Sunday, April 08, 2012

What Should've Won That Could've Won: 1933

The Year: 1933
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 memoirI 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. 
Any Nominations or Wins: Nominated for Picture, Sound, and Best Actor, but lost all three.
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:
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.)
  3. But this is another movie which was greatly helped by being pre-code”, leavening the movies earnest message by allowing Muni to be a less-than-angelic victim, blowing through a series of lovers, including an explicitly-presented prostitute...
  4. 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. 
  5. 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!


j.s. said...

What happened to the art of adaptation? I bet you know the answer already. But here's my take on it: Studio execs who hire writers to adapt most well-known properties preemptively freak out about backlash from the so-called built-in audience who read and knows the book -- whether it's sci-fi fanboys and a given graphic novel, older women reading Nicholas Sparks or everyone with something like Harry Potter or THE HUNGER GAMES. So unfortunately, the more popular any given story is -- and relative popularity gets defined downward nowadays in terms of numbers, just like TV ratings -- the more likely it is to get bought for adaptation and therefore the more likely it is to be adapted with slavish literalism and fidelity to the source text, which as you note is often bad for the resulting movie but never bad for the most fervid fans who at least can't complain on the level of surface incident and detail that "that didn't happen in the book" or "the book was better."

It gets worse though, because you'd think that what most good book writers really want from a movie made of their work is that it's 1) a great movie and 2) a hit that will send audiences back to their books again and again. Yet too many writers I've heard speak on this issue, everyone from Stephen King to Donna Tartt, also assert that the way to make a really great movie of their book is to "just do the book."

j.s. said...

I should have added that this phenomenon also has a deleterious effect on movie titles. When I hear about a film coming out with an especially awful title, 80% of the time it's because it's been based on a book with the same title.

I disagree with you a little about the title of the film in this post. Warners' reason for changing it might have been suspect, but it's a better sounding and more universally resonant title without the word "Georgia." Nowadays, though, if this book had been even a minor hit with a certain subset of the popular audience, execs would quake in terror of altering the title even slightly and the movie would end up with a giant clunky mouthful on the top line of the poster.

j.s. said...

The idea of short same-set quickie parodies really should never have gone away. And with exponentially cheaper VFX this would be easier and faster than ever, even if you didn't have physical access to the sets.

Why wait for the Oscars or SNL to mock you when you can laugh at yourself during production?

I wish filmmakers with the time and money clout would do it still, if only for themselves. And the parody directors ought to be chosen from the ranks of young up-and-comers.

For a sleepy holiday Sunday post this one just keeps on giving.

Matt Bird said...

My favorite example of the title problem was an adaptation of a Clive Barker short story from a few years ago about a guy who discovered an evil subway train. A nationwide phenomenon developed of whole theaters-full of people erupting with howls of laughter when the title popped up on screen at the end: "Midnight Meat Train!"

When interviewed about the phenomenon, the filmmakers insisted that they wouldn't dream of changing the title of the "beloved" story.

But you're right, this title probably is better without "Georgia" in it.

As for the lost art of adaptation, you're certainly right that the fans are partially to blame, but there are ways to trick fans into going along with changes. I'll do a series of adaptation dos and don'ts soon...

Betsy and I were joking about what it would be like today if those Oscar-movie parodies had continued, imagining "The Hurt Locker", for instance...

Dan McCoy said...

Why are "daffy" and "lightweight" minuses?

Matt Bird said...

I had forgotten that Duck Soup isn't just figuratively slight-- it's *literally* slight, at a mere 68 minutes!

And though the political situation and the war add a vague hint of satire, it doesn't really have a lot to say *about* politics or war, even in a comedic way... it's just the same old vaudeville gags. The greatest bit, the mirror, could have been slotted into any of their movies.

Don't get me wrong, I love it, but watching this with an eye to "could this ever have conceivably won best picture?" I had to answer no.