The Oscar Project 1935: Mutiny on the Bounty

1935-mutiny-on-the-bounty-posterRight from the beginning Mutiny on the Bounty feels like a big, sweeping epic. Hoist the mainsail! Scuttle the jib! Avast and such!

The magnificence of the HMS Bounty (albeit a small ship) would make anyone want to set sail for king and country. Using a mix of location sailing and process shots director Frank Lloyd gives a real scope of the vast ocean journey.

Clark Gable is back continuing his remarkable Hollywood run, this time as Fletcher Christian the leader of said mutiny. He was forced to shave his trademark mustache for the role as British sailors in in 1780s weren’t permitted facial hair. But even without the ‘stache he is, as usual, instantly charming and likeable, an apt foil to Charles Laughton’s callous authoritarian Captain Bligh.

The tension of the story builds well with floggings for even the slightest offense, even a keelhauling which unintentionally killed the man. By the time the mutiny arrives you sufficiently abhor Captain Bligh and understand the crew’s disdain.

“He doesn’t punish for discipline. He likes to see men crawl.” – Fletcher Christian

The Bounty is bound for Tahiti to obtain breadfruit plants. When they arrive the story takes on the feel of an old school island movie. The crew comes ashore to find tall palm trees, beautiful native women, white sandy beaches complete with flower garlands, tribal drums and ritual dances to welcome the visitors.

The two love stories, one between Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) and the island chief’s daughter Tehani (Movita) and the other between Fletcher Christian and Tahitian girl Maimiti (Mamo Clark) feel like a divergence from the main story. It comes across more like a ploy to inject a little romance into the drama. But as the story continues it does become more relevant.

After a 25 minute interlude the crew of the Bounty is back at sea on their return voyage to England.

Because the film’s title lets you know what’s coming I was right on the brink of yelling “Get on with the mutinying already!”

When Mr. Christian finally snaps it’s hard to imagine there would be a single man still loyal to Bligh but some do stand on ceremony and the fight ensues. Men are left with the choice of being jettisoned in a dinghy with Bligh or staying aboard as a member of the crew of the Bounty under the leadership of Fletcher Christian.

The story starts to bog down after the mutiny and sort of just drifts to an unsatisfying conclusion (no pun intended) although the performances across the board are engaging

I’m a huge fan of Spartacus and Charles Laughton’s performance in it as Gracchus is brilliant. He might be even better in this. He had won as best actor two years before Mutiny in the title role of The Private Life of Henry VIII. Just 35 when he made this film he wouldn’t receive another nomination for more than 20 years. It’s a shame he didn’t wind up with 3 or 4 statuettes on his mantle. He was a truly captivating actor.

In 1935 the Academy expanded their awards to 17 categories with a total of 12 films nominated for best picture. Among them were Les Misérables (also starring Charles Laughton as Javert) and Top Hat, my grandfather’s favorite film of all time (starring Fred Astaire).

Mutiny on the Bounty received 8 nominations, more than any film before. But it would only win the one for best picture. It is still the last movie to win best picture and nothing else.

This must have seemed like a bit of an upset. John Ford’s The Informer (which had 6 nominations) was the big winner of the night taking home 4 awards including actor (Victor McLaglen*), screenplay (Dudley Nichols) and score. John Ford also beat out Mutiny director Frank Lloyd. This was Lloyd’s fifth and final Oscar nomination of his career, having already won two (The Divine Lady and Cavalcade). This would be the first of Ford’s record 4 directing Oscars.

Mutiny is the first and still only time in Oscar history that three actors were nominated for the same film in the same category. Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone were all up for best actor. It might be why they introduced supporting actor and actress categories the very next year.

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*The Informer was one of 8 movies Victor McLaglen would make with John Ford and the only one that didn’t also star John Wayne. The last one they’d do together would be The Quiet Man in 1952 for which Ford and McLaglen would both be nominated (Ford won).

DVD available from Netflix

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