Wednesday, June 10, 2009

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.

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