The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1932-1933
Going old school today. Haven’t done one of these in a while. I like when we do these. Because I know almost no one has seen these films and I can seem like an authority on them. And because, I know there are less people who will complain about my decision because of that. Life is better when the possibility for encountering stupid assholes is lower.
Anyway, 1932-1933 is the last year of the double years. After this is just 1934. This is also the last year I consider a “foundation” year for the Academy. That is, after this, you can start complaining about their decisions. Here, they’re still developing their identity. It’s like a kid. The 1927-1933 years are the pre-18 years. If the kid sucks, it’s bad parenting. After 18, though, if the kid’s an asshole, the kid’s an asshole.
Best Picture went to Cavalcade, which is historically considered one of the weakest Best Picture decisions. I personally don’t get it myself. Frank Lloyd also wins Best Director for the film (which I talked about here), which, by default, has to be a good decision. Then Best Actress was Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory (which I talked about here), which is also one of those by-default good decisions, because there were only three nominees, and she was the only one that was gonna win. And, since there were no Supporting categories this year, that’s it. Isn’t that nice and simple? I should also state, before we get into it, I don’t like this category. The category itself and the decision. Let me explain:
BEST ACTOR – 1932-1933
And the nominees were…
Leslie Howard, Berkeley Square
Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII
Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Howard — The great thing about these kinds of categories is that the rules don’t apply. I’ll tell you right off the bat that Leslie Howard was never going to win this award. Dude had one speed — morose/half-dead. Look at him as Ashley Wilkes — he’s just indifferent most of the time. And here, he just mopes around, waiting for slow death. The only time I saw some spark out of him was in Pygmalion (hence the reason I voted for him for Best Actor that year).
Berkeley Square is a light little fantasy about Leslie Howard, who moves into a house and discovers it transports him back in time and he meets all his ancestors from the time of the American Revolution.
It’s a charming little movie. Nothing of particular substance. Howard does a good job with it, but it’s nothing that really screams “Oscar.” He’s definitely a third choice here.
Laughton — The Private Life of Henry VIII is an Alexander Korda film, and it’s basically a play on film.
It’s about Henry VIII and his many wives. It starts with Anne Boleyn dead, and him marrying Lady Jane Spencer. But she dies. But then he marries Anne of Cleves, but she divorces him to marry the man she wants to marry (she makes herself uglier so he doesn’t want her anymore). So then he marries Katherine Howard, who is very ambitious. But then, she falls in love with another man. And he finds out about it and has them both killed. Then he marries one more woman, Catherine Parr. So that’s the movie. Henry and his wives. Not particularly interesting. Lots of dead air. (I refer to dead air as the tendency in early sound films to have long moments of people walking into and out of rooms where no one is talking and you can hear the white noise of the soundtrack. And the films are only 90 minutes. So in effect you get 60-70 minute films stretched out with long pauses where nothing happens. And if the 60-70 minutes aren’t that interesting, it makes for a tough film to sit through. That’s how I felt about this film.
Now, as for Laughton’s performance — he shouts a lot. He’s very boisterous. Also, he’s very much a supporting character in the film. I think the Academy was still figuring out the whole lead/supporting thing. (Hence the reason there were no Supporting categories for another three years.) Or maybe it was — he’s the lead actor, it’s “about” him, so he gets the lead category. But it’s very Last King of Scotland. You get the supporting characters, and the Laughton gets to show up and be loud and boisterous. Personally, I didn’t care for the performance. I thought Laughton was much better in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Mutiny on the Bounty and even Ruggles of Red Gap. But, this was the better year for him to win (instead of 1934 or 1935). But did he need to win? Is the thing.
Muni — I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a film that’s unquestionably the film nominated for Best Picture that should have won. Sure, 42nd Street was my favorite film and the most fun film to watch, but this film was the best film on that list. I’m pretty sure if everyone sat down to watch all the films nominated from 1932-1933, this is the one people would vote for, or at least recognize as a better film than the film that won.
