And the Oscar for Best Picture Goes to....

DVD cover for Wings

The other night I watched the 1933 movie Cavalcade on Turner Classic Movies. I suppose the odds are pretty decent that you’ve never heard of it. At this point, few people probably have. For the uninitiated, it’s a faithful adaptation of a Noel Coward play that was a tremendous hit on the London stage and which made the playwright a very wealthy man. Although it was shot in Hollywood by the Fox Film Corporation (slightly before its merger with 20th Century Pictures), Cavalcade stars an overwhelmingly British cast, headed by Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook. OK, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of them either. Frankly, until I looked them up, I myself couldn’t remember a single other film in which either had starred, though I knew I’d seen each in a handful of titles previously.

To tell the truth, Cavalcade isn’t a particularly good picture. The acting is rather stilted and the story is excessively patriotic, but the main issue seems to be trying to depict thirty years of British history through the lens of two families in a mere 113-minute running time. Lots of events are touched on, but little character development occurs. So why’d I bother? Well, Cavalcade was the winner of an Oscar for Best Picture, and a film I’ve been waiting decades to see. In fact, until I saw it, it was the only Best Picture winner I’d never seen. OK, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether I should be proud of that accomplishment, or embarrassed to admit it! Good or bad, that’s a lot of time to have spent watching movies. I can only wonder what I might have done had I applied those hours to something else. Like, perhaps I could’ve written the great American novel! Nah….

So why did it take me so long to catch up with Cavalcade? Until very recently it was unavailable. In addition to now appearing on TCM, it’s also become available on Blu-Ray. It isn’t, however, available on DVD, nor has it ever been, at least not in the United States. As a result, Cavalcade isn’t currently available in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Nor, for that matter, is 1962’s Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, another winner of the Oscar statuette for Best Picture. The good news, however, is that that’s where the list ends. There have been eighty-five films honored with a Best Picture Oscar and your public library has the other eighty-three titles!

Now I’m sure that some of you feel that the Oscars are nothing more than an exercise in self-congratulatory propaganda, further marred by many wrongheaded choices. I get that. I’ve no doubt that I could write page after page on how the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has overlooked several outstanding films over the years in the Best Picture category alone (of course, hindsight being 20/20, you never know which films will become dated, or conversely rise in critical standing, until sometime later, so you can only expect even further disagreements to arise over time). My opinions, however, are no less subjective than anyone else’s. We all have our favorites, and each year when the envelopes are opened and the winners revealed, if they’re not the films that you or I were hoping would win, then we feel the academy messed things up once again.

The choice of each academy voter, of course, is also subjective, but what you get when you add up a bunch of subjective opinions is a consensus. That consensus may jibe with your opinion, or with the collective opinion of a favorite media outlet, critics’ group, or film society, or it may not. In truth, there is no perfect way to accurately judge the merits of a product that is – at least in the best case scenario – trying to be two things simultaneously: successful commerce and great art. What the Oscar process usually does accomplish is this: it highlights titles that on some level have merit and are worth viewing. Whether the process gets either the nominations or the winners correct is another matter and is always up for debate. If you’re a film fanatic, however, the next best thing to watching a movie is debating the relative merits of favorite films with other like-minded individuals. On that score, the Oscars provide an excellent jumping off point. Perhaps their real value is just getting people to talk about film.

As a result of the above, I have no problem enjoying the Oscar process. I don’t put too much stock in the nominations, yet I allow it to serve as a rough guide to a year’s quality titles. As for the ceremony itself, I just sit back and enjoy. Outside a royal coronation or a closing ceremony at the Olympics, it’s just about the biggest gala on earth, and it happens every year! For sheer mega-watt star-gazing, nothing tops the Oscars. On Sunday, March 2 a new title will join the pantheon of Best Picture winners – and be assured that if the winner isn’t already in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library, it soon will be. On the flip side, we’ll also have all the other nominees, including the movie that you thought should have won.

Did you realize that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has an important Des Moines connection? Actor Conrad Nagel, who was born in Keokuk, but lived in north Des Moines from the age of three until graduating from Highland Park College (located at what is now Parkfair Mall), was one of the thirty-six founding members of the academy. Actually, it goes even deeper than that, as Nagel was one of the four men who dined at the home of M-G-M head honcho Louis B. Mayer in early January 1927 and originated the idea of an organization benefiting the entire film industry. A few months later, the academy was officially formed. From the beginning, the academy has worked to further the interests of those in the industry, though most moviegoers only know it for bestowing the gleaming Oscar statuettes. Nagel, a handsome leading man of dozens of films throughout the twenties and thirties, was the fourth president of the academy, serving during 1932-1933 – which, incidentally, was the period during which Cavalcade was released! He went on to equally successful stints in radio and on television. In fact, Nagel was honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with stars for each of those three fields!

The idea of recognizing outstanding achievements was put forth by the academy in 1928. The first Oscars were presented in a ceremony held May 16, 1929 and honored films released from August 1, 1927 through July 31, 1928, as the academy followed the traditional Broadway season as its own awards season during the first six years of competition. The initial Best Picture winner was 1927’s Wings, starring flapper-era icon Clara Bow. It was the only silent film to win the award. That is, until 2011’s paean to silent pictures The Artist, which does includes one line of dialogue at the tail end of the movie.

The history of the Oscars is a treasure trove of trivia. Here are a few tidbits you may enjoy. The only film to receive just a single nomination, yet win Best Picture was 1932’s Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo. Conversely, 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was nominated in eleven categories and made a clean sweep. Two other films match that eleven-win total: Ben-Hur, from 1959, and Titanic, from 1997. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King also has the distinction of being one of only two sequels to win Best Picture, the other being 1974’s The Godfather Part II.

DVD cover for ArgoThe movie with the longest running time to win the top prize was 1939’s Gone with the Wind, clocking in at a robust 224 minutes (238 minutes if you count the overture, entr'acte, and exit music!). On the other hand, 1955’s Marty ran a tidy 94 minutes, yet also won the highest honor. The film with the longest title to win Best Picture is, once again, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, while the record for the shortest title belongs to 1958’s Gigi and, since last year, Argo.

Only three films have swept the so-called “big five” categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (either Original or Adapted). They are 1934’s It Happened One Night, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. What titillating trivia will this year’s winner add?