Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 24
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 24: 1937
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
The Great Ziegfeld (winner)
A Tale of Two Cities
Romeo and Juliet
3 Smart Girls
The Story of Louis Pasteur
Dodsworth: One of my favorite scenes in 500 Days of Summer is when Tom Hansen comments on how the things he once loved about his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Summer (her heart-shaped birthmark, her laugh, the way she bites her lip) are now the peccadilloes that annoy him the most. I loved it because it shows how, when we’re in a relationship with someone, we as individuals never really change…the only thing that changes is our perception of the other person.
As any relationship evolves, feelings are bound to evolve, too, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. For Sam and Fran, the things they found most attractive about each other ended up being the things that drove them apart.
Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a self-made millionaire who made his money in the automobile industry. Though he and his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton) enjoy a life of luxury, they can’t help but feel like they’ve fallen into a bit of a rhythm. They wine and dine the same friends, go to the same clubs and bars, play the same card games every week. Suffice it to say, they need to spice things up.
The two decide to take an epic European vacation, Sam hoping to relax and enjoy..."ma'leasure"…Fran hoping to flirt and dance her way back to her youth. They don’t even make it off the boat before Sam and Fran’s desires cause them to drift apart. Fran gets cheeky with the porn-stache captain of the boat (David Niven), while Sam flirts with the sophisticated widow, Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), who is not only closer to him in age, but shares his passions for travel and relaxation.
Besides their very obvious age difference (Sam is at least 10 to 15 years older than Fran), these two clearly have different ideas of what it takes to be happy in their relationship. Sam doesn’t understand Fran’s need to be carefree and adventurous, just as Fran doesn’t understand Sam’s need to sit back and enjoy retirement. There may have been a time where Sam was attracted to Fran’s spontaneity, but now it’s bound to destroy what they’ve spent so long building.
Hoping she’ll just get it out of her system, Sam returns to America alone, leaving Fran in Europe to hob-nob with all the young boys throwing themselves at her feet, including the Baron of Austria who has even proposed marriage to her. Caught up in the romance of it all, Fran accepts the proposal and asks Sam for a divorce. Eager to please, Sam heartbreakingly obliges.
This newly discovered freedom allows Sam to further explore his friendship with Edith, which eventually blossoms into romance. Meanwhile, Fran gets a taste of her own medicine when the Baron’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) objects to their marriage due to Fran’s old age and inability to produce an heir.
Heartbroken and defeated, Fran tries to win Sam back, but will he fall for Fran’s charm once again?
The beauty of Dodsworth is, like Kramer vs. Kramer or Marriage Story, the plot is relatable. This is no love triangle or soap opera, this is merely two people realizing they no longer share the same wants and desires. After a seemingly happy 20-year marriage, Sam’s retirement forces these two to reassess what excites them, and their agendas no longer match.
Take this vacation, for example. Sam wants nothing more than to relish in the common tourist attractions…walk around with a coffee and a croissant, people-watch at a sidewalk café. Fran is terrified of growing old, lies about her age, and encourages every young man who makes advances towards her. She holds onto youth by going out dancing, drinking, and partying with the locals, rather than reconnecting with the man she married. She can’t even be bothered to meet him for an afternoon drink. By the end, you’re almost rooting for these two to just end it, if only for their own sake.
In this trailblazing film about divorce and infidelity, there is ironically very little drama. Fran is a known adulteress, but Sam never catches her in the act or beats up the man swinging her around the dance floor. Rather these two come to realize that what they once loved about each other just isn’t aligned anymore. It’s a realistic storyline for many people, myself included, and it’s what most viewers and critics love about Dodsworth, even today.
You could argue that 500 Days of Summer has a happy ending, even though the two main characters don’t end up together…and I think the same can be said of Dodsworth. Sometimes the best love stories don’t end with happily ever after…sometimes they just end.
Libeled Lady: There are so many legends of the silver screen that have become stars in the heavens way before their time: James Dean, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse. Whether they’re taken by accident or sickness, these cherished few are almost always remembered in the prime of their youth, still radiating beauty and vitality even in their final days.
In the 1930s, before the likes of Jayne Mansfield, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rodgers or even Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Sexy and sassy, Jean was electric on camera, combining quick-fire delivery with delightful sarcasm. In one of her final performances before her death at just 26 years old, Jean shines in Libeled Lady, cementing a performance that would give her legendary status for decades after her death.
