The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1939

1939 is the best year in the history of movies. That’s not an embellishment. 9 of the 10 Best Picture nominees are legit classic (and amazing) films (Dark Victory is just okay). Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair (later remade as An Affair to Remember), Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights. All pretty strong, right? Yeah? Now listen to this half of the Best Picture nominees. Stagecoach. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Wizard of Oz. Oh, and a little film called Gone With the Wind. Yeah. It’s pretty famous.

Gone With the Wind rightfully wins Best Picture, Best Director for Victor Fleming (talked about here), Best Actress for Vivien Leigh and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel. Automatically these are top three decisions of all time in their respective categories. (Well, maybe not Best Supporting Actress. That’s definitely a top ten, though, since she was the first black actor to win an Oscar.) This is a perfect film and deserved every award it won (and even more). Best Actor this year was Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which, as I said here, is a pretty bad decision. Jimmy Stewart really should have won for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It was so bad they blatantly gave him a makeup Oscar the year after this for a performance that should never have won an Oscar in a hundred years.

So that’s 1939. A brilliant year all around. And then we have this category, which is amazingly strong.


And the nominees were…

Brian Ahene, Juarez

Harry Carey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Brian Donlevy, Beau Geste

Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach

Claude Rains, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Aherne — Juarez is a film that took me a real long time to find. And when I did, I had low hopes for it. It’s about the Mexican Revolution, and I hate that topic. If there are three topics I just don’t do in movies, it’s World War II (specifically Holocaust films), 80s-type “message” films (like The Killing Fields, all those South American/East Asian military state films, or the Apartheid films) and Mexican Revolution films (Viva Zapata!, Viva Villa!, or even Mexican Revolution westerns. Something like Vera Cruz, I just don’t like it as much as other westerns). I just don’t like them. They bore me. Nowadays we can add “Iraq” to that list. All that recent stuff. I can’t stand it, and the films are just anathema for me. But, when I started watching this — I got into it really quickly, and was very engaged by it. So I’ll always hold respect for this film for being a lot better than I expected.

The film is about Emperor Maximilian (played by Aherne) — the Austrian dude who was put in charge of Mexico by the French. They were trying to keep the Mexican people down, so they put him in as a dupe, and told him the people demanded he be their emperor and would welcome him gracefully. And once he’s there he finds out how wrong that was. And the French figured they could control him, but they find out that he’s very logical and reasonable. And once he gets this job, his interests actually become trying to help Mexico. He wants them to prosper. And very quickly that moves him against the wishes of France. And he spends the film trying to win the respect of Benito Juarez (played by Paul Muni), who wants what Maximilian wants. And eventually, he really pisses off France, and they take away his army, bring him and his wife (Bette Davis) back to France, and kill him. He demands to die by firing squad with his men. And at the end of the film, Juarez pays tribute to him as a true Mexican.

It’s actually a really strong film. I like the vantage point form which they told it. Maximilian is a strong character. Aherne plays it wonderfully. The thing is, though, he’s kind of the lead of the movie, and they got away with placing him in Supporting because the movie’s named after Muni. But Aherne is kind of the lead. And even so, he’s no better than a 3 or a 4 here, just because Mitchell and Rains take precedent. But in another year (1938 or 1940), he might actually contend for a vote from me. I liked the performance that much. But, here, he’s just a solid entry. Quel dommage.

Carey — Ha ha. Double nomination. I swear this isn’t on purpose.

Mr. Smit Goes to Washington is such a major film, you should have seen it by now. But since it’s so simple to recap, we’ll do one. An idealistic leader of a boys’ camp is appointed to fill the spot of a dead senator. The state is run by a corrupt businessman, and he wanted to appoint someone he could control. So he appoints Stewart, since Stewart’s father was a friend of the other senator from the state (Claude Rains), and Stewart is so naive. Stewart gets to Washington and quickly discovers how things are run there. He finds out about a bill that will approve (it’s one of the many things tacked on to the end) the building of a damn that will cause thousands of people to lose their houses and their land. He tries to fight for it, but is pushed down at every attempt. Which leads to the final filibuster speech that’s one of the greatest moments in the history of cinema.

Harry Carey (not the football announcer) plays the leader of the senate. Most of the time, he sits there, explaining the rules of stuff to Stewart, but he gets some nice moments, as we see him start to pull for Stewart, rooting for him behind his impartiality. It’s a great performance. But, it’s not an Oscar winning performance. If anyone was gonna win from this film, it was gonna be Claude Rains.

Donlevy — Beau Geste is based on the famous book. It’s also a film I feel a lot of people have heard of because of its unique title.

It’s about three brothers, and the theft of an expensive jewel. As children, the boys end up hearing some secret about the jewel, which their mother keeps hidden in a safe somewhere. And then, when they’re older, she says she’s selling it. And then it ends up missing. And all of the brothers say they didn’t take it. And the next morning, two of them disappear. They go and join the foreign legion, and the rest of the film is pretty much them in the legion. And shit happens. It’s pretty good. Nothing that special, I felt. But it’s a good movie. It’s pretty solid, all around.

Brian Donlevy plays the sadistic captain of the brothers’ unit, who takes pleasure in torturing them. He’s a mean bastard, and of course, by the end, he gets his comeuppance. It’s a pretty standard role, and, in a category like this, he doesn’t rate at all. There’s too much talent and too many bigger faces for this performance to even contend for a vote.

Mitchell — Stagecoach is such a landmark film. It’s so brilliantly simple and yet iconic at the same time. A bunch of travelers get on a stagecoach, heading out west. They’re all different, and we see how they interact. Along the way, they get attacked by Indians, and must defend themselves. Simple, right? Yet — it’s brilliant. How brilliant? Orson Welles watched this film 40 times while making Citizen Kane and thought of it as a textbook for filmmaking. Yeah.

The main characters are John Wayne, a gunfighter just released from prison, out to kill the men who killed his brother. Claire Trevor is a prostitute who falls in love with Wayne, and vice versa. John Carradine is a southern gentleman and gambler. Louise Platt is a soldier’s wife who is pregnant and is trying to reach her husband before the baby arrives. Donald Meek is a, humorously enough, meek liquor salesman. And Thomas Mitchell is an alcoholic doctor. And most of his scenes involve him finding ways to trick the doctor into letting him have free booze. At every turn he’s trying to trick the dude so he can steal another bottle. It’s awesome. And then, when Louise Platt goes into labor, Mitchell must rise to the challenge. He drinks about a gallon of coffee, and sobers himself up long enough to deliver the baby safe and sound. His big redemptive moment. And then at the end when the Indians attack, he even manages to shoot a couple off.

It’s a great performance. Funny, scene-stealing, big dramatic redemptive moment — everything a Best Supporting Actor should be. He’s awesome. And since you all should know how much I love Claude Rains, the fact that I’m still voting for Mitchell over him should tell you just how good he is here.

Rains — Claude Rains plays the senior senator from the state that has been going along with the state’s corruption for years. And he hasn’t given it a second thought until Stewart shows up and reminds him of the ideals he once held dear. And over the course of the film, he stakes his reputation against Stewart’s, because the corrupt businessman tells him he’ll expose him if he doesn’t, and Rains sets out to destroy this innocent young man who he knows is right. It’s a nice, complex performance.

Honestly, I’d love to vote for Rains here, and, were Thomas Mitchell not as good as he was, Rains would be the vote all the way. Even so, he still comes in at a very close number two by sheer virtue of the fact that he never won an Oscar. What a travesty that is.

My Thoughts: I hate this. I hate having to willingly vote against Claude Rains. But I have to. Mitchell is just too good. Plus he was also Gerald O’Hara this year. This was his all the way. The only reason I lean extra heavily toward Claude Rains is because I know he never won one. But, really, I blame that more on 1943 and 1946 than I do here. Still, it’s Mitchell.

My Vote: Mitchell

Should Have Won: Mitchell, Rains

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Mitchell was incredible in the role, and was the very definition of what a Best Supporting Actor winner should be. Great role, steals scenes, and has a strong character arc. It was a perfect choice. The only downside was that Claude Rains didn’t win in what was one of his strongest roles. But, it is acceptable, because Mitchell was the character actor extraordinaire in the 30s, and Rains was more about the 40s. Mitchell did deserve this. The fact that Rains never won is the Academy’s fault, not this category’s.

Performances I suggest you see: Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — if you haven’t seen them, you’re dead to me. Seriously. I’m dead serious on that.

Juarez is actually a very interesting film. I’m the last person who’d be interested in Mexican Revolution films, but I really liked the angle on this one. I liked Aherne playing the dupe emperor who is told one thing but discovers another. It’s a really strong film. Oh yeah, and Claude Rains plays Louis Napoleon. Just sayin’. I strongly recommend this one. It’s really engaging.

Beau Geste is also an engaging film. I feel like this film is well known. This film has a certain emotional attachment to me — for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual film, which will not be explained for the time being because they cannot, but, I felt it was worth mentioning. I liked it. It’s clearly the weakest here, but worth checking out. It’s pretty good. It looks great, too. I recommend it if you have the chance.


5) Donlevy

4) Aherne

3) Carey

2) Rains

1) Mitchell

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