1938: Year Eleven

Let us stop for a moment, doff our hats, and have a moment of silence for a now-dead category: Best Live Action Short Film (Color) is no more…

Let us rejoice in the continued survival — for the time being — of the other two Short Film categories, One- and Two-Reeler.

And of course, the two biggies, Best Sound Recording and Best Editing.

And me, of course — I’m still alive! Aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive! As I write this, at least, I’m still breathing and wondering what’s for lunch today.

So welcome back to 1938, and my ongoing attempt to see every single available Oscar-nominated film. If you’ve read my series, Who Won?!? An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, you know I omitted a growing number of categories, both from personal shortcomings and availability issues. No, that is not a description of my dating life. I’m married now — happily — but when I was dating, I was the Alpha Male of Match.com. It’s amazing what decent writing skills will do for you, even for people who are follically challenged…

So let’s get with the shorts — they need all the support they can get as they mourn the loss of their comrade in brevity.

Best Live Action Short Film (One-Reel):

First off, MGM (and that greatest of all Hollywood mother-lovers, Louis B. Mayer) won for That Mothers Might Live, over their own The Great Heart and Twentieth Century-Fox’s Timber Toppers.

That Mothers Might Live is actually a very serious short, about Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, the physician who pioneered standards of health and cleanliness in hospital delivery rooms. Wash those hands, Doc! It’s amazing how much going to see a doctor in the nineteenth century was bad for your health. Apparently, none of them believed that “Cleanliness was next to Godliness” — which as a child, I always took as meaning dirty fingernails meant you were going to hell. Actually, until the development of antibiotics, most medical problems were largely out of the realm of being solved — hospitals were breeding grounds for diseases, due to the lack of sanitary standards. I caught That Mothers Might Live years ago on either TCM or AMC, and recall the tone of respectful reverence for Dr. Semmelweis.

Ditto for The Great Heart, a similar kind of worshipful remembrance, this time for Father Damien, the priest who spent sixteen years tending to the members of a leper colony. Father Damien finally caught the disease himself, and died. A great man, dedicated to the service of others, who has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Leprosy is still with us, by the way, although few of my students recognize the reference, except for knowing that Jesus healed people called lepers. I have to explain it to them. I have to restrain myself from telling them this joke: “What did the leper say to the prostitute? Thanks — you can keep the tip.”

Finally, we get to Timber Toppers. I have no idea if I’ve ever seen this one, nor could I find it anywhere. One assumes it’s about lumberjacks, for which Hollywood had a thing in their golden era, making film after film with lumberjacks as characters. Monty Python would have the final word on lumberjacks, of course, but even they don’t mention Timber Toppers anywhere. UCLA has no copy archived.

Clearly, people care more about mothers and lepers than they do about trees. So go hug your leprous mother, and bring her a fresh Christmas tree…

Best Live Action Short Film (Two-Reel):

Warner Bros. went for the patriotic throat to win this one for The Declaration of Independence, over their own Swingtime in the Movies and MGM’s next mini-crime drama/morality lesson, They’re Always Caught.

The Declaration of Independence is available on the Warner Bros. box set, The Tough Guys Collection, and tells the story of Caesar Rodney, the Delaware delegate who cast the deciding vote on adopting the Declaration. Rodney made a 70-mile hellbent-for-leather ride in order to reach Independence Hall in Philadelphia in time to cast the vote; the short features this ride. A decent short, if a bit heavy on the dramatization.

Swingtime in the Movies is available on the DVD of the George Raft-Humphrey Bogart trucking movie, They Drive by Night (with Ida Lupino’s mad scene). Unfortunately, this is not a collection of the great swing bands of the Thirties. Fortunately, the behind-the-scenes Hollywood plot (such as it is) affords some extremely brief cameos, including John Garfield, Pat O’Brien, Priscilla Lane, and Humphrey Bogart — in color! Here is a short clip:

Finally, MGM continued trying to show that crime was a bad idea with They’re Always Caught. CSI fans rejoice — this is an exploration of the crime lab, as it was in the Thirties. I’ve seen this one several times over the years — and yes, the bad guy does indeed get caught!

Best Editing:

I couldn’t agree more with the winner of this one this year: Ralph Dawson, for The Adventures of Robin Hood, over Barbara MacLean, the doyenne of film editors, for Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Tom Held for both The Great Waltz and Test Pilot, and Gene Haylick for You Can’t Take It With You.

The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the platonic ideal for the heroic adventure film — or should be. Robin Hood has everything: charismatic stars, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; a tremendous supporting cast, with Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette, Una O’Connor, and Alan Hale, Sr.; stunningly beautiful Technicolor; masterly direction from Michael Curtiz and William Keighley; an excellent script from Norman Reilly Raine and Seton Miller; great fight choreography from swordsman Fred Cavens and archer Howard Hill — and first-rate editing from Ralph Dawson! Here is a collection of what was deleted from the movie:

We can see, with some effort, some of the editing choices being made.

I’ve seen all the other nominees — and none of them are even remotely on the same level of excellence as The Adventures of Robin Hood, and certainly not on the level of taut narrative and visual excitement.

Here is a lesser-known movie poster, which I just love:

Best Sound Recording:

To wrap the year up, we end with what is evidently becoming a vanity category, where every studio can have a free nomination, and I strongly suspect was even being used as a consolation prize. The winner was Thomas T. Moulton, for The Cowboy and the Lady, from United Artists, a minor Gary Cooper vehicle.  The nominees that were beaten included James Gleason in love with tanks in Army Girl (Charles L. Lootens, Republic); John Garfield pursuing Priscilla Lane in Four Daughters (Nathan Levinson, Warner Bros.); Ronald Colman as a poet-thief in If I Were King (Loren L. Ryder, Paramount); Brian Aherne as Constance Bennett’s butler in Merrily We Live (Elmer A. Raguse, Hal Roach Studio); Nelson Eddy pursuing Jeanette MacDonald yet again in Sweethearts (Douglas Shearer, MGM); Tyrone Power plowing a huge canal in Suez (Edmund H. Hansen, Twentieth Century-Fox); Deanna Durbin sings again in That Certain Age (Bernard B. Brown, Universal); Jimmy Stewart is in love with Ginger Rogers, who is the Vivacious Lady (John Aalberg, RKO); Frank Capra and Lionel Barrymore show the rich what real living is in You Can’t Take It With You (John Livadary, Columbia).

Yes, I’ve seen them all. I’m not happy I’ve seen them all — some of them are real stinkers.

My problem is this: they completely ignored the one movie with the most distinctive sounds of all: that wonderful thwipp! and thunk! of Robin Hood’s arrows, the clash of swords, the rich dripping evils of the voices of Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone. They should have nominated C.A. Riggs for The Adventures of Robin Hood — and he should have won. Take a listen to this scene, and tell me if you don’t agree.

So there we have another year, and I feel all the more complete all the time. Sooner or later, you’re not going to have anything to complain about with me. Assuming you’re not my wife, that is…

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