1930s Best Picture Winners: Reviewed
All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930 (3rd Academy Awards)
directed by Lewis Milestone
Milestone’s anti-war classic starts on a deceiving note — as World War I swells, a vehement professor idolises the duty of “saving the German Fatherland” upon his naive and impulsive classmates, while reactions of jubilation, and promise, pepper the scene. For proprietors of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, there won’t be a prolonged collective groan over the professor’s undying blind patriotism; our opposed sentiment is clear yet the power of the opposite bookends of this remarkable adaptation remains. An essential pacifist and spiritual exploration into the horrors of war, on the body and the soul, investigated through a troupe of young soldiers led by Lew Ayres, “All Quiet on the Western Front” was ahead-of-its-time, juggling brilliantly imposing camerawork with psychological maturity. One of the first great studies of war’s psychological torment, its message truly cements itself in a powerful moment when Paul (Ayres) returns to the classmate of that soapbox professor. Defeated, he declares war’s feebleness to an offended class — it’s a chilling moment and an incredibly raw portrait of the stunted adulthood of wide-eyed youth; a powerful antidote to the far-reaching consequences of their teacher’s words and just a glimmer into the grasp of consciousness that Milestone’s film has to offer.
Cimarron, 1931 (4th Academy Awards)
directed by Wesley Ruggles
Ruggles’ choppy western begins on the 1889 Oklahoma land rush — it’s a thrilling high. What follows never lives up to that fanfare. “Cimarron” tells the decades-long story of newspaper editor Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his wife, Sabra (Irene Dunne) as they settle into a booming town. As far as westerns go, it has what you’d expect. There are frontier themes, a bygone period that the creators drool over, quick duels, and those annoying street pests that just want to shoot people (why are you here)? Dix is the strongest asset, hamming his performance for the Gods, in a surprisingly camp turn for a western lead. As unique as that makes him, he’s also hard to nail — he’s a hero that wears a glowing cream hat, but he’s also strange, randomly chanting threats with a personality that matches both The Music Man and the Rich Texan from “The Simpsons.” Irene Dunne is painfully melodramatic, channeling all the charm that made her into a screwball icon into an anxious and concerned frown. Upon its release, “Cimarron” was all the rage, touted as a bona-fide epic, but now it shows its age, in the worse ways you would expect. Even taking away the historical notes that the story stands on, a cringeworthy stuttering depiction, racial caricatures and abrupt slurs leave a gross aftertaste. Awkward for a film that desperately tries to push good morals. For the most part, the thread on conflict runs thin, and the film always feels like it’s holding itself back even as the time-sprawling narrative thrusts it forward. A peek at an interesting premise comes too little too late, and “Cimarron” spends far too much time running on the notion that we find the prospects of creating a new town exciting — it’s not.
Grand Hotel, 1932 (5th Academy Awards)
directed by Edmund Goulding
A true ensemble vehicle that spotlights John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore as rather dramatic guests of one of Berlin’s more opulent hotels. Based on the hit Broadway play, “Grand Hotel” comes alive by simply weaving through the problems of its cast in a direction that resembles what Robert Altman mastered several decades later. There is a broke Baron who strives to remount his fortune by stealing guests’ pocketbooks, an ill man near the end of life, his boss, by coincidence, and a sensitive but equally astute stenographer. Amongst the cast of seasoned pros, Garbo carries the most memorable performance. As the despairing and depressed ballerina Grusinskaya, she exists with the effortless glamour, faux-Russian coolness and empathetic visage that propelled her to stardom. A jaded, scarred Great War veteran twice claims “nothing ever happens at the Grand Hotel” — nothing further from the truth. Most subplots are interesting but some are held back by shallow interpretation. “Grand Hotel’s” pessimism relays a shocking snapshot of pre-Code cinema; of characters aimed by a drifting life, no matter how nice their suites. They are a tragic set of personalities who ignite on the silver screen. Garbo’s famous “I want to be alone” sequence instills the film’s most celebrated moment and speaks against its own intentions — for one evening, this immortalised company is hard to pass by.
Cavalcade, 1933 (6th Academy Awards)
directed by Frank Lloyd
Similar to “Cimarron” in how it explores several decades through one family, Frank Lloyd’s more palatable and sentimental “Cavalcade” follows upper class Robert and Jane Marryot (Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard), their children, and servants, as the events of the tumultuous early twentieth-century move around them. By tracking the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s Death, Titanic and the Great War, “Cavalcade” executes an epic scope with modest runtime, to somewhat successful results. By flying through each period, often at the expense of the characters who remain under-baked, broader themes of class and romance are always at the forefront. While sufficient, one wishes to see more of the Marryot’s children, even if their greatest asset is being dreadfully posh. It’s a problem that solidifies itself later on — Jane reminisces that at least they were happy, even if time swept the rug beneath them; we believe her, we also didn’t see much of it. It’s made all the more poignant as they wish for a brighter future, amidst the ranks of an incoming World War. Time imposes itself on our characters, but for a film that concerns itself so deeply with the concept, it’s ironic to note that if anything, the film needs a little bit more time. More time to flesh out their experiences, how these events mould character, and the whirlwind of being caught in a tide of history. Perhaps then, “Cavalcade” would find itself gliding with ease through the hearts of modern-day generations.
It Happened One Night, 1934 (7th Academy Awards)
directed by Frank Capra
It’s a funny thing when a film that fundamentally laid the foundations for romcoms and won the Academy’s coveted “Big Five” was effectively dismissed by its studio, stars, and at least one critic who labelled it “dreary.” Surprisingly fresh, “It Happened One Night” not only serves as an excellent starting point for classic comedy but as a showcase for its two effervescent leads, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Capra’s biting story follows spoiled socialite Ellie (Colbert) who flees, or literally jumps off a boat, to escape her strict father after an elopement with a fortune-hunting pilot receives the coldest of reception. While on the run, she meets a loose-cannon reporter Peter (Gable), and that trademarked ‘romantic’ tug-of-war takes off. Stripped to its essentials, the plot has since been retold countless times (in usually worser form). It’s never a bad thing to step back and watch a pioneer in the genre. If you find that tempting but are reserved, never mind, because “It Happened One Night” truly comes alive as a game-changer, thanks to Capra’s whip-smart direction — take the ‘walls of Jericho,’ for its tongue-in-cheek, censor-dodging innuendo — and the exuding chemistry from its leads, especially Colbert who pulls off a sizzling blend of stuck-up wealth and stubborn charm. What a joy to see the Academy went all out in awarding one of the tallest accomplishments in a decade practically overflowing with likeminded comedy classics.
Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935 (8th Academy Awards)
directed by Frank Lloyd
If you’re craving an historically redacted version of this famous high sea tale, and something to watch with dad (or likeminded admirer of all things simple and old-timey), you might just find it in Frank Lloyd’s “Mutiny on the Bounty.” MGM’s box office darling follows the infamous HMS Bounty fiasco while platforming the talents of Franchot Tone, Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. The trio were all nominated for lead actor, and though none won, that cluttered race led to the creation of the supporting fields. Gable is the highlight, playing pro-mutiny lieutenant Fletcher Christian with a competent attitude, easy to root for stance, and a caterpillar-moustache-less face. Lloyd spends far too long lingering on the mutiny’s igniters while also ramming the point about the ease of misused power. It doesn’t make William Bligh’s comeuppance, (Laughton in very punchable form), less powerful, but maybe it could’ve stung a bit more had it hit a few beats earlier. I suppose, that’s the dilemma of having your spoiler in the title. That being said, there is an atmospheric heart to be found, one that can feel like you’re there on the ship, and it feels emotionally genuine too. Perhaps “Mutiny” wraps itself up far too well, and that results in a sort of dissipation in the collective mind of its viewers. That is, until they remade it less than thirty years later.
The Great Ziegfeld, 1936 (9th Academy Awards)
directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Go into “The Great Ziegfeld” and it’s like the filmmakers have made your mind up about the man at the crux of this three-hour musical epic. Leonard’s film gushes over legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., (William Powell), the mind behind jaw-dropping revues and the Broadway Follies, and expects us to do the same. It offers the goods, traversing his career, successes and love trials but the result is more polarising — there are just as many reasons to watch, as there are not, and at the end of the day, you better make your mind up about it. The main draw stems from a time-capsule snapshot of Old Hollywood, dripping in ridiculous excess and expensive taste, aided by gorgeous gowns, and sets that would’ve required a soundstage-and-a-half. Take the “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” sequence, designed around an opulent wedding cake-styled set that reveals itself to be several stories high. There’s also the collaboration, one of fourteen, between Powell and Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, (Ziegfeld’s wife who went on to portray Glinda in “The Wizard of Oz”) and Luise Rainer pulls off an Academy Award-winning turn as Ziegfeld’s muse of sorts, mixing European flair with tactile melodrama. On the other end of this weighted spectrum, “The Great Ziegfeld” fails when it slows down its spectacle to offer an eye-to-eye portrayal of its vast ensemble. These scenes often prove emotionally hollow and can be a slog, or, watch it in the background and it might feel more fulfilling. Though it’s not difficult to understand what MGM was trying to achieve in this flex of wealth, attempts to make Ziegfeld into some sort of an inexplicable genius fall flat, especially when Powell, known for his suave charisma, feels miscast. The sumptuously gaudy musical numbers are more linked to the studio than the eponymously titled man behind them, and in the end, Leonard’s film feels more like expert Depression-era escapism and less a justified portrait for the creative they admire.
