1929/30 1930/31 1931/32 1932/33 1934 1935 1936 1937 1938 1939
* Indicates that the film/performance was not nominated for an Academy Award in this category

1929/30
All Quiet on the Western Front
Actor: George Arliss (Disraeli)
Actress:Norma Shearer (The Divorcee)
Director: Lewis Milestone
(All Quiet on the Western Front)
All Quiet on the Western Front
Actor: Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)
Actress: Greta Garbo (Anna Christie)
Supporting Actor: Louis Wolheim
(All Quiet on the Western Front)*
Supporting Actress: Marie Dressler (Anna Christie)*
Director: Lewis Milestone
(All Quiet on the Western Front
)
 
All Quiet on the Western Front is the first true masterpiece made during the sound era, and any other choice for the Best Picture Oscar (then or now) would be ridiculous. It is one the of the few films of the 1930s that seems to gain power with the passage of time, as the viewer realizes the horrors of war remain the same regardless the advances in tactics or technology. It was the first Best Picture produced by lowly Universal Studios, which invested an unusually large amount of its assets into the production (Universal head Carl Laemmle imported Broadway luminary George Abbott to cowrite the screenplay and up-and-coming stage director George Cukor to act as dialogue coach) which paid off dividends both in box office returns and in prestige. In addition to the Oscar for Best Picture, it won Lewis Milestone his second Best Director Oscar (after winning the only Oscar ever given for Comedy Direction for Two Arabian Knights in 1927/28); although the omission of acting nominations for either Lew Ayres or especially Louis Wolheim (who also appeared in Two Arabian Knights) for their unforgettable performances seems a peculiar oversight. Wolheim was a wonderful character actor whose brutish appearance belied an erudite intellect (he was a professor of English at Yale before going into acting), rising to prominence in the original Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape in 1922 and finding success in silent films (he almost certainly would have been nominated for his intimidating supporting performance as a gangland boss in the 1927/28 Best Picture nominee The Racket, had that category been awarded at the time), but his sympathetic performance as a kindly soldier in All Quiet On the Western Front represented not only the highlight of his career, but one of the seminal performances of the early talkie era.


At a time when cameras were shut up in boxes to prevent their sound from being caught on the soundtrack (cameramen frequently fainted from lack of oxygen) and action was static because microphones had to be immobile, the film industry was desperately raiding Broadway for actors who could speak and directors who were familiar with the possibilities of the human voice. One of the first great emigrants to Hollywood was director Rouben Mamoulian, who appeared on the scene this year with his first film and showed everyone how it should be done. Applause is an entertaining backstage romp that was fluid and alive with action (compared to the stiff and stodgy Broadway Melody) that failed to receive a single nomination despite being hailed as a revolutionary advance in film's use of sound. Mamoulian went on to direct a handful of glorious films (Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight, Queen Christina, The Mark of Zorro), never winning a nomination despite the supremacy of his craft. He was as a distinguished a stage director (Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!) as he was with film, but he never seemed to get the recognition he deserved.


This strange period when Hollywood was first trying to find its voice with actors who could speak resulted in the one of the most unlikely movie stars: George Arliss, who played the role of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli for years in Britain and America and made a silent film of the play before giving his Oscar winning performance in the 1930 film. Arliss was described as "the greatest living actor" (most frequently by himself), but his stagy style has not stood up well to repeated viewings. Many stage actors of this period recreated Broadway successes on film with performances that can still be enjoyed today (Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman, Fredric March in The Royal Family of Broadway, W. C. Fields in Poppy), but Arliss' celebrated turn as Disraeli has more ham than an Easter dinner and his signature vehicle, first staged in 1911, is a remnant of a bygone age that would have us believe that the legendary Prime Minister spent most of his time out-witting foreign spies who infiltrated his home to uncover secret codes. The film does have some entertaining moments, such as when Disraeli feigns illness to deceive a female spy, but his performance lacks the freshness and spontaneity of Ronald Colman in Bulldog Drummond, Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade, or the unnominated Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front.

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1930/31

Cimarron
Actor: Lionel Barrymore (A Free Soul)
Actress: Marie Dressler (Min and Bill)
Director: Norman Taurog (Skippy)

City Lights*
Actor: Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar)*
Actress: Marie Dressler (Min and Bill)
Supporting Actor: Harry Myers (City Lights)*
Supporting Actress: Virginia Cherrill (City Lights)*
Director: Charles Chaplin (City Lights)*

 

Cimarron is a bloated, uninvolving epic that seems truly shocking today because of the racist slant towards the film's one black character (a dim-witted servant who is first seen sleeping in a chandelier). Indeed none of the films nominated for Best Picture (with the possible exception of The Front Page) are remembered at all today except for their Oscar nominee status, compared to a slew of non-nominated films that are constantly and enthusiastically revived: Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Dracula, The Dawn Patrol and The Blue Angel. Towering above all of these memorable films is arguably the greatest masterpiece by the greatest artist in the history of motion pictures: Chaplin's City Lights. The failure of City Lights to receive any nominations (despite its financial success and critical acclaim) is usually attributed to Chaplin turning his back on sound and continuing to make silent films years after the industry had made the transition to talkies. But the selection of the mediocre Cimarron and the omission of the breathtaking City Lights indicates a pattern in Oscar voting that prevails to this day: epic over simplicity, drama over comedy, safety over risk.

