Next on my quest to WATCH EVERY BEST PICTURE NOMINEE EVER!!! I’ll be reviewing the 10 films nominated for 1938. The 11th annual Academy Awards were held on February 23rd, 1939.
Warner Bros. – 1hr 42min
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
NOTES: Based on various stories of the English folklore hero Robin Hood. • Carl J. Weyl won the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Color. • Ralph Dawson won the Oscar for Best Film Editing. • Erich Wolfgang Korngold won the Oscar for Best Original Score. • The 3rd of 8 films to pair Errol Flynn with Olivia de Havilland. • There are many film and television versions of Robin Hood including the 1922 silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves(1991) with Kevin Costner. • “Golden Cloud”, the horse that Maid Marian(de Havilland) rides in the film, would eventually be purchased by Roy Rogers and renamed Trigger.
PROS: It’s just damn fun!! Pure unadulterated fun. • Errol Flynn as Robin of Locksley aka Robin Hood. He is now of course synonymous with Robin Hood(and adventure films in general) and for good reason. The guy is just ridiculously charming in this film. And he can somehow pull off tights and glitter and maintain his masculinity. And he gets to utter wonderful phrases such as “There goes a lusty infant!” • Technicolor at it’s finest. If you need an example of the wonders of technicolor(and you don’t have The Wizard of Oz(1939) handy), look no further than this. A standout use of Technicolor is the archery tournament scene with the flags and tents in myriad colors. • The supporting cast is delightful. Claude Rains at his prissy best portraying Prince John. Alan Hale, Sr.(Father to Alan Hale, Jr. better known as the “Skipper” on TV’s Gilligan’s Island) reprising his role from the silent version as Little John. Herbert Mundin(Munch) is a walking Disney cartoon character! He gets quite a bit of screen time too. Basil Rathbone(Sir Guy of Gisbourne) always makes for a great villain. He had already dueled with Flynn in Captain Blood(1935). And Eugene Pallette as the gravel-throated Friar Tuck fits in perfectly with the rest of the merry men. • Marion: “You speak treason!” Robin: “Fluently.”
CONS: The score, while for the most part fantastic, hardly ever lets up. There is only one scene I remember that didn’t have score(i.e. King Richard‘s clandestine visit to Kent’s Road Tavern). It’s just a lot… and it can get in the way of the dialogue at times. Though I shouldn’t whine too much about it seeing as how it was a huge influence on George Lucas who requested that composer John Williams fill Star Wars(1977) and it’s subsequent sequels to the brim with “Korngold score”. Something we are all grateful for. • Olivia de Havilland and Patric Knowles(Will Scarlett) aren’t given much to do with their respective roles. • Some poor day-for-night shots.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from the late great Roger Ebert over at rogerebert
20th Century Fox – 1hr 46min
DIRECTOR: Henry King
GENRE: Musical-Showcase/Comedy/Love Triangle
NOTES: Written by and featuring many songs of Irving Berlin. • Based loosely on actual events involving the evolution of Jazz music. • Alfred Newman won the Oscar for Best Music-Scoring. • The second film in as many years to feature the trio of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche. The other being In Old Chicago(1937) • The 3rd of 11 team-ups between Power and Henry King.
PROS: The set design is well done. I particularly like the entrance to “Dirty Eddie’s” and the interior of the “Ship Cafe”. • There is some deft camera work. Rather than the same old static shots you’d expect for the interior scenes, the camera slides into multiple positions to cover the dialogue of various actors. • Alice Faye(Stella Kirby) is fantastic here. She really steals the spotlight from her two male co-stars. She’s also very funny: “Is that plain fancy pants?”. • I really sympathized with Charlie(Don Ameche). He’s just a very cool-headed, rational, all around nice dude! I thought the way he handled the divorce(probably the best scene in the film) was a beautiful thing. If only everyone could be so altruistic. • There is a great tracking shot of an army recruiting band playing on the back of a moving truck. It’s very short but I loved the angle of it. • The intro to “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” is very clever! I won’t ruin it. • “I like ragtime, I believe in it.” A good line at the right spot! • Ethel Merman(Jerry Allen) really shines in this film. She rocks all her numbers especially “Pack Up Your Sins, And Go To The Devil”.
CONS: Not much of a plot here. It really just exists to get from one song to the next. • I am not the biggest Tyrone Power(Alexander) fan. I get it. He’s handsome. But so far his acting abilities have not won me over. Also, this is the second film I’ve seen where he comes off as somewhat of a creep! (see: In Old Chicago(1937)) • The join-the-army sequence was a bit ridiculous. And of course it featured the ubiquitous quick-cut musical montage.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Cliff over at immortalephemera
MGM – 1hr 36min
DIRECTOR: Norman Taurog
GENRE: Drama/Heartfelt/Morality Tale
NOTES: Based on the life of Edward J. Flanagan. • Spencer Tracy won the Oscar for Best Actor, his second in as many years. The other being for Captains Courageous(1937). • Eleanore Griffin and Dore Schary won the Oscar for Best Writing-Original Story. • A sequel was made in 1941 entitled Men Of Boys Town.
PROS: Probably the perfect introduction to Mickey Rooney(Whitey Marsh) that you can get if you ever needed to explain him to anyone. The film goes a little screwball comedy when Whitey first arrives at Boys Town and Mickey gets to show off his physical comedy skills. • The incident with Pee-Wee(Bobs Watson) in the middle of the film is jarring. And you find yourself wondering just how far Taurog is going to take it. The subsequent shots of Tracy(Father Flanagan)and the procession that follows him are certainly powerful. • I enjoyed Henry Hull’s performance as Dave Morris, shop owner and Father Flanagan‘s first and most loyal benefactor. The scene where he’s bargaining with his own money is fun. “You mind if I throw you out now?”. • Surprised by how similar Whitey‘s campaign tactics are to President-elect Donald Trump’s. Basically “I’m the best, so vote for me!” • “I like the Yankees”… “You would!”.
CONS: You can smell the trouble with the movie from the start. The opening scene is way too melodramatic as Dan(Leslie Fenton) pleads with Father Flanagan. Even the music hits that sickly sweet level, telling you exactly how to feel. • The motivations and details of building the school are just completely glossed over. Flanagan has almost zero trouble in securing the funds he needs. Flanagan just ho-hums his way through his financial obligations and other than a minor argument with Mr. Hargraves(Jonathan Hale), there never seem to be any stumbling blocks in his way. • Even the gorgeous brick main building is seemingly built in a day by the hands of the boys themselves. It’s an eye-roll moment to be sure. • I like how Whitey‘s brother Joe(Edward Norris) tells him to walk back home. Walk back?! You just shot him in the leg for crying out loud! • That whole bank robbery scene feels too contrived.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Aubyn over at thegirlwiththewhiteparasol
MGM/Denham Studious(UK) – 1hr 50min
DIRECTOR: King Vidor
GENRE: Dra-medy/Medical breakthrough
NOTES: Based on the novel by A.J. Cronin. • Apparently there was a bit of an uproar in Britain that Rosalind Russell, an American, was chosen to play the role of Christine Barlow. • Rosalind Russell refers to a guinea pig as “Clara”. This is something Russell would do in many films as a tribute to her sister and mother who were both named Clara.
PROS: A very intense(and graphic for the time) birth scene. • Some nice transitions from sets to stock footage. • Lots of great frame composition. • Ralph Richardson(Dr. Philip Denny) gives a very loose and charming performance. I had only known Richardson from his role as the Supreme Being in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits(1981). • I love the whistling bike ride that Dr. Manson(Robert Donat) takes after blowing up the well. • There are some realistic moments of over-lapping dialogue which was probably a mistake but Vidor left them in. • The skeptical District Nurse(Elliott Mason) “why don’t you feed him the glass slides!”. • Dilys Davies is delightfully evil as Mrs. Page. “Sacked!!” • I love Manson‘s terribly English marriage proposal to Christine from outside her bedroom window: “You wouldn’t marry me would you?” • I always enjoy the theme where the protagonist sells his ideals and it takes a tragedy to bring him back to his senses.
CONS: A bit confusing at the beginning as to the setting • Christine relates the story about the men destroying the slides. I thought it would have been much more dramatic to have shown that scene. • Yet another courtroom scene to end a film. I generally find these to be very dull. • The film loses some steam when they get to London.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: contemporary review from Frank Nugent over at nytimes
First National/Warner Bros. – 1hr 30min
DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
NOTES: Based on the hard-to-find novel Sister Act by Fannie Hurst. • There were two sequels featuring the Lane Sisters: Four Wives(1939) which was also directed by Curtiz and Four Mothers(1941). • The Lane Sisters, Claude Rains and John Garfield also teamed up with Curtiz for Daughters Courageous(1939). • Remade as Young At Heart(1954) with Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.
PROS: The opening camera move is impressive as it cranes from outside into the living room. • I didn’t recognize Claude Rains as the father Adam Lemp at first. He gives another good performance here and somewhat different from what I was use to seeing from him. “It’s my blood pressure.” • I like how each of the girls has a defined personality. For instance Thea(Lola Lane) is the spunky joker, whereas Kay(Rosemary Lane) is the lazy daydreamer. • The whole film feels progressive, more like a film out of the 40’s or 50’s. Even down to the music. It reminded me of a sitcom at times. • I like the awkward dinner scene with Mr. Crowley(Frank McHugh). He reminds me a bit of Jon Lovitz here. The interrupted prayer bit was funny. • Enter Mickey Bordan(John Garfield) to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings and almost expose a not-as-innocent-as-she-seems Ann(Priscilla Lane).
CONS: Too many moments where you are left wondering what the point is! Takes a while before it clearly becomes Ann‘s movie. • There is not really enough time to develop any believable relationships.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from David Fiore over at letterboxd
La Grande Illusion (1937)
World Pictures(France) – 1hr 54min
DIRECTOR: Jean Renoir
GENRE: WW1/Prison escape/Anti-war
NOTES: Co-written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak. • Renoir served as French aviator in the First World War. • This was the first foreign(not US or British that is) film to be nominated for Best Picture. • The film was banned by both Mussolini and Goebbels in Italy and Germany respectively. And the print was lost for nearly a decade.
PROS: The acting on all counts. • Lieutenant Maréchal‘s(Jean Gabin) blasé attitude to imprisonment. “Streng verboten.” • Captain Boeldieu(Pierre Fresnay) and Rittmeister von Rauffenstein‘s(Erich von Stroheim) professional courtesy towards each other. • Language and language barriers play a huge part in this film. I enjoyed the early scene where Rauffenstein hosts his prisoners. The way the language flows reminds me of scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds(2009). • The movie is quick and to the point. It doesn’t waste time with endless action scenes(or any action scenes really) that so many war movies feel the need to insert. • A great script for idle chatter as the POW’s have nothing but time. • I love the moment when the can lands on the pillow.
CONS: The themes are subtly presented but almost too much so. I would have preferred a little more soliloquizing, although we do get a couple nice scenes between Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein. • The fact that the prison guards are so nice to the prisoners is part of the point but it removes any sense of empathy for the prisoners. Only in the scene where Maréchal is put in solitary confinement can we truly feel bad for anyone’s treatment.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Peter Cowie over at criterion
Warner Bros. – 1hr 43min
DIRECTOR: William Wyler
GENRE: Period piece/Costume drama/Love triangle
NOTES: Based on the play by Owen Davis, Sr. • Tallulah Bankhead was originally going to play the role of Julie but fell ill during pre-production. • Bette Davis won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Her success pegged her for the similar role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind(1939) but producer David O. Selznick did not consider her “suitable”• Fay Bainter won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. • Wyler and Davis allegedly fell in love during filming.
PROS: An impressively lengthy opening tracking shot. The camera tracks behind a row of vendor carts on a New Orleans street and the frame is always packed with all sorts of detail for the entire duration of it. • This film is all about Bette Davis'(Julie) performance. She’s an absolute powerhouse and bona fide movie star. From the moment she waltzes in dressed in her riding gear, much to the chagrin of her Aunt Belle(Fay Bainter), she completely takes control of the movie. Anytime we aren’t with Davis, the movie suffers. • That red dress. “Saucy isn’t it?” The movie spends a significant portion of the film on the dress and the stir it’s likely to cause. Reminded me of the the J-Lo dress incident which kicked off the 21st century. Some things never change. • Some nice cinematography during the dance sequence, after everyone leaves Julie and Pres alone on the dance floor. • I was impressed by the use of regional accents. • I enjoyed Lew Payton as Uncle Cato. He shares a nice moment with Preston “Pres” Dillard(Henry Fonda) where they share some mint juleps. • Buck Cantrell(George Brent) drops the line “young jackass” in reference to Ted(Richard Cromwell). This a year before Clark Gable’s famous “I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With The Wind. I found that interesting considering the similarities between the two films. • The final images are pretty powerful with the wagon loads of dead bodies and our main characters on their way to certain doom. • “She’d think there’d be snakes.” That line sounded familiar to me and it took me too long to remember that Catherine O’Hara repeats it in For Your Consideration(2006).
