Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1934


The Nominees Were:

Clark Gable - It Happened One Night
Frank Morgan - The Affairs of Cellini
William Powell - The Thin Man

And the Winner Was:

Clark Gable - It Happened One Night

Clark Gable rode the It Happened One Night lovefest to a victory in his very first nomination, and considering he was just 34 and in a distinctly comedic role Gable is a fairly atypical Leading Actor winner. William Powell and Frank Morgan look like fillers in comparison, since Cellini didn't make much of a splash and The Thin Man was well-liked but hardly represented at the ceremony a great deal. Leslie Howard somehow wasn't nominated despite giving two of my favourite performances by an Actor in the entire decade.

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

**** Clark Gable in It Happened One Night

Many of Gable's performances require him to make a bad first impression, and the remainder of the running time involves him charming the pants off us for a re-evaluation. It's no more effective than in It Happened One Night, where his cheeky, sleazy smile reels in Claudette Colbert's willing runaway and sets up what is a killer partnership. His rogue-ish "qualities" of ambivalence and effortless self-sufficiency are pushed to the limit in Capra's frenetic comedy, but Gable seems to bask and enjoy the fun and games of what was labelled "the first screwball". Most of the film feels so gloriously impulsive because of the electricity between the leads, and as a man estranged (intentionally or not) from social etiquette and token quibbles, Gable's attitude is perfect for the role and the film.

*** William Powell in The Thin Man

The film is more a victory for the script than anything else, and one might argue that The Thin Man could have done with lighter and more able actors. Still, Powell as a detective of a maddeningly messy but occasionally hilarious mystery generally succeeds in giving the farce the energy and dryness that's dismissive in tone but rarely encourages us to think outside of the madness. Like Gable, his chemistry with the film's leading lady, Myrna Loy, also elevates the piece, and ensures that The Thin Man, while not always coherent, really gives you a fun-filled time.

Nominees Unseen:

Frank Morgan - The Affairs of Cellini

The Snubbed

**** Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel

As the Georgian caped crusader Leslie Howard treats his role exactly how it should be treated, emphasising the fun and flair of his socialite and man of the people. He fiendishly reverts from the tailor-obsessed Lord Percy Blakeney, whom he passes off as a vain, brainless toff, to a man at the head of a network of resistants to the French revolt. Although the film does not chart Percy's transformation into the Pimpernel (a la Batman Begins etc.) Howard gives him the err of someone so immersed in his own culture and yet, on some level, resentful of it. The nasally, pompous voice he puts on is a gratuitous caricature and certainly a knowing, satirical representation of an ambivalent England, and is one of the funniest creations I've seen in a long while.

**** Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage writer Somerset Maugham must surely have been seeking closure when he penned the unflinching depiction of a very one-sided relationship. While Bette Davis gets all of the juicy lines and showy outbursts, and gives it all of the gusto you'd expect, as a cruel and tactless receiver of love she meets her match in Leslie Howard's persistent, affectionate, sorry Philip. Though very choppily made, to the extent where the film feels more of a montage of their relationship than a chronicle or study, Howard nails the physical hangups of Philip (he has a club foot) and reacts to every lie, scold, and shun with the pain of a mortal wound, and through his defeat somehow manages to extricate a lifetime of self-conscious discomfort.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1932-33


The Nominees Were...Leslie Howard - Berkeley Square
Charles Laughton - The Private Life of Henry VIII
Paul Muni - I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

The Winner Was...

Charles Laughton - The Private Life of Henry VIII

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

***** Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

As an unwilling rebel against a questionable and heavily-criticised judicial system, Paul Muni is a near-revelation in Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Muni gives his wronged man the kind of naive, grounded appeal that heroes always need; that instinctive, direct way of looking at the world, and a degree of intolerance for people and situations that complicate that notion. He convincingly dissects his new situation, initially making James a petulant passenger in the chain gang before a sturdy realisation that to conquer it he must take charge. Fugitive is not as scathing as one would think: James' entry into jail is the primary force in his eventual achievements outside of it, and while the film ploughs on with such capable finesse and ease of storytelling Muni seems to be the perfect central element to its poltiical motivations, a product of his own victimisation.


Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Surely there isn't a more definitive screen version of Henry VIII than this 1933 tour-de-force? As well as looking remarkably like the man himself Laughton chews on drumsticks and spits orders with the self-righteous bravura of a man consumed by inherent, ingrained arrogance, and raucously chomps at the bit when surveying the womenfolk too. My problems with the film stem from its rushed desire to pack every juicy bit of history into ninety very stagy minutes, and Laughton himself doesn't really help in this regard. His mannered approach occasionally feels cartoonish, and his effective moments usually come in the form of comedy. A good performance but nothing exceptional.


Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square (1933)

The toe-in-the-water exploration of the absurd Berkeley Square requires Leslie Howard to be: a) besotted with the idea of his own ancestry, b) besotted with a member of his own ancestry, and c) infuriated with both a and b. Infuriation is something Leslie Howard can only demonstrate with the snarl of a terrier puppy, and even the stuffiness of the film's setting and subject cannot make his efforts feel beyond first base. I am generally a Leslie fan but he feels as if he's acting in a glass box here, understandably unsure of his film's bizarre intentions but fatally unable to eek out any belief for his character's fascinations or sympathy for the predicament he gets himself into.

The Snubbed


Warner Baxter in 42nd Street (1933)

The academy don't really like men in musicals. William Powell in The Great Ziegfeld (not exactly a "musical" but about musical theatre) similarly found himself on the wrong side of a snub, and that was for a film about HIM. 42nd Street is also more concerned with women and theatricality than the man who must hold it all together, Warner Baxter. Baxter isn't wonderful but he does draw attention to the frantic, fragile nature of showbusiness and the line between success and failure, and responds to each mini-disaster with the level of comic resignation that takes envy and shoves it down your throat.


Nils Asther in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

This beastly pet-figure of reluctant lust for heroine Barbara Stanwyck would later be modestly improved upon by Yul Brynner in Walter Lang's The King and I. Asther's stoney stern glare (as if he were telling off a small child), and satisfyingly smug closed-grin seem to be the faces of choice, and as such he loops them throughout The Bitter Tea, making his General Yen somebody fundamentally formidable, but never really expanding upon the barbarism that tarnishes his acceptability. A late scene shows promise but in general he's one of the main reasons why the film doesn't work.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Continuing the Old Theme...

I'm clearly in classic mode. Updating of the website has been very slow over the last few months, but I've managed to create pages for all years between 1937 and 1942, so if you're interested whether I think How Green Was My Valley should really have beaten Citizen Kane, you can now see. Hopefully, write-ups will ensue for some of these films, and I'm planning to integrate some awards into the pages -- although this will probably just be winners for now since the amount of films from these years is hardly substantial.

Men of the Thirties: 1931-32


The Nominees Were:

Wallace Beery - The Champ
Alfred Lunt - The Guardsman
Fredric March - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

And the Winner Winners was were...

Wallace Beery - The Champ
Fredric March - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

In an extraordinary year, the majority of the Leading Actor nominees actually won, with Beery and March sharing the accolade. Fredric March is the true winner, since he got just one vote more than Wallace's Champ, but the then-rules stipulated that if a competitor was within a certain number the contest would be deemed a tie. After frantically searching for a spare statuette for Beery, he too got a speech, and Alfred Lunt remained the only bridesmaid of the trio.

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931)

One half of the gentle giant-cute kid partnership Champ demonstrates paternity in different ways, caught between a desire to ingrain Dink into the only way of life that he knows (as an attempt to keep up a "legacy" that's paper thin anyway), and a realisation that Dink needs a more stable and (for lack of a better word) childish childhood. Beery's reaction to suggestions the kid would be better off with his mother is stubborn but with a hint of conciliation, and he conveys the esteem issues of Champ and his failed boxing career without giving the audience too strong a sense of where the film is going. His chief scene comes after admitting to himself that Dink would be better off elsewhere, and in true macho fashion Champ cannot bear to seem weak in front of his child, opting instead to admonish him and make him seem like a burden. Beery plays this scene incredibly well, and after slapping the kid gives a devastatingly effective wince, the obvious regret halting every ounce of anger you could have had for this troubled but ultimately noble man.

Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Rouben Mamoulian's Jekyll and Hyde would undoubtedly be a multiple winner had the make-up category been introduced sooner. March's transformation between Professor and monster is a cosmetic feat for the time and surely contributive to the effect and popularity of his performance. The manneristic qualities of March, however, are perhaps more striking and integral to his double-persona; the arrogant delight that transcends from the welcome danger and escape of the Doctor to the aggressive primordial revelling of his creation. And the rather obvious switch-up from physical refinement to ape-ish predictability serves him well as it feels particularly parallel to the literary tone of the film. March seems very aware of Robert Louis Stevenson's orginal narrative and the storytelling style of director Mamoulian, and is dynamic without ever taking over the film, becoming an example of the fine line between genius and madness and the increasingly powerless victim of his own dark desires.