City Lights may be (along with Birth of a Nation) one of the greatest examples of true risk in motion picture history. A major studio hadn't released a silent film in over two years, and the making of the "Comedy Romance in Pantomime" proved to be a nightmare that less persistent filmmakers might easily have abandoned. It was in production for over three years with less than half that time being devoted to the actual shooting as Chaplin dealt with his creative blocks and the inexperience of ingénue Virginia Cherrill, who walked off the film in a salary strike at one point when the contract she originally agreed to proved to be invalid. It was all worth it in the end, as City Lights proved not only Chaplin's greatest box office success to that time, but an unforgettable work of cinematic art that boasts one of the most moving endings in movie history. Chaplin is nothing short of magic in his penultimate appearance as the Little Tramp, and unforgettable work is also provided by acting veteran Harry Myers as an eccentric millionaire who is best friends with the tramp when he is drunk, only to not have the slightest idea who he is when sober. But most surprising of all is the heartbreaking performance of the neophyte Cherrill, whose painstaking work with Chaplin (the shot where the tramp first encounters the flower girl required 342 takes) resulted in a brilliant characterization and while her moving performance is far more a testament to Chaplin's ability to draw good work from inexperienced actresses than anything else, the proof is in the pudding and Cherrill's performance is the finest of an actress in any Chaplin film until Paulette Goddard came along. Cherrill only appeared in about a dozen more films after her success in City Lights before retiring to a more fitting career as a socialite (she was married to Cary Grant during her Hollywood period) with her most memorable post-City Lights film being Charlie Chan's Greatest Case. She did make a final appearance in the magnificent 1983 documentary Unknown Chaplin, and had a such an elegant and dignified presence that it's easy to see what Chaplin saw in her in the first place.

While the failure of City Lights to receive any nominations can be explained away because of Chaplin's refusal to embrace sound, the failure of Edward G. Robinson to be nominated for his spellbinding, career-defining performance in Little Caesar seems inexplicable (especially compared with the hammy scenery chewing of nominee Richard Dix in Cimarron or winner Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul). The multifaceted Robinson was never nominated for an Academy Award despite brilliant performances in Double Indemnity, Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and The Cincinnati Kid; this is not only the year he should have been nominated, but the year he should have won.
1930/31 is perhaps the worst year in Oscar history for overlooking classic films for the Best Picture award. In addition to the deserving The Front Page and the undeserving Cimarron, the Academy nominated three forgotten films for the award: Skippy (which is remembered today only because it boasted the youngest Best Actor nominee in ten year old Jackie Coogan and for serving as the name of a brand of peanut butter), Trader Horn (which is remembered for star Edwina Booth contracting sleeping sickness during its shooting in Africa and successfully suing MGM), and the hoary melodrama East Lynne (which isn't remembered for anything). With the wealth of memorable films released in this voting period, the selection of the bloated, boring, and racist Cimarron ranks as the worst choice for Best Picture in Oscar history.

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1931/32
       
Grand Hotel
Actor: Wallace Beery (The Champ) and
Fredric March (Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde)
Actress: Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madeline Claudet)
Director: Frank Borzage (Bad Girl)
Frankenstein*
Actor: Fredric March (Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde)
Actress: Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel)*
Supporting Actor: Boris Karloff (Frankenstein)*
Supporting Actress: Miriam Hopkins
(Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde)*
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
(Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde)*
 

Grand Hotel was a bold move by MGM wunderkind Irving G. Thalberg to put five of the studio's biggest stars into a single picture. The result is a lavish melodrama that can still be viewed with enjoyment today, despite its trivial storyline and the uneven performances by its celebrated cast (Joan Crawford gives perhaps the finest performance of her career, but Greta Garbo sleepwalks through her turn as an antisocial ballerina and has very little chemistry with love interest John Barrymore). Compare this piece of fluff with a wildly entertaining film that deals with the Big Issue of the consequences of when a man tries to play God: Frankenstein. This film is sometimes written off even today as a mere monster movie, but was so powerful in its time that it had to be edited to avoid offending sensitive patrons (when the monster is finally animated, Doctor Frankenstein can be seen screaming a line of dialogue that was frustratingly erased from the film's soundtrack by nervous censors. The line is "Now in the name of God, I know what it feels like to be God!") Overlooked for recognition in its day, Frankenstein was one of the few early sound films to be listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films ever made.

