Armchair Oscars – 1935

Best Picture

Mutiny on the Bounty (Directed by Frank Lloyd)
The Nominees: Alice Adams, The Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, The Informer, The Lives of a Bangel Lancer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Misérables, Naughty Marietta, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield, the Younger, Ruggles of Red Gap, Top Hat

The Informer (Directed by John Ford)
My Nominees:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Dietrle and Max Reinhart), Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd), Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)


In 1935 MGM gave director Frank Lloyd $2,000,000 to bring the story of Mutiny of the Bounty to the screen, the most ever spent on an MGM picture since Ben-Hur a decade earlier.  The story of Fletcher Christian’s 1797 takeover of the HMS Bounty from the tyrannical Captain Bligh was one of the most obvious Hollywood products of its day, boasting  box office attractions Charles Laughton and Clark Gable and fudging history in favor of spirited entertainment.

Watching the movie again it is easy to see what all the fuss was about. The movie has lots of energy and first-rate performances (especially by Laughton).  Yet, it gets into a simple-minded repetitive narrative in which we simply have Bligh punishing his crew for meager crimes over and over until Fletcher decides he’s had enough. The ending, too, seems a little short-sighted. It wraps itself up so quickly that we are left with a lot of key questions.

Mutiny on the Bounty was a huge financial success, but at the Oscars it came up short, becoming the only film in history to win Best Picture and nothing else.  Its chief competition did much better despite of its lackluster box office.  John Ford’s The Informer dominated the awards, winning four Oscars for John Ford as Best Director, star Victor McLaglen as Best Actor, Max Steiner for his incredible score, and Dudley Nichols for his screenplay, although he refused it due to a boycott by a group of writers and actors who were trying to form unions independent of the studios and the academy.

That was a good turnover for a movie for which RKO had no faith.  It had a lack of star power, it was a grim morality play and it had an unhappy ending.  For those reasons, the studio gave John Ford only $200,000 and two-and-a-half weeks to shoot the film.  It was not a box office success and only turned a profit when it became a serious Oscar contender.

While Mutiny has found its place in movie history, The Informer seems to have slipped out of common knowledge.  It is rarely screened on television and doesn’t usually come up in revivals of Ford’s best work.  When it was released in 1935 it was hailed with splendid reviews but over time many have denounced it as dated and overly melodramatic.  I don’t see it that way, I see The Informer as John Ford’s nod to the great German expressionists of the silent era (even though he didn’t see it that way).  Ford uses of light and shadow to suggest mood, and Max Steiner’s score to pinpoint specific moments.  He allows his actors to perform in broad strokes rather than create intimacy.  All of this is borrowed from the works of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.  It also featured a very rare lead for Victor McLaglen and, many have said, his finest screen performance (he won the year’s Best Actor award).

The Informer takes place in the den of the Sien Finn rebellion in Dublin in 1922 and concerns the fate of Gypo Nolan, a soft-headed yet soft-hearted pug who has been kicked out of the IRA for disobeying orders, refusing to kill a man who killed one of their own officers. He is broke and starving, and sees an opportunity when he spots a wanted poster on a wall announcing that his friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) is wanted for murder – and there is a reward of £20.  Gypo knows where Frankie is hiding and knows that turning him in would mean some food for his empty stomach.  But his better sense of loyalty catches up with him and he tears down the poster and throws it away.  Still the wind of fate keeps sending the poster blowing back and it wraps around his leg.

Later Gypo discovers that his girlfriend Katie Madden (Margot Grahame) is turning tricks to pay the rent.  He changes her mind but then she turns his attentions to a sign in a store in which they can sail to America and a new life for just £10 each.  The temptation is too great and Gypo turns Frankie over to the British authorities.  Frankie is visiting his mother when the men surround the house and he is shot dead.

Wracked with guilt, Gypo begins drinking and the signs and portents of his doom unfold.  He crosses paths with a catatonic blind man (D’Arcy Corrigan) and gives him a pound.  He meets Katie and tells her that he got the money by robbing a sailor just in from America.  An IRA commandant Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) informs Gypo that if he can track down the informer that he will try getting him into the IRA.  Desperate to move the light of guilt away from himself, he tells Gallagher that it was the town tailor, a mousy little man named Peter Mulligan (Donald Meek).

Gypo continues to drink and spend the money, all the while the authorities are recording his every move.  His conscience begins to burn so ferociously that even whiskey can’t wash it away.  The drunker he gets and the more the truth bubbles to the surface.  At an inquiry, Mulligan is called forward to account for his whereabouts.  To Gypo’s amazement, Mulligan can account for himself at every moment of the day. Eventually it all comes back to Gypo.  He is caught and the authorities vote to give him a death sentence. He escapes and is shot.  Staggering into a church, Gypo finds redemption from the one person who has the least reason to grant it, Frankie’s mother (Una O’Connor).  Granted absolution from the kind old lady, Gypo falls dead.

The Informer is essentially a reworking of the story of Judas Iscariot. Like Judas, Gypo turns over a friend for money and spends his remaining days in an agonizing state of grief and paranoia, especially when his deception costs Frankie his life. He can’t find a foothold on his guilt, but unlike Judas who gave back the reward money, Gypo works to get rid of it. Yet, the harder he works, the more the fates work against him. He has doomed a man that considered him a friend and everywhere he looks, he sees that face staring back at him.  The streets of Dublin are foggy but as the movie progresses, the fog seems to thin revealing the lie.  Gypo lives under a cloud of poverty and then guilt but after his traitorous act, the truth becomes less and less obscured.  He suffers heavily for his sins and tries to wash them away in a haze of booze and half-truths.  He makes dumb mistakes, spending the money as an effort to find absolution for his crime. But it isn’t enough and it only serves to reveal the truth.

Gypo is not a smart man.  If he were he could see that there is a way out – his probable life with Katie in America.  Pay the £20, board a ship and his troubles will be behind him.  But he can’t see the forest for the trees and trying to pin the crime on another man proves to be the nail in his coffin.  He is not intelligent and drinks, loosening his tongue and his judgment.  Gypo has been gypped, but only by his own hand.

Best Actor

Victor McLaglen
(The Informer)
The Nominees: Clark Gable (Mutiny on the Bounty), Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty) , Paul Muni (Black Fury), Franchot Tone(Mutiny on the Bounty)

Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty)
My Nominees:
Peter Lorre (Mad Love)


One of the oddities in trying to choose the best performance in any given year is often choosing a great performance from a movie that didn’t work.  That is possible, and such is the case of Charles Laughton in his unforgettable performance in Mutiny on the Bounty.  It is true that there are probably better performances from the leading men in 1935, especially the winner Victor McLaglen for his magnificent work in John Ford’s The Informer.  Reasonably, I should be rewarding McLaglen’s work here since I chose the film as Best Picture, but in watching Charles Laughton’s performance again, I find that there is something that stays with me.  Mutiny won the Best Picture Oscar while MacLaglen won Best Actor, but I wish those had been reversed – give The Informer the Best Picture Oscar and reward Laughton’s performance.

Of all of Laughton’s performances in the 30s none would last as long as Captain William Bligh. With his paranoid eyes, rat-like brow and an almost ordinary manner of dispatching floggings, Laughton created a villain for the ages. Bligh commands The Bounty with an iron fist.  Short of stature, short of conscience, prone to punish for meager crimes, we see him as a man capable of battling the ocean but is completely ignorant of the human condition.  Everything that he brings to the role contributes to the effect.  He has the jowly face a pouty lower lip like an angry child.  He has a gate that makes up for an imposing height.  His hat, his coat, his costume remind us of Napoleon.

There have been those who puncture the film for its historical inaccuracy (myself included) but I can’t deny Laughton for his performance.  It is all in his eyes.  When Christian confronts him there is a buried insecurity, a paranoia that runs down into his bones.  He knows that if he is too lenient on his crew that they will take advantage but if he rules with an iron fist they will keep their place.

Before the ship sets sail we are given reason to question Bligh’s sanity – he orders the flogging of a dead man just to keep the letter of the law.  At sea, when a crewman asks for water for his sore knees, Bligh casts him overboard.  When a hunk of cheese goes missing, he punishes three men.

Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian rouses the men to rise against their tyrannical master and take command of the ship.  In the most famous moment, as Bligh and his loyal followers are about to be set out to sea in a small boat he makes a famous proclamation to the revolting crew: “Casting me adrift thirty-five hundred miles from a port of call! You’re sending me to my doom, eh? Well, you’re wrong, Christian. I’ll take this boat, as she floats, to England if I must. I’ll live to see you — all of you — hanging from the highest yardarm in the British fleet!”

Fletcher Christian tells him “I’ll take my chances against the law – You’ll take yours against the sea.” We are reasonably conditioned, like Christian, to believe that no man and his crew could survive against the open seas in a small boat. But we are startled to find that the most frightening aspect of Bligh is that he is really smarter than we think.  Left for dead on the rough seas in a small boat with little to eat and little to drink, it is assumed that he and the crew will perish but Christian has overlooked his skills as a seaman.  An expert navigator, Bligh guides the small boat on a 3600 mile journey to safety, the to coast of Timor in the East Dutch Indies while The Bounty turns toward the isolated safety of Tahiti.

Back in England, Bligh is present at the court marshal of Roger Byam, one of the men responsible for the mutiny.  Byam reminds the tribunal “These men don’t ask for comfort. They don’t ask for safety…They ask only for the freedom that England expects for every man. If one man among you believed that – one man! – he could command the fleets of England. He could sweep the seas for England if he called his men to their duty, not by flaying their backs but by lifting their hearts – their…, that’s all.” We expect that Byam will be given a reprieve but what we don’t expect is what happens next. An officer on the tribunal reprimands Bligh and we sense that all respect, even for his skills, have been lost.

What stays with me in Captain Bligh is the immobile manner.  There’s something that we can all identify with, working for someone who is hardbound to the letter of the rules but is ignorant of the human condition.  What we miss is that there’s a reason that Bligh is in command and the movie reveals that when he and his crew are set adrift.  Bligh, ever the master seaman, makes a 3600 mile journey in a tiny boat to Timor in the West Indies.  Bearded, exhausted, he proclaims that “We’ve beaten the sea itself”.

The performance would become Laughton’s legacy but for Laughton himself he felt that he gave better performances elsewhere. He didn’t disown the role but he felt that it didn’t fill the capacity of what he could do.  Yet, I couldn’t deny him the performance, it is a brilliant, tricky performance, one at which a seemingly one-dimensional character outsmarts even those of us who think we have him figured out.

Best Actress

Bette Davis (Dangerous)
The Nominees: Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams), Miram Hopkins (Becky Sharp), Merle Oberon (The Dark Angel), Elisabeth Bergner (Escape Me Never), Claudette Colbert (Private Worlds)

Katharine Hepburn (Alice Adams)
The Nominees: Marlene Dietrich (The Devil is a Woman), Jeanette McDonald (Naughty Marietta)


Feeling sheepish about the messy spite campaign that kept Bette Davis out of the Oscar race for her brilliant performance in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, the academy voters were more than happy to give her the Best Actress prize for 1935.  In Alfred Green’s Dangerous she played a similar role, this time as Joyce Heath a boozy has-been actress who is rescued from the gutter and given an opportunity to resuscitate her career with the help of good-hearted Franchot Tone.

When you see both films back to back, Dangerous comes off as a tepid, apologetic remake of Of Human Bondage with Davis saved by Franchot Tone in a similar way that she found salvation earlier by Leslie Howard.  Davis never gave a dull performance but even she admitted that the best performance of the year came from Katharine Hepburn in George Stevens’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, which helped to further establish the bony, jittery chatterbox that would endear The Great Kate to the public and give material to a generation of impressionists.

If there was ever an actress that fits a character it is Hepburn as Alice, an ungainly spinster living a middle-class life in an upper-class town.  She dreams of being able to socialize with the people her own age, whose families are wealthy.  But Alice finds that her peers snub her because of her average looks and middling social graces.  She lives at home with her weak-kneed father (Fred Stone), her nagging mother (Ann Shoemaker) and her brother Walter (Frank Albertson) who nurses a gambling habit.  Alice just wants to belong but her attempts often end in disaster.

Early on, she attends a society dance wearing an unfortunate dress and being accompanied by Walter.  This is where she meets Arthur Russell (played by a 27 year-old Fred MacMurray) and he takes an instant liking to Alice but history has taught her that if she isn’t rich, he won’t have any interest in her.  So she agrees to his courting but chooses to hide her middle-class status by never allowing him into her home or introducing him to her family.

Of course, we can predict the outcome, but what makes Hepburn so endearing in Alice Adams is the way she handles certain scenes.  Most of her performance takes place just in her body language.  She has moments when her face conveys a great deal of pain while her words are trying to exude happiness. She knows how to handle difficulties, like a skirmish between her father and his boss but she is buried in deep insecurity and self-pity as when she comes home from the dance and has an emotional breakdown.  Alice’s pride is her crutch and it puts blinders in front of her eyes when she tries to keep Arthur from finding out that she is poor even though it is clear to us that he is not materialistic.  She is so use to being jilted for superficial reasons that she has no reason to think that this man will grant her any less disappointment.  When the revelation comes that he isn’t going to snub her affections, the moment is quite genuine and very touching.

Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress for Alice Adams, but lost.  She won four times in her career for performance that were not displays her best work (and she famously never showed up to receive any of them).  Three of those performances were dutiful housewives, but Hepburn was better than that.  She was skilled at playing a multitude of emotions with happiness on the surface and a great deal of pain underneath and she displays this to perfection in the embodiment of Alice Adams, a woman that most women could probably identify with in one way or another.

Hepburn had the same earthy quality that I always credit to Jack Lemmon.  Neither actor fit into the mold of glamorous movie stars.  They were good actors, but they looked like ordinary people, that’s why we identify with them.  For Hepburn, unlike her contemporaries like Carol Lombard, Ava Gardner or Vivien Leigh who were so beautiful that they possessed an ethereal quality that kept them at a distance.  Not so with Katharine Hepburn.  She looked like a regular person and we loved her for that.

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