Anthony Adverse (1936)

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Starring: Fredric March, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Woods, Anita Louise, Edmund Gwenn, Claude Rains, Gale Sondergaard

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Summary: An orphan runs off to a life of adventure, then returns to France in search of the girl he left behind

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Sondergaard)*, Score*, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Film Editing*, Assistant Director

Positives

-Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard are easily the best part of the movie, where they play over-the-top Disney-villain type characters and they clearly are having way more fun than anyone else in this movie. They bring much needed life to a film so lacking in it

-I wouldn’t call March especially good in the lead (and he doesn’t even show up until 40 minutes in), but the few times he really gets something to sink his teeth into, he shows his acting ability

Negatives

-The entire middle of the film is a complete mess. A lot of vital exposition and character development in the movie is simply told to us through title cards, when we desperately need to see the events they are describing. The biggest offender is that the title character abruptly shifts from totally sympathetic good-guy to the most evil profession in human history with no deliberation about what he is doing and we don’t see any of the transition between the two points. The only transition we get for the character going from such opposite extremes is a title card saying “and now he is a dark and evil person” and we pick up from there. That’s some of the worst storytelling I’ve ever seen. Additionally, there’s another character who shows up and does nothing, has one more scene of nothing, and then suddenly we find out she was apparently evil the whole time? At 140 minutes, it was the longest movie Warner Brothers had made up to that point, and yet a lot of it still feels rushed.

-Really dull and depressing throughout the whole movie, where Adverse sees a lot of…adversity…and I still don’t think the payoff in the end was very satisfying

Other Stuff

-This movie has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating of any Best Picture nominee ever at 13%. It’s not good, but I would rate a handful of them lower.

Overall

Very dull, dour romantic melodrama punctuated by a couple of minor bright spots but otherwise is a waste of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Rating: D

Dodsworth (1936)

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Starring: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor, Paul Lukas, David Niven, Maria Ouspenskaya

Director: William Wyler (First of his record 13 movies nominated for BP)

Summary: A retired auto manufacturer and his wife take a long-planned trip to Europe only to find that they want very different things from life

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Huston), Supporting Actress (Ouspenskaya), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction*, Sound Recording

Positives

-The screenplay is exceptional. The film is lightyears ahead of most of its contemporaries when it comes to character relationships, dialogue and realism. The theme of dealing with getting older and what that all entails still resonates as much today as it did in the 1930’s-with some slight changes, it wouldn’t feel out of place if they remade it today. After watching so many mediocre romance movies, it feels incredibly refreshing to watch something that goes beyond the superficial (people falling in love and getting married) and look at how people deal with relationships 20 years down the line.

-Walter Huston is outstanding as the title character-he should be considering he originated the role on stage two years earlier. He gives the character the combination of dignity, sympathy and emotional vulnerability it needs while not overpowering the rest of the cast.

-I loved the ending. I think either path would have been a valid story choice, but I admit I’m happier with the direction it went

Negatives

-Dodsworth’s wife (Ruth Chatterton) lacks nuance and depth. In a movie where it’s completely from Dodsworth’s perspective this would be less of an issue, but a lot of the movie is seen through her character. I think the story would have been more interesting if we had something we could latch onto for her character, especially since Dodsworth himself is far richer and is almost totally sympathetic.

-Ouspenskaya is fine, but I don’t know how she got a Supporting Actress nomination, as she’s in the movie for one five minute scene near the end. Astor would have been much more deserving, as she does a lot more and puts on a great performance

Overall

Great film with a great central character that feels way ahead of its time. Again though, I have to grade these movies compared to the whole history of film vs. just its contemporaries; while really strong, I have seen better written stories (or at least ones with more nuance) than Dodsworth. Still a great movie that I heartily recommend

Rating: B+

*The Great Ziegfeld (1936)*

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Starring: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Summary: Biography of Florenz Ziegfeld, the producer who became Broadway’s biggest starmaker

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Rainer)*, Story, Art Direction, Film Editing, Dance Direction*

Positives

-William Powell is the glue that holds this movie together-he’s slick, charming and likable as Ziegfeld. I really could not imagine anybody else playing him. On the other hand, I thought Rainer was good as well, but nothing about it wowed me (well, except for one really strong scene) and I think a number of other actresses probably could have played that part with similar success.

-The big show numbers in the movie (and there a lot of them) are of a ridiculous magnitude that you can’t help but be astounded watching them. For the biggest one, they actually built a 70 foot tall staircase, had 180 performers and somehow did it with only one cut which is all insane; that scene alone cost $200,000 in 1936 dollars.

Negatives

-It’s very, very long and covers a lot of ground but doesn’t really dig deep into much of anything. It falls into the biopic trap of throwing all the big things people remember the person for but not taking enough time to actually focus on any one of them enough to get a lot out of them. It would have been more interesting if they had cut out some of the numbers, some of characters or had started later in his life so that we could focus the more intimate details of his personal life.