Boris Karloff's iconic performance as the monster in Frankenstein failed to make the cut in the nominations in an era when only three Best Actor nominees were honored and the supporting awards were not yet given. While it's true that Karloff may have been overlooked because of the perception that he appeared in a genre film and that a good deal of his performance was achieved by makeup, this didn't hurt winner Fredric March who faced the same prejudices for his superb performance as Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Most likely Karloff was overlooked because he was an unknown whose film was made for a minor studio (Universal) and his monster was really a supporting role (Karloff was fourth-billed in the cast, although that didn't stop the Academy from nominating Frank Morgan for Best Actor in a supporting role for The Affairs of Cellini in 1934), whereas March (who deserved the Oscar for his brilliant performance) was an up-and-coming star with one Oscar nomination already to his credit (for The Royal Family of Broadway) whose film was made for a major studio (Paramount). But Karloff's performance continues to make the greatest impact today, and seems especially impressive compared with the less-than-compelling work of the later actors to take on the role for Universal (Lon Chaney, Jr., Glenn Strange and especially Bela Lugosi; whose wooden performance as the monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man makes one shudder to realize that he was originally offered the role before Karloff in the original). The Academy looked down its nose at monster movies and to expect them to include both March and Karloff is probably asking too much, but the indelible image of Karloff was certainly worthy of a nomination.


Frank Borzage received his second Academy Award for Best Director for Bad Girl (the first was for Seventh Heaven in 1927/28). Bad Girl was a strangely titled (there was no bad girl in it) piece of hack work that was recognized more for Borzage's position as one of the Hollywood Social Elite than for artistic merit. Far more deserving of recognition were the nominated work of King Vidor for The Champ and Josef von Sternberg for Shanghai Express and the non-nominated work of Edmund Goulding for Grand Hotel, James Whale for Frankenstein or Rouben Mamoulian for Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, but since they lacked Borzage's social connections, all they had going for themselves was raw talent - a commodity not always valued by the Academy. The film itself is a forgettable little nonentity about the compromises and misunderstandings faced by a young couple (played by a hammy James Dunn and a wooden Sally Eilers) during the bumpy first years of their marriage. Borzage's movie career dated back to 1912 and he adored implausible, melodramatic material about young married life (Seventh Heaven followed a similar path of showing the early stages of a young couple's marriage, to even more dubiously melodramatic effect, although it had the advantage of the charming Janet Gaynor and the dashing Charles Ferrell in the leads) with simplistic conflicts (Eilers is thrown out of her Simon Legree-like brother's apartment under the slightest suspicion of improper behavior) and some rather crude attempts at humor (after Eilers gives birth to the couple's first child, a nurse inexplicably presents numerous other babies to the new mother who assumes them to be hers, only to be told that they are the children of other women in the ward). It is the type of material that D.W. Griffith could do alchemy with, but Borzage was no D.W. Griffith and his award-winning films now gather dust as forgotten museum pieces.

Grand Hotel is the only film to win the Best Picture Oscar that wasn't nominated in any other categories, a classification that seems absurd because the film had so many outstanding aspects to it. Edmund Goulding did a remarkable job in directing so many high caliber, high ego names in the cast, and got particularly memorable performances from Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore. William Drake did a superb job of crafting a screenplay from Vicki Baum's potentially episodic novel. But the most unique aspect of the film may have been Cedric Gibbons' opulent art deco set, one of the most formidable achievements in art direction of the era. The Academy only named three nominees in this period and those that they did honor -Richard Day for Arrowsmith, Lazare Meerson for À nous la liberté (the first foreign language film to receive a nomination) and winner Gordon Wiles for Transatlantic - were all fine choices for recognition. But Gibbons' work on Grand Hotel is such a striking and original achievement that its omission seems glaring today.

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1932/33
Cavalcade
Actor: Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII)
Actress: Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory)
Director: Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade)
King Kong*
Actor: Paul Muni (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang)
Actress: Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)*
Supporting Actor: Stuart Erwin (International House)*
Supporting Actres
s: Joan Bennett (Little Women)*
Director: Merian C. Cooper and
Ernest B. Schoedsack (King Kong)
 

1932/33 is perhaps the most puzzling year in Oscar history, not only because a totally forgotten film was once again awarded the Best Picture Oscar, but because one of the most original, memorable and influential films ever made failed to receive a single nomination. The lack of Oscar recognition awarded to King Kong is usually attributed to the fact that it was released by the minor RKO Radio studios. But RKO Radio had a Best Picture nominee that year in Little Women, so that argument seems unconvincing. Not only that, but the episodic and unappealing Cavalcade was by far the weakest film nominated that year, being pitted against such classics as Forty-Second Street, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Little Women, She Done Him Wrong, and the non-nominated Duck Soup,Trouble in Paradise and Dinner At Eight. Based on Noël Coward's monumental stage pageant, Cavalcade does contain some interesting sequences (the scenes depicting the bombing of London during World War I are very exciting), but they are few and few between in a rambling extravaganza that lacks relatable characters or a compelling storyline. There's a reason some films are remembered and others are not. Screen Cavalcade, and you'll realize why it's forgotten.

