11th Academy Awards (1938) – Part I

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  • You Can’t Take it With You, Frank Capra*
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood, Michael Curtiz
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Henry King
  • Boys Town, Norman Taurog
  • The Citadel, King Vidor
  • Four Daughters, Michael Curtiz
  • Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir
  • Jezebel, William Wyler
  • Pygmalion, Anthony Asquith
  • Test Pilot, Victor Fleming

And so we embark on the second decade of the Academy Awards, which encompasses the run-up to world war, world war, and the war’s immediate aftermath. Plenty of world history to cover…how did cinematic history match it?

After the last couple of years my expectations were low for the 11th Awards, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is a damned strong year; my favorite Best Picture winner so far, and six of the nine remaining nominees range from really good to amazing. This is the forward movement I’ve been anticipating since 1935, and though I expected it sooner I’m glad it’s arrived.

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I began the year with Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, the story of a language professor who takes on the challenge of turning a Cockney flower girl into a society lady. You might recognize it as My Fair Lady without the music—or, The Taming of the Shrew without the domestic abuse.

It’s a damn good film; the acting is spot on (as I’ve come to expect from Leslie Howard, and newcomer Wendy Hiller will be winning an Oscar alongside David Niven in twenty years’ time), and I haven’t seen MFL yet but I can only anticipate that Anthony Asquith is much better than George Cukor. I also like that, while George Shaw did soften the ending of his play for this adaptation—making the ending a little happier, a little less ambiguous—it still paints the picture of a platonic relationship based on each party’s genuinely evolving perceptions, rather than the typical kind of “love-at-first-sight” or “hate-then-love-that-was-there-all-along” quote-unquote arcs that pervade Hollywood films. One could make the argument that Professor Higgins is a cold, misogynist pedant, and one would not be wrong, but throughout the film he does grow to respect his protégé in spite of himself and maybe it’s his propensity to correct people’s grammar even in the most emotionally-charged situations that leads me to like him so damned much.

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La Grande Illusion started out as a bit of a letdown for me—it is a great film, to be sure, but after watching other antiwar films (and not just the ones that came after it—I preferred All Quiet on the Western Front) and especially French films from the New Wave, it felt a bit flat. So much so, in fact, that for the first hour or so I felt little besides disappointment, and only after it ended, upon due consideration, did I realize that I’d just watched a masterpiece.

For me, the film’s most impressive achievement lies in its treatment of its characters as, without exception, decent and intelligent human beings who are resigned to the brutal conflict in which they find themselves. When the Germans and French interact, there is no animosity, fear, or nationalistic pride, merely a mutual respect and regret that they must meet under such circumstances—and from what my grandfather told me about his interactions with German infantrymen during World War II, this is by and large how the common soldiers saw one another in reality. It’s a refreshing change of pace from war films that depict the “other side” as irredeemable evil that can only be eradicated by conquest; the idea that war is somehow worthwhile or that good can come of it, the Grand Illusion of the title, is consistently undermined throughout the movie.

No less important is the examination of the changes coming over European society during, as a result of, the Great War. The two main characters are fliers, one a gentleman of noble lineage and another a mechanic; the former understands and even welcomes the fact that his class is fading, and sacrifices himself so that his two “lower-class” compatriots can escape the POW camp and survive the conflict. On the other side is the German camp commandant, an aristocratic Prussian who dreads the end of the war, as it will mean that his usefulness (as a gentleman fighter) will have run out and society will leave him behind. The perception of class could just as easily be the Grand Illusion as war itself (it’s not, but it could be).

Of course, the film is not without its flaws and dated material—the whole third act involving a shoehorned and unnecessary romance between Our Hero the Mechanic and a German peasant girl who has lost her husband to the war is particularly annoying, even if I get what it’s doing there thematically—also, I would have ended the film about twenty seconds earlier than Renoir did—but on the whole it is an impressive and important movie that showed Hollywood that they didn’t get all the good directors out of Europe.

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Next came Four Daughters, definitely the weakest film of the 11th Awards—the fact that it was followed by the sequels Four Wives (1939) and Four Mothers (1941) should tell you a lot about it. It tells the story of how a dashing young man breezes into the lives and hearts of the four daughters of a haughty musical director (played wonderfully by Claude Rains), followed by a plain-looking cynic with a persecution complex who creates an inconvenient love triangle for the youngest daughter. This leads to some bad decisions and hasty marriages, but it all works out in the end…and since, during the Code years, death was less abhorrent than divorce, “working out” meant that the problems are all solved when the cynic helpfully commits suicide with just enough time left in the film for the aforementioned D.Y.M. to get with the youngest, freshly-and-morally-acceptably single daughter.

Even though John Garfield became a star for his “brooding” portrayal of the film’s sacrificial lamb, the whole enterprise is merely a collection of stock characters and romantic cliches that never tries to be anything but average. Occasionally it does rise to that level, but for the most part it fails even in that modest ambition. As I said, a weak film in an otherwise solid year.

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Not that Boys Town is an amazing film, of course…actually, I’d have to get back to you on why it’s better than Four Daughters. My gut feeling is it’s because it has Spencer Tracy in it, but that’s specious reasoning.

In this film, Tracy plays a less Portuguese version of his Captains Courageous character, dealing not with snotty rich kids but faux-tough ragamuffins from the dodgy (but still rather clean-cut and clean-mouthed) ends of rural America. He picked up a second Oscar for a performance that is little more than smiling compassionately and passive-aggressively guilting businessmen into giving him money for his admittedly-laudable Boys Town project. Mickey Rooney plays a kid who doesn’t want to be reformed, until he does, and the second half of the film is pretty much just him sobbing over every little thing.

Basically the film presents Boys Town as progressing from a dream to a thriving reality, and the only real difficulty is getting Mickey Rooney to “be good,” which is never really in doubt. So, things are presented as rather easy for everyone involved. Now, the film never purports to be anything more than a celebration of Boys Town and the guy who founded it (you know, Spencer Tracy’s role…he has a name…I should know this), so perhaps it’s not surprising that it sacrifices suspense for more shots of kids eating candy. Still, a bit of drama would not have been remiss.

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Now, The Adventures of Robin Hoodhere is a fine, fine film, if for no other reasons that its implacable exuberance and the exchange, “Sir, you speak treason!” “Fluently.” It has an amazing cast (reuniting Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, plus Claude Rains and Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone), and director Michael Curtiz more than makes up for Four Daughters.

In fact, it’s so damned good I don’t have much to say other than it is an incredibly enjoyable swashbuckler in the same vein as Captain Blood, but this time in glorious Technicolor! It’s not the best portrayal of Robin Hood to come out of Hollywood…

That would be this.

…but it’s damned close.

(The 11th Academy Awards continue! Part II.)

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7 thoughts on “11th Academy Awards (1938) – Part I

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