Richard Dix and Irene Dunne were both Oscar nominated for Cimarron (1931) which won Best Picture. None of it was deserved.

The 4th Academy Awards, for the year of August 1, 1930 to July 31, 1931, with the nominations announced on October 5, 1931 and the awards ceremony held on November 10, 1931.

Best Picture:  Cimarron

  • The Front Page
  • Trader Horn
  • Skippy
  • East Lynne

Most Surprising Omission:  A Free Soul

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  City Lights

Rank (out of 82): Among Best Picture Years:  #81

The Race: Two of the biggest films of the year were Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco, capitalizing somewhat on his previous collaboration with Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel) and A Free Soul, which starred the reigning Best Actress, Norma Shearer.  Lewis Milestone, the Best Director of 1930, was also back with a new film, The Front Page.  Gangsters were becoming a big thing in theaters, with Little Caesar, and then The Public Enemy.  In terms of sheer size, it was Cimarron which seemed to be the biggest film, with an epic story told over multiple generations and clocking in at over two hours.  Jackie Cooper was also becoming a star and getting a lot of attention for his work in Skippy, adapted from the comic strip.  Charlie Chaplin released his first masterpiece of the sound era, a throwback silent film called City Lights, that was mentioned among the top 10.

The Results: When the nominations were released, the gangster films were out as was Chaplin.  And while Dietrich and Shearer were both in, their films were also out.  Instead, joining Cimarron, The Front Page and Skippy in the Best Picture nominations were two films that lacked any other nominations: Trader Horn and East Lynne.  From the minute they were announced, with Cimarron up for three more awards than any other film, including being the first film to get nominated in all five major awards, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that it would win.  Whether it deserved to win was another question as, even in a weak year, it was the weakest of the nominees and has, for decades, been derided as one of the worst films to ever win.

Don’t believe the tagline; Cimarron (1931) isn’t very good.

Cimarron

  • Director:  Wesley Ruggles
  • Writer:  Howard Estabrook  (from the novel by Edna Ferber)
  • Producer:  William LeBaron
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adaptation, Actor (Dix), Actress (Dunne), Cinematography, Interior Decoration
  • Oscar Record:  Most Nominations (7) – surpassed in 1935,  Most Points (360) – surpassed in 1934
  • Length:  123 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • Release Date:  9 February 1931
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #72 (year)  /  #487 (nominees)  /  #84 (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound

The Film:  At the time, Cimarron was the first film to receive 7 Oscar nominations and the first film to get nominated for the 5 biggest awards (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress).  It tied the then-record with 3 Oscars.  Yet, today, it is widely reviled as one of the worst (or the absolute worst if you go with the IMDb voter opinion) Best Picture winners of all-time.  It is the only film in Oscar history to be nominated in every possible category (Best Sound that year was awarded by Studio, not by film and Writing was split into Adaptation and Original Story, only leaving 7 categories).  But how good of a film is it?

Not very.  And the question isn’t, why is it a bad film, but rather, how do we begin listing all the reasons it’s bad?  Well, let’s start with Richard Dix.  He plays Yancey Cravat, a man who is many things, a newspaper man, a preacher, an oil man.  The problem is that he’s equally boring as all of them, mainly because Dix is terrible throughout the film.  How he ever got an Oscar nomination is quite simply beyond me.  He seems to bounce back and forth between being ridiculously under-stated, to being an over-the-top ham.  And perhaps his acting could be overcome if Yancey were more interesting, but he’s a frightful bore, who wants to bring some order to Oklahoma.  Perhaps if the story had focused more on their early years in Oklahoma and not tried to do a multi-generational story of the modernization of the west it would have been better.  But that’s not what Edna Ferber does.  She writes long boring books that tell great sweeping epic stories that are really pretty boring with characters you would never want to meet.

But what about Irene Dunne?  She’s normally enough to save a film and she was also nominated.  Well, this is early Irene Dunne and she displays none of the charm or wit that marks her later outings when she would be paired with Cary Grant or Charles Boyer.  She just sits around and lets Yancey (I’m sorry, every time I write his name, I think again, what a stupid name) live his life.  She’s also a frightful bore.

But what about the rest of the nominations?  Well, the set designs really aren’t impressive and the Cinematography is a mess, jumping between wide shots and close-ups without any sense of direction.  The opening Oklahoma land rush could have been a great moment, but instead it’s a complete mess.  There’s barely a believable line of dialogue in the entire film.  If there was one nomination it did deserve, it was Best Sound, but this was the year where Sound was given to a studio rather than a film, so in the end, it’s just a big waste of undeserved nominations and a film that comes close to rivaling Broadway Melody as the worst choice in Oscar history.

The original, but not the best: The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page

  • Director:  Lewis Milestone
  • Writer:  Bartlett Cormack  (from the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur)
  • Producer:  Howard Hughes
  • Studio:  The Caddo Company  (distributed by United Artists)
  • Stars:  Adolph Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian, Edward Everett Horton
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Menjou)
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  4 April 1931
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #14 (year)  /  #362 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay

The Film:  Is it fair for a film to be judged by its remake?  Probably not.  But at this point, it seems impossible to watch this film in a vacuum.  I’m not sure what was the bigger surprise after all this time, to go back and realize how many of the lines from His Girl Friday were actually present in the original, or to realize how much weaker The Front Page is than I remembered.  Don’t mistake me.  The Front Page is a good film, it’s quick paced, very enjoyable, and Adolph Menjou gives what might be his best performance (except for maybe Paths of Glory) as the rascal of an editor, Walter Burns.  The story, of course, is instantly memorable to anyone who has seen any of the four versions of it.  Hildy Johnson is leaving the paper to go get married, but before he can, he is involved in the final, big story of poor Earl Williams, about to be executed for a crime that needed committing.  But the plot is something to hang on two things: the quick witty dialogue from the original Hecht / MacArthur play and what newspapers are willing to do to make sure they get the story.

So, we have the quick witted story (oddly, the script was not nominated) and we have the solid performance from Menjou.  But it’s the early days of sound and even given the problems of a current print, it’s not a particularly well made film.  None of the performances except Menjou and Edward Everett Horton are really worth remembering.  This is the problem when a remake becomes a classic.  Who cares about the original version when you can see the amazing job that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell do in His Girl Friday, a film that didn’t receive any Academy Award nominations.  So you can watch The Front Page if you like Menjou, or if you’re an Oscar completist, but otherwise, just go find His Girl Friday and watch a real film classic.

An adventure that can be skipped: Trader Horn (1931)

Trader Horn

  • Director:  W. S. Van Dyke
  • Writer:  Richard Schayer  (from the book by Ethelreda Lewis)
  • Producer:  Irving G. Thalberg
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Harry Carey, Edwina Booth
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  122 min
  • Genre:  Adventure
  • Release Date:  23 May 1931
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #66 (year)  /  #470  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Score

The Film:  I couldn’t remember anything about this film before I watched it again.  For some reason I thought it had Ronald Colman (I was thinking of Bulldog Drummond) and I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was about nor when I actually saw it.  Then I watched it again and I suddenly found myself remembering why I had forgotten it.  Because it’s a film made to be forgotten these days.  It’s one of those old adventure films they used to make in the early days of film about that mysterious continent of Africa and the things you could find there.  It took nearly a year to make and surprised audiences at what they could see.

Of course, today, no one cares.  In terms of an adventure story, it’s unbelievably dull, without a trace of the real adventure you could find in Tarzan or Red Dust.  In terms of film, it’s not edited well, obviously combining stock footage with shots filmed elsewhere, is badly directed and has pretty much no acting to speak of.  In terms of a triptych to Africa, it is dated very badly, because of course these are hunters, and people, for the most part, have a much different view about such trips these days.

So what can we make of it these days?  Well, it’s a Best Picture nominee and so it lives in that small form.  It’s still not available on DVD because it’s not any good and because it has views that look so antiquated.  Yet, to Academy voters, it must have seemed a better film than City Lights, an idea which must have already seemed out of place by the year’s end when City Lights was named one of the Top 10 by the National Board of Review, whereas Trader Horn, like Skippy and East Lynne, was not.