Like any good newspaper editor, Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) lives for the job, even going so far as to stall his marriage to Gladys (Harlow) ON THEIR WEDDING DAY because of his work obligations. It’s not the story that’s the problem, though, it’s the fact that his paper is being sued for libel in the amount of $5 million, put forth by heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). Just to put that into perspective, that’s about $94 million in today’s dollars.
In an effort to lure Connie into a trap that would most likely cause her to drop the lawsuit (she’s suing the paper because they’re claiming she sleeps around with married men), Warren turns to his old friend Bill Chandler (William Powell) for help. The complicated ruse involves an organized marriage between Bill and Gladys (unconsummated, of course), then a ploy to hook up Bill and Connie, with Warren catching them in the act. This “catch” would make the libel case null, since Connie would, indeed, be with a ‘married man’. It’s complicated even for 1930s screwball standards…but this film is easily more intriguing for its behind-the-scenes gossip than what was going on in front of the camera.
Libeled Lady marked the fifth of 14 films that William Powell and Myrna Loy did together. Though they were not romantically involved off-screen (at least during the filming of this movie), their chemistry is undeniable.
However, Powell was engaged to co-star Jean Harlow during the filming of Libeled Lady; but Harlow would die before they were able to tie the knot. It was also rumored that Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy had an affair during the shooting of the film.
All off-screen romance aside, it’s clear that this cast LOVED each other. Not only do they all have great banter and chemistry on-screen, but they all got along off-screen, too, hanging out between shots and vacationing together during breaks. Don’t you love it when that happens?!
In the world of screwball comedies, nothing goes according to plan, and Libeled Lady is no different. What results is a fun and charming comedy that seemingly coasts along from beginning to end. A messier, more meaningful ending might have been both women leaving these men high and dry for the shenanigans that went down in this film, but all is forgiven in this whimsical genre.
That being said, I don’t think Libeled Lady can it compete with the likes of The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby as a screwball classic, but this wacky farce still delivers on the pillars of a good rom-com. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much.” I think that can be said for some of the best comedies out there. There are some occasional zingers that had me in stitches, and although Libeled Lady may not always be bubbly, it certainly has fizz.
Anthony Adverse: America is home to the World’s Largest Fork, the World’s Oldest Twinkie, the most Subway restaurants (more than 24,000!) and the dumbest movie ever made: Anthony Adverse.
Based on the 1,224-page behemoth of the same name, this 140-minute film tries to cram everything it can into 2 hours, yet only gets half-way through the book. Yet even with its long run time, 140 sets, and 2,000 actors, Anthony Adverse is nothing if not an absolute bore.
Let’s go back, let’s go back, let’s go way on, way back when…to France, 1772. Don Luis (Claude Rains) is infirmed and can only make snide remarks (not love) to his new bride, Maria Bonnyfeather (Anita Louise), daughter of Scottish trader John Bonnyfeather (Edmund Gwenn).
When Maria is not dramatically fainting or screaming or praying away her current situation with Don Luis, she’s philandering with the neighbor-boy, Denis (Louis Hayward), who has a fully-functioning, well, you know. It’s so fully functioning that Maria becomes pregnant with Denis’s baby. When Luis finds out, he kills Denis in a very flouncy sword fight before sending Maria to the Alps to hide her shame. It’s also here where Maria dies during childbirth, and the vengeful, insane Luis abandons the baby at a local convent (though, of course, he tells everyone the bastard died as well). You can imagine how this plays out…
It’s now 10 years later – the nameless bastard has been raised by Father Xavier (Henry O’Neill) and is now eligible for adoption. Who decides to adopt the boy? Why, none other than John Bonnyfeather, who sees much of his late daughter in the young lad.
Eventually ol’ grandpa catches on that this boy is his grandson and he gives him a new name: Anthony Adverse…named for all the adversity he’s had to deal with throughout his life. Um…okay.
Off we go, hopping through time once again, and Anthony is now a grown man in love with his childhood friend, Angela (Olivia DeHavilland). The two marry; however, some stolen money has Anthony galivanting through Cuba and Africa, leaving Angela to be wooed, wined and dined by Napoleon himself. Will these two still find happiness when Anthony returns to reclaim his long-lost love? I’ll save you the time – no, no they will not.
