Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 6
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 6: 1934
She Done Him Wrong
A Farewell to Arms
The Private Life of Henry VIII
Lady for a Day
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
She Done Him Wrong: “I’m the finest woman who walked the streets,” declares a diamond-clad Lady Lou (Mae West) at the beginning of She Done Him Wrong. With hips that don’t lie and a sassy attitude to boot, West packs this movie with double entendres and clever quips, including her best-known line, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”
Similar to The Marx Brothers or even The Three Stooges, the witty dialogue here is easily the best part of this film:
This scene literally made me laugh for like 5 minutes hahahahaha
Set in New York in the 1890s, She Done Him Wrong is a simple story: Lady Lou is a saloon singer who spends the entire movie fighting off a swarm of men who are literally throwing themselves at her. When she gets mixed up with one Captain Cummings, played by a very young Cary Grant, she finally meets a man not willing to shower her with money and diamonds. In Cummings, Lou finds a worthy opponent – and shenanigans ensue. Lou sings some, she showcases at least 10 amazing costumes (all of which she had to be sewn into) and flaunts enough jewelry to make her look like she got stuck in a chandelier.
She Done Him Wrong marked West’s first starring role and literally saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. With a budget of $200,000, the movie grossed $2,000,000 in the US alone. It was only nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and, at a mere 66 minutes in length, was the shortest movie to ever be honored in that category.
As I watched She Done Him Wrong, I started to feel the appeal of Mae West. She was not a beautiful woman. She wasn’t a great actress and her singing was pretty average – but man did that woman have confidence. Decades ahead of her time in her views towards sex and seduction, West cast a spell in this film. The plot was dumb, but that didn’t matter. Audiences didn’t see this movie for the plot, and West certainly knew what the boys wanted:
A Farewell to Arms: My review of this movie in three words: READ THE BOOK.
Starring Gary “F*ck Boi” Cooper, Helen Hayes and Adolphe Menjou, A Farewell to Arms is a love story set against the backdrop of World War I. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Ernest Hemingway, this movie somehow left out all the romance Hemingway worked so hard to convey.
Set on the Italian front, Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) is an American ambulance driver in the Italian Army. While delivering wounded soldiers to the hospital, he meets an old friend, Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), who is working as a doctor. Rinaldi invites Frederic to dine with him and his lady friend, Catherine (Helen Hayes), insisting Catherine will bring a friend to help entertain Frederic.
I’ll give you two guesses as to what happens next. Does Frederic fall for the friend? Of course not! He instead takes Catherine out into the woods where he forcefully takes her virginity without her even knowing his name. CLASS. ACT.
Needless to say, Catherine and Frederic engage in a torrid romance, one that is forbidden by army regulation. They’re separated, joined together and separated again, and must overcome all odds to keep in contact via old school love letters, all of which get intercepted by a jealous Rinaldi.
The ending to this novel is heartbreaking. As a matter of fact, Hemingway wrote the ending about 40 different times because he wanted to get the words exactly right. Unfortunately, near none of that transfers into the movie. The ending was rushed and honestly felt kinda fake. The dialogue that made us fall in love with Frederic and Catherine in the novel was not included in this movie…and it was very hard for me to believe this love story.
As the novel twists and turns through this forbidden romance, the movie makes giant leaps, leaving out those quiet moments that are so integral to establishing a connection between two characters. In this film, you’ll get the gist of the story, but not the heart of it.
The Private Life of Henry VIII: Let’s get one thing straight. No one can tear apart a chicken leg like Charles Laughton.
In what would become one of his most famous roles, Laughton stars as the garrulous and captivating King Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Now, if you’re looking to learn about Henry’s military victories or his work with the British Navy or basically any of the historical events perpetrated by this fascinating ruler, this movie is not for you. Much like its title implies, The Private Life of Henry VIII is a naughty farce that takes viewers straight into Henry’s throne hall: the bedroom.
In what seemed like a risky move for 1933, the movie begins with a flock of ladies in waiting talking excitedly about Henry’s proclivity as they change his bed sheets. One woman declares, “I wonder what he looks like in bed,” while another goes so far as to sniff his sheets. Gross.
Now if there’s one thing we all know about Henry VIII, it’s that he had his fair share of wives. Of course, condensing six marriages into one 97-minute movie means cuts had to be made. For instance, Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is reduced to a mere mention on a title card at the beginning of the movie which says, “…her story is of no particular interest – she was a respectable woman.” So, sorry Katherine. Boring bitches to the left.
Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (arguably the most famous and influential of his wives), doesn’t get much attention either, as the film starts on the night of her beheading. With Anne in the gallows and soon-to-be third wife, Jane, in the chapel, Henry leaves his second marriage and enters his third on the same night. I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was even that quick.
The film goes on to include Anne of Cleves (played by Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester), Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr as Henry’s fourth, fifth and sixth wives, respectively. So, really we only get four and a half wives for the price of six. But, that’s no matter. The real star of the show here is Henry himself.
In a performance that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, Laughton appears to be having the time of his freaking life portraying this larger-than-life king. He bellows, he hunts, he swigs tankards of mead. He eats a chicken with a primal gusto that truly defined Henry VIII as a gluttonous, Falstaffian ladies man.
Historically, Henry VIII was an accomplished leader, but he was also said to be brutal, selfish and unpleasant, all of which makes for a highly entertaining movie! In the last scene of the film, Laughton breaks the fourth wall and declares to the audience that, of his six wives, the last one – and best one – was the worst one. From a historical perspective, I feel like the same can be said for the man himself: Eight Henry’s…and the best of them’s the worst.
State Fair: Rural Iowa, 1933. The Great Depression and Prohibition are still very much a part of American culture. In the remote farmlands of Brunswick, the Frake family is gearing up for the year’s most anticipated event: The Iowa State Fair. With the hope of taking home first prize in the hog competition with their massive pig, “Blue Boy”, as well as awards for Mrs. Frake’s mince meat and pickles (also, what kind of state fair doesn’t have a PIE COMPETITION?!), the family begins the near 150-mile journey to the fairgrounds.
The majority of State Fair takes place at the fair itself. Over the course of a few days, Mrs. Frake (Louise Dresser) enters her food competition, Mr. Frake (Will Rogers) enters “Blue Boy” in the Best in State competition and the two Frake children – Margy (Jane Gaynor) and Wayne (Norman Foster), each find time for a brief romantic rendezvous…because what happens at the State Fair stays at the State Fair.
One interesting aspect to this film was the use of juxtaposition, the most obvious pairing being the leisurely pace of country life against the hustle and bustle of the fair. The innocent civilians were made even more so in scenes showcasing swindling carnival workers. Mr. Frake even turns on “Blue Boy” after his win proclaiming, “You’re a trophy today and a ham tomorrow!” YIKES! But nowhere does this tactic shine truer than in the romantic entanglements of Margy and Wayne.
Let’s start with Margy. A simple country girl through and through, Margy is completely taken aback by the charming spell of newspaper reporter, Pat Gilbert (Lew Ayres). After nearly fainting on a rollercoaster, Margy passes out on the shoulder of Gilbert and the two fall into a quick romance. Though she proclaims her love for him after only a few days, she knows Gilbert is “a man of the world” (aka he sleeps around) and she worries that his gaze might wander after they’re married. In a poignant and romantic moment, she dreamily notes, “I love you, Pat. But sometimes you seem like something I’ll wake up from.” Easily one of my favorite scenes in the entire film.
OK so country girl vs. city newspaper man…a slow country romance vs. fainting on a rollercoaster. In the same scene where she tells Gilbert he seems like a dream, Margy is shown in a white light while Gilbert is shown in a dark shadow. If finding these juxtapositions were a drinking game, I’d be dead.
Wayne has a similar encounter, falling hard for a bendy trapeze artist named Emily (I don’t need to spell this out for you, do I?). In a pretty risqué scene for the time, Emily “slips into something more comfortable”, coming out wearing a silk robe – on the back of which is an embroidered butterfly. I’ll let you interpret that symbolism as you will…but let’s just say a certain scene where that same robe appears on the floor as the camera pans to rumbled bedsheets was cut from the film and lost to the ages.
Though not considered a blockbuster by comparison to other films released this year, State Fair was still remade two more times, given the Roger and Hammerstein treatment in 1945, then made again starring Ann-Margret and Pat Boone in 1962.
All in all, State Fair was a bit of a juxtaposition in and of itself, acting as a reprieve from the daily grind of the time. It took us on an adventure, then brought us home safe and sound, a little wiser for the experience.
Lady for a Day: Sooner or later, I think we all get a little touch of that fairy tale magic. A happily ever after, someone who rescues you from misery, or maybe just a day where everything goes just how you planned. It can happen at 16, 35 or, in the case of Apple Annie, well into your golden years.
In Lady for a Day, Apple Annie (May Robson) spends her days selling apples in Times Square. Her daughter, Louise (Jean Parker) has been raised in a Spanish convent since she was an infant and has only communicated with her mother via ol’ fashioned letters sent back and forth.
