Spencer Tracy: Captains Courageous (winner)
Charles Boyer: Conquest
Paul Muni: The Life of Emile Zola
Robert Montgomery: Night Must Fall
Fredric March: A Star is Born
When I dive back into these early years, it’s more difficult for me to come up with people and movies that I think are deserving. A lot the reason for that is that I simply haven’t seen as many films from these years that aren’t already on one list or another of mine. Jean Gabin in Grand Illusion is certainly the kind of snub I typically look for, but Grand Illusion earned nominations in 1939. As much as I think The Awful Truth is just entertaining fluff, Cary Grant never got enough competitive nominations and he could have stood one here. By 1937, the Academy had generally gotten past giving one actor two nominations in the same category, but Paul Muni did The Good Earth in 1937 and could have been recognized for that as much as he was The Life of Emile Zola. Bogart or Joel McCrea for Dead End, maybe? Ronald Coleman for Lost Horizon?
Weeding through the Nominees
5: Charles Boyer makes an interesting Napoleon and manages to humanize a character who is more or less maligned everywhere that isn’t France. He’s good in the role, and this is the sort of role that typically earns a nomination. The problem is that neither Boyer nor the role nor much of the film itself is that memorable. It might well have been a major triumph in 1937, but aside from a few selected scenes (the end is especially good, for instance), I watched this film and formed almost no opinion on it one way or the other. That can’t speak well for Boyer’s performance, can it?
3: If we’re going to hand out this award based on who had the best year, I could make a very good argument for Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola. Muni was good in the role, which is not a surprise since he was a damn chameleon and good in everything. But I wonder…if he’d been nominated for The Good Earth, where would I place him? The problem with Emile Zola isn’t Muni, but the film itself. It’s just dull, and that tarnishes Muni’s part in it. I’m an admirer of Muni’s work, but I can’t put him above third.
2: What makes Robert Montgomery’s nomination for Night Must Fall notable is that he’s playing the 1937 version of a cinematic sociopath. Being nominated in a villain role is kind of an exceptional thing at this point in the Academy’s history. Montgomery plays the role perfectly. He manages to be charming and chilling moment by moment and gives the film a terrible edge. I like this performance a lot, and in a different year, I could see this in the top position. As it is, Montgomery is a very strong second place, one that I could in fact see argued into the winning position.
1: I’m keeping this Oscar in the hands of Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous for one main reason: I probably would have really hated this movie except for Tracy’s performance. Spencer Tracy’s Manuel is the glue that holds the entire film together and is what makes the film work emotionally from its start to its conclusion. Tracy was, of course, a gifted actor. What made him so gifted was his ability to assume a role like this one completely and seamlessly. As it happens, Captains Courageous is a very good film. What takes it from “a film” to “a very good film” is almost entirely on Spencer Tracy’s shoulders. He won, and it was right for him to win.