Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Year in Review: 1938

I have to admit I am not fully satisfied with this top ten list. It isn’t that each of the 10 films on here aren’t worthy – its just that I suspect that I really should have The Citadel on this list, but the damn thing isn’t available on DVD. I held out as long as I could, hoping that I could catch on TCM one day – which I plan to do – but until then, this is my list.

10. You Can’t Take it With You (Frank Capra)
You Can’t Take it With You is an utterly delightful comedy by Frank Capra. Upper class James Stewart falls in love with Jean Arthur – the only normal member of her eccentric family. His parents disapprove of the match, but in an attempt to win them over, they are invited to meet her family – and of course everything goes to hell quickly. The cast in the movie is great – not just Stewart and Arthur, but Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Spring Byington and everyone else. It isn’t one of Capra’s very best films, but it is fun and breezy, expertly crafted, written and acted. You can’t ask for much more from a movie comedy.

9. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard)
Before they turned it into the musical My Fair Lady, Pygmallion was a witty play, and a wonderful movie comedy. The story is well known – a snotty professor (Leslie Howard) who specializes in language and accents excepts the challenge of turning a cockney flower girl (Wendy Hiller) into a member of the upper crust by teaching her how to speak properly. The inherent sexism of the play aside (it really is something you have to get over when you watch classic movies – much like the casual racism), the movie is an utter delight. I often thought that Leslie Howard was a little too wussy to be a leading man – but he is perfectly suited for his role here. And Wendy Hiller is hilarious in the film – so much so that it is surprising when she works her way into your heart and breaks it. 1938 had a lot of great comedies – and this one is one of the best.

8. Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz)
To a certain extent, you can claim that Angels with Dirty Faces has a slightly hackened plot – two kids grow up as best friends, but one becomes a gangster (James Cagney) and the other becomes a priest (Pat O’Brien). Cagney saved O’Brien when they were kids – not only his life, but also from the cops, which Cagney could not outrun. Years later, Cagney returns to his old neighbourhood, although O’Brien wants to get him out of his life of crime, he is more concerned with his boys – who idolize Cagney, and seem to be heading down the same path. Corruption is exposed (Humphrey Bogart and George Bancroft are excellent as a shady lawyer and businessman), murders occur, and Cagney is sent to die – once again for protecting his friend. The plot may be well worn by now, but its description doesn’t give you any idea of the film itself – dark, tough, violent, yet with enough of a heart. This movie is Cagney’s – he really is terrific in this film, and he sells his character right down to its haunting final moments. Yes, the plot is well worn, but this film still packs a punch.

7. Holiday (George Cukor)
Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn had terrific chemistry together (just see my number 1 film from this year for further proof). Here they are perfect together. He is a self made man, who wants to live his life as a free spirit, who is conflicted between what he wants, and what his fiancé and her family expects of him. She is his fiance’s sister, who thinks he is perfect just the way he is. They are immediately drawn to each other, but of course there is that pesky business of being engaged to his sister. Of course, since we know who the movie stars are here, there is never any real mystery as to who Grant is going to end up with – but this movie isn’t about plot surprises, but about the free wheeling, witty dialogue that is great in this prime example of screwball comedy. Director George Cukor keeps things moving along splendidly and quickly right up to its inevitable conclusion. Just pure cinematic fun.

6. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
During the 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock made many great thrillers – most of which were far lighter in tone than his films in the 1940s and ‘50s would be and The Lady Vanishes is no exception. The film is about two people (Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood) who meet on a train travelling through Central Europe just before the outbreak of WWII. They meet a fellow British passenger (Dame May Whitty) also returning to England – but after the train stalls, and they wake up, they discover that Whitty is nowhere to be found. Not only that, but everyone on the train thinks that they are making up the story, and that there never was an old lady aboard the train. Of course there was a lady, and of course she is being held captive in some nefarious plot (a classic Hitchcock Macguffin). The film moves along at a brisk pace, is surprising suspenseful, but also has a dose of humor to it. I do prefer darker Hitchcock, but The Lady Vanishes is top notch stuff nonetheless.

5. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley)
There are some movies that are simply joyous to watch – and The Adventures of Robin Hood is certainly one of those movies. It is a film you watch as a kid and are swept away by its magic – and when you watch it as an adult, you remember what it was like to be that child. There is not a trace of cynicism in the film – no attempt to be historically accurate, or apply psychology to Robin Hood (Errol Flynn). He is simply who he is – a swash buckling adventurer who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. The film has a joyous romance between Robin and Maid Marion – Olivia De Havilland), and the villains – the great Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone twirl their mustaches with great panache. I think what is missing from all the other Robin Hood movies (especially the latest one directed by Ridley Scott which wanted to be Braveheart) is that sense of joy – of wonder that this movie pulls off effortlessly. They take everything so damned seriously.

4. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein)
I know that as a serious film buff, I am supposed to love Sergei Eisenstein. But, as much as I admire the skill and craft in which he assembled his films, the only one of his films I truly love is this one – and yet I’m not sure I could explain why it works for me better than the rest of them do. Perhaps it is because Alexander Nevsky is more simple – more straight forward – than Eisenstein’s other films. It focuses on Alexander (Nikolai Cherkasov) as he rallies the Russian commoners in order to defeat the invading German hordes. The film certainly does reference the politics at the time – the German soldiers were helmets not unlike the soldiers at the time (you can also see swastikas if you’re looking), and like many Soviet films at the time certainly has an anti-religion outlook. In my mind, the film contains some of Eisenstein’s best directing – particularly that final battle on the ice. No, Alexander Nevsky is not as daring as much of Eisenstein’s work, nor as groundbreaking, but to me it is more satisfying. While I admire all of Eisenstein’s films, I truly do love this one.

3. Port of Shadows (Marcel Carne)
Although not quite as famous as Le Jour Se Leve or Children of Paradise, Marcel Carne’s Port of Shadows, written by Jacques Prevert who also wrote the other films, is every bit as good. A classic example of “poetic realism”, Port of Shadows gives Jean Gabin one of his most iconic roles – as an army deserter who comes into a port town wanting to forget his past. He soon falls for the beautiful, innocent Michele Morgan, and has to protect her from the sinister Michel Simon, who is supposed to be her guardian, and the wonderful Pierre Brasseur, a sadistic little gangster. The film brings us up into the their love, and then crashes us back down into doom. The film is highly stylized by Carne – I love the wet streets, the never ending fog and the darkness that cloaks the characters. The film is surprisingly sexual as well, featuring a “sex scene” that would have been unthinkable in a Hollywood film. The performances in the film are all brilliant – I particularly love Gabin, who plays his iconic character, and the wonderful Simon, who could do just about anything. Port of Shadows is a masterpiece.

2. La Bete Humaine (Jean Renoir)
La Bete Humaine is a dark movie about sexual obsession and uncontrollably violent impulses. It stars Jean Gabin in one of his best roles as a train worker who falls in love with the beautiful Simone Simon – the wife of one of his co-workers. Gabin sees Simon and her husband commit a murder on the train, but keeps quiet because of his feelings for Simon. Simon then starts up an affair with him, trying to get him to murder her husband – who she says is cruel and sadistic – and Gabin, much like all those film noir heroes soon to be hitting American screens, is too much of a sap to she through her act. The film is darker, both visually and in terms of its content, than much of Renoir’s work, and his editing and camera work choppier. Yet it all works amazingly well, drawing us into this dark story, and making us follow it down its dark story line. Hollywood would have never made this film in 1938 – it remains one of the most disturbing films of the 1930s.

1. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
Howard Hawks once criticized this – perhaps the best screwball comedy of all time – saying that the problem with the film is that everyone is so wacky that it is impossible for the audience to find an in to the film. Perhaps that is why the film bombed in 1938, and was also a critical flop. But it is also why Bringing Up Baby has lasted so long – and its reputation grown so much. Yes, everyone in the film is crazy – and that’s what makes the film so damned funny. Bringing Up Baby is a movie that never slows down, never lets the pace slacken as he follow as Cary Grant’s scientist has to try and keep up with the crazy Katherine Hepburn – and he can’t, she out of his depth, but he continues to try anyway. The film is surprisingly, visually dark for a comedy, which better brings out the underlying theme of men turning into animals. The film is full of so many wonderful touches, so many throwaway moments of perfection. The entire cast is inspired, especially Grant who was wise enough to try and play his character a little more straight laced, and let Hepburn run completely wild. It is an inspired comedy, an hilarious comedy and a study in just how to direct this type of movie to perfection. No matter what Hawks said, this is perhaps the best film of his career.