The original version of King Kong seems likely to never be forgotten, even in the face of many imitators that include two complete remakes: John Guillermin's ghastly 1976 version which was nominated for two Oscars and won a Special Achievement Award, and Peter Jackson's far more creditable - though undeniably overlong - 2005 attempt which won three statuettes. The virtues that set apart the 1933 original from its various pretenders are many, but one of the most overlooked highlights of the film is Robert Armstrong's wooden, humorless, and absolutely spot-on correct characterization of ultra-macho filmmaker Carl Denham. The character Denham is based on Kong's co-director Merion C. Cooper, who was a decorated military man that escaped from a Soviet prisoner of war camp before starting his film career as the producer of the type of roughhewn nature films that Denham specializes in (Cooper's second film, Chang, was a pseudo-documentary about a family of elephants that was nominated for the Artistic Quality of Production award at the first Oscar ceremony). Though a woefully limited actor, Armstrong brings exactly the right note of uncompromising masculinity to the film that later interpreters - a composite of a milquetoast Charles Grodin and a bland Jeff Bridges in 1976, and a boyish, roly-poly Jack Black in 2005 - completely miss the mark on. Armstrong was an awful actor whose only memorable films were Kong, the sequel Son of Kong and the Kong rip-off Mighty Joe Young, but he was perfectly cast as Carl Denham and brings a rugged quality to the role that it's hard to imagine many other actors being equal to.


In 1930/31, the Academy nominated Trader Horn for Best Picture, a film that is best known for its star contracting sleeping sickness. In 1932/33, they gave the Best Picture Award to a film that is so boring that it could cause sleeping sickness. Based on a play by Noel Coward, Cavalcade is the saga of two families, the Marryots and the Bridges, the former upper class and the latter their servants, from the end of the 19th Century up to 1933. While the narrative of the film takes place over forty years, watching it seems to take up almost as much time. Ask any movie fan to name their favorite films, and King Kong, Duck Soup, and Forty-second Street will likely appear on the list. Ask any movie fan if they thought Cavalcade was the best film of 1933, and their most likely reply would be "What's Cavalcade?" With the wealth of superior films eligible for Best Picture, the choice of Cavalcade must rank second only to Cimarron as the worst selection for Best Picture in Academy Award history.

When Will Rogers announced the Best Director winner, he said simply "Come up and get it, Frank!" Nominee Frank Capra thought that Rogers meant him, and was almost to the podium when he realized that the winner was actually Frank Lloyd for Cavalcade. Capra was forced to make his way back to his seat in abject humiliation, but one can understand his confusion as Lloyd's ponderous direction of the forgotten Calvacade is one of the worst selections in Oscar history. There were a myriad of overlooked accomplishments in 1932/33: the career defining performance of Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, the manic screenplay of Duck Soup, and the elegant production of Dinner at Eight all leap immediately to mind. But the groundbreaking effect of King Kong makes its shutout the biggest mystery in Oscar history. The two individuals most deserving of recognition were directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, whose work was light years beyond winner Frank Lloyd for Cavalcade or even nominees Frank Capra (Lady for A Day) and George Cukor (Little Women), whose place on the honor roll is well deserved.

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1934
It Happened One Night
Best Actor: Clark Gable (It Happened One Night)
Best Actress:Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night)
Director Frank Capra (It Happened One Night)
It Happened One Night
Actor: John Barrymore (Twentieth Century)*
Actress: Bette Davis(Of Human Bondage)*
Supporting Actor: Frank Morgan (Affairs of Cellini)
Supporting Actress: Zasu Pitts
(Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch)*
Director Frank Capra (It Happened One Night)

The Academy behaved very uncharacteristically in 1934, eschewing its usual Best Picture preference for epic drama by selecting a modest comedy made by the B-List Columbia Studios. But for once they got it right, since the groundbreaking screwball comedy It Happened One Night was not only a major influence on screen comedy for the next ten years, but it is as enjoyable to modern audiences as to its original patrons. 1934 was a strong year for Hollywood, with evergreen classics like The Thin Man, The Gay Divorcee, and the unnominated Twentieth Century, It's a Gift and Sons of the Desert enchanting audiences as much today as when they premiered. But even this heady group doesn't quite equal the magic of It Happened One Night, whose storied creation seems like the stuff of Hollywood fantasy in itself (Gable's casting in the role that catapulted him into superstardom was originally meant as a punishment to the actor, who had the audacity to ask for more money; and Frank Capra's unprecedented dominance at the Oscars came only a year after humiliating himself by mounting the podium to accept the Best Director Oscar for Lady for a Day, not realizing that the winner was actually Frank Lloyd). But as delightful as It Happened One Night was, its Oscar success seems an aberration in Academy history (nominees Cleopatra or The Barretts of Wimpole Street are more along the usual preference for Best Picture), but this was a rare occasion where the Best Picture was the most entertaining one as well.

There weren't any sore thumbs in the 1934 awards, but the selection of Clark Gable as Best Actor was clearly a case of style over substance. Gable was an appealing personality who gave a virtually identical performance in all his films. He had wittier lines to say in It Happened One Night, but he didn't really do anything different in it than he did in Boom Town or Test Pilot. Ironically, he delivered more interesting performances in films like A Free Soul and Manhattan Melodrama, playing the tough guy roles he specialized in before rising to superstardom, and it's interesting to consider what his career would have been like if he'd made films for the grittier Warner Bros. studio instead of the MGM glamour factory. Gable does have two performances of astonishing depth on his résumé, neither of which got him the Oscar recognition he deserved. One was his startlingly moving turn as a gambler who finds religion after surviving an earthquake in San Francisco (Gable's spot in the nominations was taken by his co-star in the film, third-billed Spencer Tracy, for what was nothing more than an extended cameo). The other great performance in his filmography is his magnificent final role as a cynical, love-struck cowboy in The Misfits, again passed over by Tracy in the nominations for his self-righteous work in the ponderous Judgment at Nuremberg. Fortunately for Gable, the year he won his Oscar Tracy was busying himself with comedies like The Show-Off and musicals like Bottoms Up, which didn't provide much competition.

