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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1937-1938)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1937

Charles Boyer, Conquest

Fredric March, A Star Is Born

Robert Montgomery, Night Must Fall

Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola

Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous

Analysis:

Conquest is about Napoleon’s mistress. Seriously.

Napoleon tries to sleep with a married Polish woman. She wont’ sleep with him. Though eventually they leave their spouses and carry on their affair. But it ends unhappily, and then, you know, Waterloo. I remember that being the big moment in the film. She leaves him and he’s unhappy and then is like, “Oh, well you know what, I’m going to… WATERLOO.” And there’s the big emotional swell and foreboding music. Napoleon went to Waterloo because Greta Garbo wouldn’t give it up no more.

Anyway Charles Boyer plays Napoleon. He’s… fine. I never much cared for Charles Boyer as an actor. Or rather, as an awards caliber actor. I like him just fine on screen. But I always found him either a bit wooden or a bit hammy. One or the other. This one, I just didn’t care so much. The whole movie felt too melodramatic. I’d probably rate him fourth, but that’s only because one of the performances is just too schizophrenic for my taste. Otherwise he’d be fifth.

A Star Is Born is one of the most famous screen stories ever made. Even now, they’re about to make a fifth version of it. This is the second. Though this version is the one they’ve been remaking all these times.

Esther Blodgett comes out from the midwest to Hollywood to be a star. She meets and later falls in love with Noman Maine, an alcoholic, fading movie star. As her star rises, his falls.

Fredric March plays Maine, and he’s great in it. It’s a showy role. He gets to play drunk, desperate, depressed and eventually suicidal. March can sometimes be prone to overacting and theatricality, and that shows a bit in this one. I don’t think he’s an automatic winner, but I do think he’s top two here and would contend for most people. The role is iconic.

Night Must Fall is, or at least it feels like, a standard thriller.

Dame May Whitty plays an invalid who is taken in by Robert Montgomery. It’s pretty clear from the start that he’s only being charming so he can get into her good graces and then kill her for money. Rosalind Russell, Whitty’s daughter, is suspicious of Montgomery, but he’s so charming she somewhat overlooks her concerns. Though of course he ends up being a crazy person and so on and so forth and it becomes the typical thriller you’d expect.

Montgomery is fine here, but it’s too bipolar a performance. He’s charming and nice, and even though it’s clear he’s crazy, there’s no real subtext to that in any of his scenes. And then when he turns crazy he just goes full on crazy out of nowhere, just so the film could get its thriller moments. Not a performance I love. It felt obvious from the jump what was going on, without the benefit of showing us how crazy this guy is.

This is fifth in the category for me, I don’t really care for it at all. He’s a charming psychopath. I get why they nominated him. But this isn’t for me at all.

The Life of Emile Zola is… well, that’s two Paul Muni films in a row that are basically biopics of the week.

This isn’t so much a straight up biopic of Zola as much as it’s about setting up his penchant for speaking out against the French government and being a nonconformist and then showing his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.

Muni is good here. He’s always good. This is an extension of the Louis Pasteur performance. Same thing. Maybe more enhanced by the wig and stuff, but overall, same deal. By now, it feels old hat. He got his Oscar, and this is a solid performance, but we get it. It’s like last year, where Eddie Redmayne got his second nomination after Hawking for The Danish Girl. Yeah, he’s good, but we get what he does. If he hadn’t won, it would have been a totally different story. I know that’s not how we should think of them, and it’s actually different now than it was then. These performances are way more similar than they would be nowadays. I wouldn’t take this, even though Muni is a solid third and possibly even second in this category.

Captains Courageous is an awesome movie.

Spoiled rich boy goes overboard and gets picked up by a fishing boat. They’re out to sea for a fixed amount of time, so they are not bringing him back until they’re finished. So he’s stuck on board, having to earn his keep. Which involves him having to dig in and do real work. And that’s what the film is about, him learning to lose his spoiled nature and grow up, while also befriending a Portuguese fisherman on the boat, Manuel.

Spencer Tracy plays Manuel, and he’s really cocky and charming and likable. He brags a lot about what he’s gonna do, get his own oat, all of that. And he befriends the boy and is pretty much a nicer Long John Silver. But without the mutiny. And he gets to die too, and give the boy a big emotional scene in the end. Tracy is good enough that his death means something. I mean, sure, it’s contrived as hell and almost forced how he dies, but the scene where the boy mourns him, you really feel the loss, which says a lot about Tracy’s performance. I’m very anti his second Oscar, but it’s hard to argue with this one. You may not take him, but he definitely had the goods to be the vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I wouldn’t take Montgomery or Boyer at all. So that leaves three contenders.

And Muni, he’d really need to impress me in order to be the choice after last year’s win. And this is so similar to last year’s win that it’s really not standing out to me all that much. Not over the other two.

Really, it’s either Fredric March or Spencer Tracy. I prefer A Star Is Born to Captains Courageous, and I like March’s Norman Maine a lot, but Spencer Tracy is so goddamn charming as Manuel that I think I’m gonna take him. I get this win. It’s not high art, but it gets the job done.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous
  2. Fredric March, A Star Is Born
  3. Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola
  4. Charles Boyer, Conquest
  5. Robert Montgomery, Night Must Fall

Rankings (films):

  1. A Star Is Born
  2. Captains Courageous
  3. The Life of Emile Zola
  4. Night Must Fall
  5. Conquest

My Vote: Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous

Recommendations:

A Star Is Born is iconic, and essential. All film buffs need to see it because of its stature in film history.

Captains Courageous is awesome. Really entertaining, really effective in just about every way. High recommend. Definitely check this one out, and it’s essential for Oscar buffs. And film buffs will enjoy it because just about every great character actor from the 30s is in it. Great stuff, definitely check this one out. You’ll enjoy it.

The Life of Emile Zola is a very solid biopic that’s a better overall film than the Louis Pasteur film, and its only fault is that it won Best Picture. Shouldn’t have done that. But otherwise, very solid, high recommend, great stuff. As a Best Picture winner, it should be seen as essential by serious film buffs.

Night Must Fall is a generic thriller that’s perfectly watchable and perfectly entertaining for a late 30s film. I think it’s too obvious to be special, but that does not prevent you from enjoying watching it. Moderate recommend, and a TCM watch kind of film.

Conquest is not a film I love. But Boyer and Garbo — light recommend. Definite TCM kind of film, if at all. Not essential, and not something I really recommend outside of the two actors.

The Last Word: I’m actually surprised I didn’t take Fredric March here. I think Tracy holds up fine. Not great, but fine. Muni didn’t need back to backs, not for the roles being what they are. I don’t think he’d have held up. And March would have been okay. I’m curious if he won this if he’d have won the third one in ’46 (which is, as it stands, his second one). But on its own, going in order, March would have held up for this performance. I think they made the right choice with Tracy, even though he’s borderline not a lead.

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– – – – – – – – – –

1938

Charles Boyer, Algiers

James Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces

Robert Donat, The Citadel

Leslie Howard, Pygmalion

Spencer Tracy, Boys Town

Analysis:

Algiers is a remake of Pepe le Moko. For those who don’t know that.

Pepe le Moko is a famous thief hiding out in (insert title here). He’s in the Casbah, which is like Brazilian favelas. Massive, full of locals and not particularly friendly to police. So he’s able to hide out basically in public and not be caught, even though the police are doing everything they can to get him arrested. Pepe starts to feel restless, especially after meeting a beautiful woman, as the law starts to close in around him.

Boyer plays Pepe, and he’s very good here. I was actually impressed this time around at how much I liked him. Though I didn’t like him enough to seriously take him over two other nominees in this category. That just comes down to how I feel about him as an actor. Baby steps. I used to dislike the performance entirely. I’m coming around on him. I think he is worth considering, I just wouldn’t do it myself.