Nominees Unseen:

Alfred Lunt - The Guardsman (1931)

The Snubbed

Jackie Cooper in The Champ (1931)

If Cooper's performance in Skippy was a mini-revelation it's blown right out of the water in The Champ, a film in which he's largely let down by his irresponsible drunken father. Cooper gives Dink a similarly caretaking mentality, and in reacting to disappointment his pet lip runs into overdrive. Yet these moments are only brief, and it soon becomes clear that Dink is incapable of being truly broken like his father, instead reacting to every situation with the faux-common sensical approach of Champ. The fact that the boy only ever refers to his father as "Daddy" in one scene solidifies the sense of them as unified through circumstance rather than obligation. The final scene of The Champ is hard-hitting, and Cooper absoloutely nails it, devastatingly effective as someone finally failed by something completely beyond his control.

Robert Williams in Platinum Blonde (1931)

I'm somewhat surprised that Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde did not receive a single nomination, since it certainly feels to me in the same level of quality and similar in theme to his other thirties films. A story of culture and class clashes and the questionable morals of the newspaper business, Platinum Blonde provides a great deal for leading man Robert Williams to eschew over (two women and his diminishing masculinity for a start) and he gladly channels this into a charismatic character that has perhaps been entrenched in his work for too long.

Williams handles his arc well, reluctant at every step, and while the film treats his decline into a position under the thumb of the insistent Jean Harlow a little too swiftly and severely, he helps us to understand the man's belief in his own infallability as inherently working class and independent. He underplays his concessions and diminishes their effect with redundant sarcastic protests and faux-'Jack the lad' charm, and ably expresses the cultural naivety with which his newspaperman approaches his first relationship with a socially-superior woman.

*** Paul Muni in Scarface (1932)

If you've seen Muni's nominated performances, most of which feature after this, it's difficult to believe that they actually rate as comparatively restrained. In Scarface he twists his face with sour putrid, and undoubtedly performs the part of Tony Ferino with a 'MORE is more' attitude, making every aggressive outburst feel like some kind of seizure. It would be fair to say that, to an extent, it works: Muni gives us smugness, possessiveness, and paranoia with the flagrant generosity of a man that knows he's there for show, menacingly apt when you consider the dangerous reputation of his volatile gangster. But there's always such a nagging methodology to Muni that extends to other performances (allbeit in a banal, less valuable context) that makes Tony appear too outrospectively emotive, treating every situation too dramatically, to the point where I don't trust that he fully considers Tony's desire to hold onto his untouchable status.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1930-31


The Nominees were...

Lionel Barrymore - A Free Soul
Jackie Cooper - Skippy
Richard Dix - Cimarron
Fredric March - The Royal Family of Broadway
Adolphe Menjou - The Front Page

And the Winner was...

Lionel Barrymore - A Free Soul

Lionel Barrymore's nomination as director of Madame X in the previous 1929-30 ceremony may just have swung the vote in a diverse year for Leading male nominees. There's also the fact that he is very flawed in the film (an alcoholic and bad father) whereas the others, while hardly whiter-than-whiter, are certainly less sympathetic in their actions. Eight year-old Jackie Cooper remains the youngest person to receive a nomination in a Leading Role.

My ratings and assessments (in order of preference):-

*** Jackie Cooper in Skippy (1931)

It's well-documented that director Norman Taurog got ten year-old Jackie Cooper to cry during a scene by threatening to shoot the boy's dog. A harsh move, and one that suggests Cooper's performance is more trained than natural. As it happens, Cooper single-handedly sustains the interest of the film and ably carries it with such brash, clumsy charm, flummoxed at the unpreventable nature and lack of justification for poverty, slaughter, hostility, that sometimes can only be articulated through the innocence of a child. Cooper has the maturity to know that his Skippy must be a constant activist, and although you can't really imagine someone as outgoing and streetwise belonging to the meek, conservative parents to which he's attached, it's astonishing how much he seems to know the people around him. It's no wonder that whomever he interacts with seems genuinely privileged to be in his company.

*** Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page (1931)

Menjou features in barely a handful of scenes in The Front Page's opening hour, but the constant reference to his character in this time and the importance of his Walter Burns in the final act, probably amounts to a leading role. As a newspaper tycoon he represents the film's harshest depiction of the ruthless world of journalism, manipulating the unfolding drama over a murder suspect with political and financial motivation. He does this with all the dignity of an orchestral conductor, cooly cutting people dead with one-liners and approaching the sheriff and all who challenge him as if they were barely worthy of his time. Menjou is largely successful at responding to the energy of the film's true leading man, Pat O'Brien, and thoughtfully underplays his character's crafty processing and frequent dismay with furrowed brows and pursed lips. A criticism is that he is perhaps a little too reserved, and certainly appears to be less attuned to this satirical brand of comedy than many of the other cast members, but no matter, his performance is a sly, shrewd, knowing one that crucially ensures that we never doubt who's truly running the show.

** Richard Dix in Cimarron (1931)

Richard Dix probably felt like the cat that got the cream when he landed the lead role in Best Picture-winner Cimarron, but retrospectively the task of wrestling with this turgid, muddled script is a thankless one. Dix charges Cimarron through a fairly promising first half at the core of a culture we're beginning to understand, and while the film feels as if its moving towards something his curiously-named Yancey Cravat is the self-righteous hero that descendants like Giant managed to muster up. A rousing speech at a church meeting shows what Dix is capable of, clawing at the town's hooligans and effectively hanging them out to dry with an almost arrogant lack of fear. Ironically this display of leadership is Cimarron's final feat, promptly consigning Dix to a five-year period of solitude which is over in the blink of an eye. His return to the town only serves to confuse matters though, and it really is downhill from there for all concerned. I couldn't tell you anything more about his character from then onwards: a fault for which Dix really can't be blamed.

** Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul (1931)

The raucous mannerisms that serve Lionel Barrymore are manifested into drunken flailing and desperate pleas in A Free Soul, a film that is a bit like an accident waiting to happen. Asking Norma Shearer to act modestly is a questionable move in itself, and only contributes to the guffaw when AFS turns into a theatrical courtroom face/off at the close and sees the two stars compete for just who can shout the loudest and swoosh the most dramatically. Prior to the film's needless escalation into cheap melodrama it had been a competent family drama (allbeit low on actual themes) in which Barrymore's alcoholic lawyer isn't mind-blowing, but manages to get across the man's passion for family, work, and alcohol. When that idea is knocked on its head the mayhem ensues and we're into histrionics the likes of which even Liz Taylor and Richard Burton never reached. The essence of their courtroom exchange is down to the poor script but both Shearer and Barrymore's treatment of it is ACTING 101, and all but kills any sense of poignancy left in A Free Soul.

Nominees Unseen:

Fredric March in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Men of the Thirties Month: Commencement

And so it begins.

I've been racing through the Academy Awards' first embracees with the lightning fury of a bushfire in Skippy and with the determined desire for escape of Victor McLaglen in The Informer. But before I launch into annual rundowns of each respective year, I just wanna make one small point about George Arliss, and his fellow nominees in the 1929-30 awards. Although technically these awards consider films in the first half of 1930, Disraeli was released in 1929, and so I don't count his win as a thirties victory -- if you get me. Therefore I'll be starting with the 1930-31 line-up.

Here are the nomination totals for the Actors of the Thirties (* denotes win) :-

4 Nominations (and leader of the pack)

Paul Muni*

3 Nominations

Clark Gable*
Fredric March*
Spencer Tracy**

2 Nominations

Charles Boyer
Robert Donat*
Leslie Howard
Charles Laughton*
William Powell

1 Nomination

Lionel Barrymore*
Wallace Beery*
James Cagney
Gary Cooper
Jackie Cooper
Richard Dix
Walter Huston
Alfred Lunt
Adolphe Menjou
Robert Montgomery
Frank Morgan
Victor McLaglen*
Laurence Olivier
Mickey Rooney
James Stewart
Franchot Tone

Extra Stats and Trivia

The average age of the Leading Actor winner is just under 40 years old.

Youngest - Gable (34 years and 26 Days)
Oldest - Barrymore (52 years and 196 days)

Only two of the Leading Actor winners (Laughton as Henry VIII and Muni as Louis Pasteur) are starring in actual biopics -- so we can't blame the current obsession on Academy Award founders. Having said that, five of the other eight winners are literary characters. Originality didn't exactly reap reward in this period either.

Seven of the ten winners have death scenes.

Paul Muni's nomination for Black Fury in 1935 was a write-in, like Bette Davis' Of Human Bondage turn the year before. Both were revealed as second-place finishers to Victor McLaglen and Claudette Colbert respectively. The 'write-in' nomination was eventually abolished though, and the rules subsequently changed to ensure that the Academy would get it right the first time around. Whether they did or not is a matter of opinion.

The correlation between the Picture and Actor categories is nothing new: of the ten winners, only Lionel Barrymore and Fredric March were not in a Best Picture nominee. However, Clark Gable is the only winner to see his film win the big prize. He's also the only winner to see a co-star get an Oscar.

Of the 25 men nominated for Leading Actor in the 1930's, five went on to win the award in later decades (Cagney, Cooper, March, Olivier, Stewart) although Walter Huston did win for Supporting in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Fredric March is the only Actor to win in both the thirties and forties.

None of the ten Actor winners won the New York Film Critics Circle award, the then biggest precursor for the Oscar. And only one of the guys managed to get noticed elsewhere for their performance, although I'd certainly question Paul Muni's 1936 Volpi Cup from Venice.

Upcoming: 1930-31 Profile