Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 3
Updated: Jan 21
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 2019 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 3: 1938
The Awful Truth
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
A Star is Born
The Life of Emile Zola (winner)
One Hundred Men and a Girl
Lost Horizon: OK, BUCKLE UP I HAVE SOME THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THIS MOVIE. Based on the James Hilton novel of the same name, Lost Horizon brings to life a mythical land where peace reigns and the inhabitants live for hundreds of years. So indulgent was this idea that its name has entered popular culture: Shangri-La.
Directed by Frank Capra, Lost Horizon spared no expense in creating this idealist paradise – in fact, it did indeed win an Oscar for Best Art Direction. And the hero of our story, Robert Conway, is nothing if not an idealist himself. When his plane crashes in the snows of Tibet, Conway and his team are guided to Shangri-La, where they contemplate their warm invitation to stay. In the most poignant and meaningful scene in the film, Conway meets with the High Lama (the creator of Shangri-La) to learn about the making of this mythical land. The High Lama describes a vision he had long ago, where he saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. He felt this vision was so strong and powerful that he decided to create a place to house all the beauty and culture in the hope that, once the world corrected itself, all would not be lost. Sound familiar? Just wait.
The High Lama went on to describe the “outside world” as he saw it: “Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword.” CHILLS. Produced during the Great Depression and released just two years from the official start of World War II, this quote must have hit just as hard for audiences back then as it did for me more than 80 years later. While Lost Horizon was not an earth-shattering movie that changed my life, it certainly is culturally and socially significant. It also shares a common characteristic with another Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, in that it leaves you feeling hopeful – not just for our beloved characters, but for humanity as a whole.
The Awful Truth: It’s a tale as old as time – boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl fight over custody of the dog…With Cary Grant and Irene Dunne at the helm of this precious screwball comedy, I knew I would love it right from the start – and let me just say that the only thing more adorable than Cary Grant is Cary Grant playing with a wire fox terrier which is literally THE DOG OF MY DREAMS.
This movie was as sweet as cotton candy and comedic with simple charm and quick, witty dialogue. The direction and staging of this movie made me feel like I was watching a stage play, which isn’t surprising as most of this movie was actually improvised. Should it have won Best Picture? No. But it had more heart and soul than any other movie in this list…and THAT is the awful truth!
Stage Door: I feel like Stage Door is what some might call “an actresses movie”. This snappy comedy had a powerhouse lineup (Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller and Lucille Ball just to name a few) and takes viewers behind the scenes of the theater, showcasing a female boarding house filled with hopeful Broadway babes. The witty dialogue is really the best part of this movie and I was quite surprised to learn how sassy little miss Ginger Rogers could be! While Stage Door is by no means a great film, I found it to be a testament to the art of ensemble acting – and really gave the impression that these women had a lot of fun making this movie together.
Captains Courageous: Little Harvey is a spoiled brat who uses jokes and pranks to get everything he wants. However when one of his pranks goes wrong on board an ocean liner, Harvey ends up overboard and nearly drowns in the rough ocean. Fortunately he’s picked up by a fisherman named Manuel, just heading out with his crew for the fishing season. Manuel (played by a very young Spencer Tracy) ends up befriending the boy, taking him under his wing and teaching him valuable life lessons about responsibility, pride, respect and enjoying the simple pleasures in life.
Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of a boisterous Portuguese fisherman earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor and his chemistry with Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey) was nothing if not heartwarming and real. In a movie about fathers and sons, Captains Courageous could have told a very different story – and I’m so, so glad it went the way it did. I gotta tell ya, the ending of this movie got me good – hook, line and sinker.
The Good Earth: Well, it happened. We got to the racist one. Based on the 1931 novel by Pearl Buck, The Good Earth is about a Chinese farming couple whose lives are torn apart by poverty, greed and nature itself. The movie takes place in rural China, yet feels about as Chinese as my go-to take-out order from Golden Wok.
