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The Oscar Project: Round Two

Former Scarecrow employee and friend-of-the-store Alex Williams has recently undertaken a most ambitious project: He 's going through the Academy Awards lists year by year and watching all the films nominated for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay/Story, Cinematography, and every acting award, along with Best Documentary Feature and Foreign Language film. The first installment chronicled his journey through the films of 1953. In Part Two, Alex takes on the Oscar-nominated film of 1936. We're reposting it here with his kind permission from his blog The Homoerratic Radio Show:
For round two of The Oscar Project I picked the year 1936. I was looking forward to making my way through this particular list of Oscar nominees, since I hadn't seen a whole lot of films from the 1930s—compared to later decades, anyway. The year 1936 was a good one for William Powell. Not only was he nominated for Best Actor for MY MAN GODFREY, but he starred in four of the twenty Oscar-nominated films of the year, including Best Picture winner, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. An entertaining three-hour musical biopic about Florenz Ziegfeld, a showbiz dynamo who glorified the all-American girl on the stages of NYC in his elaborate Follies, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD was also nominated for Best Director (Robert Z. Leonard), Best Actress (winner Luise Rainer—she's luminous!), and Best Original Story. I first watched this lavish production nearly two years ago, during my own personal Luise Rainer craze, but this time I was also impressed by Virginia Bruce's portrayal of Audrey Dane, a Ziegfeld showgirl who can't stay sober long enough for Florenz to make her a star. 1936 was the first year to include a category for Best Supporting Actress, and it's a shame Virginia Bruce wasn't listed among those nominees. In any case, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD is filled with extravagant sets, musical numbers, and terrific stars of the era like Myrna Loy, Frank "The Wiz" Morgan, Reginald Owen, Fanny Brice, and Ray Bolger—who's best known for playing the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
The other 1936 nominees I'd previously seen are MY MAN GODFREY, THESE THREE, DODSWORTH, and THE GORGEOUS HUSSY. A well-known and much-loved screwball classic, it's hard to imagine how MY MAN GODFREY didn't turn up amongst the year's ten Best Picture nominees. The film was nominated in nearly every other category—Best Director (Gregory La Cava), Best Actor (William Powell), Best Actress (Carole Lombard), Best Supporting Actor (Mischa Auer), Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady), and Best Screenplay (Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind). William Wyler's THESE THREE, a smart and intense drama based on a 1934 Lillian Hellman play, features an Oscar-nominated turn by the young Bonita Granville as a deliciously-fun-to-hate, whiny little snot whose vicious lies destroy the reputations of her schoolteachers, played by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins. Fortunately, Granville eventually reformed and went on to play a key role in solving several high-profile mysteries a few years later. Director William Wyler re-made THESE THREE in 1961, when he was allowed to include the play's lesbian themes that had been too shocking for film audiences of the 1930s. The later film version stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as the teachers, it also has THESE THREE star Miriam Hopkins in the cast, and it uses the original title of Hellman's play, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Walter Huston), Best Supporting Actress (Maria Ouspenskaya—in a cameo, really), and Best Screenplay (Sidney Howard), DODSWORTH is one of my all-time favorite films. Based on Sinclair Lewis' novel, the film is a moving, witty, and timeless drama about love, marriage, snobbery, and the universal search for everlasting happiness. DODSWORTH features a terrific performance by Huston as retired auto manufacturer Sam Dodsworth, Ruth Chatterton is excellent as his spoiled, social-climbing wife, and the film also includes nice bits from actors David Niven, Paul Lukas, Spring Byington, and Harlan Briggs—but it's Mary Astor as the kind, observant, patient, and lonely ex-pat Mrs. Edith Cortright who really makes the film for me. As she and Sam Dodsworth gradually get to know each other and begin to realize how much they have in common, they both light up like street lamps.
There are only two relative stinkers in the list of Oscar-nominated films of 1936. THE GORGEOUS HUSSY is a bland, overdressed historical costume drama-comedy-romance in which a 32-year-old Joan Crawford is supposedly an early-19th century love-struck lassie just out of pigtails—she's also an innkeeper's daughter who happens to be pals with Andrew Jackson (!). There's really not much to recommend the film. Cinematographer George J. Folsey likely seduced Academy president Frank Capra to get his name included amongst the year's nominees, since there's nothing in the film's camerawork that warrants special mention. True, Best Supporting Actress nominee Beulah Bondi is fun to watch as the backwater, cigar-smoking wife of Andrew Jackson, but she dies halfway through the film. The only other real disappointment was Best Picture nominee THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR—a heavy-handed biopic about the famous doctor who discovered that germs were the cause of deadly infections that were killing scores of people in the unsanitary hospitals of Europe. I don't really mind that Paul Muni took home the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Pasteur (I like Muni, and he's good here), but I'm mystified as to how THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR managed to elbow its way past superior fellow-nominees DODSWORTH, MY MAN GODFREY, AFTER THE THIN MAN, and MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN to waltz away with the award for Best Screenplay of the year. The Pasteur film is filled with annoying, obvious dialogue tailored to encourage audiences of the '30s to repeatedly wink knowingly at one another and pat themselves smugly on the back for being smarter than doctors who were practicing medicine in the year 1860.
