The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1938

1938 is a year I will always consider weak, just because the Academy had an opportunity to grow past what they’d established already, and instead chose the safe route and give Best Picture to a film that too easy a choice. You Can’t Take It With You wins, which is an enjoyable film, but really not a step forward for the Academy. It’s not 1934 anymore. Frank Capra also won Best Director for it (talked about here).

The Best Pictures until this point were: two war epics, two musicals, a western, an ensemble prestige picture, a romantic comedy and three dramas (family, high seas/historical, and historical/biographical). They took a step in the right direction with It Happened One Night in 1934. Mutiny on the Bounty in ’35 wasn’t a bad choice. (I’d have gone for The Informer, but that’s me.) The Great Ziegfeld in ’36 is an easy winner. It’s big, cinematic, and everything that a Best Picture should be. After that, it seemed like they didn’t know what to do. The Life of Emile Zola was a weak choice, and seemed like them trying to continue the trend of historical dramas. And here, again it seems they didn’t know what to do, so they went back and tried to repeat what worked earlier. A lot of the decisions before the war ended seem that way. Apart from the easy choice films like Gone With the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives — even Mrs. Miniver, they really don’t seem to know what to do, so they go back to earlier choices. So that’s why I don’t really like this year as a whole. Because a year starts with its Best Picture.

As for the rest of the year, Spencer Tracy wins his second consecutive Best Actor for Boys Town (which I talked about here), a performance I consider to be the single worst in the history of the Best Actor category, as well as the second or third worst decision all time in the category. It’s pretty horrendous. Then Best Supporting Actor was — you guessed it — Walter Brennan, for Kentucky, winning his second of three in five years. And Best Supporting Actress was Fay Bainter, for Jezebel, which is by default a good decision because she was nominated for Best Actress this year, and was really good there as well. So, in all, I probably only like two of the six decisions. And this category, I just disagree with completely. The only thing that I like about it is that this basically means that Scarlett O’Hara won two Oscars. That’s pretty cool.


And the nominees were…

Fay Bainter, White Banners

Bette Davis, Jezebel

Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion

Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette

Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades

Bainter — White Banners is a really good film. I was surprised. Usually, when I can’t find a film for the longest time, I assume it’s because it’s not very good and that’s why nobody bothered to maintain it and release it to the public. That wasn’t the case here. I’m guessing this never really got released because there’s no real “star” to market it under. That’s generally how these 30s films get released. As part of star box sets or something. Or if they’re unquestionably major. This is the kind of film people need to fight for to get on DVD.

It stars Claude Rains and Jackie Cooper, as an inventor and a wayward boy. Rains is the not-quite cooky inventor, supporting his family on all these things he comes up with, as well as by teaching high school science. It’s not the best source of income, but they get by. His daughter is Bonita Granville, who was Oscar-nominated for These Three, which was an early iteration of The Children’s Hour, and she played Mary Tilford. Anyway, Cooper is one of Rains’s students, and he’s a troublemaker, and does stupid things. And Rains, trying to prevent the boy from going down the wrong path (his adopted father is the richest man in town), brings him home and has him work on his new invention with him. He sees that Cooper is bright, just not focused enough. So they work together, and Cooper falls in love with Rains’s daughter, and there’s all that business.

Then, alongside this, Fay Bainter shows up one day, out of the rain, as a traveling saleswoman. And she basically asks for a job as the family’s housekeeper. The mother of the family says she can’t really pay, despite the fact that she can use the help, and Bainter says as long as they let her live there rent-free and give her money for the groceries, she’ll help them out. And she turns out to be a blessing in disguise for the family. She manages to get twice as much out of half the money they would normally spend per week, and she acts as a sort of nurse (in the Juliet sense) and housekeeper (in the Hattie MacDaniel in Gone With the Wind sense) for the daughter. She’s the mysterious woman that comes in and makes things better and no one knows who she is or where she came from.

And the middle of the film deals with Rains and Cooper working on a refrigerator icebox system, whereby they can keep the food cold and also account for the water drip out the back — it’s the 30s, this shit wasn’t perfected yet. And they realize this could be huge. However, Cooper accidentally lets the local hardware store guy see what they’re building, and they sneak in and get a patent for it in first. And it’s a big moment, everybody’s upset, but we see how Cooper is maturing because of it because he takes responsibility. And while this is happening, we find out that Bainter is actually Cooper’s mother. She had him with a traveling salesman who shows up midway through the film and recognizes her. And we find out that she had to give him up because he was born out of wedlock, and the rich man in town adopted him after his own son died. So she’s been working for this family just to make sure her son has been set down the right path in life and will turn out okay. And she leaves, without letting him know the truth about who he is.

That’s the film. Bainter is good in it, and it’s a really good film. I liked how they downplayed a lot of the melodrama and kept it grounded in the Cooper/Rains relationship. The Bainter role isn’t really something that could win, which is why I’m glad she won Supporting this year, but it is a solid performance, and I thought she did a really good job, even if it isn’t something I can vote for.

Davis — Yeah — this film is basically Gone With the Wind. Bette Davis was upset that she didn’t win the role of Scarlett O’Hara (thank god), and Warner Bros. offered her this role as compensation. It’s so clearly based on the film it’s not even funny.

Basically what they did was, they took that moment at the end of Gone With the Wind where Scarlett wears the red dress to Melanie’s party, and everyone gives her all the dirty looks like, “How dare she have the gall do dress like that,” and then built a film entirely around that. And, how they did that is both interesting, and telling. Because they really just turned it into a Bette Davis melodrama, and that’s just not okay. However, the vague sort of connection to Gone With the Wind and Scarlett O’Hara is the only reason I even like this film. That and Henry Fonda.

The film begins with Bette Davis engaged to Henry Fonda. And she goes to a party where the unmarried women are supposed to wear white dresses. But she’s headstrong and wears a red dress. And everyone’s shocked and her reputation is ruined and they all shun her. The south is so fucking strange. Then Fonda has to break off the engagement, and she slaps him. Her aunt (Bainter) tells her to go after Fonda, but she refuses, because she’s prideful. Then there’s an outbreak of yellow fever — here’s where it takes the Bette Davis turn — and, Fonda, who’s been up north for a few years, comes back, and all at once we find out he’s married to a northern girl, and he catches yellow fever. And Davis goads Fonda into a duel, by setting the whole thing up, but the whole thing backfires, because the wrong man (her brother) accepts the duel and is killed. All because of her, basically. And then Fonda gets the fever and is sick. And he has to be quarantined on an island with the rest of them. And Davis — not affected — decides to sacrifice herself and go with him, in order to atone for her sins. They tell her there’s a certainty that she’ll catch it while there, but she goes anyway, because she needs to redeem herself. That’s the film. Melodramatic, no?

I thought the film was okay. But it’s really just a much, much, much lesser Gone With the Wind. It’s like when a big movie gets released in theaters, like Twister, and then on the Sci-Fi channel, they release the TV movie called “Tornado!”, and it’s basically the same thing, but then they take it in the campy, exploitation type direction. That’s basically what this is.

I have no idea how Bette Davis won two Oscars. I really don’t. I mean, I do, because people loved her and she’s an important figure in history, but, I mean — they say she had a nuanced character here, but, it’s melodrama. I did like this performance better than her performance in Dangerous, so I guess that’s something. And the fact that this is really a “Scarlett O’Hara” performance, in a way, makes this cool for it to win. Because I can look at it that way. But still — I’m not voting for her. I’m just not.

Hiller — Yeah. If you know me at all, as soon as you saw this film on the nominees list, you knew this is what I was voting for. How could I not vote for Eliza Doolittle?

I’m sure you all know Pygmalion. If you’ve seen My Fair Lady, you’ve seen this. This just doesn’t have all the musical numbers and is based solely around the Shaw play. Which, is brilliantly, brilliantly written. Just watch this version and listen to the crackling dialogue. I’m pretty sure they used it verbatim here. And it just works. Also — if you haven’t seen either version of this play, one, what the fuck is wrong with you?, and two, watch it. It’s about a cocky speech therapist who, on a bet, says he can transform a vulgar, cockney flower girl into the belle of the ball. And of course, he does, and they fall in love, and all that. Seriously, if you don’t know this story, how have you survived being on this earth as long as you have?

Hiller is perfect as Eliza, and really, I feel that both her and Audrey Hepburn not only should have been nominated for the performance, but won for it. Because, Hiller should have won here — easily — and, since she didn’t, Hepburn should have been nominated for her version and won for it (along with Rex Harrison). I thought she was clearly the best choice on this list, and is my vote all the way.

Shearer — I loved this movie. For some reason, both major versions of Marie Antoinette — this version and the Sofia Coppola version — are films I love dearly. I like the Coppola version more, but this one is very, very good. I don’t know what it is about the story, but I am just fascinated by both screen versions of it.

The film is about young Marie Antoinette, Austrian princess, who goes and marries the future king of France, Louis XVI. They get married, and, at first, he’s not interested in her at all. He’d much rather make keys and go hunting. And eventually they become king and queen, and grow closer together, into a loving couple. And then we see Marie become the queen she’s known as being. And then there’s the revolution, and she’s looked as as an extravagant woman who is spending all of France’s money on herself, and they storm the palace, and she and Louis escape, and then they find them, and cut their heads off — you know the drill. Both films are almost exactly the same. And yet, both are incredibly fascinating in their own way. They’re both really good films.

Honestly, if Norma Shearer didn’t already have an Oscar, she’d have won this award. She just would have. She was really great here. I’m not voting for, and even if she hadn’t won, she’d still only be a finalist with Wendy Hiller — but even so I’d still go with Hiller. I thought Shearer did a great job as Marie, and brought the right touches to the character, easing from young girl trying to get a handle on things to queen in full control of her power. And also as loving wife. That’s the emotional touch the performance needed. It works, really well. The film does too. But still, I can’t vote for it. I love Eliza Doolittle too much.

Sullavan — And this film. Clearly the weakest in bunch and clearly only nominated because of what the role is.

The film is about three German soldiers during World War I who all love the same woman — Sullavan. She’s dying of tuberculosis. They all love her, and it’s not the kind of thing where they all want her for themselves and hate each other, it’s the kind of thing where, they grow closer to one another because of their love for her. And they all grow closer together, and love her, and of course she dies, and it’s sad, and they realize she made them better friends. It’s all really just — way too on-the-nose. I did not really care for this film at all. It was watchable, but, outside of that I’ll never watch this film again, probably.

Sullavan is good in the role. She’s light, charming, and does exactly what is required. It’s just — I can never vote for something like this. I can’t. This would be way too easy a performance to vote for, plus, it wasn’t that good. All four of the other performances in this category outdo her. So, while I don’t mind that she’s nominated, she definitely should not have won. She’s clearly a #5 here.

My Thoughts: This category, for me, is a no-brainer. Wendy Hiller should have won. I guess, Bette Davis is an adequate second choice for most people, even though my second choice would have been Norma Shearer. Either way, it doesn’t matter, since Wendy Hiller should have won. So she’s my vote.

My Vote: Hiller

Should Have Won: Hiller

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. But the only reason that it’s acceptable is because the role is essentially a bastardization of Scarlett O’Hara. And because of that, I can claim that Scarlett O’Hara won two Oscars. And that makes me happy. Other than that, I don’t really find this very acceptable at all. (If Bette Davis hadn’t have won for Dangerous, this would have been very acceptable. Otherwise — nope.)

Performances I suggest you see: Pygmalion. See it. I don’t care if you saw My Fair Lady and love My Fair Lady — they’re not the same film. This is honestly the same thing, just shorter. I watch both films all the time. When I want the whole experience — the numbers, the Hepburn, the Harrison — I watch My Fair Lady. When I want the story — I watch this one. This is the same exact story, just boiled down to a more manageable runtime than the musical. Plus — the dialogue just cracks off the screen. It’s incredible. Trust me — this isn’t like some of those other films and remakes. Loving one has nothing to do with loving the other. You can do both. It’s like Silk Stockings and Ninotchka — same exact movie, completely different. (Though, there, one version is vastly superior to the other. These are about even.) Also, as someone whose love for Audrey Hepburn knows no bounds, the fact that I like this version of the story better should tell you something.

Jezebel is also a film worth watching for two reasons. One — it’s basically Gone With the Wind, and seeing them take a small detail from the film and turn it into something else entirely is just great to see. If you love Gone With the Wind, you should definitely see this, because the whole time you’ll be like, “Wow…wow.” And the second reason — Henry Fonda. When has Henry Fonda been bad in anything? Like Claude Rains. Speaking of whom…

White Banners is definitely a film worth checking out, if you can find it. (I have it…I think.) Rains is great, Jackie Cooper is great, and Fay Bainter is great too. And the film just works, because they dial down the melodrama for most of the film. They keep it normal and then once they have you they dial in on the coincidences. And for me, that works. Because I’ve seen way too many melodramas (looking at you, Bette), that start with the swells of music and then just add shit on top of it, coincidence on top of coincidence. To watch one done in a more low key way is refreshing. So I recommend this film. Check it out, if you can.

And Marie Antoinette is a great film. If you’ve seen the Sofia Coppola version (and you should have, because it’s just so entertaining. And funny. That film just works on a primal level. I don’t know why. You can just — watch it), watch this one too. It’s great to watch these two back to back. They’re both really well-done, and in very different ways. This film is definitely worth checking out. It’s really great.


5) Sullavan

4) Davis

3) Bainter

2) Shearer

1) Hiller

2 responses

  1. Michael

    I totally respect your dislike for Jezebel at a film, and for the ubiquitous Bette Davis late 30s-mid 40s melodrama. I don’t, however, agree with your dislike of her performance. Yes, I know that the film itself takes some major scene ideas from Gone with the Wind, but I personally felt that the scene with Davis in the red dress at the party dancing alone with Fonda was stronger than the corresponding scene in Gone with the Wind, but as for the rest of the movie, not so much. As for Davis’s performance, I love her, though some of her melodramatic turns received undeserved acclaim, and felt that she was really, really great in this one. Though Gaynor and Hiller were both really good, I still have to stick by Bette here. Dangerous is a different story.

    October 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm

  2. I don’t want to bother you, but I was wondering if you’d know where I could download/watch White Banners? I’m a huge Claude Rains fan, and would love to see that film, but can’t find it for the sake of it. Thank you. :)

    April 26, 2014 at 12:26 pm

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