Just Missed The Top 10: Jezebel (William Wyler).

Notable Films Missed: Alexander's Ragtime Band (Henry King), The Citadel (King Vidor), Four Daughters (Michael Curtiz), Kentucky (David Butler), Test Pilot (Victor Flemming).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: You Can’t Take it With You (Frank Capra).
I’m not quite sure why the Academy gave You Can’t Take it With You the Best Picture and Director Oscar this year. Perhaps its because they loved Capra so much. Perhaps it was because the play on which it was based won the Pulitizer Prize, therefore this comedy was deemed important enough to win. I’m not complaining that it won – it is quite good and better than most of the other nominees I have see, but it’s odd because even back then, they didn’t much care for comedies – even ones with a cast this impressive.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Spencer Tracy, Boys Town
Boys Town is such schmaltz that I had a hard time watching it at times. True, the story of Boys Town – a place for juvenile delinquents run by Tracy’s benevolent priest – is an inspiring one, but they really lay it much too thickly in this film. Tracy is about as good as can be expected in the role – which isn’t saying much. I have often been accused of liking only dark films, which in a way is true, but hell just look at all the lighter films on my top 10 list this year. Boys Town is just too sugary sweet for me.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Bette Davis, Jezebel
The story has become a legend – Bette Davis wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but they didn’t want her, so she forced her studio buy the rights to this, and cast her in the lead. She wanted to play the stubborn Southern Belle before the other film came out. Given that history, you may expect Jezebel to be not very good – but surprisingly it is quite good. Davis does do a great job as the headstrong Southern woman, whose pride costs her the man she loves (Henry Fonda). Yes, the film, and Davis, lay on the melodrama a little too heavily (especially at the end), but she does do a great job in the role. Should she have won an Oscar? I’m not sure, but she did deserve the nomination.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan, Kentucky
I haven’t seen David Butler’s horse breeding drama Kentucky – which is about family resentment passed down through the generations, so I cannot comment on Walter Brennan’s performance as apparently a crochety old man (a stretch for him I’m sure). I do love Walter Brennan, but this is a man who won three acting Oscars – more than anyone except for Katherine Hepburn (who has four) and Jack Nicholson (who also has three). Brennan won three largely because at the time, they allowed the Hollywood extras to vote for the prize – and Brennan was one of the only examples of someone who worked his way up through their ranks. I haven’t much about this movie – is it even available on DVD – but will try to catch it if it ever comes on TCM.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Fay Bainter, Jezebel
Fay Bainter became the first person to be nominated in both the lead (for White Banners) and supporting category in the same year. Up against her Jezebel co-star in the lead category, she didn’t have a chance. But they did give her this award, for playing Davis’ Aunt who tries to convince her to be reasonable. It is a very good performance by Bainter. I’m not sure she should have won an Oscar for it – but undoubtedly the Academy felt with two nominations in the same year, it would simply be cruel not to give her one.


  1. You do know that the story of Bette Davis losing the Scarlett O'Hara role to Vivian Leigh is such a lie :(

    There is a memo from Walter MacEwan to Warner producer Hal B. Wallis recommending Davis for the Jezebel role. The memo is dated February 1935, a year prior to "Gone With The Wind"'s publication. (that is, the BOOK's publication).

  2. Good to know about the Jezebel memo, and that the film was not simply made because Davis wanted to play Scarlett O'Hara, but on its won merits.

    But, it is true (from everything I have heard) that Davis at least expressed an interest in playing Scarlett, and that Warner Bros. offered Davis to David Selznick for the roll, and he rejected her because he didn't think she was right for it.

    But in the end, does it really matter that much? Davis had a great career, and was a great actress, but personally I don't think she would have made a good Scarlett. Perhaps that's only because Leigh did such a great job, and now I find it impossible to think of anyone in the role.