The 4th Academy Awards (1931) Assessed

As the Academy Awards, still yet to be known as the Oscars, moved on from the second and third ceremonies in 1930, they slowly but surely took on more categories. The 4th Academy Awards brought a celebratory eye to nine criteria, as opposed to the previous year’s eight. This slight shift didn’t remarkably change the nature of the event, however, as in hindsight especially, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences made a number of strange decisions surrounding nominees and winners, as it still does today.

Held on November 10, 1931 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, the 4th show still employed a calendar-year-straddling eligibility period; it recognized the best in film released from August 1, 1930 to July 31, 1931. Elder English actor Lawrence Grant, best known today for supporting roles in films like SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), hosted the ceremony, of which there doesn’t seem to be any cinematic evidence.

Pictures and anecdotes survive, however. For example, nine-year-old and sleeping Jackie Cooper, who was the youngest Oscar nominee for nearly 50 years (taking second place only to Justin Henry for his work in KRAMER VS. KRAMER [1979]), had to be eased off Best Actress winner Marie Dressler’s shoulder when she got up to accept her award. Other milestones include Lionel Barrymore’s status as the first person to be nominated in more than one category; he was nominated for Best Director for MADAME X (1929) at the 2nd Academy Awards and for Best Actor for A FREE SOUL (1931) at the 4th. He won for the latter, also making him the only Best Actor winner born in the 1870s. A FREE SOUL, along with CIMARRON, were also the first movies to receive multiple acting nominations.

And on the subject of CIMARRON, often considered one of the unworthiest Best Picture (or Outstanding Production, as it was then known) winners: it took home the big prize in addition to two others, a record amount of wins from a record amount of nominations (7). It was also the only Western Best Picture winner until DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990). All of these semi-quibbling milestones illustrate the fact that the Oscars, even before they were known as such, were starting to double down on the biggest and “best” movies of the year, rather than spreading the love much more evenly as was done in previous ceremonies.

That love wasn’t spread quite far enough, however. The immense snub, as was done before and after with other films of Charlie Chaplin’s, was CITY LIGHTS (1931), not only the best American film of the eligibility period, but also one of the best films of all time. I’ve recently written about it here. There were a few other misses that were nevertheless represented in some form in the nominations, but it’s also a shame that, then and mostly now, the Academy Awards weren’t fully expansive recognizers of international accomplishments; many of the best films of this time, and the 4th Academy Awards’ year span, were foreign.

But for now, I’ll rank the films in each category from top to bottom, bolding my “what should have won” choice and marking the actual winner with a * and lost films/films that are not easy to track down with a ~, removing the latter from consideration.

Outstanding Production

  • THE FRONT PAGE (1931)
  • CIMARRON (1931)*
  • SKIPPY (1931)
  • TRADER HORN (1931)
  • EAST LYNNE (1931)~

Lewis Milestone wasn’t quite able to repeat the success of his wins at the 3rd Academy Awards, with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), but his newspaper comedy-drama THE FRONT PAGE, based on the successful play of the same name, was recognized in a number of forms at the 4th. Of what was nominated for Outstanding Production, it is the clear winner, with a minimal set giving rise to great performances, dialogue, and ever-increasing pace. CIMARRON doesn’t quite deserve its reputation as an undeserved win, but the Western is indeed not incredible. Its adaptation of the epic scale of Edna Farber’s novel is imparted, however, giving the whole movie a weight and scope that is hard to resist, for me personally. CIMARRON’s “problematic” elements, in regards to its treatment of Native Americans, was actually somewhat “progressive” for its time, which of course does not excuse it. It is interesting to note, however, because it indicated an early sentiment of the Academy Awards to cater to big, “important” social dramas and/or period pieces with a near- or faux-liberal bent. In any event, it’s also better than SKIPPY, which I think received the more undeserved nominations and wins. The comedy gained renown with the proficient performance of child actor Jackie Cooper, but I think he actually delivered a much better one for King Vidor’s THE CHAMP (1931, which would be nominated for various things next year). But the whole thing today plays a bit too cheesy, and not very funny. TRADER HORN, the truly problematic exoticist adventure film shot on-location in Africa (which caused problems for its cast and crew), is no good, almost totally devoid of a truly exciting tone and emblematic of the worst stereotypes Hollywood had to offer. EAST LYNNE is not considered here because it does not survive in its entirety and I was only able to track down a truly atrocious VHS print that was essentially unwatchable.

Best Director

  • Josef von Sternberg — MOROCCO (1930)
  • Lewis Milestone — THE FRONT PAGE
  • Wesley Ruggles — CIMARRON
  • Clarence Brown — A FREE SOUL (1931)
  • Norman Taurog — SKIPPY*

MOROCCO was snubbed for nomination for Outstanding Production and Josef von Sternberg was snubbed for the win in Best Director. MOROCCO was the best American film of 1930 (if not the full eligibility period here), and von Sternberg’s best (as far as I know so far). Its dreamlike and exotic (as opposed to exoticist) setting and reality are brought into powerful and painful sharpness by von Sternberg’s impeccable direction. So he should have won here, although as mentioned, Milestone’s work on THE FRONT PAGE is admirable, although it’s not quite as “cinematic” as could be expected from this category or Milestone himself. Wesley Ruggles’ biggest film was probably CIMARRON, and the vision he was able to pull together from its source material is appropriate in scope. But since part of the direction involves the actors, who represent the weakest part of the movie, it can’t match its peers mentioned so far. A FREE SOUL is an OK movie, but its best quality is not necessarily the direction; Clarence Brown was somewhat of a chameleon director for that great big universally appealing studio, MGM, and so it doesn’t cohere as a remarkably crafted picture. Finally, Norman Taurog’s win for SKIPPY is just strange, although I can intuit what led to it: the work with Cooper and the performance that was “extracted” from a nine-year-old. That doesn’t consider the fact, however, that the rest of the child actors are quite unconvincing.

Best Actor

  • Adolphe Menjou — THE FRONT PAGE
  • Lionel Barrymore — A FREE SOUL*
  • Fredric March — THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY (1930)
  • Richard Dix — CIMARRON
  • Jackie Cooper — SKIPPY

Once again, MOROCCO figures into the picture: Adolphe Menjou should have been nominated for his role in that, not in THE FRONT PAGE. Menjou’s place as the selfless, sacrificial point on a love triangle is just exquisite, as I’ve explained before. His role as an aggressive newspaper editor in THE FRONT PAGE is proficient and often amusing, but it’s also simply not as resonant. But it is powerful, and just a touch more memorable than Lionel Barrymore’s tragic, drunkard lawyer in A FREE SOUL. But Barrymore’s part in A FREE SOUL is actually one of his best, which is saying something in a long career of strong parts. Fredric March was a fresh face in talkies, and in the relatively middling THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY (only George Cukor’s third movie), he’s the standout character, an eccentric playboy who also anchors the film’s emotional moments. Richard Dix is craggy and serviceable in CIMARRON; he’s a proto-John-Wayne-figure (although Wayne had already appeared in a superior Western, THE BIG TRAIL [1930]). Dix represents a forceful and crusading Western hero with an occasional sensitivity that endears him. Of course, Dix isn’t Wayne, though, and so he only stays ahead of Cooper because of Cooper’s inexperience. His role in SKIPPY excited the Academy, mostly because the standard of child acting was so low at the time, but it’s not quite as exciting today. I will say, however, that among both the child and adult actors, Cooper’s performance was the strongest in SKIPPY.

Best Actress

  • Marlene Dietrich — MOROCCO
  • Marie Dressler — MIN AND BILL (1930)*
  • Norma Shearer — A FREE SOUL
  • Irene Dunne — CIMARRON
  • Ann Harding — HOLIDAY (1930)

