The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1938

This is another one of those years that I don’t much understand, that I try to explain by figuring the Academy went, “Well, it worked once before, let’s try it again!” It’s not that You Can’t Take It With You is a bad film — it’s terrific — it’s just that it’s a weak winner.

Frank Capra also winning Best Director for the film (talked about here), while it makes sense, is not a particularly good decision. Though it does fit with their Best Director choices over this first decade of the Oscars. Best Actor this year was Spencer Tracy for Boys Town (talked about here), which I consider the single worst Best Actor winning performance ever. He’s not the lead, and he barely does anything in the film. Him winning this is beyond laughable to me. Best Actress was Bette Davis for Jezebel (talked about here), which I think is also a poor decision, though an acceptable one. Fay Bainter won Best Supporting Actress for the film (talked about here) as well, which makes sense. She was nominated twice this year. And Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for Kentucky (talked about here), which — it’s Walter Brennan, so it’s acceptable, but on the other hand, Basil Rathbone was so much better.

You can see why I consider this a year of, “Well, it worked the first time…” Capra, Tracy, Davis, Brennan — it’s almost like the Academy doubting themselves, having gone out on the tightrope and, midway through, looking down, and then holding onto where they are just because it’s safer there. I don’t care for this year much at all. It’s one of those things that holds the Academy back in my mind. Their reliance on safe things and fear of bold decisions.


And the nominees were…

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros.)

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (20th Century Fox)

Boys Town (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Citadel (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Four Daughters (Warner Bros., First National)

Grand Illusion (R.A.O., World Pictures)

Jezebel (Warner Bros.)

Pygmalion (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Test Pilot (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

You Can’t Take It With You (Columbia)

The Adventures of Robin Hood — I know you’ve seen one version of Robin Hood, so you know what this is about. That said, if you haven’t seen this — do it. It is so much fun, and is such a classic. It’s just amazing on every conceivable level. It’s perfect.

It’s not a classical Best Picture winner. It definitely doesn’t fit the mold of one. But honestly — I’d strongly consider voting for this. I think a lot of people would. So I’m gonna bookmark this as a finalist and decide later. But this film is amazing.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band — This film is about Tyrone Power, who is a musical prodigy trained to be a classical musician. It’s thought that he has a very promising future there. But he’s much more interested in popular music, and starts a ragtime band instead, much to the dismay of his family. That’s pretty much the gist of the film. Otherwise it’s your standard 30s musical plot.

It’s a decent film. Definitely worth a watch (probably). But there’s no way it even comes close in this category. Not even close.

Boys Town — Spencer Tracy is a priest who, after meeting a death row convict who says his life was ruined because no one taught him better as a child, starts an organization for young boys in order to prevent them from becoming delinquents. And most of the film is about one boy (Mickey Rooney), who is in danger of following the same route of the convict if he isn’t careful. And the film is about Tracy’s attempts to make sure the boy grows up to be a decent person.

It’s a good film. Most of it is spent with the kids. I still think Tracy’s performance is the single worst Best Actor winning performance of all time. But the film itself is good. (Actually good. Just because I hate on the performance winning doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s Boys Town.) I couldn’t vote for it though. There are much better films in this category.

The Citadel — I hate to disappoint people, the name sounds much better than what the actual film is about. The film is good, but with a name like The Citadel, you expect a certain thing. It’s not that. So, once you get past that, the film is actually pretty good.

Robert Montgomery is a doctor who wants to do good things. He’s idealistic. And he marries Rosalind Russell and somehow settles into a life of a rich doctor. The one who charges high premiums to rich people and goes golfing all the time. Then he realizes what’s happened to him, and goes back to his original goal, which is treating tuberculosis.

It’s a solid film. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Still a bit let down by the subject matter after that title. But that doesn’t affect my opinion of the film at all. I wouldn’t vote for this anyway. There are too many better films. It’s solid, though. Most people would consider this a “good, but no vote.”

Four Daughters — Well, I bet you can guess what this is about.

That’s literally the film. A man has four daughters. They find romance. There are good parts and bad parts. The film is not terribly interesting. Though this is the film that made John Garfield a star, so that’s something. And Claude Rains is in it. Otherwise, meh. Throwaway film. You’ve seen it before. It’s very standard fare.

Grand Illusion — Oh, man I love this film.

I saw this for the first time in my intro film class. My first film class was Introduction to Film Analysis. And we watched this as — I forget why we watched this, but I don’t care. I fell in love with it within the first fifteen minutes. I thought about telling you that you don’t get a synopsis and you just need to see it, but I’ll sell it a little bit.

The film takes place in a German POW camp during World War II. And basically what happens is, the German Lieutenant meets the French Lieutenant and strikes up a friendship with him. They start having these lengthy philosophical discussions. And meanwhile, the men are digging a tunnel to get out of the camp. But then they get transferred just as they’re about to escape, and end up in this big mountain camp, that’s virtually escape-proof. And the two continue their discussions, now having become very respectful of one another, and almost even friends. And eventually an escape is planned and carried out. I’ll leave it there. The film is perfect. You need to see this.

This is definitely a finalist, and the only thing holding me up from declaring it my vote right now (it still has a strong chance at being my vote when I get down there), is the fact that it is a French film, and I do sort of subscribe to the fact that — it’s the Oscars, an American institution, and, if we can help it, an American film should win. Now, that doesn’t mean the category isn’t weak enough (and this film isn’t strong enough) to win, but — I don’t know, I’ll see. But this film is definitely the best overall film on this list. Hands down.

Jezebel — Ah, the Bette Davis Gone With the Wind movie. Most people know she wanted Scarlett. And when that didn’t work out, she (or Warners. Either way) basically beat them to the punch and made this.

