1936: The Great Ziegfeld [Okay]
1936’s Best Picture winner is an interesting case, as it has a link to a crucial moment in my formative years. When I was five years old, my parents took my sister and me to the movie theater to see MGM’s popular retrospect on its classic musicals, That’s Entertainment! (1974). That experience left me with a life-long love of movies in general and musicals in particular, as well as a strangely specific fascination with the black-and-white movies of the 30s and 40s. The clip from The Great Ziegfeld, the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” number, had a lot to do with the latter. I’d never seen anything that looked quite like it, and I wanted to see more. Yet it wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally sat down to watch the movie in its entirety… and I realized that when I’d seen that clip of the “Pretty Girl” number, I’d already seen the best part.
The sad thing is that the raw materials for enduring awesomeness are here. You have William Powell, one of the most charming and engaging actors of the period, in the lead, and the latter part of the movie teams him with his partner from The Thin Man movies, the equally charming and engaging Myrna Loy. Yet its core flaws are over-length and plodding pacing; this movie far outstays its welcome. You know a movie has problems when the combined forces of Powell, Loy, and Fanny Brice can’t generate enough excitement to justify its 177-minute runtime. Yet this was a “prestige picture” in its day, extravagantly mounted, with sky-high production values that managed to trick Academy voters into thinking the movie was actually good. My recommendation: if you’re curious, as I was, fast-forward through everything that 1) isn’t a musical number and 2) doesn’t involve Fanny Brice, and you should have a decent time. For a truly good “prestige picture” — both well-mounted and emotionally engaging — try the same year’s A Tale of Two Cities, featuring the dashing, tragic Ronald Colman and a roster of top-notch character actors.
1937: The Life of Emile Zola [Good]
Most of the YouTube “I’ve Seen Every Best Picture” video rankings place this one near the bottom middle. I think it deserves better. It’s nowhere near God-Tier or even Personal Favorite, but I find it solidly good, certainly a better “prestige picture” than the previous year’s winner. Like The Great Ziegfeld, it’s a historical drama, but rather than the meandering portrait of a great man’s “life” that the title seems to promise, it’s a depiction of French author Emile Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal in which an Army officer was framed for espionage and exiled to Devil’s Island, the fact that he was Jewish making him an easy scapegoat. Zola, among others, fought hard for Dreyfus’ release and won, but not until the man’s health and spirit had been broken. The story both provokes thought and inspires rooting interest, and the film is anchored by two outstanding performances from Paul Muni (as Zola) and Joseph Schildkraut (as Dreyfus — a performance that netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). If you’re not a big fan of historical dramas, as I am, this movie may not be your proverbial cup of tea, but if you enjoy them, give it a look. You might be pleasantly surprised.
1938: You Can’t Take It With You [Okay-to-Good]
Here’s another one to which I have personal connections: in my early twenties, I acted in a community-theater production of the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart play on which this film was based, so I already knew the basic storyline when I sat down to watch it. That experience may have prejudiced me in the movie’s favor, as I appreciated some of the changes made to the source material, particularly regarding Alice, the female lead (played here by Jean Arthur); I liked her in the film, whereas I had little to no patience with her in the play. I also enjoyed seeing Frank Capra direct Lionel Barrymore in a role that is the diametric opposite of the iconic villain Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet this second Capra-directed Best Picture winner doesn’t reach the high bar set by 1934’s It Happened One Night, or even 1936’s nominated-but-not-victorious Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Give it a look if you’re a Capra completest, and you’ll have a pretty good time. But to see the real Best Picture of 1938, track down the sumptuous Technicolor classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, featuring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland burning up the screen with chemistry, an amazing supporting cast including Claude Rains (whom I worship) and Basil Rathbone, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s rousing musical score, one of the best ever put to film.
1939: Gone With the Wind [Aged Like Milk]
First off, Clark Gable was the man. When he learned that “White” and “Colored” signs had been hung on the toilets on the set of Gone With the Wind, Gable, the highly bankable male lead on whom so much depended, threatened to walk if the signs weren’t removed. His mensch-itude didn’t end there. He was fully prepared to boycott the film’s premiere because it was held at a segregated theater, and only backed down when Hattie McDaniel, who would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film (the first ever for an African-American performer), persuaded him to go. As Rhett Butler he has, as the cliche goes, charisma to burn, and he and McDaniel together might make the film worth watching. It’s also an eyeful of Technicolor spectacle, surpassing even The Adventures of Robin Hood in terms of overall look, although after three hours and forty-two minutes you might find yourself a little bored looking at costumes.
To judge a film made in 1939 by 2023’s social standards is folly, I admit, and I will give the movie some credit for giving McDaniel a complex and interesting character to play. I also know that depicting a social evil of the past — in this case, slavery in the pre-Civil War South — is not the same as endorsing that evil. Yet I still can’t help finding this movie’s rose-colored look at the Confederacy off-putting. Plus, I have a personal preference for central characters I can admire and root for, and Scarlett O’Hara is, well, not that; Rhett, despite Gable’s charismatic portrayal, isn’t much better. In short, despite the impressive spectacle, I can’t bring myself to love this movie. Cinephiles might want to give it a look for its place in the overall history of film, but those looking for an engaging story with enjoyable characters would be better off watching almost any of the other Best Picture nominees from that year. My own personal favorites are The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka.