The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1937

Very important category. The second Best Supporting Actress category ever. As such, we have to view it in terms of legitimacy as much as we view it simply as just another category. That is, just like all the other categories — Picture, Director, Actor and Actress — the first few are always the ones that make it legitimate. Example: the first few Best Actor and Best Actress awards went to: Emil Jannings, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Frederic March, Charles Laughton — these are all really highly regarded actors at this time. These people had to get the awards in order to legitimize them and actually make them something worth having. Then, once they’re established, then they can start voting. Foundation. That’s the word I’m looking for. So this category is part of a foundation.

The first Best Supporting Actress award went to Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse. She was a very respected character actress of the day, so it makes sense. Here, Alice Brady, another respected character actress, wins. This is a good decision historically. You establish what a supporting performance is by holding up the best known examples. There’s a reason Walter Brennan won Supporting Actor three times in the first five years of its existence. So for the first five years (1936-1940), you have to allow some leeway in the decision-making just to take into account the legitimization of the category. Bad decisions aren’t necessarily bad until the category is established.

And to recap the rest of this year before we get into the category. The Life of Emile Zola wins Best Picture, which is actually a bad decision. It makes some sense, but it’s not a very good decision and it’s a pretty weak effort overall. Spencer Tracy wins Best Actor for Captains Courageous, the first of his two back-to-back wins. I don’t love this decision, but I’ll accept it. It’s the second of his two wins that I really consider the terrible one. Best Actress this year was Luise Rainer for The Good Earth, the second of her back-to-back wins. I haven’t made up my mind on this one yet. There are a lot of elements to take into account. I’m gonna need a bit more time on this one. Best Supporting Actor, in its second year of existence, goes to Joseph Schildkraut for The Life of Emile Zola, which, I guess is fine. Haven’t yet decided on that one either. Oh, and Best Director this year went to Leo McCarey, for The Awful Truth, which was the best decision they could have made — only it was for the wrong film. I’ll explain that when I get to the category. All you need to know now is that it was a great decision.

Overall I consider this a weak year. This has little to do with the Supporting categories though, since they’re on their own timeline at this point. Still, a weak year.


And the nominees were…

Alice Brady, In Old Chicago

Andrea Leeds, Stage Door

Anne Shirley, Stella Dallas

Claire Trevor, Dead End

Dame May Whitty, Night Must Fall

Brady — In Old Chicago just feels like a studio trying to capitalize on preexisting formulas. First off, the title. For those familiar with Oscar films, In Old Arizona is the title of a film that got Warner Baxter the second Best Actor award ever handed out. Clearly they were trying to capitalize on that. Also, the film is structured exactly like San Francisco. The storyline isn’t exactly the same, but, the structure is. Start off with your characters, give them problems. It should be very melodramatic. That is — their problems should really be dumb in comparison to what will happen. Then, right at the end, have a big catastrophe that provides the spectacle of the film.

Example: San Francisco is really about the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But you wouldn’t know that for the first hour of this film. The film is about a singer who wants to sing opera but falls in love with Clark Gable, who is a saloon manager and wants her to sing showtunes for him. And there’s this whole struggle, and Spencer Tracy is a priest, and then — boom, earthquake. Glorious spectacle. It’s great.

Now, this film — exactly the same thing. The whole thing is basically the telling of the great Chicago fire. You know — Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and all that. Alice Brady plays Mrs. O’Leary, naturally. She’s a washwoman who prides herself on being able to get any stain out of clothing. She’s raised three boys by herself and is a tough, Irish woman. And the rest of the film is about her sons, played by Tyrone Power and Don Ameche, who become rich and successful, and rivals. There’s a bunch of side plots about corrupt bosses and Power being in love with a cabaret singer who is involved with the corrupt boss — it all takes a back seat to the fire.

