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12 Days Til Oscar: Best Picture Nominations by the Dozen

Tim here, with your daily dose of Oscar numerology. We’re now in the third year of the Academy’s undoubtedly well-intentioned "some random number that always turns out to be nine" approach to selecting Best Picture nominees, and for some of us, this is irritatingly arbitrary. But it could be so much worse. Think of how awful it must have been to been a rabid Oscar fanatic in the first decade of the award’s existence: depending on the year, there were anywhere from three to twelve Best Picture nominees, until it was finally nailed down at a nice, round ten at the 9th Academy Awards, for the year 1936.

The magic number of the day being 12, I'd like you to join me, for a closer look at 1934, the first of two years with 12 nominated films (for space reasons, I am alas compelled to leave 1935 to fend for itself) - the first year, as well, that the awards corresponded to a single calendar year. What can we learn about the Academy’s tastes and habits down the decades from each of these?

BEST PICTURE It Happened One Night (released by Columbia)
What It Is: One of the greatest of all screwball comedies, in which the sexily odd-looking pair of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable cross country and banter.
The Slot It Fills:
The long-abandoned "comedies are a valid form of artistic expression like anything else" spot. But, of course, the period in which the film came out was unusually good at producing top-notch comedies starring the best movie stars of the day.

Only 11 more slots to fill after the jump

2nd Place – The Barretts of Wimpole Street (released by MGM)
What It Is: A romantic costume drama centered on the courtship of poet Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) by poet Robert Browning (Fredric March)
The Slot It Fills:
Unbelievably, the Academy used to be excited by stories about the personal lives of famous artists. Thank God those barbaric days are behind us.

3rd Place – The House of Rothschild (released by 20th Century)
What It Is: The story of how the German-Jewish Rothschild family spread its banking influence throughout Europe and changed the history of the world.
The Slot It Fills
: Another period drama about famous people, but denuded of any melodrama, so it belongs more closely to the "Jewish interest" subgenre not recognized by the Academy again until A Serious Man 75 years later.

Cleopatra (released by Paramount)
What It Is: Another Claudette Colbert vehicle, this time positioning her as the most famous celebrity of the ancient world.
The Slot It Fills: Yet another costume drama biopic, but this one emphasizing the "sordid lives of the ancients" angle that would be revisited many times in the ‘50s. As a film largely about its exotic and the potent performance by a famous and beloved actress, it is closest to Gravity of this year’s crop.

Flirtation Walk (released by First National)
What It Is: A musical romantic comedy about a soldier played by Dick Powell who falls in love with an officer’s daughter played by Ruby Keeler, and goes to West Point, where he puts on a show.
The Slot It Fills
: Believe it or not "military-themed romantic comedy" crops up multiple times in the Academy’s history. Also, Powell & Keeler were sort of the Adam Sandler and Kevin James of the ‘30s, so let’s be grateful that the Academy is more comedy-snobbish now.

The Gay Divorcee (released by RKO Radio)
What It Is: Fred Astaire falls in love with Ginger Rogers on the spot. She is annoyed by him, so he has to dance his way into her heart. Edward Everett Horton is on hand to be flustered and crypto-gay. AKA "the movie that they made, like, six times". This is the time where it included the awe-inspiring "Night and Day" number.
The Slot It Fills
: Movie stars that everybody loves doing things that everybody knows they could do, and it is genially comic; clearly, this was the American Hustle of 1934.

Here Comes the Navy (released by Warner Bros.)
What It Is: A cocky construction worker (James Cagney) joins the Navy to get back at a stuffy officer (Pat O’Brien), and falls in love with the officer’s sister (Gloria Stuart, later of Titanic).
The Slot It Fills
: I TOLD you that "“military-themed romantic comedy" was a thing.

Imitation of Life (Universal)
What It Is:
Official face of the Oscars Claudette Colbert is a widow who finds a way to turn her black housekeeper’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe into a national hit. Years later, they have trouble with their daughters.
The Slot It Fills
: The social issues melodrama. Unlike most later examples of the form, it actually manages to be unusually progressive and insightful for its time. Its current descendents include, in very different registers, 12 Years a Slave and Philomena.

One Night of Love (released by Columbia)
What It Is: An up-and-coming opera star (Grace Moore) and her conductor-manager (Tullio Carminati) fall in love, through misunderstandings.
The Slot It Fills
: One of many melodramas themed around classical music from the era when normal people still listened to classical music. Basically, imagine if Glitter with Mariah Carey had managed to swing an Oscar nomination

The Thin Man (released by MGM)
What It Is:
Two high-functioning alcoholics (William Powell, Myrna Loy) have the sexiest marriage in the history of American cinema, living gorgeously, and making everyone jealous of their charm and wit. There is a murder mystery underneath all of this.
The Slot It Fills
: It is the most sophisticated of the handful of sophisticated comedies to register with the Academy during the short period when such films were common.

