11th Academy Awards (1938) – Part II

(Part I.)

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Alexander’s Ragtime Band, the obligatory musical of the nominees, follows the ups and downs of a ragtime band as they try to take the form from the dive bars of San Francisco to Carnegie Hall (spoiler: they do). This reunion of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche–who inexcusably waits until an hour into the film to grow a mustache–could be a great examination of the formative years of jazz, but instead the film makes it easy for the band as they rise further and further up the class ladder with little discernible trouble. All the drama comes from the central love story, and unfortunately it is manufactured almost exclusively through plotty contrivances.

The film is noteworthy for featuring possibly the shortest wartime sequence of any film in history, condensing the entire “battle” phase of the protagonist’s army life into twenty seconds before spitting him out on the other side of World War I with nary a scratch. He walks with a cane, but quickly reveals it to be an affectation to further class himself up.

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Test Pilot brought aviation back to the Academy Awards, and in terms of acting and directing it is the best film of the nominees by far. It’s a clear successor to Wings and a clear forerunner of films like The Right Stuff that examine the impact of dangerous professions on the practitioners and those who care for them. Victor Fleming, who we’ll see next year with The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, manages to seamlessly incorporate humor, plot, and action…unlike Wings, one never gets the sense that the story is just a prop on which to hang the aviation sequences.

Clark Gable as the eponymous test pilot and Myrna Loy as his troubled wife deliver typically stellar performances, but Spencer Tracy steals the show and he really should have won his Oscar for this film rather than Boys Town. He plays Gable’s mechanic and best friend, and over the course of the narrative undergoes a steady psychological unraveling–this could have come across badly, particularly with the conventions of narrative prevalent at the time, but by the combination of Fleming’s direction and Tracy’s impeccable acting, this development never seems forced or melodramatic. The character’s arc is the most interesting of the film, and although it does bow to convention at the end, it still works and doesn’t play as a plot device.

The only quarrel I have with this film is that it is too perfect in a late-1930s-Hollywood way, too beholden to the three act structure and the expectation that a drama must be light and quip-filled for the first half, then become “serious” in the second. The progression from one sequence to the next was so textbook that I was able to foresee every plot development and time it to within a minute of its occurrence. But that said, it’s still a great movie, and features one scene in particular about 75 minutes in that could serve as a master class in acting, directing, and screenwriting.

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The Citadel is a “protagonist loses his ideals then finds them again” film about a doctor (Robert Donat) who starts off poor and treating patients with compassion and being interested in the advancement of medical science, only to face ignorant opposition at every turn; eventually he becomes complacent and succumbs to the allure of treating hysterical society mavens for ill-gotten wealth and status. He even grows a complacent mustache so you know he’s really complacent.

Of course, he turns himself around at the last moment, needing only the senseless death of a close friend to do so, and saves a young girl from preventable death at the hands of the incompetent, status-driven doctors that plague the medical profession. Overall the film is a long meditation on the shortcomings of modern medical practice, although its moral–that the profession is plagued by lackluster quacks with ambition in all the wrong places–is severely undercut by its opening title card declaring that it is not the intention of the film to criticize the medical field as a whole…even though it absolutely is.

The film is a complete success, however, in terms of the acting, cinematography, and the sure directing of King Vidor. Other films I’ve seen for this project have a similar “ideals to greed to ideals” arc, notably Anthony Adverse, but unlike that film, Citadel actually relies on the skill of its director and actors rather than intertitles to convey character development. Both Donat and Rosalind Russell turn in stellar performances; Donat is particularly good at portraying a man slowly descending into amorality, and Russell as his voice of reason anchors the narrative (although I prefer her as an unreasonable provocateur, as in The Women).

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Even though the poster leads one to expect a film about a drunken department store mannequin possessed by demons, Jezebel is in fact the story of a manipulative, spoiled lady in antebellum New Orleans and the people whose lives she destroys.

The film finds Bette Davis’ character from Of Human Bondage relocated to a plantation–thus, her vitriol and life-threatening selfishness are coated in a thick layer of “Suh-thun”, and the reactions of others are slightly more polite and restrained, but the characters are otherwise identical. The difference is that in O.H.B. she was merely a supporter ruining the protagonist’s life, and thus able to be killed off with impunity when the plot demanded it; here, she is the protagonist, and thus gets her Obligatory Redemptive Moment at the end.

It’s set amidst the scarlet fever epidemic that swept New Orleans in 1852, and although I wouldn’t classify it as an amazing film it does effectively critique the mores of the plantation class. The second half of the film introduces Henry Fonda’s wife from the north, and her attempts to come to terms and understand the conventions of the South–up to and including a deadly duel over Bette Davis’ nefarious scheming–provide plenty of fodder for director William Wyler to examine the still-prevalent divide between the cultures of the two societies.

Still, the unsubtle title and the film’s first half, which contains an uncomfortable dose of nostalgia for the halcyon days when women couldn’t vote, dress themselves individually, or enter banks or public houses without causing a complete breakdown of society, definitely provide grounds for interpreting the film as a fond recollection for the pre-suffrage days when strong-willed women ended up dead of scarlet fever surrounded by lepers.

And finally there is the winner, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You, which captured him his third Best Director award in five years. As I said at the top, it’s definitely my favorite of this project so far. It picks up where Mr. Deeds Goes to Town left off, examining the difference between “success” and “failure” in capitalist post-1929 America, and solidifies and expands upon the strengths of that film. In fact, the basic premise is very similar: eccentric, unmaterialistic protagonists going up against unfeeling, monolithic Industry. But what separates and elevates YCTIWY is that unlike Deeds’ individualistic triumph over their forces, here Lionel Barrymore’s adorably quirky and nonconformist family of merry pranksters manages an even more difficult and laudable coup: “curing” a family too civilized for their own good.

Mr. Deeds promises that the virtuous can fight and win against the world; You Can’t Take it With You promises something altogether more optimistic and, I think, more encouraging, that the virtuous can win over the world. The whole enterprise is a delight from beginning to end, never feels sentimental, and infuses even its most minor characters with personality, humanity, and humor. It champions the notion that everyone is capable of happiness in life if they can only figure out that that’s what it’s all about.

I would say that happiness, and what it means to be alive and human, is the theme of the 11th Academy Awards, and each film tackles it in its own way. For instance: Pygmalion examines the passion for creation and the discovery of value; Grand Illusion, the idea that humanity can be maintained even when subjected to its worst invention; Boys Town, that everyone no matter how “bad” has the capacity for redemption; The Citadel, that idealism and compassion can never truly be lost; Test Pilot, that love can simultaneously be a triumph and one’s greatest adversary–but in a realistic and hopeful way, not an Of Human Bondage abomination.

And so we move on to 1939, which is still ranked as the finest year in American cinematic history, and the longest Best Picture winner of them all, Gone with the Wind. The Golden Age of Hollywood was never more golden than this year…let’s see how the Academy did!

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2 thoughts on “11th Academy Awards (1938) – Part II

  1. Pingback: 11th Academy Awards (1938) – Part I | Oscars and I

  2. Pingback: Musicals at the Oscars (Part II) | Oscars and I

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