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The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1937

I don’t like 1937 at all. I consider it one of the weakest years in Academy history. The Life of Emile Zola wins Best Picture in a real weak decision. It’s the first year the Academy seemed to have not known what to do, and said, “Well, what’s the safe, “Academy” decision?” and went with that. It’s a weak winner. Strong film, but a weak winner. The fact that it didn’t win Best Director tells you it wasn’t an overwhelmingly popular choice. Joseph Schildkraut also won Best Supporting Actor for the film (talked about here), which makes sense, even though it’s pretty weak and the category really sucked.

Best Director this year went to Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth (which didn’t win Best Picture because it’s a comedy), which, is a good decision, only they made it for the wrong film. McCarey also directed Make Way for Tomorrow this year, which everyone (including him. He said it when he won the award) feels is the film he should have won for. Best Actress this year was Luise Rainer for The Good Earth, which I don’t like at all. Here, they had the opportunity to give an Oscar to Barabara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne and Greta Garbo, and they give it to Luise Rainer (who won the year before this) for a performance that’s just okay. It makes no sense. And Best Supporting Actress was Alice Brady for In Old Chicago, which, as I said here, I understand from a legitimization perspective, but not a category one. Andrea Leeds definitely should have won that.

So that’s why I don’t like 1937. I don’t like any of the decisions. Not one of them. And then there’s this one. I understand it, but I don’t like it.

BEST ACTOR – 1937

And the nominees were…

Charles Boyer, Conquest

Frederic March, A Star is Born

Robert Montgomery, Night Must Fall

Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola

Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous

Boyer — God, I hate these types of films. Conquest is about Napoleon. Charles Boyer plays Napoleon. He sounds nothing like the Napoleon we know of from other films. Maybe a good thing, maybe not. I say not, because he sounds exactly like Charles Boyer. Charisma-less. It’s about Napoleon falling in love with Greta Garbo — whoever she plays. And they have the romance, and he keeps winning battles, and naturally it won’t end well, because — Waterloo. It’s one of those films that tries to romanticize history by tying famous events to romantic plots. The 30s is littered with these films. I didn’t care for this at all.

Boyer, as I said, plays Napoleon. I never much considered Boyer much of an actor — he’s pretty deadpan most of the time. So, to me, this was pretty laughable to watch. I don’t get why he got nominated for so many Oscars (4). 2 I can sort of understand. This one — no. #5, no shot.

March — A Star is Born is one of the most famous stories of all time.

Esther Blodgett, small-town girl, moves out to Hollywood to make it big. There, she meets, and falls in love with, fading, alcoholic movie star Norman Maine. Pretty soon, her career is skyrocketing, and he’s all but forgotten. And the film becomes about her negotiating fame and her love for her husband, as well as him dealing with not being a star anymore, and even being a hinderance for his wife’s career.

It’s a great, great film. An absolute classic. Most people would know the Judy Garland version of this story, but I saw this one first and fell in love with this one. Plus, I consider it like the Pygmalion to My Fair Lady. When I have 2 1/2 hours to kill, I watch the musical. When I just want to see the story again, I watch this version. It’s the same story, no extra 45 minutes of musical numbers. I like that I have the choie of the two.

Now, Frederic March plays Norman Maine. And he’s great here. I really loved this performance. He was my favorite by far. But, he already won an Oscar (though, admittedly, he tied Wallace Beery), and would win another for The Best Years of Our Lives. But, on the other hand — this category blows. So, he may still be the vote yet.

Montgomery — Night Must Fall is a “thriller,” which really shouldn’t even count as a word before Hitchcock came onto the scene.

Robert Montgomery is a dude who drifts into town and charms Dame May Whitty. She hires him because he’s so charming and nice. Her daughter (or granddaughter. Whichever, really), Rosalind Russell, is suspicious of Montgomery, because he fits the description of a murderer who goes around pulling these exact same stunts. And the film is about her being suspicious of him and trying to see if he’s really the killer or not.

There’s really no suspense at all, since we know he did it. Some people might say they didn’t know for sure until the end, but I say fuck that. Put it this way — when the dude is nominated for an Oscar — he did it. The character turn is what makes the nomination (pre-1950, if we’re talking lead). Not only that, it’s obvious. It’s like Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge (spoiler alert, he did it). The dude is so nice, you know he did it. It’s so easy to spot when they’re setting them up to be the bad guy and when they’re setting them up to look like the bad guy but not be (hint: it’s when they do the opposite during the movie). So, knowing exactly what was gonna happen, I was bored out of my face for most of this movie. I liked seeing Rosalind Russell before she got famous, but other than that, I was yawning most of the time here.

I’m not voting for Robert Montgomery. Come on, now. #4 (only because I liked the film marginally better than Boyer’s. Though I’d give Boyer an Oscar before I’d give him one).

Muni — The Life of Emile Zola is about — guess who? Emile Zola. We see him as a young reporter, righting these muckraking news reports, which nobody likes because he’s the only one writing about the seedy side of the streets. And he gets fired from his paper. Then we see him write his first book — about the life of a hooker. Then we flash forward to him as an old man. (Paul Muni was known for playing these wide age gaps.) The film is about his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.

The Dreyfus Affair was about (I’m not looking it up, so you’ll have to make due with my shaky recollection or look it up yourself) some kind of military coup or something that was being planned. There was a spy in the French army, and they ended up framing Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier, of the crime. And he was thrown in jail for a long time. And Zola was contacted to help the man. So Zola starts helping him, but the army organizes it as such that he can’t mention the major piece of evidence in the trial. Basically stacking the deck against him. And eventually he gets arrested for libel, and nothing happens. But after many years, Dreyfus is free, since Zola never stops campaigning on his behalf. And the government agrees there was some corruption involved and overhauls the entire army. And then (this part is actually true), on the day Dreyfus is to receive a medal of honor, where Zola was supposed to speak, Zola is found dead in his apartment (carbon monoxide poisoning. Leaky gas pipe). And then there’s a speech about liberty and the film ends.

It’s a pretty strong film. Not my favorite, but solid overall. It’s only downside is that it should not have won Best Picture. At all.

Muni, though, is really strong in the role. This would have been the perfect year for him to win this award, too. Since you knew he’d win one. He’s the only performer in history to have both his first and last performance be nominated for Oscars. He was nominated almost every year in the 30s. He should have won in 1933 for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but lost to Charles Laughton. Then they jumped up and gave it to him in 1936 for The Story of Louis Pasteur, when Walter Huston and William Powell were better choices (Huston for performance, Powell for sheer awesomeness and the fact that he was in a perfect storm of films that year: The Great Ziegfeld, the Best Picture winner, My Man Godfrey, where he gives an exceptional performance, and After the Thin Man, where he reprises his most famous character).

If Muni didn’t win there, he could have easily won here and no one would have batted an eyelash (and everything would have worked out. Say Walter Huston wins. Then the best performance that year won. Say William Powell wins. Then he gets an Oscar, Muni gets this one, and Spencer Tracy wins in 1938 for Boys Town, which I consider the worst Best Actor winning performance of all time. But, if he doesn’t win this one first, it’s acceptable, because Spencer Tracy should have an Oscar. Bam — everything works out).

So, given all that, I can’t really vote for Muni here. Blame the Academy

Tracy — Captains Courageous is a coming of age film about a spoiled boy who, on a cruise, falls off the boat. He’s rescued by a motley crew of fishermen, led by Lionel Barrymore and including John Carradine, and Spencer Tracy, playing a Portuguese man. The boy lives with them, and quickly learns to grow up. Spencer Tracy becomes his friend and mentor. He stops being selfish and learns the value of hard work. Then, when they come back, and the boy is reunited with his father (after Tracy dies, of course), the father sees just how much he’s grown up, and the father grows closer with him after he sees how much Tracy meant to him and takes him to a wreath ceremony for all those who died at sea.

I did enjoy the film very much. But, as for the performance — Spencer Tracy basically is a supporting character. He shows up, gets his big scenes, and leaves. He really doesn’t do much here at all. But he’s a likable character, and that, coupled with the weak category, does bump him to the top of the list. And I guess, the Academy, seeing that Muni and March had Oscars already, voted for him instead. Which I’m totally cool with. My problem isn’t with this category. It’s with 1938. But still, I can’t, in good conscience, vote for Tracy here. It’s not that great a performance. But I am okay with him winning.

My Thoughts: To me, this comes down to two actors. Boyer is out and Montgomery is out immediately. Did not like their performances at all.Muni gets minor consideration, but he won the year before this. So, he’s out.

(Though I will say, if you give the 1936 Oscar to Walter Huston or William Powell, Muni wins here and there’s no problem whatsoever and then everybody wins.)

The only two I can consider voting for (before I even get to performance) are March and Tracy. March had one already, though that one’s more a product of — he tied. But it is a win. It doesn’t feel like a clean win, so I don’t feel obligated to throw him out for — I don’t know — inclusive reasons.

I liked Tracy’s performance, but, not really enough to vote for it, even though I’m totally okay with him winning here, because — March had one already. Plus, at this moment in time, nobody knew the Academy would fuck up and give him a second one the year after this. So, I’m cool with him winning.

But based on best performance, I liked March’s the best. So even though he had one, I vote for him. Norman Maine is an iconic role.

My Vote: March

Should Have Won: Meh, no preference really. Actually, no. The only ones that should have won here were March or Tracy.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes, actually. I was surprised when I actually said it. Spencer Tracy deserves an Oscar. It’s the second one that I really have the problem with. He should not have won the second Best Actor in ’38. That’s the one I consider the terrible choice (the worst Best Actor-winning performance of all time). It makes sense that Tracy won here, since his only competition was March and Muni, and Muni won the year before this and March had one already (and would win another). So, yes, this is acceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: A Star is Born is one of the most famous stories of all time. The Judy Garland version is more famous than this one, but this is the straight story version. No music. So it’s like Pygmalion is to My Fair Lady. You can watch this one if you don’t want to do with the extra rigamarole of musical numbers. But, this is an essential film. You need to see a version of this. I recommend this one and the Garland one. Watch them both. You can skip the Streisand version. Also, it looks like Clint Eastwood is remaking this again, so, if that ever gets made, watch that version too.

Captains Courageous is a great film. I really enjoyed it. I liked that it was shot mainly on a boat (I doubt it was actually in the water and not in a tank on a soundstage, but still), I liked the coming of age-ness of it. I really became engrossed by this story. I really liked it a lot. Highly recommended.

The Life of Emile Zola is also a strong film. Not incredible, but strong, and a Best Picture winner. So you should probably see it for that reason. It’s not boring though, so that’s a plus. It just shouldn’t have won.

Rankings:

5) Montgomery

4) Boyer

3) Muni

2) Tracy

1) March

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