Armchair Oscars – 1938

Best Picture

You Can’t Take It With You (Directed by Frank Capra)
The Nominees: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, La Grande Illusion, Jezabel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot

La Grande Illusion (Directed by Jean Renoir)
My Nominees:
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighly), Alexander Nvsky (Sergei Eisenstein), Angels With Dirty Face (Michael Curtiz), Boys Town (Norman Taurog), Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks), The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock), Marie Antoinette (W.S. Van Dyke, Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard ), Room Service (William Seiter)


George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart’s stage hit You Can’t Take It With You, was so successful that it won the Pulizer Prize in 1936. Two years later Frank Capra spearheaded the film version and it was box office triumph that would be named Best Picture of 1938.  Sadly, time hasn’t been kind.  This story, which centers on the sweet-natured son of a bullish businessman who gets engaged to a secretary from a wacky family, contains themes that Capra would use to better effect in It’s a Wonderful Life. Plus, is populated with characters and dialogue that seem forced. It is silly, corny third-rate Capra, and to watch it is to see the work of a director who did much better before and after.

Nineteen Thirty-Eight was a great year for movies, all kinds of movies, and this led to an impressive list of nominees for Best Picture.  Unfortunately, the winner was the least impressive (though I have yet to see The Citadel) and the victory was speared more by popular sentiment than artistic merit.  I was proud of the academy for at least acknowledging my choice for Best Picture, a French film, Jean Renoir’s powerful The Grand Illusion.

The Grand Illusion does something that no other film about war has ever done it presents the idea of how a war changes a society.  The point is made that the first world war was responsible for the breakdown of old European social order, just as the second world war turned America into a prosperous nation and inspired social change, Vietnam led to a generation of America’s political apathy and a mistrust of its own government.  The first world war led to the breakdown of polite social rules order still lingering from the 19th Century.  That social order had also extended to the battlefront.

The grand illusion refer to the rules that had dictated warfare in the past which the European upperclass assumed would be followed into “The Great War”.  But this war would be like no other. The weapons introduced in this war were so devastating and so ferocious that it broke the morale of those left behind from the men in the trenches all the way up to the high ranking officers.  It might have seemed impossible to keep one’s word, to stand by a gentlemen’s code when faced, for the first time, by tanks and mustard gas.

The story follows the struggle between a prisoner of war who is determined to escape and a prison camp commandant who is determined to keep him in check. But the struggle doesn’t come down to a meeting of the minds so much as a meeting of the gentlemen’s code. The man, Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is determined to escape but the commandant Van Ruffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) assumes that he will keep his word and not try anything.  Van Ruffenstein has made a gentleman’s pact with a French aristocrat named Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) that he will not make an attempt to escape from his mountaintop fortress.  Escape is relatively easy but that speaks to the shortsighted naiveté of those who rule it. There is a heartbreaking moment late in the film when Maréchal and de Boieldieu are attempting to escape and Van Ruffenstein is forced to shoot the man he deems a companion.  “Neither you nor I can stop the march of time,” the Frenchman tells him, and there is a note of sadness and sorrow as the commandant shoots him to prevent his escape.

The achievement of the film is the manner in which it presents mixed cultures.  Most war films (especially American films) hammer together a gaggle of citizen soldiers from backgrounds so similar that they might as well have lived next door from each other. The Grand Illusion insists on three characters that seem to come from different worlds.  Maréchal is handsome, striking and in another film might have been played by Steve McQueen (the similarity is there).  He’s the average joe, a nice guy from the middle class who seems to have a determination in him that isn’t overly present on the surface.
de Boieldieu is formal, astute and reminds me of Claude Rains in Casablanca (possibly because of the uniform).  On the surface de Boieldieu wears the uniform of a French officer but he’s not above bending the rules to escape.  Most curious is that even while he wears the neatly pressed uniform, his family is going broke back in the motherland.

The most curious character is Rosenthal (Marcel Delio), a Jewish banker with a jolly face and an air of mischief.  Jewish characters are the norm for this era, usually angry shop-keeps or disapproving Rabbis but Rosenthal is different, he has a specific personality, he’s a banker back in the world and ironically has just purchased the chateau that de Boieldieu has been forced to sell.

I am never sure of the character of Van Ruffenstein.  He’s a likable man but a man who walks around with blinders on. Does he see the clouds of change that will disperse the rules of war as a gentleman’s pursuit or does he simply choose not to see it?  He is disappointed in de Boieldieu when he tries to escape but, was there any doubt that he would try? After all, the man gave his word. Van Ruffenstein represents the breakdown of the hero, after shooting down many planes, he becomes a victim himself with a rigid back brace and his chin cupped in a painful device he portrays, for us, the reality of the war hero, that not all heroes die in the war and not all successful soldiers stand triumphantly in the sun. He represents, for me, the constant reminder that the war is a reality in which not all who survive come away clean.  He represents wounded and maimed soldiers who, for years, haunted the streets of Europe after the war, a grim reminder of how brutal and awful it really was.

The citizen soldiers in his charge are the backbone of what the movie is really about, that the rules that dictate war are beginning to crumble. The film anticipates the American involvement of World War II (this was 1938) in which hastily assembled citizen soldiers, teachers, students, factory workers, farmers, bankers, policemen would become not only frontline infantry but pilots, officers and high ranking officials.  This message was the danger that the German forces feared when they seized the film upon their occupation of France.

The history of the film itself has become legend.  According to history, when the German forces under Adolf Hitler marched into France, one of the first objects seized were the masters of The Grand Illusion. Hitler’s minister of propaganda and enlightenment, Joseph Goebbes, banned it, and it was assumed that it was either destroyed by the Nazis or burned up in one of the many allied air raids. It wasn’t until the war was over that it was revealed that a Nazi archivist named Frank Hansel smuggled it back to Berlin where it stayed until it was seized by the Russians and taken back to Moscow. It wasn’t until director Renoir was attempting to restore the film in the 1960s that he discovered that the print existed.  Today the film can be found on DVD in a crystal clear print that seems as flawless as the day it was released.

But The Grand Illusion is much more than the sum of its historical journey. This is the story of The 20th Century in some ways, in the manner in which world wars destroy a world and societies are forced to rebuild upon what remains. Old ways, old customs, old ideas, old notions, old illusions die away and what is left are the social changes that, for better or worse, help build the future.

Best Actor

Spencer Tracy (
Boys Town)
The Nominees: Charles Boyer (Algiers), James Cagney (Angels With Dirty Faces), Robert Donat (The Citadel), Leslie Howard (Pygmalion)

James Cagney (Angels With Dirty Faces)
My Nominees:
Edward G. Robinson (The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse), Spencer Tracy (Boys Town)


The gangster lost to the priest at the 11th annual academy awards as Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan lost the Oscar race to Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Norman Toraug’s Boys Town. The two frontrunners were actors playing men on opposite sides of the law but facing a similar dilemma. In one corner was Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanaghan, a priest trying to establish a town for boys to keep them from going down the wrong path. In the other was James Cagney as a gangster trying to keep a group of boys from following his example at the urging of his lifelong friend Jerry who has grown up to be a priest.

It is hard to say anything bad about Tracy’s portrayal and you have to admire his attempts to get an arrogant street kid (Mickey Rooney) from going down the wrong road.  But I think the movie really belongs to Rooney and as the movie progresses, Tracy’s Father Flanagan steps left of center.  Angels With Dirty Faces tells a very similar story but I think this film is far more challenging.

As far as I’m concerned, Michael Curtiz’s Angels With Dirty Faces contains James Cagney’s best performance.  We know the gun-happy gangster persona, and we know Cagney’s mannerisms that have become famous fodder for impressionists.  But what isn’t so clear is how human his Rocky Sullivan really is. Sure, he’s a gunslinger, a mobster who slaps his enemies around and rubs out a few rats, but there’s a deeper humanity to Rocky, an element that is brought to the surface by his loyalty to his best buddy Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) who has become a priest.

