THE CONTENDER: Viva Villa! (1934)
Number of Nominations: 4 – Best Picture; Writing (Adaptation) (Ben Hecht); Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer); Assistant Director (John Waters)
Number of Wins: 1 – Assistant Director
Viva Villa! has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results to pop up are likely going to be for a chain of Taquerias or some other Mexican restaurant of the same name. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and wound up nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture. It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (needless to say, a different John Waters than the one you’re probably thinking of). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.
This was not Mr. Waters’ first crack at this award. He’d been nominated the previous year at the 6th Academy Awards, the first year for this short-lived category. Like a lot of categories in the early years of the Oscars, it seems as though there was a lot of figuring this thing out as they went along. That first year, Best Assistant Director appears almost like an Employee of the Month category. There were six winners and no fewer than 17 nominees, none of whom were recognized for a specific film. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the “nominees” were simply an all-inclusive list of every A.D. in Hollywood at the time.
For his work on Viva Villa!, if Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing the thing, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.
Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but odds are today most people know him, if at all, only as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder-filled exploits.
Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. When we do so violence on-screen, it usually involves whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. The filmmakers’ whip fetish comes back into play later when an incensed adult Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.
Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.
A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities but I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement. And odds are, most of the credit for that belongs to Academy Award winner John Waters.
Viva Villa! is available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.