THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1935)

In 1936, the eighth Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1935 and December 31, 1935 the awards took place on March 5. This was the first year the awards earned their nickname – the Oscars. While no official account has ever been validated for the birth of this nickname, it is believed an Academy librarian noted the statuette resembled her Uncle Oscar and the nickname stuck. Bette Davis also made the same claim, stating she originated the nickname due to the statue resembling her then-husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. Whatever the reason, from here on in, the Academy Awards were also referred to as the Oscars.

The awards introduced a new category for Best Dance Direction, which was quickly abandoned only three years later. As with the previous year, and for the last time, write-in votes were allowed by the Academy, and this time, it actually worked. For his work on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cinematographer Hal Mohr became the first and only person to win via this voting method, after not receiving an official nomination. This year marks the final time a film would take home Best Picture and nothing else. It was also the first and only time three actors from the same film were vying for Best Actor, mostly due to the fact the category of Supporting Actor had still not been introduced.

The nominees:
Alice Adams
Broadway Melody of 1936
Captain Blood
David Copperfield
The Informer
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mutiny on the Bounty
Les Miserables
Naughty Marietta
Ruggles of Red Gap
Top Hat

The winner:
Mutiny on the Bounty

An adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s 1932 novel of the same name, Mutiny on the Bounty tells the story of the historic 1787 journey of the H.M.S. Bounty from Portsmouth, England to Tahiti. The journey’s mission was to acquire breadfruit plants native to the island to be transported to the West Indies as a cheap food solution for slaves. At the ship’s command is the cruel William Bligh (Charles Laughton), a man with a reputation as a brutal tyrant and a penchant for administering harsh punishment to those who lack discipline, cause any infraction on board the ship, or in any manner defy his authority. His first officer, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) is much more beloved by his crewmen, and holds contempt for the way his cantankerous commander treats them. As the journey to Tahiti continues, and Bligh’s treatment of the crewmen worsens, a revolt begins to brew, and Christian begins to question whether a change in leadership may necessary.

Why did it win?
Another winner of Best Picture that was a sensation with both critics and audiences. Mutiny on the Bounty was the best reviewed film of 1935, with critics raving that it was perhaps one of the greatest films of all time. Even before the film opened, it was being buzzed about, mostly due to its apparently difficult production. Laughton and Gable did not get along, and there were constant rumours of epic arguments between the pair on set. Whether completely accurate or the work of a clever publicity department, it created hype, and when the film opened, it was a box-office juggernaut, taking over $2.5 million in the US.

The film connected with its audience by making it a clear example of good vs. evil, with our long-suffering hero finally standing up to his maniacal tyrant of a commander, despite the potential consequences. It was a story to inspire those struggling against “the man,” and it worked. Gable was hugely popular at the time, and was the perfect choice for this role. Likewise with Laughton, who is every bit as despicable as a cruel character like Bligh needs to be. Did the story take some liberties with the truth? Sure, but this is cinema. Sometimes you need to, in order to craft something engaging and entertaining.

With its epic naval journey and lavish production and costume design, the film is also a technical triumph, especially considering the complicated and difficult production process it underwent. A life-size replica of the Bounty was crafted for the production, and filming took place on open-water in California, as well as on-location filming in Tahiti itself. With a staggering budget of $2 million, the production was one of the biggest for MGM to date, and the results speak for themselves. It’s a genuinely epic film which is still wildly impressive to view today.

While it may have been up against some stiff competition, no films were anywhere near as grand as Mutiny on the Bounty. Nothing dazzled voters quite like this high-seas adventure. It raked in a total of eight nominations, and while it failed to garner any additional wins, it seems it was the obvious choice for the Academy for Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
The film deserves to win on the basis of its three incredible performances alone. The fact it remains the only film in history with three nominations for Best Actor speaks volumes to the stellar example of acting it was. Yes, you can argue that’s only because there wasn’t a Supporting Actor category to stick one or two of the other actors in (the category would be introduced the very next year, as a result of this anomaly), but it takes nothing away from what Gable, Laughton, and¬†Franchot Tone deliver. It was near-impossible to pick one as the winner. As such, they ultimately “split the vote,” and all went home empty.

Laughton chews every piece of scenery he can, as the wicked and loathsome Captain Bligh. It’s a landmark performance still acknowledged as one of the greatest today. Gable is at his charismatic best, and he was a star actor who never failed to impress. As our hero, he’s incredibly likeable and inspiring, as he battles with his loyalty to his commander and his devotion to his fellow crewmen. The scenes between Laughton and Gable are the stuff of cinema magic. It clearly helped the two didn’t care for each other, and the results are in their impeccable performances. They are dazzling to watch, and capture your attention with every single scene. It ultimately creates a drama that is still so wonderfully captivating and downright engaging in a 2017 context.

Its powerful theme of the underdog rising to challenge authority, in the face of those in power overstepping their bounds, still resonate and connect today. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Bligh is the typification of this notion. Who hasn’t felt the compulsion to challenge someone who has let power go to their head? Who hasn’t wanted to be as heroic as Fletcher Christian and fight for justice for your fellow man? It almost plays like a comic-book superhero of the seven seas. Christian may well be the earliest example of a true cinema hero.

The production itself is wildly impressive. Its production and costume design are wonderfully crafted, especially the Bounty herself. The sequences at sea feel so completely authentic, and the film does not look dated at all. It’s a remarkable achievement for something 80 years old to still look so damn good. Mutiny on the Bounty is still a terrifically enjoyable ride, and as I keep saying, that has to be the mark of a truly deserving winner of Best Picture.

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