Friday, April 28, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1938

The Contenders:

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)

What’s Missing

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.

My Choices

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.

Final Analysis


  1. Curtiz for The Adventure of Robin Hood. Heck, yeah. WTF, Academy?

    1. Seriously, he gets two nominations, and neither of them for his best work. How the hell does that happen?

  2. If you can mention four movies you would rather see take the prize then the Academy did a pretty shitty job. This is just... weird.

    1. With the possible exception of Bringing Up Baby, which everyone seems to like better than I do, I'd pick every director in my first paragraph over the actual winner, and most over all five nominations. I'd probably keep Angels with Dirty Faces, but if I did, it would come in fifth.

  3. This is such a list of odd choices considering what was on offer. As you said it’s a race to the bottom. My lineup would be almost exactly yours though I’d put You Can’t Take it With You dead last because despite the presence of a flock of performers I like to love I can’t stand that movie while Four Daughters while being piffle has that dynamic Garfield performance and because of him is a more interesting view. Aside from that it hardly challenges Curtiz in the slightest.

    I might also swap Boys Town and Citadel because of Rooney’s noxiousness, I know that really has nothing to do with the direction per se but he’s a drain on the viewing experience.

    If I had my druthers not a single one of these would have made it despite the fact I like Angels with Dirty Faces and can tolerate all the others except YCTIWY.

    I agree all that you mentioned are superior to what made the cut and my winner would match yours, whether you cut it towards Illusion being included or if not than Robin Hood would come out on top and Grand Illusion bests it by the thinnest of margins.

    I’d add a few others, George Cukor for Holiday, Marcel Carne for Port of Shadows, Anthony Asquith for Pygmalion, Sergei M. Eisenstein for Alexander Nevsky and Tim Whelan for Sidewalks of London-the last three would make a long list of ten but not my top five. So my lineup would run thus with my next five beneath-Wyler would come in at 11th so the closest any of the actual nominees would come is possibly 12th though I’d really consider placing Woody Van Dyke there for Marie Antoinette over any of these. Hardly praiseworthy for this crop!!

    Marcel Carne-Port of Shadows
    Michael Curtiz-Adventures of Robin Hood
    George Cukor-Holiday
    Howard Hawks-Bringing Up Baby
    Jean Renoir-Grand Illusion-Winner

    Anthony Asquith-Pygmalion
    Sergei M. Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky
    Alfred Hitchcock-The Lady Vanishes
    Jean Renoir-La Bete Humaine
    Tim Whelan-Sidewalks of London

  4. I considred Asquith and Pygmalion but ultimately decided against it. Alexander Nevsky is one of the bigger holes in my viewing history.

    I seriously don't understand this year kind of in general. Nothing seems to be right with it so far, and in this case, the nominations are so strange that the beggar the imagination.

    I don't object to putting YCTIWY in last here. I considered it very strongly, but Four Daughters is such a nothing that I'm actually mad Curtiz was nominated for it over The Adventures of Robin Hood.

    1. It really is the strangest year. That You Can't Take It With You could beat both Robin Hood and Grand Illusion in a head to head competition is hard enough to believe but all the categories have some wonky nominations let alone wins.

      Best Actress, which I know you haven't gotten to yet since I imagine you're having trouble finding White Banners, isn't too bad even though all the nominees wouldn't be mine but all the performances are at least good quality work.

      What really sticks in my craw is that Walter Brennan won his second Oscar for an aw shucks piece of drivel performance in the ghastly Kentucky against John Garfield's revelatory work and that three brilliant performances, Claude Rains & Basil Rathbone in Robin Hood and Lew Ayres in Holiday, were completely shut out for work that looking at the list I can't even remember, was Gene Lockhart even IN Algiers?!

    2. White Banners is, in fact, the only movie I'm missing from 1938. I've done these wrap-up posts on the other four categories. So far for 1938, Oscar got one wrong and fucked up three completely, so the Academy is not just 0-4, but 0-1 with three forfeits.


  5. I simply couldn't agree with you more. What were they thinking? It's especially odd when some of the omissions were actually Best Picture nominees.

    1. Right. To me, the biggest head scratcher is that Curtiz got two nominations for director and one for picture, and all three are different films. How the hell did he not get nominated for The Adventures of Robin Hood here?

      And it's not like this was one of the very early Oscar ceremonies where they were still feeling their way. This was the 11th one. They should have had the basics of this down after 10 previous ceremonies.

  6. Okay, I'm about to take Robin Hood way too seriously . . .

    I watched most of Robin Hood the other day and although I do love it, it's more cheesy than I remembered. Everyone is WAY too jolly throughout, laughing at everything, in that male camaraderie sort of way that really seems dated. And Robin is kind of an idiot. I know it's based on ancient stories, but his showing up for the arrow competition and getting himself captured (and tortured) and putting all his men at risk when they rescue his dumb ass is pretty stupid on his part.

    Finally, right before the climactic battle, King Richard has unmasked himself before the usurper, Prince John, and loads of Merry Men and it looks for a minute like King Richard can just end the coup without bloodshed. Then Robin Hood himself starts fighting Prince John's men without any real provocation.

    All those deaths are on you, Hood!

    1. I won't disagree with any of that, and I also have to say that I don't really care that much. It's all about the joy of the viewing. It's fun, and it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

      It's swashbuckling and adventure, and that's enough, even if you're right.