Bette Davis' failure to be nominated for Of Human Bondage was such a scandal that the Academy allowed write-in votes to put her back in the running. But in the Hindsight Awards race, the scandal should have been over the omission of John Barrymore, who was never nominated for an Academy Award, claiming that "they're afraid that I'll show up drunk if I win - and I just might!" He might have been nominated for any number of performances, but the one that seems like the biggest oversight was his hilarious work as the desperate producer in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century. The nominees that year were Gable (who won because of the popularity of It Happened One Night - and his own), Frank Morgan in The Affairs of Cellini (who would have won Best Supporting Actor if that award had been introduced two years earlier, and was only narrowly defeated by Gable for the Best Actor award) and William Powell for The Thin Man. All were reasonable selections, but Barrymore's work was a tour-de-force that outdid all of them.

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1935
       
Mutiny on the Bounty
Actor: Victor McLaglen (The Informer)
Actress: Bette Davis (Dangerous)
Director: John Ford (The Informer)
Top Hat
Actor: Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty)
Actress: Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams)
Supporting Actor: W. C. Fields David Copperfield)*
Supporting Actress: Florence Eldridge
(Les Miserables)
*
Director: John Ford (The Informer)
 
Mutiny on the Bounty is a rip-snorting adventure film and the second Irving Thalberg production to win Best Picture. Strangely, it did not win an award in any other category; although it is the only film to receive three nominations for Best Actor: for Clark Gable, Franchot Tone (who would have been up for Best Supporting Actor if that award had been introduced a year earlier) and New York Film Critics Award winner Charles Laughton. The movie is carried by Laughton's definitive Captain Bligh, but the story unfolds in a very one sided manner that lacks dramatic power (the tale of the mutiny was told with much more drama in 1984's The Bounty, ironically the only version of the three films of the story not to be nominated for Best Picture). Mutiny on the Bounty's biggest threat to the Oscar was John Ford's The Informer, which won Best Director, Best Actor for Victor McLaglen, and Best Screenplay (which Dudley Nichols turned down in protest of the Academy's labor organizing activities); but three films of the era stand out as supreme cinematic achievements: the hilarious horror send-up The Bride of Frankenstein (featuring stunning performances by Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger), the Marx Bros. masterpiece A Night at the Opera, and the seminal teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Top Hat.Of the three, Top Hat was the only film to receive a Best Picture nomination (The Bride of Frankenstein was nominated for its sound recording), and that delightful entertainment is as enjoyable today as when it came out. To be sure, the film is a throwback to Broadway musicals of the 1920s before people like Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern figured out that songs could advance a show's story rather than merely serve as an entertaining diversion from it. But Top Hat is an example of this type of entertainment at its most sublime due to the Astaire-Rogers chemistry, the magnificent dancing of Astaire, a superb song score by Irving Berlin, a delightful bon bon of a screenplay by Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor, and wonderful supporting performances by Helen Broderick and Edward Everett Horton. They don't just not make `em like this anymore - they never made `em like this!

The first of three Oscars for Dance Direction were given out this year, and the Academy mistakenly awarded Dave Gould for the "I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling" number from The Broadway Melody of 1936 instead of the rightful winner Hermes Pan for the "Piccolino" from Top Hat. Pan's athletic and sophisticated choreography for Top Hat continues to dazzle to this day, and should have left the other nominees in the dust.

The Marx Bros. films were never nominated for Academy Awards (save for a single nomination for Dance Direction for the disturbingly racist "All God's Children Got Rhythm" number from 1937's A Day At the Races). It's understandable that the brothers never received nominations as performers (since they always played the same characters in a manner which is not acting that the Academy Awards were designed for), but their film's inventive and unique screenplays were certainly deserving of recognition.This was never truer than in the case of A Night at the Opera, penned by distinguished playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (Pulitzer Prize winners for Of Thee I Sing). The Academy traditionally thumbs its nose at broad comedy, but A Night at the Opera was head and shoulders the finest screenplay of 1935, and should not only have been nominated, it should have won.