Angels with Dirty Faces is an iconic movie. Hell, even Home Alone parodied it. Sort of.

The film is about two friends. One grows up to become a priest, the other grows up to be a gangster. James Cagney is the gangster. He comes back to his old neighborhood after a prison sentence and starts hanging out with some younger boys (played by the Bowery Boys), who look up to him. His priest friend warns him not to make the gangster lifestyle look appealing, because the boys will want to go down that path, and it won’t end well for them. So half the film is Cagney with the boys, and half the film is him trying to get the money he stole and went to jail for, which his crooked lawyer is “holding” for him.

The film culminates with Cagney getting the electric chair, and his friend begging him not to let the boys think he went out in a noble way. Cagney refuses. He won’t go out like a punk. But as he goes to the chair, he breaks down crying and begging for mercy, and it’s left ambiguous whether he did it on purpose or that was just his natural reaction. So even though he dies, he leaves the boys with a chance of growing up straight.

Cagney is great here. He just leaps off the screen. He’s so charismatic here. This is the kind of role you see a lot in the Best Actor category. The guy who jumps off the screen and makes a lot of people say, “That’s the guy I want.” But then, when you look into it more closely, it’s mostly there, but I don’t know if it’s polished enough to want to take. The best comparison for me is 60 years later. Edward Norton for American History X. A lot of people, after simply seeing that film and none of the other nominees, would go, “He’s the guy. Of course he’s the guy. He got robbed!” But when you really dig into the category — yes he’s great. But he’s raw. And it’s not, in my mind, a complete performance. It’s just a handful of memorable moments and not a sustained thing. But that’s just me. I think that Cagney does enough to merit a vote. I’m not sure I take him though. He’s definitely top two here, and I don’t think anyone would really argue that.

The Citadel is a really interesting movie. I always think it’s not that good, but then when I go back to it, I’m reminded by how much I liked it.

Robert Donat is an idealistic doctor who dedicates himself to healing coal miners from TB. He’s got all these goals, and all these things he’s gonna do, and then pretty soon he ends up starting a practice and ending up a rich doctor treating rich people with rich people problems, and rather than trying to solve problems, he charges a fortune and plays gold during the day. And his wife has to get him back on the path he originally set for himself.

It’s a good film. Very solid, very well made. I like it more than I remember.

Donat is good here. Very solid. Not a performance I vote for, but one I support for the nomination. Fourth/fifth choice here. But wouldn’t take him at all.

Pygmalion is one of the most famous stories of all time. Not even on film. In art.

Henry Higgins, Eliza Dolittle. Everyone knows this. Hell, even Family Guy used it for an episode at one point. Everyone, just by living, knows this story.

Leslie Howard plays Henry Higgins, and he is wonderful at it. He’s actually a better Higgins than Rex Harrison is. In this category, he rates top two. It’s gonna be hard for me not to take him.

Boys Town contains, as I so like to call it, the single worst Best Actor winning performance of all time.

It’s hard to find a weaker performance than this one. I’ve tried. And I’ve tried to be generous to this while doing so.

The film is about Father Flanagan and his organization, (insert title here). It begins when he hears the confessions of a death row inmate, who says that if he had more of a chance as a boy, jumping around from state institution to state institution, his life maybe wouldn’t have turned out this way. So Flanagan creates a place where at risk boys can prosper. The film is mostly about the boys. The boys govern themselves and keep each other on the straight and narrow.

