Thursday, October 08, 2009

Men of the Thirties: 1937

The Nominees Were...

Charles Boyer - Conquest
Fredric March - A Star is Born
Robert Montgomery - Night Must Fall
Paul Muni - The Life of Emile Zola
Spencer Tracy - Captains Courageous

And the Winner Was...

Spencer Tracy - Captains Courageous

Had Paul Muni not got his Oscar for playing Louis Pasteur in 1936, he probably would have got it for playing Emile Zola in '37. As it stands, the Oscar went to the only other character of the five without any real flaws, the Portugese fisherman played by Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous. Boyer and Montgomery had juicy roles as Napoleon and a potential killer respectively, but didn't have BP nominees to back it up. March's role is sympathetic so he may have been in with a chance, but it isn't difficult to surmise why Tracy managed to get this win, given his nomination the year before.

My Ratings (in order of preference):-

*** Charles Boyer in Conquest

Conquest sounds like an epic tale of conflict but so isn't, and seems only concerned with the silly soap opera of the French emperor's complicated love life. Boyer more than anyone else is aware of the film's silliness, and plays Napoleon like a big kid in a man's body, sure of what he wants (at least in the short-term) but clueless about how to go about things. Unsurprisingly then he flourishes when the tone of the film is lighter, super fun when wooing and flirting with Garbo and successful at conveying Napoleon's lack of emotional intelligence. A particular scene in which Garbo teaches him to dance is a highlight. It's a shame that Boyer can't really follow this through into the bouts of melodrama, and doesn't give any variation to his superior "Why don't you see things the way I do?" glare that became a staple into the peak of his career.

*** Fredric March in A Star is Born

March set the ball rolling for pretenders James Mason and Kris Kristofferson as the overshadowed husband of Janet Gaynor's movie sensation Vicki Lester. I actually don't like the role of Norman Maine: it's underwritten, fairly simple, rather dull in truth. Disappointment creeps into March's reactions to every phone call and correspondence being for his wife and not him, and as his career dies a death March charts Norman's decreasing self-worth fairly competently. But A Star is Born has always been about the leading lady.

** Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous

Spencer's trained modesty gets another outing in this little fable, and it's a lovely change to see Tracy play somebody like fisherman Manuel, more exotic and less culturally cardboard. While Tracy himself gives an occasionally moving account of a grouch who has his emotions deepened (using his eyes to great effect) he doesn't convey enough of the core industriousness of Manuel. It's lucky he has an incredibly talented co-lead to work with, and the rapport between the two is convincing enough to carry off the earthy versus pompous sparring.

** Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola

And here we are again - Paul Muni's fourth nomination in five years. Sadly this is incredibly similar to his winning turn the year before, and the film too is equally as unconcerned with tapping into its principal figure. One could have crafted the film from scouring the archives for all of half an hour. Muni does a semi-reprisal, but looks less like a goat and more like a shaggy dog, shaking his head in a "What is the world coming to?" kind of fashion. He fares better (if only because he gets some tasty monologues to sink his teeth into) and is able to impart the struggle of an academic within a 'practical' society.

Unseen Nominees:-

Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall

The Snubbed

***** Cary Grant in The Awful Truth

The wonderful thing about Grant as a comedy actor is that he can play both the unstable hapless victim (Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace) and the sly, scheming charmer, seen in His Girl Friday and most wonderfully Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. He knows what's expected of him in giving the relationship backstory and ensuring that the audience know that this pairing has a future. Grant revels in his love/hate relationship with Dunne, and sells every wisecrack with brisk, perfect timing and unrivalled charisma.

**** Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous

As a pompous, uppity schoolkid Bartholomew seems like he's just been plucked out of a private school. God knows where they plucked him from but whoever made that call did well, since his performance is the perfect buffer for the film's ideas about class structure and self-sufficiency. Bartholomew gives Freddie exactly the right level of arrogance, and even at his most testing you can see that the boy is not massively fazed by having to do things for himself as much as inconvenienced by not being completely aware of his setup. He has several line deliveries that are laugh-out-loud funny, and is very patient with his simple arc, becoming emotionally effective in the final act.

1 comment:

Alex in Movieland said...

I have only seen A Star Is Born, but I remember liking the film (more than the other 2 versions) and loving March in it! Great performance!