This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon.
I bet some movie fans think the only thing 1938 was good for was that it brought us 1939, “the Greatest Movie Year Ever.” Of course like any year before or since, it had a lot more to offer than that, including a lot of great movies. Meanwhile, that nasty and stubborn reality otherwise known as The World (which matures to become History) was lurking outside the theaters, about to intrude upon a “shocked…Shocked!” public. What follows is by no means a comprehensive history of the year, nor of moviemaking in that year, but a look at selected world events of 1938 suggested by and seen through my picks for its best movies:
When Jezebel comes out in March, one of Bette Davis’ first big leads becomes one of her greatest performances. She may have failed to get the role of Scarlett O’Hara, but she tears through a similarly themed and nearly as epic Southern drama. As the petulant, rebellious belle whose independent streak brings about scandal and destruction, and who comes to learn the meaning of sacrifice and atonement, Davis’ acting is simply stunning, and she deservedly wins her second Oscar. “I’m asking for the chance to prove myself to be brave, and strong, and unselfish;” her character’s fate at the movie’s end is not known, but she directs her strength toward perseverance, something that the ominous real world events of that year would require of many.
Japanese forces continue and escalate their war against China, and Nazi troops occupy Austria, an event probably remembered by many nowadays because of The Sound of Music. Anschluss overshadowed a news item revealing the widespread evil underway in the Soviet Union, as Stalin executes Nikolai Bukharin, a one-time Bolshevik ally who broke away and warned about the destruction and mass murder Stalin’s policies were to bring about. Dictators tolerate no free speech or opposition, and great purges are common practice; Bukharin was just one of many put through a mock trial for propaganda purposes and eliminated. Then, like Winston Smith and the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, Soviet history books are rewritten to deny the existence of Bukharin and others like him. Today we still see countless Nazi themed Hollywood films and relatively few depicting the true horrors of its close ideological relative Communism. “Our affairs have come to such a pass that there is no escape without running risks,” Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons that March, protesting the weak and ineffective response of effectively accepting yet another breach by Hitler of the Versailles treaty.
“Come now, Sir Guy. You would not kill a man for telling the truth, would you? / If it amused me, yes!”
The Adventures of Robin Hood
My pick for the greatest, most amazing, most exciting, well made action movie ever, starring the movies’ greatest action hero ever, comes out in May. This epic technicolor blockbuster has it all: stunts, charm, romance, plot, acting, and music. It depicts regular people uniting to fight an evil power, and is one of the top grossing films for the year, satisfying the audience’s appetite for escapism and grand scale heroics. Only the month before, a certain caped Big Blue Boy Scout named Superman makes his appearance in Action comics #1.
Robin Hood: “Men, if you’re willing to fight for our people, I want you!”
The side of good would need these inspiring models, as Germany’s military is debating adventures of a nefarious sort, namely their readiness for war with Czechoslovakia. The Czechs meanwhile, are mobilizing forces in preparation for the coming Nazi invasion, which Hitler clearly declared as his intention by the end of May. Unfortunately the lesson of taking seriously the dictator who clearly and repeatedly states his intentions and desire to annihilate a group or nation is something we’ve not fully learned.
Bringing Up Baby in February, and Holiday in June.
I pair these because they have the same leads in Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, because they both fall into the same genre, because this is the year when Hepburn is labeled “box office poison,” yet ends up in two of the best films of the year, and also because coming at the start and midpoint of 1938 these two films conveniently align with some notable events and signal slight shifts in movie messages. In February Hitler purges Germany’s military ranks and establishes himself as supreme commander. He also orders the Chancellor of Austria not only to ease up his crackdown on National Socialism but to go so far as appoint Nazis to his cabinet. Once in place, those ministers were useful to Hitler’s occupation of Austria the following month. As world matters got more serious and Hollywood increasingly geared toward motivational and newsy themes, the classic screwball, of which Bringing Up Baby (amazingly, Hepburn’s first real comedic role) was an example of the highest order, would slowly fade; it probably didn’t help that the movie was a flop when it came out.
“What is it you want? Just security? To sit smugly back in your bank vault among the worthys of the world?”
By June, Kate and Cary were in Holiday, a comedy of a rather different tone, one pondering the meaning of wealth, love and life companions. Instead of madcap slapstick, there is a serious, tender, melancholy undercurrent, and characters marked by insecurity and vulnerability; from now and toward the war years romance had to be intensely fun and intensely experienced, for who knew what tomorrow would bring. Those days bring only the beginning of great suffering for Germany’s Jews. Hitler moves with lightning speed on many fronts, and in June enacts a wave of anti-Semitic laws, persecution which over the summer would escalate far beyond legislation.
Marie Antoinette in July.
Like many Hollywood movies the history presented in Marie Antoinette is shaky, but Norma Shearer’s acting is solid; if you are still of the opinion that Norma is stiff or that a strategic Hollywood marriage somehow outweighs her talent, then consider her Oscar nominated performance, especially her prison scenes, in this movie. Coming out two years after Irving Thalberg’s untimely death, Marie serves also as a last hurrah to the glittery grandiosity of MGM, for their “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” approach on full display here, was to wane and adapt to changing tastes during the war years.
Marie: “Good night. Or, if you wish good morning. I shall never say goodbye.”
In a much more peaceful way than Marie ends her time as Queen of France, (as Variety noted, “on the downbeat” to say the least! a guillotine will do that) Norma’s reign at MGM also winds down, along with much of the decadence on display with Marie Antoinette; it was to become hopelessly Old School, and not just in the movies.
Of all the films of 1938, if I had to pick just one favourite, one which also happens to most directly assess and capture the mood in Europe as storm clouds gathered, it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film, The Lady Vanishes, which comes out in October in the UK, and November Stateside. When Margaret Lockwood is adamant that the woman with whom she boarded the train has disappeared, the other passengers are oblivious, their chief fear being the fuss might delay their train. However once they realize there exists a real threat to them and to England they unite to become the most loyal helpers. Hitch gives us various attitudes and levels of awareness, from vigilant to ignorant to appeasing, with one line reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s warnings: “Pacifist eh? Won’t work old boy. Early Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions!” Eventually the train’s dining car becomes a symbol of England, surrounded by enemies, and in a scene that Hitchcock added to the script, the British cornered there are forced to fight.
It’s timely stuff; only recently, in the most important event of the year, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is in a small group that helps carve up and sell out the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, in desperate (if not ridiculous) hope of making peace with Hitler. Appeasement is doomed to fail, for the promises of evil men are not to be trusted and it should have surprised nobody that Hitler doesn’t honor the agreement. It seems appropriate that my favourite cartoon of all time, the surreal, bizarre Porky in Wackyland also comes out that month. In Porky’s quest to find the last do-do, he goes from dark to darker to darkest Africa, is distracted by the weirdest sights, and when he encounters the do-do, the creature delights in torturing, abusing, fooling, generally confounding Porky, laughs in his face, and then lies about being the last do-do, while countless other do-dos appear to foil the capture.
Besides being just plain brilliant, to me it says a lot about the folly and the impotence of trying to make deals with mad men, the descent into insanity and Dingbat Land when trying to compromise with an evil which is only emboldened and further fueled by the interaction. “100 nuts and a squirrel”…“It can happen here!” This season Hitler is allowed by other powers to become the force they face and fear and fight in the coming war. And there will always be more like him to contend with.
“No! I don’t want to die! Oh, please! I don’t want to die! Oh, please! Don’t make me burn in hell. Oh, please let go of me! Please don’t kill me! Oh, don’t kill me, please!”
In November moviegoers got a milestone movie from James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, a story of childhood friends who end up on drastically different sides of life; Cagney is a gangster and idolized by the slum kids, but who, on the urging of Priest Pat O’Brien, pretends in the end to be a coward to dissuade his “fans.” It was a message Hollywood had pushed since the Production code, that criminals were not to be glorified. As war approaches this supports a different theme, that of the importance of a people uniting, that even those who might previously have had little to offer had something to contribute, and making a virtue of sacrificing one’s own glory for a greater good. That month in Germany Kristallnacht brings coordinated government-sponsored violence upon Jews and their property, vandalizing, razing and terrorizing multiple targets and escalating long-simmering hatred to an offense that soon becomes genocide. US policy is neutrality, and much of the world looks the other way, to happier news, like Seabiscuit, the subject of a bestseller and 2003 movie, winning the Match of the Century against War Admiral, and Kate Smith singing God Bless America for the first time.
The remake of The Dawn Patrol comes out around Christmas, proving there is no such thing as too much Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, this time taking part in the missions and emotions of a weary WW1 air squadron. Flynn’s outstanding acting in this movie bookends nicely with his work as Robin Hood, for here we see reluctance, the trauma, futility and toll of war, debate over the meaning, if any, of all that death, and messages about the naivete of, and near-pity for the gung-ho new recruits. War as avoidable nightmare was a message that was emphasized greatly from the original Dawn Patrol, and it fit well with America wanting to remain neutral but ironically, The Dawn Patrol is a movie so well filmed and impressive that it still manages to glamorize the fliers and their exploits. That same fall, future Luftwaffe flying ace Hans-Joachim Marseille is accepted into flight training; he goes on to rack up over 150 “victories” for Germany, and is still remembered as one of that nation’s top war heroes. Earlier in the summer Howard Hughes becomes aviator of the year by flying around the world in record time, less than 4 days.
“Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as a guest. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and forever will we stand!”
In Soviet Russia, one movie is unabashedly patriotic propaganda: Alexander Nevsky whips up the sentiment and unites its people against the Nazis through a strictly black and white retelling of folk history, setting war as necessary expression of love for own soil, against appeasement as traitorous, and portraying a majestic battle against a foreign aggressor. Or at least it does all this until Stalin signs a pact with Germany and bans the movie which no longer serves his policy.
The next momentous year was just around the bend…
Julie Marsden (Bette in Jezebel): “Whatever you might do, I can do more, ’cause I know how to fight better than you.”
Some more of my faves that didn’t make the cut: You Can’t Take it With You, Carefree, Boys Town, A Christmas Carol.
Some more movie details of 1938: top grossing films of the year include
Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Test Pilot, Boys Town, The Adventures of Robin Hood, You Can’t Take it with You, Sweethearts, Marie Antoinette, Happy Landing, Angels with Dirty Faces. Deanna Durbin has two movies, Mad About Music and That Certain Age in the top 20.
Actors making their movie debuts include John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara, Vincent Price and William Holden. Bugs Bunny, or some rabbit looking distinctly like him, also first appears this year.
Born in 1938: Natalie Wood, Jon Voight, Oliver Reed, Claudia Cardinale
Died in 1938: Florence Lawrence, Warner Oland, Georges Melies, Pearl White
Orson Welles freaks a lot of listeners with War of the Worlds, Pearl Buck wins a Nobel Prize, teflon, the breathalyzer and the nylon toothbrush are introduced, a record setting crowd watches boxer Joe Louis knock out Germany’s best example of Aryan supremacy, Max Schmeling, and Time’s Man of the Year is Adolf Hitler.
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon which you can explore via:
The Silent Era (1915-1926): Hosted by Movies, Silently
An Uncertain World (1927-1938): Hosted by Silver Screenings
The War Years (1939-1950): Hosted by Once Upon a Screen