Top Films of 1938
We’re just getting going on this year’s look back at films celebrating decade anniversaries. So far we have 2008 on the books, and this time we’re heading back to 1938.
In 1938, the second world war was on the horizon but not yet truly underway, the United States was just getting over the Great Depression (which was also felt around the world), and Hollywood’s Dream Factory was nearly at the height of its power, turning out screwball comedies, costume dramas, gangster films, Technicolor adventures, and musicals at rapid pace. The rest of the world wasn’t slacking either, as our top ten includes films from France, Russia, and the UK along with American offerings.
Americans, as always, were into escapism in 1938. The top ten box office draws for the year included fluffy musicals like Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Happy Landing (starring Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie), plus an entry in the popular Andy Hardy family series. The Flickchart Top Ten contains only three films that overlap with the top earners list, though: Robin Hood, You Can’t Take It With You, and Angels with Dirty Faces. Our other entries show that foreign cinema, while rarely profitable in America, has had a bigger influence on cinephiles’ taste over the decades.
It is New Orleans in 1852, where men are real men and they challenge each other to duels over the slightest insults. Preston (Henry Fonda) urges the city leaders to build a railroad as a way to update its infrastructure which is needed to fight the dreaded and deadly yellow fever that occasionally plagues the city. This is foreshadowing for the story to follow but also a critique of the underdevelopment of the antebellum South. This movie, like other studio movies of the period, has a sentimental and rosy view of slavery; yes, there is singing, and it is very awkward. (By comparison, Jezebel director William Wyler’s final film, the 1970 drama The Liberation of LB Jones, was one of the least conciliatory Hollywood movies of the Civil Rights Era.)
Meanwhile, the women try on gowns for the Olympus Ball where unmarried women are expected to wear (virginal) white. But Julie (Bette Davis), Preston’s fiancée, having already pushed societal boundaries by riding fast horses around town (admittedly while still sidesaddle) and rushing into his place of work at the bank, does not want to wear white, and chooses red instead.
This is where she finds out the hard way exactly how much she has misjudged Preston, who is much more reform-minded than revolutionary. He is very much comfortable in Southern customs, despite any innovative thinking in the economic arena. Their mismatch is emblematic of the difference between the film’s leads: Henry Fonda was just beginning a long, excellent career in which he usually played nice, stalwart members of the establishment, whereas Bette Davis was at her best playing formidable women. It should be noted that no matter how it may look on the surface, Julie is not punished at the end because she acts out of her own volition, love, and duty. – Walter J. Montie
- Global rank: #2334
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Any film noir aficionado can tell you that German Expressionism was a major influence on noir style, with its overwrought emotions and high contrast lighting. A lesser-known continental influence was Poetic Realism, a French style that hit its height in the 1930s. In fact, the term “film noir” was first used to describe this film, in which an army deserter drifts into town and meets a young girl with a rough home situation (she lives with her godfather who’s in love with her, which is… awkward at best, let’s just say). It’s all fog and shadows, as you can guess from the title, and it’s easy to see its echoes in the murkiness of noir, but Port of Shadows sets itself apart with a softer emotional edge — instead of toughness we get vulnerability, and instead of cynicism we get tragedy. These characters have found themselves in tough, even hopeless situations, and yet they face them with not exactly hope, but a kind of stoic acceptance that keeps them above the desperation characteristic of noir and thus makes their inevitable end carry a weight that noir often doesn’t, despite similar plot progressions. Director Marcel Carné also directed another notable Poetic Realist film called Le jour se lève, as well as the highly regarded Children of Paradise, which may be considered one of the last truly great French films until the immediate precursors of the French New Wave. – Jandy Hardesty
- Global rank: #2162
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My favorite part of the original 1984 version of Red Dawn directed by John Milius is the scene when the heroes return to their town, only to find friends and relatives confined to a Soviet reeducation camp where they are forced to watch Alexander Nevsky, a classic 1938 Soviet movie. The only thing I can think of is, cool, they’re showing classic foreign movies at the local drive-in! (To be fair, the Wikipedia entry thought this was a deliberate reference to the older movie, as both are about resistance to enemy occupation, but I have serious doubts about John Milius ever being this thoughtful.)
