Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1927-1939

It's that time of year again. The end of December brought us what seemed like a gazillion Oscar-bait movies, the nominations have been announced, the parties have been planned, and the Oscars aren't happening until March 2. My usual reaction to the Oscars is irritation, either over what was nominated, or not, or what won, or not. But, despite my complaints, so many great films have been awarded Oscars over the years and unfortunately many of those great films have been forgotten. Over the next few weeks, in anticipation of this year's ceremony, I will be exploring some great Oscar winners and nominees that deserve greater recognition.

Although Wings is widely considered the first Best Picture winner, the choice is rather arbitrary because at the first Academy Awards, for the years 1927 and 1928, it won the Outstanding Picture award, while F. W. Murnau's extraordinary Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won the Unique and Artistic Production award. Since then, the two awards have been combined and only one film is honored as Best Picture. (Greg Ferrara, on TCM's fabulous blog, wrote a great post about why having two awards was such a great thing.) As a result, Sunrise has been unjustly left in the shadows, although it is one of the most fascinating and technically innovative films ever produced in the US. From the simple premise of a straying husband and his suffering wife emerges a stunning, suspenseful, kaleidoscopic, and philosophic film. It was also nominated for the Best Actress and Best Art Design awards and won for Best Cinematography.

That same year, Frank Borzage, one of the great forgotten directors, won the Best Director, Dramatic Picture, award for Seventh Heaven, a beautiful romantic fable about two unhappy people who find solace and happiness in each other, only for the first World War to separate them. Though many of its conventions seem dated to modern viewers, Janet Gaynor, who also starred in Sunrise, gives a heartbreaking performance and the film is less sentimental than sincere and idealistic.

With four nominations and one win for Best Actress in the ceremony for 1929 and 1930, The Divorcee, starring the glorious Norma Shearer, was one of the big pictures of the year. Today, it's considered a classic of the pre-code era, as its plot revolves around the sexual misbehavior of a married couple and the double standards that dictated that if a man cheated, it was just a mistake, but if a woman did, it was a marriage-shattering crisis. American films wouldn't be as sexually frank again until the late 1960s.

At the fourth Academy Awards, honoring films released in 1930 and 1931, Marie Dressler got the statuette for Best Actress for her knockout performance opposite Walter Beery in Min and Bill. Marie Dressler was one of the great actresses of her day, a pug-faced vociferous woman with a marvelous sense of comedic timing. Today, it's unlikely that she would get roles at all, let alone star in high-profile films, but Hollywood has been wanting her like since her death in 1934.

At the ceremony honoring the films of 1931 and 1932, and in company with Grand Hotel and Shanghai Express, Frank Borzage's drama Bad Girl was nominated for Outstanding Production (as the Best Picture award was called at the time) and received both the awards for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. This film is about a working class couple who fall in love, marry, and find their relationship tested by an unexpected pregnancy for which neither one is really prepared. The film has aged extremely well, partly due to the naturalistic acting style and unobtrusive direction. Bad Girl is also significant because it is one of only a handful of films of the time to both realistically and respectfully portray working class people.

At the ceremony honoring the films of 1932 and 1933, an unusual award was handed out to seven deserving individuals - the award for Best Assistant Director. This award was given only until 1937, but it's a nice recognition of some of the men (naturally there isn't a single woman among the nominees) who are essential to the filmmaking process but rarely receive any acknowledgement. Among the great films of 1932-33 are Little Women, A Farewell to Arms, She Done Him Wrong (the film widely credited as the decisive catalyst for the creation of the Production Code), and 42nd Street. One of the best films of the year, Gold Diggers of 1933, only received a nomination for Best Sound Recording, but it deserves to be seen by every Oscar buff. It's still, even in the days of CGI, technically innovative, particularly the dance sequences, and it's both laugh-out-loud funny and a socially progressive film that acknowledged the miseries of the Great Depression and the need for change.

At the 1934 Oscars, three new awards were introduced - Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. One of my all-time favorite Hollywood dramas, just released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection this week (yay!), The Barretts of Wimpole Street received two nominations, including one for Outstanding Production. Starring Norma Shearer, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton, the film narrates the romance between Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One of Ernst Lubitsch's most entertaining and sophisticated musicals, The Merry Widow, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald and loosely based on the operetta by Franz Lehar, won the award for Best Art Direction.

In 1937, nominees for Outstanding Production varied widely, including historical epics, screwball comedies, showbiz dramas, and fantasy. Nominated for Best Art Direction, and winner of Best Dance Direction (discontinued after this year), A Damsel in Distress is one of the great underrated musicals of the 1930s. Starring Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, and Gracie Allen, the film's dance sequences are innovative, witty, and quite spectacular, the screenplay is particularly funny, and Allen is a comic standout. The Best Animated Short Film was The Old Mill, an experimental Walt Disney cartoon that was the first made using his revolutionary multiplane camera. Walt Disney won the award for Best Animated Short Film again in 1938, for his lovely adaptation of Ferdinand the Bull, the controversial (and perfect) children's book by Munro Leaf. This is among Disney's finest short films.

1939 is often named the greatest year for cinema and it's not hard to see why: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, and Wuthering Heights are some of the most prominent films of the year. In such company, it's not hard for a slightly less popular film to be overshadowed. One of the finest films of the year, Only Angels Have Wings, a thrilling comedy drama about pilots in South America, was only nominated for Best Cinematography, Black and White, and Best Special Effects, but is nevertheless a brilliant film deserving of inclusion in the illustrious company of the Outstanding Production nominees.

The 86th Oscars ceremony will be broadcast on March 2 on ABC.

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