The Best Picture Winners: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I shouldn’t like Mutiny on the Bounty as much as I do.  I have no real reason to like it.  It’s basically the wildly fictionalized retelling of Fletcher Christian’s 1797 takeover of the HMS Bounty from the tyrannical Captain Bligh – a meeting of two minds, you might say.  One mind bound to the safety and morale of his men, the other bound to the letter of the law.  But who wants to watch that?  Who wants to watch a movie about a mentally unbalanced captain dolling out insane, and unspeakably cruel, punishments to his men?  Well . . . me, it turns out.

I’ve seen Mutiny on the Bounty many times and while it’s a large epic, its inward story is rather simple-minded.  Yet, looking outward from the story, I find that it’s a perfect allegory for anyone who has ever found themselves under the thumb of an unreasoning and immobile supervisor who pleasures themselves by pushing and belittling those underlings in his or her charge.  Bligh, is a perfect stand-in for all those who stand above us without ever reasoning the human element.

In that, the movie really belongs the Charles Laughton as Captain William Bligh.  With his paranoid eyes, his ratty brow and an almost ordinary manner of dispatching floggings, Laughton created a villain for the ages. Bligh lords over the crew of The Bounty with an iron fist.  Short of stature, short of conscience, prone to punish for minor crimes, we see him as a man capable of battling the ocean but is completely ignorant of the human condition.  Everything that he brings to the role contributes to the effect.  He has the jowly face a pouty lower lip of an angry child.  He has a gate that makes up for an imposing height.  His hat, his coat, his costume remind us of Napoleon.

I admit I have my problems with the film (too many, actually) but I can’t deny Laughton for his performance, it is all in his eyes.  When Christian confronts him there is a buried insecurity in Bligh, a paranoia that runs into his bones.  He knows that if he is too lenient on his crew that they will take advantage but if he rules with an iron fist they will keep their place.

Before the ship sets sail we question Bligh’s sanity – he orders the flogging of a dead man just to keep the letter of the law.  At sea, when a crewman asks for water for his sore knees, Bligh casts him overboard.  When a hunk of cheese goes missing, he punishes three men by forcing them to work on their knees.

Christian rouses the men to rise against their tyrannical master and take command of the ship.  In the most famous moment, as Bligh and his loyal followers are about to be cast out to sea in a small boat he makes a famous proclamation to the revolting crew: “Casting me adrift thirty-five hundred miles from a port of call! You’re sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you’re wrong, Christian. I’ll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I’ll live to see you — all of you — hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet!”

Fletcher Christian tells him “I’ll take my chances against the law – You’ll take yours against the sea.” We are reasonably conditioned, like Christian, to believe that no man and his crew could survive against the open seas in a small boat. But we are startled to find that the most frightening aspect of Bligh is that he is really smarter than we think.  Left for dead on the rough seas in a small boat with little to eat and little to drink, it is assumed that he and the crew will perish but Christian has overlooked his skills as a seaman.  An expert navigator, Bligh guides the small boat on a 3600 mile journey to safety, the to coast of Timor in the East Dutch Indies while The Bounty turns toward the isolated safety of Tahiti.

Other movies have taught us that Bligh will get his comeuppance, but what we miss is that there’s a reason that Bligh is in command and the movie reveals that when he and his crew are set adrift.  Bligh, ever the master seaman, makes a 3600 mile journey in a tiny boat to Timor in the West Indies.  Bearded, exhausted, he proclaims that “We’ve beaten the sea itself”.

The performance would become Laughton’s legacy but for Laughton himself he felt that he gave better performances elsewhere. He didn’t disown the role but he felt that it didn’t fill the capacity of what he could do.  Yet, I couldn’t deny him the performance, it is a brilliant, tricky performance, one at which a seemingly one-dimensional character outsmarts even those of us who think we have him figured out.

Where I think the movie comes apart is at the very end.  Bligh returns to England for the court martial hearing of one of his first officers, but while we wait for him to get his comeuppance, it comes in the form of a minor talking-to and disapproval from the court.  That’s it!?!  All this tyranny and Bligh only gets the stink eye?  I fault the movie but not the performance.  Laughton plays a villain for the ages, the movie . . . not so much.


The Best Picture Winners: It Happened One Night (1934)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

One of the most persistent complaints about the voting academy is the way they seem so short-sighted about comedy.  Out of the 89 films thus-far selected for the year’s top prize, only six have been flat-out comedies.  Two of those comedies, It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You came out within four years of each other, both won Best Picture, and both earned a Best Director Oscar for Frank Capra.  Neither film is a monument of his best work, but at least It Happened One Night is a happy glimpse of the greatness to come.

The movie was a box office smash and was so popular that it became the first film in history to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – a feat that, to date, has only on two other occasions, the other two being One Few Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.

Lauded as the first great screwball comedy It Happened One Night follows the romantic adventures of a wealthy socialite (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her controlling father and hits the road with a worldly-wise reporter (played by a miscast Clark Gable).  It is hard to dislike It Happened One Night.  As a road picture, it is bouncy with moments that we remember like the hitchhiking scene, the walls of Jericho, and the sing-a-long on a crowded bus, but for a Capra film, it seems a little innocuous.

Capra’s best films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life feature great comedy wrapped in social commentary.  His best work is challenging and thoughtful but this film seems a little feather-weight.  Both Gable and Colbert won Oscars for their performances but the movie really lies in Colbert’s hands.  She has a warm presence on screen but the two together don’t generate a genuine energy and the romantic moments feel a little forced.  That disconnection may have come from Gable whose presence in this film was a punishment by the studio bosses for his off-screen behavior.  Legend has it, he showed up on the set the first day remarking “Okay, let’s get this over with.”  That cynicism shows in his performance.

Dismissing Gable’s inattendance, It Happened One Night is a sweet film, a fun adventure even if doesn’t ring as necessarily essential.  I have often wondered if I may have liked it more if it didn’t have the mantel of Best Picture hanging over it.  Perhaps I could take solace in the fact that this movie laid the groundwork for the genre of romantic comedies to come – the entire wake of films about squabbling lovers from different backgrounds who fall into each other’s arms in the last reel.  It’s a good formula that I think would get better over time.


The Best Picture Winners: Cavalcade (1932-33)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

The first six films to win the Oscar as Best Picture were seasonal, meaning that they were credited for two years, much like a school year.  After 1933 and forever after, the awards would be marked as seasonal.  With that, some Oscar historians have noted that the seasonal Best Picture winners (with the exception of All Quiet on the Western Front) are some of The Academy’s worst choices.  In some respects I cannot disagree, especially when faced with a film like Cavalcade.

Here is a movie with respectability written all over it: it was expensive; it was based on a Noel Coward play; it starred some very respected British stage actors; it was gorgeously photographed.  But respectable doesn’t translate into greatness.  This movie is as exciting as a block of cement.

To be sure, the story has some heart.  It is hard not to be moved by the triumphs and the heartbreaks of a generation in the lives of and English family called the Marryots, from 1899 to 1933.  We follow them through the century’s red letter highlights from the birth of the 20th Century to the Boar War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and the First World War.  The movie has a heart but I find it a struggle to sit through even in a rare screen performance by English stage legend Diane Wynyrd.

Yet, what bothers me most is that this wooden sawhorse was the Best Picture winner in a year that gave us 42nd Street, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Duck Soup, The Invisible Man, Death Takes a Holiday, King Kong and the Mae West adventure She Done Him Wrong.  You can see where I’m going here.  To stack any of those films alongside Cavalcade is to see how this choice was a real head-scratcher.


The Best Picture Winners: Grand Hotel (1931-32)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

With some very rare exceptions, I have generally found these early Best Picture winners to be a bit repellent.  Most are dated, underwhelming and, for good reason, have all but faded from public knowledge save for the honor they so wildly didn’t deserve.  One exception was Grand Hotel which I saw as a teenager during my personal mission to see every Best Picture winner and hated with raging intensity but on my return visit just a year ago I found that I liked it quite a bit.

It is easy to dismiss.  Grand Hotel has long been accused of being the first Best Picture winner that skated by on star power alone.  Some of that is true.  Based on Vickie Baum’s trashy German novel “Menschen im Hotel”, the film is a soup-to-nuts star vehicle, a movable feast of various personality types who converge on one Berlin hotel with their various underlying problems, sex scandals and immoral backroom shenanigans.  The film is suppose to be a peek-a-boo that exposes the kinds of scandalous good-for-nothings that keep the tabloids in business and it is fun to look behind the curtain.

I like the film.  It’s a nice trashy bit of early 30s cheese featuring some of the most famous faces of the day.  Today, however, Grand Hotel is mostly remembered for Garbo in the role of a fading Russian ballerina who laments “I just vont to be alone.”  Yet, the much better part goes to Joan Crawford as Fläemmchen, a stenographer and aspiring model who gets wrapped up in a nasty love triangle.  That character has more depth, more personality and more to do plot-wise.

I like the film, but . . . Best Picture?  I don’t know.  It’s fun in a nostalgic sense, but it’s adult-oriented spice seems to have diluted long ago.  The peeking-through-the-keyhole draw that the film once promised has been washed away in an era that favors reality-TV, tabloid shamelessness and celebrities behaving badly.  Grand Hotel was a box office smash and no small part of its popularity came from the presence of stars like Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt, Lewis Stone, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery.  It’s a fun circus, watching the shenanigans of some of Hollywood’s most entertaining performers.  Not the best out of a year that gave us Scarface, Dracula, FreaksHorse Feathers and Red-Headed Woman, but I enjoy it.


The Best Picture Winners: Cimarron (1930-31)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

The 1930s began with a flurry of bad news, and not just at the movies.  Just nine weeks before the 1920s came to a close the stock market crashed and threw the country into a depression from which it would not recover for 15 years.  Still, Americans went to the movies as they did in times of joy and sorrow, and in 1930 the magic that had vanished from the landscape of the good old USA was still ever-present at the movies.