The hero of this story, Wang Lung, is played by Paul Muni, a Jewish mid-western boy from Chicago. His soft and demur wife, O-Lan, is played by the German-born actress Luise Rainer, who somehow won an Oscar for Best Actress for basically pouting and crying her way throughout the entire movie. Every other Asian character (with a speaking part at least) was played by a white man with a BRITISH ACCENT and any Chinese actors and actresses that appeared on screen remained in the background and were not given any speaking roles. Ugh.
All of that aside, this movie was truly epic in its scope, showcasing beautiful cinematography and set design, as well as a famous locust scene filmed during an actual locust swarm – which is truly stunning and horrifying at the same time. The vastness and openness of the scenery really becomes a character itself, which ideally makes sense in a movie about the struggles of farming. The small, intimate story of a man trying to provide for his family is made so by the wide, sprawling landscapes that seem to welcome natural elements that are out of human control. No matter how much money you have – how many friends you have – how many children you have – the earth, nature, inevitability, will always win.
In Old Chicago: When Patrick O’Leary decides to race a FREAKING STEAM TRAIN on his way to Chicago in his horse-drawn wagon (not only filled with his worldly possessions but also his wife and children), he soon finds himself hella dead on the side of the road when his horses get scared and bolt. Idiot. This leaves Mrs. O’Leary to fend for herself and her three boys in a new city filled with possibility.
Over the course of several years, Mrs. O’Leary finds work as a laundress as her sons grow up, get married and become successful in their own right – that is until disaster strikes. If the name O’Leary sounds familiar to you Chicago folk, that’s because this story is the very fictionalized retelling of the night of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which – as legend says – took place after a cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn. With amazing special effects for the time, the final scenes of Chicago on fire were terrifyingly real. Roughly $500,000 (about $9 million today) was spent burning nearly 200 acres of the studio’s set – and I’m telling you, I felt like I could feel the heat coming through from the screen.
This movie had a lot of what you would expect to see in a movie about Chicago – corrupt politicians, brutal police force, rampant crime and violence…as well as a few jazzy musical scenes that were a nice break from the norm. As a local Chicago gal, I liked seeing this city back in its hay day and it was fun to look up places they were talking about in the movie to see how much the city has changed (or hasn’t, haha). The streets are still a mess, the city still smells like butt holes and there are still way too many people, but you have to admit that Chicago has always had a sense of wonder about it – a hustle and bustle that seems to energize you and terrify you all at the same time. In Old Chicago, though mostly fictional, is a bit of an origin story for how this metropolis came to be – like a phoenix, born from the flames.
A Star is Born: No matter what the year, decade or location, the idea of a small-town girl watching her life disappear in the rear-view mirror as she heads towards Tinseltown is nothing if not relatable. In fact, it’s so relatable that after David O. Selznick told the story in the 1937 film, A Star is Born, it would go on to be adapted not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES.
Small-town girl Esther Blodgett dreams of Hollywood stardom. While her family scoffs at the thought that Esther would rather chase her dreams than settle down and raise a family, Esther’s crotchety old grandma is actually the one to convince her to get up off her ass and quit dreaming and start DOING – which I found very progressive given the time. Old Granny Warbucks ends up financing Esther’s trip to Hollywood, where Esther heads straight to Central Casting. After she’s let down gently, being told her chances for stardom are about 1 in a thousand, she meekly replies, “Maybe I’ll be that one!” And so begins the oh so common struggle of convincing directors, producers, casting agents, and most of all, herself, of proving that she’s worthy of the spotlight.
It’s only after a fortuitous meet-cute with famous actor Norman Maine that Esther is given the opportunity to shine. You know the rest – Esther and Norman fall in love, he becomes instrumental to her success and as one star rises, the other falls. Unlike the remakes that would come to be based on this original story, we don’t really see too much of Norman’s progression into destruction here, especially compared to the emotional rollercoaster that was Bradley Cooper’s recent interpretation of the role. In a movie about making movies, Hollywood is portrayed in a soft but honest light, not nearly as charming as we think, not nearly as brutal as it is. And just like the Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga movies that would follow this one, A Star is Born asks the question, what are we willing to lose for the idea of stardom? It’s a hard question for some, and almost always a harder answer.