Brady has a good part with Mrs. O’Leary, but she’s really not in the film enough for me to consider it a part worth voting for. That is, she’s there, but, she really doesn’t do much except show up. She has no real relevance to the plot except for the fact that she’s the main characters’ mother. She shows her concern for the way they’re doing things, disapproves, stuff like that. Then her cow starts the Chicago fire. That’s really it. It’s a performance that’s fine, but, not really worth a vote. Unless of course you’re voting for a classy actress to legitimize the category, in which case, it’s a fine vote.

But I’m not the Academy. I’m not looking to legitimize anything. I’m voting on what was the best performance. And this wasn’t it. Sorry, but it wasn’t.

Leeds — Stage Door is a movie I owned before I even saw it. It was pure happenstance that it happened to be on the Quest. I bought a comedy box set that included Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story and To Be Or Not To Be and a few others, and Stage Door was in it. And I didn’t really know anything about it, it was just part of the set. Then I started the Quest and saw it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. Which really surprised the hell out of me. But, I popped it in really early on the Quest, because how can I not have seen the ones on it that I actually own on DVD, right? (Note: Still have two.)

The film is kind of an ensemble. It’s about a bunch of aspiring actresses who lie in the same boarding house. It’s one of those houses that caters specifically to actresses. And some come in, some go out, that sort of thing. And the three that are really focused on are Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Andrea Leeds. Hepburn is the protagonist, and she’s the one who moves into the house at the beginning, the one we follow for the most part. She’s very — cutthroat, I guess is the word. Most of the girls are very supportive of one another and friendly, but she’s pretty condescending. Or at least, acts like she’s better. And her roommate is Ginger Rogers, who is pretty cynical, and assumes her nice clothing is because she’s sleeping with a rich dude. But in reality, she actually comes from a very rich family and is trying to make it on her own without her father’s help. And one actress in the place is sleeping with a famous theater producer, and he dumps her for Ginger Rogers, and then Hepburn manages to get into her show (mostly because her father backs the play on the condition that she get the starring role). She also manages to save Ginger from sleeping with the director once she catches him with another woman. But that’s the main storyline. Now for the other one.

Andrea Leeds plays an actress who used to be the top girl around the apartment. She was in a hit play a year earlier and got amazing reviews, but hasn’t worked since. And she’s still hopeful that she’s going to get another part and refuses to give up hope. She has all her hopes on getting the part in the play that the director that Ginger is dating is putting on. And the whole time, Ginger is vicious to her. Because Leeds is so optimistic that she’s gonna get something, and Ginger is so pessimistic, she’s just like, “You’re not gonna get a part, you weren’t even that good in the first one to begin with, stop being so happy all the time.” And Leeds goes to talk to the producer, who cancels at the last minute, and everything that happens to her is really just one bad thing after another. And she’s so determined to get the part, she stops eating and ends up fainting from malnourishment in the office. And then when Hepburn lands the part, Leeds finally snaps. All the hope she had left just goes out the window. And you feel it. You really do. And later on you find out that she killed herself. Which factors into the mains storyline of —

Hepburn has the play, but isn’t that great of an actress. She is terrible in the auditions, so much so that the director wants to call the whole thing off. And then when Hepburn finds out that Leeds committed suicide, that gives her the emotion to get through the performance, and gives her the authenticity of performance that she lacked earlier. And the film ends with Hepburn saying that the girl who should have had the part killed herself, and she should have been the one who had the role. It’s a great fucking movie. A really great movie.

Leeds is absolutely perfect in the film. I remember watching the film, going along with what was happening, like — “Oh, backstage musical scenario. Girls in house, girl sleeping with director –” I was just watching the tropes get hit. Then Leeds showed up and I immediately perked up like, “Who’s this?” And that’s really the sign of a good supporting performance. She made me more interested in the film. She was also a character you really sympathized with. I thought she really deserved to win this award. She was definitely the best here.

Shirley — Stella Dallas is an unabashed melodrama. It doesn’t even try to be anything else. And for that — I love it. Because if you know what you’re getting, and then get a perfect example of it — what more do you need?