Over the course of Louise’s life, Annie has put up the facade that she is one of New York’s wealthiest socialites, living at the Hotel Marberry and hosting elegant dinner parties on the reg. However, Annie soon discovers her charade is in danger of being uncovered when she learns that her daughter will be traveling to New York to visit her, along with her new fiancé and her soon-to-be father-in-law, Count Romero.
In a beautiful gesture only Frank Capra could pull off, Annie’s loyal apple-buying patrons, including the infamous gangster Dave the Dude (this is the best gangster name ever and I will fight anyone who says otherwise), band together to make Annie “lady for a day”, providing her an elegant apartment, a lavish makeover, a bejeweled wardrobe, even a doting husband. They go so far as to arrange a soiree filled with New York’s elite, including the mayor himself.
Does Annie succeed in deceiving her daughter? Of course she does. I mean, IT’S FRANK CAPRA. Louise and her fiancé are positively overcome with joy upon meeting Annie and witnessing her elegant lifestyle. With the help of Dave the Dude and his band of misfits, Annie is able to maintain her cover until Louise and her new family board the ship back to Spain…and they all lived happily ever after, right?
Well, maybe. Lady for a Day was the first in a series of Capra films to follow this down-on-his-luck-character-is-helped-by-society-and-everything’s-okay format (other films like You Can’t Take it With You and It’s a Wonderful Life would follow this formula and would help define Capra as a feel-good director). But here’s the rub – like any good fairy tale, Lady for a Day completely ignores everything that comes after Louise leaves New York. Does Annie just go back to selling apples as if nothing happened? Does she fall into a state of depression after leaving her life of luxury behind? Does she eventually break down and come clean with her daughter?
In the long run, it doesn’t matter. That’s not what fairy tales are all about. Like all the Cinderella stories that came before it and would come after it, Lady for a Day gives us more of a reason to believe in that "happily ever after" ending.
Cavalcade: Time changes many things. That is the lesson at the heart of 1934’s Best Picture winner, Cavalcade. From New Year’s Eve 1899 to New Year’s Eve 1933, we follow two families, the rich Marryots and their employees, the Bridges, through the hardships and historical events that shaped the early 20th century.
With high-brow language and pristine period costumes, this movie is almost too British for its own good. With a cast made up of veteran thespians, Cavalcade is so overly dramatic that it almost feels like a farce. Characters ‘play to the rafters’, as if addressing an audience. Their monologues are almost Shakespearean in length and context. Every emotion is so overdone that it’s almost comical and detaches us completely from these characters. But, I can forgive all of that. My biggest issue with Cavalcade was that it played it safe.
The movie starts with Robert Marryot and Alfred Bridges going off to fight in the Boer War. This battle was essentially a war of imperialism for British control over South Africa. Nearly 27,000 Boer women and children were killed in concentration camps and near 47,000 civilians lost their lives. Naturally none of this comes up in Cavalcade. We barely even get a fight scene. Robert and Alfred return home better off than when they left, with Robert now knighted and Alfred owning and operating his own pub that he somehow bought from a fellow soldier.
Meanwhile, wives Jane Marryot and Ellen Bridges sit at home awaiting their husband’s return. They’re fraught with fear, wondering if every telegram that passes through that house bears the news they can’t stand to hear. Women flock in droves to read “Casualty Listings”, praying that they don’t see the names of their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, friends. Jane tries to maintain a social life with her girlfriends while also trying to shoulder the guilt she feels enjoying a night on the town while her husband is away fighting. THIS IS THE STORY TO TELL, GUYS. But all of this is glossed over in quick montages. These were the moments we needed to identify and sympathize with these characters, yet they were downplayed enough to be almost forgettable.
The movie carries on in this way, setting up one exposition after another, yet never delivering on them. For example, Edward – the eldest son of Jane and Robert – dies on his honeymoon aboard the RMS Titanic. We see the honeymooners on the boat, we listen to them talk about how happy they are, Nearer, My God, to Thee even plays in the freaking background forecasting their fate, yet there is absolutely no mention of Edward’s death until 5 years later, when Robert jokes with his younger son Joey about how Edward would have been proud to serve his country in World War I had he not drown at sea. This is what I mean. We know the Titanic sank…but how a family copes with the loss of a son – that’s the story Cavalcade should have told.
All in all, Cavalcade took home three Oscars in 1934 – Best Picture, Best Director and Best Art Directing. As a period piece, this movie certainly delivers. It’s a little time capsule of life in the early 1900s, but as a cohesive film, Cavalcade falls short, for it often ignored the very thing it worked so hard to sell – family life.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang: War changes people. It expands horizons, causes cultures to collide. For those returning from World War I, the small towns they left suddenly felt somehow smaller. But for returning soldier James Allen, life now held immense possibility.