The thing about Anthony Adverse is that it falls victim to the tell-don’t-show policy. In a plot basically laden with sin, sex and infidelity, Anthony Adverse keeps all the good stuff off camera. Most of what we’re seeing seems to exist either right before or right after something major is about to happen…and this chain-jerking gets real old, REAL fast.
Worst of all, it tries to give us a moral to counteract all the naughty fun we didn’t even get to have in watching this long-ass torture film. With religious undertones left and right, Anthony Adverse tries to teach us that “morals are the foundation of a man’s soul”. All well and good for Bible study, but does NOTHING to give this plot any movement.
I’m not even gonna bother talking about the fact that Anthony goes into slave trading and that basically the entire African scene is incredibly racist or the fact that Anthony and Angela have a child out of wedlock because Anthony is never punished for anything he ever does, good or bad. Anything categorically “bad” that happens to him or because of him is never his fault, but the fault of those around him. Ugh. Enter comment about white male privilege here.
For some unknown reason, Anthony Adverse scored seven Oscar nominations, winning four, including the first-ever Best Supporting Actress Award for Gale Sondergaard in her film debut. That’s cool, I guess.
By the time this movie reaches its ending – where Anthony and his son (whom he just met like 3 minutes ago) – travel to America, even someone who hasn’t had 2 years to read the book knows there’s still more story to tell here. But that’s not the biggest problem. The bigger issue is we don’t care.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: Ah, if only wealth was distributed evenly among those who need it, rather than pooled in the bank vault of some rich mother fluffer who just wants to Scrooge McDuck his dolla bills…
The movies of Frank Capra, cheesy as they may be, really are just a reminder of how good humanity could be if we actually cared about each other. Whether it’s sharing our wealth or our time, it seems a little humility can go a long way in Capra’s world.
In an era when many Americans were still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, the idea that some country yokel could stumble into wealth was probably reassuring, if not hopeful. This classic “Cinderella story” was used time and time again on the big screen, but few directors were able to capture it quite like Capra.
In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper stars as Longfellow Deeds, a greeting card poet from Mandrake Falls (“Where the scenery enthralls/Where no hardship e’er befalls…”). Honest and sincere, Deeds is taken with childlike wonders, like watching fire trucks go by and playing tuba in the local band. But when he becomes the heir to his uncle’s $20 million fortune, this small-town boy must not only deal with slimy lawyers and crafty businessmen, but pretty reporters all too willing to throw him under the bus for the sake of a good headline.
Deemed “Cinderella Man” by reporter Louise ‘Babe’ Bennett (Jean Arthur), Deeds is catnip for a hungry press. Capitalizing on his desire to “save a lady in distress”, Babe aims to get the goods on Deeds, going undercover as Mary Dawson, a woman Deeds is all too willing to dote upon with poetry and romantic overtures.
But can this sweet and sexy reporter really put her developing feelings aside for a front-page story and a month of paid vacation time?
The plot thickens when a long-lost relative of the deceased uncle claims that Deeds might be ‘mentally incompetent’, therefore not fit to handle the large inheritance. This stems from the fact that Deeds plans to give the entire fortune away, providing social welfare to the deserving, poor and hungry farming families still suffering from the effects of The Great Depression. This leads to a fabulous courtroom scene, where Deeds is given the opportunity to explain to these idiots that generosity and kindness are not a result of mental illness, but just being a good freaking person.
As is the case with most Capra movies, what really stands out about Mr. Deeds Goes to Town are just those little moments that make these characters human. The long silences that follow awkward conversations, the way Babe’s editor messes up her hair, Deeds sliding down a marble railing, then playfully tickling the foot of a statue. Simple, yet powerful. That’s Capra’s strength. These moments add nothing to the plot, yet they do wonders in establishing these characters as real people. After all, they do things we would probably do in the same situation.
Yet, in my opinion, no scene is as powerful as the one where Deeds offers a poor farmer a warm meal, and a doggie bag to bring home to his family. There is almost no dialogue, yet the way Deeds watches this man eat, as if it’s the first meal he’s had in months (frankly, it probably was), was heartbreaking. And though there is some serious “Capra-Corn” material at the end, it’s not enough to ruin the impact of this heartwarming film about kindness and empathy.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town would win an Oscar for Best Director, as well as a nomination in four other categories, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Cooper). While Mr. Deeds was by no means Capra’s best film, it certainly helped pave the way for the pictures that would come to define him as one of the most well-loved directors in Hollywood.
