Irene Dunne

Best Picture vs. Best Director: Is The Life of Emile Zola Better than The Awful Truth? (1937)

The Awful Truth

Alex Russell

In 2014 I watched every single Best Picture Oscar winner in an attempt to find the absolute worst of them. I found it: Crash. Most movies that win Best Picture also win Best Director. In fact, from 1927 to 2014 only 24 movies won the Oscar for Best Director without also winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did any of those 24 deserve both awards? This is Best Picture vs. Best Director, in which we examine the few films to not win both awards and try to determine why the honors were split those years. Today’s movies are The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture) and The Awful Truth (Best Director), the winners from 1937. Which is the better film?

The Best Director film: The Awful Truth, an intensely silly screwball comedy full of divorce and remarriage goofs. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant can’t stand each other anymore and go to absurd lengths to avoid talking about their failing marriage. When Grant’s character is caught in a lie about going to Florida (he got a fake tan and sent fake letters home to mask his true whereabouts) the couple is unable to continue their lies. After an extremely silly scene where Dunne pretends to be Grant’s drunk sister and what passed for an exciting car chase in 1937, the characters run out of ways to distract each other and must confront the difficult truth of a marriage that may or may not be what they both really want.

The Best Director director: Leo McCarey, who won another Best Director award in 1944 for Going My Way. That movie also won Best Picture, but it’s a fairly sentimental musical vehicle for Bing Crosby and arguably not as good as The Awful Truth. Both movies reveal a very positive director who wanted to highlight the goodness in the world. That makes McCarey very different than his peers at the time and an odd Oscar winner in general. The Academy rarely rewards a light touch.

The Best Picture film: The Life of Emile Zola (read the Worst Best Picture entry here), which I ranked #61 on my list of every Best Picture winner. It’s one of the only movies on the list I watched twice, though that was mostly because I found it impenetrable the first time. The movie tells the story of Emile Zola’s response to anti-Jewish sentiment in his time, but in 1937 the director was afraid to use the word “Jew” even once. As a result it’s left up to the audience to understand what’s being talked about. Some of the storytelling works (a character is given a gun and frankly told to shoot himself to avoid an ugly trial) and some doesn’t (the first 20 minutes is spent defining Zola as a freedom fighter, but he mostly comes off as annoying and self-aggrandizing) and the movie feels uneven at best. It’s brave for 1937, but it doesn’t hold up well.

The Best Picture director: William Dieterle, who was never nominated again and was eventually a casualty of the McCarthy era. His career was defined by bio-pics and the only one to really be rewarded critically was Zola.

Did the right movie win Best Picture? Likely, based on the standards of what “Best Picture” has come to mean. The Awful Truth is more watchable in modern standards, but in the historical frame of 1937 it’s just a pretty good version of a standard film. Screwball comedies were common and even though The Awful Truth has some memorable moments it doesn’t take any risks. The Life of Emile Zola is a more deserving Oscar winner. For its time, it shows a lot of daring as a film and displays a man who risks his status for a cause he believes in. It’s the uncommon case of a less watchable story but a more impressive accomplishment in film-making.

Just for the hell of it, are either of them worse than CrashBoth of these movies feature characters undergoing enormous challenge and triumphing, though at the cost of something dear to them. Cary Grant is embarrassed time and again in The Awful Truth and (much more dramatically) Paul Muni’s Zola risks everything to defend a man unjustly accused. For as dramatic a tone as Crash insists upon, the stakes are never that high. No one risks learning or losing anything. They all just grow increasingly disgusted with their world until the story reaches a bow-tie ending.

Best Picture vs. Best Director Archives: The Greatest Show on Earth vs. The Quiet Man (1952) | Wings vs. Seventh Heaven (1931-1932)Hamlet vs. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)An American in Paris vs. A Place in the Sun (1951)The Life of Emile Zola vs. The Awful Truth (1937)

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

Worst Best Picture: Is Cimarron Better or Worse Than Crash?


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 1930/1931 winner Cimarron. Is it better than Crash?

