Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Oscar Project: 1935

It's been over six years since I posted my first two installments of The Oscar Project, for 1953 and 1936. I actually watched all the nominated films of 1978 in preparation for round #3 back in 2011, but I procrastinated so long in writing about them, I finally couldn't remember enough detail about the films to adequately review them here. I'll re-visit 1978 later on. In the meantime, I've come up with a rundown for the films nominated by the Academy as the best of 1935. 

The idea behind The Oscar Project is to evaluate the year's most popular films, while discovering new treasures along the way—especially among forgotten films that might not have generated tons of revenue in their day, but that the Academy showed love to anyhow by nominating them for minor awards—a tradition that continues today, with low-profile gems like THE LOBSTER and 20TH CENTURY WOMEN getting nods—but no statues—for Best Original Screenplay of 2016.

I selected 1935 for this edition pretty much by accident. A few months ago I rented THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, a 1936 Gary Cooper film that's only available in a DVD set with a few of his other films from the 1930s. (According to my 1936 edition of The Oscar Project, I'd already watched THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN back in 2010, but somehow at no point did I recall ever having seen it before as I watched it a second time. I must be getting old.) Figuring I might as well watch one or two of the other films in the set while I had it, I put on THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER one evening when I had nothing else to do. I figured it would probably be a culturally offensive bore, but it was absolutely terrific! 

Not only does this fun buddy-adventure movie about British cavalrymen defending India's Northwest Frontier have snappy dialogue and exotic locales (courtesy of Southern California and the Paramount back lot, I'm sure) but there's a sweet, strange and exciting current of homoeroticism running through the story too. It's especially apparent in the bathroom scene, when the older and more experienced (and shirtless) Lieutenant McGregor (Cooper) is shaving while expressing concern to the naive young recruit, Lieutenant Stone (Richard Cromwell), that his young, tender spirit will be broken by going to war. The conversation takes place as Stone washes himself in the bathtub next to McGregor, and then the scene concludes with McGregor playfully splattering the naked young man's handsome face with a gob of white shaving cream.

THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was up for Best Picture of 1935, as well as Best Director (Henry Hathaway), Screenplay (by Achmed Abdullah, John L. Balderston, Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, and Waldemar Young—one of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young's many grandsons!), and a few other awards. I realized I'd really been missing out on some dynamite oldies, so I figured I'd watch all the other nominated films of 1935 and get this Oscar Project thing back off the ground.

Several of the year's nominees are ones I had seen before (and actually even remembered), including Best Picture winner MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The film tells the true story of a crew's mutiny against their sadistic captain (Captain Bligh, played with chilling excellence by Charles Laughton) aboard the HMS Bounty as the ship makes its two-year voyage from Portsmouth, England to Tahiti in 1787. The film is sensational and spectacularly good, standing head and shoulders above most of its fellow Best Picture nominees. The magnificence of what you see on the screen and the caliber of the performances make this a well-deserved winner in this category. Inexplicably, the film only earned that one Academy Award. 

The trio of riveting lead performances by Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone earned Best Actor nominations for each of them, setting the record for the most nominations in this category for a single film. Unfortunately, splitting the MUTINY vote three ways likely disadvantaged all three stars, and the award ended up in the relatively undeserving hands of Victor McLaglen for THE INFORMER instead. (The only other competition in the Best Actor field was write-in candidate Paul Muni in BLACK FURY, a film about coal miners organizing a strike in Pennsylvania. This was light years before anyone really cared about perfect accents, and in BLACK FURY Paul Muni often sounds like Dracula.)

THE INFORMER, helmed by Best Director winner John Ford, isn't a very good movie, though it was up for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay (by Dudley Nichols), winning in three of those categories. The film takes place on the foggy urban streets of Dublin over the course of a single night (moody and menacing, the film's gorgeous cinematography by Joseph H. August is the one Oscar-worthy thing the Academy managed to ignore). The Irish War of Independence is raging, and an alcoholic dunce named Gypo (McLaglen), who's been kicked out of the IRA for not having any guts, suddenly decides to turn against Frankie, his friend and former IRA colleague who's in hiding, so he can earn the £20 bounty Frankie's got on his head. The money will allow Gypo to buy two £10 tickets so that he and his street-walker girlfriend can sail to America for a new start. 

