The Citadel (1938): Robert Donat’s First Oscar Nominated Performance

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by Paul Batters

Robert Donat is perhaps one of the most loved actors from the golden years of Hollywood and is best remembered for his Oscar winning performance in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). It was and still is a beautiful and heart-warming performance, and deserves to be remembered as it still resonates with audiences today. It is one of my favourite films which I discovered as a child but it was not my first experience watching Robert Donat. That discovery came with the film which would draw his first Oscar nomination; 1938’s The Citadel. 

It’s also a performance that does not get the acclaim that it deserves and has been greatly overshadowed by the film which eventually brought Donat his Oscar win in 1939.

Based on A.J Cronin’s novel. The Citadel tells the story of Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) and follows a character arc which sees him shift from a young, idealistic doctor looking to bring change to the world to losing his faith in himself and the world and discovering it again. As a result, the story still resonates and there are some powerful themes that also still resonate, particularly in light of the current socio-economic and political climate of today – the divisions of class that exist within society, the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged, the lack of health care for the poor and needy and certainly the lack of action on the part of the authorities to accept the need for change and adopt new technologies as well as new thinking.

Yet at the very personal level there exists something that is timeless; the idealism of youth that turns to disillusionment and despair. Critic David Kehr outlines in his review that director King Vidor was always fascinated by the concept of personal rebirth and that certainly comes through strong in the film, as evidenced by the uplifting climax. If anything, it is the central theme of the film which also has a powerful universal connection to audiences. How many of us have felt our idealism slip away or eroded over time or indeed even destroyed quite suddenly? And how many of us have rediscovered that idealism? Two deeply personal questions but ones that legendary directors like Vidor were driven by and Donat certainly seeks to channel answers through his portrayal of Dr. Manson.

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The young doctor is assigned to the mining village of Blaenely, working under the tutelage of Dr. Page (Basil Gill). The opening scenes show Manson’s excitement as he travels there by train, looking at the countryside as well as some of the conditions the men are working under. There is a foreshadowing of what he will face and perhaps what will temper (and then mute) his idealism when he is warned by the coach driver.

Initially, Manson works hard to treat the local miners and notices that their impoverished life and conditions leave them in misery. Yet all his attempts to bring positive change are thwarted, not only by the authorities but also by the miners themselves. He finds friendship in fellow doctor Denny (Ralph Richardson) who will be a great support and indeed share the same ideal, going to incredible and dangerous lengths to do something about the problems of a possible typhoid break out in the town. True happiness will be found in Christine, a school teacher (Rosalind Russell), whom he will marry afters securing his position as a doctor, although their first meeting will not be a pleasant one. However, after Christine comes to him as a patient for a sore throat, something happens between them. But it seems it is not enough and all his efforts in the town come to nothing, leaving the young dejected and lost, and after a particularly traumatic incident, the couple move to London.

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It will be here that he runs into an old classmate from medical school, Dr.Lawrence (Rex Harrison) and Manson finds himself converted to Lawrence’s way of thinking, to Christine’s disappointment. He becomes a very successful doctor for the upper class of London and enjoys the benefits and money that comes with it. But at what cost?

 

This reviewer will not divulge what follows but it will take not only Christine’s pleading to remember who he was and the ideals they both shared, as well as some tragedy, for Manson to realise what has happened to him. Again, Dr. Manson will find the fire within to act for what is best and the final scene is a strong ending, befitting theme of rebirth which Vidor felt so driven by in his films.

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Robert Donat planned his portrayal carefully, measured within the development of his craft and particularly the development of ‘The Emotion Chart’, that was used in preparation for his role as Dr. Manson. Donat saw the importance of regulating the emotional content of the performance, using the character arc as the guide and plotting the emotional response to the ups and downs of the character’s life.  Vicky Lowe’s article in Film History (2007) looks at Donat’s methodology used in The Citadel with incredible depth. She points out that Donat allowed his acting to be informed by other moments in the story whilst in character and thus using the appropriate emotional timbre for that moment, dependant on what had happened before and afterwards in the plot. As a result, the audience can see the dissolving of Manson’s moral resolve and his idealism dissipating which will lead him to a more lucrative professional outlook, underpinned by his disillusionment. But the audience also see Manson’s growth through the key turning points in the film, particularly the first where Manson first feels like a ‘real doctor’ when he saves the premature Morgan baby. Donat’s whole approach to the moment draws our empathy and it is the moment that connection is made firmly with the deepest investment into the character of Dr. Manson. Naturally, this is beautifully aided by the camera work, using close-ups on Donat’s face and so it is through his experience and interpretation that the moment is experienced by the audience. His point of view and his vocation as a doctor finally becomes a reality for both Manson and the audience.

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The whole cast is exceptional with outstanding British luminaries such as Richardson, Harrison, Emily Williams and a host of other familiar faces from British stage and screen. As a prestige MGM feature made and produced in Britain, the authenticity is not lost with the addition of the beautiful Rosalind Russell, who was the only American in the cast. According to her fascinating autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell did not feel particularly welcome as the local British industry felt an English girl should have held the role. Any animosity certainly did not transfer onto the screen and Russell is outstanding in her supporting role, which she had built a career on at that time at MGM. But Russell’s character of Christine is far more than that; she is a strong character who works to revive Manson’s conscience and rediscover his idealism.

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In truth, the film runs close to the wind in terms of preachiness but when considering the state of the world in 1938, it is understandable. Additionally, the film was a first to champion the need for reform in medical institutions which was quite a courageous act as well. Sally Dux in her interesting 2012 article in the Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television also points out that it was an important film in depicting the incredible social and class divisions that existed in Britain at the time and thus also significant ‘in the depiction of social realism in British cinema… resulting in its pivotal position in the story of the founding of the National Health Service in 1948’. Quite a feat indeed and also indicates that the power of film to influence and bring about positive change in the world has long existed.

What keeps the film together other than the strong performances is the hand of brilliant director, King Vidor, who anchors the film with his vision and knowledge of how to craft a film. Allowing the content of the film to mould and shape the direction of the film, Vidor allowed for the realism previously mentioned to work through. Donat as a result found a solid framework within which to build and develop his portrayal.

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The Citadel was well-received by a number of publications such as the New York Times and when watching Donat’s performance, it is no surprise that he was nominated for an Oscar. The film would also receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay as well, receiving no wins but it was up against some very tough competition in 1938.

As always Robert Donat brings incredible dignity and humanity to the role of Dr. Andrew Manson and was a deserved recipient of the Best Actor nomination. He would lose to Spencer Tracy (for Boys Town) but as classic film fans know, the following year would see him win against the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier in the year considered the greatest of the golden years. However, it would be foolish to look past Robert Donat in The Citadel and any fan of the great actor should take the time to revisit this wonderful film.

This article is an entry for the Robert Donat Blogathon kindly run by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please visit her site for some wonderful entries on the great actor and of course take the chance to read some great work from Maddy as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

6 thoughts on “The Citadel (1938): Robert Donat’s First Oscar Nominated Performance

  1. I want to see this one so much, even more so now after reading your excellent review and learning more about the characters and story. Only seen the trailer and a couple of clips. From what little I have seen, it’s obvious that Robert is giving the role his all. Thanks so much for joining me to celebrate Robert’s work and life, Paul.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you will love it Maddy, particularly with such a stellar cast, great production and a director like King Vidor. Thanks so much for your patience and adding me in though I was late. You’re so wonderful! 🙂

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  2. Another excellent film examination that prompted me to revisit a movie I had not seen in many years. I have always felt a special affinity towards Robert Donat; in addition to sharing the same first name we also have a birthday (March 18) in common. Your observation that Donat’s work in “The Citadel” has been unfairly eclipsed by “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is quite correct; I suspect his lovely, moving, and ultimately award-winning performance in the latter movie overshadowed every other piece of film work he undertook. There is a great deal to admire in Donat’s performance as Dr. Andrew Manson, a young doctor replete with ideals and principles, abandoning them for a more unscrupulous, lucrative practice until a tragedy leads him back to a more righteous path. Despite some literary liberties taken with A. J. Cronin’s novel, which I read a number of years ago, “The Citadel” remains a strong film today (albeit, as you noted, a little preachy), offering some interesting insights along with a compelling story. Always a pleasure to read your articles!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Robert! I love The Citadel but of course Robert Donat is a favourite of mine so I’m biased. Nice that you share the same birthday as well!

      I know there are a few films, particularly in the late 30s and into the 40s which are a little preachy but then I don’t blame film-makers at the time for doing so. Considering the state of the world, I tend to wonder if audience needed that then, in a world that seemed to be enveloped in darkness. Don’t we all need that at some point in our lives?

      Your support means a lot and I always appreciate your feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Totally agree with your observation on “preachiness”, Paul. With Europe on the brink of war in 1938, and as the war progressed, I’m sure audiences needed spirit-lifting and morale-boosting messages. I think such messaging would be equally valuable in today’s complicated world.

        Liked by 1 person

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