At least, that’s how I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang starts. Based on the harrowing account of real-life fugitive, Robert E. Burns, IAAFFACG tells the story of James Allen (Paul Muni), a man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and payed dearly for it.
After his service in World War I, Allen returns home to boring civilian life. His old job as a desk clerk is still available to him, but he’s not interested in going back. In a speech that almost had me standing up and applauding, Allen tells his mother and brother that he’s changed and wants to start a new life – in a word, to be free. He goes on… “And again I find myself under orders in a drab routine. Mechanically, worse than the army. And you, all of you, doing your best to map out my future. To harness me, to lead me around, to do what you think is best for me. It doesn’t occur to you that I’ve grown! And I’ve learned that life is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid insignificant job.”
So, Allen sets out to make something of himself. He travels from state to state looking for a job but comes up empty-handed. In one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the film, Allen goes into a pawn shop to sell his war metals for money. The clerk laughs at him and shows him a box filled with metals from soldiers who tried to do the same thing. That scene hit hard, right in the feels. Desperate for food and money, Allen accidentally becomes caught up in a robbery and is sentenced to 10 years on a brutal southern chain gang.
Not surprising, life on the chain gang is horrible. Prisoners are forced to work 15-hour days in the hot Georgia sun. They’re smacked and beaten for not knowing the routine or wiping their brows without the permission of the guards. They’re fed grease and slop and are hit and tortured if they even so much as faint from exhaustion.
After hearing from a fellow prisoner that the only two ways out of the chain gang are to walk out (after time served) or to die, Allen decides to make a run for it. He succeeds in escaping, finally settling in Chicago where he changes his name and becomes extremely successful in the construction business. However, he soon finds himself back on the line after his bitch-ass wife turns him into the authorities.
Nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Paul Muni), IAAFFACG held real substance and meaning not often seen in movies from this time period. It is considered one of the strongest social protest films of the Depression era and was a bit of an expose for audiences into the inhuman conditions of prison chain gangs.
Personally, I was completely fascinated by this film from beginning to end. Similar to current films like Spotlight (2015) or Loving (2016), IAAFFACG did something not many films are able to do anymore: it got audiences talking. It inspired reform. It helped abolish the prison chain gang. It even helped Robert Burns earn the freedom he so desperately wanted.
With a message that still holds a firey power even today, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is not unlike a war wound or handcuff scar – it itches, it burns, it makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet maybe that’s the message we need to follow Allen’s example: to pursue knowledge and freedom, no matter the cost.
42nd Street: Ahh, the show that started it all. Thought to be the granddaddy of all those movie musicals we’ve come to know and love, 42nd Street is the O.G. “show about a show”.
When a famed Broadway producer decides to put on his last great show in spite of his failing health, he must risk everything, including his reputation, when the star of his show is injured before opening night and he’s forced to cast newbie chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, as the lead.
Covering the production of a show from concept to casting, 42nd Street takes us backstage to see how the sausage is made, so to speak. We see the cynicism of the production staff, the raging jealousy between seasoned performers and their newer, younger replacements. We see the chaos and exhaustion of daily rehearsals and the sexism that still exists in performance art today. From this perspective, it’s easy to argue that 42nd Street was groundbreaking in its day.
That being said, the biggest enemy to a movie like this is time. The jokes are dated. The plot is so silly and predictable that you can see it coming a mile away. Honestly the only thing that really kept me engaged in this film were the amazing Busby Berkeley numbers.
With shots that would come to define Busby Berkeley as a gifted choreographer, this film contains musical numbers that could never have the same power and visual appeal on stage. The camera weaves between dancers, high kicks create amazing shapes on the mirrored ceiling, simple camera movements help us feel like we’re right there on stage, experiencing these numbers first-hand. Honestly, the movie is worth seeing if not for these numbers alone.
When all’s said and done, 42nd Street didn’t quite do it for me, but it certainly was instrumental in paving the way for better ones to come along. If you love shows like The Producers, White Christmas or Noises Off, give a shout out to the musical that first showed us the nitty gritty life of theater production – where the underworld can meet the elite – 42nd Street.
Smilin’ Through: If you’re one of those folks who’ll watch The Notebook or A Walk to Remember just for the sake of having a good cry, I’ve got another movie you can add to your rotation.
