clark gable

Worst Best Picture: Is Mutiny on the Bounty Better or Worse Than Crash?

Charles_Laughton_in_Mutiny_on_the_Bounty_trailer

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1935 winner Mutiny on the Bounty. Is it better than Crash?

When people make lists of the great performances in great films, they inevitably miss some. I’m not going to pretend my list would  have included someone in Mutiny on the Bounty when I started this, but it most certainly does now. Charles Laughton’s performance as the insane, duty-driven, bloodthirsty Captain Bligh is really something you need to see.

Mutiny on the Bounty is a retelling of a retelling of an actual event, and with that many steps removed historical accuracy no longer matters. It’s not about the actual Captain Bligh or the actual mutiny, and none of that matters. The performances matter. Charles Laughton clearly decided to play Captain Bligh as furious as absolutely possible without going over into comedy. The movie opens with Bligh’s men drafting everyone they can find into service on a two-year journey across the Pacific. The idea of that is difficult enough to imagine — someone interrupts you at dinner and demands you go across the ocean for a significant percentage of your life, no, thanks, I’m good — but doing it with Captain Bligh is the kicker.

Almost immediately and for almost nothing, Bligh demands that a man be killed by being thrown overboard while still tied to the boat. There’s the “tone” of this movie. Captain Bligh wants you dead, period. It’s not even clear that he cares about the mission or a sense of duty, he’s just a madman. Sometimes that kind of villain loses effectiveness because it feels unrealistic, but Bligh feels all-too real. He’s not a force of nature, he’s just a representation of what unlimited power can do to a man, especially when no one has anywhere to go to get away.

His opposition comes mostly in the form of starved, crazed men who gain the strength to resist under Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian. Christian starts as Bligh’s right-hand man, but his conscience slowly chips at him until he has no chance but to lead a rebellion. Gable sells the “good guy just doing what’s right” role, but he’s less complicated and less interesting than the villain. There a dozen outstanding Clark Gable roles, but this one is merely a mirror to Laughton.

The whole thing meanders a bit whenever the story leaves the boat. It takes too long to get going, it gets lost on some islands, and it definitely slows down during the ending, but it’s worth your time. It’s not perfect, but judged among the other 1930s winners like You Can’t Take It With YouCavalcade, and Cimarron, it starts to feel very special. It works in a modern setting, though it would need some tightening to work now.

The Best Part: It’s not spoiling anything to say there’s a mutiny, but the mutiny itself has nothing on Bligh’s response. He’s forced to sail away in a tiny boat with a skeleton crew, and the scenes of his angry, steely resistance steal the show. Laughton, Gable, and the third lead were all nominated for Best Actor, but all three lost that year to the lead from The Informer.

The Worst Part: There’s an extended part of the second act that takes place on Tahiti that is largely forgettable. Clark Gable makes all the beautiful island women fall in love with him and a bunch of mildly silly, mildly sexy stuff happens. It doesn’t feel necessary, and since Bligh’s pure insanity is enough of a motivating factor to force the plot, it feels tacked on to add a love story. Even so, it doesn’t add much of one.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s a much better movie. It’s exciting and interesting and does things that movies are still relatively afraid to do with main characters. Some of the ending is extremely stupid, and a lot of the “message” (such as it is) is pretty worthless. It’s just a movie about two men locked in a power struggle, and one is clearly in the wrong. It’s truth-to-power, which is difficult, and it’s done so with a regard for the difficulty that these men clearly faced. When the chain of command isn’t right, what do you do? How do you put your life at risk when it may not even matter? These are hard questions, and Crash’s “why is everyone so awful all the time” isn’t.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Gone with the Wind Better or Worse Than Crash?

Vivien_Leigh_Gone_Wind_Restaured

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1939 winner Gone with the Wind. Is it better than Crash?

History has both been extremely kind and extremely unkind to Gone with the Wind. It’s one of the most successful, well-reviewed films in American history, but it’s a film with a Wikipedia “analysis” section that includes “racial criticism” and “depiction of marital rape.” No matter what part of Gone with the Wind you’re talking about, you’re talking about something capital-I Important.

Gone with the Wind is one of the few “great” Best Picture winners that I’d actually seen before starting this, though it was years earlier. I was too young to understand the dynamic between Scarlett and Rhett. All I remembered was how terrible the burning of Atlanta scenes were (not wrong, there, young me) and how awkward the movie’s racial tensions were (the seriousness of which was definitely lost on teenage me).

When you watch Gone with the Wind in one sitting you are struck not just by the length — it’s the longest Best Picture winner ever, by a lot — but by how much of the film isn’t about “the film.” Even aside from overtures and extended credit sequences that are relics of the time, there are huge sequences that don’t advance the plot. The cast of 20 or 30 relatively major characters doesn’t help with that sensation, either.

Gone with the Wind gets rethought critically because it’s racist and sexist and honestly, a little dumb. Scarlett and Rhett are interesting, but most of the rest of the cast is made up of simple people with simple desires. That contributes to why some scenes feel like a slog. Sometimes you’re watching someone mad at Scarlett for marrying a shopkeeper and you feel like you maybe started the movie when you were a much younger person. Maybe you’ll never get to leave.

There’s not enough room here to talk about a movie with problems as complicated as Gone with the Wind, but I will say this: it is crazy to me that I have had as many conversations as I have in my life about this movie without talking about the drunken argument Rhett and Scarlett have. The racial depictions are downright awful, but you really need to see this scene again if you haven’t seen it recently. It’s unexpected and it’s foul. It’s really the only thing I’m sure I’ll remember about Gone with the Wind this time around. I’ve never seen anything like it in a “romance.”

The Best Part: The final fourth of the movie works as a stand-alone in a way. The time Rhett and Scarlett are actually married and trying to deal with it feels well-paced and interesting. There are monstrous parts and there are acidic exchanges, but the only part of Gone with the Wind that feels like what we know today as a complete story is this one.

The Worst Part: Where to begin? Race, sexuality, sex, marriage, family, money, war? There’s a lot going on in the world of Gone with the Wind, but there aren’t any real good messages here. There’s not enough time here to condemn it where it needs to be condemned, and that’s better left to better critics, anyway. For pure film, I’m going either Atlanta burning or the character who dies on a horse. Both would be less jarring in Gone with the Wind if they were anime.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? How will history remember Crash? That’s a question I’ve pondered in this space before. I have to think that history will wonder what race relations in America were like in 2005, and they will look to Crash to find their answer. Just as The Apartment suffers because of modern opinions on mental health and Gentleman’s Agreement suffers because it is too simplistic with anti-racism, Crash and Gone with the Wind both suffer because they feel like sad products of sadder times. We want our world to be better now and we want our history to be better then. It wasn’t, to be sure, but Gone with the Wind is a little too gleeful about it. Crash is at least unhappy about the world it glorifies, though neither world is one I want to live in. Gone with the Wind is better, but the similarities are there.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image credit: here.

Worst Best Picture: Is It Happened One Night Better or Worse Than Crash?

ithappenedonenight

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. This is intended to be mostly spoiler-free, but there may be minor details mentioned. Today’s installment is the 1934 winner It Happened One Night. Is it better than Crash?

It’s very strange to consider what has become the “canon” of romantic films. Movies like CasablancaRoman Holiday, and Annie Hall are the standards by which every portrayal of romance is judged. It Happened One Night escaped my radar for the most part, but it’s definitely a movie that is in that list of ideal films.

As I watch every Best Picture Oscar winner I am struck by how few of these I’ve actually seen. There are a ton of movies — How Green Was My Valley comes to mind whenever I look at the full list — that I am vaguely aware of, but mostly they just don’t exist in my mental database. I don’t claim to be a qualified judge of all of film history, but I do appreciate a good movie. It Happened One Night is a good movie.

Clark Gable is a down-on-his-luck reporter, and he stumbles across the biggest news story in the country when Claudette Colbert enters his life. She’s on the run from her rich father and on the way to New York to be with her new husband. There’s a reward for her return, and Gable plans to either collect or to cash in by telling her story. He’s just gotta not fall in love along the way, d’awww!

I won’t pretend I walked into a movie from 1934 expecting something genuinely sweet and funny. There are an insane number of cuts — one extremely important scene in a bedroom cuts three times in as many minutes — and some of the wackier stuff doesn’t really work. In the opening scene, Claudette Colbert jumps off of a boat to swim to Florida. A man runs into a swamp because he’s afraid. Another man is tied to a tree and left to die, and that story is just abandoned. A guy lands a helicopter at a wedding. There’s some wild madness going on in the background, but the leading couple carries the load of it well. They both give superhuman performances; they’re both interesting, memorable, and sincerely funny even by modern standards.

Some classics are “important” and some are good. I can’t speak to how crucial It Happened One Night is to the rom-com as a genre, but it’s a movie from eight decades ago that wouldn’t need much updating to be released this summer. It’s worth your time, even if you aren’t watching all 86 of these.

The Best Part: On their first night alone together the couple is forced to pretend to be married to avoid suspicion. It’s a very sweet scene, and it’s played with a mix of playfulness and restraint. Paired with a scene in the morning where they throw a fake fight/screaming match to convince the cops they’re actually married, it’s damned excellent. It would need zero updating to work in 2014.

The Worst Part: On the way to New York the couple hitchhikes with a guy who sings everything he says. He is completely unexplained. I cannot tell you why this man sings his sentences. At one point someone flies an “autogyro” into a wedding, and I can explain that more than this man.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashIt’s a Clark Gable romantic comedy from the 1930s. You don’t need me to write this to know it’s “a good movie.” It’s the kind of movie that makes this whole thing silly. Is it better than Crash? It has Clark Damn Gable in it. The point of this project is to explore the idea that awards and praise don’t necessarily mean a movie is “great,” but of course this one is. Above all else it’s fascinating how timeless much of it is. Some plot elements — a woman runs away and is front page news for weeks in a row — are absurd now, but the jokes all still work. It’s actually funny even in 2014. Crash was instantly dated and will get more so as time advances. This, so long as people can forget some of their cynicism for a second, will endure.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org