Cimarron is an unmitigated disaster of a film. It’s slow, it’s weird, it’s boring, and it’s dated. There is absolutely no reason to watch Cimarron in 2014 aside from a desire to watch every Best Picture winner. This movie isn’t even fun to hate.

The answer to “what makes it so bad” is everything, but we’ll go piece by piece. It’s the story of Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), who is a newspaperman who also is a public speaker and is in politics and is a businessman and, honestly, I don’t know what Yancey Cravat is supposed to be. He’s mostly the editor of a newspaper in Oklahoma during the land rush of the late 1800s, so we’ll stick with that. Yancey Cravat (I can’t tell if that name was supposed to be serious or not for 1930) comes off like a madman. He’s supposed to read as a dignified, stately man in the wild, lawless West, but Dix plays him so silly that it’s impossible to feel that in the character. It’s full-on soap acting, and it’s way worse than in any of the other 30s movies. Plenty of them are bad, but none of them even approach the level of absurd, fake-deep voice that Richard Dix does in this movie.

Anyway, Yancey brings his wife and his kid to Oklahoma to get some land, but he has a tough time of it. His wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, who people mostly speak well of from this movie, but I don’t see it) also has a tough time of it, mostly because her husband has 17 jobs and leaves twice for five full years, each. This is where it becomes difficult to tell what is supposed to be weird within the world of Cimarron and what is weird because we live in 2014. He just up and leaves his entire family once after killing an outlaw and once for tenuous, mostly unexplained reasons. The former I can’t imagine would be a big deal, he walks around with a cartoonishly large pistol on his belt all the time anyway, and the latter is glossed over. He’s just out, bye, good luck, y’all.

No one else in the movie matters. There’s a really, really offensive black child character that rivals any moment of racism in any Best Picture winner and a Jewish shopkeeper that, well, the less said there, the better. Cimarron gets hammered in modern reviews for being offensive, which it definitely, definitely is, but I think the paper-thin structure and absurd acting are even worse. For real, you should look it up on YouTube if for no other reason than to watch some of Richard Dix’s acting.

Of course, a lot of this is just a sign of the times. People loved it in 1930, and most reviewers praised it for being dramatic and exciting. Those words mean different things now, and though a lot of the original Best Picture winners are strange in a kind of quaint, dated way, Cimarron is a bomb. At one point Yancey returns from a long absence to defend a prostitute in court, just… because. He hears that she’s in court and goes to defend her and it’s supposed to be a rousing, exciting moment of a good guy doing the right thing. But this is a guy who abandoned his family and came back basically that afternoon, and his first move is to go to court to defend someone. He’s also not a lawyer, but who cares, I guess? His first line is to say that the even-more-cartoonish-than-him prosecutor “is the only man in the whole Southwest capable of strutting while sitting down” and the entire courtroom including the judge and jury laughs uncontrollably for 10 full seconds. People wave their hats like he’s coming back from war, they love that joke so much. In that moment you have all of Cimarron: something that was probably pretty cool in 1930, but now is absurd at best and stupid and boring at worst.

The Best Part: There is nothing to like about Cimarron. It’s pretty short for a Best Picture winner. So, I guess there’s that. There’s not much of it, that’s the best part.

The Worst Part: The racist portrayals are pretty gross, but that should go without saying. I think the worst part has to be how convoluted it is. It’s possible to watch the entire movie and not really follow why everything happened.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The only reason Cimarron is not worse than Crash is because people loved it when it came out. Everything I can find seems to corroborate this idea that Cimarron is a time capsule of what people wanted to see in the early 30s. It’s the ultimate example of those weird early Best Picture winners that were loved at the time but just don’t hold up now. It’s a mess and should be ignored at best now, but it escapes being the worst Best Picture winner because I can confirm that when Crash came out people did not love it, so compared 1:1 Crash is worse. Judged on overall quality, it’s a much harder discussion, and though there are a few to go, this might just be as close as it gets. The other major difference is that Cimarron is a confusing mess, and the worst bits of it are nonsensical. I know why everything happened in Crash, I just hate that it happened at all.

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 | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron

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