The film is about Barbara Stanwyck, who lives with her parents and brother. And it starts off pretty small, actually, which I like, because it really brings to you a bunch of different places, and you end up like 540 degrees from where you started. It starts with her making lunch for her brother, who works at a factory. And it’s a small little domestic film, a family arguing and all that. And she brings him his lunch, where she meets his boss, who is very vulnerable this particular day, as his fiance, whom he was planning on marrying once he could support her (she’s high society and he left high society after his father killed himself after losing a lot of money), has gotten engaged to somebody else. And Stella — Stanwyck — planning on bettering herself socially, catches his eye at the right time, and they marry. Then they have a kid and Stella discovers she loves being a mother. Flash forward to years later, the girl is grown up — played by Anne Shirley — and Stella moves her attentions from her husband to her daughter. Then he leaves and she raises the daughter, and he goes to get married to the woman he was originally engaged to. And now Stella has to deal with her daughter, who she realizes will do better if she lives with her father and that she herself was never meant to rise socially. So she ends up sacrificing her happiness for her daughter’s happiness, but the daughter never knows about it (you know how it is), and she sadly watches the daughter be happy from afar.

It’s a great film. as melodramas go, it’s one of the better ones. I really liked it a lot. I thought the two lead performances were really great, especially Shirley. She really gets to play up a bunch of different emotions. I really liked her performance. For me she’s probably a solid 1 or 2 here, probably two, since I really liked Andrea Leed’s performance. But a vote I think will probably be her or Leeds. Really liked the film and the performance.

Trevor — Dead End — where to begin with this one? Okay, there was a comedy troupe called the Dead End Kids, who were like if the Little Rascals were born in Brooklyn. They actually became the Bowery Boys, so those familiar with old TV will know what I’m talking about. And this film is kind of about them. It’s almost like the Caddyshack version of living in the slums of Brooklyn. Not kidding. That comparison is almsot accurate. It has a bunch of different storylines, not that closely related, but also sort of close together. And they just cut back and forth to which one is the most interesting.

One of the storylines is about the Dead End kids and their childhood gang, and all the little hijinks they get into. They’re sort of the comic relief, but, you know, they also learn something. Then there’s the side story of one of the kids and his sister, who wants to marry a good man and get out of the poverty and help her brother lead a good life. And then there’s the other storyline that’s kind of the main one alongside the Dead End Kids one, which is Humphrey Bogart, who’s playing Baby Face Martin, a big-time mobster, who comes back to the slums where he grew up, to visit his mother and his old girlfriend. And he meets his mother, who wants nothing to do with him because of his lifestyle, and he sees his girlfriend — played by Trevor — is “sick,” which is really their coded way of saying she’s a whore and has syphilis. And of course the film ends with him getting shot and the Dead End Kids learning a lesson about being good and all that.

Anyway, Trevor plays Bogie’s old girlfriend, who he calls for during one scene. She only has one scene, but it’s a good one. She shows up, is clearly a whore and clearly has syphilis, but they have the production code, so they work around it. Not very subtly, if you’re at all intelligent. But they have one scene, where Bogie’s thinking he’s gonna find her and she’s gonna be beautiful and maybe he’ll settle down with her, only to find out that she had to become a whore and is now dying. And whatever dreams he had from being a gangster are slowly fading, little by little. And Trevor does a good job in the scene, but the problem is, it’s one scene and not a particularly long one at that. I guess this was them figuring out just what exactly a supporting performance entailed. But, while good, this wasn’t long enough or good enough to get my vote here.

Whitty — And…Night Must Fall. I was never particularly interested in seeing this one, because I knew what I was getting.

It’s about a young man, played by Robert Montgomery, who charms his way into the home of Dame May Whitty. She’s old and an invalid — and she’ll be the first one to tell you so — and he becomes her handyman. And she takes a liking to him, but her niece — Rosalind Russell — does not. She thinks he has ulterior motives. And literally, the entire film is her being suspicious and trying to figure out what he’s trying to do — it’s really almost like a lesser Shadow of a Doubt. You know from the start that he’s going to try to kill her, and yet, they go through almost two hours of misdirection. The whole thing was just really forgettable for me.

