The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1931-1932
1931-1932 is kind of the first year where a real “Academy” film took the top prize. Grand Hotel is about as Oscar as you can get. It makes sense they went with it. It’s also funny that it wasn’t nominated for anything except Best Picture. They really didn’t know what they were doing yet. It’s so funny.
Also this year, Best Director was Frank Borzage for Bad Girl, his second, which I talked about here, and Best Actor was a tie between Frederic March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wallace Beery for The Champ, which I talked about here. Which, is actually, all the other categories for this year. This is the last one. That’s weird.
As for this category — it’s a pretty cut and dry one. There’s really only one choice, and, the Academy made the right one. I like when categories go smoothly like this one.
BEST ACTRESS – 1931-1932
And the nominees were…
Marie Dressler, Emma
Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet
Lynn Fontanne, The Guardsman
Dressler — Emma is a Marie Dressler vehicle. And if you don’t know, Marie Dressler was, at age 60, the biggest star MGM had. Which I find fascinating. She’d just won an Oscar for Min and Bill the year before this, so, right from there, you knew she wasn’t winning this. Nor should she have.
The film is about a housekeeper for a rich family, who’s been working for them for a long time. Myrna Loy is one of the kids, but, she’s not really in the film all that much. But she’s in it, and that’s what counts. (Note: I love Myrna.) And she has a nice relationship with the family’s eldest son, who wants to be (and is) a pilot. There’s a comic sequence where they put her on a flight simulator and it’s (supposed to be) hi-lar-ious! In reality it’s one of those scenes where, you watch and go, “So this is what they thought would be funny in 1932.” But anyway, the film is about the father of the family being lonely because his wife died, and then him deciding he loves Emma and marrying her. And then the children resent it, because, she’s just a housekeeper, she’s below us. Even though she’s been taking care of them for thirty years.
And then the husband dies, and the family brings up charges against her, claiming that she killed him, because he left everything to her in the will. And she, having heard about this, had been planning on giving it all to the children, because she felt that’s where it rightfully belonged. But once she hears about their reaction, she decides they’re not mature enough to have it, and holds onto it. And then she’s taken to trial, and the oldest son, who had been flying across the country, hears about it, and flies back. And he dies in a storm. And then Emma gets acquitted, because they realize she’s sincere, and then she finds out about the son dying, which is sad, because it’s because of the other siblings. And then she gives the children their money and does what she really wants to do — take care of children. She gets a job with another family with babies.
That’s the film. It’s fine. Not bad. Worth a watch. But there’s no fucking way I’m voting for Marie Dressler here, whether she won the year before or not. She’s clearly a #3.
Hayes — The Sin of Madelon Claudet is a perfect 30s melodrama. It really is.
It starts with a woman about to leave her husband, a doctor. As she does, a man comes in, and starts telling her the story of a woman — Madelon Claudet. She’s a young farmer’s daughter who falls in love with an American (it’s the 30s, so everyone is just naturally British). She runs away with him, but then he leaves when he finds out his father is sick, and never comes back, because he finds an American girl and stays with her.
However, Madelon is pregnant and has a child. She has a falling out with her father when she refuses to give up the child. So, without any other recourse, becomes a mistress to a wealthy man. She leaves her son in the care of her friends. Eventually, the man proposes marriage, and Madelon is happy, but then, he’s arrested as a jewel thief, and kills himself. See what I mean about melodrama? It’s fucking awesome. Madelon then gets sentenced to ten years in jail because they think she helped him commit crimes. So then she’s released, years later, and this is where the film takes on its best part — Helen Hayes plays this woman the entire time. She plays her over the span of like, fifty years, and puts on the makeup and uglies herself up — it’s a really great job by her.
So she’s released, and goes to see her son, who is now a teenager, and, after a conversation with a doctor who said he was unable to find better work because his father was a criminal, tells her son that his mother is dead. And then, what she does is, since she sees he really wants to be a doctor, she becomes a prostitute in order to fund his tuition for medical school. Then, she gets too old to get clients, and starts stealing to get the money. And eventually, she puts her son through medical school, and he becomes a well-respected and well-liked doctor, and gets married, and yet the whole time he thinks his mother is dead.
Then, Madelon, very old and poor, decides to give herself up to the state, but before she does, visits her son. He doesn’t know who she is, and doesn’t remember her from when he was a child, and she pretends to be a patient. However, the doctor who she talked to earlier in the film (whose father was a criminal), recognizes her and convinces her son (without telling him who she is) to help her out. And we then flash back to the present, where the doctor’s wife is about to leave him, and, after hearing the story, changes her mind and tells her husband they should have the old woman come live with them (because she knows how happy that would make Madelon).
The film is really fucking great. The only part that’s too over the top is the end, when somehow that story convinced the wife not to leave her husband. How the fuck is it even comparable? But still — the film is great. I love these melodramas from the early 30s.
Helen Hayes is great as Madelon. Just watching it, you can see why she won. It has everything, the performance. She’s clearly the only person to vote for here. Plus, she’s Helen Hayes, of course you’re gonna vote for her.
Fontanne — Lynn Fontanne is the other half of the famous acting couple that was the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier premier stage couple before Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
This film, I love. It’s not the easiest film to watch, but, the story is just so good, I don’t care. It’s about an acting couple. The first five minutes of the film is them on stage acting. And they start cold, so you think that could just be what the film is gonna be about. Then you realize it was a play. Then, you see them, as the curtain closes, bickering as they take their bows. Then, in their dressing room, they just hate one another. They argue, yell, and are just mean to each other. Clearly, they are not in love as they once were. And then, the husband, played by Alfred Lunt, her real-life husband, believes she may be having an affair (or at least is capable of having one), so he concocts a scheme where make himself up in full costume as a Russian soldier, and comes to woo her as the soldier to see if she goes for it. And the film is him trying to catch his wife in an “affair,” and basically fucking with her. He pretends to be going away for the weekend, comes as the soldier, and she makes a date with him, and then he leaves, and comes back as the husband, and she has to scramble to cover her tracks — that sort of thing. And the end of the film is him revealing himself as the man, and her staying with him, and sort of hinting that she knew it was him all along, but went with it anyway.
I really liked the film a lot. I thought it was a well-crafted film, if not really made to its fullest potential (it’s a 1931 film, so there’s a lot of dead air and moves very slowly). Fontanne and Lunt were really good in their roles too, but, it’s the kind of thing where, either you should vote for both of them, or neither of them. And since he didn’t win, I’m not gonna vote for her either. It’s an all or nothing sort of thing. But a solid #2 though. She did a good job here.
My Thoughts: Dressler won her Oscar the year before this, so she’s out. And Fontanne didn’t need to win, especially if her husband wasn’t also going to win for the same film. That would have made it cute. This way — nah. Helen Hayes gave the best performance and is the most deserving of my vote, therefore she gets it.
My Vote: Hayes
Should Have Won: Hayes
Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yes. Helen Hayes was amazing in this role. She totally deserved this and was the best choice. This works all around. Great decision.
Performances I suggest you see: I really recommend The Guardsman. I said it’s a perfect story for a romantic comedy, and I think everyone should see it. Now, it’s old, and doesn’t play as well as it ought to, but as a writer, I can see the gem inside the film. So, actually, you don’t need to see it. Because I, or somebody with more power than I, will end up remaking this someday, and if done right, it’ll be really good. At worst, it’ll be a shitty romantic comedy that comes out. Put it this way — Just Go With It was based on Cactus Flower. You see how far down you can go.
I also recommend The Sin of Madelon Claudet. It’s really very good. If you’re into old old films — that is, films of this era — then I really recommend it. It’s a good 30s film and features a fantastic lead performance. If you’re not into 30s films, then you probably won’t like it, which is a shame, because you’re really missing out, on this and on all the other great movies of this decade.
And Emma — meh, you could do worse. It’s worth a watch. It’s not bad. Plus Myrna Loy is in it. And it’s short. Put it this way — I mentioned it. The way this usually works is, if I don’t mention it, I’m not exactly endorsing it. Mentioning it, it’s at least sort of worth your time if you want to check it out. Most people probably wouldn’t care about this, but I love 30s films, so I’m gonna see it. That’s how you should gauge it.