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.


-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.


-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.


3 thoughts on “Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1938

  1. I’ve got a little different order at the bottom, but my top two are the same as yours and in the same order (I ranked Jezebel third). While I think Grand Illusion is probably the objectively better film, The Adventures of Robin Hood is by far the one I’d rather watch.

    And yes, while there’s certainly some dross in 1939’s nominations and some films that should have been put there, there are a bunch that could easily be winners in other years.

  2. Test Pilot sounds like a movie worth seeking out.
    I am inclined to move Jezebel up above Robin Hood simply because it is such a damn good movie. It presses all the right buttons for me, whereas Robin Hood, fun as it is, stray too far into silly land. There can be no discussion La Grande Illusion. It is a master piece.

  3. I’ve only seen »Jezebel«, »Robin Hood«, and »La grande illusion« – but on that limited basis I heartily agree with y’all in picking the french entry. Not too impressed by Mr Hood, though, that one is too ridiculous for me.

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