home Best Director, as this time it went to Frank Capra.

MGM wins back to back Best Picture awards with The Great Ziegfeld, its fourth award at a time when no other studio had more than one

The Great Ziegfeld

  • Director:  Robert Z. Leonard
  • Writer:  William Anthony McGuire
  • Producer:  Hunt Stromberg
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Story, Actress (Rainer), Editing, Interior Decoration, Dance Direction
  • Length:  176 min
  • Genre:  Musical (Biopic)
  • Release Date:  8 April 1936
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #33 (year)  /  #406 (nominees)  /  #76 (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Rainer), Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  This is the kind of film that gives a biopic its bad name.  It’s not that it’s a bad film.  It’s not a bad film.  It’s a good enough film.  And William Powell is quite solid as Flo Ziegfeld and Luise Rainer is quite good as his first wife.  But how much of a story is there really in this film?  Ziegfeld wanted to put on bigger and bigger shows.  He was willing to go broke to finance that dream, but of course, was quite pleased when they worked to his financial advantage.  He helped promote his wife, and when she was no longer a star, he moved on.  He found Fannie Brice and in spite of her strange looks, he made a star out of her.

But does he really deserve a three hour film?  Most of the film isn’t about his life anyway, they are just variations of his Follies.  In fact, this isn’t so much a biopic as one of those Revue or Melody films with a bigger plot thrown in to make it a bit more linear.  There really isn’t a whole lot here.  It’s one of those films that won Best Picture because of the size of the production, because it was a big money-maker, and of course, because it was an MGM film at the time when they ruled everything.  Even better for Louis B. Mayer, it was an MGM film which didn’t have Irving Thalberg’s fingerprints on it.  It was a picture perfect ending for MGM, even if it didn’t deserve it.

The beginning of Capracorn: Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

  • Director:  Frank Capra
  • Writer:  Robert Riskin  (from the short story “Opera Hat” by Clarence Buddington Kelland)
  • Producer:  Frank Capra
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Sound
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Screwball)
  • Release Date:  12 April 1936
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3 (year)  /  #176 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Actress (Arthur), Editing

The Film:  I can understand how Deeds would feel.  Because that’s what I would do — I would run away from that crowd and make sure I get back into the courtroom and get Jean Arthur in my arms and kiss her as many times as possible.  She had that strange cracking voice, she was supposedly an enormous pain in the ass to work with, but she had a certain kind of appeal that I love.  I became so entranced with her when I first started watching her films in high school that I had an entire character in a novel set in 1939 obsessed with the idea of blonde and how blonde is a good thing, you must want blonde, not because I had any thing for blondes (I don’t), but because I believed that Jean Arthur could inspire such feelings in such a man.

This is it, the beginning of Capracorn.  It is a film about the “common man” and about how the powers that be want to manipulate him, want to put him away simply because he is a decent person who cares about other people.  I remember very well how the whole idea of Capracorn being too idealistic for the current cynical society being satirized on the Simpsons when Mel Gibson remakes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a violent ending.  But clearly those powers that be that decided that remaking a Capra film with Adam Sandler didn’t get that satire.  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a film that works for a certain place and time.  It doesn’t work today, partially because we are more cynical, but partially because it only works properly when you have an actor like Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart to pull it off.

It also works because it was the Depression and people could enjoy such a fable about a man who is pushed down when he only wants to do some good.  It doesn’t hold up as well these days, partially because of its sentimentality, but it is a great film from a great filmmaker.  Gary Cooper gives one of his best performances and Jean Arthur is simply radiant as the cynical reporter who is gradually won over.  It is the kind of film that could only come from Frank Capra.

Ronald Colman was perfectly cast in A Tale of Two Cities (1935, but nominated in 1936)

A Tale of Two Cities

  • Director:  Jack Conway
  • Writer:  W.P. Lipscomb  /  S.N. Behrman  (from the novel by Charles Dickens)
  • Producer:  David O. Selznick
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Ronald Colman, Edna May Oliver, Blanche Yurka, Basil Rathbone, Donald Woods
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Editing
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  25 December 1935
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4 (year)  /  #186 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Colman), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  Why cut away from the speech?  Why end with the Christmas song.  Yes, the film was released at Christmas and yes, the theme has been placed throughout, but you don’t need it.  You don’t need the Christian imagery.  You can just watch Sydney Carton, so magnificently played by Ronald Colman, go off to his death with that brilliant speech, one of the best of all ending lines to any novel.  He has found his calling, he has calmed the young woman, he knows what he is doing and he knows why he is doing it.  He goes off with such dignity, such honor, such bravery and he says those wonderful words (“It is a far far better thing I do . . .”).  Why fade away with anything but that?

And perhaps that is what holds this film back from being a truly great film.  It does earn **** from me and that is the mark of what I call a great film, but it is a low-level ****, not up there among the best Dickens films, the Lean films.  It’s one of those films that holds up better in memory than it does on-screen.  Blanche Yurka as Madame DeFarge isn’t as good as I remember, and in fact, really only Colman does a first-rate job.  There is a bit too much over-acting in the film, perhaps because it’s directed by Jack Conway, never noted for being a first-rate director.  Where it works the best is when Colman is on-screen.  He plays a magnificent drunk and later in the film, when called upon to be the hero, there is no one more perfect for the role.  It was interesting that Colman deliberately had it written into his contract that he wouldn’t also have to play Charles Darney, perhaps because he wanted to perfect his role as Carton.

another Best Picture nominee from a Sinclair Lewis novel - Dodsworth would be the 2nd of 3

Dodsworth

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Sidney Howard  (from the novel by Sinclair Lewis)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn  /  Merritt Hulbert
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor, Maria Ouspenskaya
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Huston), Supporting Actress (Ouspenskaya), Sound, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  23 September 1936
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #7 (year)  /  #257 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Houston), Supporting Actress (Ouspenskaya), Score, Art Direction

The Film:  There are similarities between the worlds of Longfellow Deeds and Samuel Dodsworth.  Both of them are dealing with upper class societies that seem to be empty of values or worth.  But while Deeds tries to escape from that society and is punished for it, Dodsworth tries to find his own path with a wife who desperately wants to be part of that society.  Eventually, he is forced to choose his own path, much like Deeds, and abandons his wife to be a part of the society that he no longer cares for.  But while Deeds is played as a Comedy (with a lot of social commentary), Dodsworth is a drama that wants to say a lot about the larger society.  Based on a novel that was published just before the 1929 crash, it is a repudiation of the excess of the 1920’s.  The novel is one of the best by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis and if he is not Lewis’ most likeable central character, he does combine likeability with honor and dignity.

Walter Huston plays Dodsworth and gives his best performance of the entire decade.  He is gruff, but firm, uneducated but intelligent, out of his water, but charming.  He is every bit the kind of man who would rise to the top through his own hard work and ingenuity.  Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but not outstanding, with the exception of Maria Ouspensakaya.  She always knew how to own a scene with grace and dignity, and her brief scene as the mother of the man whom Dodsworth’s wife hopes to marry (after they are divorced) is so well done, so perfect, that just the one scene earned her an Oscar nomination in the initial year of the supporting acting awards.

The Best Picture nominee that forced out My Man Godfrey - Libeled Lady (1936), which only got the one nomination

Libeled Lady

  • Director:  Jack Conway
  • Writer:  Maurine Dallas Watkins  /  Howard Emmett Rogers  /  George Oppenheimer  /  Wallace Sullivan
  • Producer:  Lawrence Weingarten
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Jean Harlow
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  98 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Screwball)
  • Release Date:  9 October 1936
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #10 (year)  /  #305 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay

The Film:  William Powell had been loaned out to Universal to make My Man Godfrey, a truly great Screwball Comedy.  In the same year, he also made Libeled Lady at his home studio, MGM.  In the end, Godfrey was the first film ever nominated for all four acting awards and was also nominated for Director and Screenplay.  But it was Libeled Lady that ended up with the Best Picture nomination instead, attesting to the large bloc of voters working at MGM determined to vote for their films.  Which is a shame because Libeled Lady is not a great film.  It’s a good film, an enjoyable one.  But Powell is better in Godfrey and none of the other stars are up to the level of the actors in Godfrey.

But it is a good film, one that shouldn’t be ignored simply because it only earned the one nomination.  Powell is good, Loy is charming, Jean Harlow is at her best and Spencer Tracy manages to get off some great lines (“What’ll we use for a headline?”  “I don’t care.  Anything!  War threatens Europe.”  “Which country?”  “Flip a nickel.”).  But there’s not enough of those lines and there’s just not enough chemistry.  The film is so determined to get Powell and Loy together that ignores the relationship between Harlow and Tracy and we start to lose a bit of interest.  It’s good, but it’s not a classic, not the kind of film that you want to buy and watch over and over again with delight.  In short, it’s not My Man Godfrey.

A pretty ominous looking poster for a biopic about a chemist

The Story of Louis Pasteur

  • Director:  William Dieterle
  • Writer:  Sheridan Gibney  /  Pierre Collings
  • Producer:  Henry Blanke
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Paul Muni, Josephine Hutchinson, Donald Woods
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Original Story, Actor (Muni)
  • Length:  87 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • Release Date:  23 November 1935
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #14 (year)  /  #343 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Everyone always thinks of Warner Bros. as the Gangster studio, but this was the other kind of film that they excelled at: the biopic about someone important, someone who made a difference.  In this case, of course, it’s Louis Pasteur, the man whose work on fighting infections and learning about diseases helped to move the germ theory to the forefront of medical science, discovered the rabies vaccine and developed the anthrax vaccine.  He was so important to the development of medical science that buildings, streets and even institutions are named after him all around the world.

These kind of films all suffer from the same deficiencies.  They want to tell an epic story about someone’s life, but are so determined to show the person succeeding against the odds (what other type of person was worth making a movie about), their lives get boiled down to a few essential episodes and history gets moved around a bit to make sure it all works as a dramatic tale.  Of course, if you do it right, you can make a solid film.  Both here, with Paul Muni in his Academy Award winning role, and the next year, with Muni again in the lead in The Life of Emile Zola, which would win Best Picture, you have a very solid lead.  None of the rest of the cast is worth remembering, but they aren’t bad either.  So we have a solid film, anchored around the Muni performance that looks back on Louis Pasteur and the great things he accomplished.

But it’s hard to make a truly worthwhile biopic.  Sure, they come around every now and then, your Yankee Doodle Dandy or your Raging Bull, but it’s hard to really pull off properly.  Most of them are simply good films, if done right.  So this one is done right, they don’t take too many liberties with the historical record, Muni is good, if not great (he shouldn’t have won) and it’s a watchable film, much more so than many Oscar nominated biopics that would follow.  You might even learn something, though it’s best to check an encyclopedia before repeating any of the parts of any of these films as fact.

I'm a huge fan of Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer but they were too old to play Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Romeo and Juliet

  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Writer:  Talbot Jennings  (from the play by William Shakespeare)
  • Producer:  Irving Thalberg
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Shearer), Supporting Actor (Rathbone), Interior Decoration
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Shakespeare)
  • Release Date:  3 September 1936
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #22 (year)  /  #375 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Shearer), Costume Design

The Film:  It’s not just the leads of course.  Everyone in this film is too old for the characters they are playing with the possible exception of Edna May Oliver as the Nurse.  But for some reason it’s always Shearer and Howard who seem to get picked on.  Is it because Shearer was nominated for Best Actress?  Because her husband, Thalberg, worked so hard to get this picture made for her.  He wanted a huge production and he got it.  There’s no question that the money that was spent is all there on screen.  There are huge sets, numerous costumes and major stars appearing in this film.  Yes, Shearer and Howard are too old.  They’re supposed to be teenagers.  But they are both good, they are at ease with the language, they truly seem to be in love.  And Basil Rathbone is also fairly solid as Tybalt, for he seems almost the right age and he has enough indecent rage to be Tybalt.

So what is the problem with the film?  Well, the first is that outside of the leads, no one is particularly good.  John Barrymore is particularly bad, a drunken buffoon by this time, ridiculously old and hamming it up all through his scenes.  His is the only Mercutio that I was ever glad to see die so we wouldn’t be tortured with him anymore.  And I’ve never been a particular fan of this play.  While it has some beautiful language, some truly wonderful speeches, it also has a ridiculous story (which Shakespeare himself parodied in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and characters who act idiotically.  There is nothing in this film that rises above the play itself and makes it poetry.  There are just the two leads, as old as they are, with their solid performances.

I could only find the video cover, not the movie poster for Three Smart Girls (1936). Perhaps it also ran away from Deanna Durbin's singing

Three Smart Girls

  • Director:  Henry Koster
  • Writer:  Adele Comandini
  • Producer:  Joseph Pasternak  /  Charles Rogers
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Deanna Durbin, Alice Brady, Ray Milland
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Story, Sound
  • Length:  84 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Box Office Gross:  $1.63 mil
  • Release Date:  20 December 1936
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #43 (year)  /  #429 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  At some point in the film, Deanna Durbin will start singing and you’ll wonder why this petite little thing has a voice like an opera star.  Then you’ll wonder why she sings like that.  What kind of teenager would sing to her father like that, even if they had the ability?  And who wants to listen to it?  Well, judging from the reactions I get from Durbin fans whenever I write negative comments, apparently plenty of people, but I am certainly not one of them.  Yes, she had an amazing voice, but she chose to use it to sing songs that many besides me would never want to hear and her acting ability was pretty much nil.  Yet, her pictures continued to get Oscar nominations for years (thankfully after 1938, they stopped getting nominated for Best Picture) and she continued to be a box office star.  I should be more polite because she is almost ninety years old and I suppose the possibility exists that she could read this and it’s not my goal in life to make people feel bad.