In any case, Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, is the kind of rousing foreign movie that should be shown as widely as possible. It starts with Prince Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkosav) living the simple life of a fisherman, but not without incident, as he has tense but polite words with a group of Tartar traders. And that is nothing compared to the threat of Germans and their atrocities, against whom Nevsky is recruited to lead an army that is largely made up of peasants.
As much as Eisenstein is warning about the growing Nazi threat (while also throwing in general warnings about the West), he also sets up a classic good versus evil clash which results in one of the greatest battle scenes in cinema history, set against a frozen backdrop. While some modern viewers might see its action as primitive, it still works on a grand level, as Eisenstein makes the most of the countless actors and extras at his command. – Walter
- Global rank: #2109
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Chances are most people are more familiar with My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of this George Bernard Shaw classic play, than they are the original music-less script. They’re missing out, because this is a great adaptation of the play with a stellar cast. Leslie Howard manages to play one of the most dislikable protagonists in theatre history and still make him fairly likable, while Wendy Hiller is endlessly sympathetic in her journey. The script is funny and interesting and moving. We do need to discuss the ending for a moment, so if you object to a century-old story being spoiled for you, you may want to skip ahead. Shaw famously objected to the way many directors of his play changed it to end on a romantic note or hint at a positive relationship between its two leads, which, of course, this film does as well (in a new ending that My Fair Lady also used). It is a questionable decision, given how satisfying it is when Eliza asserts her independence and how undeserved it feels for her to return. Yet even if the ending feels like a bone thrown to moviegoers who demanded a “happy” ending, the majority of the film is a delightful battle of the sexes with clever dialogue and likable actors, and it’s well worth a watch to see these incredible performances. – Hannah Keefer
- Global rank: #1864
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Written by Robert Riskin based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and directed by Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It With You is a story about two families: the Vanderhof/Sycamore family, a middle-class bunch of eccentrics, much loved by their neighbors; and the Kirby family, affluent bankers, much unloved by the neighborhood they intend to tear down for a profit. Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) works as secretary to Tony Kirby (James Stewart), and these two of course fall in love, setting their extremely diametric families on a collision course. Subversive enough to avoid being maudlin and emotionally grounded enough to keep from being overly wacky, the film is both a heartfelt drama and one of the funniest romantic comedies ever made.
Arthur and Stewart have wonderful chemistry (which would serve them well again in Capra’s next film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and the rest of the cast is pitch-perfect, from Oscar nominee Spring Byington to a pre-fame 15-year-old Ann Miller. However, veteran actors Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold are the real stand-outs here as the respective patriarchs of the Vanderhof and Kirby families. Barrymore especially carries much of the film, but as the two families slowly converge on each other, Arnold becomes just as much of an on-screen presence, and their scenes together are magnificent.
You Can’t Take It With You is one of the few pure comedies to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture (or “Outstanding Production,” as it was called at the time), beating nine other films for that coveted title, including Pygmalion, Jezebel, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the film that is solidly at #1 for 1937 on Flickchart, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Whether it deserved Hollywood’s most prestigious honor is a topic for debate, but what is certain is that, at #6 for the year and #617 globally, You Can’t Take It with You has withstood the test of time better than the vast majority of its contemporaries, thanks to a man at the top of his game directing a solid cast in a film that is still both funny and resonant. – Tom Kapr
- Global rank: #617
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- Wins 52% of its matchups
Cary Grant‘s role in Holiday feels tailor-made for him. He plays Johnny Case, a man who dreams of retiring young and working old: make enough money so he can take an extended vacation to find out what life is about and what he wants out of it. He’s recently become engaged to Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), the daughter of an extremely wealthy family, who has her own views about what Johnny’s future should be. The role of Johnny is perfect for Grant, as you get to see both his whimsical side that is always delightful and joyful, as well as his more serious and somber acting abilities as complications arise and he has to make decisions about what’s really important to him. Katharine Hepburn is delightful as Linda, Julia’s sister who greatly admires Johnny and his dreams, and Lew Ayres is poignant as their brother Ned, a young man slowly descending into alcoholism as he finds himself pushed by his father into a life he has no desire for.
The movie is based on a play and has several of the hallmarks of it: it is steeped in dialog and much of the action takes place in one room. In many ways Holiday is idealistic, but it is occasionally frighteningly realistic about the difficulties of following your dreams and breaking away from the overbearing control of others, even when nothing stands in the way but ourselves. Both uplifting and cautionary, a drama and a romantic comedy, Holiday is layered and thoughtful while still retaining a lighthearted sense of whimsy. – Naomi Laeuchli
- Global rank: #616
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- Wins 57% of its matchups
Many of the gangster movies of the 1930s — Scarface, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar — open with textual disclaimers or epigraphs that let the audience know they’re not supposed to sympathize with the protagonist. The Hays Code required that criminal characters be brought low by the end of each movie so audiences wouldn’t idolize them; presumably it wasn’t thought likely that big-screen martyrs would become idols, an obvious oversight suggesting that the Hays Code may, in fact, have been ill-conceived. These moralistic messages are mere asterisks, easy to forget by the end of each film, and they don’t make the vibrant, frightening, nuanced gangsters brought to life by the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, and James Cagney any less compelling or (at times) sympathetic. There’s a sense that the Official Message isn’t these films’ real message, or at least not the reason people watched them and continue to watch them. Perhaps the only gangster film that cannot be accused of such Code-mandated hypocrisy is Angels With Dirty Faces, our #4 for the year. The concept of modeling behavior, and the disconnect between gangsters’ swaggering personas and their inner fragility, are not just context for this movie, or even mere themes; they are at the very center of the movie’s plot. Angels covers the youth and young adulthood of a James Cagney type (played, fittingly enough, by Cagney) in much the same way that other gangster movies had, but this gangster has a good angel at his shoulder the whole time: a priest friend played by Pat O’Brien. O’Brien’s goal isn’t to change Cagney’s ways, but to prevent the city’s youth from following Cagney’s path. The priest understands what the Hays Code didn’t — that ending with Cagney behind bars, or even with Cagney’s execution, wouldn’t make him any less of a hero to those seduced by the romance of outlawry. The gangster must destroy his own legend. The less you know about how that plays out in this exceptional gangland morality tale, the better. – David Conrad
- Global rank: #587
- Ranked 15,863 times by 868 users
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It should be no surprise that what many consider the greatest Robin Hood movie in cinema history came at the height of the swashbuckling genre. The story is a perfect fit for the genre, and swashbuckling star Errol Flynn is equally perfect casting for Robin. Flynn has a great sense of both joy and idealistic sincerity that brings Robin to life as a character. That combination of delight and earnestness is woven throughout this film and boosted by a superb supporting cast and sharp script. This, along with our #1 Bringing Up Baby, is one of my top choices when introducing classic film to younger viewers. (During my younger brother’s elementary school years, the character he most often pretended to be was a sword-fighting Errol Flynn.) While the film’s Depression-influenced discussion of social issues may go over kids’ heads, there’s plenty of humor and action that they’re sure to love. The movie also looks beautiful, and is an early example of Technicolor one year before it was used to great effect in The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. It’s a smart, charming adaptation of a folklore classic. – Hannah
- Global rank: #296
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The Lady Vanishes is surely the best of the dozen-plus films Alfred Hitchcock made in the 1930s. Many of those, especially late in the decade as the potential for war in Europe became evident, reveal the filmmaker’s fascination with espionage. Again and again he returned to the subject — in 1934 with The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1935 with The 39 Steps, and in 1936 with Secret Agent and Sabotage; within this period only Hitchcock’s 1937 effort, Young and Innocent, diverted his attention from the topic of spycraft. Released just a year before hostilities between England and Germany commenced, The Lady Vanishes makes the real-world implications of spying more explicit than any of his previous, jauntier yarns on the subject. Here England’s survival is at stake… but the movie takes its time getting there. The plot takes cues from the near-contemporary best-seller Murder on the Orient Express, borrowing the closed-in tension of its passenger train setting and its continental menagerie of suspects. Most diverting among the latter are “Charters and Caldicott,” two humorously obtuse cricket enthusiasts (and, one suspects, confirmed bachelors) who proved so popular with audiences that their performers reprised the roles in several subsequent movies, TV shows, and radio plays. Shared cinematic universe, anyone? As twists pile on twists, principle actors Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave convey a sympathetic confusion, while Dame May Whitty projects fragility and strength, compassion and calculation. Both a slow-boiling mystery and an emphatic warning about the coming war, The Lady Vanishes is essential viewing for fans of Hitchcock, ’30s cinema, and genre-based storytelling generally. – David
- Global rank: #193
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- Wins 52% of its matchups
Every time I try to come up with an example of the mostly-lost genre of screwball comedy, I immediately go to this 1938 classic starring Cary Grant as a nervous, uptight archeologist and Katharine Hepburn as the wacky, free-flowing woman who wants his attention. It gets more ridiculous at every turn, eventually involving a priceless dinosaur fossil and two separate leopards — one a docile pet (the titular Baby) and the other a vicious man-eater. Grant later became known for playing smooth-talking charmers, so seeing him here as a nervous, restless, indecisive nerd is fun, and his energy and Hepburn’s play well off each other, balancing each other out even as the screenplay hurls its protagonists toward ever increasing wackiness. As with most screwball comedies, the actual circumstances of the misadventures are largely a device to pit two strong characters against each other and let them duke it out with wit. The film was considered a flop on its release but has enjoyed a lot of love from film fans in years since, partly because while the circumstances of the farcical misadventures may be dated, the foundational interactions between the characters are still timeless. In the 80 years since this film’s release, society’s view of gender roles has changed quite a bit, but not so much that the barbs about male/female relationships in this and other screwballs fail to land. On top of all this, it’s just a fun, silly movie, which makes it, among other things, an especially great classic movie to introduce to kids. – Hannah
- Global rank: #138
- Ranked 58,027 times by 3846 users
- Wins 51% of its matchups
Below — maybe even far below — the top 10, we’ve got a couple of personal favorites from 1938 that we think merit your attention:
Jandy – Porky in Wackyland
In general I consider myself more of a fan of later Looney Tunes featuring the fully-developed Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, rather than the late 1930s cartoons in which Porky Pig was the franchise’s main star. Robert Clampett’s work usually feels rough and sloppy to me compared with the precision of Chuck Jones or Friz Freleng. However, this totally bizarre cartoon perfectly fits Clampett’s off the wall style, and is pretty easily my favorite Porky-as-lead outing. Porky is looking for the last of the Do-Do birds, which is only found in the remote Wackyland – motto “It CAN happen here.” It’s in the middle of “darkest Africa”, a relic of the unfortunate conceptions of Africa in the late 1930s, and there are some racial stereotypes, but most of the elements of Wackyland are just the craziest things the animators could come up with. Like an animal with a cat head on one end and a dog head on the other so every time they look around they get in a massive fight. Or a prisoner who complains about being in jail, but he’s carrying his bars around with him. Or a take-off on the Three Stooges where each Stooge is a head on a three-headed man. When Porky does find the Do-Do, it’s the wackiest thing there, which is saying something. This cartoon is maybe the closest Warner cartoons ever came to full-on surrealism. It was remade almost shot-for-shot in color as Dough for the Do-Do in 1948, though backgrounds were changed to make them more Dali-esque (i.e., even more surreal) and a very few small details were changed here and there.
- Global rank: #5150
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- Wins 43% of its matchups
1938 is the release date for this two-part documentary shot in 1936 at the Olympic Games in Berlin — the last Olympic games for 12 years, as it turned out. Berlin had been awarded the games years before, when the Weimar government was still in power, albeit weakened by global economic depression. By the time the games came around, however, Hitler had ascended to power and done much to remake Germany in his own gross image. The Olympics cast an uncritical spotlight on his racist regime, and his documentarian Leni Riefenstahl was there to commit it to film. For good and for ill, she did so more comprehensively and cinematically than any chronicler of the games had yet attempted. Riefenstahl recreated the Olympic torch relay, the first time such an event had taken place in the modern games. She filmed the achievements of multiple-gold-medalist Jesse Owens, the black American who defeated “Aryan” competitors on their home field. She stylishly depicted the graceful, almost geometric forms of runners and divers, emphasizing the beauty of the Olympians as much as their athleticism. And, of course, she depicted Hitler, the bully at his pulpit, opening the games with pomp and circumstance, addressing the world he would soon plunge into war and genocide. In 226 minutes Olympia raised the bar for the unusual tandem of sports documentaries and art cinema, and its historical context makes it an important and disturbing political artifact as well.
- Global rank: #796
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- Wins 56% of its matchups