Friday, July 22, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong! Best Actor 1938

The Contenders:

Charles Boyer: Algiers
James Cagney: Angels with Dirty Faces
Spencer Tracy: Boys Town (winner)
Robert Donat: The Citadel
Leslie Howard: Pygmalion

What’s Missing

As almost always seems to be the case, there’s plenty of room for improvement here. I might consider Michael Redgrave for The Lady Vanishes even if I’m convinced that film is thought of more highly than it deserves. The same is true for Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, which should have been one of Grant’s better chances for a competitive Oscar. I’d definitely consider adding Henry Fonda for Jezebel, although that may have been more of a supporting role. Errol Flynn was definitely robbed for his work on The Adventures of Robin Hood. The biggest miss, though? Jean Gabin, both for Grand Illusion (released the previous year but nominated for this one) and La Bete Humaine.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I struggled to think of a reason that I watched Algiers since I’d already seen Pepe le Moko. This is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the earlier film, this time featuring Charles Boyer instead of the better and more interesting Jean Gabin. I could argue for Gabin the previous year to at least get a nomination, but Boyer didn’t belong here. He’s treading the same ground as Gabin did the year before, and Gabin did it better. In fact, the only real difference seems to be that Gabin did it in French while Boyer did it in English. This would be the first one to go for me if I created the list of nominations.

4. For the second time in three days I’m going to talk shit about James Cagney. That makes me sad because I genuinely like Cagney in almost everything I’ve seen him in. I’ll even go so far as to say that I actively seek out Cagney movies I haven’t seen. My issue with Angels with Dirty Faces is less Cagney than it is the film itself. I genuinely don’t like the film and I think it has an ugly message. Cagney’s performance is decent, but it doesn’t match his truly great ones, and he had plenty of those. I’d rather see him rewarded for a role that really deserved a nomination, and this one simply didn’t, at least compared with a few of the snubs.

3. No one is more surprised than I am that Leslie Howard, who I tend to think of as the cinematic equivalent of unbuttered toast, is landing in third. The truth is that Pygmalion is about the only film of his that I’ve seen where I actually like him more than simply have to tolerate him. Wendy Hiller is the real reason to see this, though, but Howard is good in the role, which is something I have trouble saying about him in pretty much every other context. I wouldn’t want him to win, but I actually don’t mind this nomination too much.

2. The Citadel worked better than I thought it would, and some of that credit goes to Robert Donat. It’s a lot closer to three short movies about the same person, but Donat makes it work and makes it believable. It’s a bit of a ballsy film and a risky performance in the sense that despite claiming it doesn’t want to disparage the medical profession, the film (and Donat) proceed to disparage the medical profession mercilessly for the entire running time. I’m not convinced this is required viewing, but it’s not a bad film, and Donat is the reason to see it.

1: Given the five nominations we have to work with, I’m satisfied that the Oscar went to the right person. Boys Town isn’t close to my favorite film from this year. It’s too gooey and sappy for me to really like, but Tracy is the heart and soul of the film, a role he manages without making it maudlin or as gooey as the rest of the movie. He’s easy to like and natural in the role of Father Flanagan. Oscar did the best it could with what it was given. In the real world, though, Tracy shouldn’t have been able to get closer than third place.

My Choice

The kid in me would give this to Errol Flynn in a heartbeat. Flynn’s Robin Hood is the stuff that screen legends are made of, the sort of legendary performance that is greater than the actor and greater than the film. It’s iconic for a reason, and for it not to be nominated is almost criminal. The adult in me hands this to Jean Gabin for two performances (admittedly, one from the previous year) that each could have handled a nomination. Nominating and awarding a villain character in a French-language film was probably beyond the Academy’s scope in 1938, but it shouldn’t have been. Either Flynn or Gabin would have been a better choice than anything the Academy decided to put up.

Final Analysis


  1. When four out of five nominees do not show up on the List you know the Academy had a bad year. I agree that Cagney is out and that Flynn and Gabin deserves a nod, if not the award, but one was probably too flippant and the other foreign. This is 38 after all. This was not a big year for male actors...

    1. Flippant, foreign, or otherwise, they deserved to at least be considered.

  2. For me this year always comes down to Gabin and Grant, two vastly different and yet tremendously perfect performances.

    And I love Cagney and even really like him in Angels with Dirty Faces, but the best performance in that film was easily Pat O'Brien, who should have been nominated.

    1. It often comes down to Grant and someone else for me. I don't like Bringing Up Baby enough for me to take it that seriously. When it comes to Angels with Dirty Faces, Pat O'Brien's character is the main reason that movie pisses me off. Still, you may well be right.

  3. Definitely an off year nomination wise.

    Some really great actors in films that are not their best work. I love both Tracy and Cagney but while the goo fest that is Boys Town isn't quite as bad as the vomitous Captains Courageous it's hardly something Tracy should have won an Oscar for and Cagney's good in Angels but it's really just a warm up for the next year's Roaring Twenties.

    I didn't think much of The Citadel nor Donat in it, though to be fair his character was such a jackass who suddenly turns noble it was a tough job to play.

    Again I like Boyer but his Pepe in Algiers is almost comical now and the film is all about Hedy Lamarr for me, not her acting but the ethereal quality and sense of ennui she carries throughout the movie.

    Which I guess leaves me with Leslie Howard. I agree that Pygmalion is Wendy Hiller's film and deservedly so but Howard is better than usual and he'd be the only one of these five I'd include in my list but he'd be dead last!

    As for who is missing, beside those already mentioned I'd add Charles Laughton whose brilliant as the lonely busker in Sidewalks of London.

    My list would read this way from top to bottom:

    Cary Grant-Bringing Up Baby
    Errol Flynn-Adventures of Robin Hood
    Jean Gabin-La BĂȘte Humaine
    Charles Laughton-Sidewalks of London
    Leslie Howard-Pygmalion

    1. I haven't seen Laughton's film, and despite your dislike of it, I think Tracy was good in Boys Town but not "winning an Oscar" good. As much as I hate saying that about Cary Grant, it's true as well, although in this case it's more the movie's fault than his.

    2. Oh I thought Tracy was good in Boys Town but as you said not winning an Oscar good. He was the only thing I liked about the film. I almost always think he's excellent...the only two of his performances I've thought were off were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where he seemed uncomfortable and miscast and Captains Courageous where I think he's flat out bad. I know that's not the general consensus though.

    3. I've recently recorded his version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but haven't watched it yet. I love Fredric March's version and can't imagine that Tracy would do it better. I really like him in Captains Courageous, but you're not the first to disagree with me on that.

    4. I actually think that Tracy is better than March...

      But that's a vastly unpopular opinion.

  4. Despite my massive crush on Gabin and all his many merits, my heart goes with Flynn all the way. He WAS Robin Hood and always will be.

    1. Absolutely. You say "Robin Hood" and immediately think of that hat with the feather and those green tights. That role was his and always well be, forever, amen.