Armchair Oscars – 1934

Best Picture

It Happened One Night (Directed by Frank Capra)
The Nominees: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, The White Parade

The Thin Man (Directed by W.S. Van Dyke)
My Nominees:
Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey), Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille), Death Takes a Holiday (Michell Leisen), Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl), Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)


It isn’t exactly news to report that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, out of more than 80 years has a notoriously short-sighted view of comedy.  In fact out of the six dozen films that have won the top prize at the Oscars, only six have been flat-out comedies.  Two of those comedies, It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You came out in the 30s and both were directed by Frank Capra.  Neither film is a monument of his best work, but at least It Happened One Night is a happy glimpse of greatness to come.

The movie was a box office smash and was so popular that it became the first film in history to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – a feat that, to date, has only happened three times, the other two being One Few Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.

Lauded as the first great screwball comedy It Happened One Night follows the romantic adventures of a wealthy socialite (Claudette Colbert) who runs away from her controlling father and takes to the road with a worldly-wise reporter (played by a miscast Clark Gable).  It is hard to dislike It Happened One Night.  As a road picture, it is bouncy with moments that we remember like the hitchhiking scene, the walls of Jericho, and the sing-a-long on a crowded bus, but for a Capra film, it seems a little innocuous.

Capra’s best films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and It’s a Wonderful Life feature great comedy wrapped in social commentary.  His best work is challenging and thoughtful but this film seems a little feather-weight.  Both Gable and Colbert won Oscars for their performances but the movie really lies in Colbert’s hands.  She has a warm presence on screen but the two together don’t generate much energy and the romantic moments feel forced.

My favorite film of 1934 may have seemed just as feather-weight but it featured one of the greatest screen couples in the history of the cinema.  The easy chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man feels natural as if they’ve been practicing a loving (and fun) game of verbal tango for years.

The Thin Man isn’t much story-wise.  It is a murder mystery where the mystery story is just a hanger on which to hang two great performances.  Nick is a retired detective who left the business years ago to marry wealthy Nora.  They seem to have everything in common, they have no children but they do have their beloved wire-haired terrier Asta, and their happiness is lubricated with lots of alcohol.  Drinking is not a problem, but a recreation.  They drink constantly and the only after-effect is a hangover which is presented comically when Nora emerges from the bedroom with an ice pack on her head after a very successful Christmas party.

The movie could easily have been a happy little drawing-room comedy about a cute couple and their dog, but a mystery is afoot.  Not that it matters but it involves Nick being briefly pulled back into service when a famous inventor goes missing.  The trail begins with the concern of his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) who suspects a plot by her step-mother and her boy-toy Chris (Caeser Romero) and the possible involvement of the inventor’s lover Julia who turns up dead.  There are probably about a dozen supporting characters in this movie who seem to have turned up out of the cliché workshop including a pug who has modeled his personality after Al Capone; a cop who might have been the model for Joe Friday; a sweaty, henpecked little man that we suspect right away and a curious little nebbish who studies the person by looking them up and down.

All of the supporting characters are red herrings, just thrown into the movie so that the plot can have a climax.  In a scene borrowed out of Agatha Christie, Nick gathers all the key players to a formal dinner with the cops dressed as waiters while he sits at the head of the table and lays out the crime, whodunit and why-they-dunit.  It is all painfully complicated and the solution doesn’t exactly draw a gasp.  But we aren’t there to be dazzled by the revelation, but by how easily Nick pulls together two dozen motives into one very complicated monologue and presents it as if it were a parlor game.  This is the kind of movie where the joy is in the notes, not the lyrics. Everyone in the film seems to be having a good time.

As I said before, the key to the movie is the relationship between Nick and Nora. They have such an ease with one another as a happy couple on an endless honeymoon.  Their dialogue is a happy dance of words, as with this exchange after Nick makes the papers after a gunman grazes his arm:

Nick: I’m a hero.  I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true.  He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

But while their relationship contains a loving dance of words, it is not exactly deep.  There’s not much fiery passion (they sleep in separate beds) and the only time we get a sense of intense romance is right before Nick heads out to do some legwork and Nora voices her concern as they falls into each other’s arms with a passionate kiss.  But I love their lighthearted time together as when they sit in their living room on Christmas morning and Nick passes the time by busting the balloons on his Christmas tree with an air-rifle; and a moment in the bedroom when she asks him “You asleep?”  He says “Yes” and she says “Good, I need to talk to you”.

The Thin Man is pure entertainment.  There is nothing deep or insightful; it is simply a space of time with characters we come to love.  That doesn’t make it insignificant, but it is proof that you can have a thin plot that can work if you prop it up with characters that are worth your time.  William Powell and Myrna Loy would become the template for romantic comedy couples even to this day.  Films like When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Say Anything, Four Weddings and Funeral and Annie Hall have all tried to capture, in one way or another, the kind of chemistry that was set in motion here.

In all of their best work William Powell and Myrna Loy, together and separately, were the most approachable of actors.  There was never anything phony or hidden about them.  They felt like your neighbors or that aunt and uncle you could wait to see at a Christmas party.  Rediscovering The Thin Man series is to rediscover two people who who had a rapport with one another who made you want to spend time with them.  They are irresistible and we can’t wait to be in their company again.

Best Actor

Clark Gable
(It Happened One Night)
The Nominees: Frank Morgan (The Affairs of Cellini), William Powell (The Thin Man)

William Powell (The Thin Man)
My Nominees:
W.C. Field (It’s a Gift), Fredric March (Death Takes a Holiday), William Powell (Manhattan Melodrama)


Clark Gable was a tough, rugged man’s man, a hard-drinker who often went big game hunting with his buddy director-producer Mervyn LeRoy.  He had hard-features but was a good-looking man whose persona endeared him to millions of young girls. This was the hard persona that flourished early in his career in the supporting roles as the heavy, like the mobster in A Free Soul and the William Wellman production Night Nurse, where he played an evil chauffeur who tries to starve two children to get their trust fund money.  With the right connections and pairings with co-stars like Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, Gable moved from the supporting player to leading man under contract with MGM.

At his best, Gable was an intense actor with a hard stare and an underlying weariness that played best when his character is seriously conflicted.  It is for that reason that I cringe when I see him in a light comedy and unfortunately it was the light comedy that brought him his only Oscar.

In Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, he played Peter Warne, a reporter who reluctantly agrees to help a spoiled socialite (Claudette Colbert) find her new husband after her father kidnaps her away from him. Naturally, on the road, Gable and Colbert can’t help falling in love.

This was not a film that Gable wanted to make.  Reportedly, he was loaned to Columbia Pictures as a sort of punishment by the studio bosses for his off-screen behavior and showed up on the set the first day remarking “Okay, let’s get this over with”.  That attitude comes out in the film and it affects his performance.

My choice for Best Actor was a man who could play light comedy as easy as Estaire could occupy a dance floor.  Forty-Two year old William Powell had been working in film since 1922 but The Thin Man and it’s sequels made him a full-fledged star, and rightfully so.

As Nick Charles, a former detective who is retired and lives with his wealthy wife, he finds himself pulled back into service when a friend begins to question her father’s disappearance.  The plot is all a very nice diversion but the movie is really about the happy relationship between Nick and his beautiful bride Nora (Myrna Loy, of course).  The two adore one another and have settled into the kind of blissful marriage where they don’t quite finish one another’s sentences so much as they play off of them.  Their dialogue together is a lovely dance of words, not just good writing but the kind of chemistry that allows us to believe that they’ve been together for years.

It helps that the lubricant of their relationship is alcohol, not as a problem but as playful recreation.  Nick and Nora drink steadily throughout the entire film and the only consequence is a light hangover.  There is a moment early in the film when the two wake up in the middle of the night and Nick pours them both a drink and when Nora goes to answer the door, Nick gulps her drink down.

There were six “Thin Man” films and the other five mostly featured the two working together.  This first film really belongs to Powell, while Loy’s screentime in more limited (which is why I didn’t choose her as Best Actress).  She’s his happy companion but this is not a buddy film. It is not much of a detective film either; the mystery plot is more or less superfluous.  Powell never seems to work doggedly at the case save for one scene in which he goes to the inventor’s abandoned factory and even then the key evidence is uncovered by his faithful terrier, Asta.

Powell is one of the most likable of light comedians. He could play the leading man, he could play a cad, he could play the heavy but he never lost his ease on screen.  Even when we didn’t like his character, we can’t stop watching him. He is so comfortable on screen that many may have thought that he wasn’t really acting.  He never won an Oscar despite three nominations (this film was his first) and never even received an honorary Oscar.  If he was the same in real life as he was on screen, it may not have bothered him too much.  Like Nick, he may have just expressed a brief but polite disappointment and then poured himself a drink.

Best Actress

Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night)
The Nominees: Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage), Grace Moore (One Night of Love), Norma Shearer (The Barretts of Wimpole Street)

Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage)
The Nominees: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Claudette Colbert (Imitation of Life), Myra Loy (The Thin Man), Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century)


Claudette Colbert was so sure that fellow nominee Bette Davis was going to win the Oscar for Best Actress that she chose not to attend the ceremony.  Colbert wasn’t alone because Davis had given a performance that was being called one of the greatest in the history of the cinema and one of the biggest gambles in the life of one career.

Davis had been working in Hollywood for years but hadn’t found her breakthrough role.  Exasperated, she was offered the role of the tragic, cold-hearted waitress Mildred Rogers in his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.  The role was not flattering, so it would take an actress willing to set her vanity aside.  Mildred is a drip, an illiterate with a penchant for manipulating good-hearted men but never possessing enough self-confidence to maintain her own life. This is to say nothing of the fact that she is impregnated by a married man then loses the baby and starts turning tricks until she dies in the street of tuberculosis (which, in order to get around The Hays Code, was changed from the original play in which Mildred dies of syphilis).

Needless to say, this was not a role that many actresses were eager to play.  Davis’ only obstacle was to get permission from Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner to let her do the picture for RKO.  Warner didn’t want Davis to play the role because he felt that such an unflattering character would damage her reputation.

He only finally relented when he needed to trade Davis with an actress from another studio for an upcoming film.  When Davis’ performance became Hollywood’s talk of the town, her Oscar chances seemed in the bag, but Warner, who was bitter over the success, began a spite campaign in the academy to keep Davis’ name out of the running.

Many in the academy were shocked when she did not receive a nomination and, in response, many of her supporters rallied behind her for a write-in vote.  It succeeded but Davis still lost and within the industry there were suspicions that even the write-in votes had been manipulated.  Warner’s coup would lead to the academy’s decision to hire an independent accounting firm to tally the results (a practice that continues to this day).

Today the performance may not be lauded as particularly brilliant but from Bette Davis, an actress we know all-too-well, it is a bit of a surprise.  We are use to the brassy, manipulative Bette who can lacerate with the stroke of her tongue but Mildred shows a depth and piteous vulnerability even when we can’t love the character.  Mildred is a sluttish cockney waitress who latches onto the affections of club-footed med student Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) and won’t let go.  She manipulates him, dumps him, asks for his help and he never refuses.

Yet, Mildred is not your standard man-eater.  Unlike Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman, who manipulates men because she likes the game, Mildred latches onto a man more out of buried sense of need.  There is something off-kilter about Mildred.  When she stands, when she walks, when she speaks, there is something that doesn’t seem to fit the regular patterns of human mobility.  Even her cockney accent seems a little askew.  Mildred is a woman buried in deep insecurity who hasn’t quite latched onto a personality of her own.  She is not sexy; she has a bony frame and an odd face, but there is one thing that she has – her eyes – and this is what catches Philip’s heart.  There is a very famous shot early in the film when she takes a drink and peers over the rim of the glass with her famous eyes and we catch merely a glimpse of what Philip finds attractive.

Davis’ accomplishment in the performance comes first from her eyes.  When she screams at him, her eyes widen with a bizarre ferocity.  In the end, when she has turned to prostitution, her eyelids are heavily made up and our eyes are instantly drawn to them (Davis did her own make-up).  She also had a foresight to allow us to see into her tragic vulnerability as she holds back early in the film so that later when she lets loose with a verbal tirade, it comes as something of a shock.  Screaming at him, she tells him: “You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once! I was always makin’ a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya! It made me SICK when I had to let ya kiss me.  I only did it because ya begged me, ya hounded me and drove me crazy!  And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! WIPE MY MOUTH!

Something happened when I saw the film that I have to tell you about. As I was watching the film the first time, I remember thinking that Mildred didn’t look like the Bette Davis that I knew from other films. There was a reserve that seemed somewhat unusual. Late in the film when she blows up at Philip with her eyes widened and her screams accompanied by a vicious smile, I actually pointed at the screen and said “Now THAT is Bette Davis”.

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