Sunday, June 28, 2015

1936 - A Grand Year in Film

Silent Screenings and Once Upon a Screen have teamed up with Movies Silently to revive their popular Classic Movie History Project Blogathon covering all of the major periods in film history. We have decided to tackle 1936 for the Golden Era of this event. Many critics tout 1939 as the wunder-year of Hollywood film and that is quite true, but if there was one year that was pivotal in the operation of each of the five major film studios it was 1936. 

There was a notable difference in quality in the releases of 1936 compared to those made prior to 1935. Technical advancements were made in the sound departments, make-up was no longer being caked on as heavily as it had been ( men stopped wearing lipstick, thank goodness! ) and directors were experimenting with new filming techniques. The title cards of the silent-era, which were used to explain plot changes or passages of time, were slowly being discarded for dialogue-driven story-telling. 

Though the Depression was but a not-so-distant memory, life had improved for many with employment on the increase and families now having money to spare. This, naturally, effected the movie industry and on a whole it was doing phenomenal business with grosses up $250 million dollars from 1935.

Major Hollywood Happenings

Deanna Durbin made her film debut in Three Smart Girls, a frolicsome feature in the vein of The Parent Trap. She soon became the No. 1 money maker for Universal studios and just in the nick of time, for the studio nearly went bankrupt in the summer of 1936. Charles Rogers took over production of the studio after Carl Laemmle Jr. raked up substantial debts in the creation of prestigious productions throughout the early 1930s. Rogers reduced the number of productions ( and the quality ) of Universal's output for the coming decade. Indeed, aside from Durbin's films there were meager pickings among the Universal crop in the years to come. 

Dorothy Lamour became a star overnight when she appeared wrapped in a sarong in The Jungle Princess, a routine jungle yarn from Paramount. Prior to this film she was a minor band and radio singer.

Mervyn LeRoy made his last major production for Warner Brothers - Anthony Adverse. Beginning with the acquisition of A Midsummer Night's Dream the previous year, Warner Brothers hoped to present themselves to the public with a new image as a prestigious film company and acquired the rights to a number of best-selling novels. Anthony Adverse was a huge financial success for the studio and helped to promote this new image. Losing Mervyn LeRoy was a major loss for the studio but, on the other hand, they signed composer Max Steiner ( who had left RKO ) over the summer. Steiner was one of the top music-makers in the industry. You win some, you lose some.

The Boy Wonder, Irving Thalberg, died at age 37. His wife, actress Norma Shearer, was devasted and vowed to never remarry. But she did. In 1942, she wed a ski-intructor from Sun Valley. Thalberg had forged MGM into the studio that it was and, after his death, production came to a standstill - for one day. Then Louis B. Mayer took the reigns as king of the Lion's lair and gave birth to a new era of wholesome top-notch productions. He was not entirely cold towards his former boss however, and ordered the erection on the MGM lot of a vast new multi-million dollar Irving Thalberg Administration Building named in honor of the Boy Wonder. Thalberg did not live long enough to see his pet-project, The Good Earth, completed. 

Walt Disney signed a distribution deal with RKO. Even though it would be two more years before Disney released his first full-length motion picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he had the foresight to recognize television as being a major factor in the entertainment industry of the future. RKO had close ties with RCA, then the leading sponser in the video development field, and so Disney made his bid early. that's what I call thinking ahead! Television may have been years away but it was often talked about in the media and even Columbia Pictures released a film in 1936 entitled Trapped by Television about a television pioneer ( Lyle Talbot ).

Warner Brothers attempted to break new ground with their release of The Green Pastures, basically a re-telling of the Bible as seen through the eyes of black children in an out-of-the-way Sunday school. Today, the film is considered racist for its portrayal of blacks as shuffling simpletons.

Silent film star John Gilbert died of a heart attack at the age of 38. Garbo's former lover never did learn how to "talk" for talkies and so the advent of sound put an early end to his career.

Bette Davis sued Warner Brothers for putting her in crummy low-budget films and they, in turn, sued her right back for breaking her contract and signing with producer Ludovic Toeplitz. Politics, politics......Anyway, Bette got the better end of the deal and Jack Warner decided to give her some better productions.

Historic epics were all the rage and the studios vied to outdo each other in splendid extravagance. Warner Brothers released The Charge of the Light Brigade, a G. A. Henty style yarn set in the North West Frontier; 20th Century Fox premiered Lloyds of London, the story of the famous insurance company; and MGM undertook the destruction of a city in San Francisco, featuring an earth-shaking finale.

Humphrey Bogart made a name for himself as a hood in A Petrified Forest. This was a role originally slated for Eddie G. Robinson.

The release of My Man Godfrey cemented Carole Lombard's reputation as one of the most beautiful and accomplished comediennes of the 1930s.

