Friday, July 17, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1936

And the Nominees Were:

Gary Cooper - Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
Walter Huston - Dodsworth
Paul Muni - The Story of Louis Pasteur
William Powell - My Man Godfrey
Spencer Tracy - San Francisco

And the Winner Was:

Paul Muni - The Story of Louis Pasteur

In this case the result reflects two tried-and-tested ways of winning an Oscar: a) play a famous, real-life person, and b) be nominated enough times to gain "overdue" status. Paul Muni had done both by the time the 1936 awards rolled around and was up against three first-time nominees and a comedic, Best Picture nominee-less William Powell. Plain sailing.

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

**** Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town

The first of a string of nominations for Cooper, Mr. Deeds is a true display of his penchant for extracting empathy from an audience. His humanism reaches heights in High Noon, where his aging lawman has considerably more wisdom than Deeds, but by my reckoning the younger Cooper is just as valuable. Though the character is a bit too well-rounded and aware of the vicious circle he's dragged into, Cooper never lets you under the skin of Longfellow. He doesn't pin him down as a lucky simpleton, and doesn't really change a great deal from start to finish. It's clever then that he makes Deeds representative of anybody with political power, guilty of taking it for granted and duly pounced upon by the inevitable group that simply don't believe in you. It's a brilliant performance because it counters the spin that Capra's satirising by showing us that there is no saviour, and that the working class everyman is likely to suffer the same fate of the politician with the privileged pedigree.

**** Walter Huston in Dodsworth

Loud, brash, honest, dependable -- they're admittedly not the most exciting adjectives, and so it might not be difficult to surmise why Ruth Chatterton's Fran leaves these characteristics behind for a cosmopolitan life in Europe. Her husband Sam is played with admittedly little variety by Huston, but he manages to capture the perplexity of this retired, business-minded, commonsensical veteran at his wife's actions. Why has she done this? Why has she done this now? Why doesn't she want to be a mother anymore? Why doesn't she want to be a grandmother? Where has this come from? The revelation that he doesn't know his wife half as much as he thought he did comes as a bit of a body blow, and Huston gives the wounded husband a frantic yet assured, grumbly, uncompromising demeanor. The hurt is there but it's beyond this guy to go to pieces, just clean up the damage and move on.

**** William Powell in My Man Godfrey

William Powell is a sly dog. The topsy-turvy politics of My Man Godfrey complicate his performance greatly, introducing Godfrey as a poor man and revealing him as a rich man masquerading as a poor man. To Powell's credit he succeeds at being both, although a repeat viewing might be called for to detect if this plot device is evident in his actions in the film's early stages. He sure seems regal throughout the screwball comedy, maddeningly unwavering when observing the chaos around him, and quietly resentful of the wealthy way of life.

** Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur is just that, a story, well thought-out with regard to historical overview and plot points, and completely non-threatening as a vehicle. And if the five nominees are judged by how well they know their own film and character's limitations Muni would be up there. But 'reliable' does not excel in my eyes, and Paul Muni's animated, head-scratching robotic dog impersonation grows tiresome quickly. Madness is notoriously synonomous with genius but the madcrack mannerisms of Muni's Pasteur (nodding interminably, itchy-chin syndrome, raised eyebrows) only serve as an admission that this film has nothing to offer but EVENTS and ACTIONS, and doesn't even attempt to delve into Pasteur the man.

* Spencer Tracy in San Francisco

I was hoping to enjoy this film and performance, particularly as in the next couple of profiles I'll be pretty much ripping Spencer Tracy to pieces, but this nomination is one of the most bizarre I have ever come across. Tracy features in about six scenes (probably about fifteen minutes screen-time in all) and in only one of these scenes does he raise his voice. My only guess as to why this happened is that there must have been some kind of media/studio talk of Tracy as the next big thing, because nothing in the film demonstrates any kind of chops, sadly.

The Snubbed

**** Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

Howard was snubbed again in 1936, for his screen reprisal of a broadway play. His character in the film, Alan Squier, is the most pseudo-intellectual depressing person. But if you ever wanted to hear someone be intellectual Leslie's your man, and he absoloutely nails the conflicts of a man desperate to matter.

Clark Gable in San Francisco

We're back to devilish Clark, and believe me he's fiendish in this one. I read on IMDB trivia that in the more emotional scenes he wouldn't let W.S. Van Dyke film his face. It's probably a wise move for his performance, and the film was already a goner by that point anyway. Much better than Tracy.

1 comment:

Alex in Movieland said...

I have recently read Dodsworth and thought it was one of the most interesting books I've read. it's not too deep, it doesn't have a good start, but it's a fascinating journey. I will see the movie this year!