Again, each ticket to America costs £10, as we repeatedly see on an advertising sign through a store window. Gypo would like to buy two of them. That equals £20, which, as the REWARD poster reminds us over and over again in special-effect double-exposure fade-ins, is the exact same amount as the reward that's offered for informing on Frankie. The fact that Gypo needs the £20 to buy two £10 tickets is drilled home so thoroughly, my forehead actually began to bleed. Anyway, Gypo does get the money and then makes a series of ridiculously stupid decisions that get him going nowhere fast. But Victor McLaglen gets to play drunk throughout most of the film, and, as Bette Davis can tell you, playing drunk in 1935 leads directly to Oscar Gold.

Davis was somehow denied a 1934 nomination for her game-changing performance in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, but she patched things up with the Academy in 1935 by taking home the Best Actress statuette for DANGEROUS. As Joyce Heath, a famous stage actress who's burned all her bridges and landed on the skids, Bette puts her pedal to the metal with a series of tantrums that are very modern indeed. Did I mention that Joyce Heath likes to drink? Sadly, Joyce's vinegar turns to sugar water in the final reel, and DANGEROUS ends like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, with the lobotomy performed by Joseph Breen

In the British film ESCAPE ME NEVER, Gemma Jones is yet another willful and exciting character who's lobotomized by her screenplay in the final act. As played by the luminous Elisabeth Bergner (a new discovery for me—she's a European stage actress of Austro-Hungarian descent up for Best Actress of 1935, but largely forgotten today), Gemma is initially full of independence, playfulness, mischief and love of life. As the story presents its four-character love triangle (a love square?) one of the gentlemen tells Gemma he would like to marry her to feel safer, because he's afraid of losing her to the other guy. She answers in her delightfully lilting Austro-Hungarian accent, "Safer? Why? I wouldn't stay one minute longer than I wanted to because of being married." It's a startlingly refreshing line to hear delivered by a woman on the screen in 1935, and so European!

But she does end up marrying the guy and he's a total dick. Gemma is driven to madness by his selfishness and deceit, but the film ends on a supposedly "upbeat" note, with Gemma hugging her abusive husband and assuring him in her throaty, Austro-Hungarian way, "I don't want a better man." The music swells. It's only then that we realize ESCAPE ME NEVER is actually the perfect title for a horror movie.

 [ Elisabeth Bergner with her dud husband in ESCAPE ME NEVER ]

The Bergner film is one of the two Oscar nominees from 1935 that has never been released on DVD or video. The other is THE SCOUNDREL, starring Noel Coward, which won the Oscar for Best Original Story. Unfortunately, the Coward film isn't available for viewing online without signing up on some fishy-looking websites. But thanks to a British bloke named Calum Reed, a blurry version of ESCAPE ME NEVER can be viewed via nine YouTube segments, starting right here.

The other nominees for Best Actress of 1935 are Merle Oberon for THE DARK ANGEL, a cornball wartime love triangle that's just about as exciting as this poster... 

...Miriam Hopkins in BECKY SHARP, an early Technicolor headache-inducer in which every line of dialogue is shouted at top volume; Claudette Colbert in PRIVATE WORLDS as a woman who's shattering glass ceilings in a rare and interesting examination of life and work as a female doctor in a mental hospital circa 1935 (yes, she falls in love...but it's with Charles Boyer, so she is forgiven. Joan Bennett also adds some terrific support in this film); and Katharine Hepburn in ALICE ADAMS.

I had recorded a generally favorable impression of ALICE ADAMS when I first watched it a few years ago, but I think I may know what went wrong. I had been dating a fellow at the time who wasn't really fond of classic movies, so I'd rented this Oscar-nominated Katharine Hepburn film figuring it would be a sure-fire way to win him over. I was eager for him to like it, and I was eager to enjoy it too. We tried hard, and we succeeded. But now the fellow has long since gone and I'm contentedly alone, giving the film another look. Holy lobotomies. Almost everyone involved in ALICE ADAMS seems to have gone under the knife, and Ms. Hepburn ought to have her head examined too for getting mixed up with this horrible band of hooligans. 

Though it probably seems even more absurd now, with her entire 70-year career in hindsight, it's still hard to imagine that audiences of the '30s could have believed that Katharine Hepburn—this gorgeous, angular, amazing, and strong-willed 28-year-old woman—would ever be caught sobbing by a rainy upstairs window because she didn't fit in with the popular rich girls in her small, nowhere American town. It just looks wrong. Though she's working awfully hard to try to convince us otherwise, you can still clearly tell that Alice, via Hepburn, really just wants to bulldoze over every one of those wimpy skimmed milk-maidens if they even so much as look at her sideways. Then she'd just pack up and head out of town, leaving the morons behind. 

