What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1937

What Did Win: The Life of Emile Zola
How It’s Aged: It’s okay, but pretty stodgy and sterile.  A fast-forward through the greatest hits of Zola’s life, without anything making much of an impact.  Silly wigs abound. 

What Should’ve Won: The Awful Truth
How Hard Was the Decision: McCarey won best director for this but he complained in his speech that he won for the wrong movie, since he was far more proud of Make Way for Tomorrow, his heartbreaking portrait of life without Social Security, in which an aging couple loses their home and have to throw themselves on the mercy of their adult children. It would have been a deserving winner, but sorry, Leo, it just can’t compete with this.   

Director: Leo McCarey
Writer: Vina Delmar, based on the play by Arthur Richman
Stars: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Asta

The Story: Society bon vivant Grant comes back from a fake vacation (presumably he was away on a tryst) to find that his witty wife Dunne might have strayed too, so they agree to get a divorce, but they share custody of the dog, which gives him lots of opportunities to sabotage her rebound fling with buffoonish oil tycoon Ralph Bellamy. When will those crazy kids get back together?

Any Nominations or Wins: In addition to picture and director, there were nominations for Grant, Dunne, Delmar and editor Al Clark.
Why It Didn’t Win: It almost did, obviously—the director winner usually wins picture too, but somehow the vote got split and the weaker movie won, due to the Academy’s perpetual prejudice against comedies (and an understandable soft spot for movies like Zola that denounce anti-Semitism). 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. This was the moment that Grant truly became Grant: he achieves a level of effervescent wit that had never been seen onscreen before, and yet every line is laced with bittersweet regret for the failed relationship.  The greatest tribute to Grant’s acting ability is that everybody thought he was just being himself. 
  2. Bizarrely, you often read in write-ups of the movie that Grant’s character was falsely accused of infidelity, and indeed they never say otherwise, but come on! This shows the true power of the Hays productions code: It allowed the movies to cover up wickedness with a wink, and it also allowed tender-hearted viewers to ignore the wink if they chose to. 
  3. In my write-up of another 1937 classic, I mentioned that Betsy always knows when there was a woman writer, because male writers don’t give women characters their own sense of humor.  And indeed, the witty pen of Vina Delmar gives this movie its spark, making this the most equally-matched of all screwballs, and therefore the liveliest. 
  4. From this point on, screwball would be almost synonymous with the “comedy of remarriage.”  Grant tries to sabotage Dunne’s new relationship over and over, until the moment he could deliver the coup de grace but doesn’t, and of course that’s the moment he wins her back. 
  5. Its amazing the number of people that one meets from Oklahoma City.  Believe me, I know, because every time I meet one, I must suppress the urge to mention Grants cheerful mockery of Bellamy’s home town: “Oklahoma City!  Every since I was a small boy, that name has been filled with magic for me.  And if it should get dull, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend!”
How Available Is It?: Alas, Netflix’s DVD is barebones.

Ah, 1937: Listen to Me, You Idiot!

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1936

The Year: 1936
What the Nominees Were: 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
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: My Man Godfrey, Camille, Swing Time, and our winner

What Did Win: The Great Ziegfeld
How It’s Aged: It’s excruciatingly bad, a snail’s-pace three-hour celebration of the life of a sociopathic boob, punctuated by the world’s longest and blandest musical numbers. 
What Should’ve Won: Modern Times
How Hard Was the Decision: I love Dodsworth and Libeled Lady, but it really came down to My Man Godfrey, Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and this. Like the Academy itself, I find myself factoring in that Chaplin and Capra have both already won in my little parallel universe, so I was inclined toward Godfrey, but upon re-watching it, I concluded that it’s a delightful romantic comedy except for the fact that it  doesn’t have enough romance or comedy, preferring instead a bittersweet whimsy that is endearing, but not Best Picture worthy.    
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writers: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard

The Story: The Little Tramp is driven mad by an assembly line, accidentally leads a workers’ parade, goes to prison, accidentally snorts a lot of cocaine, foils a jailbreak, loses a job, then loses many more jobs…but eventually meets a fierce young homeless woman who happily shares his troubles with him.