We meet Rocky as a teenager somewhere around 1920, growing up in a Brooklyn slum (here played by Frankie Burke who looks and sounds remarkably like a young Cagney).  His best buddy is Jerry, who follows along on his lawless schemes like breaking into boxcars looking for things to sell.  While running from the cops, Rocky is caught because he stopped to help Jerry, who tripped on the railroad tracks. Jerry gets away but Rocky is sent to the Juvenile Correction Center.

Twenty years later, Rocky has made a Capone-like rise to power in the underworld while Jerry has become a man of the cloth, helping a group of young street kids to keep from following the same path as someone like Rocky.  They like to cause trouble and it isn’t long before their monkey shines lead them to Rocky’s door.  Rather than thrash the boys from trying to rob him, he basks in their hero worship. They read the headlines of Rocky’s misdeeds, mostly fueled by Rocky’s own legend.  The boys don’t know that Rocky helps to fuel his own publicity machine.  The real truth is far less flashy.

If anyone were to really get to the meat of the story, they would find that Rocky isn’t nearly as cold blooded as the headlines claim. No one knows this better than Jerry who understands the degree of humanity that lurks just under Rocky’s tough exterior.  The boys are enraptured by Rocky’s legend, and Jerry wants Rocky to use that worship to help him steer the boys in the right direction.

Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan is not a million miles removed from Tom Powers, the gun-happy thug he played in 1931’s The Public Enemy, but Rocky has far more humanity.  Powers was a psychotic killer, but Rocky is more level-headed.  No doubt, Rocky often handles his business with a gun but he’s not a miscreant. He commits crimes but it’s not an addiction. Rocky will break the rules but that doesn’t mean he’s heartless. From Tom Powers, we sensed that his violent tendencies are punctuation but from Rocky they are a method of handling his business. There are moments in Angels With Dirty Faces that Cagney prepares himself for the tough guy routine, tucking in the pit-bull chin and steadying the arms and squaring the shoulders as if he is preparing for a role. Powers never does that, he’s all violence all the time and he has moments that I don’t think would be part of Rocky’s thinking.

It is Rocky’s headline grabbing joy that grabs the attention of the local Bowrey Boys who love his fearlessness, his ability to get the job done and his take-no-prisoners approach.  They fall under his spell, he has no use for cops, no use for authority, no use for the rules, but Jerry is concerned that he is leading them down a dark and dangerous path.  Rather than try and convince the boys that Rocky is a bad influence on them, he tries it the other way around, and asks Rocky to use his influence to steer them in the right direction.

Rocky knows how to handle the boys, take for example an impromptu basketball game that Jerry asks Rocky to coach. He makes the boys mind him with a firm hand rather than quoting scripture, he asks Rocky to meet the boys on their own terms and speak in a clear language that they can understand. This means that Rocky, occasionally, has to get rough.

The ending is quite powerful.  Rocky gets into trouble and ends up killing a man.  Sometime later he sits on death row and this is where the great drama of Angels With Dirty Faces comes down to a choice that Rocky is asked to make in his final moments before his execution.  Jerry wants the boys to grow out from under of Rocky’s influence and become men of honor so he asks Rocky to break down crying on his way to the death house.  If the boys can see that Rocky is really yellow, then it might break the spell.  Will Rocky break down, or will he be more concerned with his own headlines.  The question will forever reign in the minds of movie lovers as to whether Rocky’s eleventh-hour decision was real or whether it was an act. Either way, the mission was accomplished and Rocky’s better morality succeeded.

Best Actress

Bette Davis (Jezebel)
The Nominees: Faye Bainter (White Banners), Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion), Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette), Margaret Sullivan (Three Comrades)

Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette)
The Nominees: Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Margaret Sullivan (Three Comrades)


By 1938, the public hadn’t seen Norma Shearer for nearly two years.  She went into seclusion for several months following the sudden death of her husband Irving Thalberg in September of 1936, emerging only briefly to attend the Academy Awards to be present at the inauguration of an award that would bear his name.  Marie Antoinette was his final project (it was in development when he died) and Shearer was determined to see it through to the end.  She also made it her return to the screen.