The Life of Emile Zola, 1937 (10th Academy Awards)
directed by William Dieterle
Dieterle’s “The Life of Emile Zola” gave the Academy their first taste of the social issue dramas that skyrocketed to success in the following decade. Rife with exposition, this biopic and courtroom drama ostensibly follows infamous writer Emile Zola’s (Paul Muni) involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, one of the most pivotal political moments in recent French history when a Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) was falsely arrested of treason. Muni was sometimes accused of overacting — no less by Dieterle himself — but his frantic and sensitive turn connects well with the wordy script and remains a sturdy backbone when the film forays into dry material. Schildkraut, who won an Oscar, internalises Dreyfus’ torment while passionately maintaining his innocence; his eyes often welled up as he simulates a full breakdown of trust. The third component that drives the fairly cookie-cutter plot is a clear-cut message — like most courtroom dramas of its league, it takes a vital story filled with ugliness and shapes it into a satisfying arc of comfortable resolve. It’s something that hasn’t gone out of style — the recent “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Mangrove” and “The Mauritanian,” follow the same path; the former is a six-time Oscar nominee. If similar stories about miscarriages of justice are your cup of tea, your cup runneth over with “Emile” which fully employs the hypocrisy of the deceitful men who hide behind medals and a court so desperate to save face, even when that marbled face is crumbling. Sadly, a film about injustice sins itself by omitting the crucial anti-Semitism that fuelled the trial’s fire. Made at a pivotal point in history, you could follow the popular theory that “The Life of Emile Zola” takes jabs at the rhetoric behind the Nazi Party’s rise and while that’s mostly true, it also strictly deals with mankind's raging consciousness at a cataclysmic chapter in human history.
You Can’t Take It with You, 1938 (11th Academy Awards)
directed by Frank Capra
Once again, Frank Capra infuses his penchant for tender romances and goodwill into his second Best Picture winner of the decade. Capra tells a Romeo and Juliet-esque story, (without all the bloodshed), of love between class lines helmed by the soft-spoken James Stewart and delightful Jean Arthur. Alice (Arthur) from the peculiar Sycamore family falls for Tony Kirby (Stewart), the son of a wealthy and conservative banker. What follows is less a comedy of errors fuelled by mismatched humour than a modest (or depending on who you ask, sappy) appraisal of humanity’s differing motives and sense of purpose. Capra is great at masking his character’s profound monologues behind a veil of comic relief. Lionel Barrymore as Martin, Alice’s philanthropic grandpa, draws the long straw of those generous scenes. “You Can’t Take It With You” has a headstrong message — for goodness sake, it only took me years to figure out it’s there in the title — and its quasi-unfastening of capitalism, for lack of a better term, is refreshing from a modern perspective. We all know that Capra destroyed corporate greed and everything turned out okay. Seriously though, Capra has moulded a timeless, and under-appreciated romantic comedy, one that doesn’t deliver on the most laughs, but that turns out to be like his later “It’s A Wonderful Life,” essential family viewing.
Gone with the Wind, 1939 (12th Academy Awards)
directed by Victor Fleming
For reasons that detract and affirm its legacy, “Gone with the Wind” earns its place in Hollywood’s textbook but it’s a film that I, and probably you, will only ever need to see once. In that regard, it finds good company in its fellow ‘30s winners. In more relevant terms, this sweeping love story set against the Civil War-era South is difficult to separate from the sour taste of its glamourised portrayal. Aside from that frankness, David O. Selznick’s opus immortalises Vivien Leigh’s incredible performance as Scarlett O’Hara — her mastered portrait of spoiled adolescence and stubbornness is the film’s promising beacon and one of the best acting jobs captured on screen. Similarly, Hattie McDaniel’s historic turn as Mammy and the circumstances around her Oscar win merit its own accolades, as does the cinematographer’s ardent use of colour imagery. In 1998, as Fleming’s epic reached its sixtieth anniversary, John Bracey, an African-American studies professor at the University of Massachusetts commented on the original release’s protests, “I can’t imagine anything like that happening now. I don’t think anybody really cares about this film anymore.” Last year demonstrated that it's still a provocative issue; unaware of its future. If “Gone with the Wind’s” legacy revolves around its shift from a faultless classic into a subject of study, it would be for the best, but those who give it a watch are still in store for a complex, somewhat unclassifiable epic of tainted politics, foregone Hollywood proportions, acting royalty, and one of the most stirring and troubling films the industry has crafted.