Any Nominations or Wins: None whatsoever!
Why It Didn’t Win: Not only was Chaplin still clinging to (mostly) silent cinema, but his radical politics and sexual indiscretions were both beginning to catch up to him.  The movie changed the world, but won Chaplin few fans in Hollywood. 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. What was Goddard never a huge star?  Her greatest roles remain this and Chaplin’s next masterpiece The Great Dictator.  Her ’36-‘40 relationship with Hollywood pariah Chaplin no doubt held her back at first, but I don’t know why she failed to get better roles after that, appearing in nothing but good-but-not-great movies throughout the ‘40s.  She’s amazingly good here: pretty, sexy, tough, and irrepressibly fun-loving.
  2. Those how haven’t seen silent movies assume that they merely replace a soundtrack with intertitles, but they actually create a magical parallel world with totally different rules: why doesn’t Chaplin hear the marchers behind him?  Why can’t Goddard call out to warn Chaplin that he’s about to skate off a ledge, instead of stumbling over on her own skates to stop him?  Because it’s more fun this way!
  3. Chaplin was a communist himself, but the hapless tramp is merely baffled by the workers’ marches and strikes. Chaplin was sure the movement was the long-term answer, but as a filmmaker, his sympathies remained firmly with his apolitical hero, who was going to suffer endless indignities no matter which side was winning.
  4. This probably has more reversals in it than any other movie, as our heroes’ fortunes yo-yo up and down at a dizzying pace, but Chaplin hides the heavy hand of the filmmaker by interweaving subtle foreshadowing that plants a tiny hint of the next danger in our minds before it happens: First we see the danger (the In and Out doors for the waiters, the chandelier that will skewer the chicken, the steam press that will flatten the watch), then we get distracted away from it, and only then is the trap sprung. 
  5. Chaplin actually wrote a script (you can see pages in the documentary!)  but changed his mind and let the tramp have one more silent farewell to the world. Has there ever been another cinematic image as powerful as the little tramp ground up in the gears of the machine?   Both editions of the DVD have a neat 1967 short doc about a Cuban village that is visited by a traveling projectionist who shows them this as their very first movie.  There’s no better confirmation of the wisdom of Chaplin’s decision than the looks on their faces. 
How Available Is It?: There’s a new Criterion set that looks great, but I own the older mk2 set which is merely okay. 

Ah, 1936: In My Day, We Didn’t Have Your Fancy-Pants iPods!  We Had These! And We Liked It That Way!

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1935

“Hey, Matt, what’s going on here??  You’re just agreeing with the Academy as often as not!”  Yeah, I’m surprised at that, too.  The unexpected upshot has been that I’ve rediscovered  some great winners I hadn’t seen since high school.  But dont worry, I suspect that this run of non-dissent is pretty much over with this one.

The Year: 1935
What the Nominees Were: Alice Adams, Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Miserables, Mutiny on the Bounty, Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap, Top Hat
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: A Night at the Opera!

What Should’ve Won and Did Win: Mutiny on the Bounty
How Hard Was the Decision: Somewhat. I re-watched The Informer, which is wonderfully atmospheric and subversively dark, in every meaning of the word, but it’s also hopelessly overwrought and Victor McLaglen, so appealing in supporting parts, proves to be too one-note for this complex role.

Director: Frank Lloyd
Writers: Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson, based on the book by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Stars: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone
The Story: In 1789, unfortunate sailors are forced against their will to join a two-year expedition to Tahiti to bring back fruit trees, which might prove to be a cheaper way to feed the slaves in Jamaica.  The captain is a petty little dictator, flogging the men mercilessly, stealing their food for himself, and hounding more than one to death.  His right hand man defends him… until he can take no more.

Any Other Nominations or Wins: Gable, Laughton and Tone all competed against each other for Best Actor, meaning that McLaglen got it by default. (There still was no Best Supporting Oscar.  They added that category the next year in response to this problem). 
How It Won: As with Grand Hotel, this was a no-brainer: the biggest studio, biggest budget, biggest stars and biggest grosses all lined up.  The reviewers were split between this and The Informer, (and for the first time, they started giving out their own awards) but at the Academy, it just couldn’t compete.  I’m siding with the Academy on this one. 

