February 22, 2010

0 My Oscar Picks, Part 1: 1934-1939

With the Academy Awards coming up soon, I thought it would be fun over the next weeks to compare past winners in the major categories with my own picks from among the nominees, from 1934, the first year awards were given for the calendar year, through 1955. I tended to divide the best picture and best director awards more often than the Academy for the simple reason that the nominations in these categories don't always coincide. (The entire Academy chooses the best picture nominees; only members of the directors' branch choose best director nominees.) With one exception (I'll explain why) I chose only from among the actual nominees, so there were times when my own favorite wasn't in the running, although this really didn't happen all that often. In truth, I haven't seen every single picture and performance that was nominated in every single year, but then I imagine the same applies to quite a few real voters. Here, then, are my picks preceded by the winners. I also included what I thought was the gravest oversight in the nominations for each year. (For the other nominees, click on the link to the Official Academy Awards Database in the sidebar and search by category and year.)

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and are not intended to be taken as objective judgments!


The Winner: It Happened One Night
My Pick: It Happened One Night

The Winner: Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
My Pick: Frank Capra, It Happened One Night

The Winner: Clark Gable, It Happened One Night
My Pick: William Powell, The Thin Man

The Winner: Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
My Pick: Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night

This year there were twelve nominees for best picture and three nominees in most other categories. Write-in votes were allowed on the final ballot, and Bette Davis, not nominated for her breakthrough performance in Of Human Bondage, was expected to win best actress as a write-in candidate. She actually came in 3rd (the Academy announced the order of the top three vote-getters in 1932/33, 1934, and 1935), after Norma Shearer for The Barretts of Wimpole Street. I'm a huge fan of Davis—she's my favorite movie actress of all time—and although this was an important performance in her career, it's not one of my favorites of hers, probably for the very reason it made such an impression at the time: she holds nothing back, even when she should. So I went with Colbert, who the same year also gave a fine performance in the Fannie Hurst soaper Imitation of Life and a sly, sexy performance in the Cecil B. DeMille epic Cleopatra. With only three nominations in all categories but best picture, the other choices were pretty easy. I differed from the Academy only in my choice for best actor—William Powell as Nick Charles in The Thin Man, who surprisingly came in 3rd after Frank Morgan for a supporting performance in The Affairs of Cellini. Biggest omission (besides Davis): Twentieth Century—for picture, director (Howard Hawks), actor (John Barrymore), or actress (Carole Lombard).


The Winner: Mutiny on the Bounty
My Pick: The Informer

The Winner: John Ford, The Informer
My Pick: John Ford, The Informer

The Winner: Victor McLaglen, The Informer
My Pick: Fredric March, Les Misérables

The Winner: Bette Davis, Dangerous
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, Alice Adams

There were twelve nominees again for best picture and five nominees in most other categories this year, although still only three for best director. Curiously, there were six nominations for best actress and four for best actor. Three of the latter were for Mutiny on the Bounty, a surefire vote-splitter that guaranteed McLaglen would win. Of the three nominees from Bounty, Charles Laughton got the most votes, coming in 3rd after write-in candidate Paul Muni for Black Fury. (Has anyone ever seen this?) Since this was the last year write-in votes were permitted, I exercised that prerogative and for best actor chose Fredric March as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Even Davis acknowledged that her win for best actress was a consolation prize for being overlooked the year before and that she had expected the Oscar to go to Hepburn, who came in 2nd. Although all four major awards had gone to a comedy the year before, this year the Academy initiated a trend of favoring heavy emoting over comedy, a trend that continues to this day. Biggest omission: George Cukor, best director for David Copperfield.


The Winner: The Great Ziegfeld
My Pick: Dodsworth

The Winner: Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
My Pick: William Wyler, Dodsworth

The Winner: Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur
My Pick: Walter Huston, Dodsworth

The Winner: Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld
My Pick: Carole Lombard, My Man Godfrey

The Winner: Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
My Pick: Walter Brennan, Come and Get It

The Winner: Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse
My Pick: Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse

Ten movies were nominated for best picture, a practice that lasted through 1943 and which has been revived again this year. For the first time, awards were given for best supporting actor and actress, in part because of negotiations between the studios and the recently formed Screen Actors Guild. Walter Brennan won the first of three awards in five years in this category, and until 1968, when Katharine Hepburn won her third Oscar, was the only person to have won three times for acting. (Maybe that early, record-setting winning streak accounts for not being nominated for his great later performances like those in To Have and Have Not, Red River, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Rio Bravo.) It's clear that I'm a big admirer of Dodsworth, choosing it in three major categories. The Academy chose The Great Ziegfeld for best picture, continuing a trend begun earlier (and repeated more than once since) of choosing slick, large-scale spectacles over smaller, more thoughtful films. For best actress I went with Lombard's ditzy but sweet heiress, the only time she was ever nominated. I've always thought the Academy chose Rainer in a much smaller (really, a supporting) role largely for her emotional telephone scene, not the first time voters were swayed by one big, showy scene that stuck in the memory. Biggest omission: Modern Times—for picture, director, or actor.