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1936
The Great Ziegfeld
Actor: Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur)
Actress: Luise Rainer (The Great Ziegfeld)
Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan(Come and Get It)
Supporting Actress: Gale Sondergaard
(Anthony Adverse)
Director: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
Actor: Charles Chaplin(Modern Times)*
Actress: Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey)
Supporting Actor: Paul Robeson (Show Boat)*
Supporting Actress: Paulette Goddard
(Modern Times)
*
Director: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
 

The Academy awarded Frank Capra Best Director Oscars for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It With You (1938), as well as anointing the first and third films as Best Picture of the Year. This is ironic, since the most memorable film by far is the one that they didn't select for the award, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra's tale of small-town rube Longfellow Deeds' whose life is nearly ruined when he inherits a fortune was Capra's masterpiece (even moreso than the better-remembered Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life) and won the Best Picture award from the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. It remains as touching and amusing today, even with attempts to water it down by a short-lived television sitcom with the same title and a crude remake with Adam Sandler failing to fill the very large shoes left by Gary Cooper at his funniest and most sincere as the tuba-playing millionaire who finds only scorn in the big city until he meets what he thinks is a kindred spirit in the wonderful Jean Arthur. Mr. Deeds faced stiff competition as the finest film of the year from My Man Godfrey (which was nominated for Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director and Screenplay, but not Best Picture - its place in that category was taken by Libeled Lady, which was not nominated for anything else) and Chaplin's Modern Times (which received a total of zero nominations).

But this was an era when the Academy wasn't all that interested in quality for its top prize. With the wealth of comic masterpieces to choose from, the Academy blew it once again by selecting MGM's behemoth of a musical tribute to legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, The Great Ziegfeld; a dull, poorly acted (especially by Oscar winner Luise Rainer) film that would have sank into oblivion were it not for its Oscar success. But since this was a period where Oscar selections were primarily dictated by studio politics, a big studio superproduction always carried an edge with the voters.


Luise Rainer won the first of her back-to-back Academy Awards for her wooden performance as Florenz Ziegfeld's first wife Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld before returning to the anonymity that she was better suited for. To be fair, the ultra-slick MGM was probably the worst place for the unpretentious Rainer to call home, and her career might have faired better at a less mainstream studio not so obsessed with Hollywood glamour. But it is doubtful that a limited talent like Rainer would have received such praise for a brief period without the power of Leo the Lion behind her, and her Oscar for The Great Ziegfeld remains a curious selection that seems even more puzzling when it is compared with the nominated (and far superior) performance of Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey. Lombard never won an Oscar, and My Man Godfrey was the performance she never won it for. Rainer received a second Oscar the following year for her more effective (though somewhat monotonous) performance in The Good Earth. The casting of the Viennese Rainer as a Chinese peasant would result in protests today, but audiences were impressed enough by such miscasting in 1937 to award it with Academy Awards. Rainier would later blame the subsequent decline in her career on the double-Oscar win, but the fact of the matter is that she was a very mediocre actress who was absurdly overpraised for a brief period of time.

The Academy had a final opportunity to honor the silent artistry of Charles Chaplin in 1936 for his final appearance as the tramp in Modern Times, the last silent film to be released by a major studio until Mel Brooks' novelty comedy Silent Movie and 2011's Best Picture The Artist. Since Chaplin once again snubbed sound, the Academy apparently felt at ease to snub Chaplin (Modern Times did not receive a single nomination). Chaplin only won one Oscar in a competitive category, for Best Dramatic Score for Limelight in 1972 (the film was eligible for Oscars twenty years after it was made because it had not been released in Los Angeles prior to that). It was hardly a selection based on sentimentality though, as Chaplin was almost as distinguished a composer as he was a filmmaker. This was never so apparent as with the haunting and powerful score of Modern Times, which includes the classic song "Smile." Modern Times deserved numerous nominations, but its failure to be honored for its score is truly a mystery today.

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1937
The Life of Emile Zola
Actor: Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous )
Actress: Luise Rainer (The Good Earth)
Supporting Actor: Joseph Schildkraut
(The Life of Emile Zola)
Supporting Actress: Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)
Director: Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves*
Actor: Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous)
Actress: Greta Garbo (Camille)
Supporting Actor: Roland Young (Topper)
Supporting Actress: Margaret Dumont
(A Day at the Races)*
Director: Fritz Lang (You Only Live Once)*
 
The Life of Emile Zola was one in a series of somewhat pretentious biographical films that Warner Bros. made to suit the histrionic abilities of their prestigious star "Mr." Paul Muni (as he was frequently billed). Emile Zola is a film very much in the Oscar mold: a Serious film about a Serious subject made by high pedigree talent. Zola was a fine film for its day, but it was a safe and predictable choice for Best Picture and a film that is virtually forgotten today. Far better choices were Frank Capra's memorable film of the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon or the Laurel & Hardy classic Way Out West; but by far the most memorable, courageous and influential film of 1937 was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Walt Disney completely dominated the animation business when he decided to risk everything on a brand new art form: the feature length cartoon. Failure might have meant the end of his studio, but Snow White's success was so overwhelming that it began a series of films that are among the most memorable and beloved in the history of film. The Academy honored Snow White with a Special Oscar for Disney as well as a nomination for its score (although not, strangely, for Best Song for the perennial Whistle While You Work). You may argue that it's not fair for an animated film to win the Best Picture Award and you may be right, but if one looks at the films released in 1937 and asks which made the biggest impact not only for that year but in terms of its importance in the evolution of film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves stands head and shoulders above all its rivals.