It’s not totally based on Gone With the Wind, but you can see some elements there. It’s basically structured around a small event, which is when Scarlett wears that red dress to Melanie’s party. Here, it’s the focal point of the film. Bette Davis is a carefree southern girl who doesn’t care much for social etiquette. She goes horseback riding before a party and gets in as the party’s started and doesn’t have time to change. So she just shows up in her horse-riding attire. Remember, this is the south. That shit’s scandalous. And she’s dating Henry Fonda, and are clearly on their way to marriage. And then she wears that red dress to the party, and that’s it. Her reputation is ruined. Fonda breaks off the engagement and she’s too stubborn to go back after him. And then he goes up north and returns much later with a wife. And then there’s an outbreak of yellow fever and pretty much the entire city catches it (so they have to burn it… get it? Burn the city? A ha ha! It’s like Atlanta!). And Fonda ends up catching it and has to go be quarantined, much like lepers. And Davis sacrifices herself to go with him and take care of him, even though it’s almost assured that she’ll catch it herself. That’s the film. It’s very Bette Davis. She’s headstrong, she does something stupid, she realizes her mistake too late, and sacrifices herself to atone for it.

It’s not a bad film, but — I really don’t do melodrama. Plus this film is basically like, “Look at Bette! Isn’t she great?” so I would never vote for this. At all. But it’s pretty good. I like watching it in relation to Gone With the Wind.

Pygmalion — You should know this film. Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle. That’s all you should need. This is My Fair Lady without the music. It’s just a straight film version of the play.

What’s great about this is that it’s a substitute for the other one when you don’t want the full three hours of music and all that. This is just a streamlined version with all of Shaw’s brilliant dialogue. (Pretty sure he’s the only dude to win both a Pulitzer and an Oscar for the same work.) Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller are great, and to be honest, I’d probably vote for this over You Can’t Take It With You (though maybe not). I don’t know. It’s great, that’s about all I have. It’s definitely in contention.

Test Pilot — Clark Gable is a test pilot who is a maverick. And one day he crash lands in Myrna Loy’s field. Naturally, he marries her. Because if you met Myrna Loy, you would too. He soon starts flying experimental planes, which are extremely dangerous, and Myrna is worried. And eventually he almost crashes, but comes out okay, and he says, “Shit, I like Myrna more than I like flying,” and quits. (Smart move.)

I liked this film. Then again, I like any film with Myrna Loy in it. Add Gable and Spencer Tracy — it’s a solid film. Not substantial enough at all to be voted for here. This is definitely a mid-range film in this category (at best).

You Can’t Take It With You — This is kind of a weird film, narratively. But it’s amazing.

The film is structured around the marriage of Jimmy Stewart, son of an uptight rich banker, and Jean Arthur, daughter of eccentric Lionel Barrymore. He has a house in town that pretty much houses anyone. There are all these weird and eccentric people who live there, with their own “talents.” And they try to get Stewart’s father to meet Barrymore, and it doesn’t go well, because they believe in the exact opposite things. And eventually it comes to the point where Stewart’s father (Edward Arnold, who played Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) tries to foreclose on Barrymore’s house. And there’s this great scene at the end where Barrymore is brought before the court (and it’s clear that he doesn’t have any money and doesn’t deal in money), and he says that essentially there’s nothing you’re taking with you to the grave except the love of your friends and family. And everyone in town pays the fine he is levied. It’s a great Capra moment.

Just — just watch the film. It’s great. It’s Capra, it’s a classic — it’s amazing. Honestly, though, it’s not one of his best. I mean, it is one of his best, it’s just not one of his best, going solely on the ones nominated for Oscars. I can’t vote for this knowing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life (not counting the categories they were in) didn’t win. This film is great, but, I’d rather vote for other films. This to me is a boring choice. So I can’t vote for it even though I love it. I just can’t.

My Thoughts: I refuse to vote for Frank Capra again. So, to me, that brings this down to three films, which are the three best films that aren’t You Can’t Take It With You, which are Adventures of Robin Hood, Grand Illusion and Pygmalion. And to me, the only choice there is Grand Illusion. Robin Hood is fun, but probably shouldn’t have won Best Picture. And Pygmalion is great, but was better-suited for acting awards and not Best Picture (plus My Fair Lady won in ’64. Twice is too much). So Grand Illusion is the vote. It’s just the best film on this list.

My Vote: Grand Illusion

Should Have Won: Grand Illusion

Is this result acceptable?: I guess. It’s not like it’s a bad film. It’s just a weak choice. I personally think, considering this year not really mening much anyway, that Robin Hood or Grand Illusion would have been more entertaining choices. But yeah, it’s acceptable.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Grand Illusion, Adventures of Robin Hood, Pygmalion or You Can’t Take It With You — you don’t really love movies, you’re dead to me, you really need to get on that, and what’s wrong with you?

The Citadel is a solid film and definitely worth watching. Recommended.

Test Pilot is also recommended. Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. What more do you need? How about Spencer Tracy? Does that seal it? I’ll say Myrna Loy again to remind you not to be stupid about this.

Jezebel — it’s okay. It’s not bad. I don’t love it, but it’s worth a watch. Plus it won. So that probably means you should see it.

Boys Town — it’s good. Worth a watch. Plus, it’s Boys Town. This was a big deal for people growing up in the 40s and 50s.

The last two — Four Daughters and Alexander’s Ragtime Band — meh, take them or leave them. They’re not bad, but, unless you’re planning on seeing everything, you don’t really need to see them unless they seem interesting to you.


10) Four Daughters

9) Alexander’s Ragtime Band

8) Boys Town

7) Jezebel

6) Test Pilot

5) The Citadel

4) You Can’t Take It With You

3) Pygmalion

2) Grand Illusion

1) The Adventures of Robin Hood

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