Armchair Oscars – 1937

Best Picture

The Life of Emile Zola (Directed by William Dieterle)
The Nominees:
The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, A Star is Born

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Directed by David Hand)
My Nominees:
The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey),
Captains Courageous (Victor Fleming), Dead End (William Wyler), Kid Galahad (Michael Curtiz), King Solomon’s Mine (Robert Stevenson), The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell), Saratoga (Jack Conway), Stella Dallas (King Vidor), A Star is Born (William Wellman), Topper (Norman Z. McLeod), Way Out West (James W. Horne)


Nineteen Thirty-Seven was an exceptionally good year for movies despite a lingering problems in the country and a maniac threatening to take over the world.  While those problems loomed, the movies still provided a wondrous landscape of imagination and escape.  It was such a good year that I had the problem of trying to land on just one selection for my Best Picture award.  I went back and forth over the films of 1937, rubbing my chin over The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, A Star is Born, Dead End, Kid Galahad, The Prisoner of Zenda, Topper, King Solomon’s Mines, Saratoga and Stella Dallas among many others.

Yet I kept coming back, over and over, to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, resisting the urge to give my first Armchair Oscar to an animated film.  I resisted it and resisted it and then had to resist it again. Then it dawned on me that this is the kind of technological innovation and storytelling that the awards were supposed to honor. Snow White was as much a leap forward in the advancement of motion pictures as Metropolis, Citizen Kane, 2001 or Star Wars, especially when you consider what came before.

Before Snow White, animation was three minutes of motion as chickens sang, cows and dogs played instruments and all to tinny pre-school music. For this film, the animators under Walt Disney’s supervision had to create an entirely new process, they had to create not just well-rounded characters but they had to create an entirely new world and a new method of using the camera to tell a story.

The world inside the film is populated in every inch of the screen with supporting characters: rabbits, birds, turtles, deer, skunks, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, etc.  They packed the frame so that everything is always in motion and we never notice negative space.  Where most films are interested in the two or four characters in the center, the animator’s genius was to create a population, a full-rounded world that suggested that space existed just off camera.

The technological marvel was the multi-plane camera which allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action.  It also allowed the objects to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional feel. This was long before computers, when animation was a painstaking practice in which each cell was drawn and painted one-by-one by hand (production actually began in 1934). On the multi-plane camera, pieces of the artwork were lain on various platters on the camera that moved independently of one another so the various cells could move opposite of one another.  The result was that a house in the background could have objects moving independently in the foreground.

The animators had the talent to create a palette that was alive.  Take, for example, Snow White’s nightmare journey through the forest as the branches of the trees reach out and the eyes bear down upon her.  It would be enough just to have a girl frightened by the forest but to see it through her eyes to visualize the nightmare is part of the extra step, the further burst of inspiration.  It wasn’t entirely necessary to give the trees eyes or to draw them in such detail that they have twisted, angry faces, but it adds a level of generosity to the visuals.

But the palette would be nothing without expressive characters to put in front of it.  The seven dwarfs have faces that are expressive, with big eyes, wide mouths and soft-round bodies, much like a child. And with the details in character design, they were also infused with emotions.  Take for example the scene in which the dwarfs mourn for Snow White, their teary faces hung down in true expression.  It would be one thing if the dwarfs simply cried, but note how the light and shadow play across their sad faces.  No two characters are alike, no two characters move alive. There’s real sadness in that scene.  The whole movie is like that. The Dwarfs are seen as individuals, and we can easily tell them apart by more than their names and corresponding tics.

The same can be said for the wicked queen, whose face glows with stunning beauty and whose disguise, an old crone, is round and somewhat inviting (we can understand the trap that Snow White falls into).

Ironically, the least impressive characters are Snow White and Prince Charming.  They look and act and movie with such realism that they aren’t quite as interesting. How would Snow White have lasted in history if the Disney animators had given her more animated dimension, more to the tone of the dwarfs? And despite the title, the dwarfs and the evil Queen actually dominate the picture.  They are so exaggerated that they have more room to play.  The Queen too has exaggerated movements but only after she is transformed into the old crone.

What Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs offers is the full experience of what the canvas of an animated feature can do.  It explores a storytelling medium that would be severely limited in a live-action movie and frees it up to expand imagination.  Others have come along and others have done better, but Snow White came first and it’s was a major step from what had come before. What genius.  What generosity of the visuals.  What imagination.

Best Actor

Spencer Tracy (
Captains Courageous)
The Nominees: Charles Boyer (Conquest), Frederic March (A Star is Born), Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall), Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)

Freddie Bartholomew (Captains Courageous)
My Nominees:
Lionel Barrymore (Captains Courageous), Humprey Bogart (Dead End), Ronald Coleman (The Prisoner of Zenda), Fredric March (A Star is Born)


Spencer Tracy didn’t think much of his performance as Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman who teaches life-lessons to a spoiled rich kid, in Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous. He was unhappy with his faulty Portuguese accent as well as an ungainly mop of curly hair, plus he thought co-star Lionel Barrymore gave a better performance.  Still his performance was so loved that it got him his first of two consecutive Oscars.

I agree, while there’s no doubt that Manuel the fisherman who teaches Yoda-like Zen philosophies to a wayward rich kid, is lovable, I couldn’t get past his pidgin English.  Why couldn’t they have hired a Portuguese actor?  Tracy’s performance was the least impressive in the film yet received the film’s only acting nomination (and the film’s only award). I wish that the academy had made room for Tracy’s 12-year old co-star, Freddie Bartholomew, whose performance was one of the best examples of child acting that I have ever seen.  He plays the film’s central character, a kid whose journey is a personal transformation.

It will remain a mystery to me why the academy won’t give a Best Actor Oscar to a child. The youngest winner was Adrien Brody at the tender age of 29.  Most young actors who get nominations like Haley Joel Osment and Justin Henry are shoved into the Best Supporting Actor category even when they get equal time with their adult co-stars.  I cannot understand why Bartholomew went unnoticed.  The film was created as a vehicle for him and he gets billing above Spencer Tracy.  I don’t know what the academy was thinking but I am going to reward him because I think he gives a great performance.

He plays rich and spoiled Harvey Chenye Jr., who thinks he is smarter than he really is but ends up taking a personal journey and discovers himself.  When we meet him he is flawed, flawed in his mind, flawed in his soul, flawed in his approach to his fellow man.  He is born the son of a business tycoon whose parental guidance rarely extend beyond giving him handfuls of money and giving him someplace to go.  Harvey is spoiled but he doesn’t use screaming tantrums to get his way.  He is very smart, very cunning but deeply insecure.  He gets what he wants by bullying, by threats and beginning every sentence with his sword of choice: the words “My father.”

What is interesting about Harvey is that he is an intellectual who believes that things should be his way because of the clout of his father.  There is an amazing scene early on when he is riding in the car with his friend and tries to cajole one of the boys to get him into an organization called The Buffalos.  He begins a monologue that informs the boy that if he isn’t permitted into the Buffalos, he has the power to shut down the boy’s father’s business and leave his family penniless.  It’s an amazing moment, as Harvey speaks matter-of-factly and reduces the other boy to tears.

Bartholomew, through the script by John Lee Mahin and Marc Connolly, makes Harvey a spoiled brat but he is smart enough to avoid clichés. Harvey never raises his voice but rather uses his intelligence to bully those around him. His father is no fool; when Harvey is put into coventry by a teacher (in which all the other students are ordered to ignore him), the boy tries to get the man fired but it backfires on him. There is a brilliant scene after the teacher and the father meet (the teacher suggests he should spend more time together) when Mr. Cheyne goes to his son’s bedroom and Harvey pretends to be asleep having a nightmare that the teacher is abusing him.  Harvey’s father doesn’t buy the deception, telling his son “That may have worked once, Harvey, but not now.”

His father suggests that they take a trip on a boat which he owns.  Harvey, trying to impress some kids with how many milkshakes he can drink in one sitting, gets sick and, while running from the boys, falls off the side of the boat and into the sea.

He is rescued by Manuel, a fisherman off the fishing vessel the “We’re Here” out of Gloucester, which is occupied by no less than Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine, Mickey Rooney, Charley Grapewin and Spencer Tracy.  When the Harvey is brought onboard he insists that they take him to New York but he is told that he will just have to ride it out until the fishing is done.  Angry, he demands that he be taken to his father but no one pays him much mind.  Here on this vessel, Harvey has been thrust into a world where his father’s clout means nothing, where his bullying is meaningless and where his only safe passage is through hard work.  Amazingly the men onboard the vessel don’t treat him like a kid, they treat him like a member of the crew, there’s work to be done and he is going to do his part.

The work is only part of his experience, he also gains a friend in Manuel who is eternally happy, eternally grateful for the gifts from “Savior” and the lessons left to him by his late father.  Although nearly penniless Manuel is a jolly fellow, a manner that Harvey doesn’t initially understand. But through the lessons of the surrogate father about the value of hard work, the value of keeping your word and the value of fair play, it becomes a life-altering experience for the boy.

What’s amazing about Harvey is not just the personal transformation but the physical one.  As the film opens and he is cocky, his eyes portray a confidence when ordering others around.  As the story progresses and the world opens up to him to the knowledge that the world is far more complex than he thought, his eyes become weary and an emptiness sets in that is, after a while, replaced by wonderment.

Best Actress

Luise Rainer (The Good Earth)
The Nominees: Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth), Greta Garbo (Camille), Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born), Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth)
The Nominees: Greta Garbo (Camille), Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born), Carol Lombard (Nothing Sacred), Ginger Rogers (Shall We Dance), Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)


The sudden death of 37 year-old MGM studio head Irving Thalberg in September of 1936 made the release of his first two posthumous projects into major events.  First was the Garbo vehicle Camille based on the Alexandre Dumas work and then an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth with Luise Rainer, an Austrian actress in the role of a Chinese peasant.  Both of these films were hits, both were cheered by the critics and both leading ladies were nominated for Best Actress.

The frontrunner was Garbo but the surprise was a second consecutive win for Rainer who had won the year before for playing Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld.  Sadly, neither of her Oscar winning performances are anything to write home about.  Her performance as Anna Held wasn’t great but the casting of an Austrian actress in the role of a Chinese peasant was just plain baffling.  Her distinctive German accent comes through and it removes you from the performance.  Rainer tries to use her face to express the sorrow that O-Lan is feeling, but it becomes an exercise in overacting as her facial expressions leave you concerned that she is in a constant state of underlying physical pain.

As academy awards go, Rainer is two for two, she won both Oscars for which she was nominated but sadly, despite five nominations, my choice for the Best Actress of 1937 never received any love from the academy.  Irene Dunne is one of the most underrated comediennes of her time, she was skilled at playing small moments as well as the large ones. If proof is needed, may I direct your attention to The Awful Truth.

Adapted for the screen by Viña Delmar from a play by Arthur Richman (which had been filmed twice before – one print of which is now lost) and directed by Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth tells the outrageous tale of a couple, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne respectively) who are in the midst of a divorce. As the film opens, he lies about taking a trip to Florida and comes home with a tan that he acquired under a heat lamp but Lucy catches him and brings it to his attention that he has mistakenly brought back oranges that are clearly stamped with the seal of California!  She doesn’t look too disappointed that he’s been caught but, just then, in walks young and handsome Armand (Alexander D’Arcy) her voice teacher giving Jerry cause to wonder about her fidelity.

Lucy concludes that no marriage can survive without trust, and they decide to call the marriage off.  Then the marital war is declared when Jerry attempts to sabotage any future romantic plans for Lucy, most especially her courting of an Oklahoma oil man Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy, sporting a train wreck of a southern accent).  She doesn’t really love Dan, he’s just a pawn to make Jerry jealous.

Dunne has the ability to remain in the moment even when our focus is not supposed to be on her. There are moments when Cary Grant looks away from her and babbles on and she eagerly tries to see what his expression is before he snaps around.  She doesn’t just act, she listens and there is never a moment that you catch her off guard.  She’s wonderful in the small moments, especially in a moment when Jerry crashes a party in which she is singing.  In the back of the room, he gets tangled up in a chair and she ends the song with a singing laugh.  I also loved the moment early on when she dances with Dan who clod-hops through a swing number.

What is interesting about Lucy is that she really is a lady, but underneath beats the heart of a rat.  Married to a man who will do anything for revenge, she has found that it is necessary to be cunning.  Oddly enough, Jerry is the one who outright lied about going to Florida but she is likely to have been telling the truth about her association with Armand being strictly platonic. She’s a schemer, she knows how to turn things to her advantage but she’s nobody’s fool.

The beauty of The Awful Truth is that it is evenly divided into two halves. The first is given to Jerry as he tries to wreck Lucy’s chances at finding a new man.  She remains refined and tries to keep her chin up even as Jerry ruins a polite conversation between she and Dan by playing the piano and doing a sing-a-long with the family dog. Eventually though, he gives up trying and the second half is given to Lucy as she tries to sabotage his engagement to a wealthy socialite.  He is going to marry Molly Lamont (Barbara Vance) and during a quiet evening together, Lucy shows up pretending to be his tipsy, obnoxious sister, falling all over the place and doing a ridiculous risqué dance number. Eventually she gets him to drive her home where she wrecks the car when they are pulled over and they end up in a cabin sleeping in different rooms.  In the battle of the sexes, she has clearly won this round, spinning him into a web that isn’t meant to destroy him but to win him back.  She knows what he will never admit, that she’s craftier, smarter and the more cunning. That’s the awful truth.

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