The kid might cry, but you’ll want to scream if you watch Skippy (1931)

Skippy

  • Director:  Norman Taurog
  • Writer:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz  /  Sam Mintz  /  Norman Z. McLeod  (from the novel by Percy Crosby)
  • Producer:  Louis D. Lighton
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Jackie Cooper, Robert Coogan, Willard Robertson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adaptation, Actor (Cooper)
  • Length:  85 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  25 April 1931
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #68 (year)  /  #474 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Skippy was one of the final Best Picture nominees for me to finally see – catching it by luck on a cable station last summer, only to have it come to Netflix Instant recently.  That gave me a chance to see it again and it didn’t improve at all on a second viewing.  Skippy isn’t a bad film, but it is far from a good one.  Norman Taurog, the uncle of child star Jackie Cooper, fell into the same trap that King Vidor would fall into the next year, making far too much use of close ups of poor overacting Cooper.  It’s stunning to look back, after finally getting a crop of truly talented young performers like Anna Paquin and Natalie Portman, to see what child acting was like in the early days of sound film.  Reportedly, Taurog made Cooper think that his dog had been shot to get the tears flowing for his big scene, but they were so unnecessary.  This film is based on the cartoon strip of the loveable little scamp who pals around in the dirty side of town, adopting a dog, losing his bike, while constantly upsetting his father, only to have his father come through for him at the end of the film.  But everything about the film feels false, especially the stark differences between his genteel father and the darker side of town during the early days of the Depression.  I couldn’t believe in the characters and I couldn’t stand either Cooper’s performance as Skippy or the character of Skippy himself, and thus I was lost on this film from the start.  As it was so hard to find for so many years, I’m betting that I’m not the only one who doesn’t think much of it.

The nearly forgotten and almost impossible to find nominee East Lynne (1931)

East Lynne

  • Director:  Frank Lloyd
  • Writer:  Tom Barry  /  Bradley King  (from the novel by Mrs. Henry Wood)
  • Producer:  Winfield Sheehan
  • Studio:  Fox
  • Stars:  Ann Harding, Clive Brook, Conrad Nagel
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  102 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  1 March 1931
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #71  (year)  /  #484  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  N/A

The Film:  This is one of the three films I still have not seen, because the only existing versions of it are at the UCLA Archives.  It’s hard to know what got it nominated.  The great silent film lover Arne Andersen says that it is hardly worth it, though Ann Harding deserved a nomination (she got one, but for Holiday instead).  Inside Oscar describes it as an expensive adaptation that “was very popular, but still couldn’t pull the struggling Fox out of the red.”  The only review available, the one from New York World quoted in Inside Oscar certainly doesn’t it make sound like a potential nominee.  It’s been so little seen that there isn’t a single external review available on the IMDb, though somehow 34 voters have combined to give it a rating of 7.6.  It’s a mystery how this got nominated over the big gangster films like Little Caesar or The Public Enemy or MGM’s big A Free Soul, which scored Director, Actor and Actress noms.

Well, that was where things were with this film in April of 2010, when this post originally went up.  Things have changed just a little.  There are now 50 votes on the IMDb (one of which is mine).  And there are now 3 external reviews on the IMDb (with this soon to be the fourth).  So, in the last three years at least some people have been making their way over to UCLA to watch the film, including me, even though, according to Google Maps, it’s precisely 3000 miles from my house to the Powell Library where I watched it.  But, and be warned, there are SPOILERS AHEAD that I mention to help justify this opinion, unless you are an Oscar completist like me, don’t waste the time.  Oh, definitely get to UCLA and watch things if you get the chance because their Film archive is unmatched in the universe we now inhabit, but don’t bother with East Lynne.  It’s melodramatic rubbish.

Here are some of the notes I copied down while watching the film: “Dir. Frank Lloyd, stodgy, directed like a play when it comes to dialogue, moving between different characters with no sense of direction or style.”  “Another play about the idle British rich – it is so different than Holiday, also starring Harding?”  “There’s a sister of the groom, clearly not thrilled.  ‘We are simple people.  We live plainly.’ she says, clearly not thrilled with her new sister-in-law.  Are you fucking kidding me?  She’s living in a house roughly the size of Tara in GWTW.”  “Camera admires Harding as if she were Garbo, Shearer, Bow or Brooks, but she lacks the looks of the latter and the talent (and looks) of the former.”

