Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1938

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Several firsts occurred at the Academy Awards for the films of 1938. Frank Capra became the first three-time winner of Best Director, Spencer Tracy became the first back-to-back winner for Best Actor, and indeed this ceremony was the first of only two in which three of the four acting categories were repeat winners. There were also a couple of multiple nominees this year, in director Michael Curtiz and actress Fay Bainter, who’d end up winning for Supporting. We also had the first ever foreign language nominee for Best Picture in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. As noteworthy and groundbreaking as that was, the 30s would prove to belong to Capra, who would helm another Best Picture winner in You Can’t Take It With You.

-Ranking the Nominees-

The Citadel

-That The Citadel ended up in last for me is not all that big of a shock; the film never really surpassed its literary sources, and I said in the closer to my review of it that it seemed to be a mix of Arrowsmith and Anthony Adverse, while being only slightly better than those two films. So yeah, The Citadel ended up last, and I’m not in the least bit surprised by that.

Four Daughters

Four Daughters also seemed destined for the bottom of the pile, even before I actually watched it; this seemed to be one Deanna Durbin away from being yet another Deanna Durbin film up for this award. Then I watched it, and couldn’t get over how unabashedly intelligent the film exuberantly expressed itself as, like the film was smarter than you and better at writing than you and wanted to absolutely make sure that you knew it. Even the more dramatic territory it tried to dip into in the last section didn’t seem warranted. All of it really seemed like it was just to show off everything that it could, so that it could get a bunch of awards, or at least nominations, and I guess it succeeded. But it really shouldn’t have.

Boys Town

Boys Town falls into much of the same territory as the first two off my list; it’s okay, but nothing special, and ‘okay but nothing special’ really shouldn’t be up for Best Picture, even dealing with an expanded category. Tracy and Rooney make it what it is, but even they aren’t really worth the price of admission; Tracy is basically just warm and fuzzy and little more, and Rooney is, well, Rooney. Watched it, scratched it off the list, and moved on.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

-The Academy likes musicals, so the nomination for Alexander’s Ragtime Band seemed obligatory, especially when you look at the other nominees and, with the possible exception of Four Daughters, realize there isn’t a musical among them. It’s pretty good, and enjoyable, which is why it ended up above the other films it ended up above. But that’d really be it. Give the category size a trim, and this would absolutely leave the fold.

You Can't Take It With You

-Eventual winner You Can’t Take It With You is technically ending up below the fold for me, and it’s actually not because it’s a poor film, though I wasn’t all that huge a fan of it. For once, it’s because the other remaining films are better, which says quite a bit about those films, but also just as much about this one. The 30s absolutely belonged to Capra, but for this one year, maybe he could’ve settled for just the nomination, because this really shouldn’t have won the big one.

Pygmalion

-All I knew about Pygmalion going in was that it was the pre-musical basis for My Fair Lady, and that star Leslie Howard was also the co-director of it. I came out of it fairly impressed, especially at how British a film it was, in a good way. There’s a lot to it, and it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which is more that can be said for many of the other nominees for this award, even among this year. This one can stick around.

Jezebel

-The nomination of Jezebel could be seen as largely a nomination for Bette Davis, and indeed she’d end up winning her second statuette for Best Actress. But Jezebel the film actually has more going for it than just Davis; it’s smart, and not overbearingly so like Four Daughters, and it knows what it needs to be and doesn’t try to be more than that. It’s honorable, and that wins it points with me that it otherwise wouldn’t have. I’m pretty pleased it ended up as high as it did, but I wouldn’t put it any higher, as redundant as that statement is.

