The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1938
I don’t much like 1938 as an Oscar year. It feels like a series of cop outs and weak choices. Almost like them saying, “We don’t know what we should do, so let’s do what we did before. That worked.”
Example 1: You Can’t Take It With You wins Best Picture out of a relatively weak set of nominees. It seems like the Academy, when faced with a French (Grand Illusion) and British (Pygmalion) film as potential winners (those two were clearly just as good, if not better, choices), they got nervous and said, “Well, It Happened One Night was a good choice, let’s do it again!” They also gave Frank Capra Best Director (talked about here), which makes sense, considering the Best Picture choice.
Example 2: Best Actor was Spencer Tracy for Boys Town (talked about here). It seems, faced with giving this to James Cagney for a performance in a gangster film (or Leslie Howard for Pygmalion), they balked and said, “Well, we gave it to Spencer Tracy last year, let’s do it again!” (This is the single worst Best Actor-winning performance of all time.)
Example 3: Best Actress was Bette Davis for Jezebel (talked about here). It seems, when faced with giving Wendy Hiller an Oscar (or Norma Shearer a second one), they decided, “We gave one to Bette Davis. That worked. Let’s do it again!”
And then Best Supporting Actress was Fay Bainter, also for Jezebel, and this was actually a good decision. Bainter was nominated for Best Actress as well, and was a well-respected actress. That one worked. And then there’s this category, which, again, feels like them not knowing what to do, and going, “Well, we gave it to Walter Brennan once before. That worked. Let’s do it again!”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1938
And the nominees were…
Walter Brennan, Kentucky
John Garfield, Four Daughters
Gene Lockhart, Algiers
Robert Morley, Marie Antoinette
Basil Rathbone, If I Were King
Brennan — Just a note. This is the first performance — first anything, really (though, technically, The Broadway Melody had some two-strip Technicolor scenes. So it’s first all color to win a major Oscar) — to win an Oscar.
The film is about a feud between families, the Goodwins and the Dillons. Walter Brennan, as a child, saw his father (a Goodwin) gunned down by a Dillon. He’s hated them ever since. Now he’s a crotchety old man and horse trainer. His niece falls in love with a Dillon boy, and they start raising horses. Brennan doesn’t like Dillon at first, but comes around. They use their remaining horses (Dillon’s father refused to let the Goodwin’s have a loan, so they lost almost all their horses, save two) to race, and after the race, as the girl and boy come together, and Brennan (the last vestige of the feud between the families) dies.
The film is okay. Not great, not terrible. Brennan plays a crotchety old man, and — he’s fine. He’s always fine. But I really don’t get this win, much like I didn’t really get the first one. (The first one made sense as it was the first of the category, and it was sort of a symbolic win. This one is just weird.) This seems like they said, “Well, Brennan is Brennan, and it worked the first time, so let’s give him another one.” Really, though, he was probably only third best in this category.
Garfield — Four Daughters is about a musical family. The main conceit of the film is that three of the daughters are played by sisters. Those singing trios of sisters they had in the 30s (the fourth one was a non-sibling who plays a sibling in the film). And they all sing, and the father runs a boarding house, and we see them as they all fall in love — you know how these movies work.
Garfield plays Mickey, who is a friend of a composer staying at the boarding house, whom the girls are all attracted to. And he ends up falling in love with one of the sisters, but then the composer falls in love with that one, and basically his whole thing is that he’s clearly doomed, and the whole time he’s looking for redemption, but doesn’t get it. And he plays tough and cynical here, which is weird, because much of the film is happy and light. It almost doesn’t fit. Garfield is fine here, though, and the film made him a big star, but I can’t help but feel he didn’t really fit in the film. Not that it matters, his performance was the best thing about it. But still — I can’t really vote for him here. It’s just not something I can vote for. It’s too much of an outlier.
Lockhart — Algiers is about Pepe le Moko, played by Charles Boyer, the thief, who has escaped Paris after a heist and is hiding out in Algiers. And basically it’s about him evading authorities while also falling in love witha woman — basically leading to tragedy.
Gene Lockhart plays Regis, who is basically a schemer. Boyer is hiding out in the Casbah, the poor section of town. And Lockhart is the local con artist. He’s always making deals and eventually tries to turn Boyer in for a reward. And he gets killed and gets his comeuppance. That’s basically the part.
Lockhart is fine here. I enjoyed his work. But for me, Morley and Rathbone were better, so I’d vote for them over him. Nothing against him, it’s just — personal preference, really. I liked their films better, too. That also has a lot to do with it.
Morley — Have you seen Sofia Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette? This is basically the same film, just made in 1938. It covers the same territory, just with the style of a lavish 1938 production. It’s a really solid film. I was surprised at how much I liked it. I thought I loved the Coppola version because of the style, but it turns out — I seem to just like this story. Because this was a great film.
Morley plays King Louis XVI, who originally is not interested in Marie, and would rather go hunting and make keys. But then they consumate their marriage and fall in love, and live happily. And then, near the end, when the Revolution occurs, he becomes the figure of a tragic king. It’s a really great performance by Morley, because he plays all the sides to the performance well. He does the early comedy well and does the dramatics at the end well. This is a full performance, and one that was absolutely worth winning. I may not vote for it, but I’d have no problems at all if it won. None at all.
Rathbone — If I Were King is an interesting film. One that probably wouldn’t be as interesting were it not for the performance of Basil Rathbone.
Ronald Colman is a dude who is sort of the toast of his local bar. He drinks with the people, is well-liked, is thought of as smarter than the rest, an idea man — and he likes to make speeches about how the king is doing things all wrong, and, ‘if he were king’, what he’d do to fix it. And it just so happens that one day, the king himself (Rathbone), is in the bar in disguise. And normally, protocol is to just kill someone who speaks ill of the throne. But Rathbone is intrigued, so what he does is have Colman thrown in jail, then secretly taken out. He tells him he’s going to be put in a position of relative power for a month, to see if he really can do all the things he’s said he can (and will) do. He plans on killing him anyway, but he’s curious, so he lets him go. And Colman fall in love with a noblewoman, and there’s that, but then he finds out what his fate is, so he escapes, and then he rallies the poor to stand up and fight. And then Rathbone is like, “I don’t need this shit,” so he tells Colman he can live, but will be exiled from Paris. And Colman goes on his way, and the woman he’s in love with follows him out without telling him (planning on going with him).
I really liked the film a lot. Rathbone is terrific as Louis XI. Really terrific. He plays him sort of like Richard III, only if Richard weren’t so scheming (at least, negatively scheming). I think he was the best performance in the category. Plus he’s Basil Rathbone. Why doesn’t this man have an Oscar?
My Thoughts: For me, it’s Rathbone. I liked Morley a lot, but Rathbone’s stature is the deciding factor. I vote him all the way.
My Vote: Rathbone
Should Have Won: Rathbone, Morley
Is the result acceptable?: I guess. Walter Brennan is Walter Brennan. Rathbone would have been the best decision, but it’s not like he needed to win. He just should have. So in a way it’s acceptable, historically, but in context to the category, not really.
Performances I suggest you see: If I Were King and Marie Antoinette are the two films I recommend highly here. They’re both really great, and I think you should see both of them. They’re both really good.
Algiers — okay film, not my favorite. I’m not a Charles Boyer fan. So, watchable, but I can’t recommend it past a simple, it wasn’t bad.