Robert Donat - Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Clark Gable - Gone With the Wind
Laurence Olivier - Wuthering Heights
Mickey Rooney - Babes in Arms
James Stewart - Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
And the Winner Was:
Robert Donat - Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Gone With the Wind was the film of the year but I'd wager that Gable probably finished third and that the real tussle was between Donat and the nearly-as-saintly Stewart. Gable had won before and Donat was the only other guy previously nominated so probably a pretty standard victory.
My Ratings (in order of preference):-
By the time Hitchcock's Rope and Ford's Liberty Valance rolled around James Stewart had the composed-logician-turns-dishevelled-activist act down to a tee, but it's none so effective than in Washington. Up against absurd establishmentarianism Stewart presents the ethics of Capra's film about corruption and coporate back-patting with a winningly gritty sense of underdog, palpably shaken by the rigid state of American politics and the apparent helplessness of its broken morality. It's similar to Cooper's turn as Longfellow Deeds, but while Deeds grappled with issues, Stewart's Jefferson Smith knows the issues and is distinctly unfamiliar with the protocol. A stranglehold of a performance, his eventual hair-tearing antics correlate with the assumed stance of the audience but don't undermine them. We're registering with Smith but he isn't such an assured vessel for the film's politics, and his over-eager desire to foist himself upon Washington and make an impression make his initial tentative steps into Senate life feel distinctly infantile.
**** Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind
Rhett Butler is both an elitist and a masogynist; even though his reputation is far from lofty and his success rate with women seems fairly enviable. Clark Gable proved that he was the perfect person to play the cocksure, non-committal Rhett, who believes he's above and beyond the hick mentality simply because he can get away with not doing an awful lot. Gable has to act opposite one of the best performances there's ever been, but don't be fooled. In a handful of scenes (particularly towards the end) the onus is upon him to turn the film's guilty indulgement of Scarlett O'Hara inside out, and give the film the kind of responsibility as an issue-driven melodrama that it very rarely feels the need to display. His drunken, rough seduction of Scarlett is a particular highlight; this man doesn't know how to be in a relationship or display vulnerability, and he sure as hell doesn't get any help from his other half.
** Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips
I thought I was going to get away with ending this project without deeming a performance "hammy", and it's especially amusing that the term is not being used to describe one of the host of head-scatching performances by Paul Muni. Instead, the dishonour is bestowed upon Robert Donat, who plays the paternal schoolmaster Mr. Chips from his twenties to old-age and eventual death. Perhaps it's not so much Donat's fault as the off-putting facial hair he must navigate to get a word out? Nevertheless, the film gives him nothing to do but intersperse bits of tired wisdom to teenagers and occasionally well up with emotion at a moment of remeniscence. Points for effort but overall the turn came across as gimmicky and pedestrian.
* Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights
Even though I haven't read Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" it's plain to see that Wyler didn't do a great job with it. The film cuts from event to event with very little time for thought, and so one gets the impression that this version is stolidly faithful. Olivier's Heathcliff is by all accounts a brute, but you learn more about him through Merle Oberon's deft performance as Kathy than anything Sir Lawrence does. He lingers in the background of scenes like a neanderthal troll, and his Hunchback routine consists merely of staring at Kathy as if he'd just been deposited on this planet by an alien race. He fails to demonstrate either his feelings for the woman or the motivations of his character's questionable approach to marriage. Is Heathcliff underwritten here or just not done justice?
Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms
As the boss of an air force outlet Grant's Geoff Carter reacts to the early death of a colleague quickly, there's no time for grief during war. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Carter has a similar approach to romance, and as Bonnie (Jean Arthur) does everything she can to make him say that he needs her he resists committing to anything but the job in hand. Only Angels Have Wings is of course a comedy (and a good one at that) but it's often sad, and Grant embodies the film's dynamism, screwball, and homage all at once, rousing people at their lowest and then skulking into resignation himself. A tour-de-force that doesn't come across as one, and a telling example of sociological impact of war.
*** John Wayne in Stagecoach
I have to admit to not much liking John Wayne -- his disarming brashness became a recycled part of his shtick well into the 1970's. At this very early point of his career he perhaps wasn't aware of what he needed to do to get by (the bare minimum for most of his films) and so he gives his character's plucky, reckless protector act a hint of desperation and backstory. If Wayne grew up in Western movies he wasn't quite a loner in 1939, and in Stagecoach his hostility is broader and deeper than a shrug and a trot.