Test Pilot

Test Pilot is director Victor Fleming’s foreshock before the veritable earthquake that he gave Hollywood the following year, and you know what; even for a foreshock, this still has a heck of an impact. I went into it thinking it would be largely riding the coattails of first Best Picture winner Wings; I came out of it amazed at how mature and forward-progressing it was for dramatic films, especially the script. Sure, the aerial sequences aren’t enough to get in a twist about, but the film more than makes up for its technical shortcomings with how well-written and well-performed the actual material is. That it is ending up third in my rankings says a lot, both about this one and about the films above it.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

-My rewatch of The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be, given how I’d reacted to it when I first saw it for the 1001 list. But, I kept with it, and by the end, I couldn’t say that I hadn’t still had a good time even though I’d already seen the film. There’s a certain magic to Robin Hood, a cavalier sense of whimsy about the adventure it gives us, that’s almost infectious; the film knows it has to be a little bit over-the-top for it to work, so it channels that energy to keep it from going way too over, and coupled with the charms of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, not to mention some gleefully colorful cinematography, and you’ve got a film that can stand the test of time and influence countless other films that will come after.

Grand Illusion

-We’ve got an interesting conundrum here. Grand Illusion was technically a 1937 film, but is included in this field of nominees by virtue of not having an American premiere until 1938. Technically, this should be among last year’s flock, but according to Academy rules, it ended up here, and since I am merely ‘Ranking the Nominees’ I’m given, then I’m putting Grand Illusion at the top here, and not even flinching about it; that this is the first foreign language nominee for the big one should say a lot about the response this managed to get even in America, and it was absolutely well deserved. Jean Renoir would up his game with 1939’s La Regle du Jeu, but Grand Illusion is just solid, solid entertainment, while also being a technical masterwork nearly if not on par with Renoir’s follow-up. The Academy probably figured that this one had won enough just by being nominated, and for being the first foreign film to be so. I say nay; this should have won the award, hands down.

-What Should Have Won-

There’s not a whole lot released in 1938 that screams “how did this not get nominated”, especially given some of the films that did manage a nom. I can think of a few films that are at least somewhat conspicuously absent, though. Chief among them is the James Cagney vehicle, Angels with Dirty Faces, which managed one of Michael Curtiz’ two nominations for Best Director but didn’t manage a Best Picture nom even despite its swimming in the wake of Dead End’s nomination the previous year. Some would include Bringing Up Baby as well, though as an anti-fan of screwball comedies, I’m not sure I would be the one to do it. I’ll also throw in another Hitchcock potential, The Lady Vanishes, as Hitch would seem to be finally getting into the first of his prime periods of his career with it.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

If we’re going by release year, Robin Hood would get my default vote; among the actual nominees, though, it’s Grand Illusion with nary a second thought.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Some winners and some losers, as per usual, Academy. I’d say something about how you need to up your game for next year, but seeing as how next year is generally regarded as the greatest year in Hollywood history, I’ll hold off until we close out the 1930s proper.

Boys Town

Boys Town

There’s no such thing as a bad boy, I’m sure of that.

Director Norman Taurog seems to have an affinity for working with young casts in his films; first he wins Best Director and is up for Best Picture with Skippy, and now he’s up for both awards once again with Boys Town, a film headed by Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney in as best a manner as they can. Now, knowing what Taurog had to accomplish to get the performances he needed in Skippy, I hesitate to give him too much credit for what does work in Boys Town, since I’m unaware of what he had to do to make it work. Most of it, I suspect, is due to Tracy and Rooney basically being Tracy and Rooney, especially since the rest of the film seemed to be so manipulative in getting you to feel just what it wants you to feel, but, like I implied, Boys Town does ultimately work. If only just.

Spencer Tracy is Father Flanagan, who finds a new life purpose call to him after he receives a confession from an inmate on death row. Troubled by the poor state of the reformatory in town for young delinquents, he elects to start his own, founded on proper principles and the notion that no boy is a bad boy if given the chance. His idea quickly expands to become Boys Town, a small autonomous town built, run, and governed by the formerly-delinquent boys who come to live in it. Enter Whitey Marsh, who is sent to Boys Town by his convict brother Joe so Whitey will hopefully not end up like him, despite Whitey’s general purpose seeming to be exactly like his brother. Now it’s up to Father Flanagan and the boys of Boys Town to make sure Whitey ends up on the straight path, especially in the face of Joe’s escape from custody. I do kinda wish I had more to say about Boys Town other than ‘it’s fairly good, if you’re interested in seeing it’, but that pretty much sums up Boys Town. The only other comments I had towards the film were for the music, which was particularly on-the-nose 100% of the time (which grew kinda annoying as the film went on), and for Rooney, whose acting style consisted of mugging as much as possible for the other players, but it added the necessary amount of energy to the film where it otherwise would’ve stagnated, so I guess I can look past it. I’d also echo the sentiments of others in wondering exactly how Spencer Tracy ended up winning Best Actor for this, when all the role called from him was to have a warm heart, demeanor, and voice, which was something Tracy could’ve managed if he were missing all four of his limbs, but I haven’t seen all the nominees for Best Actor for 1938, so I can’t say whether or not Tracy really deserved it or if it was just a particularly weak year in the category.

