The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1930-1931

This is one of the exciting years. You see, I assume that most people aren’t familiar with the Oscars. Why would you? That’s what I’m here for. And even if someone does have some knowledge about the categories, like who won Best Supporting Actress in 1985 (Anjelica Huston), I can be pretty certain that there’s an even smaller percentage of those people who really know about the 1927-1933 years. Again, why would you?

1930-1931 is kind of the second real definitive Oscar year. That is, the first year was Wings, and that was an establishing year. Then the second year was a mess, because they were dealing with shifting over to sound, so The Broadway Melody won, since it was the biggest film that used sound the best. Then 1929-1930 was All Quiet on the Western Front. That was the real first year where they chose an “Academy” decision. That film is just wonderfully made. And this year, Cimarron won Best Picture, which is an epic western, based on a bestselling novel — a prestige picture. Of course it was going to win. It’s a pretty good film. I personally prefer the film that won Best Director this year, Skippy. Norman Taurog directed the hell out of it, and I’ll further discuss my love for the film shortly.

The other award this year that wasn’t this one (remember, no Supporting categories until 1936) was Marie Dressler winning Best Actress for Min and Bill. This decision makes a lot of sense, because Min Dressler, at age 62, was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time. Her winning Best Actress was a way of validating the category. The same thing happened in this category. Lionel Barrymore was, at this time, what Laurence Olivier was in the 50s. Which is why, no matter how I feel about who should have won, this decision ultimately was the right one.

BEST ACTOR – 1930-1931

And the nominees were…

Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul

Jackie Cooper, Skippy

Richard Dix, Cimarron

Frederic March, The Royal Family of Broadway

Adolphe Menjou, The Front Page

Barrymore — A Free Soul is interesting because — well, it comes as part of a DVD set called the “Forbidden Hollywood” collection. (Nowadays, obviously.) Basically it includes a bunch of Pre-Code films that pushed the boundaries of sex on screen. The Divorcée is the film that is also included on the same disc, and that’s really the film that pushes boundaries, since it’s about a woman who discovers her husband has had an affair, and goes out and has quite a few of her own to get even. This film, though, is not quite as interesting. It’s one of those stories that — if you’ve seen a lot of old movies — it’s one of those ones you just know. They used it all the time back then.

Lionel Barrymore is an aging, alcoholic lawyer. His daughter is Norma Shearer. She’s dating Clark Gable, a notorious gangster, but her father would rather her date Leslie Howard, a fine, upstanding young man. Gable, however, is more interesting than Howard (I mean, just look at them as actors), which is why she chooses him. She likes bad boys, and she thinks she can change him. Barrymore has already gotten Gable acquitted of a murder, so he knows Gable is bad news. What happens is, Shearer eventually sees the bad side of Gable and tries to get away, but he won’t let her, and, of course, he ends up dead. I forget who shoots him, but it’s one of the three principles. I think it’s Shearer, but Howard is the one who’s on trial, and then Barrymore admits to it later, so, I can’t remember. Anyway, Gable ends up dead, and Barrymore must overcome his alcoholism to get Howard acquitted of the murder. I’m pretty sure Howard wasn’t actually the one who shot Gable, but was arrested for it (possibly because he took the blame so as to protect Shearer, who he’s in love with).

Anyway, Barrymore defends Howard, and delivers a 14-minute monologue at the end of the film that’s virtually all done in one take, which is really the reason he won the Oscar, and at the end of it, he says he’s the one who killed Gable, and then falls down, dead. And that’s basically the end of the film. They tie it all up in like 30 seconds, “you’re free to go, not guilty,” and he goes with Shearer. But the end is basically Barrymore dying. That’s the film. The film is also the one that made Gable a big star. His debut here was like Brando showing up in Streetcar. People were like, “Who is that?” Because Gable was really unlike everyone that was out there at the time. So that’s bonus points for the film, historically.

Barrymore is fine in the role, but the real reason he won was because of the long monologue at the end. Plus he was a highly respected actor. I wouldn’t vote for him, but, he was fine, and I can understand why he won. Still, no vote.