But I can’t stand watching her on film.  In every film she is the nice young girl, often dealing with problems with her parents (in this case, divorced parents that she wants to get back together before her father can re-marry).  But she has no range as an actress and every time she bursts out in song I am forced to lower the volume.  This film isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really qualify as good either.  The plot alone wouldn’t amount to much, but there also isn’t anything much in the way of dialogue, directing, acting or technical wizardry.  Somehow the film got nominated for its story for a story that was pretty old and boring before films even began.  And at least in most versions of the story I don’t have to listen to Durbin belt out an aria.

Not even Frederic March, Olivia de Havilland and Claude Rains can save Anthony Adverse (1936) from being boring

Anthony Adverse

  • Director:  Mervyn LeRoy
  • Writer:  Sheridan Gibney  (from the novel by Hervey Allen)
  • Producer:  Henry Blanke
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Frederic March, Olivia de Havilland, Gale Sondergaard, Claude Rains
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actress (Sondergaard), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Interior Decoration, Assistant Director
  • Oscar Note:  The first film to win 3 Oscars in technical categories
  • Length:  141 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  29 August 1936
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #45 (year)  /  #438 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Rains), Supporting Actress (Sondergaard), Score

The Film:  How could it be so wrong?  It’s got Frederic March and Olivia de Havilland in the leads, has Claude Rains, has a wonderful performance from Gale Sondergaard, the winner of the first Best Supporting Actress Oscar, who would later be blacklisted.  And yet, it’s so god damn boring.  It really is.  Rains isn’t up to his later performances.  March is really quite wasted.  De Havilland looks gorgeous but doesn’t actually do anything.  And all the adventure?  All the story?  There’s just not much there.  It takes so damn long to get anywhere and when it finally does start to move we’ve lost all interest.

Could it it’s because this is what happens when you turn a 1224 page novel into a film, even a long one?  That’s there’s just too much to try to put on screen.  Not really.  Because if you only keep enough for the film, it should at least keep moving.  Usually the problem with this kind of adaptation is that the story moves too quickly.  This one moves too slow.  March is the star, but it takes a long time for him to appear, because first we have to learn about how he is a bastard child (with Rains the cuckolded husband), that he manages to be adopted by his biological grandfather and he falls in love with a young girl in the household.  But only then does March finally appear and he’s too wooden in what might be his weakest film performance and we just can’t bring ourselves to care.  The main reason to watch the film is Sondergaard, who schemes so brilliantly, who completely deserves her Oscar.  It’s just too bad we have to slog through so much to appreciate it.

Watch the earthquake. Skip the rest of San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco

  • Director:  W.S. Van Dyke
  • Writer:  Robert E. Hopkins  /  Anita Loos
  • Producer:  John Emerson  /  Bernard H. Hyman
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Story, Actor (Tracy), Sound, Assistant Director
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  26 June 1936
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #50 (year)  /  #449 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Song  (“San Francisco”)

The Film:  The earthquake is so magnificently done.  These are still decent effects today, without any computer trickery to them.  They look more real than many effects today because in a sense they are real – there are actually things collapsing, buildings falling apart, a city being destroyed.  Certainly for 1936, they were amazing effects.  You can honestly believe that you are looking at San Francisco as it was on that fateful morning in 1906 when the earth shook and the entire city was decimated.  Then came the fire, and what the earthquake hadn’t destroyed, the fires took.  Some 75% of the city’s population was homeless by the time all the devastation had concluded.  In the middle of all of this is Clark Gable, battered, beaten, with a desolate look in his eyes.  In these scenes we can remember the actor he had already proved himself to be in It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty and can imagine what would come in Gone with the Wind.  He is so desperate, so haunted and he tries to keep people alive, he provides a human element that is all too lacking in special effects scenes.

It’s too bad that the rest of his performance is such crap.  It’s too bad that the rest of the movie is such crap.  It really is a pretty dumb movie, with a thin plot about Gable, the gambler and Tracy, the priest and friend and MacDonald, the opera singing woman who ends up coming between them.  Somehow Tracy earned an Oscar nomination, even though he really isn’t that much of the film and isn’t all that good (it was the first of a long line of undeserved nominations for Tracy), but he’s not as bad as Gable is throughout all the scenes the precede the earthquake and, of course, MacDonald never could act.  So what do we have to show for this film?  A big epic that definitely earned its Oscar for Best Sound (even if I place it second behind Modern Times) and would have easily won the Oscar for Special Effects had the award existed back then, but also a film that doesn’t belong anywhere near a Best Picture list, one that can’t even find its way into the top 40 for the year, let alone the top 10.

Just skip to the earthquake.  That’s worth watching and Gable in those scenes is worth watching.  Do yourself a favor and skip the rest.

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