There were lots of good films made in 1936 just waiting for me to discover them—and five great ones too, but I'll get to those later. Although not really on par with most of its fellow Best Picture nominees, THREE SMART GIRLS is a light and funny comedy about a trio of bright and resourceful sisters living in Switzerland who sail to New York to thwart their estranged father's plan to marry a brassy gold-digger. This is the film that first introduced singer/actress Deanna Derbin to the world, and she's given several delightfully shrill, gloriously earnest musical numbers to perform with the camera situated about three inches away from her face. PIGSKIN PARADE is a similarly lively, wacky, and enjoyable comic romp—this one about college football! The film is filled with zany musical bits by the likes of The Yacht Club Boys and Robert McClung. Just like THREE SMART GIRLS, PIGSKIN PARADE also introduced moviegoers to a promising new young singer—Judy Garland! She plays the country bumpkin younger sister to Best Supporting Actor nominee Stuart Erwin's incidental football hero—he's discovered while throwing perfectly-football-shaped melons across a large melon field and into a gunnysack held open by Garland. Jack Haley (best known as the Tin Man) plays the small-town football coach who's trying to wrangle together a winning team, and Patsy Kelly plays his sports-savvy, put-upon wife. The second she appeared onscreen, I immediately recognized Kelly as one of my childhood favorite NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS; she's somehow changed very little in looks, voice, and manner between 1936 and 1979. Patsy Kelly also appeared as an elderly Satan-worshiper in ROSEMARY'S BABY in 1968. There's something admirable and exciting about an actress who's career spans all the way from PIGSKIN PARADE to Polanski.
Irene Dunne is great as small-town-girl-turned-saucy-romance-novelist in THEODORA GOES WILD, a hilarious, forward-thinking romantic comedy that cleverly examines the hypocrisy of small-minded American towns. The film co-stars Melvyn Douglas as Theodora's love interest and features a really cute, floppy-haired blond newspaper boy/assistant who repeatedly exclaims, "Yes-siree! Hot-diggety!" The snappy mystery-comedy AFTER THE THIN MAN lives up to the series' reputation as top-flight entertainment of the 1930s, and also features an interesting supporting performance by Jimmy Stewart. In fact, I enjoyed this film even more than THE THIN MAN, which has me thinking I should probably give that first film in the series another look. If you can imagine something like ROMANCING THE STONE being set in China in the mid-1930s, you'd have a pretty good idea what you'd be in for when you watch the bizarre-yet-enjoyable adventure-romance romp THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The film stars Gary Cooper, Madeline Carroll—and Akim Tamiroff plays the Chinese General Wu (!). Cooper fares better in the Frank Capra comedy MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, a socially aware comedy about a small-town yokel who gets a large inheritance, then travels to the big city where he's immediately pounced upon by money-grabbing wheelers-and-dealers. Jean Arthur is super (as always) as the newspaper reporter who goes after the inside scoop on Mr. Deeds and eventually ends up falling for him, and Lionel Stander makes a strong impression as a big city thug who becomes one of Mr. Deeds' only true friends.
I've been a Gale Sondergaard fan since I first saw her in THE LETTER back in 1987, so I was excited to finally watch her Oscar-winning performance in ANTHONY ADVERSE—but to be honest, I thought she was a little stiff. The film, however, is operatic corn popped on a grand scale—with secret affairs, sword fights, lovers' secret rendezvous on a bridge, fainting spells, children born out of wedlock...and that's just in the first fifteen minutes. COME AND GET IT, directed by Howard Hawks (he started the film) and William Wyler (he finished it), with thrilling logging sequences directed by Richard Rosson, priovided my first chance to see lovely Seattle native Frances Farmer in a film—and I thought she was wonderful. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, this 19th century logging saga features Walter Brennan as a kindly Swede who's saddled with the annoying habit of hollering, "Yumpin' Yiminee!" again and again...yet the role earned him the year's Best Supporting Actor award.
Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold in COME AND GET IT
The first of my five favorite film discoveries of 1936 is SAN FRANCISCO, starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jeannette MacDonald (she's not too annoying!). Gable plays the owner of a Barbary Coast bar in pre-earthquake San Francisco—MacDonald as his singing discovery and the romantic sparks really start to fly via a fast and witty script—but just before the film ends, everything turns to shit in a spectacular and breathtaking show created by some of the top special effects teams of 1936 — impressive! The SAN FRANCISCO DVD also features an interesting TNT bio on Clark Gable and a short documentary about San Francisco's Treasure Island-City of Lights, a breathtaking shoreline attraction that was demolished in September of 1940.
THIN MAN stars William Powell and Myrna Loy team up with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow in LIBELED LADY, which might just be the best screwball comedy I've ever seen. I'd never watched a Jean Harlow movie before—she's terrific! I was surprised I enjoyed George Cukor's ROMEO AND JULIET as much as I did. The sets and cinematography are gorgeous—and Norma Shearer, as Juliet, clears up any mystery as to why she's considered one of the best actresses of the decade. John Barrymore is fascinating as the erratic Mercutio, but it was Basil Rathbone and his approximately four lines of dialog that somehow took the Best Supporting Actor nomination for the film. I'm pretty sure Rathbone's incredibly sexy nose had something to do with it. Edna May Oliver gives a spunky performance as Juliet's nurse, a role not too distant from the one she played in another 1936 Best Picture nominee, A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Produced by David O. "Gone With the Wind" Selznick, A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a huge, thrilling, epic adaptation of the Dickens novel—featuring the dashing heroics of Ronald Colman, a stunning performance by stage star Blanche Yurka as Madame Defarge, and exciting scenes of the French Revolution staged by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur (they staged the scenes, not the revolution). My favorite of all the 1936 Oscar nominees I was watching for the first time was the relatively small film FURY, directed by Fritz Lang and nominated for Best Original Story. Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney play lovers whose lives are forever changed by a series of unfortunate coincidences related to a local small-town robbery and kidnapping. FURY offers a bleak view of humanity that seems decades ahead of its time, illuminating how social standards like truth, reason, law, due process, and human decency all go flying out the window when a society eagerly whips itself into a fit of mad hysteria fueled by gossip, fear, sensationalism, and mob rule. It's a brilliant, dark little film that brings some of the worst aspects of American culture and politics of the past decade to mind.
As always, thanks to Scarecrow Video for making all these 1936 films available to rent on DVD or VHS. Unfortunately, there's one film from the 1936 Oscar list that I didn't get to see, since it's never been released on video or DVD—VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE, for which Gladys George was nominated for Best Actress. Here are the Oscar-nominated films of 1936, with the winners listed in red: Best Picture: Anthony Adverse Dodsworth The Great Ziegfeld Libeled Lady Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Romeo and Juliet San Francisco The Story of Louis Pasteur A Tale of Two Cities Three Smart Girls Best Director: Frank Capra for MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN Gregory La Cava for MY MAN GODFREY Robert Z. Leonard for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD William Wyler for DODSWORTH Best Actor: Gary Cooper in MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN Walter Huston in DODSWORTH Paul Muni in THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR William Powell in MY MAN GODFREY Spencer Tracy in SAN FRANCISCO Best Actress: Irene Dunne in THEODORA GOES WILD Gladys George in VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE Carole Lombard in MY MAN GODFREY Luise Rainer in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD Norma Shearer in ROMEO AND JULIET Best Supporting Actor: Mischa Auer in MY MAN GODFREY Walter Brennan in COME AND GET IT Stuart Erwin in PIGSKIN PARADE Basil Rathbone in ROMEO AND JULIET AKIM TAMIROFF in THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN Best Supporting Actress: Beulah Bondi in THE GORGEOUS HUSSY Alice Brady in MY MAN GODFREY Bonita Granville in THESE THREE Maria Ouyspenskaya in DODSWORTH Gale Sondergaard in ANTHONY ADVERSE Best Original Story: Pierre Collings, Sheridan Gibney for THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR Adele Comandini for THREE SMART GIRLS Robert E. Hopkins for SAN FRANCISCO Norman Krasna for FURY William Anthony McGuire for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD Best Screenplay: Pierre Collings, Sheridan Gibney for THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett for AFTER THE THIN MAN Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind for MY MAN GODFREY Sidney Howard for DODSWORTH Robert Riskin for MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN Best Cinematography: George J. Folsey for THE GORGEOUS HUSSY Tony Gaudio for ANTHONY ADVERSE Victor Milner for THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN