The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1938

1938 is such a weak year. It’s like the Academy, having the chance to make bold choices, got nervous and went with the sure thing. How can it be falling into its own stereotype when it’s only 11 years old? You Can’t Take It With You wins Best Picture. It’s a fine film, a really great one, but is definitely not a Best Picture winner. Frank Capra wins his third Best Director trophy in five years. 1934, 1936, and this one. Did he need it? Absolutely not. I talked about it here. It’s really strange the Academy went with the film, especially when The Adventures of Robin Hood, Pygmalion and especially Grand Illusion were also up for Best Picture.

Best Actress this year was Bette Davis for Jezebel, winning her second Best Actress trophy in four years. I’m a big opponent of this decision. I’ll talk about it eventually. Definitely not a fan. Fay Bainter wins Best Supporting Actress for the film, which is a very good decision, for both legitimizing the category and also because she was nominated for Best Actress this year, so that was a good choice. And Best Supporting Actor was — guess who — Walter Brennan for Kentucky. This was his second of three, winning every other year out of five, just like Frank Capra.

So, I consider 1938 a failed year. They had a chance to really do something interesting, then took the safe choice. We really shouldn’t be surprised. The Academy will often take the safe choice. Oh, and did I mention? I consider this specific category to be the SECOND WORST BEST ACTOR DECISION OF ALL TIME. How’s that for a lead in?


And the nominees were…

Charles Boyer, Algiers

James Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces

Robert Donat, The Citadel

Leslie Howard, Pygmalion

Spencer Tracy, Boys Town

Boyer — Okay, Charles Boyer. I believe I’ve spoken before about how I just don’t find him interesting as an actor. I just find him really, really wooden. He’s not intolerable, just — I don’t see him as an Academy Award nominated actor. That’s really what it is. Simply watching him in a film is fine because — you know what you’re gonna get. And his delivery of the line “I love you” is still the funniest I’ve ever heard.

Now, Algiers is about a thief. Charles Boyer is the thief. Pepe le Moko, in fact. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because a film of the same name starring Jean Gabin was released the year before this. Anyway, Boyer’s just pulled off another grand heist and is hiding out in Algeria. He’s a very wanted man, and everyone is after him. Basically, the authorities are just waiting it out, looking for an opportunity to strike. Pepe, stuck in hiding, starts to feel really restless, and wants to get out. It gets worse when he falls in love with a woman (played by Hedy Lamarr — that’s Hedy). And he basically falls in love, even though he’s doomed, and the end of the film is him being arrested, but finding himself unable to run to her as she leaves, getting himself shot dead in the process. Yeah, as you can tell, I wasn’t particularly interested in the film.

Boyer plays it fine. It’s a typical Charles Boyer performance. Honestly the only thing keeping it from #5 for me is Spencer Tracy’s sleepwalking performance. Still, I’m never voting for this. Of all the Boyer nominations, the one I enjoyed the most was his performance in Fanny, which isn’t coming until 1961. Now — #4.

Cagney — Jimmy Cagney. His first of three Oscar nominations. It’s funny, because, of his three nominations, he played basically the same two roles he always played throughout his career — the song and dance man and the gangster. Here, the gangster. Yankee Doodle Dandy, which he won for, song and dance man. Love Me or Leave Me — both. Though more gangster, but still, kind of both.

This film is interesting for many reasons. First of all, if anyone is a fan of Home Alone, if you remember the film Kevin puts on to get people away from the house, with the gangster talk — Snakes, and “I’m gonna give you to the count of ten, to get your ugly, yella, no-good keister off my property before I pump your guts full of lead!” — the name of that film is “Angels with Filthy Souls” (the sequel, in Home Alone 2 is “Angels with Even Filthier Souls.”), which is a clear play on the title of this film. Which I enjoy. I like a good piece of trivia.

Anyway, this film is about Cagney as a gangster, and his friend. You see, as a child, they were hopping boxcars and stuff, and they were caught. And while they were running away, Cagney got caught and his friend didn’t. And because of that, Cagney grew up a gangster and his friend grew up a priest. That’s how it was in those days. This is how Martin Scorsese grew up. Thank god he didn’t become a priest like he was planning to. Anyway, Cagney comes back to his old neighborhood, a big time gangster, and meets up with his old friend. He also meets up with the Dead End kids, who are all like thirteen and are wannabe hoodlums. And Cagney meets up with them and hangs out, because he enjoys their company, and he gets in ideological arguments with his friend, which don’t really end, it’s more of a — “We agree on everything but this one thing. And we know we won’t change the other’s mind, so we live with it.” It’s a very interesting dynamic. And Cagney gets involved with a crooked lawyer (Bogie, in one of his pre-stardom roles), who gets him involved with another gangster, and eventually he gets in over his head, and this leads to a big shootout with the police where he gets caught.

And the end of the film is really the most interesting part. Because, the entire film, Cagney’s friend the priest has been telling him to try to talk the kids out of becoming gangsters. He doesn’t want them to end up like that. And Cagney has been unwilling to be repentant for his lifestyle at all. Even in court, he refuses to apologize for any of it, even though it probably would have helped him. And he gets sentenced to death, and the boys, who idolize him, come to see him go. And his friend makes an impassioned plea for him to recant, if only for the sakes of the boys. And Cagney, steadfastly refusing to do so, walks up the aisle to the electric chair, and as he does — he suddenly breaks down and cries and pleads for his life. And what’s great about it is — the boys (and the newspapers) are like, “We knew it. He was yellow. He was just putting on the tough guy act.” And the boys are like, “He really wasn’t that tough. Maybe we shouldn’t follow in his footsteps.” And the priest smiles, because he’s like, “he actually listened to me.” But the thing is — we don’t know for sure if Cagney broke down crying for the sake of his friend and the boys, or if he really was sorry for what he did. And that little bit of ambiguity is what makes the film and the performance.

Cagney really is great in the role. He was always fantastic in these gangster pictures, and that’s why they made him a star. But it’s the last ten minutes of this film that really make the performance Oscar-worthy. Now, in a stronger year, no, he probably wouldn’t contend for a vote. He’d be ranked high, but I wouldn’t probably vote for him. But here — he’s clearly a top two choice for a vote. This category is so bad, the only two I can see myself voting for are Cagney and Leslie Howard.

Plus, maybe — and this is a long shot, but it’s how my brain works — maybe if Cagney wins here, he doesn’t win for Yankee Doodle Dandy (which I’m very okay with), and Gary Cooper wins that year for The Pride of the Yankees. That’s a wonderful film and a great Cooper performance. So he wins there, and then he has back-to-back Oscars (which, I’ll accept, because of what I’m getting at). Sure, it’s a lot, but, he got two eventually and the first one can be explained as him beating Orson Welles because the Academy didn’t want to vote for Citizen Kane. So, if Cagney wins here and then Cooper wins in 1942 (because those were really the only two choices (Walter Pidgeon wasn’t going to win. Neither was Monty Woolley. Maybe Ronald Colman, but, I doubt it)), then Cooper doesn’t need to win for High Noon in 1952. And if that happens, maybe Kirk Douglas could have gotten the Oscar he so richly deserved for his career best performance in The Bad and the Beautiful. See? All I’m saying is, one bad decision could have lots of side effects. The world may never know what could have happened.

Donat — The Citadel is a film I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy but ended up enjoying quite a bit. It’s not a perfect film — that is, it won’t appeal to everyone. But as classic films from the 30s go, it’s better than average.

Robert Donat plays an idealistic doctor who tries to treat miners who keep contracting TB. He’s so idealistic, naturally the pharmaceutical companies aren’t big fans of him. They pretty much stop his efforts and disillusion him. He marries Rosalind Russell, and, now having a wife to support, he starts to worry about his career path. He still wants to study the disease, but there’s no money in that. So he takes a job as a doctor to wealthy people, and ends up making a shitload of money. And he becomes one of those doctors that’s in the office two hours a day and goes golfing the rest of the time. And he charges obscene amounts of money. And eventually he realizes how wrong we went, and, at the encouragement of his wife, he goes back to doing what he loves, and ends up creating a medicine that helps the workers.

It’s a surprisingly entertaining film. I didn’t think I’d like it as much as I did. Donat’s performance is — fine. I mean, I wouldn’t vote for it, but him being nominated is cool. Usually the way these early categories work — or really any category for that matter — is, one nominee usually jumps out at you as being clearly the one to vote. Occasionally one will be hidden in the bunch that’s really one that should have won, but usually that’s one of those actors that had a one-off nomination. Like Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart. This one — no. Just no vote.

Howard — And, Leslie Howard. This man accomplished a lot in the relatively few years he acted. Not that it was his fault — his plane was shot down during WWII and he was killed. It’s a shame. But, he did leave behind a lot of good performances, most notably as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (a role he didn’t even want to play, and in a way it shows in the film), and here, as Professor ‘Enry ‘Iggins.

I’ve gotta tell you, I might like this iteration of Higgins better than Rex Harrison’s version. I mean, sure, Rex Harrison’s is iconic, but — this one is just as iconic. He just doesn’t sing. I do prefer this film to My Fair Lady, and that’s purely because it’s shorter, it’s not three hours, and the dialogue is really tight. I’m a dialogue man, so I’m always gonna take more dialogue. Anyway, we all know the story, right? Higgins, brilliant dialect professor, takes a bet that he can make a lady out of poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle. We all know it. If not, you really need to get out more. This version is not a musical, and is purely the play on screen. Which means, you really get to hear the brilliance that is George Bernard Shaw’s dialogue. It’s a tremendous film.

Howard is perfect as Professor Higgins. There are very few actors who could have pulled off the role as brilliantly as he did. Rex Harrison is another. After that — it’s tough. He’s clearly my vote, all the way, just because the character is so good. He really didn’t have to do anything, and he’d have gotten my vote. But, he still gets it.

Tracy — And here it comes. I’m just gonna preface this with — I do like Spencer Tracy. I love the films he did with Kate Hepburn, I love Inherit the Wind (and I might have voted for him that year if it weren’t for the two wins, Burt Lancaster’s brilliant turn in Elmer Gantry and Jack Lemmon also being up for The Apartment), and I like a lot of his movies. The thing is — I know he didn’t earn this Oscar. The first one — I’ll accept, which I’ll talk about when I get to it — but this one, I can’t. He’s barely on screen in this film. In both films — more so this one — he takes a back seat to the supporting cast, both of which consist mostly of children, specifically in both cases Mickey Rooney. Though, for all those things, more so this one.

By the way, this film is about a priest who starts Boys Town, a home for young boys who are starting to become troublemakers, so as not to let them drift into a life of crime. It helps reform them into good, upstanding young citizens. He starts it after hearing a convict on death row talk about how, if only he’d been raised better. And the film is about the boys, really. We spend time with the boys in the place, an then occasionally cut back to Tracy once in a while. That’s literally the film.

I really don’t support this win at all. I could accept the nomination, but, for a win — he really didn’t do anything. NOTHING. There’s subtle and then there’s nothing at all. Don’t believe me? Watch the film. It’s seriously about the boys. He shows up like once every ten minutes and gives them candy. That’s seriously all I remember about his involvement in the film. What a fucking terrible decision.

My Thoughts: It’s not that I hate Spencer Tracy. I don’t. I just don’t see why he needed two Best Actor Oscars. Let alone two BACK-TO-BACK Best Actor Oscars. Have you seen this film? He DOESN’T DO ANYTHING IN IT! NOT A THING! He’s just there. The film is about the boys and not about him. And yet — James Cagney and Leslie Howard — two great actors who do not have Oscars, do not win here, despite performances that were infinitely better than Tracy’s. Hell, I’d have taken Charles Boyer over Spencer Tracy here. I mean, really? The real problem is that neither Cagney or Howard won. Howard played a perfect Henry Higgins, just as good as Rex Harrison’s. And Cagney played a great role in a gangster picture. Either were better choices, and Spencer Tracy did nothing. That’s why this is the second worst Best Actor decision of all time. (Also just so you know, the worst is Art Carney winning in 1974. Talked about here.)

I personally vote Leslie Howard here, just because I loved his performance the best. But either him or Cagney were the best decisions.

My Vote: Howard

Should Have Won: Cagney, Howard

Is the result acceptable?: In two words — HELL. NO. Hell no. Spencer Tracy won the year before this, not totally to my satisfaction, but not totally to my dissatisfaction either. This, though, is very, very not okay. The performance isn’t even any good. He’s just — there. He does NOTHING in this movie. At all. And he beat two GREAT performances. At least last year, okay, they like him, I can sort of see it. But this year — nuh uh. James Cagney and ESPECIALLY Leslie Howard were so much better than Spencer Tracy was. It’s the least acceptable result ever. But it’s up there.

Performances I suggest you see: Pygmalion is a great movie, and one I actually prefer to My Fair Lady. The only reason for that is because I’m a dialogue man at heart, and this film is so easy to just pop on and watch. My Fair Lady is an almost three hour musical. It’s a hard film to watch constantly. It’s really bogged down by an unnecessarily long runtime (I have a feeling that, when directors get older, they let films drag on for more than they need to. There’s a theory to be developed here and fleshed out at another time.) and can be a difficult watch if you’re not in the mood for it. This, though, is that film, but quicker. Sure, no musical numbers and no Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, but it does have all the GREAT dialogue, which more than makes up for it. Plus the performances are stellar. So, this film is just as good as My Fair Lady and I recommend it just as highly, if not higher, because it might get lost in the shuffle to the more casual filmgoer. Also, Angels with Dirty Faces is a wonderful film. Though you need to enjoy gangster pictures and James Cagney. If you’re not a fan of the genre, you don’t need to see it as much. But it’s a great film. Cagney is tremendous in it and it is a classic example of the gangster picture. And The Citadel is good, but only if you’re looking for back wall stuff. Like, if you’ve seen a lot of the Oscar films and are looking for stuff you may not have seen and will like. That’s what that film is to me. A film I expected to see and not like but actually ended up liking quite a bit.


5) Tracy

4) Boyer

3) Donat

2) Cagney

1) Howard

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