The Adventures of Robin Hood
Alexander’s Ragtime Band
You Can’t Take It with You (winner)
At first glance, it seems like 1938 is the calm before the storm, a mediocre year before the artistic bomb blast that was 1939. It kind of looks like that at second glance, too, but there are some worthy nominees in a field that is really far too large. Still, as is always the case, there are some improvements that can be made here. Based on how much everyone else likes it, I’m a little surprised at the lack of nomination for Bringing Up Baby. I like it less than most, but more than some of the nominations. The same could be said of The Lady Vanishes; it’s not bad Hitchcock and better than about half of the actual list. Despite a terrible ending, Angels with Dirty Faces has some strong points as well. A serious miss is La Bete Humaine. All of that said, 1938 is a year where about half of the nominees stood a real chance of winning and about half were there to take up space.
Weeding through the Nominees
10. As I just said, about half of these don’t belong, so the question is which one doesn’t belong the most. I’m dropping Four Daughters immediately. The only saving grace of this film is that it features the film debut of John Garfield. This is otherwise a drippy mess that commits the cardinal sin of any film. It’s not great and it’s not terrible; it’s flat out dull. There is often a need to watch a film within the context of the time it was released. With Four Daughters, this is a dud regardless of context. There’s no way it belongs on this list.
9. I can say many of the same things about Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It would be tempting to suggest that I’m putting this in the ninth spot because I have a set against musicals, but that’s not the case. I’m doing it because this film has significant plot problems that make the movie not work. In fact, the music and the presence of a young Ethel Merman are the reasons to see this at all. The history of jazz is certainly worthy of a movie, but one this whitewashed and with such a painful romantic plot doesn’t deserve that much attention, even with Ethel Merman.
8. Test Pilot has a top-notch cast in Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. It also has some of the absolute worst technical work I’ve seen in a film of this era. When you consider that a decade previous we got the astonishing aerial work of Wings, there’s no reason for us to be essentially watching toys trying to make exciting airplane scenes. The story is maudlin and doesn’t work for me much, either. While the film isn’t terrible, it’s hard to watch today since it is so technically amateurish. That counts when we’re talking about the best movie of its year.
7. You Can’t Take It with You won this award and I feel like its nomination is here to simply fill out the ranks. This is pure Capra-corn, simultaneously his most pro-American mentality and pro-communist sensibilities film. I’ll forgive the lack of foresight, having a character complain about the cost of the American military just a few years before it was desperately needed. I won’t forgive the film’s essential message of telling people to encourage pipe dreams in others just ‘cause. Capra’s films could be great when they worked. This just doesn’t work.
6. With Boys Town, we’re starting to edge just a touch into where I can see the nomination being legitimate, even if the film had no chance of actually winning. I’ll also admit that a part of this is nostalgia for me. I saw Boys Town about once a year when I was a kid. It’s damaged by the Mickey Rooney character’s false bravado and bluster, which leads to a telegraphed resolution. It’s helped tremendously by the paternal presence of Spencer Tracy’s very warm and reassuring performance. It’s probably not as good as I think it is.
5. The Citadel is an odd duck of a film. There are things about it that I very much like and things that I don’t like so well. It’s a film that feels episodic in a lot of ways, like three films about the same people loosely glued together. I like that it take the piss out of the medical profession and that it clearly has a cause that it wants to battle. It’s not, however, a film that I am itching to sit down and watch again. It’s a borderline nomination, much like Boys Town. I don’t hate that it’s here, but I wouldn’t mind too much if it weren’t.
4. Pygmalion is the first of these where I am fully satisfied with the nomination. It’s my favorite version of this story. It’s a film that uses the spare and bland-ish talents of Leslie Howard well, and it’s one that made me appreciate Wendy Hiller more than I did. It’s also all about linguistics, which makes it awesome in its own right. This is a film worth seeing, and a lovely (if emotionally cold) version of the story. I’d nominate this in an open field. I wouldn’t give it the win, but I’d put it in the running.
3. Here’s where things get tough for me. Based on the day, I could flip this spot and the next one pretty easily. I’m putting Jezebel in third, and that’s no knock on Jezebel. I like everything about this film, from Bette Davis’s pure spoiled bitch turn to Henry Fonda’s stone-cold pimp role. Even the resolution, which could easily have been maudlin and melodramatic, works because of how well the first two acts are played. In another year, this could easily be my choice. Make this 12 months earlier, and it would fight with Stella Dallas as my favorite of the year, and that’s high praise, indeed.
2. The Adventures of Robin Hood is the complete package as well, and it’s the best movie actually made in 1938. This is a film that uses color cinematography the way it needed to be used in 1938; this would be so much less filmed in black and white. The characters are wonderful, the melodrama of pure good guys versus pure evil guys works on every level, and even the romance is sweet despite being so idealized. This is one of the great films in the early action genre, one that influenced everything that came after it and still does. If we’re limited to the actual calendar year, it’s absolutely the winner.
1. But, as happens, Oscar nominated La Grande Illusion for 1938 despite its being released in 1937. Few films so purely and perfectly encompass the end of an era and the start of a new one as does this film. Grand Illusion shows the end of a world where warfare was seen as a noble pursuit of the nobility becoming a world where war was a true hell of survival and terror. It always was, of course, but this shows where the world’s perceptions changed. It’s all about loss, and that loss is palpable in every frame. Orson Welles once said that if only one film could be preserved, it should be this one. That might be hyperbole. Then again, it might not. It’s not just the best film of these nominations; it’s the best film of its decade.