Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1937

What Did Win: The Life of Emile Zola
How It’s Aged: It’s okay, but pretty stodgy and sterile.  A fast-forward through the greatest hits of Zola’s life, without anything making much of an impact.  Silly wigs abound. 

What Should’ve Won: The Awful Truth
How Hard Was the Decision: McCarey won best director for this but he complained in his speech that he won for the wrong movie, since he was far more proud of Make Way for Tomorrow, his heartbreaking portrait of life without Social Security, in which an aging couple loses their home and have to throw themselves on the mercy of their adult children. It would have been a deserving winner, but sorry, Leo, it just can’t compete with this.   

Director: Leo McCarey
Writer: Vina Delmar, based on the play by Arthur Richman
Stars: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Asta

The Story: Society bon vivant Grant comes back from a fake vacation (presumably he was away on a tryst) to find that his witty wife Dunne might have strayed too, so they agree to get a divorce, but they share custody of the dog, which gives him lots of opportunities to sabotage her rebound fling with buffoonish oil tycoon Ralph Bellamy. When will those crazy kids get back together?

Any Nominations or Wins: In addition to picture and director, there were nominations for Grant, Dunne, Delmar and editor Al Clark.
Why It Didn’t Win: It almost did, obviously—the director winner usually wins picture too, but somehow the vote got split and the weaker movie won, due to the Academy’s perpetual prejudice against comedies (and an understandable soft spot for movies like Zola that denounce anti-Semitism). 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. This was the moment that Grant truly became Grant: he achieves a level of effervescent wit that had never been seen onscreen before, and yet every line is laced with bittersweet regret for the failed relationship.  The greatest tribute to Grant’s acting ability is that everybody thought he was just being himself. 
  2. Bizarrely, you often read in write-ups of the movie that Grant’s character was falsely accused of infidelity, and indeed they never say otherwise, but come on! This shows the true power of the Hays productions code: It allowed the movies to cover up wickedness with a wink, and it also allowed tender-hearted viewers to ignore the wink if they chose to. 
  3. In my write-up of another 1937 classic, I mentioned that Betsy always knows when there was a woman writer, because male writers don’t give women characters their own sense of humor.  And indeed, the witty pen of Vina Delmar gives this movie its spark, making this the most equally-matched of all screwballs, and therefore the liveliest. 
  4. From this point on, screwball would be almost synonymous with the “comedy of remarriage.”  Grant tries to sabotage Dunne’s new relationship over and over, until the moment he could deliver the coup de grace but doesn’t, and of course that’s the moment he wins her back. 
  5. Its amazing the number of people that one meets from Oklahoma City.  Believe me, I know, because every time I meet one, I must suppress the urge to mention Grants cheerful mockery of Bellamy’s home town: “Oklahoma City!  Every since I was a small boy, that name has been filled with magic for me.  And if it should get dull, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend!”
How Available Is It?: Alas, Netflix’s DVD is barebones.

Ah, 1937: Listen to Me, You Idiot!


j.s. said...

I love this movie too. Leo McCarey is better known for his more serious dramas and weepies, but his comedies are where it's at. All the more reason you should try and squeeze a viewing of RUGGLES into your hiatus.

Evie P. said...

Absolutely one of my favorite movies. Even if my point of entry was Stanley Cavell. Although my point of entry into old movies in general? Matt Bird circa 1996.

Lane R. said...

Uh, not sure what's up with the way old pseudonym above. Guess I haven't logged in to Blogger in several years.

Matt Bird said...

Lane Rogers! Talk about a blast from the past! How the hell are you?? I actually thought of your once-upon-a-time boyfriend as I wrote this piece, since he was from Oklahoma himself, as I recall, and I would indeed use the "always go to Tulsa" line with him. I'd love to know how you are. You can comment here or write me at MattMBird at yahoo dot com!