The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains

Director: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

Summary: The bandit king of Sherwood Forest leads his merry men in a battle against the corrupt Prince John

Other Nominations: Original Score*, Art Direction*, Film Editing*

Positives

-The movie looks and sounds fantastic. The score is absolutely perfect for high adventure and as much as I like Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Captain Blood, he exceed it here. It’s also very apparent that either the technicolor process was significantly improved between A Star is Born and this movie, or the people behind the scenes had learned how to shoot a color picture. While the color is still a bit off (and still looks like a hand-tinted photo), everything is bright and vivid and overall looks wonderfully distinctive

-The casting could not be better: Flynn was one of the great dashing rogues in the history of cinema, Rains and Rathone were always great as villains and de Havilland was pretty (seriously, I haven’t seen her do anything interesting yet in any of the 3 movies she’s been in).

-Great cinematography, especially with the action scenes of which there are many. Obvious note goes to the famous sword fight at the end of the film that is well-choreographed and well shot.

Negatives

-While the movie is fun and has lots of action, I never loved it or anything. Good way to spend a couple of hours, but there are plenty of action and adventure films that entertained me more. Not sure what more specific to say other than it was merely very good and not great in my opinion

Overall

Really fun and entertaining action adventure movie that was an easy watch even if it didn’t reach the heights of the absolute best of the genre for me.

Rating: B+

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

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Starring: Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Ethel Merman, Jack Haley, Jean Hersholt

Director: Henry King

Summary: A forward thinking bandleader fights to make ragtime respectable

Other Nominations: Story, Score*, Song (“Now It Can Be Told”), Art Direction, Film Editing

Positives

-This movie had a much better (or at least much more developed) romance plot than most of the ones I’ve watched so far. There are plenty of twists and turns, nobody acts like an idiot and it has a satisfying conclusion.

-This movie is mostly a vehicle to show off as many Irving Berlin songs as possible-about 30 in total. By no means my favorite, but on the whole the songs were good and had some pep.

Negatives

-Don Ameche’s character is really weak and only exists because the romance plot needs friction in it. Besides that, he doesn’t have the kind of emotional reactions you would expect out of someone in his position. Finally, Don Ameche (at least based off the two movies I’ve seen him in) isn’t much of an actor.

-Felt overly long at just under 2 hours, I think you could have cut out a couple of the songs and it would have felt like the plot moved quicker than it did.

Overall

Considering this was a musical, and that I didn’t care much for the last movie that involved the three leads and the director (In Old Chicago), I was pleasantly surprised by the movie. If you like old show tunes or a decent romance, then check it out.

Rating: C+

Boys Town (1938)

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Starring: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull

Director: Norman Taurog (THAT MOTHERF)

Summary: True story of Father Flanagan’s fight to build a home for orphaned boys

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Tracy)*, Story*, Screenplay

Positives

-Spencer Tracy is very good as Father Flanagan and imbues the character with the kindness and fundamental decency the role calls for. This is the kind of role Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart played a lot in their primes, and I think Tracy should have been put alongside them after his turn here.

-Sweet and heartwarming without going too far into syrupy territory for the most part. The majority of the movie is a simple and effective story about faith in your fellow man (or boy) and the goodness in all of us

Negatives

-The movie takes a hard and unexpected turn in tone and style towards the end and I don’t think it worked very well. There are obvious ways to ratchet up the stakes in a movie like this, but I didn’t expect them to go in such an overdramatic direction

-I really didn’t like Mickey Rooney’s performance in the movie, he was way over-the-top in every scene. I think that some of it may have been the way the character was written, but he took every opportunity to ratchet up the annoying bratishness of his character to the maximum.

Overall

Solid heartwarming family movie that is hurt by a sudden shift in style and tone in the last 30 minutes or so of the film that doesn’t feel in place with the rest of the movie

Rating: C

The Citadel (1938)

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Starring: Robert Donat, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison

Director: King Vidor

Summary: A struggling doctor is tempted to give up his ideals for a posh high-society practice

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Donat), Screenplay

Positives

-The scenes were Donat is practicing and lives hang in the balance are all wonderfully directed, as the pacing, along with the cinematography and editing all work together to create some great tension.

-The acting is very good all-around. Donat pulls off the different aspects of his character well, Richardson and Harrison are great in their respective roles (although Harrison isn’t in the movie all that much), and I really liked Russell although I don’t think her character gave her the chance to show off how good of an actress she can be.

Negatives

-The biggest problem for me was the screenplay, especially the second half of the movie where it starts to drag and could have been tightened up quite a bit, as we get the same information over and over again without anything that sheds new light on the character at that point in the story.

-While it was maybe not as well-tread as it would become, the “idealistic young man who becomes corrupted until a moment of redemption saves him” storyline has been done to death by now and this one brings nothing new to the table. All the story beats you would expect are there and the characters weren’t unique or interesting enough to elevate it.

Overall

Solid movie with a great cast and director that could have used a better screenplay (or better source material since it was a (mostly) faithful adaptation of a novel.
Rating: C+

Four Daughters (1938)

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Starring: Priscilla Lane, Rosemary Lane, Lola Lane, Gale Page, Claude Rains, John Garfield, Jeffrey Lynn

Director: Michael Curtiz

Summary: A small-town family’s peaceful life is shattered when one daughter falls for a rebellious musician.

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Garfield), Screenplay, Sound Recording

Positives

-Well-written and entertaining romance story that really picks up in the second half. While it’s definitely on the melodramatic side, it has some real meat on it and the main love triangle in the movie is well done.

-I liked Garfield in this (his first) movie, he does a great job playing a cynical, flawed but ultimately good person who acts and talks like a stereotypical film noir detective. He earned his nomination

Negatives

-Only the relationships involving the main daughter are really developed at all and only two of the daughters feel necessary to the plot at all. The rest feel like they’re there to fill time and to complete the theme of a bunch of daughters falling in love at the same time.

-While he’s perfectly fine in the role as the father, Claude Rains’ talents are kind of wasted in a role that could have been played equally well by tons of other people.

Overall

Better than I expected, this is a step above most romance movies of this period. I am definitely a fan of Michael Curtiz at this point (and the best is of course yet to come).

Rating: B-

Grand Illusion (1938)

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Starring: Jean Garbin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim

Director: Jean Renoir

Summary: French POWs fight to escape their German captors during World War I

Other Nominations: None

Positives

-The move certainly had a great central theme of how people, regardless of class, race or nationality, are alike all over, and therefore starting wars based on nationalism makes no sense. It’s a much more subtle (and arguably more nuanced) anti-war massage than the in-your-face All Quiet on the Western Front, even if I didn’t enjoy it as much here as I did with that film.

-The aspect of the film that struck me the most was how silly their attempts to escape were to begin with. As officers who were given preferential treatment as POWs, their living conditions were not only quite good, they were better off in a POW camp than they were on the front or fighting in the air. While some of them say the want to escape so they can go back to fighting for their country, others say it’s simply because it’s something to pass the time, which I found really interesting.

Negatives

-The movie is much more about its themes than its characters, who mostly seem to serve as stand-ins for their respective classes/races/nationalities. Other than Von Stroheim’s character, none of them really stuck out to me all that much. The plot also mostly took a backseat to the themes as well; while the themes were well-done, I think it would have engaged me more if it was either more of an in-depth character study with the same themes, or had a more intensive plot.

Other Stuff

-This was the first ever foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture. Since then, only 8 others have been so honored: Z (1969), The Emigrants (1972), Cries and Whispers (1973), Il Postino (1995), Life is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) (although it was made in the U.S.), and Amour (2012).

-This movie was released in 1937 in France, but is a 1938 nominee since that was the year of its U.S. release

Overall

I liked this movie, but not the extent most people who have seen it too. I guess the main reason why is because I just couldn’t get invested into the characters as actual characters, or the plot as much as I would have liked to. Still a very fine film with a very relevant message.

Rating: B

Jezebel (1938)

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Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay

Director: William Wyler

Summary: A tempestuous Southern belle’s willfulness threatens to destroy all who care for her

Other Nominations: Actress (Davis)*, Supporting Actress (Bainter)*, Score, Cinematography

Positives

-Davis is the obvious highlight here, doing what she did best-playing a strong-willed character, or more specifically, a manipulative shrew. She just has such a total command of the screen whenever she’s on it, and has the ability to convey a ton of information through her facial expressions and body language alone. Looking forward to more of her in the coming years

-The movie looks great from the elaborate dresses, to the great cinematography to the set design

-I went back and forth about it, but I like the score. The score in the first half hour to me felt totally off, as it was light and zippy in a movie that’s a fairly dark romantic drama; however, eventually got to think that this actually did a good job of showing how irreverent and immature her character is at the beginning. The rest of it works much better, with kind of this haunting, wavy sound showing her character’s obsession.

Negatives

-I really don’t think the ending of the film works at all for multiple reasons. First, my interpretation of Davis’ actions are quite different than what I think what was intended. Second, going off of what I believe I was intended to feel, her character’s actions feel sudden, unexplained and totally unnatural. This ends up hurting the movie quite a bit and I would have her character be more consistent and stick to her guns (and character) at the end.

-This will be repeated in another movie soon, but I can’t imagine any modern film getting away with being so totally ambivalent about the institution of slavery. The main character’s family owns a plantation during the antebellum era and there are plenty of slave characters in the movie, all of whom are happy and jovial. I know that there were many different experiences for slaves depending on who their masters were or what their position was, but man this movie whitewashes the hell over any of the hardships or suffering of being a slave. If you have a problem with Song of the South, this is pretty much on the same level.

Overall

Davis’ performance makes up for a lot of the faults, but there really is a lot that doesn’t quite work and it feels like a movie that is less than the sum of its (fantastic) parts.

