Friday, November 06, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1938

The Nominees Were:

Charles Boyer in Algiers
James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces
Robert Donat in The Citadel
Leslie Howard in Pygmalion
Spencer Tracy in Boys Town

And the Winner Was:

Spencer Tracy in Boys Town

(Spoiler Alert!)
I find this the most baffling decision of the decade. James Cagney's NYFCC-winning performance is far more interesting than any of his competitors, and he does everything asked of a Hollywood leading man i.e. have tough, masculine presence, a soft(ish) interior, and die a hero. The only missing link was the lack of a Best Picture nomination for Angels with Dirty Faces, which has its faults but is far more competent than some of the nominees (I'm looking at you, Capra and Taurog). I imagine this is the kind of decision that saw Katharine Hepburn win in 1967 and '81 and could have seen Jack Nicholson's touching but hardly worthy Warren Schmidt tie Kate's four-win record seven years ago. Cagney and Donat may have been close but both end up cigarless.

My Ratings
(in order of preference):-

**** James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces

Akin to a bout of German expressionism James Cagney's Caligari eyes are fierce, and the strutting, plucky way that Cagney conducts himself indicates a man who means business. Angels with Dirty Faces is a deceptively light title for what becomes a rather heavy film, but it's an apt way to depict Rocky Sullivan and his band of criminal kids. Charming, cocky tearaways in a similar sense to Fagin's pickpockets in Oliver! Cagney plays his role as a semi-willing mentor (willing in the sense that it elevates his own prestige) with extravagant, streetwise fervour, beying everyone in sight to challenge his gangland superiority. Rocky doesn't have that much actual power, but you wouldn't know it.

*** Leslie Howard in Pygmalion

It's nigh-on impossible to match the overt chauvinism of Rex Harrison in pretty much everything, and Howard as Professor Henry Higgins comes across as a much less relevant part of the film. He knows that Eliza Dolittle is the showpiece of the production and gives way to her in a similar vein as he did Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage. He bounces off her well and their mini-battles are as uproariously funny here as they are in the Best Picture-winning musical adaptation.

*** Robert Donat in The Citadel

I feel sorry for Donat, who proves -- as he did in '35 -- that he is such a likeable and charming screen presence. The Citadel has promise but ends up marooning him when the ideas dissipate, and in the final act of this film Donat is utterly helpless and ineffective. Prior to that he illustrates his character's ethical dilemna readily, somewhat disguising the insipid attempts to generate drama. He carefully develops the changing perspective of Dr. Andrew towards his profession and I had actually grown attached to the character by the time the wheels started falling off.

*** Charles Boyer in Algiers

I like Algiers much more than any of the films nominated in this category, but certainly not for its acting. The tone of the film lunges violently but Boyer stays pretty much the same, and the role requires similar things of him as the previous year's Conquest. A gangster in a much different sense to Cagney he's an elusive, no-nonsense figurehead that crumbles into a songster at the sight of Hedy Lamarr (who can blame him, huh?). But Boyer captures the tragedy of a man trapped in a district, top dog in a prison, bound by limitations, much more successfully than he ever captured Napoleon's ambition.

* Spencer Tracy in Boys Town

Tracy sidles around as a mentor figure who, unlike Cagney's Rocky, has no flaws to speak of. Father Flanagan is at the head of Boys Town's admirable but lightweight advertisement for juvenile reform, and has to sort out the restlessness of Mickey Rooney et al. He does this through the occasional lecture, which Tracy can dole out in his sleep, and he is thoroughly incapable of contributing any grit or bite to the character. A bitter disappointment.

The Snubbed

***** Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (& Holiday)

Not one but two classic star turns they spurned. Grant's best comes when he reacts to the ever-increasing mania going on all around him, (i.e. in Arsenic and Old Lace, possibly the finest comedic performance there's ever been). In BUB his behaviour and rationality fades in sync with this ever-maddening environment, his character eventually reduced from skepticism to acceptance in what is a rousing reversal. After all, would a man really fall in love with a girl who ransacked his wedding, lumbered him with a leopard, and single-handedly dismantled his relationship?

*** Henry Fonda in Jezebel

Another man Bette Davis swallows and spits out, but this time she doesn't have the guy quite where she wants him. Henry Fonda wouldn't say boo to a goose in many of his films and his cowardice reaches a height when he reacts to Davis's famous brazen red-dress humiliation with the trepidation of a square society Duke. Fonda is totally right for the part -- cute, investable, self-important -- but when the going gets tough the tough get going (thank you, Billy Ocean) and even though you could maybe fall in love with this guy his predictability is ultimately sad. Davis is stellar and the film ain't so much about him, but he does everything you'd ask of the character.

** Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood

This is silly fun: Flynn is such a poser, and uses his bravado to craft Robin Hood into a dastardly commodity. The film is really all a technicolour confection, strewn with velvet and laden with pretty faces. Flynn is the prettiest though, and his snarls, smirks, and come-to-bed eyes are the intoxicating essence of a hero. It works perfectly for the film, but it's limited, and that's all he has to offer.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Ouch. the lack of love for Spencer hurts. It hurts.