The extras branch of the Screen Actors Guild were permitted to vote for some awards in this era, and they created a major controversy when it was decreed that they swayed the Best Song Award to the hackneyed crowd-pleaser "Sweet Leilani" from the Bing Crosby musical Waikiki Wedding in favor of the superior and more sophisticated "They Can't Take That Away From Me" by George and Ira Gershwin. Nebraskan composer Harry Owens composed the songs for only a handful of films (winning his dubious Oscar on his only nomination) before returning to his true calling as the front man for the Hawaiian-influenced big band Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians, which popularized the hapa haole style of Hawaiian music.

No one would argue that Margaret Dumont was a great actress since the only role she seemed capable of playing was a wealthy dowager who Groucho Marx was always trying to con out of her fortune (her one memorable non-Marx Bros. film was in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break in which she played a wealthy dowager who W.C. Fields was always trying to con out of her fortune). But in that role she had no equal and this was never more true than in her performance of the well-heeled but affectionate Mrs. Upjohn in A Day at the Races. The role was not on the surface any different from what she was asked to do in Animal Crackers or A Night at the Opera, but through some alchemy she managed to raise the bar on her performance in this comic masterpiece to a level she had never reached before and none of her countless imitators would ever reach again. There were better actresses who might have been selected for this honor in 1937, but there was no performer who made such an immortal impact on her audiences than Margaret Dumont.

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1938
       
You Can't Take It With You
Actor: Spencer Tracy (Boys Town)
Actress: Bette Davis (Jezebel)
Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan (Kentucky)
Supporting Actress: Fay Bainter (Jezebel)
Director: Frank Capra (You Can't Take It With You)
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Actor: James Cagney(Angels With Dirty Faces)
Actress: Bette Davis (Jezebel)
Supporting Actor: Mickey Rooney (Boys Town)*
Supporting Actress: Fay Bainter (Jezebel)
Director: Michael Curtiz and Willian Keighley
(The Adventures of Robin Hood)*
 
You Can't Take It With You was the biggest hit of the 1936 theatre season, winning the Pulitzer Prize for authors George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. But when it was adapted to the screen two years later, it was billed as Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You. Screenwriter Robert Ryskind made a game try at opening up the play for the screen, expanding the secondary roles of the young lovers in the play to leads in the film (wonderfully played by Jean Arthur and particularly the young James Stewart, who provide the most memorable performances in the film), but as a result the Kaufman/Hart laughfest is whittled into a moderately charming romantic comedy/drama and not the biting satire that it was in the original Broadway production and as a mainstay of summer stock theatres in the decades since. Capra was one of the only comedy filmmakers the Academy took seriously in the 1930s (along with Leo McCarey), and after deservedly anointing him as Best Director in 1934 and 1936, they got carried away by giving him a hat trick for his frustratingly stagebound comedy in a surprise decision. The film that was expected to win was the delightfully exciting and cinematic The Adventures of Robin Hood, still one of the most adventurous and enjoyable films ever made and the seminal teaming of actor Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz (who strangely received two nominations in the Best Director category this year, but not for this, his finest venture into the adventure genre - possibly because he took over from William Keighley early in the filming and shared credit with Keighley in the final film). Viewed today, it seems inconceivable that Robin Hood didn't sweep the Oscars.

With the extras still having the strongest voice in the Oscar race, anyone who could sway their vote had an unfair advantage in the balloting. This was never so true as it was with Walter Brennan, who was beloved by the extras because he started out as one. This resulted in his winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1936, 1938 and 1940. Brennan was a wonderful character actor who appeared memorably in many classic films, but all three of his Oscars were considered major upsets that were swayed by the extras in the voting. Had a more objective panel been voting, Brennan probably wouldn't have won any Oscars, and his 1938 award for Kentucky would be the first to go. It's a tiresome Romeo & Juliet story about a tiresome boy and girl (played by tiresome Richard Greene and Loretta Young) from feuding horse-breeding families who get together over the objections of her lovable but crotchety old uncle (inevitably played by Brennan, who specialized in playing old men, even though he was only 44 at the time). The story might have been from a Clyde Fitch play written at the turn of the century and its attitude towards its black characters is disturbingly patronizing. Brennan did his usual entertaining and professional job but the character doesn't have a trace of the complexity he showed in classics like My Darling Clementine (1946) or Red River (1948); performances that failed to win any Academy recognition after the boost he got from the extras went away after their vote was rescinded. For Brennan for be honored for sterotypical work in Kentucky over vastly more interesting nominated performances by John Garfield in Four Daughters (the anticipated winner), Basil Rathbone in If I Were King and Robert Morley in Marie Antoinette and overlooked gems by Mickey Rooney in Boy's Town, Erich von Stroheim in Le Grande Illusion and Wilfrid Lawson in Pygmalion, it's easy to see why the extras lost the vote.

Spencer Tracy became the first actor to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for his bland performance as Father Flanagan in MGM's smash hit Boy's Town. But the performance of the film came from the show business machine Mickey Rooney, who caught the public's eye in Captains Courageous and A Family Affair in 1937 and would go on to become a superstar in everything from musicals like Babes in Arms to sentimental dramas like The Human Comedy, as well as his most famous role as Andy Hardy in the studio's spectacularly popular series of the 1930s and 1940s. At the height of his talents, Rooney was one of the most versatile actors who ever lived and his magnificent performance as a young hoodlum who evolves into a straight arrow continues to pack an emotional wallop in an otherwise dated and manipulative film.