The Great Ziegfeld: I think it would be safe to say that the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ wouldn’t have existed without Florenz Ziegfeld. You may not know him by name, but chances are you’ve seen an homage to him in at least one Broadway show.
Known for his lavish production designs, costumes and set pieces, Ziegfeld can easily be considered the grandfather of show business. Even today, more than 100 years after the first “Ziegfeld Follies” was produced, his high-class song-and-dance spectacles are some of the most opulent shows to grace Broadway.
The Great Ziegfeld, which was the first biopic to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar, attempts to tell the story of this extravagant producer, beginning with his days as a barker at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and ending with his death in 1932. Lavish in production (and length), this 3-hour film spared no penny in showcasing some of Ziegfeld’s most iconic productions and performers (the O.G. Fanny Brice stars as herself). Sure, some of the numbers are a bit dated, and sure this would have been WAY cooler in Technicolor, but I still found myself enjoying almost every minute of this over-the-top musical.
The film begins in 1893, where Ziegfeld (William Powell) is working as a barker at a carnival-style sideshow featuring Sandow the Strongman (Nat Pendleton). Across the way, rival promoter Jack Billings (Frank Morgan – better known as The Wizard from The Wizard of Oz) is having better luck attracting crowds, offering the promise of an all-girl revue. It doesn’t take long for Ziegfeld to catch on – sex sells. He decides to let women not only ogle Sandow’s muscles, but also TOUCH them. The masses start flocking.
Several years later, Ziegfeld and Billings are rivals yet again, this time fighting over popular singing sensation Anna Held (Luise Rainer). Ziegfeld wins her trust – and her hand in marriage – and she becomes one of the motivating forces behind the creation of “The Ziegfeld Follies” stage show. However, Ziegfeld is nothing if not a lady’s man and Anna grows tired of his infidelity. The two divorce and, in basically no time, Ziegfeld is engaged to be married once again, this time to actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), who he has one daughter with and remains married to until his death in 1932.
Easily the most memorable moments of The Great Ziegfeld are the recreations of his Follies. The famed “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” set alone was reported to have cost about $220,000 (about $4 million today) and features a towering rotating staircase with 175 steps, 50 pounds of sequins, and 12 yards of ostrich plumes. With amazing costumes and drapery, the scene begs for Technicolor, but it’s still impressive even by today’s standards.
The movie then goes on a bit longer than it needs to, showing us about 11 more Follies that just can’t compare with the first. Honestly what would have made this movie even more interesting is learning a bit more about HOW these productions even happened, then get the glory of seeing them in all their splendor. Instead the musical numbers, amazing though they are, tend to intrude so regularly that the actual plot of the movie begins to stall.
As far as biographies go, The Great Ziegfeld is an extravagant, albeit “airbrushed”, telling of this great producer’s life. Of course, with his real wife Billie Burke overseeing the screenplay, anything that would show her late husband in a bad light was no doubt left on the cutting room floor. Still, it succeeds as a grand, escapist spectacle of luxury and decadence. If you love movie musicals, classic Broadway numbers, or the spectacle of the stage, this movie’s not to be missed. Though lengthy, The Great Ziegfeld is a kaleidoscopic picture that does nothing short of reflecting the gaudy career of America’s foremost showman.
San Francisco: If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some protective gear in case there’s an earthquake!
Eh, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
San Francisco, like so many movies of the 1930s, has the potential to be good. It features Jeanette MacDonald (and her amazing 3-octive pipes), Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, has fun music and dance numbers and takes place in one of the greatest cities in America in the days before the 1906 earthquake. Yet this dramatic, romantic, historical disaster movie tries to be too many things at once…and can’t quite get hold of its identity.
The movie begins on New Year’s Eve of 1905. San Francisco is alive in every sense of the word. The rowdy crowd is almost deafening, pouring into every bar in town. Smack dab in the middle of it all is Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) the tall, dark and handsome owner of the Paradise saloon.