The Winner: The Life of Emile Zola
My Pick: The Awful Truth

The Winner: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
My Pick: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth

The Winner: Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous
My Pick: Fredric March, A Star Is Born

The Winner: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
My Pick: Greta Garbo, Camille

The Winner: Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola
My Pick: Roland Young, Topper

The Winner: Alice Brady, In Old Chicago
My Pick: Dame May Whitty, Night Must Fall

This was one of Hollywood's strongest years, perhaps the strongest until the landmark year of 1939. With so many worthy choices, it's not surprising that I was at odds with the Academy in all but one category. With its award for best picture, the Academy began a trend of choosing a noble but rather dull movie that projects a good image for Hollywood, a self-important message picture which shows the world that Hollywood has The Right Attitude. My pick was The Awful Truth, the movie I've called the definitive screwball comedy and which for me typifies the perfect balance of entertainment and sophistication that was Hollywood's forte; the immensely enjoyable Stage Door was a close second. Spencer Tracy was a wonderful, unfussy actor, but in the years he gave his best performances, he seemed to be bested by someone else, like Fredric March's unforgettable Norman Maine in A Star Is Born. The best actress category often has the weakest field of nominees, something that still continues. But that certainly wasn't the case this year. All the nominees gave strong performances, and several equally worthy performances weren't nominated at all: Jean Arthur, Easy Living; Carole Lombard, Nothing Sacred; Katharine Hepburn, Stage Door; Sylvia Sydney, You Only Live Once or Dead End; Bette Davis, Marked Woman; Beulah Bondi, so touching in McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow. Has there ever been a finer year in American film for performances by actresses? I was torn between Garbo and Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth but in the end went with Garbo because of her performance's gravity and range. Biggest omission (aside from the actresses mentioned above): Cary Grant, The Awful Truth.


The Winner: You Can't Take It with You
My Pick: Pygmalion

The Winner: Frank Capra, You Can't Take It with You
My Pick: Frank Capra, You Can't Take It with You

The Winner: Spencer Tracy, Boys Town
My Pick: Leslie Howard, Pygmalion

The Winner: Bette Davis, Jezebel
My Pick: Bette Davis, Jezebel

The Winner: Walter Brennan, Kentucky
My Pick: John Garfield, Four Daughters

The Winner: Fay Bainter, Jezebel
My Pick: Fay Bainter, Jezebel

The best film nominated this year was actually Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion; another foreign language picture wouldn't be nominated until Z in 1969. But since I consider the Oscars at this point awards for English language movies, I went with Pygmalion, the first time I chose a British film. That film's directors (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard) weren't nominated, so I chose Frank Capra for his accomplished screwball version of the Kaufman and Hart play You Can't Take It with You. Best actress wasn't an easy choice, but in the end I went with Bette Davis over Margaret Sullavan's beautifully nuanced performance in Three Comrades and Wendy Hiller's memorable Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. In the best actor category, another good performance by Spencer Tracy in the sentimental Boys Town was overshadowed by the work of others. James Cagney's turn in the trite Angels with Dirty Faces was powerful but seemed to me pretty old hat by this time, distinguished from his other performances in this vein largely by the supercharged drama of the final scene. I went with Leslie Howard as Prof. Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, one of the great roles of drama that Howard, who co-directed the movie version, does full justice to. The biggest oversight was Brennan's win over Garfield, hardly the last time a reliable veteran playing a likable character would be chosen over a newcomer saddled with The Curse of the Unsympathetic Character. Biggest omission: Bringing Up Baby—for picture, director, actor, actress, or supporting actor (Charles Ruggles).


The Winner: Gone with the Wind
My Pick: Gone with the Wind

The Winner: Victor Fleming, Gone with the Wind
My Pick: John Ford, Stagecoach

The Winner: Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
My Pick: James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Winner: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
My Pick: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind

The Winner: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach
My Pick: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach

The Winner: Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind
My Pick: Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind

I had very little disagreement with the awards this year. Despite its skewed version of American history, Gone with the Wind is simply great popular entertainment, whereas Stagecoach is great popular art, my own favorite Western ever. I'm not sure that GWTW can really be said to have been directed by Fleming, even though he received sole credit for it. At least two other directors worked on the picture, not counting the contributions of its autocratic producer, David O. Selznick, or of William Cameron Menzies, whose sketches for production design were essentially storyboards. Donat's surprising win is probably attributable to the emotional appeal of his role and to Clark Gable and James Stewart splitting the vote, with voters reluctant either to award all four major awards to one picture (especially as Gable had already won in these circumstances) or to recognize a young and relatively unproven actor like Stewart. Stewart's snub strikes me as one of the all-time biggest Oscar mistakes, one that would have unfortunate repercussions the next year. As in 1937, all the best actress nominees were strong, as were several non-nominees: Jean Arthur (again), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Claudette Colbert, Midnight; Norma Shearer, The Women; Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz (although she did receive special recognition for outstanding juvenile performance of the year). Still, best actress was owned by Viven Leigh from the start, and it is inconceivable that anyone else would have won. Biggest omission (besides those actresses): Lon Chaney, Jr., best supporting actor for Of Mice and Men.


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