Dead End: Sigh. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN TO ME WHAT IT IS ABOUT HUMPHREY BOGART THAT HOLLYWOOD LOVED SO MUCH? Because I just don’t see it.
Based on the 1935 Broadway play of the same name, Dead End is a time capsule of the New York slums. On the East River district, the poor and the wealthy share a backyard and are constantly at each other’s throats. When notorious gangster Baby Face Martin (Bogart) comes back to town to visit his mother and childhood sweetheart, the rough and tough “Dead End Kids” come to idolize him and lots of pointless violence ensues. Filled with heavy, over-the-top New York accents and so much (SO MUCH) whining, Dead End felt like borderline cultural appropriation, if I’m being totally honest.
This movie also featured the first appearance of the “Dead End Kids”’, who were all from the original cast of the Broadway play. This gang of misfits would go on to appear in several other films together, including Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys.
While Dead End is boasted as one of the great Bogart films, I found him falling flat here. This movie was just Humphrey Bogart sitting at a bar with a cigarette, staring off into space. Humphrey Bogart sitting at a restaurant smoking a cigarette, staring off into space. Humphrey Bogart standing on the docks smoking a cigarette, staring off into space. The title of this movie felt appropriate, though – as each character becomes a victim to their environment, falling back into their old ways, and ending with a proverbial dead end for everyone.
The Life of Emile Zola: In the midst of evil and ill intent, it seems that there is still someone willing to do the right thing. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1938 and winning 3 (Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Picture), The Life of Emile Zola tells the story of the famous French writer and his involvement in fighting the injustice of the Dreyfuss Affair.
Before we get too deep into the review, we need some background. Here’s your Reader’s Digest version: Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish member of the French artillery. In 1894, he was (wrongly) convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. Two years later, evidence came to light that the real culprit was a French Army Major named Ferdinand Esterhazy. High-ranking officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after a trial that lasted only two days. This injustice inspired Emile Zola to write his famous open letter, titled “J’Accuse!”, putting pressure on the government to reopen the case. Long story short, Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906 and reinstated as a Major in the French Army. But before Zola penned his letter, he was a poor, struggling writer waiting for his big break – and so begins The Life of Emile Zola.
Produced after the Nazi Party had taken power in Germany, this film was a definite, albeit soft, finger pointed directly at antisemitism. I found it interesting to see how timid Hollywood was at the time to raise the issue of antisemitism, especially given the vast amount of Jewish people in the business even back then. No where in the film is the word “Jew” or “Jewish” even mentioned, nor was any reference to the religion or the bigotry of the accusing army men. Also as a die-hard Law and Order: SVU fan, let me just say that the Dreyfuss court case, as depicted in the film, was infuriating (and probably pretty true to the O.G., it sounds like). Corrupt judges, people jumping in and talking willy-nilly – let me just say that A.D.A. Barba would have NONE OF THAT. The depiction of government corruption, however, was first-rate. The military police did whatever they could to hide any evidence that one of their own was at fault – and the fact that every officer looked exactly the same seemed to be further proof that this was a group of men who all move and think and act as one.
That being said, Paul Muni (who also starred in The Good Earth) as Emile Zola was an absolute joy to watch. I had never heard of Emile Zola before this film, and now I’m about to add his whole life’s work to my Goodreads list. The work he did to tell the truth about the Dreyfuss Affair was truly honorable – and it kills me that he died before Dreyfuss got exonerated. But the most courageous thing is that Zola didn’t do this for a friend, he didn’t do it for money and he didn’t do it for fame – he did it because it was the right thing to do. What a beautiful thing. As Zola said in his open letter (which you can read online if you want), the “…truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it”. He goes on to conclude his letter with the following: “I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the inquiry take place in broad daylight! I am waiting.” F*cking baller.