As the scantily clad women flounce about the stage of the Paradise, a prim and proper woman named Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) enters the bar looking for a job. Though she claims to be a singer, Blackie still insists on seeing her legs, because, you know, sexism. Impressed with her looks and her operatic voice, he eventually complies and he hires her on a 2-year contract…that is, until Jack Burley (Jack Holt) of the Tivoli Opera Company tries to steal her away.
And so begins the romantic framework of San Francisco: a woman has to choose between two men against the backdrop of historical tragedy. Also see Gone with the Wind, Titanic, and The Hunger Games. If she chooses love (Gable), she doesn’t get the career. If she chooses the career (Holt), she risks losing the man she loves. Can’t have both, honey!
Thankfully, the poor girl doesn’t have to decide because an earthquake makes her decision much easier by killing Jack (man, any dude named Jack in a romantic disaster movie better watch out!). But more on this part in a minute.
So that’s the romantic side. Mixed in with that is Blackie’s struggle with religion, acceptance and his commitment to run for public office (he’s got a lot going on). Though he’s good childhood friends with Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), Blackie doesn’t believe in all that “God hooey”. He calls the church a “trap” and hymns are “hokey-pokey”. Those who attend church are “suckers” and religion in general is “hocus pocus”. He literally fights with religion in his playful boxing matches with Father Mullin, yet he can’t be all bad. After all – he did donate an organ (of the musical variety) to the church, maybe even foreshadowing his eventual rebirth at the end of the movie.
Not only is Father Mullin a man of the cloth, Mary Blake is the daughter of a preacher and a devote Christian herself. The two form a sweet friendship and Father Mullin is instrumental in helping Mary see Blackie’s humanity, hidden though it may be.
Everything finally comes to a head in the last 30 minutes of the film, where the epic earthquake of 1906 – which destroyed more than 80% of San Francisco when it hit – becomes the figurative wrath of God. It destroys the Paradise, kills Jack and helps Blackie find God…making Mary the blessed one here – ridding her of the place she doesn’t want to work, the man she doesn’t love, and helps the man she DOES love find God. Good things come to those who worship, I guess.
As for the earthquake scene itself, this was easily the best part of this movie. Even for 1930s standards, the special effects here were phenomenal and the constantly moving chaos of the last 30 minutes of the movie are pretty ground-breaking (pun intended). As the earth literally splits open, swallowing sinners left and right, Blackie stumbles about, searching for his Mary. He sees men weeping over their dead lovers, friends digging friends out from the rubble. It’s actually a very moving sequence, all things considered.
The two lovers finally unite when Blackie finds Mary singing “Nearer My God to Thee” around a family grieving for their dead. Her hair undone, her face as pure as ever, Mary is a vision of holiness. Suddenly, the awe of God’s mercy overcomes Blackie and he falls to his knees in prayer. Blackie, who once represented sin and debauchery, now is humbled by gratitude. It took an earthquake, but San Francisco finally fell to its knees in fear of God.
Then, like something out of a John Steinbeck novel, the camera pans the faces of all the resilient Americans, eager to build a new San Francisco. Purified by the fire, the crowd sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they march towards their beloved city, ready to help it rise from the ashes.
Heavy handed? Yes. Preachy? Absolutely. Though there’s no doubt that the ending resonated with those still tarnished by The Great Depression. Hard times are inevitable, but people triumph. Indeed with gross receipts totaling $5,273,000 worldwide, San Francisco was MGM’s greatest moneymaker (until Gone with the Wind) and the second-highest grossing movie of 1936 after The Great Ziegfeld.
That being said, this movie is dated and doesn’t quite hold up in today’s modern world. Though we are treated to many scenes of Clark Gable smirking, winking and acting very Rhett Butler-y, it’s not enough to save it. Like the Paradise saloon, it lacked the structure to hold it together.
A Tale of Two Cities: The 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities is a film stuck between two eras: silent and sound; literature and melodrama; the best of times, the worst of times. In fact, it was a period not unlike the present.
Even for those who haven’t read the book (myself included), A Tale of Two Cities is familiar to most. Charles Dickens juxtaposes England and France, tradition and revolution. Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), a progressive French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), a dissolute British lawyer, are both in love with Lucie (Elizabeth Allan), the daughter of a victim of the French Regime.