Unfortunately, none of that magic was present among the roster of Best Picture nominees.  The new decade began with one of the worst lists of Best Picture hopefuls that you can imagine (I oughta know, I’ve seen them all).  Aside from Lewis Milestone’s brilliant adaptation of The Front Page, the choices for Hollywood’s first official “Best Picture” were pious, respectable prestige films that were completely unworthy of award consideration.  Does anyone remember Skippy?  East LynneTrader Horn?   Me neither.

The worst of the lot sadly walked away with the year’s top award.  Cimarron was an interminable, dusty old piece of western prairie chips pried from the pages of Edna Ferber’s popular novel about the evolution of the Oklahoma frontier as seen through the eyes of a dreamy married couple played by Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

This movie is as much fun as a dead fish.  Its too long; the narrative is is a mess; the performances are wooden; the story is cornball; It has an appalling attitude toward both African-Americans and Native Americans.  You can admire the much-hailed look of the western landscape, photographed by Edward Cronjager, but there have been so many westerns that have come along since that have made much better use of outdoor photography (see Red River) that it seems pointless to single out this one.

The win is something of a mystery too.  Cimarron received glowing critical acclaim and would receive two other Oscars for the script and the art direction, but it was a box office flop, furthering the suspicion that the win was an inside job.

I’ve seen the film only once.  It is one of those movies that gives you a headache.  Whenever I saw it, I kept persistently asking myself why I’m not watching better films from 1930 like City Lights or The Front Page or Morocco or The Public Enemy.  Those are films to be treasured.  Cimarron should line the bottom of a birdcage.


The Best Picture Winners: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

It is sort of odd when you consider that within the first three years, the Academy voters would select two films about World War I and those two films, in their depiction of the war, would be as different as night and day.  Watching Wings in such proximity to All Quiet on the Western Front is a strange experience.  The former is a flag-waving Hollywood epic and the other is a brutal and unrelenting indictment of the realities of “The Great War” that renders a movie like Wings almost an insult.

All Quiet on the Western Front is devoid of subtleties.  This is a movie that is so angry in its message and so mesmerizing in its depiction of the horror of “The Great War” that it is sometimes inconceivable that it was made in 1929. Here is a film that has such a knowing hindsight about the realities of trench warfare that you can scarcely believe that it happened in the 20th century.  In its own way, All Quiet on the Western Front gives us the most impactful element of the movies, the manner in which we as moviegoers can be placed on the front lines.  Plus, it can render a verdict on those elements that aren’t always presented in words.

The soldiers in the film are Germans but they could have come from almost any country. The point is made that every war is the same, good people die, bad people die, that war is the same thing over and over and the only thing that changes are the uniforms. The fascinating thing about All Quiet on the Western Front is that while it is seen from the German’s point of view, the characters have a variety of accents.  They are meant to represent the idea that all sides fight the war with the same outcome of disillusionment and heartache.

Sixty countries experienced what goes in this film: Young naive boys with wonder in their eyes listened to patriotic speeches in which war was presented as a glorious adventure; that doing one’s duty was simply a matter of putting on a beautiful uniform and riding into battle on horseback with a saber flashing in the sun. But we know the reality. We know that the First World War was a contest of endurance, that it was pointless and bloody and that it was a constant unceasing stalemate that never moved in either direction. We know the degradation of humanity and the waste of millions and millions of lives for a cause that meant basically nothing.

I’ve seen All Quiet on the Western Front at least three times in my life and I am still amazed that a movie nearly 90 year-old movie can have this kind of impact on me.  It is unrelenting in its message and mesmerizing in its depictions of warfare – none of which are the least bit glorified.  The movie had such an impact that one reporter writing for Variety noted: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy the master print, reproduce it in every language for every nation to be shown every year until the word War shall have been taken out of the dictionaries.”

If only.



The Best Picture Winners: The Broadway Melody (1928-29)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

The technological onslaught of talking pictures was new in 1927, which just happened to be the first year of The Academy Awards.  It was so new, in fact, that there weren’t enough talking pictures to fill a Best Picture category.  In the academy’s second year, that wasn’t a problem.  The five films selected were all talking but hardly any had really embraced the new technology in a way that would have a lasting impact, and that includes the voter’s final choice.

The Broadway Melody was one of two dozen early musicals rushed into production immediately following the advent of sound (most of which are terrible), but it had two advantages; First, it featured one scene that contained an early example of two-color Technicolor and, second, it was one of the only musicals that actually had a pliable story – albeit a creaky old story about two sisters trying to make it in show business

It is easy to see how the new innovations would have dazzled the public as well as the academy voters, but a movie that is best known for its technological innovations will inevitably fall victim to the ravages of time. The Broadway Melody hasn’t aged well; it was a product of good timing but a casualty of time itself.  MGM was proud that this was their first musical but within the next decade Hollywood musicals were a dime a dozen and whatever advantages The Broadway Melody had in its initial run were overwritten by other musicals within the next year.  Today it’s as dated and creaky as you can imagine.  It still sings, but the song is a bit out out of date, and out of tune.