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1939
       
Gone With the Wind
Actor: Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips)
Actress: Vivian Leigh (Gone With the Wind)
Supporting Actor: Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach)
Supporting Actress: Hattie McDaniel
(Gone With the Wind)
Director: Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind)
Gone With the Wind
Actor: James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Actress: Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind)
Supporting Actor: Bert Lahr (The Wizard of Oz)*
Supporting Actress: Olivia deHavilland
(Gone With the Wind)
Director: Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind)
 

1939 is generally regarded as the greatest year in film history, with such memorable classics as Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Goodbye Mr.Chips up for the Oscar for Best Picture. Any one of them would have been a creditable choice in any other year, but in the Hindsight race the choice boils down to the Academy's selection of Gone With the Wind and the perennial The Wizard of Oz. The latter is perhaps the most beloved film ever made, but our impression of it is usually formed in childhood where its simple story and black-and-white values are far more palatable than the far more complex and adult Gone With the Wind. Despite its melodramatic second half and patronizing attitude towards its black characters, GWTW is at its heart a character study of the enthralling Scarlett O'Hara, a personality that evolves more in the course of the story than almost any character in film history (with the possible exception of Charles Foster Kane). Bolstered by sumptuous production values and stellar acting (particularly by Vivien Leigh and Olivia deHavilland, who performed alchemy by turning the cartoonishly cloying character of Melanie in the novel into a relatable human being in the film) Gone With the Wind is as impressive now as ever, even when compared with the products of today's technical advances and sky-high budgets. Even if Gone With the Wind isn't your favorite film of 1939, no film come close to working on so many levels as the saga of Scarlett O'Hara.

With such a wide-open field, it's not surprising that other films had strong supporters in the awards races. David Selznick's magnum opus won the last Gold Medal ever presented by Photoplay Magazine (which had been giving the award since 1920), but The New York Film Critics chose Wuthering Heights as their Best Picture while the National Board of Review came up with the left-field choice of Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The New York critics were especially embattled, as their top award voting was a tug-of-war between GWTW and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with the Gotham scribes finally selecting Wuthering Heights in a compromise. There was no such uncertainty in the Oscar race, with Gone With the Wind receiving a then-record 13 nominations. Selznick expressed shock that Gable didn't win the Best Actor Award (even though that contest was really between James Stewart and ultimate winner Robert Donat), but the only real question was whether Victor Fleming would win the Best Director Award. Fleming had taken over the assignment from George Cukor at Gable's request and would ultimately be replaced by Sam Wood after his health broke down during shooting. Fleming did a phenomenal job with the complex script, but the film was largely viewed as Selznick's achievement and the award was expected to go to New York Film Critics Award winner John Ford for Stagecoach. But the Academy finally decided that Gone With the Wind wasn't strictly a one-man achievement, and Fleming won one of the eight Oscars awarded to the film.


W
ith awards going to such classics as GWTW, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the selection of the forgotten The Rains Came for Special Effects seems out of place. The flood sequences were impressive, but hardly etched as deeply in the memory as the burning of Atlanta or the Wicked Witch of the West's flying monkeys. The adaptation of Louis Bromfield's novel failed to make its costs back at the box office due to the mounting expenses of staging the flood and earthquake sequences in an otherwise interminable story which ironically depended on its expensive flood scenes to keep it afloat.

There were a myriad of unrewarded performances by actors in supporting roles in 1939: John Barrymore in Midnight, Lon Chaney, Jr. in Of Mice and Men, Nigel Bruce in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and John Carradine in Stagecoach were snubbed in favor of lesser work by Harry Carey, Brian Aherne and Brian Donlevy. And while the Academy showed a great deal of taste in presenting The Wizard of Oz with six nominations (including Best Picture) and two awards (for Best Song and Best Original Score) considering that in its initial release it was a commercial flop, the single most entertaining aspect of the film was overlooked: the unforgettable performance of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. Lahr's broad style was more suited to the musical stage than to film (he won a Tony Award for his performance in Foxy) and he appeared in only eight more minor feature films after his dazzling work as the chicken-hearted king of the forest, devoting himself to a stage career that would ultimately include the United States premiere of Beckett's Waiting for Godot and go on to see the one-time Burlesque stalwart in performances of plays by Shakespeare and Molière. But it was his performance in The Wizard of Oz won him immortality as one of the most memorable and beloved characterizations in the history of the movies. When Lahr's son, noted critic John Lahr, sat down to pen his father's official biography, it was inevitably titled Notes on a Cowardly Lion.

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THE TOP 10
FILMS OF
THE 1930s

1
Gone With the Wind

2
The Adventures of Robin Hood
3
City Lights
4
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
5
King Kong
6
The Wizard of Oz
7
It Happened One Night
8
Top Hat
9
Duck Soup
10
A Night at the Opera

BEST MALE
PERFORMANCE John Barrymore
in
Twentieth Century

BEST FEMALE
PERFORMANCE Vivian Leigh
in
Gone with the Wind