Anyway, the best part of this movie was Dame May. She’s loud, she’s abrasive, she basically spends half the movie saying, “Well you know I’m an invalid and I can’t take care of myself,” and being really nosy and know-it-all about everything and yet, at the same, is completely duped by this guy. It’s a performance that works. Will I be voting for her? Hell no. But she was good, and deserved the nomination, because her performance (and the simple presence of Rosalind Russell) is what kept me from disliking this film.

My Thoughts: We have to factor in two things here. On the Academy side, based on legitimizing the category, the only two choices they could have made were Alice Brady and Dame Mae Whitty. But Whitty was more the stage school of acting while Brady was more the film end. And I think Brady was the better choice of the two. She’s a respected film actress who will help legitimize the category, plus she’s playing such a strong “character” — Mrs. O’Leary. So she was the best choice for that. But that’s just for class purposes.

For straight performance, just picking the category as though it were a regular year — Andrea Leeds runs away with this category. Really. She is by far the best performance on here. Second is probably Anne Shirley. But Leeds really was the best thing about this category, and really the best thing about Stage Door as well. So she gets my vote all the way, even though I understand why she didn’t win. It’s actually very fitting to the performance that she didn’t win. But she still gets my vote.

My Vote: Leeds

Should Have Won: Leeds

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Alice Brady was a very well-respected actress at this time, and the Academy, in the early days, especially considering this category was brand new, wanted to give credibility to it. So you have to accept these early decisions as a means of credibility and not about who was best. But for my money, Brady should have won this category the year before this, and Andrea Leeds should have won this one.

Performances I suggest you see: Of all the films on this list, the only one I can probably recommend to everyone is Stage Door. And even then, if you’re not into old films then you probably won’t like it. But it has Ginger Rogers, it has Kate Hepburn, it has Adolphe Menjou, it has Lucille Ball (oh yes it does), and it has a wonderful performance by Andrea Leeds at the heart of it all. So I really recommend this one. It’s a very fascinating comedy/drama hybrid (I refuse to use that other word they use for it unless I’m being condescending), and is a very good movie as well.

Also, I’d say that Dead End is worth seeing, because you get to see Humphrey Bogart before he became a star, playing the heavy. Or rather — no, not really the heavy. It’s just an interesting role. The film is mostly about the “Dead End” kids, who were the same kids in Angels with Dirty Faces who were hanging out with James Cagney. It’s a pretty good film. If you like Bogie you’ll enjoy it. Or if you like old movies, this one actually goes down very easily. I very much enjoyed it when I was expecting to just simply tolerate it. That alone merits a recommendation.

Stella Dallas is also a pretty good film. I know people who hate it, but you have to understand that it is what it is. It’s a straight melodrama. An if you don’t like melodrama, don’t see it. But I will say — this is different from the Bette Davis melodramas because — it’s Barbara Stanwyck. And I for one like her a lot more than I like Bette Davis. I also really liked the film. It’s a four star film for me as someone who appreciates the genre aspect of it, but for most it’s probably a three star film, that is, if you’re willing to understand what it is. Still, it’s good and I do recommend it.

Night Must Fall — meh. Take it or leave it. It’s passable for me. I don’t really like these films. It does feature a young Rosalind Russell, so, that’s something. But it’s one of those thrillers, but it’s in the days before they knew how to make thrillers correctly (ie, before Hitchcock), so there’s a lot of talking and no suspense, and you can spot the revelation so early. Not really my cup of tea, but it is well made enough to where I can recommend it as being a solid old film. You’ll know best if you’d be into this sort of film.

And In Old Chicago — it does hold at least a little interest because it won a major award, and because it’s a disaster film at heart. It’s about the Chicago Fire, and the end of the film is — the fire. The special effects are worth checking out, to see how they did it back then — you know, before computers took the personality out of everything. I for one prefer San Francisco to this — I thought they did it a lot better there, but, this one isn’t half bad. You may enjoy it a lot, if you’re into the special effects as I am.


5) Trevor

4) Whitty

3) Brady

2) Shirley

1) Leeds


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