I’m sounding like a broken record (and will continue to), but MOROCCO was not given enough credit, in spite of its nominations. Marlene Dietrich’s role in her American debut is a softer, more sympathetic version of the cabaret singer that exploded onto the screen in von Sternberg’s German predecessor, THE BLUE ANGEL (1930). Dietrich’s Amy Jolly (her MOROCCO character) is mysterious, lovely, ethereal; she’s a force of nature, a figure that incites passion wherever she goes. I love that we never get the full picture of the character’s backstory. It makes the performance all the more imaginative. In a much different way, Marie Dressler’s performance in MIN AND BILL is also compelling. Dressler’s dockside innkeeper is rough yet passionate, and her fierce defense of her adoptive daughter turns to selfless sacrifice. These two actresses are miles away from Norma Shearer’s admittedly decent turn in A FREE SOUL, as the daughter of Barrymore’s character. Although he has less screen time than Shearer, Barrymore swallows up the impression of the movie. Irene Dunne would go on to greater recognition than that which she received for CIMARRON, but her place in its epic story is interesting, even though she’s not given a whole lot to do at times. The character feels left by the wayside, not unlike many other women in Westerns. Finally, the romantic comedy HOLIDAY had amusing moments, although it’s mostly forgettable; Ann Harding is just adequate.

Best Original Story

  • THE PUBLIC ENEMY — John Bright and Kubec Glasmon (1931)
  • THE DAWN PATROL — John Monk Saunders (1930)*
  • SMART MONEY — Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson (1931)
  • THE DOORWAY TO HELL — Rowland Brown (1930)
  • LAUGHTER — Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, Douglas Doty, and Donald Ogden Stewart (1930)

Eventually, the “Best Story” categories would co-exist with “Best Screenplays,” which indicated a distinct recognition for treatments and the document used for actual production, dialogue included. At this stage, however, the concepts were kind of fused. By that standard, THE PUBLIC ENEMY far and away takes home the prize. Besides being told through one of the best films of 1931 and this eligibility period for its performances and visual qualities, the rise and fall of James Cagney’s gangster is scripted quite well. There are turning points that feel classical in scope, as in a Greek tragedy or Shakespearean drama, all done in the “low art” forms of cinema and the gangster backdrop. By comparison, the “epic” story of World War I movie THE DAWN PATROL feels ironically small. Its losses are emotionally compelling, but much of its spectacle lies in the visualized action, not in the story itself. But its win makes sense for the Oscars, as even today, the impact of war movies is a common factor in big nominations and wins. SMART MONEY is an interesting artifact as the only time gangster icons Cagney and Edward G. Robinson starred in a movie together…and indeed, it’s a crime story of a sort. Robinson starts as a small-time gambler who hits the big time, and his paternalistic relationship (there may be another way to read it) with Cagney’s character leads to, again, a tragic end. The path there just has some awkward plot points. THE DOORWAY TO HELL was also a pre-PUBLIC ENEMY Cagney starrer, where he was also a sidekick of sorts. THE DOORWAY TO HELL is also a gangster movie, with Lew Ayres playing an unconvincing tough guy. But the story itself, while it contains all of the gangster tropes that were to be known at such a wide scale, doesn’t hit as hard as its sensational title. Finally, LAUGHTER presents a number of ironically tragic moments. Its foundation in a love triangle is really quite similar to many other romance-dramas of the time, so LAUGHTER doesn’t feel particularly laudable. If there are praiseworthy elements, they reside in the performances and chemistry of Nancy Carroll and Fredric March, not necessarily the story.

Best Adaptation

  • LITTLE CAESAR — Francis Edward Faragoh and Robert N. Lee (1931)
  • CIMARRON — Howard Estabrook*
  • THE CRIMINAL CODE — Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo Jr. (1931)
  • SKIPPY — Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sam Mintz
  • HOLIDAY — Horace Jackson

There’s not much difference in assessing Best Original Story and Best Adaptation; obviously, the latter is just based on some source material. But like Best Original Story, another one of the “Big Three” gangster movies of the early ’30s (which also included SCARFACE [1932]) should have taken home an award. LITTLE CAESAR parallels the rise and fall present in THE PUBLIC ENEMY; done to lesser effect, I might add. But the bones of a great story are brought into great life, and it’s a rich adaptation of a source novel. In a similar way, CIMARRON is able to chart the expansiveness that its basis could bring in the printed word. If there’s awkwardness, it’s in the film’s brevity relative to a full book, and the fleeting pacing that ensued. But, again, the story itself is profoundly epic, albeit with its regressive-progressive elements, hence its win. THE CRIMINAL CODE is in similar company to the two better stories on this list. Like the gangster movie, THE CRIMINAL CODE is part of another popular variation on a broader crime theme: the prison picture. There are some incredible moments in the movie, solidified by an inventive cinematographic approach by director Howard Hawks and directors of photography James Wong Howe and Ted Tetzlaff. But that approach was informed by the thrilling and suspenseful turns of the story, so it deserves commendation for that. SKIPPY’s story is heartwarming in its way, I suppose, while HOLIDAY is, as mentioned above, pretty forgettable.

