Armchair Oscars – 1936

Best Picture

The Great Ziegfeld (Directed by Robert Z. Leonard)
The Nominees: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls

Modern Times (Directed by Charles Chaplin)
My Nominees:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra), Valient is the Word for Carrie (Wesley Ruggles), Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor)


Does anyone alive today really think that The Great Ziegfeld deserved an Oscar as Best Picture?  I’ve seen MGM’s expensive, overproduced musical biopic of showman Florenz Ziegfeld twice in my life and the second time around it was even more insufferable.  It is a boring, overproduced lumbering dinosaur with dull, incomprehensible musical numbers, a profane black-faced performance of “If you know Suzy”- YUCK! – and a ridiculous running time of three hours! The performances by William Powell and Luise Rainer aren’t bad (though why Fannie Brice wasn’t among the nominees for the first Best Supporting Actress this year is beyond me) but I can’t imagine anyone today sitting through this movie with anything but blind curiosity. This is, to my mind, the single worst film ever given the Oscar for Best Picture.

For many reasons, The Great Ziegfeld is all but forgotten today. The state-of-the-art production values were widely praised at the time and it would become an example of just the kind of over-developed, over-produced hot air that Charlie Chaplin probably had in mind when he was putting together Modern Times.

At a time when the art of filmmaking was rapidly churning toward the future, Chaplin was still fighting a one-man battle in favor of silent films.  Famously he didn’t think much of talking pictures and predicted that they would die out in five years.  So, he gleefully pressed on, working his magic in what was perceived as a dead art form.

Chaplin’s contemporaries thought he was behind the times and he continued to fight a battle by keeping his films silent even though he didn’t make many in the sound era. As punishment, his last two silent films City Lights and Modern Times did not receive one single nomination.

Neither of the two silent films that he made after The Jazz Singer were totally silent, they incorporated sound effects and a line or two of dialogue, but both used sound as a means of being critical of the process. First was City Lights which opened with a political speech in which the audience only heard unintelligible squawks coming from the speaker’s mouths.  The other was Modern Times, a red-blooded assault on madness of the machine age.

Modern Times wasn’t his best film but it was certainly better than anything else released in 1936. It was one of his most important films mainly because it was his transition from silent to sound.  Here he satirizes the process but there is a tone that suggests that he’s ready to move on.  It is the most technologically innovative of his works yet it remains silent.  The only noises come from machines and the only voices are heard over a radio, a monitor and a phonograph.  The message is that Chaplin will move into the sound age, but that doesn’t mean he will give it any respect.

The reason that the film is important is because it displays his best gifts for satire.  His other films had satire but it bubbled under the surface – this film is more of a full-frontal assault.  He exposes the madness of over-dependence on machines, the economic crisis, the American communist turnover and man’s never-ending pursuit food, glorious food.

Most importantly, perhaps most famously, this is the film in which Chaplin bids farewell to The Tramp. There was some discussion of the possibility of giving the Tramp a speaking voice but Chaplin wouldn’t hear of it. When the studio insisted on it, he created a moment in which the Tramp sings a song, an odd tune called “Titania,” sung in gibberish.

Five years after City Lights, Chaplin uses The Tramp to show how the society has changed, how it has grown past his gentle nature and threatens to crush his fragile spirit.  In the blistering maelstrom of The Great Depression (this was 1936) we find that The Tramp has had to join the work force, working ten hour days at a steel factory turning the bolts on a grotesque machine that frequently breaks down and constantly speeds up.  As he turns the bolts on the conveyer belt, he has to catch up if he misses one. The machine finally swallows him, and The Tramp finds himself bending inside the machine’s cogs, but he’s so loopy that he doesn’t even notice.

Although the film finds The Tramp working it also underpins the same theme that Chaplin has always worked with, survival. After going insane, The Tramp is sent to a mental institution and after having been cured, the rest of the film chronicles his desperate search for work.  At the docks he meets a gamine (Paulette Goddard), a plucky girl stealing bananas for her brothers and sisters.  Food becomes a dominating goal for these two and one of the central themes of the picture: The gamin steals bananas and later bread; The Tramp is nearly killed by an automatic feeding machine that short circuits; The couple have cake in a department store where he works as the night watchman; He eats a very large meal that he can’t pay for in order to get thrown in jail where he will have decent food and a roof over his head; Later when he gets his job back at the factory he stops to have lunch even though his supervisor is stuck inside the machine; And he fantasizes about his dream house and coming home to the wife . . . at dinnertime.

The world of Modern Times is not that far removed from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Both films present a world besieged by the chaos of its own technology and both present the kinds of oppression that Orwell would brought to “1984”. The inside world is a crush of machines and noise, the outside world is awash in riots, strikes and marches.  The Tramp, as always finds himself caught in the middle of one damn thing after another.  The message is that things are tough all over, but as The Tramp confides in the gamin to keep chin up and spirits high because if you keep trying eventually, it will all work out.

Most of the Tramp’s efforts come to nothing, just when he has something in his grasp it blows away in the wind and he finds that he has to start all over again. This has been the theme of the Tramp all along and, given his determination, we know that he will never give up.

It’s fitting that Chaplin’s Tramp bows out in Modern Times, one more film and I think he would have become dated. The world has moved past him, it’s grown too large and too fast for his gentle spirit to maintain.  In the end we find him still searching for his dream, the difference is that in the end when he walks into the sunrise of a new day he doesn’t go alone.  With that, we know he’ll be okay.

Best Actor

Paul Muni
(The Story of Louis Pasteur)
The Nominees: Walter Houston (Dodsworth), Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), William Powell (My Man Godfrey), Spencer Tracy (San Francisco)

Charles Chaplin (Modern Times)
My Nominees:
Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), William Powell (My Man Godfrey)


The first Paul Muni picture that I ever saw was Scarface: Shame of a Nation and that may have been a big mistake.  His performance in that film was so electrifying that every time I see him trying to play a good man, I can’t help but think back to his skills at playing a psychopath.  Muni had the chops to spend his career rivaling James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart but chose to spend it playing men of nobility like Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola.

Six times nominated by the academy, Paul Muni would receive his Best Actor award for playing the title character in The Story of Louis Pasteur.  He does a fine job but when you compare it with his other work (or Scarface), you wonder why the academy voters chose to reward him for such an ordinary performance. Pasteur is a man of nobility, no doubt but the movie doesn’t offer him any kind of flaws, he is a man who knows his stuff and everyone else is wrong. He’s so noble and right that we lose some of the man’s humanity.

I agonized over the decision not to choose William Powell for My Man Godfrey, because I wanted a chance to reward Charlie Chaplin. Before and after 1936, I have rewarded Chaplin for his films and twice I have rewarded him for his acting.  I am also seizing the last opportunity that I will have to reward him for playing The Tramp – but not for that reason alone.

Twice I have had the opportunity to give him my Armchair Oscar for playing the role, for The Circus and for City Lights but I select him for his performance in Modern Times because of the graceful way that Chaplin takes the character and gently lays him to rest.

Five years after City Lights, Modern Times catches up with The Tramp and we find that he has given up his bowler and cane and joined the rat race.  The world has sped up, become mechanized, become more impersonal since the last time we saw him.  Working in an obscene factory turning bolts on a machine that does heaven-knows-what, The Tramp’s mind blows a gasket.  Turning his two wrenches on the conveyor belt bolts, the machine speeds up and so does his mind until he finds himself winding through the gears.  The machinery is constructed with no though of the person who will be operating it, not the conveyer belt and certainly not the electric feeding machine that nearly shears has his lips sheared off when it short-circuits.

The world seems to have been wired for convenience, but The Tramp’s survival instincts haven’t changed.  He gets himself thrown in jail to have a warm bed and three meals a day.  He meets a fellow tramp, a young gamin who has her own means of surviving on the cold streets (she’s played by the lovely Paulette Goddard who would later become Chaplin’s third wife).  The two cling to one another for warmth and their journey together becomes a constant search for food and food dominates their journey together.  The search for a decent meal dominates their everyday lives, from the electric eating machine to the Tramp’s attempt to be thrown in jail by eating a meal he can’t pay for, to the gamin whom he meets when she attempts to steal bananas.  It is all an attempt to stem the tide of hunger, to survive in a world that is spinning out of control.

The world in chaos is the best reason that, with Modern Times, Chaplin lays The Tramp to rest.  This is the last time we would ever see him in a film because this world, the movie displays, has become too much for him, things have sped too fast and things have become so mechanized and impersonal that soon there will be no room for such a gentle spirit. The comforting thought is that now he has a companion so as they wander off to find a life together, we don’t fear for this lovely soul because as cruel as the world is, he won’t have to face it alone.

Best Actress

Luise Rainer (The Great Ziegfeld)
The Nominees: Irene Dunne (Theodora Goes Wild), Gladys George (Valiant Is the Word for Carrie), Carol Lombard (My Man Godfrey), Norma Shearer (Romeo and Juliet)

Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey)
Nominees: none


Carole Lombard possessed a magical quality that most of the leading ladies of the 30s did not.  She was a natural presence in the movies, led by the sheer force of her own infectious personality.  She seemed at home on the screen and you could feel that she was having fun.  She was multi-talented, she could effectively occupy a film in any genre, but her best gifts were on display in comedies.

There was a sparkle in her eyes, in her body language and in her very screen presence that gave you the feeling that this was an actor who was having a great time. Very few actors have that quality and even fewer have the courage to exploit it the way Lombard did.  She had a fearless way of approaching a scene, a manner of affecting a scene naturally.  Some of this may have come from an early experience while making the Howard Hawks comedy Twentieth Century – during a stateroom brawl with co-star John Barrymore, the director told her that if she didn’t “stop acting” that she would be fired.  She took his threat seriously and went into the scene with six-guns blazing.

This is a technique that Lombard brought to My Man Godfrey in which she approaches every scene in a way that is fearlessly self-deprecating.  She plays Irene Bullock who, as the film opens, is in the middle of scavenger hunt at the high society ball.  She and her sister are down to the last item – find a forgotten man – so they race to the city dump where many of the homeless reside.  Irene’s sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) insults a tramp named Godfrey (William Powell), who responds by pushing her into an ash pile, but Irene charms the man by explaining the rules of the scavenger hunt and asking him to come back to the ball so she can claim her prize.

Cornelia is not happy that she lost the game to her kid sister and during an argument, their mother decides to hire him as the family butler.  Godfrey accepts but he isn’t really prepared for this family which is truly a bag of screwball nuts.  Aside from Irene and her sister, there’s Alexander (rattle-voiced Eugene Pallette), the family patriarch who is forever frustrated by the disorder and chaos in his own home and finally gets up the nerve to tells the family that “What this family needs is discipline. I’ve been a patient man, but when people start riding horses up the front steps and parking them in the library, that’s going a little too far.”  And there’s the mother Angelica (Alice Brady), a daffy, feather-headed socialite with a high-pitched voice that is just on the edge of becoming a cluck. She has a man around the house she calls “a protégé,” an odd little man named Carlo who is always eating or performing strands of melancholy poetry.

At ringside is Molly (Jean Dixon), the maid who warns Godfrey about the asylum he is about to enter. “You won’t need any quarters,” she tells him “Just hang your hat near the door so you can get it quickly on the way out.”

With Godfrey in service, it doesn’t take long before Irene falls madly in love with him.  Her eyes moisten like a puppy when she asks the now clean shaven Godfrey, “What happened to those nice whiskers?” She is so sweet in her approach to him and so clever in the way she puts her words.  When she asks if he will be the butler she sweetly asks, “Do you buttle?”  I don’t know if that’s even a word but I like it.

There is a kid quality to Irene, a kind of arrested development that is present that makes this apparently twenty-year old woman act like an eight-year old. There are times when she scrunches her face, hops on the bed, or just fidgets like her brain forgot to mature.  She is spoiled rotten, she knows what she wants and goes after it and, most often, she gets it.

There’s also a lovely sweetness about her. There are moments when she looks at Godfrey with nothing but love in her eyes.  Take, for example, the moment when he washes the dishes and she dries them. She sits on the counter drying each dish but never takes her eyes off him.  This is a genuine moment, made even more curious by the fact that Lombard and Powell had been married and divorced.

What comes from her kid qualities is a lack of cynicism.  Unlike the rest of the family, her vision isn’t clouded by the fact that Godfrey came from the gutter, she only sees a charming man who remains charming no matter what.  She has such a tender way of dealing with Godfrey but she also has a bulldozing way of performing a sort of a smash and grab when she wants something, like the moment when she goes to see Godfrey at his new office in order to marry him.  There she is, with a minister on hand and takes a befuddled Godfrey in her arms. “Don’t worry Godfrey,” she says “This’ll only hurt for a minute.”

This was the only performance for which Carole Lombard was ever nominated for an Oscar, yet she lost to Luise Rainer – “The Viennese Teardrop” – for her role as singer/actress Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld, a victory that was based on a scene in which she talks to her former common law husband on the phone and withers emotionally as she wishes him congratulations on his new marriage.

Outside of that moment, most anything else about Rainer’s performance has long since passed out of common knowledge.  She had been packaged and advertised by MGM to be their next international sensation (she was Austrian) but her career didn’t last long and today she is mostly remembered as the first consecutive Best Actress winner, winning Best Actress of both 1937 and 1938.  She would become the longest living academy award winner in history – she passed away at the age of 104 in December of 2014, seventy-six years after winning the award.

Rainer was a good actress, but Carole Lombard possessed a quality that stays with us, even today, seven decades after her tragic death.  Watching her in her best performances in My Man Godfrey and Twentieth Century and To Be or Not to Be, all of which I have seen more than five times, she never fails to charm the daylights out of me.  I smile at dear Carole and her vibrant personality, but I lament at what a great gift we lost far too early.

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