CONS: Like so many movies of the time, the head strong female lead loses all her resolve when the threat of losing her man becomes too real. And of course once she finds out Preston has married to that “washed out little yankee”, she becomes not so much strong-willed as petty which of course leads to her downfall. • Maybe too much foreshadowing of the yellow jack fever. It becomes quite obvious early on that at least one of our main characters is going to contract it at some point.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Justine Smith over at nextprojection
General Film Distributors(UK) – 1hr 36min
GENRE: Comedy/Farce/Love story
NOTES: Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw which in turn is based on the Pygmalion character of Greek mythology. • 1956 the play was adapted into a musical entitled My Fair Lady which of course led to the famous 1964 film with Katherine Hepburn. • George Bernard Shaw, Cecil Lewis, and Ian Dalrymple won the Academy Award for Writing(Adapted Screenplay). • The film was edited by a young David Lean.
PROS: The language. And that includes the swearing! “damn, damn, damn!” “You ass!” “Not bloody likely”. But there are some great lines which mostly come from Professor Henry Higgins(Leslie Howard): “Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.” Love it! And another: “I find that the moment I let a woman make friends with me, she becomes jealous, exacting, and a confounding nuisance!” • Howard’s performance is something to behold. It is so exaggerated. It reminded me of a Jim Carrey performance. • Wendy Hiller as Eliza Doolittle gives it 110%. She’s very funny. And real; that bathtub scene is hard to take even here in 2017. I can’t imagine what viewers thought of it back then. I love her scene where she’s attempting to fit in with the upper crust but her slang starts to creep out once she exhausts the ready made phrases she’s been taught by Higgins. “Somebody pinched it… so-they-say.” And she delivers the most heart-breaking line: “I sold flowers, I didn’t sell myself.” • My favorite performance actually comes from Wilfrid Lawson as Alfred Doolittle. It’s brilliant. And that laugh he does is phenomenal • The musical score stood out quite a bit compared to other films of the 30’s. It’s quite comical at times, matching the action on screen. • The cinematography and editing feel very progressive and creative, most notably in the montage scenes where Eliza is receiving speech lessons. Complete with dutch angles, explosion wipes, and strange close ups(like that creepy bobble-head clown thing!). Really stands out amongst it’s peers. • I love the constables breaking up the kissing attempts of Eliza and the ridiculous Freddy(David Tree).
CONS: It’s no mistaking this as a play put on film. From some of the sets to the exaggerated performances of the actors. It’s all a bit too self-aware. • The ending, which is not the original ending in the play, does feel like a happy ending cop out. And doesn’t really make sense given the arc of Eliza‘s character.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Gary Morris over at brightlightsfilm
MGM – 1hr 58min
DIRECTOR: Victor Fleming
GENRE: Drama/Romantic Comedy
NOTES: Based on a story and co-written by formal naval aviator Frank Wead. • Director Howard Hawks also has a writing credit. • The second of three pairings between Clark Gable & Spencer Tracy; San Francisco(1936) and Boom Town(1940) • This was the 8th film that Gable & Myrna Loy appeared in together. The first being the 1925 silent Ben-Hur where they appeared as extras along with other soon-to-be stars. • Marjorie Main has a minor role in the film. She would come to fame later for portraying “Ma“ Kettle in several films.
PROS: Myrna Loy(Anne Barton) being Myrna Loy. She really shines in this picture thanks in part to a really good script. She gets to run the gamut of emotions and not just play the wise-cracker like she does in the Thin Man series. Although she does do a lot of wise-cracking here. “Should I faint on that one?” She has a lot of what Gable(Jim Lane) would call “little flirt” moments. Like when she informs him “You turn your head like a big bear” and proceeds to demonstrate. • Seeing the old pro, Lionel Barrymore(Drake) in action. So glad his career continued on into the sound era because he’s not only a great actor, but he’s also got a great voice. • The beautiful authentic airplanes. Especially the “Drake Bullet” which is modified racing version of the US Army’s P-35 • The special effects are impressive, most notably during the stormy flight early on and the final crash scene. Even a decent amount of blood! The full scale set of the wreckage would fit nicely on a backlot tour today • I really relate to Spencer Tracy’s character Gunner Morris. “Gunner don’t ever fall in love.” • I love Lane‘s reaction to the fact that Anne has impulsively gotten engaged just to spite him. “Alright, alright.”
CONS: Another rapid-fire dialogue picture that can at times become a little annoying. This takes place mostly in the first 30 minutes of the film between Loy and Gable. • The movie slows down substantially in the second half where many scenes become drawn out. I think it would have benefited from some tighter editing. • That said, some of the editing choices seem very rushed. • In one scene Gable kinda over does it on the drunk-acting.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Aubyn over at thegirlwiththewhiteparasol
Columbia- 2hr 6min
DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
GENRE: Comedy/Ensemble Farce/Class Warfare
NOTES: Based on the Pulitzer prize winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. • Frank Capra won the Academy Award for Best Director(for the 3rd time in 5 years). • One of three films that Capra made with Jimmy Stewart.
PROS: Capra’s framing is always good. He really cemented some film language that has lasted to this day especially in the works of Spielberg. • The ensemble cast is used effectively. Everyone seems to get their due time. There is a bit of the Addam’s Family vibe here(which debuted in 1938 coincidentally). • Lionel Barrymore(Martin Vanderhof) is the old pro. He brings an authenticity to every performance and this is no different. He manages to recite the “preachy” bits without coming off as holier than thou and his monologue about his widow was very touching. He’s also very funny at times. “He didn’t touch second!” • Seemingly real interiors. That or very impressive sets. • I really enjoyed Jean Arthur’s carefree performance as Alice. “What do you think I am, a goop?” • Mr. Poppins‘ impulsive leap into a new life. “The die is cast. I’m a lily!”. • I liked Clarence Wilson’s performance as the twitchy-eyed Mr. Blakeley. • The cat paperweight. • The little clocks in Paul‘s(Samuel S. Hinds) basement workshop singing “Whistle While You Work” and Tony(James Stewart) mentioning Walt Disney by name go to show the popularity of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs(1937). • A lovely scene between Alice and Tony on a park bench. It’s very realistic and very classic movie at the same time. • Mischa Auer shines in another character role as the dance instructor Mr. Kolenkhov. “It stinks!” It’s definitely a highlight to see him body slam A.P. Kirby(Edward Arnold). • I loved Penny‘s(Spring Byington) excitement at the arrival of the “J-men” and her subsequent incarceration.
CONS: Takes a little too long to get to the point. It’s obvious that the two plot lines of the Kirby‘s and Vanderhof‘s will collide but it just takes too long to get there. • Notice how Rheba(Lillian Yarbo) and Donald(Eddie Anderson) don’t have a seat at the utopian table in the end. • There is a bit too much moralizing here(such as the poor can do no wrong myth). It’s not that the points being made are wrong necessarily. Just glossed over and over-simplified. • Could have used some tightening up from the editing department.
BETTER REVIEW THAN MINE: from Robert Levin over at filmschoolrejects
Did the Oscars get it right?
This year is a little tough. You Can’t Take It With You suffers heavily in my opinion from pacing problems. It’s a fun light-hearted movie that doesn’t gag you with it’s message but it certainly could stand some trimming of the fat as it were. The Adventures of Robin Hood is pure entertainment and the film that I am sure I’ll revisit the most. It’s my favorite of the group but I can’t say it’s the best. Test Pilot, Jezebel, and The Citadel are classic Oscar fodder and maybe would stand a chance in a weaker year. Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Boys Town are forgettable. Four Daughters feels a little bit ahead of it’s time in almost-exposing the underbelly of teenage sexuality but ultimately it’s a bit too formulaic. That leaves the two outsiders. I think La Grande Illusion comes in at a close second. It has the most to say and deserves the most attention especially given it’s historical context but Pygmalion feels like a breath of fresh air when it comes to pacing and editing and the lead performances. It also has the best screenplay by far(despite a change to the original ending).
Here are some well reviewed films eligible that year which weren’t nominated for Best Picture. I compiled the list from various sources and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they were snubbed or not. Have one to add? Let me know and I’ll list it. The ones I’ve seen are marked with an asterisk:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – dir. Norman Taurog
Alexander Nevsky – dir. Sergei Eisenstein
Algiers – dir. John Cromwell
Angels With Dirty Faces – dir. Michael Curtiz
The Baker’s Wife – dir. Marcel Pagnol
La Bête Humaine – dir. Jean Renoir
Block-Heads – dir. John G. Blystone
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife – dir. Ernst Lubitsch
Bringing Up Baby – dir. Howard Hawks
The Cowboy And The Lady – dir. H.C. Potter
Flowers Have Fallen – dir. Tamizo Ishida
Holiday – dir. George Cukor
The Lady Vanishes* – dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Marie Antoinette – dir. W.S. Van Dyke
The Masseurs And A Woman – dir. Hiroshi Shimizu
Olympia – dir. Leni Riefenstahl
Port Of Shadows – dir. Marcel Carné
Suez – dir. Allan Dwan
You And Me – dir. Fritz Lang