Why It Won:
  1. This is our first big-budget epic and the verisimilitude and epic scale are simply stunning.  Even better, Lloyd, usually a workman-like director, rose to the occasion, crafting exhilarating, almost Soviet-style montages out of hoisting sales and weighing anchor.  
  2. No matter how bad things get, Fletcher Christian stands behind his venal captain—until he finds himself in love with an island girl, and has to leave her behind.  It’s a good lesson in motivation: a weak man only needs something to rebel against, but in order to motivate a strong-minded hero, you must give also give him something to rebel for
  3. The emotional impact of this movie is momentous: we seethe with indignation at Bligh’s abuses, melt with longing at the simple justice of island life, roar in sympathy with the revolt, then something funny happens… Bligh’s heroic survival tale complicates everything. Similar to Michael Scott on “The Office”, the tragedy of Bligh’s life is that he’s a spectacular sailor who was disastrously promoted to become a terrible leader of men, resorting to tyranny to avoid facing his own insecurities. 
  4. This is not a good vs. good movie, it’s an evil vs. evil: choosing between tyranny and revolution is the most bitter choice anyone can make, because there are no good outcomes either way, and the worst fate awaits those who try to find a middle path. 
  5. The ending of this movie is astoundingly brave: We await the final battle, which will settle for us how to feel about everything.  Instead, each man evades the others’ final wrath, forcing each to make a separate peace, diminished in circumstances by their choices but denied a final cathartic confrontation that would tell them whether or not they made the right choice. 
  6. Hollywood was far too skittish to make a true slave-revolt movie, but this is a clever way to tackle the same basic material.  Not only are the men themselves explicitly enslaved onto the ship, they overthrow a mission to make slavery cheaper for the empire.  What we dont see in the movie is that Bligh took on another two-year trip and finally delivered the breadfruits  to Jamaica, but it was all for nothing: the slaves refused to eat them. 
How Available Is It?: Once again, it has a nice looking DVD with few features..

Ah, 1935: Presented Without Comment.

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1934

The Year: 1934
What the Nominees Were: TWELVE nominees! The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, It Happened One Night, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa, The White Parade
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: The pre-code era went out in style with Von Sternberg and Dietrich’s ludicrously lurid The Scarlet Empress.

What Should’ve Won and Did Win: It Happened One Night
How Hard Was the Decision: Not hard.  The Thin Man is great fun, but It Happened One Night is generally considered to be the movie that marked the beginning of Hollywood’s golden age.

Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Stars: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale
The Story: A rebellious heiress flees from her father’s captivity to go be with the cad she loves.  A cynical newspaperman spots her on the night bus and escorts her to get the story, but soon they start to fall for each other.

Any Other Nominations or Wins: This was the first of only three movies to sweep the “top five”, picture, director, writer, actor and actress...though it received no other nominations.
How It Won: It was the little movie that could: every actor and actress in town turned it down until they finally got Colbert by offering more than her quote and borrowed Gable from MGM because Louis B. Mayer wanted to punish him by forcing him to make a stinker.  And yet nobody could resist the final product.  The screwball genre and the golden age were born.   

Why It Won:
  1. Gable’s character is conceived with wonderfully specificity.  I love how hes in love with his own expertise on every topic: how to dunk a donut, how to give a piggyback ride, even how to undress.  She finally wins him over when she proves she can do something better than him: flag down a car.  (Of course, she’s packing some equipment he doesn’t have.)
  2. Most of the elements of the screwball are already here: a “will they or won’t they” couple (at least one of whom is wealthy) forced to overcome escalating obstacles that keep them from acknowledging their roiling sexual tensions. The only element still missing was the madcap absurdity that came to define the genre at its height from ’37-’42, but you won’t miss it here: this is a more fully-rounded story that works as drama, as comedy, and as romance all at the same time.   
  3. This was the movie that gave the “Hays Code” a good name: Strict censorship arrived in 1934, which could have ruined Hollywood, but audiences actually preferred the slow boil to the bump and grind, and the restrictions stimulated the filmmakers to achieve a new level of sophistication, albeit at a great cost.  (It would be thirty years until Hollywood finally admitted that they had lost as much as they’d gained, and re-embraced a more realistic view of human sexuality.) 
  4. Normally, I hate it when romances have a third act miscommunication that tears the happy couple apart, but it works here because it’s not just the capricious hand of fate (like the annoying delayed messenger that dooms Romeo and Juliet), it’s a misunderstanding that taps into their lingering mistrust of each other. 
How Available Is It?: It’s got a beautiful-looking DVD without a lot of features. 

Ah, 1934: B.O. Gave the Bride Away!

