LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1937 and 1938

Posted by · 3:56 pm · April 13th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

1937 saw Spencer Tracy win the first of his back-to-back Best Actor Oscars and Luise Rainer win the second of her back-to-back Best Actress Oscars. The Academy wasn’t as in to spreading the wealth in those days as it is now. Just ask Meryl Streep. In fact, 1938 saw Frank Capra win his third Best Director trophy in five years, Walter Brennan win his second Best Supporting Actor gong in three years and Walt Disney took home his seventh consecutive bald guy for Best Animated Short.

1938 was also notable for the Best Picture nomination of “Grand Illusion,” the first foreign film to ever be nominated in that category. It wouldn’t happen again for 31 years and is still far too rare an occurrence. If the Academy had been able to look past their nose, they would have noticed these choices.

1937 – “Confession” (Joe May)

Sorry to get all obscure on you guys, but I don’t think this film is available on DVD or even VHS. I can’t even remember why I saw it, but I watched it taped off of Turner Classic Movies onto a VHS and buried in my film school’s archives. I think perhaps my Critical Studies professor was trying to get me pumped about Kay Francis. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t have been happier to stumble upon such a wildly schizophrenic, experimental melodrama.

In yet another example of old school Hollywood providing women with fantastic roles, Francis plays a woman on trial for murder and begins her defense with “What do you all want of me? I killed him, sentence me”. If you need a badass introduction to a character, you’ve got one. Then when new evidence is threatened to be introduced, she agrees to testify completely, as long as the courtroom is cleared. Then the flashbacks start.

If ever there was a detestable film trope, it’s the flashback and if ever there was a detestable film genre, it’s the melodrama, yet somehow this film works, primarily due to a smart script, the lead performance of Francis, and the insane direction of Joe May. Legend goes that Warner Bros. saw a screening of German film “Mazurka” in Berlin and quickly bought the rights. Rather than release the film, they buried it and ensured it never got seen in the States and instead remade it as a vehicle for Francis.

May saw the film and became obsessed with it, screening the film on the set continuously and remaking many scenes shot by shot. The result is a rare Hollywood film with expressionistic camera angles, harsh lighting, bizarre music and even special optical effects to convey a climactic “out of body experience”. A prime example of the type of film that deserves to be seen but was never singled out as a “classic” and thus, remains widely unavailable.

1938 – “Port of Shadows” (Marcel Carné)

Those with film knowledge that begins and ends with contemporary Academy Award nominees will recognize this film as the one that plays in the background of some scene in “Atonement.” Which scene, I don’t know, because I didn’t see “Atonement,” but I’m fairly certain that it couldn’t hold a candle to the film it pays homage to by including it. Marcel Carnè’s drama has been called “Poetic Realist,” and that only makes sense in that he strives for emotional truth but accomplishes it through theatricality (as he does again later in “Children of Paradise.”)

Here, Jean Gabin simply commands the screen, in a role light on dialogue and heavy on smoldering angst, as a soldier escaping the front lines to a quiet seaside town. As the title implies, the town is a sort of underworld of pent-up emotions, secrets and shadows. Fog embanks nearly every scene, giving the lighting and cinematography a noir look before noir had even been coined.

\One of the inhabitants is Michèle Morgan, a woman who just happens to be in need of a smoldering angsty hero. Morgan’s role suffers a bit from being underwritten, and as doomed romances go, it’s predictably plotted, but exquisitely executed. The inevitable highs and lows of the relationship unfold with breathtaking passion.

Carnè’s vision can only be described as dream-like in the way he subtly shifts tone, the slightly off-kilter sets and the gentle, eerie score. All of the elements combine to create an experience as much as a movie. Just as watching “Let the Right One In” can subconsciously make you think someone cranked up the air conditioning, you can almost smell the sea air while you watch “Port of Shadows.”

Those are my picks and yes, I’ve seen “Bringing Up Baby.” It sucks. What do you guys think?

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

27 responses so far

  • 1 4-13-2010 at 4:21 pm

    Jeff said...

    My pick for 1937 would be “Make Way for Tomorrow,” Leo McCarey’s other great film from that year.

    I like your 1938 pick, but I would go for either Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” or Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby,” which definitely does not suck! It’s fine that you don’t like it, but smug one-liners like the one at the end of your post are a good way to make people lose interest in your otherwise fine work in this series.

  • 2 4-13-2010 at 4:24 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Never heard of either of these, which is nice. I don’t think anyone really needs another retrospective on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Bringing Up Baby.

    Also, am I alone in not ever “getting” Spencer Tracy? I don’t know, I just can’t seem to gel to his acting style, and none of his performances ever screamed “Great!” to me. Is there a hidden gem I’m missing?

  • 3 4-13-2010 at 4:37 pm

    Jeff said...


    I cannot think of a great Tracy performance either, but I think he was quite good in “Test Pilot” and “Boom Town” (both with Clark Gable).

  • 4 4-13-2010 at 4:39 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Never heard of those. I might check them out over the summer.

    Oh, and I should mention that Port of Shadows wouldn’t have been eligible for an Oscar in 1938 as it didn’t recieve a stateside release until the following year.

  • 5 4-13-2010 at 4:42 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Point taken Jeff although my honest critique of the film wouldn’t be much higher than ‘it sucks’. Also Make Way for Tomorrow is on my desk at home. I’m positive I would love it and got it from Netflix for this article but didn’t watch it on time.

  • 6 4-13-2010 at 4:51 pm

    Jeff said...

    You shouldn’t have any trouble finding “Boom Town,” but “Test Pilot” may be a bit of a challenge—it’s never been released on DVD, but it was released on VHS back in 1991 and TCM shows it occasionally (usually around Oscar time).

  • 7 4-13-2010 at 5:00 pm

    Filmoholic said...

    Chad, you might want to elaborate on Bringing Up Baby before you get eviscerated.

    Anyway, good to see some unexpected choices. But I have a couple of questions.

    Is Confession the first time Hollywood remade a foreign film?

    And does anybody know when was the first time a flashback was used in a film? I think it’s Griffith’s Intolerance but I’m not sure.

  • 8 4-13-2010 at 5:41 pm

    Dean Treadway said...

    For me. in order of preference, in 1937:

    The Awful Truth
    Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
    Nothing Sacred
    Lost Horizon
    Way Out West
    Dead End
    A Day at the Races

    For 1938:
    The Adventures of Robin Hood
    Grand Illusion
    Alexander Nevsky
    The Lady Vanishes
    Bringing up Baby
    Angels With Dirty Faces
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

  • 9 4-13-2010 at 5:50 pm

    Jim T said...

    Nice post once again. I didn’t know anything about these movies. I’m more interested in watching “Confession”.

  • 10 4-13-2010 at 7:12 pm

    Bing147 said...

    I too have always been meh on Spencer Tracy, I find him solid and dependable but hardly noteworthy most of the time. But check out 1936’s Fury, he’s pretty fantastic there.

  • 11 4-13-2010 at 7:12 pm

    Andrew said...

    Enjoyed the series so far Chad. Nice to learn about older films that have somehow slipped through the cracks.

    Also, for those mentioning Snow White as an option: it received an honorary Oscar and was nominated for best score, so it wouldn’t be eligible for the column. Just an FYI.

  • 12 4-13-2010 at 10:19 pm

    josephchilders said...

    Chad is correct: Bringing Up Baby is the worst. It literally gave me a migraine when I watched it.

  • 13 4-13-2010 at 10:20 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ Andrew: Yeah, I remembered shortly after posting it. I was having Best Picture tunnel vision, I guess.

  • 14 4-14-2010 at 2:32 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I remain thoroughly uncharmed by “Bringing Up Baby” too, so I’m sympathetic to Chad’s stance there. But either way, why shouldn’t he be able to casually dismiss it in a column built around his personality and perspective? Let’s not get precious.

    Anyway, another terrific piece — I admit I’ve never seen “Confession.” Hope I can rectify that one of these days.

  • 15 4-14-2010 at 5:34 am

    RJL said...

    I cannot criticize your choices because I have seen neither of them. My choice for 1937 would be Make Way For Tomorrow with the great and underrated Beulah Bondi. For 1938, I’d be torn between The Lady Vanishes and Alexander Nevsky.

