Friday, November 11, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1938

The Contenders:

Boys Town
The Citadel
Four Daughters
Pygmalion (winner)
You Can’t Take It With You

What’s Missing

I’m going to spoil the ending off the top here. This is a case where I do not understand most of the nominations, especially with the other films on offer. Of the top, I’d likely launch three or four of the nominees, and five is possible. This is a year with notable films like Jezebel and The Adventures of Robin Hood. While I don’t love Bringing Up Baby, I would nominate it over several choices here. I like The Lady Vanishes more as a screenplay despite its simplicity. Leaving off Grand Illusion (nominated for Best Picture in this year) and La Bete Humaine is near criminal.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I’m bumping Four Daughters immediately. The only good thing about this drippy mess is that it was the screen debut of the great John Garfield. The rest of it is mush. It even wastes having Claude Rains and May Robson in prominent roles. I can kind of see why this would have been popular with girls of a certain age, but this dull pile managed to swing five Oscar nominations, and that’s at least four too many. No way this belongs on the list. I’m not sure it belongs if we go up to 10 nominees..

4. Best Picture winner You Can’t Take It With You doesn’t deserve to be here, either. This is a film that sports a pure communist philosophy on one hand and touts itself as pure Americana on the other. It also professes a philosophy that is (I think) legitimately dangerous. We are essentially told to pursue our own happiness no matter what, even if it is something beyond our talents. If I suddenly want to be an Olympic gymnast, this movie says I should go for it. That’s stupid. So is this movie.

3. Boys Town is a film I want to like more than I actually do like. I’m a bit surprised at how secular it is despite having a priest as the main character, but it still has some major issues. I think it has its heart in the right place, but it’s filled with a syrupy melodrama that makes it difficult for me to take. Much of the problem comes from an overzealous Mickey Rooney, but a lot of it comes from the script. I actually do like this film a little, but not enough to see it nominated here.

2. With The Citadel, we’re getting to where I understand the nomination. This is a movie not scared to take a full-armed swing at the medical profession, and I respect that. The problem is that it’s disjointed. It’s less a movie than it is three connected shorts about three different stages in a man’s life. Were I in charge of the nominations, this might make the final list, but given what was left off, it probably wouldn’t. Good it may be, but worthy of a nomination it solidly ain’t.

1. I run hot and cold on Wendy Hiller, but I love her version of Eliza Doolittle. This is also one of the only times that Leslie Howard didn’t bore me into submission. I credit the screenplay for both of these minor miracles. Making Leslie Howard watchable is astonishing, which means that of the five nominees, Pygmalion would probably make my final list. That said, it might well make my final five in last place. Of what we have, it’s clearly the best choice, so in that sense, Oscar got it right. But it’s not close to the best choice for the year.

My Choice

If you return to my first paragraph, you’ll see a bunch of films where I like the screenplay as much or more than any of the five actual nominees. I’d rather see pretty much any of those (except for Bringing Up Baby) take the win here. Gun to head, Grand Illusion takes this in a walk, probably followed by La Bete Humaine. If you demand a film in English instead, Jezebel comes in second with The Adventures of Robin Hood third.

Final Analysis


  1. Yes, yes and yes to everything you said with only a few minor caveats.

    Pygmalion is so far superior to all the other nominees it's almost a joke.

    I am not a fan of The Citadel which I tried again lately to see if I felt any differently than my original impression...nope Donat's character is still a selfish thoughtless jackass and a whole film of him being that was more than I could bear despite Roz Russell.

    Both Boys Town and YCTIWY give me hives.

    I love Claude Rains, I love May Robson, I adore Priscilla Lane and John Garfield is my favorite actor bar none but Four Daughters is glop that Garfield energizes like a thunderbolt when he shows up, although it's faint praise to say it is superior to the two sequels that followed it.

    We feel differently about Bringing Up Baby, I love it, but even though I think it belongs in the running it would never come near the top. Conversely while I enjoy Jezebel and think it is masterfully acted and has an interesting story I wouldn't nominate it.

    My winner were I choosing would be yours, Grand Illusion but only by a razor thin edge over The Adventures of Robin Hood.

    1. I realize that I'm in the minority on Bringing Up Baby, but it's not a film that works for me in a lot of respects. It's undoubtedly that bias that prevents me from seeing it nominated, although I probably wouldn't have quarreled much if it had been. It would still fall below Pygmalion, though.

      I really like the way Jezebel works. We really hate the Bette Davis character and the film earns her redemption by the end in a way that doesn't feel cheap. That's good in any movie, but it's especially good in an era when just about everything went for that sort of ending whether it was deserved or not.

      As for Four Daugthers...what a complete waste of talent!

  2. What, no List movies among the nominees?! That looks like a poor call for the Academy. On the List 38 is not such a bad year, although it is in the shade of 39, and I would happily see a nomination to all your contenders. That Le Grand Illusion did not even get a nomination says more about the time than anything else. In 38 the Academy award was first and mostly a national award and not the global award it eventually became.
    That does not however explain why Jezebel did not get a nomination.

    1. Or The Adventures of Robin Hood for that matter. Either of those would rank above everything that was nominated were I to make the list.