Is this film really as good as to warrant five Oscar noms, of which two were wins, including Tracy, who became the first to win consecutive Best Actor Oscars? No, not really. Is it still worth a watch if you think you’d like to see it? Yeah, probably. That’s pretty much the mindset that Boys Town left me with; yeah, it’s okay, but I can’t really get myself into a twist over the film enough to really recommend it. I can’t speak for the entirety of Norman Taurog’s filmography, but that the man has no films on the 1001 list seemed to be the right call, as far as the two films of his I’ve seen have gotten me. Boys Town might be one of the good films of the 1930’s, but one of the best of the year? I’m not particularly sold on that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Four Daughters

Four Daughters

What have I done to deserve such daughters?

Four Daughters would seem to be a part of one heck of a year for director Michael Curtiz; he wrapped up two of the five nominations for Best Director for this and Angels with Dirty Faces (and, amazingly, not for The Adventures of Robin Hood), in a feat that would cause the Academy to alter the rules for Best Director nominations for years to come (indeed, the only director to manage the same feat since the Academy’s rules were lessened in the category is Steven Soderbergh in 2000). It would seem indeed that Curtiz has the skills and the knack for presenting them to warrant his double nomination… until one actually sits down to watch Four Daughters – then it appears to be just that: seeming. This, as it has in the past, comes with one of my more common caveats: it’s not that Four Daughters is a bad film, because it technically isn’t. But, that’s the thing; the film knows that it is technically a good film, and instead of rolling with it and letting it flow a natural course, decides to take charge and show off exactly how good a film it’s been trying to be.

The titular four daughters are the Lemp sisters; Emma, Thea, Kay, and Ann, each a part of a musical family led by their father, and each with their own talent to bring to the group. Each, it would seem, also has a potential suitor in the mix, and it’s the inter-mingling of potential suitors and the potential wives that are the four daughters that forms what amounts to the plot of this film. If that doesn’t sound very interesting, I wouldn’t blame you, but for what it’s worth, Four Daughters does do an admirable job of trying to make it interesting, even for those who would otherwise not be interested. Four Daughters the film ends up being what would happen when you take a decent director, Curtiz, give him a script that could be best described as “yet another ‘blank'”, not bother to fill in that blank, and then Curtiz goes and gives you 110% into the resulting film… resulting in this film. Granted, the third act goes to some surprisingly affecting areas, mostly due to how unexpected it was compared to the first two-thirds of the film, but even with this, everything involved with the production of the film comes off as being better than what the film itself really deserved, from Curtiz to the titular four-some, and even some of the supporting players, from John Garfield to May Robson. The interplay involved in the dialogue was also another highlight, having the characters bounce off each other to a ridiculous degree, as if the script couldn’t help itself and decided to go all out with it for lack of a better way to show off its own talents.

Here’s the thing that bothered me the most about Four Daughters; it was clever, sure, but not only did it know how clever it was (or was supposed to be), it felt inclined to show off how clever it was every five seconds or so, if not through the script or dialogue then through the incessant camera moves and framing setups (I assume to show off what a skilled director Curtiz is), or certain actions of the characters, which I assumed was to fill in the spaces where the film felt that another instance of clever dialogue might be a bit too much or improperly placed. There’s a very fine line between being genuinely smart, fresh, and innovative, and trying to manufacture the concept of being smart, fresh, and innovative, and Four Daughters is so far beyond that line that it has lost sight of the line entirely. It reminded me a lot of Stage Door; way too self-indulgent in the first parts, and then inserting some darker material that is very nearly undeserved given the lead-up to it, all to get the film to the climax it ultimately wanted the whole time. I don’t know if I’d give this a recommendation, even with the general consensus of this one ending up a slight bit higher than what I ended up with, but I will say at least that it’s not an entirely unworthwhile endeavor to sit through the scant hour-and-a-half of this one, mostly thanks to everyone bringing their best to a film and a story that otherwise wouldn’t have merited the effort. I don’t know if that would count as a win, but it’s certainly not a loss.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