-Besides being shallow, it also lacks bite or a feeling of reality. For a person known to have had multiple well-publicized affairs, this movie is very sanitized and brushes away any of the problematic aspects of the character in that regard. I’m not asking for all the sordid details, just something that makes it feel more like a real relationship. There are also multiple times during the film where it tells us that Ziegfeld is broke or having serious money trouble, but only once at the very end does it show any of the consequences so that we the audience feel there’s a lot at stake.

-The musical numbers are extremely impressive and grand, but they go on for ages and are too condensed in one place. There’s a 25 minute stretch in the middle that’s basically one big number after another with only the overture to break it up which is way too long to hold my interest

Other Stuff

-The Great Ziegfeld comes in at 177 minutes, by far the longest Best Picture nominee up to this point. While Gone with the Wind would exceed its runtime (by a lot), the next Best Picture nominee to do so wouldn’t be until 1956’s winner, Around the World in 80 Days.

-Luise Rainer would win Best Actress for this film in only her second English language film. She would go on to win Best Actress again next year for a film that we’ll get to soon, a feat only later matched by Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Tom Hanks. Despite winning Best Actress in 1936 and 1937, her acting career was effectively over after 1938 when she retired at age 28, only doing one film in 1943 and other in 1997, as well as a couple of TV appearances including an episode of Love Boat. Rainer died at age 104 in December 2014.

-Fannie Brice appears as herself in this biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, as she came to prominence as part of the Ziegfeld Follies; she would later have her own biopic nominated for Best Picture, 1968’s Funny Girl

Overall

A big but overly long and hollow production that would be awful without a great lead performance. I would recommend just watching the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” sequence and skip everything else.

Rating: C-

Libeled Lady (1936)

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Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow

Director: Jack Conway

Summary: When an heiress sues a newspaper, the editor hires a reporter to compromise her

Other Nominations: None

Positives

-I really liked all four of the major characters, as they all had very distinctive personalities who played off each other well and were well-developed. When they finally all are in the same room with each other at the end, it’s tons of fun and is a great payoff to seeing the character’s relationships with each other develop over the course of the film.

-Powell is very good again, but this is the first time I thought Loy really shined in a movie, or at least above all the other actors in it which is a great accomplishment considering the who’s in the rest of the cast. She plays a somewhat similar character as she did in The Thin Man (in that both are smart, likeable women), but here, the movie focuses more on her character and gives her a lot more to work with in terms of fleshing-out her character rather than just being a witty partner to Powell’s character. How Myrna Loy was never nominated for an Academy Award in her entire career is beyond me-heck, I would have given her the Oscar over Luise Rainer for this year.

Negatives

-I liked the characters a lot and enjoyed it, but I didn’t find the movie to be all that funny which is a problem when it’s a comedy. I would have been more engaged and more interested in the movie as a whole if they had ratcheted up the humor more than they did, as they instead focused more on the plot.

-I liked the ending 15-minutes a lot, but previous to that, the plot was either predictable, or they telegraphed things way ahead of time. Not the worst thing in the world for a comedy, but I would have liked a few unexpected more twists and turns (or relationships) in it.

Other Stuff

-Harlow was one of the biggest female leads in Hollywood at the time and was going out with William Powell at the time; sadly, this was her second to last film released during her lifetime, as Harlow died of kidney failure in 1937 at age 26.

-This is at least the fifth movie I’ve watched so far that references Reno, Nevada and divorcee, so I’d like to discuss why that is. At the time, a divorcee was extremely difficult to obtain in the United States in most place unless the husband agreed or there were extreme circumstances. In 1931, Reno passed a law that allowed for divorces on pretty much any grounds; the only requirement being that you had to establish residence in the state beforehand, which only required being there for two weeks. This, along with legalized gambling that was passed on the very same day, is what made Reno one of the biggest tourist destinations from 1931 until the 1950’s when Las Vegas outgrew it, and divorce laws across the country were liberalized

Overall

I came in not knowing what to expect, but came away pleasantly surprised with this entertaining, if not incredibly funny, movie with great characters and a really fun finale.

Rating: B-

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

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Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglas Dumbrille

Director: Frank Capra

Summary: When he inherits a fortune, a small-town poet has to deal with the corruption of city life

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Cooper), Adapted Screenplay, Sound Recording

Positives

-Finally, a movie Gary Cooper is great in. Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger being born to play Conan or Terminator because of his intimidating physique and inexpressiveness, Cooper was born to play Mr. Deeds, a simple, dull and understated man with a heart of gold. Even though the character mostly calls for those things, when he does need to be expressive with a lot of heart (at the end mainly), he actually does a very good job. Hopefully in the future, either Cooper continues to get better or he gets roles that fit his talents

-I’m not a sentimental person (which is reflected in my end rating), but Capra certainly knows how to do a big wrap-up speech/scene with the main character showing everybody else that they are the ones who are wrong

-I support any time a movie gets a joke past the censors. Near the beginning, one guy in his office says to another who’s grumbling on his way out “What did you say?” “I said you’ve got dirty plaster.”

