The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1939

Since today is the birthday of the man who won this award, I figured it would be an optimal time to pick this one.

1939 is widely considered one of the best single years for movies in the history of Hollywood. You’ll understand why when we get to Best Picture, but just looking at the nominees here, you can get a pretty good understanding of why that is.

Best Picture went to Gone With the Wind, in one of the least exciting races and most deserving (if not most deserving) choices of all time. Best Director went to Victor Fleming, who was the director that lasted long enough on the film to receive the nomination. Really it was David O. Selznick’s film, but, we’ll get to the details of Best Director when we come to it. Best Actress went to Vivien Leigh — once again, probably the most deserving choice of all time there. I’m not even going to sugar coat who I’m voting for in these races. Gone With the Wind is in one of my top ten, if not top five, favorite films of all time, and, I think only a fool would argue against the brilliance that is the performance of Scarlett O’Hara. The interest when I go over them will be what else was nominated, because there is a tendency to just see — “Oh, Gone With the Wind,” and move on. There’s some great stuff nominated in the other areas as well. This wasn’t “the golden year for film” for nothing. Oh, yeah, Best Supporting Actor went to Thomas Mitchell for a little film called Stagecoach. Oh, yeah, The Wizard of Oz was up for Best Picture this year too. Just sayin’.

This specific race, however, leaves me feeling a bit — unsatisfied. Nothing against Mr. Donat, but, just look at who he was up against here. Also, I’m pretty sure this race goes down as one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history when they do those stupid news articles every year around Oscar season. I think I may understand why he won, but it still doesn’t change the fact that — look at what he was up against.


And the nominees were…

Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind

Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights

Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms

James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Donat — Robert Donat. You’d think this movie was his most famous role, but IMDB, clearly the source of all things, is saying that the role he’s most remembered for is The 39 Steps. He’s the guy taking the steps.

He’s a British actor who didn’t really make many films that were huge successes over here. Mostly because he was a stage actor who chose to stay in Britain during and after the war. He was an actor who was very reserved in his acting style, kind of like Gary Cooper. He preferred to keep his facial expressions minimal. Which makes sense why Hitchcock cast him, and why liked him so much he tried to get him back three more times — most notably in Rebecca (which went to Larry down there).

Anyway, in this film, he plays an English teacher, which I’ve heard described as “shy,” “stuffy,” and “withdrawn,” at an English boarding school — who speaks English. Just wanted to make that part as clear as possible — who basically ages about sixty years over the course of the film. Legit aging too. This actually is kind of impressive how they pulled it off. At the start of the film — it’s that usual flashback structure — he’s like 85 and in bed, dying, and flashing back to his life. And we see him, at 22, starting teaching. And he’s young and inexperienced. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the kids start making fun of him, which then makes him move into being disciplinarian. Which the kids then respect, but don’t like. And then this happens for a few years, until he goes off on a trip to the Alps. And during this designed interlude, he meets Greer Garson. It’s clearly one of those sequences the movie adds to give the movie a larger scope. He rescues her up in the mountains, and they get stuck, meet cute, and fall in love. And she teaches him how to live, because she’s one of those people that is just a force of life. Which means you know that bitch go’n die. So they go home, she teaches him how to be a better teacher (and stop being so introverted), and dies while giving birth to their child. He then decides to let all his students be his children. And he becomes a beloved teacher at the school, and becomes the unofficial mascot. He’s that teacher that’s been around so long everyone just loves him for being alive. And we see him aging–

Here’s Mr. Donat as he looks normally, and as a young Mr. Chips. (They call him Mr. Chips.)

Here’s a picture of him in his 30s when he marries Garson.

This is him in his 40s, after she dies.

This is him getting older.

And older.

And older.

And older. Same actor throughout. Impressive, no?

This is probably why he won the Oscar. He was able to act this same character over the span of 63 years. That and, there was probably a nice vote split among everybody else.

Still, this was a very good performance in a very, very good movie. I highly recommend checking out this movie. It’s not as boring as you’d think it would be going in. It’s movies like this that bolster that whole “best year in film” thing. It’s not the big guns, it’s the solid support from movies like this. Anyway, his performance was very good, and I can even see why he won. It’s just — there was one performance I liked better.

If you ever get the opportunity, check out this movie. You’ll be surprised at how worthy this performance actually is. Even though him winning does ultimately leave somewhat of a sour taste in your mouth, it’s not a bitter one.

(Note: This movie was remade exactly thirty years later and earned Peter O’Toole a Best Oscar nomination for the same role. Just a bit of trivia for you.)

Gable — I’m pretty sure we all know who Clark Gable is, so I can skip that part. I’m also pretty sure we know what the film is as well. So, let’s get into —

He played Rhett Butler. If you don’t know, which is possible, Rhett is basically the badass of the south. Not in the Clint Eastwood way, but in the, low down cad, way. The very first shot of him is him, standing at the bottom of a staircase at Scarlett, and her remarking, “He looks as though he knows what I look like without my shimmy.” Oh, but you have no idea. That role was basically written for Clark Gable. That’s his persona. Rhett is a rich dude who, at the beginning of the movie, is actually the voice of reason. All the men are like, “We’re going to war with the north, we’re gonna kick their asses,” and he’s like, “Are you fucking stupid? They have resources, they have a navy. They’ll block our ports and starve us to death before you know what hit you. Stop being warmongers and think of something that won’t get all of us killed.” Obviously, he was right. And he refuses to take part in the war, and instead, uses his money to be the rich dude that rolls around town in a carriage painted red, white and blue, while everyone else has cheap wood so that all the good stuff can go to the war effort. And he’s the guy wearing white while the rest of the town is wearing black while hearing about all their family members that were killed. And Rhett basically spends most of the movie trying to fuck Scarlett, while she’s like, “I don’t want you, I want Ashley,” who is her cousin’s husband. And he’s like, “Fine, I’ll wait for you,” and spends his time with a whore he becomes friends with. And once the war is basically over — the North has won and just needs to clean up — he goes, “I’m going to do my civic duty and enlist.” And leaves. Then, months later, he’s in prison because of a suspicious gold heist in his regiment. No one can pin it on him and the Northern officers who have him in jail are suspiciously winning lots of money off of him at poker games. So, he gets out, naturally, and hangs around, doing his thing. Scarlett keeps going back to him for help, knowing she’ll get it because he loves her. Then, finally, he marries Scarlett, and well — you know what happens by the end of the movie.

The thing about this character, and Gable’s portrayal of it, is how much it surprises you. Surely, the fact that he was in the movie of this scale and had such a big character to play is enough to earn this nomination, no matter how on-the-nose his casting was. But, as you watch the movie, at first you think, “Yeah, Gable could play this character in his sleep.” But, by the end of the film, once they  get married, that’s when Gable really shows his abilities. Once they have a child, you can see his discontent with Scarlett start to show. Which then leads him to focus all his energies into the child. And when Scarlett expects him to be the same old Rhett, we actually see that he’s now the devoted family man, and not the womanizer he used to be. But when dear old Bonnie Blue has that pony accident — oh man, Gable takes this shit to another level. He drinks, gets angry, actually ends up raping his wife at one point, then causes her to miscarriage accidentally — it’s actually a really powerful performance.

Gable’s performance in this movie is one I’d normally vote for hand’s down above the rest. The only problem, really, is that he’d won an Oscar already. He won for It Happened One Night in 1934, which isn’t a film a person would normally win a Best Actor for, but regardless of that — he still has one. So, that makes me shy away from voting for him again. Especially when there are two perfectly good alternatives to vote for. Still, this is a very good performance, and I don’t think I need to tell you to check out this movie. Not seeing this movie is like not seeing Citizen Kane. You know nothing about movies until you do.

Olivier — I think we all know who Larry is. Right?

This was Olivier’s first major starring role. He’d already became known as the best actor of his generation from his work on the stage, and now he was transitioning into film. This was the film that made him a mega-star around the globe. Which is funny, because his wife (not at the time, but…) just happened to be Miss Scarlett O’Hara.

This is another film that surprised the hell out of me because of how good it was. William Wyler directed the shit out of this movie. It looks gorgeous, and is shot like a noir, almost. Before noir even existed. I guess “romantic” would be the term that they used at this point.

The film is about two lovers that just get fucked over. That’s the best way to describe it. Larry is a poor farmhand, and Merle Oberon is a rich girl. And they fall in love, but no one will ever accept him into society. And she decides she’s going to run away with him, but circumstances prevail, and she gets bullied into running away, and he ends up overhearing the conversation, but only hears the part where she says she’s leaving him, not the part where she says, “I love him,” so he thinks she doesn’t love him, and they move on, and he becomes rich, and then comes back years later to flaunt his wealth around to make up for his broken heart and get back at the people who wouldn’t take him in earlier. But him coming back ends up killing her (back when women could die from things like broken hearts and worry), and they end up making amends and being in love for real when it’s too late. That’s the kind of story we’re dealing with here.

Larry plays Heathcliff, and basically it’s one of those sexually charged roles. He gets to be a heartthrob to an entire generation. Women see him, fall in love, swoon, the works. He gets to play the lead in a romantic tragedy. I thought he did fine in this role, it’s just — I never would vote for him. Not now. This performance — by his own account, too — is him transitioning from stage to film acting. He’s not quite the film actor we know him as. Next year, however, he’ll turn in a much more worthy performance. Here, the nomination will suffice. But definitely check out the movie though, it may be romantic and all, but as a film, it actually keeps you interested (and you know how hard it is to keep me interested in films based on classic literature), and looks stunningly good for a back and white of this era. Really — there are few films that look this good from this time.

Rooney — Mickey Rooney. What can you say about the man? He was 19 years old here. Dude’s still alive! He’s 90! This man is a national treasure.

Getting nominated for Best Actor at 19 means one thing — never gonna win. Especially here. Which is a shame. Love that he was nominated though. Never gonna vote for him. Just to get that out of the way now. Still, love that he got some recognition. He was nominated four times throughout his career, one here, one a couple years after this, once in the 50s and once in the 70s. This is a film he did with Judy Garland — who released some other tiny picture this year about a witch or something or other. The film is basically a “let’s put on a show” film. They’re all kids, and him and Judy are the sexually active of the bunch. Not really, but — it’s obvious. The kids are all 10, 12, 15, and him and Judy are the ones with the romantic subplot. They even bring in another girl to tempt him. It’s like Grease, only instead of Judy going biker chick she goes blackface. I’m not kidding. But I’ll get to that in a second.

They’re all kids, and there’s some kind of a play they’re putting on for whatever reason. One of the ones that only makes sense in a movie like this. “We’re gonna save the town!” or whatever it is. Oh, wait, I know. He’s the son of Vaudeville performers, and they go off to do their act somewhere else, and he’s not coming, for whatever reason — he’s “different” or “difficult” or something — and he decides, “fuck them, I can do this shit myself.” And gets all the kids to do their own show.

And Rooney is the leader of the group, the director of the play, and he’s like, “We’re gonna put on a show, here’s what it’ll be about,” and he runs around most of the time being director. It’s actually very entertaining, because he does impressions of other actors, like Gable and — I forget who else — but they’re all pretty spot on. You can see the energy he puts into the performance. It’s very praiseworthy. And they put on the show, which features this:

And if you didn’t think that was racist enough, apparently it was so successful, they did it in the sequel to this movie too!

Judy was in blackface a lot during her youth. Maybe that had something to do with her drug addiction.

Anyway, the film isn’t bad. It’s worth it if you like the stars, or musicals in general. It’s short, and entertaining enough to warrant a watch. If you’re not that interested in movies, you probably won’t care for it. But, the performance is definitely worth a nomination. I just can’t vote for him because, really, he is the weak link in this category. Tough year.

Stewart — Oh man, do I love this movie and this performance. How can you not like Jefferson Smith? This is the quintessential Jimmy Stewart performance. Actually, there are like ten quintessential Jimmy Stewart performances, but this is definitely one of them.

He’s the naive young senator picked to take over for the man who died, mostly as a placeholder until the corrupt union boss can get the bill passed that the state thinks will help them but instead will fuck them out of land. In a way, it’s the Mr. Deeds Goes to Town formula used over again, only better. And Smith is an idealist, and pretty soon he’s pissing all the people off, because they think he’ll just do what they tell him and here he is, trying to pass bills and figuring out what they’re trying to hide. His filibuster at the end is worth the price of admission alone.

The last 45 minutes of the movie is Stewart holding the floor of the senate, while everyone else tries to get him to shut up. And he has to hold the floor by talking constantly, so, for two days, he just stands up, talking, not stopping, in the hopes that justice wins out. It’s a passionate and wonderful performance. It’s about everything that’s right in this country, and is one of the most uplifting movies I’ve ever seen.

Stewart’s performance in this is pitch perfect, as he goes from happy small town boy, to starry-eyed visitor in the big city, to, “Just happy to be here” senator, taking his mistakes in stride, to learning about the dark underbelly of politics, to “I just want to go home,” to, “I owe it to everybody back home to tell them about this,” to the filibuster.

This, to me, is one of the best leading performances of all time. It should have won the Oscar hands down no matter what it was up against. Apparently Hollywood thought the same, because they gave him an Oscar the very next year for a performance that doesn’t even rate a nomination. It was a rare example of a makeup Oscar given immediately. Which, hurt the next year’s race (you’ll see when I get to it), but also validated just how great this performance really was.

For god’s sake, see this movie. I guarantee you it’ll be one of the best movies you’ll ever see. It’s impossible not to like this movie.

My Thoughts: Really, the best three performances were Donat, Gable and Stewart. I rank them in reverse order, based on how I like them, but I put Donat second in how I’d vote for them. The reason Donat won was because of the aging, and also I think because at this point Hollywood was still very European-centric. British actors, and their long tradition on the stage were still looked at as the pinnacle of acting, because film acting hadn’t really come into its own yet (and wouldn’t until the 50s with Brando and Dean), peaking with 1948 — a year that, dear god, I will have a dissertation about when I get to it. So I think he was looked at as a more respectable choice over Stewart, who was relatively young, and really only had his first starring roles in 1938 and 1939. He was a supporting character in After the The Thin Man, in 1936, which should tell you how new he was in 1939. It would be the equivalent of today, with Edward Norton going from obscurity in 1995, to Primal Fear, playing a supporting role, to American History X in 1998. No, the parallels there are not lost on me. I think they went with the British veteran over the young American because, after all, it’s a mindset thing. Still, my vote is with Jimmy, all the way, and I think even history is on my side with this one. It’s hard to argue with the Academy essentially acknowledging the mistake.

My Vote: Jimmy Stewart

Should have won: Jimmy Stewart

Is the current result acceptable?: Yes and no. It’s tough. Yes, because, the performance is deserving. I just wish it happened in another year (like, say, 1938). Jimmy really was the most deserving this year, but I don’t feel bad that Donat won and won for this movie. I can’t really be objective, so I’m going to leave it at — I leave it for everyone else who has seen the performances to decide.

Performances I suggest you see: Stewart, Gable, Donat, Olivier


5) Rooney

4) Olivier

3) Donat

2) Gable

1) Stewart


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