Friday, November 20, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1937

The Contenders:

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

What’s Missing

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?

4: Placing Fredric March and A Star is Born fourth may well be doing a serious injustice to both March and the movie. The truth is, though, that when I think of the words “A Star is Born,” I immediately think of James Mason and Judy Garland. This is a film that is very difficult to evaluate once one has seen the far better and more impressive remake from 1954. I remember liking this but also thinking it’s not a patch on the remake. This is a place where objectivity is very difficult, so I can’t even pretend I’m being objective when I place March here.

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.

My Choice

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.

Final Analysis


  1. Apart from the movie itself, Captains Courageous, which I actually think is good even without Tracy, I think the great attraction is to see Spencer Tracy doing something else than that same character type he did up through the forties. Manuel is very very different and he is convincing. I have only seen one of the other movies, but I seriously doubt they could top Tracy. Good call.

    1. If I hadn't already been a fan of Tracy from films like Inherit the Wind, this is the film that would have made me a fan.

  2. Well looks like we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. There are three nominees on the list who would be on mine but Tracy wouldn't be one of them.

    I'm a huge fan of his and he was usually brilliant but I detest his work in Captains Courageous almost as much as I hate the film overall, I think it's some of his worst work.

    We're much closer on the other actor who wouldn't make my cut, Boyer. I don't think he's bad in the film, and it's nice to see an actual Frenchman playing Napoleon, but for the reasons you sited he doesn't belong in the lineup. When I think of the film it's Garbo I remember.

    Muni was so renown for his immersion in makeup for various roles, such as Zola, and he is good in the film which as you pointed out is a plodding bore but he'd be dead last for me. I've always preferred him in contemporary work like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Angel on My Shoulder finding him more relaxed and naturalistic.

    Montgomery is deeply disturbing in Night Must Fall more so because he isn't overtly nuts but radiating a creepy, menacing vibe subtly. I had seen many of his other roles where he was the breezy comic glad-hander before catching up with this which added an extra punch to his work. The way he bent his standard facile cheeriness ever so slightly to great effect is most impressive. He'd be my runner-up as well.

    Like you when I hear A Star is Born I immediately think of the Judy Garland version where James Mason is phenomenal but Fredric March would still be my winner from the nominees or any other performance this year. His performance isn't terribly showy but his Norman Maine is full of many layers and he shows a man who is believably a matinee idol but also a deeply flawed, floundering individual.

    As for whose missing Bogart, and McCrea, are terrific in Dead End but I think the role leans more towards supporting. I love Colman but neither his work in Lost Horizon nor the film struck me as anything special. Otherwise there was Edward Arnold, excellent in The Toast of New York but it was a much stronger year for actresses than actors.

    In the two slots taken up by Tracy and Boyer I'd place Cary Grant in The Awful Truth, I'd agree that the film isn't anything more than a fun, entertaining comedy but he, and Irene Dunne, elevate the material making it far better than the goofy premise would otherwise be. The other spot would go to Victor Moore's absolutely heartbreaking work in a rare lead in Make Way for Tomorrow. The film is too raw to be enjoyable but he and Beulah Bondi are extraordinary.

    1. Victor Moore is a miss on my end--that's a performance I should have had in the first paragraph.

      We're not going to agree on Tracy here, or on Captains Courageous. I think it's one of his better roles. Manuel is, at least in my opinion, an entirely believable character and someone I found genuinely easy to like. In fact, he almost made the kid tolerable.

      I think we've discussed Lost Horizon before. It's one that I evidently like a lot more than a lot of other people. I'm comfortable with that.

      Toast of New York is one I don't know, so I can't comment on it.

  3. I've only seen Tracy's and Muni's performances, so I'm not qualified to judge on this one.

    In regards to possible adds, I'd go with Gabin in La Bete Humaine.

    1. Another good call that I missed above. I could see Gabin getting a nomination for that.

  4. I'm happy with Tracy among the actual nominees though I also love March's performance. I think Cary Grant deserved at least a nomination for The Awful Truth. But my award for 1937 is a trifecta for Gabin in Grand Illusion, La Bete Humaine, and Pepe Le Moko.

    1. Gabin had a good year. In Academy world, Grand Illusion was a 1939 film, though. Had it been considered a 1937 film, in my mind it would have ended up with a lot of awards.

    2. Actually, IMDb has La Bete Humaine as 1938. Grand Illusion and Pepe are both listed as 1937. This has no relation to when the films were eligible for Oscars, I know. Film years seem to be very elusive. Different sources will list different years and IMDb changes years from time to time.

    3. As far as the Academy goes, it evidently has something to do with when the film played in a theater in Los Angeles for a week and cannot be broadcast before its theatrical opening.