The Movies That Never Stood a Chance

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.”

Frankenstein

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.

islandoflostsouls  lc trio

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.

posters

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.

24 Responses The Movies That Never Stood a Chance
Posted By LD : March 2, 2014 4:39 pm

Perhaps these movies would not have qualified for who knows what reasons since rules change, but my list of nominees would include two Hitchcock films, THE 39 STEPS (1935) and THE LADY VANISHES (1938).

Posted By Gamera2000 : March 2, 2014 7:11 pm

Given the benefit of hindsight and the ability to see which films really endure, it is always fun to re-imagine the films that should have won an oscar.

I agree with most of your choices, though I would rank Tarzan and His Mate above Tarzan the Ape Man and include it in the 34 nominees.

Also, I would have included Scarface in 32, still the best of the early’s 30′s gangster films.

Though it is a good film, I was never a really big Lost Horizon fan. My choice for 37, would be either The Awful Truth or Stella Dallas.

I do love your choice of Dodsworth, I think it is one of the great neglected films of all time.

Posted By Tom Herling : March 2, 2014 7:29 pm

I usually don’t expect Oscars for Best Picture to always be for the best picture. I know you’re limiting yourself to the 1930s, but a more recent year in which most of what I would have chosen as the best pictures but didn’t even get nominated was 1969.

Does anyone even remember “Oliver!”, that year’s Best Picture? (Its director Carol Reed got an Oscar too.) I grant that two of the other nominees, “Funny Girl” and “Lion in Winter” were deserved of nomination, but to leave out “2001,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Bullitt,” or “The Producers”–four films which have made considerable impact on popular culture–is ample evidence to me that the Oscars aren’t a reliable indicator of what a Best Picture should be.

Posted By AL : March 2, 2014 9:38 pm

Bravo, Greg. This is one of your Best!

Posted By AL : March 2, 2014 9:50 pm

The Red Shoes, The Bad And The Beautiful, VERTIGO (& most all of Hitchcock),Sunset Boulevard, most of the Universals (especially The Mummy) Oh, heck, I better stop or my list will be l o n g. Greg–thanks for mentioning THE GHOUL…AL

Posted By James : March 2, 2014 10:33 pm

If you look one decade further, to the 1940s, then of course you have the great Val Lewton films, some of which I love unconditionally (Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, The Leopard Man).

On the other hand, some of the films that did win Best Picture that decade are pretty great, and movies I love as well (Casablanca, How Green is My Valley). And one genre film did win (Rebecca).

Posted By tdraicer : March 2, 2014 10:47 pm

>Does anyone even remember “Oliver!”, that year’s Best Picture?

Yes, and it is one of my favorite films. But I would have traded its Best Picture or Director to have seen the great Ron Moody take Best Actor.

The odd case in the actual Oscar list for the 30s is March as Mr. Hyde (and some medical person). I think the next time an actor got a statue for a horror role was Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.

Posted By george : March 2, 2014 11:39 pm

“That would go to Dodsworth, which is, for me, unassailable.”

I would give it to MODERN TIMES or MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN. Comedy doesn’t get much respect from Oscar, either. At least two Capra comedies did win in the ’30s … although YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is nowhere near as good as MR. DEEDS.

As for 1936 thrillers, Lewis Milestone’s THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN and Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE are both excellent. I’d rather see either of those than plow through GREAT ZIEGFELD again.

Posted By James : March 2, 2014 11:40 pm

I’ll also say a good word for Oliver! No, it isn’t the great film 2001 is, and the latter should have won Best Picture, if not The Producers or Rosemary’s Baby. But on its own merits, I like it very much, more so than any of the other “road show” musical films of the 60s. Good score, good performances, well directed.

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 3, 2014 3:19 am

Watch Gary Cooper walk into the bar in the beginning of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN and tell me you’re not looking at Indiana Jones.

Posted By Doug : March 3, 2014 3:37 am

Cracking wise earlier with a friend, I suggested that if Sandra Bullock wins for “Gravity”, when she goes up on stage she should thank Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig, as if she were winning for
“The Heat”.
I’d pay five bucks to see that.

Posted By gregferrara : March 3, 2014 3:59 am

I wrote a whole piece here last year giving OLIVER! its due so I also like it.

By the way, a few mentions of crime, which I should have included since only a few, like THE GODFATHER pics have ever won it. But I wanted to stick with horror/sci-fi/fantasy/adventure.

And AL, I love THE GHOUL, glad to see another fan.

Posted By Jenni : March 3, 2014 5:33 pm

Talk about a snoozefest-I can’t figure out how Calvacade won best picture in 1933. All the other movies you listed were much more interesting and exciting and clever. Do you know if movie studios campaigned and greased palms in order to get their films, or actors, or actresses, or directors the nominations and the wins back in the 1930s?

Posted By Mitch Farish : March 3, 2014 6:24 pm

Interesting pic picks. I would have included Testament of Dr. Mabuse for ’33, but especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame for ’39. Hunchback had, in retrospect, the best performance by an actor, Charles Laughton, the best B&W cinematography, Joseph August. and the best musical score, Alfred Newman. Runner-up for ’39 would be Stagecoach (John Ford’s real masterpiece), not because of the Duke, but because the real star, Claire Trevor.