It’s about a dude who is accidentally caught up in a robbery is is sentenced to ten years on a chain gang. He ends up escaping after a while (in a thrilling escape), going to Chicago and becoming a successful, well-respected man. He gets involved with a woman who finds out who he is and blackmails him into marrying her. But then he also falls in love with another woman, and tries to leave his wife, but she tells the police about him. And the cops tell him that if he turns himself in, he’ll be pardoned. So he does, and they don’t. They throw him back on the chain gang. So he escapes again. And the final scene is one of the great moments in cinema, where he meets his woman, and tells her he’s leaving her, because he has to be on the run for the rest of his life. And she says, “How do you live?” And he goes, “I steal,” and backs into the darkness and disappears. It’s such a brilliant final moment.
The film is about the corruption of the prison system. First it’s about a dude being wrongfully accused, and then it’s about the idea of — so he escaped, but then he became a respected citizen. He showed what prison allegedly is about — trying to rehabilitate those who’ve done wrong. So you’d think, when they found him, they’d be lenient because — he’s shown he’s “rehabilitated” himself (whether he did it or not the first time). But then they deliberately lie to him and fuck him over, proving that the prisons are all about punishment and don’t give a fuck whether people rehabilitate themselves or not and are just breeding criminals because of this. It’s a very big message film that’s also entertaining as all hell.
And this is a film that didn’t win any Oscars.
Paul Muni is fucking awesome in this movie. And I understand they didn’t vote for him because this is 1933 and Henry VIII is a character that’s viewed as classy. They haven’t yet accepted film as an art form. All the big films are still based on plays. So, while I accept that he wasn’t going to win (he’d later win for playing Louis Pasteur. Of course), I’m voting for him all the way. He was clearly the best performance here.
My Thoughts: It’s no contest for me. The winner is Paul Muni. It’s really only between Muni and Laughton, and while Laughton winning makes more sense historically, Muni for me gave the best performance and is who I’m voting for. He’s also the lead role in his film.
My Vote: Muni
Should Have Won: Muni. But I’ll accept Laughton as well.
Is the result acceptable?: Yes and no. Basing it strictly on the performance, I say Muni takes it and was the only choice. Historically, though, Laughton was going to get an Oscar no matter what. We knew this. If he didn’t win here, it’s possible they give it to him the next year for The Barretts of Wimpole Street, a role he himself considered his best and his most Oscar-worthy, but that means Clark Gable doesn’t win an Oscar for It Happened One Night (and William Powell doesn’t have a shot for The Thin Man). So that screws up history pretty badly. Or they give it to him in 1935 for Mutiny on the Bounty, which is arguably his most iconic role. But if he wins there, Victor McLaglen doesn’t win for his tour de force performance in The Informer, a performance that’s clearly the best from that year. But if that happens, it’s possible that McLaglen eventually wins Best Supporting Actor in 1952 for The Quiet Man, a role I think was the best in his category that year and deserved to win him the Oscar. So it’s possible that could have worked out in the end, but, it would have made things so much more complicated. Here, Laughton wins, and then Muni wins three years later in 1936 for The Story of Louis Pasteur, which, admittedly, he beat Walter Huston for Dodsworth, a performance I consider the best in that category, but, considering he was great in Pasteur and great here, makes sense. Though he also could have won for Life of Emile Zola in ’37 and it would have been fine. It’s all complicated. So, no, this isn’t an acceptable result, but also kind of is because, everything kind of worked out in the end. Kind of. And because, at this point, the award was for the actor and not the performance. So yes and no.
Performances I suggest you see: I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the only film on this list you need to see. The only one. And it’s fucking awesome. This is one of the best films of the 30s. Do you like Cool Hand Luke? Do you like The Public Enemy or Scarface or any of the Warner Bros. gangster films? Do you like Gentlemen’s Agreement or any of the social problem films? If you like any or all of the above, you will like this film. That’s how good it is. Trust me on this. If you can stand old movies (and by that I mean, can be engaged by films even though they’re not as polished as later films are), you’ll love this film. You really will. It’s that good.