The Academy added a Special Effects category this year, but being a child of the Star Wars generation, I didn’t skip that one.
I did skip the same ones as the year before: the two Best Live Action Short Film (One-Reel, Two-Reel), Best Sound Recording, and Best Editing.
This being perhaps the finest year the Golden Age of Hollywood ever had, let us hope the same is true of the categories I jumped over.
Best Sound Recording:
I think we can definitely label this as a consolation prize category now, looking at the one-per-studio rule that is clearly in play, as well as naming yet another obscure film as the winner, this time for the weepie romance with a married Charles Boyer and a disappointed but pure Irene Dunne in When Tomorrow Comes, for Bernard B. Brown, Universal, over the Rooshian Nelson Eddy abandoning the usual Jeanette MacDonald for Ilona Massey in Balalaika (Douglas Shearer, MGM); that little Civil War picture Gone With the Wind (Thomas T. Moulton, Samuel Goldwyn Studio); the sentimentalized picture of teaching in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (A. W. Watkins, Denham Studio); the faked bio of The Great Victor Herbert (Loren L. Ryder, Paramount); the brilliant Charles Laughton as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (John Aalberg, RKO); Richard Dix in the western Man of Conquest (Charles L. Lootens, Republic); the genius of Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart, and Jean Arthur in the required test for American citizenship, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (John Livadary, Columbia); Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr., in the best adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (Elmer A. Raguse, Hal Roach Studio); Bette Davis and Errol Flynn mismatched in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Nathan Levinson, Warner Bros.)l and Tyrone Power fighting disease and floods in The Rains Came (E. H. Hansen, Fox).
Just to be clear, the only thing I hadn’t seen was Balalaika. Just to be clear, I wish I hadn’t been bothered. A cigar store Indian is less wooden than Nelson Eddy. Ilona Massey is only slightly less lifeless. If you like to watch wood sing, here you go:
Honestly, the most lavish sound of any of these, the most modern sound, must be Gone with the Wind, which should have won. The boom of the cannon, the rustle of petticoats, the glorious score, and more. Across the board, the state of the art in 1939. Here is an alternate poster from the one we are used to seeing:
Best Live Action Short Film (One-Reel):
The Academy got daring this year: they allowed four nominees in this category, rather than three. Oooooh, those little old risk-takers! Paramount won for Busy Little Bears, over RKO’s Information Please, MGM’s Prophet Without Honor, and Warner Bros., Sword Fishing.
Busy Little Bears is a cutesy look at three young bears in the Sierra Nevadas, including their joyful invasion of a tourist cabin for some snacks. Once I read the description, I had a distinct memory of being shown this as a child, in one of my elementary school classrooms. I wonder what happened to all those old film projectors, and reels of film, once the VHS tape and DVDs came into prominence. I remember how enthralled we were — we asked the teacher (a sub?) to run it again — and she did, backwards, which was even funnier.
Information Please was originally a radio show — a quiz show, where experts would try to answer questions submitted by audience members, who would win prizes if they could stump the experts (which generally included Oscar Levant, the sourpuss cynic and pianist). Guest panelists were part of the attraction, and included a variety of artistic types, including Boris Karloff, Orson Welles, Ruth Gordon, and Nero Wolfe’s creator, Rex Stout (whose novels are still astonishingly good). Here is a link to over sixty of the original episodes, including one with Alfred Hitchcock: http://www.otr.net/?p=infp; here is another link to more: https://archive.org/details/Information_Please_page1. The first film short stars host Fadiman, Stout, Levant, and the two regular trivia experts, John Kieran and Franklin P. Adams. That first one may or may not be the correct nominee, since they made several of them each year, and the Academy doesn’t distinguish who was on, but this was the best I could find from 1939, with Deems Taylor, the narrator of Fantasia, rather than Stout (sorry about the poor quality):
I would have loved being on that show! I may have lost on Jeopardy, but that’s their fault for asking me a musical question in an American Literature category…
Prophet Without Honor is a paean to a forgotten American hero, Matthew Fontaine Maury, the “Pathfinder of the Seas” who developed the standard methods of mapping the ocean winds and currents. Maury joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, which tarnished his name for a time. I could not locate the film, although TCM apparently shows it now and again; UCLA has no copy. Maybe Maury can send me a navigational chart…
Finally, Sword Fishing may be the most fascinating of all of these, because the archer from The Adventures of Robin Hood is front and center, as he goes after the great marlin with a bow and arrow! Hill had incredible skills, which allowed him to safely shoot arrows at stuntmen and never missing, as well as taking down flying fish here in this short. Ronald Reagan narrates. I’ve seen this one on TCM before. I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody who doesn’t like fishing, or perceives fishing as being cruel to animals. I just recall being amazed at Hill’s abilities. In lieu of the actual short, here is a special on Hill and his work in Robin Hood:
Best Live Action Short Film (Two-Reel):
This category is starting to feel like a retread, given Warner Bros. pushing a patriotic short, and MGM showing that crime doesn’t pay, and somebody else coming up in third. This year, we get Warner’s Sons of Liberty, MGM’s Drunk Driving, and RKO’s Five Times Five.
Sons of Liberty offers the great Claude Rains as Haym Solomon, with Gale Sondergaard as his wife and Donald Crisp as Alexander McDougall. Michael Curtiz directed. Haym Solomon was a Jewish-American patriot who helped finance the American Revolution. The short can be found on the Errol Flynn boxed set, on the DVD of Dodge City. I would argue that this short is another example of Warner Bros. being the first Hollywood studio to begin to take a stand against the Nazis, by showing Jewish support for fighting against tyranny. Witness the lavish talent involved here. Sons of Liberty is quite good, effective propaganda.
Drunk Driving shows that drinking and driving don’t mix. This is another in the Crime Does Not Pay series, all of which are on a DVD boxed set.
Finally, RKO released Five Times Five, showing the Dionne Quintuplets at their fifth birthday. The Dionne Quintuplets were a phenomenon in an era when multiple live births were exceedingly rare. The Dionne Quintuplets were a tragic story, given that they were taken away from their parents by the Canadian government and raised as a tourist attraction, more or less. A truly sad story, and one completely ignored by Five Times Five (which I’ve seen used as clips). Here is a short presentation on the girls — and NOT what was nominated:
Gone With the Wind won for Hal C. Kern and James E. Newcom, over Charles Frend, Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Gene Havlick and Al Clark for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer for Stagecoach; and Barbara McLean, The Rains Came.
With all due apologies to the juggernaut that was (and is) Gone with the Wind, the one artistic vision focused on visuals and ecstatically joyful editing has to be Stagecoach. The chase at the end remains a textbook example on how to intercut footage to create a stunning narrative thrust. Here is a sample of that groundbreaking piece of work:
And my favorite poster:
And my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0