Spencer Tracy plays Father Flanagan. There’s really nothing for him to do in this movie, and any number of actors could have done exactly what he did with it. He becomes a supporting character for a lot of the film, being brought in to help govern the boys’ conflicts and then in the end to stop them from committing a crime. The film is overly sappy and all that, but that’s not the real issue here. The issue is that Spencer Tracy really has absolutely nothing to do, and the fact that he so easily won this Oscar is kind of a joke. I don’t like to be harsh about these things, but this is really one of those instances where I just do not see the win at all. Sometimes I’m willing to give some leeway, but here, he’s actually the fifth choice. At best I could give him maybe fourth on some charm, but even then, I don’t feel that way. This is just an admirable performance that didn’t even need a nomination, let alone a win.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I think we all know where I stand on this one.

No to Tracy. I’d take him over Donat, but I still think Donat gives a better performance. Both are out, though.

Shame about Boyer, but he only makes third. He’s good, but not iconic good.

Cagney is just electric on screen and commands it with his presence. Great stuff out of him, but I don’t think it’s fully there. It’s raw and it’s good, but I don’t think there’s enough there for me to want to take him over Leslie Howard. I just love the perfect fit of him playing Higgins. That’s just something I cannot pass up. I get that it’s very theatrical and very showy and Cagney is more the cinematic portrayal. I get that. But I only have a problem with showy, theatrical performances about a decade after this. Olivier gets the last one and after that it’s no-go. Here, it’s totally fine because it fits the era. So I’m taking Howard.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Leslie Howard, Pygmalion
  2. James Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces
  3. Charles Boyer, Algiers
  4. Robert Donat, The Citadel
  5. Spencer Tracy, Boys Town

Rankings (films):

  1. Pygmalion
  2. Angels with Dirty Faces
  3. Algiers
  4. Boys Town
  5. The Citadel

My Vote: Leslie Howard, Pygmalion

Recommendations:

Pygmalion is essential. Everyone needs to see this story on screen. Most people will see My Fair Lady, and that’s good, but you also need to see this version in order to truly appreciate the brilliance of George Bernard Shaw’s writing. Trust me on this. This is the kind of dialogue that makes you all tingly inside.

Angels with Dirty Faces is a classic and an essential film for movie buffs because it’s so iconic on a lot of levels. Classic gangster picture, one that cemented James Cagney even more so than The Public Enemy. Film buffs need to see this.

Algiers is one of those underground classics. Some places mark it as such, but not everyone. This is a fingernails movie. The kind where if you get your fingernails dirty as a film buff, you’ll uncover this one and see how many people like it. High recommend. Solid film, very much worth seeing. Good stuff, should be considered a film to watch. Not a “must watch.” Because must watch I think implies as soon as possible. Throw it in the queue and get to it eventually. It’s good.

Boys Town is essential for Oscar buffs. Very essential for Oscar buffs, because as an Oscar buff, you need to weigh in on this one. And you cannot complain without having seen it. Otherwise, just a decent and even pretty good movie that, outside of the Oscars, is perfectly watchable. Catch it if it’s on TCM. It’s almost a classic. I don’t think it is, but it’s kind of well known.

The Citadel is decent. Worthwhile, watchable, engaging and all that. Not something you need to seek out. Catch it if it’s on TCM. That’s all.

The Last Word: Awful decision. The only reason he holds up is because no one really would have remembered the winner otherwise. Cagney got his win later for a better performance, and none of the other performances really needed a win. Henry Higgins is a great role, and won later, but Leslie Howard didn’t necessarily need to win for it. So all things being equal, it’s not like he beat an iconic performance that needed to win. I’d argue that Cagney is an iconic performance, but I don’t think people go back and look at this as a giant robbery. It feels that way in context, but not globally. So I’m willing to say there is some level where Spencer Tracy winning is okay. That said, it’s still the weakest Best Actor winning performance of all time, he shouldn’t have won, and both James Cagney and Leslie Howard were better choices. I’m willing to give him the win over Boyer and Donat. Though even there, I’d say that Boyer gives a more iconic and memorable performance worthy of a win. So all around, not a great choice, but because it’s so early and the year isn’t wholly remembered, he holds up better than he should. Lucky him.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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