That family of yours… Boy, they knock me for a loop!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thorough history with theater. Even with this, though, I’d never seen You Can’t Take It With You, either in the theater or on the screen. It seemed to be quite popular, seeing as I found multiple high school productions of this one on YouTube, so I was expecting a smart comedy-esque picture, thick with dialogue and feel-good sensibilities, especially since this film version would be helmed by Frank Capra, the current king of feel-good sensibilities in this chronological era of Hollywood. I dunno; maybe it was because I’ve been through several Capra pictures in a row, and thus the film’s charms ended up being somewhat diluted; maybe it was because of the theatrical background of the script, that the film appeared to hit every note exactly as it should’ve, almost too exactly; or maybe it was just because the film seemed to try a little too hard, but this film… well, it was just a tad too much of whatever it was trying to do at any given time.

Tony Kirby, son of the illustrious banker Anthony Kirby, finds himself in love with one of his father’s company’s secretaries, Alice Sycamore, who unknown to Tony has quite the extensive and multifaceted family, full of quirks and eccentric talents. Also unbeknown to Tony is the fact that Alice’s family lives on the last unsold property in a 12-property block that his father needs to isolate a competing company and put them out of business. Naturally, when Tony wants to marry Alice, she insists their families should meet, and if you’ve seen any sort of comedies from basically any era of Hollywood, you know how well that’s going to end up going down. I will say, after the aimlessness of Lost Horizon, it was certainly nice to see Frank Capra back to form, though it might’ve been thanks to the theatrically-sourced screenplay. All the Capra touches of wholesomeness and Americana are here, with plenty of oddball moments with the Sycamores to make you chuckle and smile and gee-willikers aren’t they just a hoot of a family to watch. Comedy can be a really fickle beast if it isn’t handled right; what can make something genuine and funny can also, if the line is toed a little too far, end up being mildly insufferable for directly trying to be genuine and funny. You Can’t Take It With You, if it doesn’t cross that line fully, does have plenty of moments that absolutely toe that line, which means the film has unfortunately not aged as well as some of Capra’s other pictures. That being said, viewed from the perspective of an audience from 1938, it’s certainly enjoyable, probably and especially because of its theatrical background, and Capra does do a good job of translating the dialogue and event-based action of the theater to the screen. That, and the ensemble cast is excellent all around, I suspect thanks to their commitment to the material and making it work as well as they can.

This has its moments, the ones that work, but this also has plenty of those other kind of moments, the ones that make you wish they’d held off a little bit so the moment could’ve worked instead of being a tad too far. Most of the former kind comes in the resolution act of the film, as well it should, and most of the latter comes in the middle section, which means that most people will have to suffer through the middle section to get to the better portions of the ending, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion for a typical Hollywood film of this time. That You Can’t Take It With You falls into this category instead of avoiding it or transcending it, to me, doesn’t make it a Best Picture winner, or rather it shouldn’t, seeing as this did win the top prize as well as Best Director for Capra, his third in five years. This was fine, as almost all Capra pictures are, but “fine”, even a Capra fine, shouldn’t be enough to take home the big one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Pygmalion

Pygmalion

She’s so deliciously low… so horribly dirty.