It’s John and Moonyeen’s wedding day. The sun is shining, the flowers are in bloom and after an evening of drunken merriment, the two love birds are more than eager to zip through those formalities and get straight to the honeymoon. But their day of merriment takes a devastating turn when Moonyeen is mortally shot by her jealous former suitor. In the arms of her new husband, still clad in her wedding gown surrounded by her family and friends in the middle of the church, Moonyeen succumbs to her injury.
Thirty years later, John (Leslie Howard) is a lonely man living a life of solitude. He plays chess, he naps, he goes for walks in his garden and talks with the ghost of his dead wife. His life is pretty vanilla – that is until his 5-year-old orphaned niece, Kathleen, is sent to live with him.
The years pass and Kathleen is now a woman, basically the spitting image of the dead Moonyeen (both rolls are actually played by the same actress – Norma Shearer). Though she’s promised to her childhood friend Willie, a dark and stormy night brings a man named Kenneth Wayne (Fredric March) into her life, and the two fall into a quick romance. Kathleen is ready to leave her life behind and marry him instead – that is until she discovers Kenneth is the son of the man who killed Moonyeen.
I don't want to give away too much more, but let's just say the ending of this movie fits it perfectly – purely sweet, sappy and sad. Taking place in London during World War I, the terror of war echoes throughout the film. Bombs and gunshots can be heard in the distance, the windows of a cozy tea house rattle, characters return from war wounded physically and mentally – all a ghostly reminder that, no matter how happy we are, no matter how hard we try to escape the world and retreat to romantic visions of what’s to be, death is always looming, always present.
And speaking of ghosts, the idea of the afterlife weaves dreamily throughout this movie, with soft-focus scenes of past events overlaying the present. Not many films can get away with this old-school film technique, but Smilin’ Through can. Not to be too on-the-nose, but it's almost like a love letter to love – its simplicity, its whimsy and, most importantly, its finality.
Little Women: OK, confession time. Every book lover has a list of books they’ve lied about reading, right? I certainly do – and Little Women tops that list.
It’s not that I don’t want to read it, in fact after seeing this movie, I want to read it even more. I just wanted you all to know that I went into this movie basically knowing nothing. OK, now that’s out of the way.
That being said, I LOVED THIS MOVIE. I was skeptical at first because I’m not a big Katherine Hepburn fan, but I really enjoyed her in this role. For those of you who have also lied about reading this book, here’s a very brief synopsis:
The March family has hit some hard times. After a few bad investments, their status in society has been downgraded, further complicated by the fact that Mr. March is off fighting in the Civil War. This leaves Mrs. March tending to her four daughters – Jo (Katherine Hepburn), Amy (Joan Bennett), Meg (Frances Dee) and Beth (Jean Parker).
Each of the sisters excels in a trade common to us womenfolk. Jo is a gifted writer with an independent spirit, Amy is an artist who is a bit spoiled and snobby, Meg is the domestic goddess and Beth is the shy and demure musical prodigy.
All of the sisters get along swimmingly and, as they continue to grow and learn, a boy next door stirs things up by befriending the family, one or two sisters in particular. Love blooms, love fades. Jo moves to New York by herself to become a writer, breaking up the tight family dynamic and kind of clunking up the last quarter of the movie; however, this move is instrumental to Jo’s growth as a person. And when Jo doesn’t get her expected ending, her maturity shines through – which never would have happened if Jo didn’t take that brave step towards creating her own path forward.
Surprisingly, this 1933 version of Little Women was the third adaption, following two silent versions in 1917 and 1918. It was remade again in 1949 and 1994 and yet ANOTHER version is set to release later in 2019. Clearly this is a story for the generations, one families can relate to no matter what the time or circumstance.
Going into this movie, the only thing I knew for sure was the fate of Beth (thanks, Friends) but had no idea how the story actually ended. I really loved this interpretation and made me even more excited to cross Little Women off my “books I’ve lied about reading” list.
Admittedly, 1934 was a tough year to complete. Ten black and white movies in a row was rough, but I have to say I’m honestly glad I watched every single one of these (except maybe A Farewell to Arms 😉).
Films like She Done Him Wrong, State Fair, The Private Life of Henry VIII and 42nd Street helped audiences escape the troubles of day-to-day life, even for just an hour or so.
A Farewell to Arms, Cavalcade, Smilin’ Through and Little Women told war stories that felt real and relatable, regardless of when they actually took place.
Lady for a Day and this year’s hidden gem for me, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, offered stories of redemption – showing that with enough friends, enough fight, enough will power, anything is possible.
If there’s one thing the 30’s got right, it’s melodrama. These movies were saturated with it. With World War I and The Great Depression still very much a part of everyday life, it’s not surprising that these movies aimed to offer both relief and compassion for moviegoers of all ages.
On to the next pull!