Cooper — All right. This is the one film I’m excited to talk about. This film took me by such surprise. You’re about to get a story, so, be prepared.

This film was on Netflix Instant one day, and was expiring the next day. And I didn’t want to watch it, because I was so early on in the Quest, anything with one nomination felt like a waste of time, because I was still on films that had five or six nominations. Though, granted, this film had three, but it felt like one. But I saw that it wasn’t available to be rented from Netflix, and would probably be difficult to find (this is before I was as wise as I am now). So I’d figure I’d just put it on. And I did. And — wow. Was I not expecting what I got.

The film begins with Jackie Cooper — Skippy — age, nine, as he was when he shot the film — and his family. That’s basically the first ten minutes of the film. We meet, and get to know, Skippy. It’s a simple little comedy. He doesn’t want to brush his teeth, but has to, but finds a way to get around things when his mother’s not watching — that sort of stuff. And he plays the cute kid for the first ten minutes. And it’s — I don’t want to say bad or boring or anything — it’s just, different, yet similar. You’ve seen this kind of thing before. And you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s another one of those cute child films, getting into trouble and stuff.” And I prepare myself for that. I figure the parents will have a storyline, and we’ll cut to Skippy and whatever he’s into. I mentally prepare myself for that kind of movie. And then he leaves the house. And any expectation I could have possibly had about this movie literally walked out the door.

As soon as they leave the house — which was shot exactly like a film of the era would be shot. Very tableau, flat sets. It looked like a film made in 1931 — everything changed. Because, while the scenes inside the house were interesting and I was following along with them, they just looked like a better version of a standard film. You know? It felt like it was a better film, but I attributed that to the quality of the writing. I didn’t realize quite what I was dealing with. Because, once Skippy is outside, the film becomes about him. 100%. There are no parents in the film until he goes back home. No subplots. It’s just him. And I just wasn’t ready for that. Even the camera angles were positioned for him. He walks up the block, and the camera is low to the ground, at his height, just following him along. Which, considering we’re still kind of transitioning to sound at this point, is pretty impressive how they got the camera to move so much and still pick up on all the sound.

But Skippy is outside, and he goes up town to visit his friend who lives in the shantytown nearby. Did I mention there’s overt mention of the Depression here? Skippy’s best friend lives in a shantytown, and Skippy’s parents don’t like him playing there. They’re more well-to-do, though they feel like a solidly middle-class family. Still, they don’t like him hanging out in the poor area. It reflects badly on them to the neighbors. And Skippy tells them he won’t go, but does anyway. You know, kid stuff. And he hangs out with his friend, who has a dog he picked up — a stray. And it’s a nice dog and they play with it. But, while they’re playing (having a catch), they accidentally break the window of the dog catcher’s building. I think actually it’s not their fault. An adult does it and they get blamed for it. And the dog catcher, out of spite, it seems (because the whole film from here on out is literally shot from Skippy’s perspective. So how we see things is how they would appear to him), has purposefully picked up the boy’s dog because he didn’t have any tags on him. He says he has no idea, but to the kids, it seems like a clear method of revenge.

And the guy says he’ll let the dog out if they can pay the fine. So the entire middle of the film is Skippy and his friend trying to make money. They try to sell lemonade (which only serves to put them in the red), and things like that, and manage to scrape as much money as they can. And then, there’s this brilliant scene — this is where I really fell in love with this movie, because it felt like a situation I’d have been in as a child. You see, Skippy was told not to play with his friend in the shantytown. But he has been. And now, he needs money to bail the dog out. So he goes and asks his parents for it. He wants to break his piggybank to do it. But they won’t let him unless they know what it’s for. And earlier, we saw him try to get money from them for candy or something — you know, usual kid stuff — so they want to know what he’s gonna spend it on before they give it to him. Which makes sense, from their perspective. But, he can’t tell them. Because, if he tells them what it’s for, one, they won’t let him, and two, they’ll know that he’s been playing with his friend despite them telling him not to. So he gets in a really tough position, because he wants to help his friend because it’s his fault the dog was stolen in the first place, but also doesn’t want to get in trouble with his parents. And you can see the dilemma this kid has to face. It’s a fucking brilliant scene. Because we actually see him growing up. We see him learning what really matters.