Posted By jbryant : March 3, 2014 8:54 pm

My picks:

1931: City Lights would edge out M and Frankenstein

1932: Trouble in Paradise over Shanghai Express, The Old Dark House, Scarface. My preferred chain gang picture that year is Rowland Brown’s Hell’s Highway

1933: Duck Soup would probably get my top spot, but King Kong would be close, and The Invisible Man right up there, too. I found The Ghoul to be rather lacking as a story, but the DVD has possibly the best-looking print I’ve ever seen of a 30s film. If only ALL the classics had surviving materials of that quality!

1934: The Scarlet Empress and L’Atalante for the top spot, but It Happened One Night would get in, and a few W. C. Fields films — It’s a Gift, The Old Fashioned Way and You’re Telling Me. Also La Cava’s Affairs of Cellini and Ford’s Judge Priest

1935: Ruggles of Red Gap all the way (my favorite movie); but Bride of Frankenstein is a must, along with Alice Adams, Wyler’s The Good Fairy, and Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. The Black Room is great too.

1936: Modern Times, Dodsworth, My Man Godfrey, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Pagnol’s Cesar. Add me to the list of The General Died at Dawn admirers, too.

1937: Make Way for Tomorrow, The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Pepe le Moko, Stella Dallas, Stage Door

1938: Grand Illusion, The Baker’s Wife, Adventures of Robin Hood, Holiday, Pygmalion, The Lady Vanishes

1939: Several of Oscars picks would make it, but Only Angels Have Wings and The Hunchback of Notre Dame would get in there, and more comedies, like Midnight and Destry Rides Again.

Posted By a. saez : March 3, 2014 9:01 pm

where’s cagneys “the public enemy” & “angel’s with dirty faces”.

Posted By gregferrara : March 4, 2014 1:36 am

Great choices, jbryant.

A. Saez, and everyone, just to clear up a little confusion, and I admit I probably didn’t make it as clear as I could have, but I was restricting myself to the horror/sci-fi/fantasy/adventure films that could have won it since those rarely get attention. Same goes for comedy and crime but that’s not what I was sticking to (“I began thinking of all the science fiction, action-adventure, fantasy, horror movies that I love that could have taken Best Picture”). We could all probably do this over for just crime, foreign dramas and comedies, thrillers and some others, too.

Posted By george : March 4, 2014 2:55 am

Someone on NPR said the other day that Oscar winners (especially in recent decades) are usually made on an “epic” scale, or deal with an “important” subject. That usually shuts out comedies and other genre films, sad to say.

Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2014 3:08 pm

That reminds me, I really need to see Dodsworth. For some reason my scrambled brain always confuses it with John Ford’s Arrowsmith when it pops up on the TCM schedule. Must correct that.

Posted By swac44 : March 4, 2014 6:36 pm

Whaddya know, it’s on tomorrow night (Wednesday) at 8 p.m. Great timing, TCM!

Posted By gregferrara : March 4, 2014 8:04 pm

And speaking of timing, it’s also integral to my post tomorrow morning so be sure and check that out, too.

Posted By B Piper : March 5, 2014 6:04 pm

Best picture Oscars don’t go to the movies the Academy thinks are great. They go to the movies they want you to THINK they think are great.

Posted By Joe : March 6, 2014 3:19 pm

So, genre movies should get a nod, but animation should stay at the kiddie table? Snow White should have been nominated for best picture, too. Without Snow White, there’s no Wizard of Oz.

It’s either a ’37 or ’38 film, as I’m not sure how the rules worked then (it was released in LA in December 1937, in NY in Jan. ’38 and to the whole country in Feb. ’38). It did receive an honorary Oscar, the famous big Oscar with 7 little statuettes presented to Walt Disney by Shirley Temple (ahem, kiddie table) at the Academy Awards in 1939.

Posted By robbushblog : March 14, 2014 4:50 pm

I recently made a list of what I felt were the Best Pictures of each year, beginning with 2013 and going back to 1934. I greatly differed with the Academy as well, mainly because my idea of “Best” is what I like best, so in many cases popcorn movies won out over “prestige” pictures.

Now, as for 1931, if not for Chaplin, I would also choose Frankenstein. That Little Tramp has me and I go with City Lights by a nose.

1932- As great as Grand Hotel is, I have to give it to Tarzan the Ape Man. I loved watching those movies as a kid on Saturdays on the old TBS.

1933- King Kong. Without a doubt.

1934- In a photo finish, I disagree with you and the Academy and choose The Thin Man over It Happened One Night.

1935- Yup, Bride of Frankenstein all the way.

1936- Chaplin again. Modern Times narrowly defeats Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey and Things To Come.

1937-By just a fraction of a hair (This year was the toughest), Make Way for Tomorrow bests Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

1938- Just like King Kong, The Adventures of Robin Hood has no peer in its year.

1939- I recently pissed my sister off by telling her that The Wizard of Oz was the Best Picture of 1939.

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