Overall: C+

Pygmalion (1938)

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Starring: Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Wilfrid Lawson, Marie Lohr, Scott Sunderland

Director: Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard

Summary: A linguistics professor bets he can turn a flower girl into a lady by teaching her to speak properly

Other Nominations: Actor (Howard), Actress (Hiller), Screenplay*

Positives

-Howard and Hiller gave some of the best performances I’ve seen so far as Prof. Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, with Howard embodying this entertaining and hypocritical arrogance and Hiller’s performance evolves as the character does.

-All the original themes from the play are well-preserved and the way it treats power (in all its aspects) in a  relationship was not only remarkable when the play debuted in 1914, but still works really well for contemporary audiences

-There are a couple of montage sequences that are fantastic-they give you all the information and exposition you need to know in a short and entertaining package.

-I thought the score was creative and bold, sometimes going in the opposite direction that you would expect because it fits with what the character is feeling even if the audience feels the opposite at the time

Negatives

-I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. The play as originally written clearly goes one way, most every version after it (even during it’s original West End run) goes the opposite direction, and this movie is somewhat ambiguous but the most logical interpretation is that it will ultimately go towards the opposite direction. I think the original ending is the most faithful towards the characters and would have preferred it, but the film’s ending isn’t outright bad either.

-I think the “coming out ball” scene is overly long and could have been trimmed considerably; in fact, it didn’t exist in the original play at all and was only alluded to.

Overall

Wonderful adaptation of Shaw’s classic play with stellar lead performances. If you’ve only seen My Fair Lady, then check out this predecessor that is considered to be its equal if not it’s better.

Rating: A-

Test Pilot (1938)

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Starring: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore

Director: Victor Fleming

Summary: An irresponsible test pilot’s wife and best friend try to get him to grow up

Other Nominations: Story, Film Editing

Positives

-Outstanding cast with four great performances by actors playing the kind of characters they are best at playing: Gable as a brash and reckless guy who has a hard time admitting how much he loves someone, Loy as a strong and intelligent woman with a lot of humor and fun, and Tracy as a gruff guy looking out for both his friend and his friend’s wife. All of them have been in plenty of movies I’ve watched before (with Gable and Tracy both starring in San Francisco where they had the exact same dynamic and Tracy and Loy both in Libeled Lady), but their interactions together are great.

-I really enjoyed the relationship between Gable and Loy, which felt believable and had a decent amount of complexity to it.

Negatives

-Only the middle of the movie (from about the 1 hour mark to 1 hour, 40 minute mark of a 2 hour movie) really felt strong, the rest of it either was just pretty good (the first hour) or was overwrought (the last 15 minutes). Only when it focuses on the marriage and strains of the relationship between Gable and Loy’s characters does the movie shine, and the majority of the movie is either building to it or is giving a conclusion to it that could be better executed.

-The aerial scenes have aged badly. The rear projection is very noticeable, there are a bunch of cheap looking models, and the editing which is not convincing where there feels like a clear separation between the shots in the air and the reaction shots on the ground or in the cockpit (i.e. it breaks the illusion that this is all happening simultaneously).

Overall

Seeing great actors like Gable, Loy and Tracy all play off each other constantly for an entire movie is reason enough to watch this movie, and the core relationship at the heart of the film is strong. The drawback is that it takes quite some time to get there and the many aerial scenes will look cheap to modern audiences.

Rating: B-

*You Can’t Take It With You (1938)*

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Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington

Director: Frank Capra

Summary: A girl from a family of freethinkers falls for the son of a conservative banker.

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actress (Byington), Screenplay, Sound Recording, Film Editing

Positives

-I enjoyed this movie a lot. There are a lot of really wonderful and entertaining characters and performances, led by Lionel Barrymore doing great as he always does. Jimmy Stewart shows up for the first time in a Best Picture nominated movie, and shows why he would become a huge star very soon-everything about him puts you at ease, starting with his instantly recognizable drawl and his droopy eyes.

-The central message of choosing your own path and not caring about what others think, along with emphasizing the value of friends, family and doing what makes you happy is a good message (in moderation at least-I think it’s very interesting that there wasn’t really a response when one character asks “what would the world be like if everybody just did what they felt like?”). I can’t think of any other director in this time period who had such a crystal clear way he viewed the world-very Christian, hates government, lawyers, bureaucrats, progressives and monied interests because he sees them as greedy or immoral, and believes in down-home values and common sense. This is probably why he was so successful during the depression, but would become irrelevant as the ideological landscape changed after the war.

Negatives

-Capra, as he has in every movie since Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, has a message he wants to get across, and he makes damn sure you know what he is-this is a man who would flee in terror from subtlety if he met it on the street. For a lot of the movie, it’s just slightly annoying, but towards the end he starts laying it on way too thick and becomes cartoonish.

Overall

Very good movie and clearly Capra’s best since It Happened One Night. The screenplay is great, the cast is great, the only problem is that he starts beating you over the head with his message one time too many by the end. Worth a watch.

Rating: B+