Cimarron (1931)

This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.

Much of the rest of the necessary context concerns the fact that Cimarron keeps trying to be progressive, but goes about it in the most flailing, inadvertently offensive manner possible. Our hero courts controversy by boldly asserting that Native Americans are mostly like humans, black people have their uses, and hookers aren’t all bad because some of them have hearts of gold and tragic backstories. The sentiments involved are basically good, but all a modern viewer can do is wince and mutter “Ehhhhh… partial credit.”

It doesn’t help that this hero demonstrates his bold pioneer spirit by repeatedly abandoning his wife and kids (in fact, abandoning the film) for years or decades at a time. By halfway through the movie I couldn’t help shouting “JUST DUMP HIS ASS ALREADY!” at the screen. Sadly, she never does. This would make sense if there was something compellingly lovable about the guy, but if there is, we never see it. The result is that his wife, who we actually spend a lot of our screen time with, comes off as a real chump.

All that said, there’s a lot to like here. The opening sequence is incredibly bold, cinematically, with some genuinely rousing action setpieces. The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is lively and fun, and frankly, the hero’s defense of her is a braver defense of sex work than you see in most movies, from 1930 or otherwise. Most of all, it does what it sets out to do: seeing the town it’s set in start out as a random collection of tents and shanties in the middle of nowhere, and end up as a bustling city with skyscrapers and a self-congratulatory city council, really is a compelling journey.

What did this beat?

East Lynne, Skippy, Trader Horn, and The Front Page. I’m forced to admit that The Front Page is the only one I’ve even heard of. Of more interest to me is that gangster classics The Public Enemy and Little Caesar both came out this year, but neither was nominated for Best Picture.

Oscar Project articles

Wings (1927)

It’s hard to remember now just how amazing airplanes were in the 1920s. Barnstormers used to cruise from one small town to another, charging impressive fees just to show off their miraculous flying machines. That sense of wonder deeply informs Wings, in a way that’s hard to understand from here in the miracle-jaded future. The story of two young pilots and their service in WWI is nothing new even for the time, but the flying shots are spectacular, and in 1927 they might as well have been magic.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated it in a way that started to feel weirdly personal after a while. The title song is repeated every five minutes by someone or other, which would be tolerable if it were a good song, but it’s not. There’s not a single likable character in this movie, which is a serious problem since we’re supposed to find them all charming. It’s about various people trying to achieve true love and showbiz stardom, but I didn’t want anything good to happen to any of them.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

This is the earliest Best Picture winner that doesn’t require any apology or explanation before showing it to contemporary friends. It holds up perfectly, a stark and even angry look at the pointless, brutal cost of war. Its characters join the German army as teenagers full of idealism and hope and all that dulce et decorum est crap, and everything goes downhill for them from there.

Cimarron (1931)

This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Watching Grand Hotel, the 5th-ever Best Picture winner, it struck me how rapidly I was seeing the art of filmmaking develop. An audacious plotline-juggling comedy, this movie makes remarkable use of the camera in ways that haven’t shown up in previous films, but will continue showing up in subsequent ones. (Except for the fact that Greta Garbo has a proprietary lighting system that exists only for her character, as though she’s in a whole different movie by herself. That one’s all Garbo.)

Cavalcade (1933)

This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me.

It Happened One Night (1934)

This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)

A scene I’m 100% sure took place in Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM one day in 1935:

“So, last year Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night, and we made… how much money again?”

“All of it, sir. All the money.”

“Oh yeah. That was great. We also won enough Oscars that I had to have my mantelpiece reinforced. Anyway, having said that, what’ve we got this year?”

“We’ve got a picture where Clark Gable is shirtless for literally half the running time.”

“Good start. What’s he wearing the rest of the time?”

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Of the various films in the genre of “Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart and several other stars in a surprisingly funny drama about socioeconomic injustice”, You Can’t Take It With You may be the least of them. Adapted from a George S. Kaufman play, it feels stagebound and claustrophobic, lacking a strong sense of visual expression. The story is just about a rich guy meeting a houseful of Manic Pixie Dream Anarchists, and some of the jokes don’t really work in the 21st century.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.

On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.

On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.

Rebecca (1940)

In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.