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1933

The Year: 1933
What the Nominees Were: 42nd Street, A Farewell to Arms, Cavalcade, I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smiling Through, State Fair
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Queen Christina, Duck Soup,
Footlight Parade. King Kong

What Did Win: Cavalcade
How It’s Aged: It’s absolutely terrible.  Barely adapted from the stage, it portrays a wealthy British couple who lose one son in the Boer War and the other on the Titanic, but keep a stiff upper-lip the whole time.  Ugh.  It think it deserves serious consideration as one of the worst Best Pictures ever.  
What Should’ve Won: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
How Hard Was the Decision: Really tough.  Once again, I must be honest and confess that Queen Christinamight have gotten the nod if I hadn’t already written it up, and Duck Soup is obviously everybody’s favorite movie from that year.  I actually rewatched Duck Soup last night in order to make the decision, and it’s a masterpiece, but despite the wartime setting, it’s simply too daffy and lightweight to ever earn any top prizes.    

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Writers: Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, based on the memoirI Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang” by Robert E. Burns
Stars: Paul Muni, Glenda Ferrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Edward Ellis

The Story: A decorated WWI vet decides to travel the country looking for engineering work and ends up in the south, where he gets forced at gunpoint to help out with a stick-up.  Sentenced to a vicious chain gang, he eventually escapes, heads north, and starts a successful career under a fake name, but soon enough, his past catches up with him, leading to one of the most heart-breaking endings (especially the final line) in film history. 
Any Nominations or Wins: Nominated for Picture, Sound, and Best Actor, but lost all three.
Why It Didn’t Win: Warner Brothers wallowed in the sort of squalid urban environments that most Hollywood moguls had run away from, literally and figuratively.  They would much rather sniff the rarified air of Cavalcade than wallow in the muck (and muck-raking) of movies like this.       

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. In too many prison-injustice stories, from “Les Miserables” to The Hurricane, the creators take the narrative shortcut of personifying the injustice of the system in the form of one relentless antagonist. This movie takes on the more difficult and laudable task of condemning the whole system equally.  There are no bad apples here—the whole bunch is rotten. 
  2. The result was the most devastating and effective social protest movie of all time—outrage at this movie contributed to the end of most of the chain gangs. (But if you note the difference between the title of the book and the movie, you’ll see that Warner Brothers did get scared in one way, afraid of retaliation from local theaters if they identified the state. That’s a shame, because prosecutors from my homestate haven’t changed even today, as seen here and here.)
  3. But this is another movie which was greatly helped by being pre-code”, leavening the movies earnest message by allowing Muni to be a less-than-angelic victim, blowing through a series of lovers, including an explicitly-presented prostitute...
  4. Another thing that I kept wondering while watching The Hunger Games was “Whatever happened to the art of adaptation??”  That movie, like most these days, merely abridged the story but refused to adapt any story elements for the screen.  Though this movie drew its value from being a true story, they felt free to transform it for the screen, turning the hero from a magazine publisher to a bridge-builder, for instance, because that’s more visual. 
  5. And this sets up a great moment near the end when Muni has to blow up a bridge to escape.  A weaker actor would have let the irony of that act play across his face, but Muni shows merely the sheer glee of a man escaping, trusting the audience to grasp the irony on our own.  Muni was the Meryl Street of his day, specializing in Oscar-chasing biopic roles which buried him under elaborate accents and costumes, but this raw, affectless performance is the proof of his true greatness.
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice-looking DVD with an informative commentary track and something that must be seen to be believed… Last week I mentioned that the Grand Hotel DVD had a 20-minute parody shot on the same sets, and that makes sense—a big all-star movie is ripe for a send-up, right?  Well, insanely, this DVD alsohas a such a same-sets parody.  Comedian Jerry Bergen escapes from a cushy prison, marries a shrew, and then decides to break back in.  Tremendously offensive…but actually kinda funny.    

Ah, 1933: Smell Your Gelatin, If You Dare!

