LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1933 and 1934

Posted by · 2:48 pm · March 30th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

1933 was the only year without an Oscar ceremony as the Academy switched its eligibility calendar around and began honoring films released from January 1 through December 31. The result was the 1934 ceremony honoring films from the past seventeen months. And still they picked “Cavalcade” as the best film from that time. Why do we care about this body again?

Song, Score and Editing were added in 1934, as was a space for write-in candidates, which lasted all of two years with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” cinematographer Hal Mohr being the only person ever to win an Oscar they weren’t officially nominated for. So, in these instances, both the nominating committee and the members failed to do the right thing.

1933 – “Duck Soup” (Leo McCarey)

I once heard that you’re either a Marx Brothers guy or a Three Stooges guy. It certainly proves true with me, as I can’t stand the constant mugging and bopping on the head of the latter, while I consider the former to be absolute geniuses. Vaudeville caricatures, slapstick physical comedy, sophisticated zingers and showstopping musical performances are all thrown into a stew and blended to perfection in this film and its immediate follow-up, “A Night at the Opera.”

The jokes come fast and furious and I’ll be the first to admit that not all of them stand up to the test of time. But then you’ve got dialogue as sharp as this, “Here are the plans of war. They’re as them valuable as your life. And that’s putting pretty cheap. Watch them like a cat watched her kittens. Have you ever had kittens? No, of course not, you’re too busy running around playing bridge. Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you, I love you.”

Of all the verbal highlights though, the scene pictured above has to be the greatest thing in this or any other Marx Brothers film and it’s a completely silent sequence. In fact, I’d venture to say it may be one of the best visual gags in cinema history. (Watch it here) The brothers grew up together and performed together since they could stand upright so their timing and chemistry was always going to be top-notch and Leo McCarey’s effortless direction brought out the very best in each member.

Their brand of anarchic humor could be traced back to the great silent clowns but an added dose of irreverence became their trademark that has permeated through the history of comedy from early Woody Allen to “Airplane” to “Family Guy.”

1934 – “It’s a Gift” (Norman Z. McLeod)

The Academy may consistently overlook comedy but I don’t. W.C. Fields was another master who never got any respect from the big show, despite a distinguished career that began as a silent film actor in, among other projects, D.W. Griffith’s underrated “Sally of the Sawdust.” His lovable, boorish persona is the archetype that nearly all sitcom husbands owe a debt to and his precision timing made him adept at both physical and situational humor.

Fields plays a grocer, constantly being annoyed by either his wife, the neighbors or some bratty kids, who dreams of owning an orange grove out in the country. Duped into buying a plot of barren land, he has to learn to stand up for himself in order to salvage his life. The standard plot really just exists to string the gags together and some of the sequences rank as the best from Hollywood’s early years. In particular, a sequence with a blind man and his cane causing havoc in Fields’s store is a masterpiece of editing, blocking and performance.

Silent film comedy was always about the lovable, hapless misfit overcoming boorish villains to get the girl but the invention of sound allowed for the genre to create new types of comedic personas. Fields may have been cast as one of those boorish villains in the pre-sound days, but his emergence as a leading comedic voice was refreshing for both his age and appearance and his films remain unique when re-watched today.

Those are my picks and if you haven’t seen either, treat yourself to some laughs this week.

→ 20 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

20 responses so far

  • 1 3-30-2010 at 5:47 pm

    mark kratina said...

    Good choices. My persona faves from ’33-’34 would be William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road and, especially in 1934, Imitation of Life with Claudette Colbert. Both represent the Depression-era times people were living in and, as such, were overlooked by the Academy (though Imitation was nominated in several categories). Other films of note:

    Heroes for Sale (1933)

    A Man’s Castle (1933)

    Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

    King Kong (1933)

    Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

    The Thin Man (1934)

    The Painted Veil (1934)

    Sadie McKee (1934)

  • 2 3-30-2010 at 6:13 pm

    mark kratina said...

    While It’s a Gift is Fields’ best film, another triumph for him was also 1934’s You’re Telling Me. It was a good year for W.C. Fields.

  • 3 3-30-2010 at 9:50 pm

    josephchilders said...

    I’m not a Three Stooges guy because I like things that are funny. They don’t belong in the same sentence as Groucho and Co.

  • 4 3-31-2010 at 4:50 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Love the double-scoop of comedy this week, particularly since you sidestepped the obvious selection of “King Kong.” This series is fast becoming a weekly highlight.

    I would throw in a shout for “The Scarlet Empress” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” — the latter particularly interesting since it’s Capra working in the atypically sweeping dramatic mode that would be deemed baitier these days. Yet that gets blanked, and the very next year he wins for a romantic comedy. Hard to imagine that happening now.

    Of course, for me, the best film of 1933 doesn’t count, since “Zero for Conduct” was barely seen anywhere until 1946. (As if the Academy would recognise that in any year.)

  • 5 3-31-2010 at 5:21 am

    Larry said...

    What can be said about “Cavalcade?” In my opinion, of the 82 films that have been named Best Picture by the Academy, this one has least withstood the test of time. Ranks 82nd out of 82 in my book.

  • 6 3-31-2010 at 5:36 am

    G1000 said...

    “Duck Soup”: Best movie ever made, in my humble opinion. Simply brilliant.

  • 7 3-31-2010 at 6:01 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    While Cavalcade is staid, I’d throw Midnight Cowboy, Around the World in 80 Days, Bridge on the River Kwai, Tom Jones, and Slumdog Millionaire into the mix as worst Best Pic selections.

  • 8 3-31-2010 at 6:53 am

    Bill said...

    This is the first week that the “Life Without Oscar” column has truly resonated with me.

    I’m a life long Marx Brothers fan and I’ve seen nearly all their work. They mixed dialogue and physical comedy so effectively. Groucho ranks aside Woody Allen and Bill Murray as the greatest American comedic actors.

    Duck Soup is certainly top tier marks; it always gets points for political relevancy, and as well as Night at the Opera I’d also toss out the endearing A Day at the Races and the under-appreciated Room Service as the group’s finest moments.

    W.C. Fields, another favourite of mine, will always be Egbert Souse from The Bank Dick.

  • 9 3-31-2010 at 8:40 am

    Al said...

    My favorite visual gag from Duck Soup is the peanut stand when Harpo and Chico keep on switching hats with the Lemonade stand man. Now thats a laugh. Great choice.

    As for Its A Gift, I enjoyed the film, but the only scene that is really memorable to me is the apartment scene when Fields is trying to get sleep.

  • 10 3-31-2010 at 12:21 pm

    Dave Van said...

    A couple of great choices. I would add to the list of 1933 films I love Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living, which I thought was hilarious, Fritz Lang’s final German film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and the wonderful Baby Face with Barabara Stanwyck literally sleeping her way to the top.

    I echo Guy’s sentiments about Zero for Conduct, and add that Vigo’s 1934 L’Atlante is even better.

  • 11 3-31-2010 at 12:35 pm

    G1000 said...

    Al: Totally love that scene as well. Other great moments:

    The cabinet meeting.

    “Just Wait’ll I Get Through With It”.

    The entire scene in Mrs. Teasdale’s house (not just the mirror sequence).

    Chico and Harpo’s first meeting with the ambassador.

    Everything else is still brilliant, though. Great, great movie.

  • 12 3-31-2010 at 2:35 pm

    AdamL said...

    I absolutely hate Duck Soup. Puerile, witless humour IMO. If setting fire to someone’s coattails when he turns around is supposed to be funny then I guess this is a riot. Of all the supposed classics this one gets the biggest WTF from me. I’ve seen funnier episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, and I hate that show.

  • 13 3-31-2010 at 4:07 pm

    Fitz said...

    Never could figure out why they wanted to go with calling it ‘Cracked Ice’. Duck Soup is a better title.

  • 14 3-31-2010 at 9:09 pm

    Marvin said...

    1933’s obvious choice is King Kong.

    I don’t know who got Oscar noms in ’34. The Thin Man maybe was a BP nom, but that’s fully deserved. What about Twentieth Century, The Merry Widow? What else was there in 1934?

  • 15 4-01-2010 at 12:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Indeed, The Thin Man was a nominee in several categories, including Best Picture. The Merry Widow was a winner for Art Direction.

    Twentieth Century, however, would qualify for this series. Good pick.

  • 16 4-01-2010 at 5:08 am

    Dean Treadway said...

    for 33:
    Duck Soup
    Queen Christina
    The Private Life of Henry VIII
    King Kong
    Dinner at Eight
    Alice in Wonderland
    Sons of the Desert

    For 34:
    Twentieth Century
    It Happened One Night
    It’s A Gift
    The Thin Man
    Of Human Bondage

  • 17 4-01-2010 at 6:13 pm

    John said...


  • 18 4-02-2010 at 9:51 pm

    The Dude said...

    L’Atalante in 1934! Where is it?

  • 19 4-04-2010 at 7:00 am

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    I honestly have seen almost nothing from this era of film, but I have to say I loved 1933’s “Baby Face”. Now, I’m not sure how awards-worthy that film is, but Barbara Stanwyck was fantastic in it, and the film has stayed with me. Hooray for pre-code sexuality!

  • 20 5-19-2010 at 4:41 pm

    Steven said...

    Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct”
    Lloyd Bacon’s “Footlight Parade”
    Leo McCarey’s “Duck Soup”
    Rouben Mamoulian’s “Queen Christina”
    Luis Bunuel’s “Land Without Bread”
    Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s “King Kong”
    Frank Capra’s “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”
    William A. Seiter’s “Sons of the Desert”

    Norman Z. McLeod’s “It’s a Gift”
    Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”
    Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante”
    Edgar G. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat”
    John Ford’s “Judge Priest”