Viva Villa! (released by MGM)
What It Is:
A massively fictionalized biopic of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, played by humanoid potato Wallace Beery.
The Slot It Fills: A dubiously historical story about a real-life person changed into something unrecognizable. In 2013, we call it the "Dallas Buyers Club slot", but it shows up with depressing frequency.

The White Parade (released by Jesse L. Lasky)
What It Is:
One of only two best picture nominees that exists solely in the UCLA film archive (the other is 1931’s East Lynne), it’s the single film out of the twelve that I’ve never seen. From the title, I’d like to imagine that involves an unending line of shapely blonde women ambling through an African village and mocking the native inhabitants for not being gorgeous Americans. But I think it’s something to do with nurses.
The Slot It Fills:
Hopefully, the same one that will be filled by instant-classic Nurse 3D at the 2014 Oscars.

And now for some senseless speculation: if there'd only been room for ten nominees, what would have been dropped? Here Comes the Navy and The House of Rothschild are the only films to receive no other nomination, but the latter, I feel, would have hung on (and the former was Warner's only  nomination; surely the studio would have fought harder than e.g. MGM getting three titles in). My suspicion is that Navy, The White Parade, Flirtation Walk, and Viva Villa! were in the bottom four slots, and the first two of those are the ones that I think would have dropped out. I will leave winnowing the field down to five, or *sigh* nine slots as an exercise for you to complete in the comments.

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Reader Comments (21)

The White Parade thing makes me sad-come on Academy, at least 2/3 of the acting branch are millionaires-can't some of you fork over some money so that every Oscar nominated film is available to the public?!? Thank god for Tuner Classic Movies, at the very least (One Night of Love is part of 31 Days of Oscars, I believe, though I don't know if it already passed).

And easily my favorite of what I've seen is The Thin Man-one of my favorite films period. It is a sad week where I don't quote Myrna Loy in this movie.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

John T.: "Who is that strange man in my drawers?"

"Serve the nuts. Er, serve the guests the nuts."

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Imagine if they still made screwball comedies today like they did in the 30's and 40's how fun that would be.

Picture Jon Hamm and Marisa Tomei cross-country in a comedy of errors without relying on cheap, gross-out shticks.

Sign me up!

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGilda

Tim... Lana Turner was main actress in Imitation of Life, not Claudette Colbert.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRon

Ron, this is the 1934 version with Claudette. Lana starred in Ross Hunter's 1959 remake.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

@Ron You're thinking of the 1959 version. This one does indeed star Claudette Colbert.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

Poor Wallace Beery!

Even given the widest possible field, the voters managed to pick the one that has most retained its popularity (give or take 'The Thin Man') and, if anything, grown in reputation. A pretty rare feat for the academy.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

Gilda, I want a screwball romp NOW starring Jessica Chastain and Bradley Cooper...The Lady Vanishes crossed with Theodora Goes Wild. With a supporting turn by June Squibb as Jessica's irrepressible Aunt Minerva!

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Of the ones I've seen I would have gone with The Thin Man over It Happened One Night which would be my third after The Gay Divorcee.

Thank goodness indeed for TCM. They are showing both The Barretts of Wimpole Street and One Night of Love this Thursday night into Friday morning. Both Norma Shearer and Grace Moore were nominated for best actress along with the films. That will leave only The House of Rothschild, beside the unattainable White Parade, for me to watch although I doubt any of them will change my ranking of winners.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Screwball comedies might be my all-time favorite genre, and the two '34 nominees are easily in my top 5 screwball comedies, so I'm thrilled to find out that so many of you agree with me. I've heard the theory that Silver Linings Playbook is our modern-day version of the form, but it's not manic nor verbally dextrous enough for that, I don't think.

And of course, TCM is everybody's hero right now - I've added three titles to my DVR in the last 24 hours! Tragically, we just missed The Thin Man yesterday morning, for anyone who hasn't seen it. Which you need to do.

Not that anyone's asking for it, but my ranking of the 11 nominees I've seen:
It Happened One Night
The Thin Man
The Gay Divorcee
Imitation of Life
Here Comes the Navy
The House of Rothschild
One Night of Love
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Flirtation Walk
Viva Villa!

February 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

The dialogue in Silver Linings Playbook between the Cooper and Lawrence characters was very much on par with some of the 1930s romantic screwball comedies, which is one of the reasons I liked it more than others on this site.

I'm not a huge Claudette Colbert fan, but It Happened One Night is so delightful I never get tired of re-watching it. But boy, in terms of Oscar, it's a tough call for me between that one, The Thin Man, and as Joel6 says, The Gay Divorcee.

I enjoyed the 1959 version of Imitation of Life more than the 1934 one, due mostly to the hunk of burning love, John Gavin.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Last October I went to LA for the first time and put aside a morning to visit UCLA and watch 'The White Parade' and 'The Barker' (Oscars tragic? Who, me?!)

TWP stars Loretta Young as a first year student in a nurses' training school and the film follows her progress and that of several fellow students through their three years of training until graduation. It reminded me of the UK series 'Call the Midwife'. All the usual types are present and correct: the sassy one, the plump one, the shy one, the caring one, the bitchy one etc.

There's elements of melodrama and romance, and Loretta ultimately has to choose between following her calling to help people as a nurse and quitting to marry her rich beau who doesn't like her having a career.

Recommended for Oscar completists, Loretta Young fans and those who enjoy films of this ilk. I've seen it variously described as a docu-drama or a training film, but it's not - it's based on a novel.

So, as a 'woman's film' based on a novel, I guess its nearest 2013 equivalent would be 'Labor Day'. I've not yet seen 'Labor Day' but I am intrigued to see it and judge for myself, since I am suspicious of the many male critics that gleefully and snarkily dismissed it out of hand.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Steve G-Thanks for the description of that elusive film. What did you think of The Barker?

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

'The Barker' (1928) is very much of its time: a silent film with music and sound sequences added. I liked the nominated performance of Betty Compson, but a number of people online have commented that Dorothy Mackaill gives the stronger performance. Compson gets to flirt and act drunk and jealous and down on her luck, and she's very energetic in the part!

'The Barker' was initially a stage play and, from memory, Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert originated two of the main roles so it's fun (and easy) imagining them in the film.

On my next trip over from Australia, I need to watch 'Sorrell and Son' (1927) at the Academy Archives and 'Drag' (1929) at UCLA or George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I, too, have not seen The White Parade. It's one of only three I haven't seen with the others being The Patriot (1928), which is a lost film, and The Way of All Flesh (1927). Of course the Academy has since rescinded the nomination for the latter for some reason. Anyway, here's my ranking of the other 11:

1. It Happened One Night - timeless screwball comedy classic, it's probably the best romantic comedy ever made.
2. Imitation of Life - far superior to the Lana Turner version. Louise Beavers would have been a sure Supporting Actress nominee had the category existed in 1934.
3. Viva Villa! - you guys must be on crack because this is one of my favorite Wallace Beery performances. I take offense at your calling him a humanoid potato, Tim.
4. Here Comes the Navy - nice little comedy elevated by the great cast. Cagney is so charismatic and you can see that the future is very bright for him.
5. The Gay Divorcee - probably my favorite of the Astaire/Rogers movies because it has the most memorable plot. The Oscar-winning song "The Continental" will never get out of your head once you watch the movie but it's a pretty good song anyway.
6. Flirtation Walk - hey Tim, Sandler and James couldn't hold a candle to Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler so I resent that. They are a good team and this is a harmless musical comedy.
7. The Barretts of Wimpole Street - great cast but it's a little stilted now.
8. The House of Rothschild - I appreciate the history lesson and the short color sequences but it's not that memorable.
9. Cleopatra - for as much as I love Claudette Colbert, this is by far the weakest of the three movies she had nominated in 1934. The Harrison/Taylor/Burton epic is much better.
10. The Thin Man - this film is very overrated and maybe that's why I rank it so low. I much prefer William Powell's and Myrna Loy's other film from 1934, Manhattan Melodrama.
11. One Night of Love - boring and colorless, this film offers barely anything in the way of entertainment these days.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

Istill have to see a few of these. It's so weird that i haven't seen BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET since i love both Shearer and March.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Count me among those who want to see a revival of the screwball comedy. The closest Hollywood's come recently is, I think, 2007's "You Kill Me," with Téa Leoni and (of all people!) Ben Kingsley.

And cas we revive Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to start writing movie music again?!

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Excellent post, Tim. I learnt so much but am left with one question for the historians and completists is Colbert the actress to appear in the most Best Picture nominees in a single year?

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermatt

Matt -- i believe she is but tied with John C Reilly who was in 3 in 2002 (chicago, the hours, and gangs of new york).

everyone -- is this correct or are we forgetting someone.

February 20, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Charles Laughton was in Mutiny on the Bounty, Les Miserables and Ruggles of Red Gap in 1935 but that's still three.

I bet the Queen of the Extras, Bess Flowers, has beaten this record though. Probably in a 5 nominee year too.

February 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

thanks guys.

February 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermatt

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