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1932

The Year: 1932 
What the Nominees Were: (For the first but not the last time, the Academy decided to experiment with expanding the number of nominees) Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, The Champ, Five Star Final, Grand Hotel, One Hour With You, Shanghai Express, The Smiling Lieutenant

Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Love Me Tonight, Red Dust, Trouble in Paradise, Scarface, Freaks

What Should’ve Won and Did Win: Grand Hotel
How Hard Was the Decision: Very tough, I explained before that Love Me Tonightis one of my favorite movies.  To be honest, it’s possible that I only chose this one because I’d already written up the other movie.  
Director: Edmund Goulding
Writers: William A. Drake and Vicki Baum, based on his American play, which was based on her German play
Stars: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Hersholt (He of the humanitarian award)

The Story: In the first ever “all-star” ensemble movie, we see how the lives of several people interact at a luxurious Berlin hotel, including a manic-depressive ballet star, a faded Baron turned jewel thief, a small town middle manager in town for a cure, an industrialist in crisis, and a stenographer on the verge of become that kind of steno…

Any Other Nominations or Wins: Fun fact—This is the only movie ever to win best picture despite getting no other nominations. 
How it Won: For once, the stars aligned: the grandest studio, the biggest stars and the best reviews all lined up for one picture, making the Academy’s choice easy. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. To a certain extent, this was the “Nanny Diaries” of its day: Baum had been a chambermaid in two of Berlin’s finest hotels and this was her tell-all.  Nevertheless, as the depression raged, nothing could be easier than condemning those who frittered away their fortunes in opulent hotels, yet Baum and her collaborators choose instead to exercise a supreme act of empathy.  Each guest assumes that the others have it all, not knowing that everyone else is also on the verge of disaster.  Only we in the audience understand how cruelly misunderstood everyone is. 
  2. Joan Crawford would go on to be one of the saddest stars in Hollywood, overacting more and more, refusing to age gracefully, and mistreating everybody, but it’s a revelation to see her here in her prime, almost stealing the movie from Garbo, giving a marvelously nuanced performance as the steno.  Her huge eyes tell the whole story, whether batting seductively, shooting daggers, or averting her gaze in shame…
  3. This was John Barrymore’s first major film and he’s utterly heartbreaking as a penniless baron who has lost his morality but not his dignity. His downfall prefigures the death of the German soul: “When I was a little boy, I was taught to ride and be a gentleman.  And then at school, to pray and lie, and then in the war to kill and hide, that’s all.”
  4. But Barrymore’s brother Lionel is equally wonderful.  Those of us used to his devilish roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and Duel in the Sun finally get a chance to see just how achingly sympathetic he can be (though it is ironic that in one of the last able-bodied performances he plays a dying man)
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice DVD with a short documentary and various ephemera, such as an 18-minute musical parody from the time made on the same sets.

Ah, 1932: Hey Kids, Licorice!

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1931

The Year: 1931
What the Nominees Were: Cimarron, East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Frankenstein, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Street Scene, and our winner…

What Did Win: Cimarron
How It’s Aged: Very poorly.  This talky western melodrama’s half-hearted whispers of feminism were drowned out by a roar of unintentional racism.

What Should’ve Won: City Lights
How Hard Was the Decision: This was a tough call: Frankenstein is pretty much a perfect film, and Vidor’s Street Scene is an underrated masterpiece.  Plus, it was hard to convince myself that this lone silent hold-out could have won in 1931… but City Lights is such an ideal “you’ll laugh / you’ll cry” combination that I’m convinced the Academy could have been honored it if they had overcome their prejudice just a little bit.  

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers 
The Story: The little tramp is back to take on the Depression.  He falls in love with a blind flower girl, then rescues a suicidal millionaire, who goes back and forth between lavishing gifts on him when drunk then kicking him out when sober.  Can the tramp stay in his good graces long enough to help the girl? 

Any Nominations or Wins:  None whatsoever!
Why It Didn’t Win: It’s simple enough: Chaplin was the only filmmaker who refused to transition to sound.  He broke off and went his own way.  This movie was not at all the image that Hollywood wanted to project in 1931. 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. No one was better than Chaplin at a pratfall, or an elaborate set-up and pay-off, but this movie shows how much of his genius lay in his scene choreography, elegantly demonstrated in the movies delightful boxing match.   
  2. One great thing about “Downton Abbey” is the way it conveys the capriciousness of life without a social safety net: the rich were more than happy to take care of the poor—when it occurred to them.  Made in the darkest days before the dawning of America’s long-overdue New Deal, this movie hits that point even harder.  Whenever the millionaire is drunk, the tramp has it made, but otherwise it’s a boot to the ass. 
  3. Cherrill’s role could not be more sentimental in its conception, but she makes it work by playing the role as a real person, not a suffering saint.  Few female stars at the time were allowed to look this genuinely annoyed:
  4. As a good communist, Chaplin dreaded the notion that his work would no longer be an international (or should that be internationale?) art form.  He skewers sound every chance he gets here.  The first shot is a windbag getting up to give a speech, but when he opens his mouth, all we hear is trombone music (shades of Charlie Brown!)  The film does have a synchronized soundtrack, but only to provide annoyances: a swallowed whistle, a police siren, that boxing bell…
  5. The movie is most famous for its indelible final shot, in which the now-sighted flower girl finally gets a look at the tramp, who suddenly realizes that he may not pass this final test.  It’s the ultimate riposte to anyone who doubts Chaplin’s serious-acting chops. 
How Available Is It?: All of Chaplin’s movies are available on the same so-so DVDs from the ‘90s.  They’re crying out for new editions. 

Ah, 1931: Nose Adjuster!

What Should’ve Won (That Could’ve Won): 1930

The Year: 1930
What the Nominees Were: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Nothing much on the American side, but The Blue Angel and L’Age D’Or were two great imports that year.

What Should’ve Won and Did Win: All Quiet on the Western Front
How Hard Was the Decision: Tough, because Lubitsch’s The Love Parade is so smart, funny, and self-aware. But there are good reasons why drama almost always trumps comedy at awards time. A truly profound, heartfelt drama like this can reach greater emotional heights anddepths than even the best comedies.

Director: Lewis Milestone (and George Cukor as “dialogue director”)
Writers: Adaptation and dialogue by Maxwell Anderson, Screen Play by George Abbott, Adaptation by Del Andrews, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Stars: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy

The Story: In small-town Germany, four high school students are convinced by their jingoistic teacher to sign up for the infantry at the beginning of World War I.  They are totally unprepared for the hunger, brutality, and absurdity of life on the front which slowly destroys them, body and soul. 
Any Other Nominations or Wins: Also won for direction, lost cinematography and lighting
How It Won: Mayer’s grip was loosened and the Academy begrudgingly adopted a one-person, one-vote system.  The results of democracy showed right away: Western Front was far less glamorous than the previous two winners, and it was released by Universal, the least powerful studio.  After an ignoble start as a failed union-busting scheme, the Academy was now stumbling towards credibility, not that there aren’t a lot more dubious winners to come…

Why It Won:
  1. It sounds like a dubious idea: How courageous is it to make a pacifist message-movie that says that our enemy who lost should never have gone to war?  Who could possibly disagree with that?  But that’s where this movie’s subversive genius comes in.  Focusing on the enemy army disarms the audience, but the trick is that there’s nothing German at all about Milestone’s soldiers, other than the names and the costumes: No German accents, no Teutonic theories, no Kaiser worship… Just the universal realities (and evils) of war. The four kids could be from any town in America, and that’s exactly how they seem to audience: these are our boys.  
  2. The movie is an episodic series of small vignettes: tiny moments of compassion, camaraderie or black humor, interspersed with epic-scale, fully-immersive battle scenes.  Milestone is equally adept at both.  The cumulative effect is devastating.
  3. As movies adjusted to sound, so did acting styles, slowly… Things are already far more natural here than in Applause, but still not quite there: Ayres is startlingly good and underplayed in dialogue scenes, but he lapses into artifice for the monologues, still telegraphing his emotions as if we couldn’t hear his words.  They say that Gary Cooper was the first pure sound-film actor, staying still and letting the words and his eyes carry everything.  He would have his first big hit the next year…
  4. And sure enough the best moments are still silent… We see one soldier’s brief flashback: After his impulsive enlistment, his mother sees his uniform and collapses in horror.  Suddenly filled with shame, the boy tries to tear the uniform off…but just then his father comes in and beams with pride.  Caught between the two, he doesn’t know what to do.  That’s the whole movie right there.  The rest is gravy. 
  5. Ironically, the arrival of strict censorship in 1934 is now seen as the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age, because of the sly sophistication it forced filmmakers to adopt, while the frank sexuality of 1929-1933, the “pre-code” era, can appear tasteless by comparison, but this movie belies both of those prejudices: the tender scene in which Ayres loses his virginity to a French village girl, both desperately seeking a connection but unable to speak the other’s language, is beautifully restrained and heartbreaking.  It forcefully reminds us just how destructive and dishonest it was of Hollywood to spend thirty years denying the existence of pre-marital sex.  
How Available Is It?: They’ve just released a beautiful new restoration on DVD.  Even if you’ve seen the movie before, you should check this out… I felt like I was seeing the beautiful and haunting imagery for the first time.

