What time frame constitutes the so-called "Golden Age" of Hollywood movies is open to debate, but to my mind, 1934 is a good starting point. It was the year that studios began enforcing the Production Code; Clark Gable grew his trademark pencil-thin moustache and won an Oscar; William Powell and Myrna Loy teamed up for the first time; Astaire and Rogers danced their way to stardom; Frank Capra and Howard Hawks invented the screwball comedy; and Bette Davis gave a blistering performance in Of Human Bondage that pretty much finished the job James Cagney started in The Public Enemy, putting a fork in the genteel British stage style that had dominated the early sound era. Not to mention that, on a technical level, sound recording had improved to the point that it's no longer an issue for a modern viewer.
When the Golden Age ended is a bit murkier. The artistic and commercial quality of Hollywood movies continued unabated at least into the post-war era, and then came the challenges of television, the Supreme Court's 1948 antitrust decision, foreign competition and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. The studio system cracked up, the Production Code fell by the wayside and nothing was ever quite the same again.
Not that Hollywood wouldn't continue to make great movies in the 1960s and beyond (I'm no Luddite, nor am I a prude), but the economic model Hollywood studios followed changed radically and with it, so did the look, content and feel of the movies. In some ways, that's a welcome development. But we'll get to that when we get to that.
By the way, this is the first of what we might refer to as the "future" Katie Awards—which is to say, I haven't written about any of these movies yet. So a little context is in order.
As always I've picked three "best" picture awards in three different categories, but don't kid yourself, all winners are not created equal. The fact is every comedy/musical nominee of 1934 and nearly every foreign language nominee is better than the winner of best drama, The Scarlet Empress, at least in my book. Frankly, I have less affection for The Scarlet Empress than just about any picture I foresee handing an award to. My appreciation of it is purely intellectual as perhaps the ultimate example of the concept of "auteur theory" and I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge it. Doesn't mean I much like it, though.
The fact is that during the course of his celebrated collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, director Josef von Sternberg behaved less and less like a professional storyteller and more and more like a neurotic voyeur trying to possess what had already eluded him, and the movies he made with her became a peephole through which he watched as she paraded before him a progression of imaginary and not so imaginary lovers.
I'll give Sternberg this: his films are not the chilly, disinterested exercises of a theoretician—they are the fevered dreams of a director increasingly no longer in control of himself or his passions, the celluloid confessions of a man obsessed with a woman who no longer loves him, needs him or even thinks much about him except in moments of bemused contempt.
In later years, Sternberg liked to imply that Dietrich was a no-talent hack who existed only in the lens of his camera. That to me sounds like the ranting of a rejected suitor—Don José in Bizet's Carmen killing his ex-lover rather than letting anyone else have her—because what I see and what he evidently failed to see is the amused smile playing on Dietrich's lips as she toys with her director, allowing him to photograph her but never truly possess her. It's why she survived Sternberg's fetishistic excesses unscathed while he was destroyed—she was sharing a private joke with her audience at his expense. "Watch me make him jump through another hoop," she seems to be saying, even as she emerged from, say, the gorilla costume in Blonde Venus. The harder he tried to possess her with his camera, the more ridiculous the effort looked. Nobody was ever going to pin Dietrich down.
The other award I should mention is that for Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life. Modern viewers often have trouble wrapping their heads around what to our eyes looks like condescending noblesse oblige racism on the one hand, and passive "Uncle Tom-ism" on the other. What can I tell you. That which was subversive in 1934—a black woman as the secret brains of a lucrative business empire—is puzzlingly dated and racist now.
I think there are two ways of dealing with racism in the movies of the past: You can judge it by the standards of today and shun every performance by a black actor before, say, Sidney Poitier in 1967's In The Heat Of The Night, leaving your viewing habits even more lily-white than the lily-white Hollywood of the time; or you can watch these roles in context and judge them by how much the actor was able to do given the crippling limitations they worked under. Since option one would require me to ignore Louise Beavers, Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Dooley Wilson, Rex Ingram, and many, many others, I'm going with option two.
Mind you, I'm not grading the performance on a curve—I think Louise Beaver's gentle portrayal of a mother who sacrifices everything for an ungrateful daughter is the best supporting performance of the year regardless of the historical context—but I am cutting the role some slack.
If your conscience leads you to weigh these issues differently, though, I can't say you're wrong.
The rest of these movies you've probably heard of.
winner: The Scarlet Empress (prod. Josef von Sternberg)
nominees: The Black Cat (prod. E.M. Asher and Carl Laemmle, Jr.); Imitation Of Life (prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.); The Man Who Knew Too Much (prod. Michael Balcon)
winner: The Thin Man (prod. Hunt Stromberg)
nominees: The Gay Divorcee (prod. Pandro S. Berman); It Happened One Night (prod. Frank Capra); It's A Gift (prod. William LeBaron); The Merry Widow (prod. Ernst Lubitsch and Irving Thalberg); Twentieth Century (prod. Howard Hawks)
PICTURE (Foreign Language)
winner: L'Atalante (prod. Jacques-Louis Nounez)
nominees: Les misérables (prod. Raymond Borderie); Mauvaise Graine (prod. Georges Bernier); Shen nu (The Goddess) (prod. Minwei Tian); Ukikusa monogatari (A Story Of Floating Weeds) (prod. Shochiku Company)
winner: Robert Donat (The Count Of Monte Cristo)
nominees: Harry Baur (Les misérables); Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage and The Scarlet Pimpernel); Bela Lugosi (The Black Cat)
winner: William Powell (The Thin Man)
nominees: Fred Astaire (The Gay Divorcee); John Barrymore (Twentieth Century); W.C. Fields (It's A Gift); Clark Gable (It Happened One Night); The Three Stooges (Punch Drunks, Men In Black and Three Little Pigskins)
winner: Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage)
nominees: Marlene Dietrich (The Scarlet Empress); Dita Parlo (L'Atalante); Margaret Sullavan (Little Man, What Now)
winner: Myrna Loy (The Thin Man)
nominees: Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night); Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century); Jeanette MacDonald (The Merry Widow); Ginger Rogers (The Gay Divorcee)
winner: Josef von Sternberg (The Scarlet Empress)
nominees: Raymond Bernard (Les misérables); Robert J. Flaherty (Man Of Aran); Yasujiro Ozu (Ukikusa monogatari (A Story Of Floating Weeds)); Jean Vigo (L'Atalante)
winner: Frank Capra (It Happened One Night)
nominees: Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century); Ernst Lubitsch (The Merry Widow); Norman McLeod (It's A Gift); W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man)
winner: Michel Simon (L'Atalante)
nominees: Edward Everett Horton (The Merry Widow and The Gay Divorcee); Sam Jaffe (The Scarlet Empress); Charles Laughton (The Barretts Of Wimpole Street); Peter Lorre (The Man Who Knew Too Much); Frank Morgan (Affairs of Cellini)
winner: Louise Beavers (Imitation Of Life)
nominees: Alice Brady (The Gay Divorcee); Louise Dresser (The Scarlet Empress); Una Merkel (The Merry Widow); Merle Oberon (The Private Life Of Don Juan and The Scarlet Pimpernel)
winner: Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man)
nominees: Robert Riskin, from a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams (It Happened One Night); Jean Vigo and Albert Riéra (adaptation and dialogue), Jean Guinée (scenario) (L'Atalante); Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from a play by Charles Bruce Millholland (Twentieth Century)
Man Of Aran (Documentary Feature); Joseph Walker (It Happened One Night) (Cinematography); Sergei Prokofiev (Poruchik Kizhe a.k.a. Lieutenant Kije) (Score)