Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 2, 2014
TCM wraps up 31 Days of Oscar tomorrow night, one day after the Oscars themselves run tonight. Soon the newest Best Picture Oscar will be handed out and already there are plenty of critics and bloggers making lists ranking the best and worst Best Pictures in history. But this year’s crop of nominees got me to thinking about something else. With a science fiction movie among the front runners for Best Picture (Gravity), something that rarely happens, I began thinking of all the science fiction, action-adventure, fantasy, horror movies that I love that could have taken Best Picture except for the pesky little fact that almost none were ever nominated in the first place. I shall restrict myself, as I often do on these lists, to movies from the thirties (starting with 1931), the decade when, had the Academy nominated or awarded these movies, a quite different precedent would have been set allowing for richer competition in the years to come. But they didn’t. From the start, they made it clear that Best Picture pretty much meant “Genre Pictures Need Not Apply.”
1931 – This was the year Frankenstein was released and, like many of these to follow, though not all, it didn’t receive a nomination for Best Picture. Of the five that did in 1931, I’ve seen all but East Lynne which is a lost film at this point (though one print is available at UCLA for viewing by appointment only). The winner, Cimarron, can’t even come close to matching the style, beauty, atmosphere and grace of Frankenstein. Neither can Trader Horn, Skippy, or The Front Page and there all much better than Cimarron. At least Trader Horn, an action adventure movie, received a nomination, but it’s not a very good one and doesn’t hold up particularly well with its white jungle queen subplot. But Frankenstein has nothing but good to recommend. Only one movie that year was on par with it, in my opinion, and it was the German serial killer movie, M. I would have nominated both, as well as their directors and the two leads. I believe that Frankenstein and M had the two best performances (Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre), the two best examples of direction (James Whale and Fritz Lang) and were the two best movies of the year. Picking either one of these would have immediately set Oscar off on the right foot and encouraged studios to be more creative with their release schedules.
Also from this year came Dracula and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. While I’m not as keen on Tod Browning’s Dracula, in part because it’s so clearly stage bound after the first act, it does have a lot more than any of the actual nominees (yes, even The Front Page, which, unlike its remake, His Girl Friday, feels even more stage bound than Dracula) and that first act is so damn good, I’d nominate it as well. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the better of the two and did, in fact, get some recognition with Fredric March winning Best Actor for the title role(s).
So, for 1931, Frankenstein, M, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Front Page would have been my five nominees. I would have given the award to Frankenstein over M by a hair, and perhaps we would have been saved from stuffy period dramas taking the top awards for ever after.
1932 – This is a tough one to pick. The Academy went with Grand Hotel and, indeed, I like Grand Hotel quite a bit. It definitely would have received a nomination in my alternative Oscar history. But there are so many good horror/sci-fi/adventure movies this year, it would not have taken home top honors. There was Doctor X, Freaks (much better Browning than Dracula), The Old Dark House, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game, The Mummy, Vampyr, White Zombie, The Mask of Fu Manchu and Tarzan the Ape Man. I mean, look at that list! And not a one of those got nominated. Not one! My pick would probably be The Old Dark House but at any given moment I could also get behind Doctor X, Island of Lost Souls or The Most Dangerous Game. And as much as I do like Grand Hotel, I think each one of those four are better.
1933 – Another incredible year for genre flicks. There was King Kong, The Invisible Man, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Ghoul and Son of Kong. Not as amazing as the year before but still an impressive list. Of the movies actually nominated (Cavalcade won), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang stands out as the best and I would even rank it higher than some of my choices but not King Kong, which wins in a walk. The Invisible Man would be my runner up and then I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in a tie for third with The Mystery of the Wax Museum.
1934 – Okay, this is the year It Happened One Night won Best Picture. It’s a masterpiece, one of the all-time greats. Also nominated, The Thin Man. This was not a year like 1931 that left future movie lovers scratching their heads and wondering, “Were these people even watching the movies they were nominating?” 1934 is the year when it appeared all was finally well with the Academy. A bona fide comedy won the top prize and the second best of the nominees was another comedy, the aforementioned Thin Man. So, finally, I have to concede, I would agree with the Academy. It Happened One Night would get my vote as well. And it wasn’t the best year in the world for horror, sci-fi or adventure but The Black Cat and Treasure Island certainly deserve mention.
1935 – This year saw an action/adventure movie get nominated that I would give the top award to, if only there wasn’t yet another horror/sci-fi film better. The Academy, for the curious, went with Mutiny on the Bounty, a period adventure film of the infamous mutiny of Lt William Bligh’s (Charles Laughton) command by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable). The movie has some obvious adventure elements to it so I can’t be all that disgruntled but not like Captain Blood, also nominated and much, much better. Captain Blood is an all time favorite movie of mine, with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone all shining in a briskly directed Michael Curtiz classic. Where Mutiny on the Bounty is high-minded psychological drama (or, at least, it tries to be), Captain Blood is rollicking, spirited adventure. It’s one of the best adventure movies I have ever seen. But, alas, there is another horror movie this year that gets the top award and, long before The Godfather, Part II, becomes the first sequel to ever win Best Picture in my alternative history, The Bride of Frankenstein.
The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best movies ever made, in my opinion, and I couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to give it, and James Whale, the top honors. And I’d create Best Supporting Actor one year early so Ernest Thesiger could win it. The same year also gave us The Black Room, Mad Love and Mark of the Vampire, all worthy of mention as well.
1936 - This year saw The Great Ziegfeld take home the top honors. It wouldn’t even get a nomination in my alternate history. Things to Come, however, in spite of all its weird notions of benign fascism and Luddite hoards (read my full post on that here, from six years ago) certainly would. Raymond Massey, one of the most solemn and stoic actors in history, takes us through decades of war, peace and technological progress in a movie about a billion times more entertaining and non-sleep inducing than The Great Ziegfeld. And it’s got Ralph Richardson as a local warlord. I mean, how do you not nominate it? Still, like 1934, this is one year I wouldn’t give a genre flick the top prize. That would go to Dodsworth, which is, for me, unassailable.
1937 - This year’s easy. Despite some very good movies on all fronts, from all genres, including those nominated for Best Picture and the winner, The Life of Emile Zola, there is only one movie that ever comes to mind when I think of 1937: Lost Horizon. That’s the winner every time.
1938 – The Adventures of Robin Hood. That is all.
1939 - Okay, let’s finish up here with the big one, the year that gets a lot of attention that’s actually pretty deserved, when you come right down to it. We all know what won, Gone with the Wind. It’s a big, grand, sweeping entertainment and, surely, it would make my list of nominees. But look at the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/adventure movies from this year: The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Son of Frankenstein, and The Man They Could Not Hang. I think Gunga Din is my favorite but The Wizard of Oz is undeniable. It’s the kind of musical fantasy that never gets old and always entertains. It finishes up my list for today.
Not many straight dramas got my award on this list, just one, Dodsworth. As I look back on the list, it seems top heavy with horror/sci-fi but, frankly, the thirties produced some of the best horror/sci-fi the cinema has ever known and, maybe, if the Academy had honored more of it, a lot more would have been honored in the years since. Either way, these are the movies I’d have rather seen take home the top award but sadly, right from the start, they never had a chance.
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