  • 16 4-14-2010 at 6:12 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    I will have to consult the film library before posting, but how people can not see the genius of Spencer Tracy is beyond me. The man is one of the greatest actors ever. You can’t think of a great Tracy performance? Really?

    Inherit The Wind? Boystown? Judgment at Nuremburg? Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Fury? The Last Hurrah? Captains Courageous? Bad Day at Black Rock? A Guy Named Joe? Father of the Bride?

    Throw in the other Hepburn-Tracy films (most notably Woman of the Year) and I find it laughable this debate even exists. He’s got more great performances in one decade than most have in a career. Jimmy Stewart, Gable, Bogart and the like might be more popular- or more agreeable for the female audience to look at – but Tracy was a better actor than all of them.

  • 17 4-14-2010 at 8:32 am

    Flosh said...

    I’m not sure if it was Oscar nominated (a quick google search was inconclusive and I don’t have time for more), but I’ll throw in a quick word for Fritz Lang’s extraordinary You Only Live Once.

  • 18 4-14-2010 at 8:56 am

    Estefan said...

    “Also, for those mentioning Snow White as an option: it received an honorary Oscar and was nominated for best score, so it wouldn’t be eligible for the column. Just an FYI.”
    Even, so, for such a breakthrough in cinema, it’s insane that Snow White was not nominated for best picture. That’s probably the equivalent of if Star Wars had no gotten in for Best Picture.

    It’s also kind of crazy that for all of the Oscars that Walt Disney received in his life-time (and one, after death), his only Best Picture nomination was for Mary Poppins. It’s hard to deny that Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book were all worthy of best picture nominations. Also, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.

  • 19 4-14-2010 at 9:04 am

    Andrew F said...

    Excellent choice with “Port of Shadows” — one of my favourites.

    What about another 1938 film with Jean Gabin in the lead, Renoir’s “La Bête Humaine”, based on the novel by Emile Zola? Fantastic. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Oh! And “Olympia”! I was surprised at how watchable that film really is — I was expecting a bit of a bore, but I was just completely enthralled.

    And I really enjoyed “Atonement”. Just sayin’.

  • 20 4-14-2010 at 9:25 am

    josephchilders said...

    Guy already addressed it, but I am consistently baffled by how even the mildest snark from Chad gives everybody the vapors. Not everyone has to like everything all the time, nor do they have to show extreme deference to every old movie just because it’s in the canon.

  • 21 4-14-2010 at 9:35 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Flosh: Rather than wasting time with Google searches, you can find any film’s Oscar nomination record on IMDB, in the Awards section. Just a tip.

  • 22 4-14-2010 at 11:22 am

    Speaking English said...

    ***Not everyone has to like everything all the time, nor do they have to show extreme deference to every old movie just because it’s in the canon.***

    Except when he does it comes off as a desperate attempt to rile up readers. It’s annoying and pretentious, especially with a guy who doesn’t seem to like a whole lot of what he sees.

  • 23 4-14-2010 at 11:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Pretentious” is a curious choice of adjective. The last thing Chad is doing is putting up any kind of front.

  • 24 4-14-2010 at 12:40 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I get pretentious a lot, it’s fine.

    But as “Confession” illustrates this week, it’s frustrating to know that a wealth of interesting, exciting films will never be available to the mass public because they didn’t earn the required amount of critical praise, then or now. Meanwhile, “Bringing Up Baby” will live forever and I can’t for the life of me see one reason why it should over anything else.

  • 25 4-14-2010 at 2:19 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Chad, for what it’s worth — and I doubt it’s worth much to you — I ranked “Atonement” as my top film of the 2000s. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not seeing it.

  • 26 4-14-2010 at 4:11 pm

    mark kratina said...

    FWIW, other worthy films of 1937-8:


    Camille (Garbo- imdb says 1936, but the release date was 1/1/37)

    They Won’t Forget (Claude Rains, Lana Turner debut- one of the best films no one has seen)


    The Lady Vanishes gets my vote- one of Hitchcock’s five best.

  • 27 5-19-2010 at 4:52 pm

    Steven said...


    Ma-Xu Weibang’s “Midnight Song”
    Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow”
    Julien Duvivier’s “Pepe Le Moko”


    Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” (both parts)
    Marcel Pagnol’s “The Baker’s Wife”
    Howard Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby”