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.

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