Sydney first sets eyes on Lucie after helping her soon-to-be husband, Charles, escape a charge of treason. Sydney immediately falls in love with Lucie, but she friend-zones him hard, saying she cares for him in the most platonic way.
But Sydney doesn’t give up. It ain’t over til it’s over. He remains a friend and devotes himself to Lucie’s happiness. OK, guy.
It’s now five years later. The Bastille in France is stormed and the French Revolution has officially begun. Hundreds of aristocrats are being sent to the guillotine by the long-suffering peasants. Charles is arrested, Sydney comforts Lucie, then devises a desperate rescue plan to get the man Lucie loves out of jail…resulting in Sydney and Charles switching places.
In a truly bittersweet ending, Sydney (pretending to be Charles) is sent to the guillotine. As the blade drops and the camera pans up to the clear, open sky, his voice can be heard echoing the final famous line: “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” The life of a melancholy man, given to drunkenness and despair, is finally given meaning only when given up for someone else. WOW.
Now, in all honesty, I had to re-read the plot of this movie at least twice because it was so hard for me to follow. Everyone spoke with a British accent, making it hard to differentiate who was British and who was French – and the sound was so bad on the DVD that it was impossible to hear anyone’s name. Just trying to understand what was going on was taking me out of the experience of watching this film.
That being said, there were two characters in particular that stood out to me: Marquis St. Evremonde (Basil Rathbone – literally the best name I’ve ever heard), who’s probably the most colorful character I’ve encountered in a black and white movie, and Madame Defarge (Blanche Yurka), a vengeful peasant who works the names of the people she wants to destroy into her knitting.
These two characters basically epitomize the violence on both sides of the revolution. St. Evremonde is a King George-type tyrant who “accidently” runs down a young child with his carriage, then claims the accident did more damage to his horses, even though the child was killed. On the flipside, Madame Defarge complains that the jolt of the guillotine has caused her to drop a stitch in her knitting. The only “good” character to arise from this tale is Sydney, who must die to even bring nobility to his suffering. Religious undertones abound. Heads (and eyes, at least mine) roll. You get the picture. The sinner becomes the martyr. The film, unlike the book, even takes place during and around the Christmas holiday, with “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” interwoven into the musical score. When all’s said and done, a little preachy for my liking.
But I’m not made of stone, I promise! The ending of this film was beautiful and bittersweet…and I’m sure if I watch this again, now better understanding the plot, it might even bring me to tears. I was constantly amazed at how similar this film was to today’s current world, with the storming of the Capitol just a mere 14 days ago. Though it may have been the best of times for some, and the worst of times for others, it was certainly a time of change for all.
Romeo and Juliet: Whether you’ve seen it on stage, on screen, or just read it in English class, I’d venture a guess that there are very few people who haven’t – in some way – experienced Romeo and Juliet. I feel like it’s the first Shakespearean play most kids read in high school and it’s been adapted for the screen three times, not even counting the films BASED on Romeo and Juliet, like West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love.
Up until recently, this 1936 version was one of the few renditions I hadn’t seen. Though much more faithful to Shakespeare than later adaptions, this movie only really succeeds as a costume drama and doesn’t quite sell the passionate romance. That’s mostly due to two problems: Romeo and Juliet.
Everyone knows the general gist of this story, right? The Montagues and the Capulets are rivals. Romeo (Leslie Howard), a Montague, and Juliet (Norma Shearer) a Capulet, fall in love at a party, then learn they can’t be in love because their parents have Ph.D.’s in holding grudges.
Nevertheless, they pledge themselves to each other and, with the help of Juliet’s nurse (Edna May Oliver) and Friar Laurence (Henry Kolker), they marry.
Tybalt (Basil Rathbone again!), Juliet’s cousin, detests ALL Montagues and kills Mercutio (John Barrymore), Romeo’s dear friend…so Romeo retaliates and kills Tybalt. This results in Romeo’s banishment, Juliet faking her own death in order to run away and be with Romeo, Romeo not getting the letter the Friar sent explaining everything, Romeo hearing of Juliet’s death and then killing himself before Juliet can wake up from her deep sleep. Seeing Romeo dead at her grave, she then stabs herself in the name of love. Never was there a tale of more woe, yada, yada, yada.