Best Sound Recording

  • Paramount Publix Studio Sound Department*
  • Samuel Goldwyn-United Artists Studio Sound Department
  • RKO Radio Studio Sound Department
  • MGM Studio Sound Department

This is an interesting category to judge, as it doesn’t specify particular films and instead heaps an award to an entire studio’s sound department. In assessing it, I had to just review the entire suite of films each produced within the criteria window, which were…a lot. My takeaway was that Paramount deserved its win, with MOROCCO, ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), and a couple others serving up significant “sound-based” moments. But even if there was some specificity to this category, it would still be difficult to pick, since Best Sound Recording implies a part of the process that often performs a background (but integral) role within the movies. And at this point in the sound era, it was often still rough. So going through Samuel Goldwyn-United Artists, RKO, and MGM’s libraries at this time, I saw basically just as adequate batches of nominees as those that Paramount offered up, although the score of the “silent” United Artists production CITY LIGHTS is beautiful.

Best Art Direction

  • MOROCCO — Hans Dreier
  • WHOOPEE! — Richard Day (1930)
  • SVENGALI — Anton Grot (1931)
  • JUST IMAGINE — Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras (1930)
  • CIMARRON — Max Rée*

How CIMARRON won this category, I don’t know. I get that its Western setting felt “lived in,” and its landscapes were impressive. But it takes last place among all of the incredibly extreme and attractive sets in the other listed films. At the top is MOROCCO, with its deep shadows cast over desert shades and exotic settings. It actually barely beats out WHOOPEE!, which if you ignore its racist moments, is rendered in beautiful two-tone Technicolor; it also breathes life into the movie’s painted backdrops. SVENGALI is a somewhat overlooked movie, for various reasons, and its Expressionist set design is one of them. JUST IMAGINE’s world isn’t so starkly or impressively crafted, but this sci-fi musical (a remarkable novelty for the time) does embody the retro-futuristic aesthetic I so adore.

Best Cinematography

  • MOROCCO — Lee Garmes
  • TABU: A STORY OF THE SOUTH SEAS — Floyd Crosby (1931)*
  • SVENGALI — Barney McGill
  • CIMARRON — Edward Cronjager
  • THE RIGHT TO LOVE — Charles Lang (1930)~

Once again, and for the (nearly) final time, MOROCCO should have won here. Lee Garmes’ cinematography is what gives the film its lasting appeal. The way he shoots Dietrich and Gary Cooper’s romance, the simple but effective staging of Amy Jolly’s cabaret performance, the framing of the otherworldly desert beyond the town’s gate; the screenshots of movie deserve a whole coffee table book. And as is necessary for a “moving picture,” they of course look tremendous in motion. Floyd Crosby nearly matches that achievement with TABU: A STORY OF THE SOUTH SEAS, which often represents the opposite of MOROCCO’s moodiness with its shockingly bright whites (in its black-and-white cinematography, not its few European characters). The ocean’s ripples are…divine. It’s just a brilliant depiction of “the exotic,” without being predatory, and that goes for the story as well. As I mentioned in regards to SVENGALI, it’s somewhat overlooked, and that goes for John Barrymore’s performance. But the vibrant special effects and exciting camera movement ground, or rather elevate, his titular character and the world that surrounds him in a dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, place. I wasn’t able to track down THE RIGHT TO LOVE, so I can’t comment on that, but I can conclude by once again recognizing CIMARRON’s technical proficiency. Its cinematography does extract some of the sense of exploration and wide open spaces that the Western should provide. It just isn’t remarkable beyond that, unlike its competitors.

Within the bounds of what was nominated, MOROCCO was certainly given short shrift, with zero wins coming of its four nominations. But in my esteem, it should have won all four and been the biggest winner, which is also reflective of the fact that I only “aligned” with the Academy of 1931 one of nine times, a whopping 11 percent. But the 4th Oscars did promote a wider range of good or great films, marking the ever-increasing quality and daring themes present in the advancing Pre-Code era.

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