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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 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

The Awful Truth

Captains Courageous

Dead End

The Good Earth

In Old Chicago

The Life of Emile Zola

Lost Horizon

One Hundred Men and a Girl

Stage Door

A Star Is Born

Analysis:

The Awful Truth is one of the great comedies of all time. Absolutely wonderful.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are married. He comes home from a trip to Florida, or so he says. He finds his wife not at home. When she gets home, she says she was at a friend’s house. She quickly finds out he wasn’t really in Florida, and he finds out she wasn’t at her friend’s house. They both think the other might have been having an affair, so they divorce. The rest of the movie is each of them messing up the other’s chance at seeing someone else. He ruins her chances at an oil magnate, and, in retaliation (of sorts), she messes up his chances at an heiress, showing up to a dinner party pretending to be his sister, a stripper. Hilarity ensues.

It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s amazing. Great movie. Would it have made a good Best Picture winner? Not really, actually. Going back to watch it — it’s not really that amazingly put together. It looks like they’re winging it for half the movie. It’s great, but I don’t necessarily think it needed to win Best Picture. It would be the film that most people vote for because it’s their favorite film, but I’m not really sure it holds up if it wins.

That doesn’t mean I won’t vote for it, because it just might be my favorite film in the category too. Mostly what I’m getting at is the fact that this year is so weak, this might actually have to be the choice. (Though let me also say — it’s no Bringing Up Baby.)

Captains Courageous is such a fantastic film. Part of a very long line of “coming-of-age” type films.

It’s about a rich, spoiled boy on a ship with his father. He’s just a horrible little shit. And eventually he falls overboard. And he’s picked up by a fishing boat. He tells them he needs to get back ashore. But they’re out for the next month. They’re not going anywhere. He’s stuck with them. And he’s either gonna work for his or they’re casting him overboard. And the rest of the film is about the boy learning to become a man, so to speak. He learns how to put in an honest day’s work and to deal with the realities of life, all the while getting close to one of the fisherman, played by Spencer Tracy.

It’s a really great film. I’m a huge fan of it. It probably couldn’t be made properly today, but it’s terrific for 1938. Not sure I vote for it, but it’s top three potentially for me in this category. Definitely in the conversation. What I love most about it is how, after we get all the stuff of the boy changing, it shifts gears in the third act, and actually becomes about fixing the father/son relationship from the beginning of the film.

The key to this category is — I’m not sure if there’s a best choice, but it’s about what choice you like the most, and to a lesser extent, what choice feels like it could have held up as well as the winner, which isn’t particularly difficult. This fits that bill, so we’ll see where it ends up come voting time.

Dead End is half an awesome movie and half a kids show. Basically.

The movie is named for the Dead End kids, a bunch of teenage hooligans who are like Our Gang grown up. They’re all kids with Brooklyn accents who get into fights and break windows and wanna be like all the gangsters in the neighborhood. (They’re the same kids you see in Angels with Dirty Faces, who look up to Cagney.) And half of this movie (maybe even more than that) is them getting up to antics and all that. Eventually it became a show. Part of that storyline is also about one of the kids’ older sister and her romance. Because it needs that romance angle. The other half is the more interesting half — Humphrey Bogart is a gangster who is wanted by the police. He grew up in the neighborhood and came back to see his mother and his old girlfriend. The idea is that this is a (insert title here) neighborhood with all these denizens in it, just outside the nice high rises of the city. So there are all these little stories that play out. And this is one of them. So we occasionally cut back to Bogart as he goes around to see his mother, who wants nothing to do with him, and his girlfriend, who has become a hooker and has syphilis.

It’s kind of an uneven film, but it’s really engaging on the whole, and as I said, the Bogart portion is terrific. I’m fine with it being nominated, but ultimately it feels like a “nominee not a vote” kind of movie. It’ll probably end up in that mid range for me. There’s always 1-4 that I like a lot, 5-7 that are good but I wouldn’t take, and then 8-10 that are the “also rans.” This is gonna be in that 5-7 range. I like it but wouldn’t take it at tall.

The Good Earth is based on a really famous (and really great) novel. This is one of those where I can pretty definitively say — read the book instead of watching the movie. It’s just so much more rich.

The film is about a Chinese peasant farmer whose greatest desire in life is land. Land is what makes a man rich. So we follow him (and his wife) over many years, through ups and downs.

The film feels like it boils down a rich novel into a barebones plot. It’s meant to be classy and get the point across, but it never feels like it plumbs any depths whatsoever and only superficially gets the point across. I like it, but it’s just okay. It’s too standard for me. I don’t love it, I only respect it. And that’s all this would be as a winner. You kinda respect it because, “I guess it makes sense, and it was pretty good,” but I can’t feel like this is a movie that a lot of people are gonna go, “Oh yeah, this is the choice for me.” It’s gotta be about a fifth choice for most people. Right? It doesn’t feel like it makes it to top three for most people because who really actually likes this movie?

In Old Chicago is clearly the follow up to San Francisco. They saw that work and went, “Well, the Chicago Fire is another big one. Let’s make a movie about that!”

The first half of this movie is a nice film about two brothers. One who gets into politics, the other crime. And eventually as they’re about to butt heads, their mother, Mrs. O’Leary, and her cow… well, you know the rest. And it turns into a disaster movie about the Chicago Fire.

It’s fine, but it feels like a lesser retread of something we’ve seen. It quickly falls to the back of the pack of the nominees and feels like it may actually be a ninth choice. It won’t be tenth, because there’s such a weak nominee in this bunch that it actually crosses into “weakest of all time” territory. This is just weak for the year.

The Life of Emile Zola is the film that won Best Picture in 1937. That’s pretty much how it’s known now. If people know it at all. If it didn’t win, it would be as forgotten as The Story of Louis Pasteur the year before this. And that won Best Actor!

The first act is Emile Zola being an author who writes about the poor and the social inequality of France in his era. The state doesn’t particularly like him. We spend a while establishing that. Mostly through him writing a book about hookers. Then the movie gets to what it’s really about, which is the Dreyfus Affair. We see Dreyfus get thrown in prison and then Zola taking up his defense. And the last bit of the movie is a trial film.

Here’s the thing about this movie — it’s very solid. It’s well made. I can’t say I dislike it. I just think it’s a bad winner. And that’s my problem with it. Some movies just shouldn’t win Best Picture because they’re not good enough to bear the brunt of that scrutiny. And it’s clear this probably shouldn’t have won because if you asked people to name the Best Picture winners, I bet this would be one of the most forgotten ones. I like this movie and still wouldn’t put it higher than fourth for a vote. It’s one of those movies that wins where you’re just like, “Uh… okay, I guess?”

Lost Horizon is a Frank Capra movie, but it doesn’t feel like a Frank Capra movie. It feels like another director maybe should have handled it, given the potentially dark subject matter.

A plane carrying a bunch of passengers is hijacked and crashes in the Himalayas. The passengers stumble upon a hidden city in the mountains — Shangri-La. They discover it’s a place where the people don’t age and live for hundreds of years. Most of the film is them going around the place and dealing with their own personal shit — which people want to leave, which people want to stay. One guy falls for a woman who lives there and wants to run away with her. The main one is the ruler of the place being old and dying and wanting someone to take his place.

I really like this film a lot. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good and is a film I imagine most people will like a lot and rank highly here. It’s going to be a consensus top four for most people ranking this category. It’s top four for me. I’ll need to get over the notion of Frank Capra having a Best Picture contender basically six years in a row (five out of six, but still), but outside of that, it’ll definitely factor highly in my decision-making.

One Hundred Men and a Girl is one of those movies — how did this get nominated?

Deanna Durbin is the daughter of Adolphe Menjou. He’s an unemployed musician. Mostly he hangs around and plays with other unemployed musicians. He lies to his daughter and says, “Yeah, I’m working for Leopold Stokowski now! Yeah!” So her daughter sets out to find someone to back all the unemployed musicians, even going so far as to seek out Leopold Stokowski to conduct them.

It’s — fine. It’s cute and whatever. I don’t particularly like it. It’s by far the weakest film in this category. I actually can’t even see another film that it could be argued over. Personal preference, sure. But in terms of what should be a Best Picture winner, this should be a consensus 10 of 10 all around.

Stage Door is an awesome film. I really liked it. I think I only really like about half of it, but a positive memory is a positive memory.

It’s about a bunch of girls who live together in a boarding house. They all want to be actresses, dancers, etc. The three main ones are Ginger Rogers, the jaded dancer who’s sleeping with a producer, Andrea Leeds, the upstart who had a big hit role but is struggling to find work after that, and Katharine Hepburn, the new girl who really wants to get this big new part that’s out there (which Leeds also wants). The movie focuses on Hepburn, who is the daughter of a rich man but hides her real identity because she wants to make it on talent alone.

It’s a really good film, actually. I particularly love the Leeds storyline, but the rest of it is solid. It’s a mix of a backstage musical and something like The Women. Big fan.

Should it have won Best Picture? Probably not. It’s definitely something I like but it’s not something I’d vote for at all. Maybe it can get to the top half of the list, but it’s not gonna be number one, not even in a weak year like this.

A Star Is Born is one of the most famous film stories of all time. If there was a hall of fame of the most famous original film stories, this would be in that inaugural class.

Esther Blodgett moves from the midwest out to Hollywood. Small town girl with big dreams. You know the deal. She comes out to Hollywood and crosses paths with Norman Maine, a huge movie star whose days at the top are coming to an end. He’s super famous, but he’s now a bitter drunk and his movies aren’t grossing as much as they used to. They meet and fall in love. He gets her a screen test, and pretty soon, she’s rechristened by the studio as Vicki Lester, and is their new star in the making. And we watch as her star rises and his falls amidst their romance.

It’s a great film. It really is. Everyone remembers the Judy Garland version, and I suspect that’s the best version. But this is the straight story version of it, and it’s a really great film. It might be the first all-color film to be nominated for Best Picture. I can’t recall one off the top of my head before this. It’s a classic, and it would have held up, that’s for sure. And it might be my favorite film in the category. This might be the perfect package.

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The Reconsideration: Ah, we finally get to one of the biggest head-scratchers in the history of the Academy Awards. This and 1948 are the two I keep coming back to, wondering, “How did that happen?” Most of the others I can contextualize and make sense of. These two — nope.

The Life of Emile Zola is a fine film, but it’s no different than The Story of Louis Pasteur. A serviceable biopic. Nothing more, nothing less. I can see that there weren’t that many choices to be had here, but there had to be a better one than that. Let’s see..

One Hundred Men and a Girl is automatically off. That is just one of the weakest nominees of all time, in my mind. It’s ones like that which I’m assuming led to them eventually lowering the nominees total to five. I could pull that and two other movies and show you all three without titles and go, “Pick the one that was nominated for Best Picture,” and you’d probably go, “One of them was nominated?” and then basically guess as to which it was. It’s just generic.

Stage Door is too stagey, all though I like it a lot as a film. In Old Chicago I don’t like enough to even consider. I already made my feelings known on The Life of Emile Zola. And then Dead End — I like it, but it’s not something I can consider. It’s half a crime film and half a Dead End Kids short film. So that’s the first half done.

The Good Earth is fine, but nowhere near something I’d vote for. Lost Horizon I like a lot, but something’s missing there. It’s a quintessential “nominee but not the vote” film.

That leaves me with three choices — The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous and A Star Is Born.

The Awful Truth is a great comedy, but I don’t feel it as a Best Picture winner. I know it won Best Director, but it just wouldn’t have held up as a winner. That said, I almost have to vote for it here. So let’s see where we shake out on the other two before I decide on this.

Captains Courageous I do like a lot. But the fact that I’m even considering it as the actual vote shows how weak this category is. I have to put it in the conversation, but this isn’t something I’d want to vote for. I would if I had to, but I’d rather go elsewhere. Which means it’s gonna end up the third choice.