And what happens is — Skippy finally manages to scrape together the necessary funds (I believe he breaks the piggybank on the sly), and they go to get the dog, only to have the dog catcher tell them the dog was killed already. Meanwhile he’d told them they had until a certain deadline, which they’d met, but it wasn’t enough anyway. And then we see Skippy just lose it. He’s so fucking upset, and when his parents try to tell him, he doesn’t answer, because — how would they understand. And eventually, there’s a great scene where he has a fight with his father because his father is all uptight and middle class, and eventually his father goes out, having seen what Skippy did for his friend, and comes around. It was actually a really nice moment. Some people might find it after-school special, but I liked it. Because, in a film like this, you’d think the kids were the ones learning the lessons, but instead, it’s the parents. And as we all know, I’m essentially a child, so seeing things from a child’s perspective is something I always go for. Because I understand a child’s perspective better than I do an adult’s perspective. So this film felt perfectly achieved for me.

Jackie Cooper is fucking amazing in this film. And not just because he acted well. He did act really well. He managed to do the comedy scenes as well as the drama scenes. His real achievement here is the fact that he carried the film. This film literally rises and falls based solely on his performance. And this kid fucking delivered a performance good enough to where I’d actually say I’d vote for this film over Cimarron as Best Picture that year. That’s how good Jackie Cooper is in this movie. And it’s not that far of a stretch, because they gave Norman Taurog Best Director this year. Clearly there was affection for the film. So, in case it wasn’t obvious, this is who I’m voting for as Best Actor. If you don’t believe me, just watch the film. You might not love the performance on its own as vote-worthy, but if you take into account that this kid — while most kids can barely act within a film — carries an entire film on his back and makes it not only worth watching but legitimately great, he’s clearly the only person worth voting for in my mind. No one else even comes close here.

Dix — His named is Richard Dix and his character’s name in this movie is Yancy Cravat. I think that says it all.

If you’re thinking it says that it’s awesome, you’re totally right.

Cimarron is basically a movie about the call to adventure. About the call out west. In fact, as the western genre goes, this is possibly one of the most thematically relevant westerns of its era. Because, the earliest westerns were all about the whites going into the wild and taming it. All these men were outsiders in the big city and were seemingly “called” out west, by the spirit of adventure. And they go out to the desert, seemingly, and build a town from nothing. And that’s what the underlying theme of most early westerns is. Of course, then it evolved with the times. In the 40s, you started to see a lot more war-themed westerns, and then in the 50s, you started to see a lot more revisionist tendencies take hold, with films like Broken Arrow and The Searchers. And then it became about Vietnam in the late 60s, or became almost self-referential (like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), and then the western died in the 70s. Just a brief history lesson for what’s probably my favorite genre.

So this film is about Yancy Cravat, who decides to pick up and move his family out west. He really does it. Picks up his wife (Irene Dunne) and young son and moves them out west. And they go, with a bunch of other families, using the Homestead Act and all driving in the same wagon train. And what happens is, they get to the area of land they were sold, and it’s just a mad dash to get the land. It’s all fair game. So they run over with their wagons, put down their claim, and that’s it — the land it theirs. That’s how simple it was. And then we see, over some great transitions — really, the transitions are the best part about this film — how the west was won, so to speak.

You see, they all put their wagons down, and they’re all living out of their wagons. One guy is a store owner and has a bunch of goods, one is a lawyer for land claims and such, one is shoemaker, etc. And then time passes and we see them start to create a makeshift town. And there’s one great throwaway moment where they randomly decide to name a street something (really just out of the blue, like, “What shall we name it?”, and they’re like, “Well, we made this sign out of Oak, let’s name it Oak Street.”), and then much later in the film, you see that the street is the most important thing in town. The courthouse is named after it, all the local shops, it’s possible the entire town is named after it. I thought that was a brilliant touch.

Anyway, we see the town start to get built, and Yancy becomes the newspaper man of the town, and we see him built his newspaper up from nothing into one of the leading publications in the state. And his wife, who never really wanted to go out west in the first place, starts to warm up to the idea and enjoy how he’s become this prominent businessman. But, while she thinks he’s proven what he wanted to prove and will settle down once and for all, he sees it as, “Well, I tamed this, what else is there for me to tame,” and just leaves. He goes off, further out west, to see what other adventure he can find. And that’s the performance, really. He disappears, looking for adventure, and we encounter him, much later, penniless, doing some really odd work for someone of his stature. The film actually ends with his wife assuming his empire, becoming a respected businesswoman, and he shows up in town, dressed as a beggar, and dies while helping someone change a horseshoe. The horse kicks him and cracks his skull open. It’s a fascinating film. Really, really well done.

Dix does a good job with the character, but really all the performance is is him being like, “Oh boy, I have to go find adventure!” and going out to find it. That’s really it. It’s one speed. It’s fine that he’s nominated, but he would never have won this. The film is great, though, I can see why it won. Him — no vote.

March — The Royal Family of Broadway is a film that’s basically a farce about the Barrymores. How fitting that Frederic March should be nominated and lose to the real thing. Though, admittedly, he did play John Barrymore and not Lionel Barrymore. But, still, it’s humorous.

That’s basically the film. It’s about the Barrymores. Laurence Olivier actually originated (I believe) the role on Broadway (or maybe in London, so maybe I’m wrong). It’s about a girl who comes from a famous acting family — the Cavendish family — who wants to quit acting. And her mother continues acting despite the fact that it’s killing her, her brother — played by March — is trying to get a part in Hollywood, and her daughter is considering either acting or getting married. That’s pretty much it. The mother is the “actress” of the family, and is Ethel Barrymore, and March plays John. He’s the rogue of the family who likes sleeping with women and jumping off of stuff. He does all these pointless stunts throughout the movie. He’s constantly sliding down banisters, hopping over shit — it’s basically making fun of John Barrymore.

The performance really isn’t that astounding. I mean, he does a good job with it, but, come on, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this could actually win.

Menjou — Adolph Menjou. Love this man. He was in such great films in the 30s. Oh, actually, this one should be easy, since you’ve probably seen this film before.

Well, you probably haven’t seen this version of the film. You may have seen the Billy Wilder version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but that’s also not the most probable of scenarios. What’s most probable is that you’ve seen Howard Hawks’s version of this film, also known as His Girl Friday. That’s right, this is essentially His Girl Friday. The only difference is, the dialogue isn’t lightning fast, it’s more of a straight drama with comedic elements, and Hildy isn’t a woman. Which, sadly, also means there’s no room for “that Ralph Bellamy fellow.” But, at least you know the story. Hildy Johnson wants to quit working for his newspaper to get married. His editor, Walter Burns, won’t have any part of it. He coerces him to write a story about a man about to be executed for murder, even though the man is clearly insane and is only being killed because the governor is corrupt and wants more votes in the upcoming election. And it just so happens, the dude escapes from prison and is hiding out in the reporter’s room of the building across from the police station in a roll-top desk. And the whole time, Walter is making sure Hildy doesn’t go anywhere (through various semi-illegal methods) long enough for him to write the story and realize how much he loves being a newspaperman. And, of course, the dude gets a reprieve. You know the story.

Adolphe Menjou, like Cary Grant and Walter Matthau, is great in the role. It’s a great role. Anyone in it is going to shine. Menjou is no different. It’s a role that’s perfect for him. He’s great as Burns. The only thing is, he wasn’t really good enough for me to vote for him. He was great though. I will also say, for the record — he wasn’t as good as Grant was. That Hawks version is just too good. If anyone should have won for playing Walter Burns, it was Cary Grant. And he could have, too. Jimmy Stewart won for The Philadelphia Story that year. Cary Grant could totally have walked away with it. (Though, not really, since — well, it’s complicated. Here, just read.)

My Thoughts: There’s really only one vote here if you’re me, and that’s Jackie Cooper. He really carries this film, and does so in a really convincing fashion. What makes the performance so strong is how it starts out as a cutesy child performance, and then gradually veers into really good drama, and by the end Cooper has you so dialed into the performance that you really feel for this kid, and when he wants to he really can make you turn on the tears. And that’s really what makes an Oscar-winning performance, in my eyes. Barrymore made the most sense from an Academy perspective, but I’m not under such restraints. Jackie Cooper is my vote, all the way.

My Vote: Cooper

Should Have Won: Cooper, and Barrymore (since it does help the category the most to give it to him)

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Lionel Barrymore is a great actor and was one of the preeminent stage actors of the time. Him winning this award was the Academy’s way of validating the category. “See, it’s BEST Actor, and we gave it to Lionel Barrymore.” If you’re an average person, you think, “Yeah, that makes sense,” and that adds a certain amount of legitimacy to the entire Oscar ceremony. However, I will say, while this result is very acceptable (since you do need to be more accepting of decisions made before 1934. It’s like allowing a child to have some faults, simply because they don’t know any better yet), I still think Jackie Cooper gave the best performance in this category. What he accomplished in Skippy is astounding. He has to, and does, carry this film. That’s a performance that really does deserve an award. But, as I said, this result has to be acceptable. So it is.

Performances I suggest you see: It’s pre-1934, so, there are a lot of films I wouldn’t suggest to people unless they really love old-Hollywood films. The Royal Family of Broadway is farce about the Barrymores. I’m guessing it was meant to be a lot funnier at the time, when people knew about the Barrymores. Honestly, the natural extension of this film is in those Friedburg and Seltzer movies today, where they have people do “parodies” of famous people, and spout catch phrases and shit. Though, since it’s 70 years earlier, it’s more intelligently done. Still, that’s really all it is. It just feels like someone making fun of someone else, and you the viewer have no emotional stake in either side, so it’s really not that interesting at all. But, maybe some fans of old films will find it interesting.

The Front Page is also a good movie, but you really only need to see it if you like old movies, want to see all of Lewis Milestone’s work, love Adolphe Menjou (as I do), or love the other (and better) version of this film, His Girl Friday (as I do). But if you’ve seen His Girl Friday, you’re not missing anything here. It’s just a more dramatic version of the exact same story.

A Free Soul is a good film, but, unless you’re really interested in Pre-Code Hollywood (as I am), you might not find it terribly interesting. It’s high melodrama with lots of sex hinted at. It’s an interesting film, especially because Clark Gable and Leslie Howard are both in it, and it’s interesting to see Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes in a film together 8 years earlier. Other than that, though, it’s not a particularly great film, outside of Barrymore’s 14-minute monologue at the end. That’s worth checking out. The film, you probably don’t need to see.

Cimarron is actually a really great film. I’d say most people who are a fan of cinema should see this one, just because it’s interesting to see what a prestige picture looked like in 1930. It actually looks really good. The sets look pretty legitimate, and the only real dated techniques that stand out are the outstandingly obvious green screen work. Other than that, though, this film could have been made six years later and no one would have been able to tell the difference. I find that interesting. Plus it’s just fun. I do recommend it.

The one film here that I really recommend is Skippy. It’s just an amazing, amazing film. It’s one of those films that I’m amazed I hadn’t heard about before, because it’s so starkly different from anything of this era. Of all the films before 1935, this is really one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen. Maybe even ever. I really think everyone should see this film, because it’s really something to see. It’s so incredible. This will definitely be on my list of top ten films I’ve discovered because of this Quest. I cannot stress this enough — you should see this movie. Just to see a child carry a film better than most adults today could carry a movie. I’m not embellishing this at all. Believe me on this. It’s astounding.


5) March

4) Menjou

3) Barrymore

2) Dix

1) Cooper

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