Michael Curtiz: Angels with Dirty Faces
Norman Taurog: Boys Town
King Vidor: The Citadel
Michael Curtiz: Four Daughters
Frank Capra: You Can’t Take it with You (winner)
The sad fact of 1938 is that it comes before one of the greatest years in cinematic history, which means it’s easy to forget. There are some really good films from this year, though, and some directorial performances better than at least some of our nominees. Let’s start simply. Michael Curtiz takes up two of our five nominations, and he wasn’t nominated for his best film: The Adventures of Robin Hood. I know that a lot of people like Bringing Up Baby and the work of Howard Hawks more than I do, so I’ll throw that one here, too. How about Alfred Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes? Or William Wyler and Jezebel? Bigger misses include Jean Renoir’s work on La Bete Humaine. The biggest miss, though, is Renoir again and Grand Illusion. It’s true that Grand Illusion was released in 1937, but it got its nominations in 1938, so I’m including it here.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. The race for Best Director 1938 is going to be a furious rush for the bottom. The “winner” in that respect is Michael Curtiz and Four Daughters. I wonder just how starved for entertainment the American public was in 1938 that this movie became something that people cared about. Literally the only thing I can think of that it does right is that it gave John Garfield his first role. Saying this about a film that stars Claude Rains demonstrates just how lifeless and lackluster Four Daughters is. How it got nominated, I’ll never know.
4. Frank Capra won this Oscar for You Can’t Take It with You, and I’m not entirely sure why, aside from the fact that it seemed to be the movie that America needed toward the end of the Great Depression. It is absolute emotional mush, though. It is simultaneously Capra’s most “hooray for America” film and his most socialist. It’s also pure sap. Capra did sap, of course, which is how the phrase “Capra-corn” came about. When he did it well, it’s charming and fun. When he doesn’t, it comes across as tedious. This is tedious.
3. I think I like The Citadel more than most people. I like it well enough, but it’s not a film that I’ve felt the need to go back to. King Vidor’s work is fine, but not particularly noteworthy aside from the fact that the story holds together despite its episodic nature. It’s another nomination that I don’t fully understand. There’s nothing terrible about the film or the direction, but there’s also nothing spectacular about it. There’s no real reason for it to be here, other than filling space. That this is true and it still came in third is kind of sad.
2. I’m not a massive fan of Boys Town aside from the nostalgia I get from seeing it. It was a movie that played at least once a year on local television when I was a kid and I watched it about once a year. It’s not a terrible movie, although it is pretty sappy. As with The Citadel, I don’t see anything particularly exciting or interesting in the way it is directed. The fact that Mickey Rooney is astonishingly annoying throughout the film seems to play against Norman Taurog as well. I think its position here may in fact stem from nostalgia, and that’s not a good reason for something to come in second.
1. That leaves Michael Curtiz and Angels with Dirty Faces my winner by default, and I do feel like this is a default win. My problem with this movie is strictly based in the ending that is presented to us. It’s cheap and, well, dirty. Up to the last few minutes, though, it’s a movie that I like quite a bit, and one that adds to James Cagney’s bona fides as a cinematic badass of this era. It’s the best work of the nominations, and given these nominations it’s what I’d put on top because in a clear field, it’s probably the only one I’d keep. Fortunately, on this blog I’m not limited in this way.
There are two choices I’d potentially go with for 1938. The first would be Curtiz again and The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s one of the great movies of its year, and certainly the one that I think tells its story in the most exciting and entertaining way. My real winner would be Grand Illusion and Jean Renoir. The only reason I hedge is that it was actually released in 1937, so purists might object. Either one is a vastly better choice than the five we’ve been given, though.