Hepburn is horribly miscast here—she seems twice as tall as everyone else, and I don't mean just physically. Yet the film's "happy ending" puts her in the arms of a wealthy beau (a dull and not-very-attractive Fred MacMurray, who rescues Alice from the living hell of having to actually work for a living by asking her out just as she's about to step through the employment office door—thank GOD!) He never once shows a shred of personality or anything else that would otherwise indicate he and Alice might be a perfect match for life. He's got money, and she needs it—true love!

[ Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray in ALICE ADAMS ]

There's also the character of Alice's n'er-do-well brother, Walter, to consider, played by Frank Albertson. Walter at first seems like a forward-thinking social pioneer as he loudly acknowledges his acquaintance with the African-American bandleader and servants who are working the hioty-toity party hosted by the town's wealthy elites. He seems like someone who could teach Alice a thing or two about society, about what it means to be kind and to earn the genuine friendship of others based on things besides class, wealth, and privilege. But no. A closer look reveals that audiences are actually supposed to identify with Alice's humiliation and shame when her brother is openly chummy with the hard-working 'colored folk' right in front of the powerful white people she's hoping to impress. Alice, and thus the audience, learns no lesson here. And then Walter ends up being a gambler, a thief and a cheat. But I guess that's just what happens when you hang out with black people.

There are so many things wrong with this movie—and it was up for Best Picture of the year! I admit I'd probably enjoy watching Hepburn even if she showed up in the cast of 50 SHADES OF GREY, so I guess there's that. And Hattie McDaniel is on hand to work her usual magic, but she's stuck in yet another housekeeping role that sinks her deeper into the muck of old Hollywood stereotypes. I was just hoping Alice was finally gonna' kick some snobby white ass in the film's final reel. She seems like she wants to, and we all know that she could. But instead she just melts into bland, wealthy white arms like a pad of eager butter. The end.

[ Hattie McDaniel and Fred Stone in ALICE ADAMS ]

Other 1935 duds include Best Picture nominees RUGGLES OF RED GAP, a dated comedy of manners starring Charles Laughton (again) as a stuffy, put-upon English butler transported to the rugged wilds of the US Pacific Northwest, and NAUGHTY MARIETTA, featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It's another one of their costumed musical romances where the vocal vibrato is so forceful and shrill you can't actually understand anything they're saying. All I know is when I fell asleep, Jeanette MacDonald was rebuffing the advances of Nelson Eddy, but when I woke up a little later they were making out and singing cheek to cheek. I wasn't surprised.

Best Original Story nominee THE GAY DECEPTION is supposedly a romantic comedy involving a European prince posing as a hotel bellboy, but it's neither very comical nor romantic. And it certainly makes no effort to live up to its titillating title. There's not much to recommend Cecil B. DeMille's THE CRUSADES either, unless you enjoy watching men parading around in suits of armor, repeatedly offending each other and then threatening war. Loretta Young is ravishing though, and you have to admit that Ian Keith as Saladin is about a million times sexier than Henry Wilcoxon as King Richard I, though I think we're probably supposed to feel the other way around.

TOP HAT was Fred and Ginger's #1 money-maker as a team, and they landed a Best Picture nomination to boot. The plot is basically an episode of "Three's Company" stretched out like pink taffy candy (anyone else notice that geeky young Fred Astaire could easily grow up to become geeky old Mr. Furley?), with delightfully comic turns by Erik Rhodes and Helen Broderick in supporting roles. Oh, and there may have been some bits of dynamite dancing in the film too somewhere along the way. 

DAVID COPPERFIELD is a star-stuffed Dicksensonian period piece that didn't quite put me to sleep, though toward the end it certainly began to try, and BARBARY COAST shows that Miriam Hopkins actually did deserve her 1935 Best Actress nomination, though the Academy assigned it to the wrong film. Directed by Howard Hawks and set in the midst of the 1849 California gold rush, the dialog sparkles and snaps between the gold-digging Hopkins and her saloon-keeper husband, played by Edward G. Robinson, who she's married to just for his money. 

Hollywood's stark and serene 1935 version of LES MISÉRABLES stars Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton (he had a very busy year) as Inspector Javert. The plot is well-worn, but both actors are excellent, as is the moody Oscar-nominated cinematography by Gregg Toland. And although this was not my first viewing of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, I was even more captivated by its strangeness and beauty the second time around.

If THE INFORMER went to town and back with its new 'double-exposure' technology, then A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM goes all the way to the mountains. The effect isn't used here to bludgeon, as in the John Ford film; instead it swaddles your head in clouds, sparkles and tinsel and then shows you the magic of the mystical forest where fairies and wood nymphs are a plain old everyday thing. 