Negatives

-Not that this is a new thing for Capra, but he’s so heavy handed with his themes (in this case, small-town common sense and the golden rule being important, money corrupts, cynicism is a major ill of society) to the point where characters just start outright saying them.

-A huge chunk of this movie uses the dreaded “liar revealed” plot device, i.e. somebody introduces themselves to another and lie about who they are and/or why they are there, they end up growing genuinely close to the person in spite of the initial reason why they came in the first place, then the lie is revealed and the person feels betrayed, then they finally make up after the liar does some gesture showing their feelings are now genuine. It is very overused and it plays out exactly the same every single time. Hate it.

-Predictability in general is a problem with this movie. You don’t need to have constant twists and turns, but it’s an issue when any time a major plot point is brought up, I can call every beat of it from start to resolution immediately.

Other Stuff

-This movie actually coined the term “doodle” to describe scribbles/drawings people make on paper when it was used near the end of the film

Overall

I enjoyed it just fine, but it’s very syrupy and is a prime offender for what critics would later derisively call “Capra-corn.” Good if you want a non-offensive movie to watch with the whole family, but it probably won’t convert any cynics.

Rating: C+

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

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Starring: Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Edna May Oliver

Director: George Cukor

Summary: You really need one?

Other Nominations: Actress (Shearer), Supporting Actor (Rathbone), Art Direction

Positives

-The acting is very good all-around, even if many of them feel miscast due to their age: Shearer was 34, Howard was 43 and Barrymore (playing Mercutio) was 54 playing a teenager.

-The sets and costumes are perfect, and the whole production is grand without going overboard

Negatives

-I’ve seen the story of Romeo and Juliet many times and I still don’t like it-the fundamental problem I have with it is that it treats the characters love as something greater than it is. Teenagers since the dawn of time have acted like idiots when it comes to love, believing from the moment it starts, before they even really know the person that this relationship that they’re in now is end all be all relationship of their life-I can totally buy these characters having this kind of outwardly grand but shallow relationship based on physical attraction and pretty words, but not much more. However, the story itself (at least this adaptation of it certainly does) treats their relationship as something much more than this, but there’s nothing we see that would justify this-what do Romeo and Juliet really know about what makes the other one tick, what they like and dislike, etc.? While there is obviously more to the story that just the title characters’ relationship, that’s such an integral part of it that me not getting invested at all in it means I can’t really get behind it.

Other Stuff

-Legendary producer Irving Thalberg pushed for five years for MGM to make this movie (with his wife Norma Shearer as Juliet) and eventually got his wish once Louis B. Mayer heard Warner Brothers was making A Midsummer Night’s Dream and did want to be upstaged. Thalberg produced the film, but sadly died of pneumonia on the night it opened at age 37.

Overall

My sister acted in many Shakespeare plays in middle school and high school, so I’ve seen the story many times and coming in I mostly knew already what my thoughts would be-the only questions were the acting (good, but some major miscasts) and the production design (also very good). There’s also some significant cuts to get it to under 2 hours, but I’m mostly ambivalent about them. If you are a fan of the play, this is a solid but unexceptional version of it.

Rating: D+

San Francisco (1936)

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Starring: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Jack Holt

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Summary: A beautiful singer and a battling priest try to reform a Barbary coast saloon owner in the days before the 1906 earthquake

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Tracy), Story, Sound Recording*, Assistant Director

Positives

-The earthquake scenes still look really good, as it’s all practical effects, it’s shot well and the destruction and aftermath looks and feels realistic for the most part

-This isn’t Clark Gable at his best or anything, but he’s always good playing a scoundrel with a heart of gold and is the best part of the movie for most of its running time

Negatives

-While the last 25 minutes are great, everything leading up to it is a really dull romance movie where not a lot happens. Nothing especially awful, but it’s all a very routine romance movie plot and I was basically just sitting on my hands waiting for the earthquake to happen

-MacDonald in general doesn’t do anything for me and this is more of the same-she’s a great opera singer, but a mediocre actress. This movie is mostly a vehicle for MacDonald to sing opera songs (which happens plenty) which I already talked about in my review of Naughty Marietta-if there’s no dancing, nothing visually interesting to look at and not a lot of energy to the song, it will bore me.

Other Stuff

-D.W. Griffith did uncredited work directing the earthquake scene, one of the last things he did in his legendary career

-The song “San Francisco” from the movie is still something of an anthem for the city and it comes up every once in awhile locally for celebrations

Overall

Skip until the last 25 minutes or so to watch some great destruction scenes. Other than that, not much that held my interest

Rating: D+

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)

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Starring: Paul Muni, Josephine Hutchinson, Anita Louise, Donald Woods

Director: William Dieterle

Summary: Story of the French scientist’s battle to establish modern medical methods

Other Nominations: Actor (Muni)*, Story*, Adapted Screenplay*

Positives

-Overall, I liked Muni’s performance but it felt sort of uneven to me. The movie is kind of divided into two major sections, and in first part of the movie he’s kind of low-energy quiet yelling at people which didn’t work for me. In the second half, he’s more demonstrative and over-acts a bit, but I liked him a lot more because he was at least entertaining and brought some intensity to the movie

-Regardless its accuracy problems, I thought thematically the central story of the movie was well-done with a good arc and a very nice ending. The movie in general also picks up a lot in the second half.

Negatives

-The first 30 minutes or so feel poorly directed: the whole movie lacks energy, and it comes from the line delivery and a lot of dead air. The fact that there’s almost no score either also hurt.

-Biopics are usually pretty mixed when it comes to historical accuracy and I can excuse a lot, but the central conflict for the entire movie is completely wrong. The movie takes place between 1860 & 1886 and the drama the drives the whole movie is Pasteur’s fight to have his germ theory accepted and applied in the medical profession; the problem is that it became accepted in 1862 and used starting in 1867, which is a time period we pass after about 15 minutes-in fact, those 1862 experiments are excised entirely.

-I think the screenplay did a poor job of transitioning between the two halves of the film-we have this big triumph at the end of the first half, but the film doesn’t do much to show how it had a significant effect on the character’s life or on the world in general; instead, most people just seem to ignore that it happened and we immediately move on to the next part of the plot.

Overall

The first part of this movie really drags, but it definitely picks up in the second half even if a lot of the conflict driving it is fabricated.

Rating: C-

A Tale of Two Cities (1936)

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Starring: Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Donald Woods, Blanche Yurka, Henry B. Walthall, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen

Directors: Jack Conway, Robert Z. Leonard (Uncredited)

Summary: Charles Dickens’ story of two men in love with the same woman during the French Revolution

Other Nominations: Film Editing

Positives

-A great story with great themes about redemption and the destructiveness of revenge run amuck. Compared with the last Dickens’ adaptation that was nominated (David Copperfield in 1935), there’s a lot more to latch onto. The movie does a good job of adapting the long novel and condensing it into 2-hours

-Strong performances all-around, with Colman (as Sydney Carton), Rathbone (as Marquis St. Evremonde) and Oliver (as Miss Pross) being the best

-The storming of the bastille scene is well-done for its time and still pretty good now. The scene was directed by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, who would go on and collaborate on a number of now-critically acclaimed horror films in the 1940s (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man)

Negatives

-While the story is great, I think a lot of the characters are weak and/or one-note with the biggest culprits being Darnay and especially Lucie who are as bland as bland could be despite being two of the four most important characters. A lot of other classic literature (and Dickens for sure) have this problem, but from a contemporary view, the lack of character depth is easily the story’s biggest fault.

Overall

Very solid adaptation of one of the classic stories of English literature, with Ronald Colman putting on a great performance

Rating: B-

Three Smart Girls (1936)

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Starring: Deanna Durbin, Barbara Read, Nan Grey, Binnie Barnes, Charles Winninger, Ray Milland, Alice Brady

Director: Henry Koster

Summary: The daughters of a divorced couple try to keep their father from remarrying to a golddigger

Other Nominations: Story, Sound Recording

Positives

-Funnier movie than I expected, or at least the first half was, and the three girls are fairly entertaining

-Durbin is an amazing singer for 15, even if her style (opera) isn’t something I like all that much. I can see why she was such a big find and would go on to a be money maker for the next couple of years.

Negatives

-Movie really drops off in the second half when the two romance subplots involving the girls take over and it stops being as funny. Ray Milland (who I’m not used to seeing as a young man) is a 29 year-old attracted to an 18 year-old girl who doesn’t even look that which I found more than a bit creepy

-Most of the songs (of which there are not that many thankfully) are boring. See my previous comments about straight opera singing.

Other Stuff

-Even though it has been a thing for a while in these movies, this was the first time I noticed that there were apparently only two acceptable hairstyles for women in the 1930’s-wavy and short, or curled at the bottom and short. I could probably count the women who wear their hair down in all the film’s I’ve seen so far on one hand, which I find interesting

Overall

Perfectly okay movie for under an hour and a half, especially the first half which focuses more on humor and less on romance.

Rating: C-