Producer Irving Thalberg stated that his intention with Romeo and Juliet was “…to make the production what Shakespeare would have wanted had he possessed the facilities of cinema.” He sent researchers to Verona to take photographs for the set designers and had two academic advisers, one from Harvard and one from Cornell, flown in to advise him on production.
Indeed the costumes and set were given the Hollywood treatment. In fact, everything seemed so elegant that it was surprising MGM didn’t spring to shoot the darn thing in Technicolor. There were a few elaborate dance numbers and even the script was loyal, almost to a fault, to the original play.
No, the spectacle and production were not the problem. The issue with Romeo and Juliet was the pair of star-crossed lovers themselves. Norma Shearer was 34 and Leslie Howard was 43 when they were hired to play the 14-year-old and 17-year-old lovers. It really comes off as laughable to see these middle-aged actors try to play pre-teens, talking about sneaking off and avoiding their parents’ watchful eyes. Not to mention they lack any chemistry whatsoever.
I mean, I was a product of the 1980s…I know there have been several times adults have played teens – Dawson’s Creek, Saved by the Bell, freaking GREASE, but this was just, like, obnoxious. A 43-year-old playing a boy of 17?? It just took me out of the movie completely.
And for as loyal as the movie was to the original text, there were some lines that were delivered…weirdly. For example, Mercutio’s death scene, where he delivers the epic “A plague on both your houses!” isn’t so much a threat or curse as it is comical. Like, I actually laughed. It felt out of place and mis-directed, as did a lot of the performances in this movie.
Short on passion and compassion, Romeo and Juliet is still a good film despite Howard and Shearer. It’s visually beautiful but much too stiff for its own good. It’s also hard to divorce oneself from the lunacy of these older actors passing as pre-teens who prance around waxing poetic about roses and romance. For never was there a story of more woe than this of old Juliet and her older Romeo.
Three Smart Girls: As the precursor to films like The Parent Trap, Three Smart Girls is cute family fun – but worthy of a Best Picture nomination? I think not.
The Craig sisters – Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read) and Penny (Deanna Durbin) – live in Switzerland with their mother and housekeeper. Their father lives in New York, having divorced his ex-wife about 10 years ago. Though the mother still gets depressed over missing her ex-husband, her heartbreak hits a new level when she reads that he is about to remarry a young, blonde bombshell who has Daddy Warbucks wrapped around her little finger.
With funding from their housekeeper, who can’t bear to see the mother in such pain, the three girls set out to New York to try and stop the wedding. When they arrive, they’re introduced to daddy’s fiancée Donna (Binnie Barnes) and her mother, Mrs. Lyons (Alice Brady), who are both working together to trick daddy out of his money.
They may not have seen their father for 10 years, but even these girls can see this man is a total pushover. They join forces with Bill Evans (John King), who suggests the best way to get Donna out of their lives is for her to fall in love with someone richer. Bill hires the penniless Count Arisztid (Mischa Auer) to woo Donna; however, a real Lord named Michael Stewart (Ray Milland) is mistaken for the would-be suitor and complications ensue when Michael starts to fall in love with Kay instead.
If this sounds like a more complicated version of The Parent Trap, you’d be correct…though this plot is way more convoluted than it needed to be. It’s fairly ridiculous in most places, but what else would you expect from a 1930s family-friendly screwball comedy?
Three Smart Girls also marks the feature film debut of singing sensation Deanna Durbin, who was billed in the credits as “Universal’s New Discovery”. She gets plenty of opportunities to show off her effortless soprano pipes, though almost none of those make sense with the plot. Durbin also gets some of the best lines in the film, making this a clear star vehicle for her.
The two older sisters get the romantic storylines, though too much time is devoted to Durbin that these romances seem lackluster. Sopranos always get the fun, ami right?! #altolove
In the end, all’s well that ends well. The father learns the error of his ways and the girls are successful at reuniting their parents, though the movie leaves it ambiguous as to whether their love is actually rekindled or not. But really, that doesn’t matter. The movie was always about Durbin, and in fact, closes on her bright, smiling face.
Easy to watch and enjoy, Three Smart Girls is charming – and a killer debut for a young, vibrant singer. Though it’s honestly sweet enough to give you cavities, it comes with just enough sass from Durbin to balance out the taste.