Based on Shakespeare's famous play, the story follows three concurrent narratives, all of which collide in the magical woods just outside a castle's walls. Young lovers from the local palace plan a discreet rendezvous; a nitwit band of amateur actors arranges a rehearsal of their play before presenting it to royalty; the king and queen of the fairies are having an argument and begin fiddling with the mortals who stumble into their realm, making them fall in love with the wrong people and turning them into animals, that sort of thing. 

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM gave Olivia de Havilland one of her very fist roles (I love that she's still around to talk about her films; she'll be 101 this summer), alongside a stellar cast that includes James Cagney and Joe E. Brown, Anita Louise, Mickey Rooney, Dick Powell, Jean Muir, Ross Alexander, and Victor Jory. And speaking of James Cagney, he also starred, without the donkey head, in G-MEN, a tough, gritty crime thriller about the inner workings of the early days in the FBI. Added as a write-in candidate for Best Original Story, the film features a commanding lead performance with strong support from Ann Dvorak and Margaret Lindsay.

Two films from 1935 for which I had the lowest of expectations actually ended up being among my favorites. First, since I'm not much into pirate movies, I wasn't particularly keen on sitting myself through CAPTAIN BLOOD. And then, since it seems like there are too many movies from the '30s with titles like "Broadway Melody," or "Broadway Review" or "Broadway Follies" or whatever, I figured they were all pretty generic and interchangeable, and probably horribly dated too. I was not excited to watch BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936. But then...

According to one of the bonus features on the CAPTAIN BLOOD DVD, pirate movies had gone out of style by 1935. But with the modest success of TREASURE ISLAND the previous year, Warner Brothers was eager to assemble a swashbuckling adventure yarn of their own! They wanted to cast Wallace Beery, since he had been so effective as Long John Silver in the pirate movie revival of '34, but he was busy with other projects. The Brothers Warner considered a number of other popular actors who were available, but none seemed quite right for the role. Not every Hollywood heartthrob can swash buckles in a convincing way. 

Someone suggested they test a dashing young actor named Errol Flynn who had made a few small films in England with cringe-worthy titles like DON'T BET ON BLONDES and THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE. They tested him and he did well. They tested him again and he did well. They tested the hell out of him and he did well. This kid could swashbuckle! Finally it was decided that casting a virtual unknown as the romantic lead of their new adventure pirate movie was a gamble they were willing to take—a scary proposition in an era where a film's stars are what made the picture, both for the studio and for the public. Though nervous when filming began, Flynn showed a sure-footed magnetism and radiated heat right off the screen. A star was born! It was reportedly one of the most electrifying debuts in Hollywood history.

[ Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD ]

It was equally daring to select the relatively unknown Olivia de Havilland as Flynn's leading lady. She had also only made a few small films at this point; her larger role in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM hadn't yet been seen by audiences. Still, the studio decided to take a chance and added her name next to Flynn's on the poster for CAPTAIN BLOOD. De Havilland is, of course, magnificent. She brings a style and intelligence to her role that seems to catapult the "movie heroine" out of the 1930s and into the future of cinema. De Havilland and Flynn were immensely appealing together. Audiences loved them, and they went on to costar in a total of eight films. 

[ Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD ]

The Story of CAPTAIN BLOOD involves a gaggle of 17th century British prisoners who are carted off to slavery in the West Indies. Doctor Peter Blood is swept away with them since he offered his professional services to a patron who had been involved in a rebellion against the King of England. Blood is purchased by Olivia de Havilland in the West Indies (she's the niece of the local military commander) and that's where their entanglement begins. When a shipload of Spaniards attacks and invades the island, Blood and his comrades escape and take over the ship, thrusting themselves into lives of piracy. 

Fortunately for everyone, Captain Blood's pirates live by a code of ethics that coincidentally keeps them in line with the strict rules of conduct outlined by the Hollywood Motion Picture Code of 1935. For example, any of Captain Blood's crew will be left to die on a deserted island if they are found to have molested any woman captive "against her will." (But that means consensual sex is still okay!) 

Captain Blood and his band of gentlemen pirates are the terror of the high seas, plundering and pillaging and carrying on. Actors Guy Kibbee and Ross Alexander are particularly good, acting as pirates in a supporting role (sadly, Alexander's career was cut short when he committed suicide in January of 1937 at age 29). As the French pirate Captain Levasseur, Basil Rathbone is once again incredibly sexy indeed. The film earned nominations for Best Picture, Director (Michael Curtiz), Screenplay (Casey Robinson—another write-in not officially chosen by the Academy), Sound Recording and Musical Score. It didn't win in any of these categories.

With its lavish sets, witty dialogue, breezy music, incredible dance sequences, pop-up stage furniture and decorative pop-open flower buds—and just for a general, overall good time—BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 simply cannot be beat. There's even hillbilly sibling entertainers (Buddy and Vilma Ebsen) and a luggish, dim-witted gumshoe (Sid Silvers) who masquerades as an imaginary French diva...then remains in the elaborate disguise way, way longer than necessary. It's wonderful. 

 [ Nick Long, Jr., June Knight, and Robert Taylor in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 ]

The plot is par for the course. An up-and-coming Broadway producer (Robert Taylor) wants to stage his first big musical, but he's compelled to cast a demanding leading lady (June Knight—terrific on and off the dance floor) with a big pocketbook (she'd like to give him more than just her money) in order to be able to fund the show. Meanwhile, the producer's high school sweetheart (Eleanor Powell—no slouch on the dance floor herself) drops into town from Albany with no pocketbook whatsoever, but with plenty of stardust in her eyes. The down-to-earth gal from Albany connects with a number of eccentric characters (Una Merkel is especially good as the producer's put-upon secretary) who try to help her steal the show. Hilarity ensues. 

The thing I love most about this movie (aside from the show-stopping dance mania performed by Nick Long, Jr.—you can read everything you've ever wanted to know about this forgotten superstar here, thanks to Bob Atchison and his extensive research) is that the men are all basically boobs and the action is driven forward by women. It's a feminist musical from 1935!

Since the Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories weren't introduced until 1936, I've gone ahead and put together my own list of those nominees—with winners too—based on what I've seen over the past several months:

Best Supporting Actress:
Joan Bennett in PRIVATE WORLDS
Helen Broderick in TOP HAT
Margaret Lindsay in G-MEN 
Una Merkel in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936
Alison Skipworth in DANGEROUS

Best Supporting Actor:
Ross Alexander in CAPTAIN BLOOD
Walter Brennen in BARBARY COAST
Charles Laughton in LES MISÉRABLES
Erik Rhodes in TOP HAT

[ Joan Bennett and Claudette Colbert in PRIVATE WORLDS ]

Thanks again to the folks who've been churning out titles from the studio vaults, since I wouldn't have been able to watch several of these 1935 releases on DVD without them. Thanks also to Scarecrow Video, for having all of those vault releases available, along with everything else that's ever been released on VHS or DVD. 

And a big "up yours" to Redbox and other movie vending machine companies. You're helping to make people narrow and dumb. And by killing off all of the country's video stores, you've reduced millions of peoples' cinematic viewing options from thousands down to tens. And we all know that you'd NEVER stick anything from 1935 into one of your stupid vending machines.

Here are the Oscar-nominated films of 1935 for categories that actually did exist, with the winners listed in pink:  

Best Picture:
Alice Adams
Broadway Melody of 1936
Captain Blood
David Copperfield
The Informer
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Les Misérables
Mutiny on the Bounty
Naughty Marietta
Ruggles of Red Gap
Top Hat

Best Director:
John Ford for THE INFORMER
Michael Curtiz for CAPTAIN BLOOD (write-in nominee)

Best Actor:
Charles Laughton in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY
Victor McLaglen in THE INFORMER
Paul Muni in BLACK FURY (write-in nominee)

Best Actress:
Elisabeth Bergner in ESCAPE ME NEVER
Claudette Colbert in PRIVATE WORLDS
Bette Davis in DANGEROUS
Katharine Hepburn in ALICE ADAMS
Miriam Hopkins in BECKY SHARP
Merle Oberon in THE DARK ANGEL

Best Writing, Original Story:
Moss Hart for BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936
Don Hartman, Stephen Morehouse Avery for THE GAY DECEPTION
Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur for THE SCOUNDREL
Darryl F. Zanuck for G-MEN (write-in nominee)

Best Writing, Screenplay:
Achmed Abdullah, John L. Balderston, Grover Jones, William Slavens McNutt, Waldemar Young for THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER
Jules Furthman, Talbot Jennings, Carey Wilson for MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY
Dudley Nichols for THE INFORMER
Casey Robinson for CAPTAIN BLOOD (write-in nominee)

Best Cinematography:
Victor Milner for THE CRUSADES
Hal Mohr for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (write-in nominee; the first and only such nominee to win)
Gregg Toland for LES MISÉRABLES

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