Biographical films were big box-office. The Story of Louis Pasteur not only became one of the top films of the year but it earned star Paul Muni an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the imminent doctor of medicine. Other biographical films released in 1936 included Mary, Queen of Scotland; The Great Ziegfeld ( Best Picture of the year ); Rembrandt; and Sutter's Gold.

William Powell and Myrna Loy continued their box-office success teaming up in three more great films, After the Thin Man, The Great Ziegfeld and Libeled Lady.

"B" films became the norm. For years cinemas had been experimenting with what to give audiences as an extra treat at the theatres. They tried live shows, shorts, newsreels, double features - until they hit on the "big/little" scenario. Audiences enjoyed seeing one minor film and one quality production. B films were being made by all the major studios to support their A productions, and they used these B films to test out new directors, actors, and special effects. 

Director Frank Capra got his name put above the title in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra believed that movies could have a social conscience and he struck a cord with post-Depression audiences in his latest retelling of his little-man-pitted-against-the-world philosophy. 

Irene Dunne makes her comedic debut. Dunne had scored a hit with Show Boat earlier in the year and then was cast, against her wishes, in a comedy - Theodora Goes Wild. She did not consider herself to be a comedienne but audiences certainly thought so and many more comedies soon followed. 

Technicolor Pictures hit theatres. Well, officially Becky Sharp, released in 1935, was the first full-length Technicolor film, but it wasn't until 1936 that the process was really perfected. Paramount released Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first Technicolor picture filmed outdoors and United Artists featured Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer in blazing spectrums in The Garden of Allah.

Notable Releases of 1936

  • The Charge of the Light Brigade 
  • The Prisoner of Shark Island 
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • Trail of the Lonesome Pine
  • The Great Ziegfeld
  • Modern Times
  • San Francisco
  • Libeled Lady
  • Follow the Fleet
  • Swing Time
  • Mary, Queen of Scotland
  • My Man Godfrey
  • The Petrified Forest
  • Lloyds of London
  • Theodora Goes Wild
  • Three Smart Girls
  • Anything Goes
  • The Plainsman
  • Show Boat
  • The Milky Way
  • Desire
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Dodsworth
  • The Big Broadcast of 1937
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy
  • These Three
  • The Garden of Allah
  • Things to Come

Top Box-Office Films

1. San Francisco

2. Modern Times

3. Strike Me Pink

4. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

5. A Midsummer Night's Dream

Popular Actors of 1936

Every year since 1932 Quigley's International Motion Picture Almanac polled movie exhibitors across America to determine the Top Money Making Stars - those actors who consistently bring in audiences - and these were the results from 1936's poll. 

1) Shirley Temple 
2) Clark Gable 
3) Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 
4) Robert Taylor 
5) Joe. E Brown 
6) Dick Powell 
7) Joan Crawford 
8) Claudette Colbert 
9) Jeanette MacDonald 
10) Gary Cooper 
11) Jane Withers 
12) James Cagney 
13) William Powell 
14) Jean Harlow 
15) Wallace Beery


  1. Lots going on in '36. A movie fan back then could easily be overwhelmed.

    1. I don't see how folks got anything done around the house back then, considering the films every week were stellar and one feature didn't just last 2 was a half-day affair, what with the newsreels, cartoons, B film, trailers, etc.

  2. Excellent post! Everyone focuses on 1939, but it seems 1936 was a banner and important year, as well (mainly for men ditching the lipstick, I'd say). Love it.

    1. When my sister and I were still acquiring the taste for early 1930s films ( they seemed too much like silents when we were younger ) we used 1936 as the cut-off point in determining whether the film would have the "1940s feel" or the "silent feel". Obviously there were some exceptions, but generally 1936 films were more modern than those made before 1935.

  3. Wow
    This was a marvelous post! I had never thought of how important 1936 was for movies until now. You gave me a new perception and reminded me of some films I still have to see - like The Story of Louis Pasteur. And it was very interesting to add the list of top money-making stars and box-office successes.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Thanks Le. Yes, be sure to check our The Story of Louis Pasteur. And I have to thank you for introducing us to "The Magic Box" through your blog. We really enjoyed it and of course William Friese Greene was instrumental in the 3D development process as well ( which we mentioned in our other post ).

  4. Wow, indeed. You make an awesome case that 1936 is one of Hollywood's finest years.

    1. It was indeed a banner year...but then again, weren't they all? ( of the golden era that is )

  5. William Powell's 1936 is arguably the greatest calendar year any actor has ever had. "My Man Godfrey," "Libeled Lady," "The Great Ziegfeld," "After The Thin Man" and "The Ex-Mrs. Bradford"? Pretty power-packed from Mr. Powell.