What the Nominees Were: 42nd Street, A Farewell to Arms, Cavalcade, I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smiling Through, State Fair
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Queen Christina, Duck Soup,
Footlight Parade. King Kong
What Did Win: Cavalcade
How It’s Aged: It’s absolutely terrible. Barely adapted from the stage, it portrays a wealthy British couple who lose one son in the Boer War and the other on the Titanic, but keep a stiff upper-lip the whole time. Ugh. It think it deserves serious consideration as one of the worst Best Pictures ever.
What Should’ve Won: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
How Hard Was the Decision: Really tough. Once again, I must be honest and confess that Queen Christina might have gotten the nod if I hadn’t already written it up, and Duck Soup is obviously everybody’s favorite movie from that year. I actually rewatched Duck Soup last night in order to make the decision, and it’s a masterpiece, but despite the wartime setting, it’s simply too daffy and lightweight to ever earn any top prizes.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Writers: Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, based on the memoir “I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang” by Robert E. Burns
Stars: Paul Muni, Glenda Ferrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Edward Ellis
The Story: A decorated WWI vet decides to travel the country looking for engineering work and ends up in the south, where he gets forced at gunpoint to help out with a stick-up. Sentenced to a vicious chain gang, he eventually escapes, heads north, and starts a successful career under a fake name, but soon enough, his past catches up with him, leading to one of the most heart-breaking endings (especially the final line) in film history.
Why It Didn’t Win: Warner Brothers wallowed in the sort of squalid urban environments that most Hollywood moguls had run away from, literally and figuratively. They would much rather sniff the rarified air of Cavalcade than wallow in the muck (and muck-raking) of movies like this.
Why It Should Have Won:
- In too many prison-injustice stories, from “Les Miserables” to The Hurricane, the creators take the narrative shortcut of personifying the injustice of the system in the form of one relentless antagonist. This movie takes on the more difficult and laudable task of condemning the whole system equally. There are no bad apples here—the whole bunch is rotten.
- The result was the most devastating and effective social protest movie of all time—outrage at this movie contributed to the end of most of the chain gangs. (But if you note the difference between the title of the book and the movie, you’ll see that Warner Brothers did get scared in one way, afraid of retaliation from local theaters if they identified the state. That’s a shame, because prosecutors from my homestate haven’t changed even today, as seen here and here.)
- But this is another movie which was greatly helped by being “pre-code”, leavening the movie’s earnest message by allowing Muni to be a less-than-angelic victim, blowing through a series of lovers, including an explicitly-presented prostitute...
- Another thing that I kept wondering while watching The Hunger Games was “Whatever happened to the art of adaptation??” That movie, like most these days, merely abridged the story but refused to adapt any story elements for the screen. Though this movie drew its value from being a true story, they felt free to transform it for the screen, turning the hero from a magazine publisher to a bridge-builder, for instance, because that’s more visual.
- And this sets up a great moment near the end when Muni has to blow up a bridge to escape. A weaker actor would have let the irony of that act play across his face, but Muni shows merely the sheer glee of a man escaping, trusting the audience to grasp the irony on our own. Muni was the Meryl Street of his day, specializing in Oscar-chasing biopic roles which buried him under elaborate accents and costumes, but this raw, affectless performance is the proof of his true greatness.
How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice-looking DVD with an informative commentary track and something that must be seen to be believed… Last week I mentioned that the Grand Hotel DVD had a 20-minute parody shot on the same sets, and that makes sense—a big all-star movie is ripe for a send-up, right? Well, insanely, this DVD also has a such a same-sets parody. Comedian Jerry Bergen escapes from a cushy prison, marries a shrew, and then decides to break back in. Tremendously offensive…but actually kinda funny.
Ah, 1933: Smell Your Gelatin, If You Dare!
Ah, 1933: Smell Your Gelatin, If You Dare!