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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 31 January 2011 00:00|
(Cult)ure film critic Kevin Johns revisits the Academy Awards Best Picture winners in this ongoing series.
There are many rumours concerning how the Academy Award statuette came to be known as 'Oscar.'
A biographer of Bette Davis insists she dubbed the statuette 'Oscar' in honour of her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, while the Academy's executive secretary in the early '30s claimed to have named the award 'Oscar' after her cousin.
Regardless of its origins, by the 8th Annual Academy Awards, the name had stuck.
The 1936 ceremony was held on March 5 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Frank Capra, winner of the previous year's Best Director award (and Academy President at the time), hosted the event.
Politics made one of its first major appearances at the ceremony that year, leading to screenwriter Dudley Nichols rejecting his Oscar (an Academy Awards first). Nichols refusal to accept the Oscar was in support of the Screenwriters, Actors, and Directors Guild-led boycott of the ceremony.
The writers and actors of Hollywood had organized into guilds in 1933 with directors following suit in 1936. These guilds were in response to the Studio System and the Hollywood anti-union establishment that the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences embodied (a reminder of the Academy's union-smashing origins).
In the days leading up to the ceremony, A-list actors, and guild leaders such as James Cagney and Gary Cooper sent personal telegrams encouraging actors to boycott the awards. Louis B. Mayer and other studio bosses countered with letters of their own in which they strongly encouraged their contracted employees to attend.
Accounts vary regarding the exact number of cast and crew that avoid the ceremony in the end, but virtually all the winners attended (save for Nichols and director John Ford), allowing the studio bosses to claim victory. It was, however, Nichols and the guild leaders who ultimately won the battle against the oppressive studio system.
By 1938, the National Labor Relations Board had formally certified the Screen Writers Guild as the sole bargaining representative for writers of cinema, and, today, the Director's Guild Awards Ceremony -- always held before the Academy Awards -- is considered the best predictor of Oscar success.
Given the political struggles going on behind the scenes, the 1935 best picture winner was surprisingly appropriate. Mutiny on the Bounty tells of the oppressed servant-class crew of a colonial ship who rise up against their upper-class tyrant captain.
The film is loosely based upon true historical events, and several books, stage plays, novels, poems, historical accounts, and films about the Bounty had already been written and produced by the time Frank Lloyd directed his Oscar-winning version. Up-and-coming star Errol Flynn, for example, had been featured in an Australian film called In the Wake of the Bounty only two years earlier. Subsequent films would also be made starring the likes of Marlon Brando (1962) and Anthony Hopkins (1984), but the 1935 version is generally considered to be the best of them all (though not the most historically accurate).
The film's cast was well received, earning Oscar nomination for three of its leads -- another Oscar first.
Clark Gable is at his dashing best as Master's Mate Fletcher Christian -- even after having to reluctantly shave his trademark moustache for historical accuracy. His ability to portray upper-class charm and wit while still coming across as one of the boys is truly amazing.
Charles Laughton plays the masochistic Lieutenant William Bligh with such zeal that one can't help but loath his character while simultaneously appreciating the actor's performance, and Franchot Tone turns in an excellent supporting performance as an idealistic and tragic midshipman (though he was nominated for Best Actor because Best Supporting Actor category was not created until the following year's ceremony).
With a two million dollar budget, stars like Clark Gable, and location shooting in French Polynesia and the South Pacific, there is no doubt that Mutiny on the Bounty is one of the prestige pictures the Studio System is known for. Everything about the film is big: its sets, its performances. Yet it is the film's empathy for the working class and its general sense of humanity and empathy that cuts through the set-pieces to create a film that is not only visually memorable and viscerally exciting but also emotionally gratifying.
Next: Are you a fan of big budget, three-hour, biopic musicals? Of course you are! So don't miss our look at The Great Ziegfeld.
First film to have three acting nominations.
Previously in The Oscars Project: