The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1938

1938 feels like a “motions” year. One of those ones where you just feel the Academy going through the motions. The Oscars feels a lot like Hollywood itself a lot of the time. That is, they find a formula that works, or one they like, and they ride that formula for a while until they transition to something else. You notice it with the type of films they make, and in their Best Picture choices as well. You really can notice a pattern in what they nominate and what they vote for.

I’ve already said that 1928-1933 were the Academy figuring itself out. I’d also say that 1934-1938 were the Academy counteracting the Depression. Of course, as is always the case with AMPAS, you’ll see the standard “Oscar” picture thrown in as well, as well as a choice that defies all logic. But, there are choice years that really point out what the “trend” was at that point in film history. This is a huge reason why I love the Oscars. You can really get a snapshot of what the prevailing trend in — well, not Hollywood overall, but, this portion of it.

So, 1938. You Can’t Take It With You wins Best Picture. Now it’s perhaps thought of as a weak choice. And unlike most of the years they consider poor choices, this one isn’t directed so much at the quality of the film but rather at how “safe” a choice it was, and how generic a Best Picture it is. And that’s the reason I see it as part of the “Depression” trend, because, after this year, Hollywood transitioned to the “war” picture era, 1940-1946. It feels like when someone pulls back to reference a joke that was funny the first three times it was referenced, but now it feels as though people are going through the motions. Sure, it’s funny, but lets not beat it into the ground.

The other awards were Spencer Tracy as Best Actor for Boys Town (do not understand this, at all), Bette Davis as Best Actress for Jezebel (which has a great story to it that I’ll tell when I get to Best Actress/Supporting Actress or Best Picture for this year), Fay Bainter won Best Supporting Actress, also for Jezebel, and — surprise, surprise — Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for Kentucky.


And the nominees were…

Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It With You

Michael Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces

Michael Curtiz, Four Daughters

Norman Taurog, Boys Town

King Vidor, The Citadel

Capra — This is another example of the “Capra” film. The film that’s un to watch and very entertaining, but — it’s not — I still can’t find a way to describe it. I’m trying to find an unquestionably appropriate comparison. I can’t think of one. It’s the kind of film that should be well-regarded, but in reality isn’t much of an “awards” film. Even if it’s nominated — Little Miss Sunshine — there you go. It’s a great film, entertaining and all (even Juno is appropriate here), and even if it’s nominated, it’s really not a film you’d want to vote for. Even now I keep thinking, “Why not?” but, the only response to that I can muster is, “It just makes sense.”

The film is about a family of misfits — the family is eccentric, and inventors in their own way. They each have their thing they do and they do it. And they take in random people who decide to stay with them. And they don’t have much money, but everyone likes them. And it’s about Jimmy Stewart, as the son of a rich businessman who wants to marry the daughter of the family. And he goes to meet them, and loves their eccentricity, but his father does not. And we see them get into wacky hijinks and whatnot, and eventually, the money issue comes up, and there’s the big court hearing (like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) where they plead their case, and the title of the film comes in — what does money and all that matter when you’re dead? All you take with you is the love you had in life — and the entire town pitches in and pays the fine that’s leveled against them. And it’s uplifting and all and really great.

But, like I said, it’s a Capra film. Not many Capra films can be considered Best Director achievements. Which I hate saying, because, I’m taking a very narrow mindset. I’m torn on this issue and I don’t think I’ll ever really figure a way to negotiate the two. Either way, I don’t really need to prove it on that count. Capra had two statues already with this film, and it’s really obvious this is the weakest of the three efforts. Plus him winning this one means he got almost no consideration when he directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, both of which came after this year. Him not winning for those two (Mr. Smith makes sense, as we’ll get to tomorrow, but Wonderful Life — that one…) but winning for this just doesn’t make any sense. He’s got two, he really didn’t need this one to be the third. No vote.

Curtiz — This man was nominated twice this year. And he also co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood with William Keighley. With a year like that, how do you not just give him a statue? At least, that way, we’d only have to argue, “Why’d he get it for Four Daughters and not for Angels with Dirty Faces or Adventures of Robin Hood?” (Note: He directed five films in total in 1938.)

This one, specifically is kind of like a musical Little Women. They’re a family of singers who live very happily, and they also run a boarding house. And it’s all about the daughters finding romance, and sorting through their various issues that arise from their natures or what have you. Standard film of this ilk. One is courted by a neighbor, one by a rich man, one by a swindler — all that. It’s an okay film, nothing special. It’s like Steven Soderbergh getting nominated for Traffic and Erin Brockovich in the same year. Two separate films directed by the same man. This one is clearly the lesser of the two (or three, if we’re counting the one he wasn’t nominated for), and might have — but I doubt it, it’s clear which one he should be voted in for — led to a vote split. But I doubt it. I think they went straight Capra with this, all the way.

Curtiz — This film is great. It’s a nice gangster picture with Jimmy Cagney. As kids, him and his friend rob a boxcar — as kids do, petty larceny — and the cops chase them. Cagney sacrifices himself so the friend can get away. And Cagney gets sent to reform school. And because of it Cagney grows up a gangster while his friend grows up a priest. Because that’s how it is in these movies — you can only be one or the other. (Note: This is exactly what Martin Scorsese grew up believing.) And he comes back to the block after being released from prison, and he meets the old friend, and they have all these talks about religion, and they’re friendly, but it’s clear they don’t agree on the one matter. And then the Dead End kids are in it too, as child hooligans. And Cagney befriends them and such — basically it comes down to, Cagney is caught by the police and is going to the electric chair. And he’s been saying all film about how he’s a man and will go out like a man. Meanwhile, the priest tries to convince him to show remorse for his actions, so the kids won’t look up to him and go down the same road. And as he’s being led away, he starts begging and pleading, and the film leaves you to wonder if he did it for the kids or did it for real. It’s a nice gangster picture.

Curtiz also directs the hell out of it. It looks gorgeous. Personally, I say, between this and Robin Hood, he should have gotten the statue. Even if he did win for Casablanca, he’d still be tied with Capra at two apiece. That’s not so bad, is it?

Taurog — I’m not gonna lie — I don’t like this film all that much. It’s about a priest who founds the titular organization for boys who seem to be heading toward lives of crime. And most of the movie is about the boys. How Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for it is beyond me. And on top of it, the only real interesting part of the film is a young Mickey Rooney — who jumps off the screen with charisma. Other than that, I had no interest in this film whatsoever.

The directing effort is pretty standard too. So, I’m not even going to waste space on it. Not a fan. (Note: Remember, these are my Oscar thoughts. My rules.)

Vidor — Here’s a movie I enjoyed more than I thought. But, since it’s not really the kind of movie that I’m very interested in, it’s a measured compliment.

The film is about a young and enthusiastic doctor who takes a job in a mining town. He marries Rosalind Russell and she joins him. And he works to figure out why all the miners have developed a persistent cough. And he discovers something in the mine is causing the TB, and is trying to cure them, but the town wants him to stop investigating (one of those corrupt medical things), so he quits and goes to London. And he becomes one of those doctors who charges huge fees and gets real rich and plays golf all day instead of working. And eventually his wife almost dies because of medical malpractice and then he decides to go back and help the miners. It’s one of those films.

I thought it would be boring and high-handed, but it was pretty easy to get through and mostly entertaining at that. So, I’ll always respect the film in that regard. Otherwise, it’s one of those films that’s great to be nominated but, ultimately, there are better things to vote for.

My Thoughts: It’s really Curtiz, no matter which way you cut it. I don’t even care what film it’s for, but I’m taking him for Angels. It’s a weak year, overall, so Capra does actually become second choice. Still, it’s Curtiz.

My Vote: Curtiz, for Angels.

Should Have Won: In all honesty, and I hate doing this, because I like to confine myself to the nominees, but really Jean Renoir should have won for Grand Illusion. But, that aside, Michael Curtiz should have won this. He’s nominated twice, and he also directed Adventures of Robin Hood (at least, partially).

Is the result acceptable?: Not really. At this point in time, Curtiz didn’t have an Oscar, so, it would not have been acceptable in the least. Even knowing Curtiz did get his Oscar, Capra had two already, and Jean Renoir has zero. So, however you look at it, this is not acceptable. But, it’s a Best Picture/Best Director pair, which, happens.

Ones I suggest you see: Capra. It is a good film, if not worthy of winning. Curtiz (Angels) is great, because it’s a classic Jimmy Cagney gangster picture. It was also the basis of the joke in Home Alone, where he has the movie on with the guy who’s like, “I’m gonna give you to the count of ten, to get your ugly, yellow, no-good keister off my property, before I pump your guts full of lead! One, two — ten!” and starts shooting. The movie is shown as being called “Angels with Filthy Souls.” The other ones most people wouldn’t care about. Those two are the ones casual movie fans would enjoy.


5) Taurog

4) Curtiz (Daughters)

3) Vidor

2) Curtiz (Angels)

1) Capra

One response

  1. Here Here on Renoir winning

    April 6, 2011 at 2:43 pm

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