Nolte: What Should’ve Won the Best Picture Oscar – 1931 to 1939

American actor Clark Gable (1901 - 1960) in his role as Rhett Butler kissing the hand of a tearful Scarlett O'Hara, played by Vivien Leigh in 'Gone With The Wind'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yesterday we looked at the very first years of Best Picture winners, 1927 to 1930. Today, as we march through the decades, we look at 1931 to 1939.

Let’s begin…


  • What Did Win: Grand Hotel

Hard to argue with a picture that proves, once again, that MGM did indeed have more stars than were found in Heaven: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, a gorgeous Joan Crawford (who steals the movie), Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and so on…

It’s all elegant and melodramatic and more than little stagey, but nearly 90 years later, outside of some draggy parts, it still entertains.

This is the movie where Garbo launched decades of imitators with her famous line, “I want to be alone.”

When I rewatch this, it’s primarily for Crawford, who is timeless.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Sign of the Cross

Because of the odd eligibility dates for the early Oscars, it could very well be that Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic didn’t exactly qualify to compete with Grand Hotel. But as I said yesterday, let’s not get pedantic about these things. We’re here to talk movies.

Sign of the Cross is most famous for its scene of Claudette Colbert bathing in milk – which is quite something, but outside of the Ten Commandments (1956), it’s my favorite DeMille picture. Frederic March plays a Roman Centurion in the time of Nero (Charles Laughton). He falls for a Christian woman and everyone goes to the lions. The runtime of 121 minutes was epic in its day, and every one of those minutes flies by.


What Did Win: Cavalcade

Cavalvcade is certainly worth a look, a lavish production that examines changing values over four decades and a massive box office hit in its day. Unfortunately, although still moving at times, it’s bogged down by bathos and an episodic structure. I’ve seen it once. That was plenty.

  • What Should’ve Won: I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang

We have another tie…

Fugitive has lost none of its power over the decades and is still the 19th greatest movie ever made. Muni is a knockout as a man wrongly convicted of a crime who escapes a terrible chain gang and lives on the run.

The final line still chills.

  • What Also Should’ve Won: King Kong

My personal (#15) is an 88-year-old movie no remake has ever touched.


  • What Did Win: It Happened One Night

Director Frank Capra directs what is still one of the best romantic comedies ever made, one full of iconic scenes (hitchhiking, Walls of Jericho) and huge laughs. Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable are perfectly cast (both won Oscars) in a movie they were both sure was an act of slumming over at what was then a B-movie factory called Columbia.

A total delight from beginning to end.

  • What Should’ve Won: It Happened One Night

Oscar got this one right.


  • What Did Win: Mutiny on the Bounty

Still one of the greatest adventure movies ever made (#36) and so timeless that two blockbusters remakes – one with Marlon Brando, the other with Mel Gibson – should not have bothered. MGM moviemaking at its very best.

  • What Should’ve Won: Mutiny on the Bounty

Oscar gets two in a row right.

Let me also recommend Top Hat, Bride of Frankenstein, The Informer, Captain Blood, and most especially A Night at the Opera (#6).

You might be wondering why I would award the Oscar to Mutiny on the Bounty when I rank A Night at the Opera higher… All I can say is that a Best Picture choice feels like a different thing.


  • What Did Win: The Great Ziegfeld

Oh, my, what a bloated, overlong stinker.

  • What Should’ve Won: Dodsworth

It’s nice to see, after all these years of me hyping it, others finally catching on to this heart-wrenching drama about a middle-aged Captain of Industry who retires to the simple life and then loses his wife, a spoiled and vain woman who relishes the affectation of wealth and status.

What a movie. A few years ago I ranked it #153. It would be higher today.


  • What Did Win: The Life of Emile Zola

Paul Muni’s many biopics are largely and unjustly forgotten, including this one, which tells the story of the notorious Dreyfus Affair. Stories of injustice and antisemitism are timeless, and so is Zola.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Good Earth

This is a legitimately tough year. There’s also Dead End, Lost Horizon, The Good Earth (#16), and Captains Courageous; all of which are still favorites of mine and superior to Zola.

But I have to go with The Good Earth, which also starred Muni. Epic filmmaking, adult themes, and heartbreaking.


  • What Did Win: You Can’t Take it With You

Frank Capra takes home another Best Picture Oscar for what is basically a well-filmed stage play. It’s plenty entertaining, but you can see what’s coming from a mile away. Worth a look for the cast: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, and Lionel Barrymore.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Adventures of Robin Hood

This one is as easy as they come…

The adventure movie of all adventure movies, the Errol Flynn movie of all Errol Flynn movies, and still the fourth greatest movie ever made.


  • What Did Win: Gone with the Wind

When you look at other movies produced this same year, you can hardly believe Gone with the Wind (#17) was possible. Not just technically with its bright Technicolor and special effects, but how timeless the performances and themes are.

Still the number-one box office of all time, and deservedly so. Every one of its 221 minutes fly by; a grand piece of moviemaking.

  • What Should’ve Won: Gone with the Wind


The year 1939 is widely and correctly seen as Hollywood’s greatest year, the year of The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Destry Rides Again… Each are Oscar-worthy, but Gone with the Wind is still a no-brainer.

Tune in tomorrow for the years 1940 to 1949.

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