By 1935, Hollywood was no stranger to the biopic. Major films of the both the silent and sound era that focused on the lives of major historical figures include Napoléon (1927), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and Cleopatra (1934). However, other than Charles Laughton’s Best Actor award for his portrayal of Henry VIII, the Academy was largely indifferent to biographical films, preferring to focus on “original” stories. That attitude changed in 1935 when Paul Muni won Best Actor for his work in The Story of Louis Pasteur, and The Great Ziegfeld took home the award for Outstanding Production. This trend would continue the following year with The Life of Emile Zola winning the top honor. The actor in the lead role as Zola? Paul Muni (who lost to Spencer Tracy). Though both films are competent and still watchable, they do have issues that voters apparently overlooked.
When announcing the winner for Best Director at the sixth Academy Awards, host Will Rogers said, “Come and get it, Frank,” meaning Frank Lloyd, the director of soon-to-be Best Picture winner Cavalcade. However, some thought he meant Frank Capra, who had directed Best Picture nominee Lady for a Day. In fact, Capra himself thought this and actually stood up and began walking to the stage before realizing that he was not the correct Frank. Capra returned to his seat, later referring to the event as the “longest crawl in history.” However, the following year Capra would make a different kind of history by directing It Happened One Night, the first (of only three) films to win all five major awards: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. Not a bad turnaround. It was a feat no one could have predicted, nor could it have been planned.
In 1932, the Academy followed up All Quiet on the Western Front and Cimarron with the star-studded Grand Hotel. The film was a big budget, heavily promoted all-star showcase. For Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers—John and Lionel, Wallace Beery, future humanitarian Jean Hersholt, and up-and-coming star Joan Crawford to all appear in the same film was unheard of. But they did and it worked. From the opening telephone booth scene and the glorious bird’s eye view matte shot (above) through the rags to riches ending for (Lionel) Barrymore’s ailing accountant and Crawford’s struggling stenographer, the film attempts and succeeds at pulling together multiple storylines.