A Star Is Born is really great. It’s a classic, although very dated. And aside from the color, it’s not really a masterpiece. The story is great, but it’s not like this is an astounding piece of cinema the way All Quiet on the Western Front is. And honestly, with the choice pretty much being this and The Awful Truth (for me, not everyone), I get why a lot of people automatically take The Awful Truth here.

For me — I just don’t really want to take The Awful Truth. To take it feels like I’m compromising. I honestly like A Star Is Born better. So I’m just gonna take that and be fine with it, since this is one of the weakest Best Picture years ever. I think it’s an American classic, and would have held up okay.

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Rankings (category):

  1. A Star Is Born
  2. The Awful Truth
  3. Captains Courageous
  4. Lost Horizon
  5. The Good Earth
  6. The Life of Emile Zola
  7. Dead End
  8. Stage Door
  9. In Old Chicago
  10. One Hundred Men and a Girl

Rankings (films):

  1. A Star Is Born
  2. The Awful Truth
  3. Captains Courageous
  4. Lost Horizon
  5. The Life of Emile Zola
  6. Stage Door
  7. Dead End
  8. The Good Earth
  9. In Old Chicago
  10. One Hundred Men and a Girl

My Vote: A Star Is Born

Recommendations:

A Star Is Born is an essential film story. You could probably get by with only seeing the 1954 version, but for my money, you should see both. I will say something similar next year as well. This is an essential 30s film and a classic. It’s worth seeing.

The Awful Truth is an all-time comedy and essential for anyone who loves film. It’s great. This is one of those that almost everyone will love.

Captains Courageous is a very solid film. Essential for Oscar buffs. High recommend from me. Very engaging with some really great moments from the actors. I’m a big fan of this movie.

Lost Horizon is a pretty classic film story. This is the best version of it. (Don’t watch the 70s musical version. That’s way overdone.) It’s also Frank Capra. A lot of people are gonna like this. It’s 30s essential and a high recommend overall. Some people might even consider it essential.

The Life of Emile Zola is kind of essential because it won Best Picture, but as far as Best Pictures go, it’s one of the least five essential winners. But it’s a solid film, so it is worth seeing.

Stage Door is a movie I quite like, with some great actresses in it. Very solid recommend and definitely worth checking out.

Dead End is definitely an interesting film. If you’re into that Little Rascals type stuff, then half of the film will appeal to you. I suspect more people would be interested in the Bogart half, which is actually quite interesting. I give it a solid recommend. It is a good movie.

The Good Earth is a book you should definitely read. As far as the film goes — it’s solid. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the win, but otherwise just a solid film I give a solid recommend to. I recommend the book more than I recommend the movie.

In Old Chicago is a lesser imitation of San Francisco. It’s worth a TCM watch, but not much more. Essential only for Oscar buffs because of the Brady win, but otherwise just a decent 30s movie with some fine disaster sequences

One Hundred Men and a Girl is standard 30s light musical fare. Nothing overly astounding, unless you’re super into Leopold Stokowoski. Very light recommend. The kind of movie where, if it’s on TCM, sure, otherwise don’t worry about it.

The Last Word: This would have been a weak winner no matter what it was. It’s actually better that A Star Is Born didn’t win, because it’s rare to see a Best Picture winner get remade. Though I guess Mutiny on the Bounty was remade twice as well, so let’s scrap that argument. Still, there’s nothing really that holds up as a great winner. There could be something we all like more, like The Awful Truth, but even that would have been a great winner. I don’t think The Life of Emile Zola is a particularly bad winner, but I also feel like it’s one of the five weakest of all time. I can’t particularly offer up a better solution, but I do think there was probably one that could have been had that would have seemed better and been less forgotten overall.

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1938

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

Boys Town

The Citadel

Four Daughters

Grand Illusion

Jezebel

Pygmalion

Test Pilot

You Can’t Take It With You

Analysis:

The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the great 30s films.

It’s basically the story of Robin Hood as we all know it and have seen a bunch of times throughout the years. It was made a bunch before this, and it was made a bunch after this, and it’ll continue to be made.

This version is the most colorful, the most fun, and generally considered the best version of the story ever put to screen.

I love this movie. It’s my favorite in the category. Should it have won Best Picture? Maybe. The stature of the film, historically, would make it seem okay. And I think that’s enough. There’s one other major movie here, so we’ll see how it shakes out.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a movie that nobody remembers, yet it was a huge film for 1938. It was co-written by Irving Berlin, which probably has something to do with it. Or maybe it’s the kind of thing that was just in at the time and hasn’t aged particularly well.

Tyrone Power plays a rich kid who is given a classical music education. They expect him to go on and become a great composer and do important things. But he’d rather do ragtime music. There are dozens of story equivalents throughout the years. I think you get the idea. Like the kid who grows up in the stage acting family who decides to do cowboy westerns instead. And the family’s like, “Why are you wasting your time on that nonsense?” and the kid’s like, “But this is what I want to do.”

The film is okay. It’s a standard musical type plot. It has a bunch of Irving Berlin tunes, which I’m sure was the selling point back in the day. Here — meh. It’s fine. Not something I’d ever take, but on its own a decent enough movie.

Boys Town is an interesting film. I used to hate it on principle because Spencer Tracy won for it. But in actuality, it’s a decent film. Very much in the line with Dead End and those other films of this era, where the child actors are put front and center and the film is very much a series of gags surrounding their characters.

The gist is that Father Flanagan, a priest, visits a man on death row about to be executed who says that this wouldn’t have happened if only he was treated better as a kid. He was thrown in foster home after foster home, neglected and that led to him turning out the way he did. So Flanagan creates a home for boys, (insert title here), where the boys can be taken off their criminal paths and set straight to become decent human beings. And a lot of the film is about the boys of the home living there. Flanagan creates a system by which the boys govern themselves. Which teaches them core values and also doesn’t punish them. It lets them punish themselves. The main story is about Mickey Rooney, the oldest of the boys who is the type that thinks he’s gonna get over on these pushovers, who eventually comes to turn over a new leaf.

The film is actually good. I like it. I wouldn’t vote for it ever, but it’s definitely a decent film. I think it would have made an awful winner, but it probably ends up in the middle of the pack for a vote and in terms of my liking it. Which is respectful.

The Citadel is one of the most forgotten Best Picture nominees of all time. You forget it was even nominated, and most people would forget what it’s about once they see the title.

Robert Donat is a doctor who is really idealistic and all about curing miners of tuberculosis. He struggles to get his research off the ground and fights against a system which is adverse to change. Eventually he meets and falls in love with Rosalind Russell and they eventually leave to go live in the big city. There, he attempts to continue being idealistic and helping the poor, but pretty soon he ends up becoming one of those doctors who only treats the rich (who don’t really have any problems) and is constantly out on the golf course and not actually working or helping anyone. You basically follow this doctor who starts out with ideals, slowly loses them, and then have to come to terms with what he’s become and make the decision to go back to where he’d like to be in life.

The film is actually good. I did really enjoy it. I just… it doesn’t feel like a movie I’d take. It’s kind of a flat middle-of-the-pack film for me in this category. The kind you like but would never entertain as the actual vote.

Four Daughters is a movie that’s quite interesting, because it tries to be a light film centered around singing sisters, but actually has some darker elements to it, for which the film is most remembered.

The film stars the Lane sisters (though there were only three of them, so they threw another actress in there as the fourth sister), and it’s about them as young musical prodigies living with their father, Claude Rains. And they run a boarding house where a bunch of different tenants live. And the film is about them finding love, and all that stuff. Really, though, the most interesting element is the John Garfield storyline. Everything else about this movie is light and fun, but his is a much darker, complex element that is really the thing that stands out.

The film itself is just okay. It’s fine for what it is. In this category, it almost immediately falls to the bottom of the list in terms of films I’d vote for. I’d be surprised if this got higher than number nine on my rankings. It might even be outright tenth. There’s nothing here to make me consider it for a vote.

Grand Illusion is the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture. It’s also a masterpiece.

It takes place in a POW camp during World War I. It’s about class differences. French lieutenants are shot down and taken to the camp, where the camp commander invites them to a meal. They both know some of the same people and have a sort of kinship, despite being on opposite sides of the conflict. The film is partly about the relationship between the men as well as the prisoners’ repeated attempts at escape. It’s incredible.

This never would have won, but since we’re not interested in that, who cares? This is one of the two best films in the category, and one of the greatest films ever made. It’s absolutely in the conversation, and really, it’s gonna come down to whether or not I prefer this or Adventures of Robin Hood. Because this clearly is top two for me all around and would be the choice for many if not most people looking at this category.

Jezebel is a Bette Davis melodrama. Quite a great one, too. It’s insane how this story plays out, but that’s part of its charm.

Davis is a southern debutante who is dating Henry Fonda. She’s an iconoclast, very independent and often flouts the traditions of southern society (evidenced in one of the early scenes of the film, where she comes back from riding horses and a garden party is happening. She doesn’t have time to change, so she shows up in her riding clothes). Fonda is supposed to take her to buy a dress for a party, and he’s too busy to go with her. So she decides to buy a flaming red dress (even though the virginal women are supposed to wear white). This is shocking to all at the party and causes Fonda to end their engagement and move up north. Fonda comes back a year later… with his wife. Davis ends up trying to goad another suitor of hers into a dual with Fonda, and then there’s an outbreak of yellow fever… it gets weird.

It’s not a bad movie. It would have been an awful Best Picture winner, but it’s not a bad movie. Though the notion that this woman is going to redeem herself by taking her ex-fiancée to a quarantine island where she will undoubtedly catch a disease and die is so dated it’s crazy. But you know, times are different. Maybe it hits the halfway point for me in the category. Maybe. No way I’d ever entertain the notion of taking it.

Pygmalion is one of the most famous plays ever written. Even if you haven’t read it, or seen the movie, or My Fair Lady, which is also based on the play, you know this story.

Professor Henry Higgins, a linguist, meets low-class Eliza Doolittle on the street. And, making a bet with a colleague of his, says he can turn her from a vulgar street urchin into a proper lady who could be passed off at a society function without anybody knowing. And the rest of the film is him teaching her how to properly speak and act (“the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”), and the weird romance that ensues between the two of them.

It’s a perfect play, and this is probably the best version of it. I also love this film, regardless of how good the play is. And it automatically becomes part of my top three or four and part of the conversation for the vote. I could never go over this category without at least mentioning this in consideration as the choice.

Test Pilot is a movie that’s fun as hell. I’m surprised they nominated it, but okay.

Clark Gable is a (insert title here) who by chance meets Myrna Loy when his plane crashes. They fall in love. They have a whirlwind courtship and get married. Though he begins to start flying more experimental planes, which get increasingly more dangerous. And the film is about Loy and Gable’s friend (Spencer Tracy) trying to keep him alive, and Gable eventually coming around to realizing he’d rather be alive with Myna Loy than dead in a plane crash.

I like the film a lot, but in terms of a choice, it’s maybe seventh at best. A film I like but wouldn’t take and one that wouldn’t be a good winner at all.

You Can’t Take It With You. Unless it’s murder-suicide. Then you probably could take it with you, but that’s pretty fucked up.

Lionel Barrymore is a quirky inventor who lives with a giant family in a house. He takes people in who are different and want to better themselves. So there’s this kooky house with all these weird people in it who are constantly blowing stuff up and doing weird experiments and all that. He doesn’t see things the way others do, which constantly puts him at odds with the bank and such, because he’s never paying bills or taxes or anything like that, since to him money is so frivolous. His daughter is dating Jimmy Stewart, the son of the president of the bank. And the early part of the film is her bringing him home and hoping he can accept her family. Which he does. Only Stewart’s parents — not so much. And the latter half of the movie becomes about a kind of feud between both fathers, who have vastly different ways of looking at things. Plus Stewart’s father is looking to buy up a bunch of land which includes Barrymore’s house (which Barrymore is not willing to sell). Eventually it builds to your classic Capra-esque moment, similar to It’s a Wonderful Life in a lot of ways, where the character’s friends help them out in a time of need.

It’s a very fun, very touching film that manages to hit all the right emotional beats. It makes perfect sense that it would charm the Academy and win Best Picture. If this were nominated one year earlier, I would have praised it as a great winner. But here, in this category, while it’s still a fine winner, it’s up against two films I like much more, making me much less bullish on my chances of voting for it.

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The Reconsideration: I should just take eight of the films off the top right now. But we’ll work through it anyway, to give every film its due.

Four Daughters comes off first. It quickly falls off the back of the pack. Then Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which is fine, but is too generic of a musical to really stand out in any way for me. The Citadel is a decent drama, but hasn’t really stayed with me (or history, particularly) and just feels like one of those that comes off pretty early as well. Boys Town I enjoy, but wouldn’t vote for, and there are at least five other films I’d take over it. Test Pilot I really like, but it’s clear it’s not a Best Picture winner and will eventually come off in favor of some others. Jezebel I enjoy (which is rare for me with the Bette Davis melodramas), but again, I don’t particularly love it enough to take it.

Now we have Pygmalion, which, while I love it a lot, I do have to contend with the notion, as I do with Adventures of Robin Hood, of something so famous and iconic being put on the screen and potentially winning an Oscar. Robin Hood is a different case I will get to in a second. For Pygmalion specifically, I think I could overcome that idea (I certainly could have if it were 1937), because this was the first (and best, really, if we’re not counting My Fair Lady, which is a different thing entirely) iteration of it in Hollywood. Though the thing that hurts Pygmalion, ultimately, is that I prefer at least two other movies over it. So in the end, while I love it, I wouldn’t take it in this category.

You Can’t Take It With You is a great film. The two things that hurt it are — first, I like two films better than it. And second — I unfortunately have to look at this from the perspective of today, because it’s impossible to completely put myself in the perspective of 1938. And from today’s perspective, I look at the whole of Frank Capra’s work, and I see one film that’s better than this film (It Happened One Night) before it, and two (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life) that would come out later. So it feels like a weak winner based on Capra. Now, even putting that aside (I can’t put it aside entirely, but I can dismiss it for the purposes of this particular category), it still isn’t my favorite film in the category and feels like it would be a weak winner for Capra anyway. Kind of. I think it’s better than Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, but not as good as It Happened One Night. So I could accept it having won on that scale. But in this category, of the two remaining films, to me, I just wouldn’t take it over those. And that’s what ultimately prevents me from taking it. The rest is window dressing, though I did have to mention it, because that stuff does factor into the decision-making for me. (It’s the same way people factor in a dislike of a genre, of a filmmaker, or a backlash against the hype for a film. Everyone has their own personal scale for voting, and I’m trying to explain mine as best I can.)

So now we’re left with the two films that I think are the consensus “best” in this category: The Adventures of Robin Hood and Grand Illusion. Which puts us in an interesting situation. One is a foreign film — the first foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture — and the other is a quintessentially American film, with fun action and bright colors and not a particularly deep film, thematically. It’s always interesting when two films like that are up together, because you immediately see the way people vote. The hardcore “film” people will automatically take Grand Illusion because it represents “cinema” while typically the younger and more populist people who simply just enjoy movies would take Adventures of Robin Hood because it’s a great film that’s a lot of fun. I, unfortunately, constantly find myself somewhere in between the two, and as such have no idea what the hell to do with this one.

I still struggle with the notion of foreign vs. American movies from the perspective of the Oscars. I generally avoid it by going, “What films nominated do I like best and think are the best?” And that usually serves me well. And I think that’s how I’m going to continue looking at things until some better way comes along.

My favorite film in the category is Adventures of Robin Hood, but Grand Illusion is a really terrific film.

By the way, I’d like to stop to point out — these two films only had a total of four nominations. Robin Hood had three and Grand Illusion had just the one. Looking at what the most nominated films were of the year, your technical favorites were You Can’t Take It With You and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. And that’s fascinating to me, how history has turned out. Because I feel very confident in saying that if you gave this category to enough people and had them rank the films, Robin Hood, Grand Illusion, You Can’t Take It With You and probably Pygmalion would be the consensus favorites. I get You Can’t Take It With You. But Alexander’s Ragtime Band — nobody remembers that. I think that’s gonna be an exercise for me in the future, looking at how things appeared at each ceremony based on nominations, etc.

Anyway, I’m delaying. I think the way I shake out is — it depends on the day. Today, I kind of want to take Robin Hood, but I know that’s just because I’d rather watch it over Grand Illusion. But I do feel like Grand Illusion is the better film and is actually a masterpiece in a lot of ways. So I’m gonna stick with Grand Illusion for the vote, because the best film is the best film.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. The Adventures of Robin Hood
  2. Grand Illusion
  3. You Can’t Take It With You
  4. Pygmalion
  5. Boys Town
  6. Jezebel
  7. Test Pilot
  8. The Citadel
  9. Alexander’s Ragtime Band
  10. Four Daughters

Rankings (films):

  1. The Adventures of Robin Hood
  2. Grand Illusion
  3. You Can’t Take It With You
  4. Pygmalion
  5. Jezebel
  6. Test Pilot
  7. Boys Town
  8. The Citadel
  9. Alexander’s Ragtime Band
  10. Four Daughters

My Vote: Grand Illusion

Recommendations:

The Adventures of Robin Hood is straight up essential. Everyone should see this movie. You could see this movie as a child and love it. It’s wonderful all around and the quintessential Robin Hood film. I don’t think they’ve ever topped this one.

Grand Illusion is straight up essential for film buffs. You need to see this one, because it’s one of the great masterpieces of all time.

You Can’t Take It With You is straight up essential for all film fans. Capra, Best Picture winner, beloved movie — no reason to not see this. Everyone loves this movie, and it’s wonderful.

Pygmalion is essential. Most people would just watch My Fair Lady, but I think it’s worth seeing both that and this version. This version is stripped down and puts the brilliant dialogue front and center. You need to see this to see what a brilliant play Shaw wrote.

Jezebel is essential for Oscar buffs because of the dual acting wins, and a solid film overall. 30s essential that some would try to push as full on essential. Not sure I’d go that far but definitely worth seeing. At least so you can watch something that’s both acclaimed, has great actors in it, has Oscar wins and is a good example of the melodrama as a genre.

Test Pilot is Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. I’m pretty sure if your tastes are even remotely similar to mine, this is a movie you’re going to want to check out. Definite recommend.

Boys Town is essential for Oscar buffs, and probably 30s essential, but not really overall essential. It’s a famous story and worth checking out.

The Citadel is actually a solid little film. Moderate recommend, but not something you need to seek out.

Four Daughters is fine. Worth it because of Claude Rains and John Garfield. TCM watch. Light recommend.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band is a fair 30s musical. Light recommend, but not essential in the least.

The Last Word: You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a bad winner, but with the amount of Capra love the Academy showed over a very short amount of time, it does look somewhat bad in bulk. Plus, if you’re just gonna take the category on its own merit, Grand Illusion is such a masterpiece that it’s hard not to argue that it should have won. Though of course, when you know the Oscars, you know how unlikely that ever was to happen. Adventures of Robin Hood could also have maybe been a decent winner. Though overall, I think they made a fine choice. It’s not one of the strongest winners, but it’s not a blight upon their record either. It’s just fine. I can’t really argue with it, even though I (and many people) would have gone another way.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Cool stuff dude! I’ve only seen A Star Is Born and Gand Illusion, but I really wanna watch Robin Hood too, it looks sooo pretty! :)

    April 7, 2017 at 9:12 pm

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