100 Men and a Girl: First of all, I feel like this movie could have been titled literally anything else. Googling this one gave me some pretty interesting hits – but that’s neither here nor there! 100 Men and a Girl actually turned out to be a very sweet story about a girl who will stop at nothing to get her unemployed father a job.
When John Cardwell, an unemployed trombone player, tries to get an audition with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra, he’s almost immediately given the boot. However his luck turns when he happens to stumble upon a purse filled with money on his way home. Pride gets the best of ol’ John Cardwell and he tells his loving daughter that he got the money after finally earning his spot in Stokowski’s orchestra. I’m sure you can guess what happens next. Loving Patsy decides to follow her dad to rehearsal one day and comes to discover he’s just been carrying his trombone to the local pub to play cards with his friends. After she calls him out, Patsy decides to return the purse to the true owner and explain what happened with the money that was inside. But, LOW AND BEHOLD, the owner of the dazzling purse turns out to be one Mrs. Frost, a socialite who is so rich, she didn’t even remember losing her purse in the first place. Man oh man.
Of course Patsy charms the diamonds off of Mrs. Frost and her friends and is invited in for a meal. She entertains the room with her singing and then explains that her unemployed father was the one who taught her to sing. After a conversation about why there are so many musicians out of work, someone at the party simply suggests, “maybe there aren’t enough orchestras”. Thus, a Harold Hill is born! With financing from Mr. and Mrs. Frost, Patsy begins a whirlwind adventure to assemble her own orchestra, hopefully with the famed Stokowski at the helm.
The relentless, headstrong daughter is played by a young Deanna Durbin, who I joked was like the “budget Shirley Temple”; however, I would later come to eat my words because Durbin had some SERIOUS pipes. Basically carrying this movie herself, Durbin proved she was both a great actress and a great singer and 100 Men and a Girl would come to be her most well-known performance. This movie also stars famed conductor Leopold Stokowski as himself and showcases an amazing score and soundtrack.
Nominated for five Academy Awards, 100 Men and a Girl would only take home the Oscar for Best Original Score, which was rightfully deserved. This movie was never going to win Best Picture, but I think its inclusion in this category spoke to the sense of hope this movie offered. Clearly made for the time, 100 Men and a Girl must have been at least a little ray of sunshine for those struggling to find work during The Great Depression.
Man, this year was all over the board. There were some winners, some clunkers and some movies that are still sitting and percolating in my brain. I simply loved The Awful Truth, but then again I’m bound to like just about anything with Cary Grant (and a dog!). My hidden gem this year was Captains Courageous, which was just such a beautiful story about family and redemption.
Lost Horizon, 100 Men and Girl, A Star is Born and Stage Door were all entertaining, but didn’t really stick with me the way others in this list did. However there’s something to be said about these types of movies that just make you happy, especially during a time when the world was falling apart.
It should come as no surprise that some movies in this list also felt very dated, like Dead End, The Good Earth and In Old Chicago. While these movies were not favorites of mine, I can’t deny that they told relevant and meaningful stories that obviously struck a chord with audiences of the time.
That brings us to this year’s Academy Award-winning film, The Life of Emile Zola. This was a bold choice for Best Picture. This film was purposefully written in a wishy-washy type way so as to not take a side in the antisemitic war; however, in awarding this film the highest honor, Hollywood was technically saying something without saying anything. Very angsty, Hollywood…very angsty. This movie had the holy trifecta of an amazing film: great acting, great plot and great writing. Was it deserving of the win? Absolutely. Not only is this a movie that will stick with you, crawling through the folds of your brain, but it remains relevant and relatable, even today.
If there was one theme that carried through all of the movies of 1938 (besides men wearing very high-waisted pants), it was hope. Hope for humanity, hope for love, hope for success, hope for a good life still to come.
On to the next pull!