I’ve noticed patterns in the years when my most beloved films were released. Stella Dallas, True Confession, The Awful Truth, You Only Live Once, Topper, It’s Love I’m After… so many great films hit theaters in 1937, and yet it isn’t one of the first years that comes to mind when you think of Hollywood’s best. While it may not be as highly-regarded as the close-by 1939 as a landmark year in Hollywood history, 1937 is one of my favorite years, so I’ve decided to explore it for the Classic Movie History Project blogathon!
THE TOP FILMS
Let’s begin our journey through 1937 by looking at some of the major releases of the year. Curious as to how my own favorites measure up to the tastes of others, I put together a little comparison chart featuring the box office stats of the year, as well as fan-voted “best of 1937” lists from IMDb and Letterboxd:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the biggest hit of the year and remains very popular with audiences, which is no big surprise since it is a Disney classic, after all.
Not every top-grossing film of the year has fared so well as the decades have passed. Snow White is the only film to appear on all three of the above lists. The Awful Truth, Stage Door, Lost Horizon, Easy Living and La Grande Illusion have risen in reputation with the film buffs of today, replacing many of the original top ten films. Aside from Lost Horizon, which was the 11th highest-grossing film of 1937, none of these new fan favorites even appeared in the top 20 box office numbers of the year.
Ticket sales aren’t the only measure of a film’s success, though. Let’s venture now to the Biltmore Hotel of Los Angeles, where the 10th Academy Awards were held on March 10, 1938 to celebrate the greatest film achievements of the previous year.
The Academy darling of the year was The Life of Emile Zola with ten nominations (the first film to receive so many!) and three wins — Outstanding Production, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Emile Zola director William Dieterle was beat out by The Awful Truth‘s Leo McCarey for the Best Director statuette, while star Paul Muni was trumped by Spencer Tracy of Captains Courageous.
Four awards were handed out for shorts:
- Best Live Action Short Film, One-Reel: The Private Life of the Gannets
- Best Live Action Short Film, Two-Reel: Torture Money
- Best Live Action Short Film, Color: Penny Wisdom
- Best Animated Short Film: The Old Mill
And of course, in a decade full of musicals, there had to be a Best Song winner. Harry Owens took home the prize for his composition “Sweet Leilani” from the film Waikiki Wedding, which starred Bing Crosby. Other nominees included “Remember Me” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, “That Old Feeling” by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” by George and Ira Gershwin and “Whispers in the Dark” by Frederick Hollander and Leo Rubin.
The 10th Academy Awards were notable for a couple of reasons:
- This was the last year that awards were handed out for Best Dance Direction and Best Assistant Director.
- The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award was handed out for the very first time, going to Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck went on to take home the Thalberg award twice more.
- This was also the first year that a color film (A Star is Born) received an Outstanding Production (aka Best Picture) nomination.
- Luise Rainer took home a trophy for her work in The Good Earth, making her the first actor to receive two Academy Awards, and the first actor to do so in consecutive years.
SCREEN STARS AND FAN MAGS
Knowing that Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy took home the top awards for acting at the 10th Oscars, my curiosity continued to snowball and I began to wonder who the top stars of the year were with audiences rather than with the academy. I (very unfortunately) don’t own any movie mags from 1937, but we live in a digital age, so I figured I might be able to find a couple online. Sure enough, The Internet Archive and MagazineArt.org, two of my go-to sites, were able to give me some digitized insight into the most popular stars of the year. Magazine covers can be a pretty good indicator of a star’s popularity, because magazines want to make money. They aren’t going to put someone on the cover if that person’s picture isn’t going to make the magazine sell!
Myrna Loy was quite the cover girl in 1937, appearing on the cover of Screen Album for 1937 with Warner Baxter, as well as on Modern Screen’s October cover with William Powell. On her own, Myrna covered April’s issue of Picture Play and September’s Photoplay.
Jean Harlow was another exceedingly popular cover girl of 1937, with her face gracing four covers. In May, Harlow covered both Picture Play and Photoplay (Picture Play on her own, Photoplay with Robert Taylor). She also appeared on the cover of Photoplay in March, and ended her summer with the August cover of Motion Picture magazine.
Also appearing on multiple covers throughout the year were Bette Davis (November’s Motion Picture and December’s Picture Play), Greta Garbo (January’s Motion Picture with Robert Taylor and October’s Picture Play on her own), Jean Arthur (March’s Motion Picture and September’s Picture Play), Joan Crawford (February and October’s issues of Photoplay), Madeleine Carroll (May’s Motion Picture and July’s Modern Screen), Jeanette MacDonald (June’s Motion Picture and July’s Photoplay), Simone Simon (February’s Motion Picture and July’s Picture Play), Marlene Dietrich (July’s Motion Picture and November’s Modern Screen), Luise Rainer (June’s Modern Screen and August’s Picture Play) and Shirley Temple (June and November’s issues of Photoplay).
Some of TMP’s favorites scored single covers, including Carole Lombard (January’s Picture Play), Irene Dunne (March’s Picture Play), Olivia de Havilland (April’s Motion Picture), Claudette Colbert (August’s Photoplay) and Loretta Young (December’s Photoplay).
Unsurprisingly, Fred and Ginger were also favorites of the fan mags, appearing together on the 1937 Summer Edition of Screen Album. Ginger covered the January and April issues of Photoplay on her own, as well as the September issue of Motion Picture.
While researching the films of the year, I was struck by some of the highly dramatic subject matter of the most popular and critically-lauded productions. Even in some of its comedies, 1937 was not a year of light and fluffy subject matter. Art frequently imitates life, and this was certainly the case with the films of 1937. (The University of Virginia hosts a site which features a detailed timeline of the events of the year, starting with Roosevelt’s second-term inauguration.)
A couple of disasters struck that year, not unlike the crime and fire of In Old Chicago. In January the Ohio River flooded, and major dust storms occurred in May and August across the midwest and west. May saw the death of 36 people in the Hindenburg explosion, and the death of ten more in a Memorial Day massacre in Chicago. In Old Chicago wasn’t directly inspired by any of these events, but audiences certainly would have seen reflections of their own society in the film during its theatrical run.
In addition to the over 4,000 strikes that hit the employment market, a second depression followed by another recession left many people out of work. By the end of 1937, the national unemployment rate was at about 20% — only four or five percentage points lower than it had been at its highest point earlier on in the Depression. This leaves no question as to why economic struggle was popular topic of the year in films like The Good Earth and One Hundred Men and a Girl.
Whether they reflected the struggles of their viewers or offered pure escapism for the audience, 1937 was certainly a year of wonderful films. What are your favorites of 1937? Share ’em in the comments section!