The Story of Louis Pasteur: The work of a scientist rarely lends itself to dramatic interpretation. In reality, groundbreaking discoveries aren’t as common as we may think, and as COVID has taught us, cures and vaccinations are often the result of years of trial and error.
But that’s never stopped Hollywood.
Take, for example, the opening of The Story of Louis Pasteur. It’s 1800s Paris. A doctor, packing to go on a house call, drops one of his instruments on the floor. Carelessly, he picks it up, wipes it off on his pants leg, and puts it back in his bag.
Suddenly a dark shadow appears. A hand? No! A gun! With one loud, deafening “BANG!”, the doctor falls down dead.
What’s this cold-blooded murder have to do with microbiology? Well, turns out the shooter is the husband of a woman who died at the hands of the dead doctor. Having read a pamphlet published by Louis Pasteur on the importance of physicians washing their hands and instruments to prevent the spread of disease, the distressed husband has taken revenge on the man who possibly contaminated his wife with dirty hands or tools.
This sequence doesn’t do more than simply establish who Louis Pasteur is and what he believes. Though this film is technically a biography, it really only covers about 10 years in Pasteur’s life. And, for that matter, isn’t so much about HIM as it is about the days when doctors took pride in their filthy instruments and laughed at those surgeons who felt the need to wash their hands after tending to a sick patient. In fact, many physicians thought Pasteur was crazy for believing that disease was caused by tiny little germs that could only be seen under a microscope. Arrogance, they name is Doctor.
The Story of Louis Pasteur presents this struggle between pride and medicine as an ongoing argument between Pasteur (Paul Muni) and his nemesis, Charbonnet (Fritz Leiber), a member of the French medical establishment. Charbonnet works so hard to prosecute and discredit Pasteur that the feeble chemist has no choice but to flee for the countryside, where he devotes his time to creating a vaccine that protects sheep from anthrax. He’s so successful in his endeavors that two men from the Agricultural Board are sent to investigate why these sheep seem to be free of the disease that is causing havoc on the rest of France’s livestock.
We do finally get a little science here, as Pasteur explains the resilience of the anthrax spore in its dormant state, the disease’s transmission, and his own development of a vaccine. We also see the beginnings of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine and get a little romantic subplot involving his daughter. However, the film almost omits the bit of work for which Pasteur is probably best known for – Pasteurization. It’s only mentioned at the beginning, where his discoveries about pasteurizing wine and beer have already been noted and accepted. But nowhere is it mentioned in relation to dairy products. Not detrimental to the story, just interesting to note.
Though science may not always lend itself to being the subject of a big Hollywood epic, The Story of Louis Pasteur still resonated with viewers. Its massive success led to all the big studios jumping on the “biopic” bandwagon, with almost everyone of note getting a movie interpretation of their life. Paul Muni would win an Oscar for his performance as Pasteur, and the film also took home an award for Best Screenplay.
But all that still has nothing on the medical and scientific advancements that resulted from Pasture’s experiments and findings. Please wear a mask. Please sanitize your phone. And, for goodness sake, PLEASE wash your hands.
PHEW! OK this was a lot of movies. The Great Ziegfeld was clearly the best film this year and deserving of its win. The costumes, the set design and the acting/dancing were all leagues above the others in this group.
Libeled Lady was an absolute romp in the best possible way and is definitely my hidden gem this year. If you love a good screwball comedy ala The Three Stooges, add this one to your list.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Three Smart Girls felt like the obligatory ‘family movies’ that had to be nominated, though Deeds is certainly worth seeing over Girls.
The Story of Louis Pasteur was especially interesting to watch in today’s COVID times and, having seen Paul Muni in four Oscar-nominated movies now, I’m willing to bet I’d like anything he’s in.
The rest of these films were average, at best, with Dodsworth probably being the best of the lot. Don’t waste your time on Anthony Adverse and I’d even avoid Romeo and Juliet while you’re at it. The 1968 version of The Bard’s play is much better.
The coolest thing about watching these older movies is seeing how they inspired all the movies to come. Some of the first biopics (Pasteur and Ziegfeld) and one of the first disaster movies (San Francisco) are included here, as is one of the first movies about divorce (Dodsworth) and the first film to receive a Best Supporting Actress award (Adverse). This year also has the first (and last) films for actors and actresses who would go on to light up the silver screen for years to come.
Onto the next pull!