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)

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