Ah, 1930: Hey, I thought Don Draper came up with that slogan in 1960!

What Should’ve Won (That Could’ve Won): 1929

The Year: 1929
What the Nominees Were: Broadway Melody of 1929, Alibi, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, In Old Hollywood, The Patriot

Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: 1929 was a weak year for American movies: Silent cinema had been abruptly abolished at its artistic peak and everybody was adapting to sound with much difficulty.  Only one American movie, our winner, is remembered as having made good use of it.  If the Academy had been more willing at this point to consider foreign movies, they might have found another filmmaker who instantly mastered sound: Alfred Hitchcock, with Blackmail.  Meanwhile, there were still great silent movies being imported from abroad, if the academy had been willing to consider them: the Soviet city-symphony Man with A Movie Camera and two German films starring expatriate American ingénue Louise Brooks: Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora’s Box

What Did Win: Broadway Melody of 1929
How It’s Aged: Poorly.  As the first all-talking musical with a story, it was very impressive at the time, but it’s a very bland backstage melodrama with forgettable songs and stars.

What Should’ve Won: Applause
How Hard Was the Decision?: Tough...  Time after time in this series, we’ll have a great year with far too many good choices, like 1928, followed by a year with no ideal choices, though Applause is still great.  It was tempting to go with Pandora’s Box, but we all know that no European silent film could ever win Best Picture in the sound era, right?  That’ll never happen! (Until last week.)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writer: Garrett Fort, based on the novel by Beth Brown.
Stars: Helen Morgan, Joan Peers, Fuller Mellish, Jr., Jack Cameron, Henry Wadsworth

The Story: Burlesque star Kitty Darling finds out she’s pregnant on the same night that  her Boss-Tweed affiliated husband gets the chair.  She sends her daughter off to Swiss boarding schools, but twenty years later her rotten new husband insists on bringing the daughter home and putting her in the act. 

Any Nominations or Wins: None
Why It Didn’t Win: For the second and final time, the awards were determined in a back room, and this time it caused a scandal because, post-crash, the moguls tossed artistic considerations aside in favor of their most commercial product.  Nominee Broadway Revue consisted of nothing but every MGM star standing in front of the camera one by one singing a song!  Melody tried a little harder than that and it was a big hit, so it got the award.  The scandal would lead to a new voting system the next year… 

Why It Should Have Won:

    1. Besides, this never would have won with Louis B. Mayer still in charge since it’s the ultimate anti-MGM movie: a painfully naturalistic look at the most un-glamorous side of show business. Mamoulian’s gaze is withering yet still affectionate towards his tawdry subjects.  If anything, as the title implies, it’s the anonymous audience that are the real villains here, insatiably stripping the entertainers of their hopes, dreams and illusions along with their clothes. 
    2. The opening is wickedly symbolic of what Hollywood was going through: A dead, quiet, street… A discarded, old-fashioned vaudeville poster blows along in the dust until it briefly sticks to a building so we can read it: Kitty Darling, Queen of Hearts. It falls the ground again and underfed dogs tear it apart.  Where is everybody?  Then, from the distance… sound!  A marching band approaches!  All the doors open and crowds come pouring out to hear it, trampling over the old posters. 
    3. Astoundingly, this was Mamoulian’s first film.  He was one of the theater directors rushed into town to replace the old-fashioned silent guys, but the brilliant silent sequences here are the equal of the dialogue scenes.  He was simply an instant genius, but, because he’s mostly associated with the frequently-ignored early-sound, pre-code era, he remains very underrated.  
    4. Terrified of camera noise, directors hid the camera inside a heavy box. Mamoulian not only had the bright idea to put wheels on that box, he also found ways to get back out on location, staging a dialogue scene on the Brooklyn Bridge and elsewhere around Manhattan.  Even more amazingly, he opened the windows, creating dense sound collages of the city’s cacophony of noises, providing one last round of applause for a fading star.  
    How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice Kino disk with a few features.

    Ah, 1929: Ah, Leyendecker!

    What Should’ve Won (That Could’ve Won): 1928

    Okay, guys, here we go, I’ve been prepping this for a while.  After two years, “Underrated Movies” are going on a long hiatus in favor of a year-by-year journey through my second-guesses of the Best Picture Winners.  I’ll try to limit myself to the same unofficial standards the Academy uses, mostly choosing from that pool of widely-released American movies that have that certain “you’ll laugh / you’ll cry”  epic sweep that the Academy loves. 
    The Year: 1928
    What the Nominees Were: This was the only year in which they split the nominees between “ Best (mainstream) Picture”…
    1. Wings
    2. The Racket
    3. Seventh Heaven
    …and “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”… 
    1. Chang
    2. The Crowd
    3. Sunrise
    This wasn’t a bad idea, actually.  Maybe they should bring it back. 

    Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman is his final masterpiece, and it easily would have deserved the prize had it come out in 1929, but it had the misfortune to come out in 1928 instead, one of the best-ever years for American movies.   

    What Did Win: Picture: Wings, Unique or Artistic Picture: Sunrise
    How The Winners Have Aged: It’s hard to complain about either of these choices.  Wings is still amazing-looking and a good story, and Sunrise is a flat-out masterpiece. Unfortunately, it was up against…
    What Should’ve Won: The Crowd
    How Hard the Decision Was: Not very, since The Crowd is my all-time favorite movie.  I had been dating my future-wife for a week when I took her to a museum and made her watch it to test her.  (Dating me was never very fun.)  Luckily, she loved it, and me.

    Director: King Vidor 
    Writers: Screenplay by Vidor and John V.A. Weaver, Titles by Joe Farnham 
    Stars: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Estelle Clark

    The Story: A young man, born on July 4th, 1900, is assured by his parents that he’ll be president someday, but instead he just becomes a face in the crowd in New York City, unable to support his loving family on a clerk’s pay, and torn apart by his failures.

    Nominations and Wins: It was nominated for Best Unique or Artistic Picture and Best Director, but lost both.
    Why It Didn’t Win: It’s hard to fault the Academy for overlooking it.  It was a great year and they made good choices.  It is to America’s shame that this portrait of poverty has become more timely and powerful with each passing year, whereas Sunrise, about rural fears of city life, seems far more dated. 

    Why It’s Great:
    1. American sociologists have become increasingly concerned about the so-called “Lake Woebegone” effect, named for Garrison Keilor’s fictional town in which every child is expected to be above average.  What does it do to a nation when average-ness is demonized?  Vidor knew way back in 1928: it destroys the soul.  This is the tragedy of an average man who has been told that it is unacceptable to be average, and can’t forgive himself for his failure to excel.
    2. This was the last year a silent movie won best picture until, presumably, tonight, when The Artist is expected win the prize it richly deserves.  Both movies excel at finding those little vulnerable behaviors that we’ve all done but never seen onscreen before, like trying to get a spot off your face and then realizing it’s on the mirror.  Sound pictures have never achieved that level of universality. If sound movies are the cousin of prose, then silent movies are the cousin of poetry.
    3. But the real tragedy of the arrival of sound was the death of the moving camera, which had just exploded into use in the ‘26-‘28 period.  The camera is wonderfully alive here, such as when it slides backwards down a Coney Island slide in front of our heroes as they experience the exhilaration of first love.  It would take thirty years for camera operators to recapture this level of liberation. 
    4. The anchor of this movie’s greatness is Murray’s heart-wrenching performance.  He himself was pulled from the crowd (he had been an extra) and catapulted to stardom after giving one of the most astoundingly naturalistic performances ever captured.  Unfortunately, it might have been a little too natural.  Like his character, Murray could not live up to these expectations.  He died in poverty eight years later.
    5. You might not have seen this, but you’ve seen its influence everywhere. The Apartment reverently replicated the stunning introductory shot of the hero at work in a sea of desks, Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July is a comedic genre-flip of the same story, and It’s A Wonderful Life updated a similar character arc for the post-war era.  Even those who did not imitate the picture were in awe of it: When Jean Luc-Godard was asked why he never made any films about ordinary people, he responded, “Why remake The Crowd?  It’s already been done.” 
    How Available Is It?: Not at all!  I had to download a low-quality bit torrent dub of the old VHS version!  Boo! 

    Ah, 1928: Odd Pants!