The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1934

1934. Wonderful year. This goes twofold for me, since my favorite film of all time was made this year. Every time I talk about this year, I make sure to note that there’s no way I can be subjective when my favorite film is involved. I just can’t. That’s the one place I refuse to do it. Fortunately, The Thin Man isn’t nominated here, so it won’t affect this category at all. Recapping the year is easy. It Happened One Night won everything. Picture, Director (talked about here), Actor (here), and, yes, Actress (writing too. First big five winner in history). But of all the categories of 1934, this one is the most interesting. For several reasons. The first is that this is one of the few categories for which the Academy announced the order of finish. Claudette Colbert won, Norma Shearer finished 2nd, and Bette Davis finished 3rd (QED, Grace Moore was last). The most important part about all this, though, is the Bette Davis nomination. Let me explain.

Bette Davis begged out of her Warner Bros. contract to make this film. They agreed because they assumed she was going to fail. But the film actually ended up being her breakthrough. And come Oscar time, when she got nomination buzz, Warners spitefully told people not to vote for her. And since the voting system wasn’t as, shall we say, objective, as it is now (votes were tabulated by the heads of the Academy. Warners was one. No bias at all, I’m sure), she wasn’t nominated. And her supporters, outraged, petitioned the Academy for a write-in vote. The outcry was large enough (probably because at that time the Oscars were small enough) that it actually worked. The Academy caved (kind of like when they caved in 2008 and started the 10 nominees), and this became one of only two years to ever feature a write-in vote (that counted).

It didn’t work out for Bette Davis (3rd), but the year after this, Hal Mohr actually won Best Cinematography for A Midsummer Night’s Dream without being nominated (which is great. He was the best there). But, this decision was strong enough to get several things to happen. First, it got the write-in ballot for two years. Then it got the Academy to change its voting practices. They handed over the entire voting and counting process to PriceWaterhouse (who still does it). And it also created that Oscar groundswell we know so well, especially when it comes to Best Actress, that got Bette Davis to win a slam dunk Oscar (considered a makeup Oscar) the year after this, for Dangerous. I’ll talk about that when I get to it, but for now, can you see how important 1934 is (even without The Thin Man)?


And the nominees were…

Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night

Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage (write-in)

Grace Moore, One Night of Love

Norma Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Colbert — It Happened One Night is the classic romantic comedy. Arguably the first, but that’s really only in the sense of how we see and think of them today. In terms of what we think of today when we think of romantic comedies, this is the quintessential example. And on top of that, you watch this movie today, and it holds up better than the romantic comedies that have come out in the past five or ten years. Not some of them — all of them.

The film is about Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress who wants to marry a guy. Her father refuses, because he sees the guy as a fortune hunter, clearly out to marry into the family. He refuses to allow her to get married. So she runs away. However, having had no contact with the real world since she was born, she doesn’t know what to do. She goes to a bus station (since she was in Florida on the family yacht and her fiancé is in New York), but has no money on her because usually her chauffeur carries all the money. Clark Gable also happens to be in that station, and he’s a reporter. He’s just been fired from his job. He notices Colbert and recognizes her, and gets his job back, promising a scoop on Colbert (because the world is looking for her now that they know she’s disappeared). So he meets her, and, finding her to be a spoiled brat, chastises her, while also paying for her bus ticket.

And then the two of them are both on the bus, riding up to New York, Gable making sure nobody recognizes her and keeping her out of the public eye. And she despises him because of his attitude toward her, yet, at the same time, is totally dependent on him, because she can’t operate in the real world and doesn’t have any money. So, they gradually start to fall in love — naturally — as they make their way up to New York. And the film is about their misadventures, including classic scenes where she teaches him how to hitchhike, a scene where they change behind a makeshift sheet in between the beds, and a few other things. And they make it up to New York, where her father relents and lets her marry the man she wants, though, now, she’s in love with Gable, and of course they get together at the end and it’s happy. The film also uses an ending that would be commonplace nowadays, which is really why this film really manages to stand the test of time amazingly well. Kind of the way most of Capra’s films do.

Colbert is great in the film. That goes without saying. One wouldn’t necessarily think of this as an Oscar-winning role, but, you have to understand that the Academy giving this film all the awards was a very momentous moment. One, it’s right in the middle of the Depression, and here’s an escapist comedy that everybody loves. It makes a ton of money despite no one even wanting to do the film. Plus, before this, no Oscar film really won more than two, three awards. The whole thing was disjointed. Having this film win the Big Five really establishes a kind of standard that the Academy was lacking until this point. It stabilizes the whole institution. And, more specifically, Colbert was in three big films this year — this, Imitation of Life, and Cleopatra. One melodrama, one comedy, one historical drama. And she was great in Cleopatra. She’d have probably won for that. But this was the more likable performance (plus, this was putting forth Depression ideals rather than the extravagance of Cleopatra and its budget). It makes sense. Either way, with the year she had, it makes perfect sense that she won this award.

Davis — Of Human Bondage was just not that interesting. And people say Bette Davis should have won for it. I guess because it’s a starmaking turn. But, to me, I see a monotonous film based on a famous book, the kind that the Academy churned out by the dozens in this decade.

Leslie Howard is a club-footed medical student. He’s in love with Bette Davis, a vulgar waitress. She is mean to him constantly and also laughs off his professions of love. His love for her causes him to fail his exams. She doesn’t care and is planning on marrying someone else. He slowly falls in love with another, nicer, woman, and eventually forgets about Bette. However, she shows up pregnant, her husband having left her, and he leaves the other woman for her. She, however, doesn’t really care about him, or the baby, and runs off with one of his friends. Just as he finds another woman to love him, Davis comes back, apologizing. Again, he takes her back, and she ruins his life again. Eventually, he moves in with the second girl’s family, fixes his club foot, and becomes a doctor. He then meets Davis who is sick, dying, and a prostitute. She dies, and he’s happy, because he’s free of his obsession for her and can marry the better woman.

The film is only 90 minutes, but it’s just not interesting at all. This movie feels like they took the book and sreamlined it. And as such, it loses any kind of interest whatsoever. It’s like they hit basic plot points, so you have that story up there, just, not as interesting. Not that I’d be interested in a longer version, it’s just — I don’t know how they say she should have won an Oscar for this.

At best, this is a starmaking turn. Plus, it’s melodrama. I am never interested in the Bette Davis melodrama. I really don’t understand this at all. But hey — the Academy wants what it wants, apparently.

Moore — God, this movie was a bore. One of the few I out and out didn’t like on this entire Oscar Quest. Most films I regard with a passing respect. This one I just disliked. I think it’s because this is one of those 30s musicals where the star is a classically trained opera singer and not a musical star. So the musical numbers are sung opera-style. And who wants to hear that? The only time it worked was in The Great Waltz, where there was a legit opera star in a supporting role, and she sung the hell out of those songs. Here, it just bored me to tears.

The film is about a singer who wants to study under a famed vocal coach. She tries to win a competition, but loses. She travels to where he lives anyway, because her dream is to sing. By coincidence, he hears her and takes her under his wing anyway. They live together as teacher and student. He is adamant that it’s not sexual. And he trains her — he’s strict, but she really becomes great learning from him. And she starts seeing another man, but she can’t help but fall in love with him, and he with her, and then he’s got this girlfriend who tries to break them up — and it’s this whole stupid thing. You know they’re gonna get together by the end. It’s not even interesting. It’s just, by the numbers.

So, I didn’t like this film, and the only benefit to this performance for me is the good singing voice. And since I didn’t even care for the opera music in the film, this is clearly a #4, and I’m not sure how this got nominated for so many awards (especially Best Director. I mean, one of three? That’s the third film you chose for this year? Alongside those other two?).

Shearer — And The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This film is actually pretty interesting. Not great, just, interesting. It’s about a large family ruled by a tyrannical father, played by Charles Laughton. Norma Shearer is a sickly older daughter, who is confined to the parlor every day. The siblings come to meet her, and the father wanders around the house like foreboding death. He immediately takes all the energy out of a room when he enters. And because of him, none of the children are able to marry. He refuses to let them do anything. And they listen to him, because — because, they just do. I guess it’s a combination of fear, respect, he’s their father, and, that’s just how they were raised.

And Shearer meets a man and falls in love with him. And she wants to run away, but her father refuses to let her. See, she’s his favorite, and losing her would be the end of the world for him. And I think the way it works is, if Shearer gets married, then the rest of them can. I think it’s one of those old style traditions where the siblings can only get married in order. So until the oldest does, no one else can. I think. Either way, she ends up trying to convince her father, who staunchly refuses. And eventually she runs away with the man, leaving a note, which pretty much kills her father and is greatly admired by her siblings.

The film is pretty standard. What makes the film work, however, is Laughton’s performance. This is why I find this film fascinating. Because, you never understand why the father acts the way he does. It’s hinted at, in the dialogue and especially in Laughton’s performance, but you never really know. And, Laughton being a gay man who was married to Elsa Lanchester for years (a lot more openly than this character), it’s pretty clear that he really say the subtext to this character that wasn’t on the page. That’s what makes this film interesting.

As for Shearer’s performance. It works, she’s likably. She does a good job, especially in her final climactic scene with Laughton. But, she was never going to win this. She had an Oscar already. This category was always between Davis an Colbert. And Colbert was always the one who should have won.

My Thoughts: Yeah, yeah, I know about the Bette Davis thing, but — no. She didn’t deserve this. Claudette Colbert was the only one who should ever have won this award. You know why? Because not only was she great in It Happened One Night — and remember, the film is very important because it’s a very stabilizing film for the Academy. Before this, they were in the 1932-1933 years. Nothing was really set in stone. You rarely had films win more than one or two awards, and there wasn’t any standard in place. This year was the maturation year for the Academy. So that alone makes it big that Colbert win for that film. But she was also in Cleopatra (a fantastic dramatic performance by her, also good enough to win — but you know, the Academy and their preoccupation with “likable” performances), and Imitation of Life. That’s three separate Best Picture nominees — 25% of all of them. And she was great in all three films. She really did deserve to win here.

My Vote: Colbert

Should Have Won: Colbert

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. For every reason I said up there. Not only was she great in the film, but she was in two other Best Picture nominees and could have won the award for being in either of them as well. When you have a great comic performance (It Happened One Night) and a great dramatic performance (Cleopatra) in the same year, and are nominated, I think it’s very acceptable when you win.

Performances I suggest you see: It Happened One Night is a must-see film for everybody. It is a romantic comedy that is so good, it could be released in theaters today and still be better than 95% of the shit they put out. Seriously, it holds up really well. Everyone needs to see it, because I bet almost everyone would enjoy it. see this. If you haven’t, you don’t really like movies. And, of the rest — meh. See It Happened One Night.


4) Moore

3) Davis

2) Shearer

1) Colbert


One response

  1. Ralph Storrier

    I totally agree that Colbert thoroughly deserved to win for ‘It Happened One Night’. I found Davis’ performance in ‘Of Human Bondage’ to be somewhat overwrought and strident, she truly made audiences take notice of her, but she did not deserve to win the Oscar that year. Ironically, she didn’t deserve to win for ‘Dangerous’ the following year either which many have considered a consolation prize. Katherine Hepburn should have won for ‘Alice Adams’, in a far more poignant and subtle performance.

    July 15, 2014 at 11:36 pm

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