But let me get to the actual story here, and I’ll start with something that occurred to me part-way through the film.  Think of Anna Karenina.  Think of how Anna falls so overwhelmingly for Vronsky and risks everything.  It becomes clear to everyone that with society being what it is, and the law being what it is, that her actions will cost her the only thing that matters in her life aside from Vronsky – her son.  Now I bring you back to East Lynne.  East Lynne begins with the marriage of Robert Carlyle, an up and coming solicitor and soon to be member of Parliament and Isabella, who is a bit of a social butterfly.  The film begins with her marriage and many are in disbelief – they don’t know why she would marry him and especially confused is Captain Levison, who clearly desires Isabella.  But, once they disembark from London to East Lynne, to that enormous country estate where Robert grew up and Isabella is surrounded by her nasty sister-in-law and next door to the woman that said in-law thinks her younger brother should have married, we get the opposite view – no one knows why he married her.  And quickly time passes (much of it on the main staircase in the house, where Lloyd seems to want to stage every action, though often it’s a character standing next to the staircase waiting for someone to walk up to them – the direction is so bad I just have to stop and mention it).  We’re a few years on now, Isabella has basically been made friendless other than her young son, Robert is stern and cold (when he comes home to find Isabella playing on the grounds with their son he reproaches her for not looking presentable).  Then we get the return of Levison into their lives (okay, another digression here – Levison, a British character and member of the British Foreign Office, is played by Clive Brook, a British actor, with some sort of bizarre accent that basically sounds either French or German and makes the later events really confusing – but then, other than Harding, who is mostly okay, the acting in the film is really quite awful).  Levison still clearly wants Isabella and when Robert has to return to London, he is to escort Isabella and Cornelia (the in-law) to a local ball.  Long story short, Cornelia won’t go, the other two go anyway and upon returning, Levison kisses Isabella.  That’s it.  Isabella sends him away, because she is happy with her husband and she loves her son and as little as Robert and Cornelia do to make her life happy, she is happy.  But when Robert returns, Cornelia gives an altered version and Robert basically throws Isabella out and prevents her from taking their son, who Robert could really care less about and is the focus of Isabella’s entire life (I have another note here: “actor who plays Robert is just awful”).  And all of this is telegraphed so badly that a ten year old could figure out what is going to happen, but apparently Isabella lacks the insight of a ten year old.

And this brings us back to Anna Karenina.  Imagine Anna’s situation, but without the adultery.  So instead of the tragedy of Anna giving up one of her two most treasured things in life (her son) for the other (Vronsky), we get the stupidity of Isabella being sent away on a lie.  She flees to the continent where she decides to have an affair with Levison and at least do what she was accused of.  And at this point there is still almost half the film left.

Some of the things which are going to happen at this point are also pretty obvious (the two will start sniping at each other and Levison’s desire will cool dramatically).  Others can not be (Levison is accused of aiding France in their efforts against Prussia and they are forced to move to Paris, which at least puts the date stamp of 1870 on the actions, which is an odd choice, seeing as how the original novel was published in 1861.  Isabella wants to return and see her child, but is denied.  While waiting for an answer, Paris is besieged and when she tries to escape Paris and Levison tries to stop her (we have now gone off the rails of melodrama and are headed towards farce), a cafe is blown up next to them.  Levison is killed and Isabella is informed that her sight is going and will soon be gone permanently.

So, of course, we know what will happen now.  Isabella will return to her son and see him before she goes blind.  She is helped in this by her son’s faithful nurse (another digression – the original novel is very different – there are multiple children, Isabella actually does commit adultery before leaving and she has an illegitimate child with Levison), slipping into the house to see her now sick son (who has a new mother, which makes the film longer that it needs to be and is completely unnecessary as it has no effect on later actions).  Of course, she will sit up with him and go blind in the night and then will be discovered by Robert.  Now, Ann Harding is a decent actress and she does an okay job with a mostly thankless role.  But there is nothing that can be done at this point.  After confronting her husband (while blind), she walks away.  The nurse is fired, and now free to speak, reveals that Isabella did no wrong and so the husband chases her.  But, it would seem that East Lynne has a cliff on the estate and even farce is no longer an accurate word when Isabella, pursued by Robert, with overly dramatic music in the background that can only mean one thing, wanders off the cliff and falls to her death.  And then the film ends with Robert carrying her body back into the house.

So, there we are.  That’s the film you can only see at UCLA.  A Best Picture nominee.  It doesn’t have the famous “Gone!  And never called me mother!” because her child doesn’t die.  It’s very badly directed, is, for the most part, badly acted.  And it has an ending that goes past laughable and is just utterly pathetic.

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