Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Katie Award Nominees For 1930-31

August 1, 1930-to-July 31, 1931, was one of those movie years where looking at the list of the Academy's nominees and winners, you'd walk away with a completely distorted idea of what was actually going on in movie history.

1931 was a pivotal year. James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Clark Gable all went from bit players to stars within the space of twelve months and in so doing, they gave the cinema a distinctly American feel for the first time. Instead of actors aping polished stage performers with British or faux-British accents, audiences heard for the first time the inflections and rhythms of urban wise guys like Cagney and Gable, or in the case of Robinson, who was born in Romania and raised in New York's Lower East Side, the voice of the American immigrant experience.

It was also the year of the gangster picture, a genre that dominated the rest of the 1930s. The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, starring Cagney and Robinson, respectively, proved to be big, if controversial, hits with critics and audiences both. Censors were not so thrilled, however, contending that the films (and Howard Hawks's Scarface the following year) glamorized crime, and Hollywood, as usual, proved to be of two minds on the subject, happy to bank the money that was rolling in while paying lip service at Oscar time to the notion that gangster pictures were bad for us.

It was the same story with Universal's cycle of great horror pictures, which began in 1931 with Dracula, and continued in November of that year (too late for a Katie nomination) with Frankenstein. Their stars, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, would dominate the genre and box office for years to come without either ever receiving any recognition from the Academy.

There was also the groundbreaking Western The Big Trail, starring an impossibly young John Wayne and featuring the first widescreen movie in history; two Joans—Blondell and Crawford—established themselves as major stars; and René Clair followed a winning lottery ticket from hand to hand in the French comedy Le Million.

And, of course, Groucho Marx gave us what was perhaps the most famous monologue of his career, confessing to audiences, "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

If, however, you look at the list of winners and nominees from the Academy Award ceremony held on November 10, 1931, you won't see any of these films or performers. It wasn't the first time the Oscars would prove to be so clueless, nor the last. But if you care about this sort of thing, it's galling nevertheless.

Admittedly, although the Academy failed to recognize the revolution in their midst, the only truly inexplicable award was giving Norman Taurog the Oscar for direction. Skippy is a pleasant enough comedy with a fine performance from child star Jackie Cooper, but in terms of what went on in the director's chair, it isn't much unless you count Taurog's threat to shoot Cooper's dog if the kid didn't cry on cue (he cried buckets and earned an Oscar nomination). Nothing compared to the accomplishments of Charles Chaplin and René Clair, who were eligible for the award, or Josef von Sternberg and Lewis Milestone, who were actually nominated.

Not to mention Taurog might be the worst director to ever win the award—aside from nabbing the Oscar itself, Taurog is mostly remembered now for directing, among other things, nine Elvis Presley movies (and not the good ones either). Well, okay, he directed Boys Town, I'll give him that. But that hardly makes up for Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

The award for best picture went to the now largely reviled Cimarron. Based on Edna Ferber's prize-winning novel, it's actually a pretty entertaining yarn as historical potboilers go, and if I don't think it's the best movie of the year, I do think it's unjustly underrated.

The story begins in 1889 with the Oklahoma Land Rush—where 50,000 people lined up at the border of Oklahoma and raced to claim the two million acres the U.S. government had opened up for settlement, a perfectly insane way to parcel out land—and ends in 1930 with the descendants of these settlers marinating in oil money. (The movie is mute on the question of how the Indian tribes who were living in Oklahoma at the time of the Land Rush felt about having their homes stolen out from under them. Reportedly, when the tribes complained the action violated long-standing treaty obligations, President Benjamin Harrison replied, "You f*cked up! You trusted us!") Plenty of people in the audience would have been old enough to remember the events depicted, which were roughly as distant in time to them as the moon landing is to us, and the movie was a popular hit.

As hard as it is to believe, given that the intervening years gave us Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Red River, Shane, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, The Wild Bunch and many, many more, Cimarron was the last Western to win the Oscar for best picture until Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves in 1991, and if you ever wonder what motivates otherwise seemingly sane people to start handing out crazy alternate Oscars like the Katies, there's a good part of your answer right there.