It is barely possible that if she had won Best Actress for her performance, then historians might accuse the academy of giving her a sympathy award.  That would be shortchanging her work because she manages to pull off a very good performance in a movie that, I must admit, is a struggle to sit through.  In the title role, she manages to overcome an overly lavish production and some dry spots in the script.

I can’t say the same for Bette Davis, who fought like a tiger to get the role of Julie Marsden in William Wyler’s adaptation of Owen Davis’ play Jezebel, then fought just as hard to win an Oscar.  As a stubborn Southern Belle who fights to gain her independence and the man she loves, one cannot help but compare Julie with Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, which had similar themes but had so much more passion and a much better multi-layered performance from Vivien Leigh.

I adore Bette Davis but I have objected to both of the performances that brought her the Oscar because they both seem like pale imitations.  For 1938, I am much more interested in Norma Shearer in what I think is her last great performance.

As the movie opens, we meet Marie Antoinette in her home in Vienna as her mother announces that she is to be married to Louis XVI (played by a 29 year-old Robert Morley), the future heir to the throne of France.  She is dazzled that she will become a queen and upon greeting the King, she is disappointed that the dashing man that she mistakes for her husband is actually his grandfather.  She is less than thrilled when she meets the real thing, a stuffy, socially retarded, insecure weakling who can barely even say hello.  His shyness is not endearing as he not only informs her that “I don’t talk to ladies,” but that he has no interest in being king and certainly no interest in consummating the marriage.  He storms out and she spends her wedding night in tears.

Years pass without a consummation to the marriage and Marie Antoinette becomes a laughing stock.  It doesn’t take long to figure out that her standing in the rumor mill comes at the hands of Madame du Barry (Gladys George), mistress to King Louis XV and leads him around by the nose.  Marie asks why du Barry hates her so and she is informed “Because you are to be Queen,” it is as simple as that. Du Barry rules the social scene in the court of Versailles until the arrival of Duke Philippe d’Orleans (Joseph Schildkraut) who encourages Marie to become a social butterfly and clip du Barry’s wings.

Making her name in the social scene, Marie accidentally meets Count Axel de Fersen from Sweden (played by a miscast Tyrone Power). Playing a game in the parlor one night, she unintentionally makes a fool of him by asking him to pretend to be Russian; when he insults Marie, it nearly gets him killed.  She apologizes and they fall in love. During their secret relationship, du Barry convinces Louis XV (John Barrymore) to annul the marriage between Marie and his grandson. He agrees but dies before the tie can be cut.  So Marie becomes Queen but soon the events are set into motion that lead to a revolution and her execution.

I realize that I’ve probably made the movie sound far more intriguing than it actually is.  Actually, while it is easy to follow, it’s also deadly dull.  The pacing of the movie all wrong and the actors (save for Shearer) seem to be going over lines rather than playing characters.  All creativity here seems to have gone into the production design, the sets, the costumes, the cinematography, but it’s all in service of a movie that should be played with much more spirit and human dimension.  There are chess games that move at a better pace then this.

Yet, I can’t deny Norma Shearer.  While the movie lets her down, she is up to the challenge.  It’s a great performance.   She brings the full breadth of her personality to the role.  She’s a diamond in a sea of stuffy social circles, bringing a sense of fun to a court that seems bent on nothing more than affairs and gossip.  She has moments that are delightful especially when her expression changes from pleasure to horror as she realizes the dud she is about to marry. There is a light in her eyes as she realizes that she is about to be queen but some of that light dims as she realizes that the court is shallow and selfish. Her performance never seems forced; it feels organic, especially a moment when delight turns to despair as she is happy to receive a porcelain cradle, but then realizes that that gift is an insult from du Barry.

One thing I have always loved about Norma Shearer was that she wasn’t classically beautiful.  She was an attractive lady but she wasn’t ravishing. She had an odd facial structure, a bumpy build and a cross-eyed stare that made her seem more approachable, you felt for her because you felt you could be closer to her. That’s why she works so beautifully in Marie Antoinette – as she feels the pain of the world she has entered, we feel it too.  Sadly, Marie Antoinette would bring an end to an era. This was Shearer’s last great film, and the few films she made after this one were mediocre at best as the light that she had once brought to her performances seemed to have gone out.

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