Even despite his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, I don’t know much about Leslie Howard. Apparently, he was rather well regarded in the 30s, even fielding two Oscar nominations for Best Actor before his conspiracy-laden death in the mid 40s during WWII. The second of those nominations came for this, Pygmalion, which he also co-directed, so he would certainly seem to be a man capable of wearing many hats. Now, theater and film aficionados will be quite familiar with the title of Pygmalion, a George Bernard Shaw theatrical play that went on to become the basis for the musical (and later 1964 film adaptation) My Fair Lady. Countless people have doubtlessly seen the later version starring Audrey Hepburn, but I’d imagine much fewer have taken the time to see the original. Really, though, that’s quite a shame; this version is actually pretty good, especially if one is able to take to the British style of writing and humor used to an almost dizzying effect here.

Leslie Howard is Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who finds a young flower-seller, dirt poor and dirt covered, and through a fortuitous series of verbal repartee with a friend, decides to take her in and teach her everything he knows in order to transform her into a proper English lady. There’s little more to the plot than that; the film is really about verbal wit and the characters that employ it to and against each other, namely in Higgins and the flowergirl Eliza Doolittle. The script, adapted by Shaw himself from his own play, knows its characters like the back of the author’s hands, and it’s thanks to Shaw’s writing skill that the film and the characters come across so well-rounded on the screen. The film, in addition to being smartly written, has a sense of humor to it that’s, for lack of a better word, cracking; this is a British comedy in every sense of the burgeoning genre, and considering I hadn’t thought much of the film before I started it, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself snickering rather often during the film’s short running time. The rest of the film’s production was also quite skilled, from the capable and often inventive direction and camerawork to the acting by Howard and especially Wendy Hiller as Eliza.

What I think makes Pygmalion ultimately work as a whole, as opposed to being too much of something or too smug for its own good, is that it knows exactly what kind of film it needs to be, and makes the effort to be exactly that, and not any more or any less. It’s smart, and smart enough to know how to not be too smart, and although the film does have an ambiguously pseudo-happy ending tacked on against the wishes of Shaw, the film is still skilled enough to get the story it wants told across, which is more than a lot of other films of the era can say that they’ve done. This impressed me, and again, that’s more than I can say about a lot of other Best Picture nominees in the same fold, so I was especially thankful for this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Test Pilot

Test Pilot

It was a thrill to see you come out of the sky. It’ll be a greater one to see you disappear in it.

After my rewatch of Captains Courageous turned out as well as it did, I got a little excited when I found out that Test Pilot was also directed by Victor Fleming, just one short year before he’d go on to have one of the best directorial years in Hollywood history. It also stars Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy, so goddang by golly does this one have some heavy hitters in all aspects of it. In my usual bit of research, I got the impression that this one would have some of the best aerial sequences put to film since Wings, which I was looking forward to even without Test Pilot being set in a war (which, to mention, was something to be thankful for). While the flying sequences were certainly well done, if a little transparent with how they managed to film most of them, where the film really succeeds is by taking its own high-flying premise and seeing what happens when you look at it with your feet planted squarely on the ground.

Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a renowned test pilot for plane prototypes, where his job is to push the planes he flies as far as they can reasonably be handled, and then further than that. In one instance, he is poised to set a new coast-to-coast flying record, but his plane begins to dump oil and he’s forced to land it somewhere in Kansas. Here lives Myrna Loy, who houses Gable until his crew, chiefly his main mechanic and devoted best friend Spencer Tracy, can make it there to fix the plane, and as things are wont to happen, the two fall in love over the course of a single day. However, Loy’s young farmgirl soon comes to realize: the only thing that may be more stressful and harrowing than being a test pilot, pushing yourself and the high-flying machines you operate to and past their limits, is being married to a test pilot. After the film got going, a lot of things surprised me about it. For one, for a film called Test Pilot, I was surprised at how much of the film didn’t deal with planes and flying, opting to give us the aerial sequences in sustained bursts spaced quite a bit apart instead of all together or throughout the two-hour running time. I was also surprised at how much of the script consisted of the main trio cracking wise at each other (which they did as well as any other), which made me feel that films like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep, both done by Test Pilot screenwriter Howard Hawks, were absolutely only a few years away. What surprised me the most, however, was somewhere in the middle, during one scene with Loy and Tracy talking to each other about Gable, when the film dropped the cracks and got pretty damned serious, and alarmingly affecting as a result. This film isn’t about the dangers of being a test pilot, or the thrill of adventure that calls to pilots like Gable’s Jim Lane; it is about how the dangers of being a pilot and the call to adventure that Lane answers to an almost reckless degree affect the people who truly care about him – best friend Tracy and partner Loy. All three stars have rarely been better in a script that really knows how each character affects the others, in both good ways and very negative ways, and by the end, I was impressed as hell with the overall film.

You might think you know where the film is headed only twenty or thirty minutes into it. You would be right; the film does end up pretty much how you’d expect a film like this to end up. What you absolutely will not expect is how the film manages to get to the end, and for a film made near the end of the 1930s, I was amazed at how mature and forward-thinking the screenwriting was, and equally amazed that it all came across the screen so well, thanks to the main stars. This picture will wallop you, mostly because a picture like this, for when it was made and released, really comes out of nowhere with how effective, and affecting, it actually is. Kudos to Victor Fleming, writer Howard Hawks, and the stars of the film; I was expecting this to be particularly thrilling and with maybe half as much backbone in-between the flying sequences, but man was I not expecting what I actually got with this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Citadel

The Citadel

Thank God… I’m a doctor!

So, I was a bit hesitant to dive into The Citadel, to say the least; it’s based on another supposed classic novel, and proudly announces this by having the film’s title represented on the cover of a large book on several of the film’s posters, and seeing how well “classic” literary adaptations have gone over with me so far on this Best Picture odyssey, it really shouldn’t surprise me too much that I’ve been putting this one off as much as I have. Well, having finished it now, it wasn’t necessarily worth me putting it off the way I did, but neither is it really worth going out of your way to see. All in all, it has its positive qualities, but unfortunately it shares a few negative ones with prior literary Best Picture nominees, and even with King Vidor as director, it doesn’t manage to escape from under these influences.

The Citadel is the story of Andrew Manson, a newly minted doctor who is granted a position as an apprentice to a doctor in a Welsh mining town, where he quickly becomes interested in the recurring cough plaguing the miners for years and tries to use his idealism to solve the problem. The miners, however, take offense to Manson’s refusal to capitulate to them by not giving them the near-placebo medicines they want, and end up trashing the lab Manson had set up to try and figure out how to combat the illness. His idealism shattered, he moves to London and falls in with the crowd of doctors he had been trying his whole career not to be, until a tragedy comes to affect him and hopefully set him back on the proper course. I think the best way to look at The Citadel is to see what the film’s selling points are, and how well they hold up. First off is the star Robert Donat, who was nominated for this role (and, largely, I suspect solely for the closing speech his character gives at the end of the film), and who does an admirable job of, well, being admirable and charming, but it works, especially given the British setting of the film. Second is King Vidor and his steady hand at much of the proceedings of the film, and though I’ve definitely seen better work from Vidor, I still appreciated his managing to take another semi-obscure (for the modern era) literary source and make something salvageable from it. So, why does it seem that I’m so tepid in regards to trying to come up with things to praise about the film? Well, because I am; this film, even though it wasn’t technically bad, still managed to fall under the class of “nothing films” that plague the nomination fields of Best Picture from this era. There was no point to sit down and watch this for, other than it got nominated for Best Picture, and again, while it wasn’t really poor, there was nothing at all to make it stand out and get one to say ‘Wow, am I glad I saw that movie’.

It’s the literary source, I suspect, that is where most of the problems with this film really lie. The Citadel comes across as some kind of strange mix of parts of Anthony Adverse, with the literary sources and focus on the main character as he tries to live his life, and Arrowsmith, with the film’s narrative focusing on the medical field and the main character’s desire to right the wrongs he finds present in the field as such. It’s thus a bit of a surprise that The Citadel manages to be better than both of those two films, if only slightly, but still, the weight of the source material’s shortcomings seemed, to me, to be too much for Donat, Vidor, and the film itself to overcome, try as they might. This is unfortunately just another box to be checked off the checklist, and it saddens me to put it that way, for all the film’s effort to actually be fairly good. Oh well; moving on, then.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10