Cimarron was also the first of five Oscar nominations for Irene Dunne (no wins)—she lost to Marie Dressler in Min and Bill, one of the best performances of Dressler's career (I gave her a Katie for her supporting performance in Anna Christie just last year).

Lionel Barrymore won for best actor in A Free Soul, which was not just the only win of his career, but his only acting nomination (he got a best director nom the year before with Madame X). I have one problem with his win though: he's only the second best actor in the film, behind Clark Gable in a star-making performance.

The writing awards went to John Monk Saunders (for his original story, The Dawn Patrol) and Howard Estabrook (for his adaptation of the aforementioned Cimarron). Director Howard Hawks said later that Saunders hadn't written any of The Dawn Patrol, claiming instead that Saunders received $10,000 to attach his famous name to the screenplay to help Hawks get studio backing for the project. You can't prove it by me one way or the other.

Finally, I'll mention Fritz Lang's crime thriller, M, which premiered in Berlin on May 11, 1931. It didn't arrive on America's shores until 1933 and thus wasn't eligible for an Oscar this year, but when it comes to handing out Katies, I prefer to nominate them at the time of their initial release —gives you a better idea of their place in film history. I think that even if a general American audience hadn't seen it, the ideas and techniques Lang used in M were already percolating through the bedrock of Hollywood and had already influenced the movies by the time it officially premiered here. Thus, the three Katie nominations for M here rather than in 1933.

These are my nominees:

Animal Crackers (prod. Adolph Zukor)
City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin)
Dracula (prod. Tod Browning and Carl Laemmle, Jr.)
M (prod. Seymour Nebenzal)
Le Million (prod. Frank Clifford)

James Cagney (The Public Enemy)
Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
Bela Lugosi (Dracula)
The Marx Brothers (Animal Crackers)
Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar)

Joan Crawford (Dance, Fools, Dance)
Marlene Dietrich (Morocco)
Marie Dressler (Min and Bill)
Irene Dunne (Cimarron)
Norma Shearer (A Free Soul)


Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
René Clair (Le Million)
Fritz Lang (M)


Clark Gable (A Free Soul)
Peter Lorre (M)
Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page)


Joan Blondell (Sinners' Holiday, Other Men's Women and Night Nurse)
Margaret Dumont (Animal Crackers)
Sylvia Sidney (An American Tragedy)


Morrie Ryskind (Animal Crackers)
Charles Chaplin (City Lights)
René Clair (Le Million)


Eric Stratton said...

Thanks for the shout out.

Hey, I've never heard of any of these cats except Joan Blondell

mister muleboy said...

Animal Crackers

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, I found a better picture of Lionel Barrymore and Marie Dressler (along with Norma Shearer) from the wonderful blog "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats," posted in August 2005. If the gents at Charlie Parker would prefer I remove it, just let me know.

Don't want to wind up a dead copycat ...

Douglas Fairbanks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lupner said...

Is this the same 'Cimarron' later re-made with Glenn Ford and Maria Schell? I'm imagining it is, but my vague recollection of the latter version seemed to center around the fact that G. Ford's character was always leaving . . . ??

What a cast of characters in these choices. I don't envy your task, Mister Myth Monk!

It is pretty unbelievable that no westerns got the big prize during those 60 years. What a bunch of dorks . . . Also for ignoring Bela and Boris. Am wondering how much horror has been ignored Oscar-wise as a genre, perhaps in the same way that brilliant comedies/comedic performances are often overlooked.

Mythical Monkey said...

My dear lupner, this is indeed the same Cimarron that was remade with Glenn Ford, and the story does center around his character always leaving -- serious case of wanderlust. His wife (in the original, Irene Dunne) winds up raising the family and running the business and becoming the foundation of Oklahoma's civilization, which is ironic of course, because without her husband's itchy desire to explore new frontiers, she wouldn't have been there in the first place. I'm sure Edna Ferber was saying it's the men who get all the credit but it's the women who actually make things work.

I think the original is a pretty decent potboiler if you like that sort of thing.