The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1936
Oh hey, it’s the very first Best Supporting Actress category ever. That means several things. Most of all, it means that the rules don’t apply. You can’t judge this based on strictly the performances. You have to think of it as establishing the category. This sets the trend for what exactly is a supporting performance as we know it.
As for the rest of the year, The Great Ziegfeld wins Best Picture, which, is a pretty good choice, since it’s big and epic (at least, for 1936), and Best Actress for Luise Rainer, which, is a terrible decision. She was a supporting character at best in the film. And, surprisingly, William Powell does not win Best Actor for that film and for My Man Godfrey (being nominated for the latter), but rather, Paul Muni wins Best Actor for The Story of Louis Pasteur, which I don’t really like as a decision. It just seemed like too easy a performance to vote for. Powell, and especially Walter Huston, were better choices. (They could have given it to Muni, who very much deserved an Oscar, for The Story of Louis Pasteur the year after this. It would have made perfect sense.) Then Best Supporting Actor (the very first of that category) went to Walter Brennan for Come and Get It. While I don’t much care for the film or the performance, Brennan does play Swedish, and is an actor who epitomizes the category, so ultimately it was a good decision. Then Best Director was Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which, as much as I loved the film (as I said here), I think is a terrible decision.
So, keeping in mind it’s not so much the performance as much as it is a foundation for a category, let’s take a look at this one…
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – 1936
And the nominees were…
Alice Brady, My Man Godfrey
Beulah Bondi, The Gorgeous Hussy
Bonita Granville, These Three
Maria Ouspenskaya, Dodsworth
Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse
Brady — My Man Godfrey is such a great film. A classic film. This is a classic comedy. One of those — I like to think of the real classic films as, not the films that are constantly referenced in other things, but rather, films that are use as templates for shows. That is, in certain shows, especially kids shows — you have a certain episode format. And most of them are independent of one another. And you need to fill full seasons. So, what you see a lot are these episodes that are based on very classic works. And a lot of the time, this is how we’re introduced to these films. And then years later you watch a film and are like, “They did that in an episode of Hey Arnold!” That, to me, is a classic film, that people can know the plot without actually seeing the movie. My Man Godfrey, to me, is one of those films.
The film is about Godfrey, a man we find living in the dump at the edge of town. As he tries to keep warm one night, a party of rich people come over and offer him $5 in order to come with them. The thing is — they’re having a scavenger hunt, and they’ll win if they get a “forgotten man” (meaning, someone ruined in the Depression who needs money and is not getting it). And the two that come are Gail Patrick and Carole Lombard. And Patrick is the forceful one. She’s very condescending and very much a bitch. And Godfrey is like, “Fuck you, I don’t need your money.” But then, he sees Lombard, who is very innocent and generally a good person. So he’s like, “If I got with you, will Cornelia (Patrick) not win?” And she says yes, so he goes with her. And she wins, and what ends up happening is, she takes a liking to him (Lombard, this is), and has her parents (Alice Brady and Eugene Pallette) take him on as a butler.
So Godfrey becomes butler for the family. And he navigates the craziness that is this family. Lombard is very spoiled and makes a scene when she doesn’t get what she wants. Brady is looney an a bit of a drunk (she sees “fairies” in the morning until she gets tomato juice (hangover cure). Patrick is a bitch. And Pallette is the put-upon man of the house who is actually the only normal one. And we find out that Godfrey used to be a millionaire who was ruined in the Depression, and what happens during the film is — he helps make all the family members better people, and, under their noses, steals (or rather, borrows) an expensive necklace, pawns it, uses the money to buy and sell short a stock, which ends up making him and Pallette lots of money. And what he does then, is create a nightclub on the dump strictly for homeless people, where they can go and have a good time. And the film ends with Lombard, who had fallen in love with Godfrey (very openly), coming to the club and making him marry her. The film ends with a priest showing up asking, “Who is to be married?”, and Lombard is like, “We are. Only Godfrey doesn’t know it yet.” It’s a great film.
Brady is absolutely wonderful in the role as the crazy mother. It works perfectly alongside Lombard’s performance. It’s easily my favorite performance on this list, and, honestly, given that she’s such a respected actress (given that she won this award the year after this), I don’t know how they didn’t vote for her here.
Bondi — The Gorgeous Hussy is partly a good film. The other half is boring as shit. But fortunately we’re talking about the good half.
The film is about a young girl who comes from a low background who ends up causing a lot of political problems. The woman is played by Joan Crawford, and her half of the film is a boring ass melodrama. She works at an inn — lots of politicians go there — and becomes friends with Andrew Jackson (played by Lionel Barrymore). And he gets elected President, and Crawford comes along as a confidant. But, because she comes from a lower class family, people in Washington don’t like her and treat her with hostility. And she deals with all this stuff and — it’s pretty boring.
The part we’re dealing with is early on. At first, during the campaign, before Jackson is President, they sling shit at him during the campaign. It’s really dirty. They use Crawford as a reason for him not to be elected. And Beulah Bondi plays Jackson’s wife Rachel, who was once a country bumpkin like Crawford (though clearly not as refined. After all, this is Hollywood). And she’s the kind of woman who doesn’t give a shit, and is who she is. And it’s clear that her and Jackson love one another very much. And for me, the performance really works. It’s a very short one, since she dies really early on, and tells Crawford to look after her husband, and then dies. And then her memory is what keeps Jackson from caving in to all the pressure.
While she is barely on screen, Bondi does make an impression. She’s the most lively thing in this movie. And while I wouldn’t vote for such a brief performance most of the time, here, all bets are off, since the vote is for a “legitimate” actress, who will help establish the category. And to me, Bondi is one of those actresses. She is an actress who is strong in many supporting roles (see her in Make Way for Tomorrow for a really great performance). So I think she’s definitely worth a vote.
Granville — These Three is a film version of the play “The Children’s Hour,” which would later be remade in 1961 as The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. And I’ll tell you right now — see that version instead. You have no reason to watch this version over that one. By all means, watch both. But, if you’re only gonna watch one, watch that one. The only thing this one has that the other doesn’t is a brief cameo by Margaret Hamilton (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) in one of her biggest non-Oz roles.
Just to recap briefly, the film is about two friends who run a small private school for girls. And one of them is engaged to be married to some guy, and the other is still single. And one of the girls in the school, Mary Tilford (played by Granville, 14 at the time), is kind of a little shit. She’s the problem child. Bosses the other kids around, lies — is just a generally annoying person. And what happens is, she gets disciplined by one of the teachers, and, after overhearing a private conversation, spreads a nasty rumor about the teachers — that they’re both lesbians. This is back in the 30s, so this is a major accusation. And she tells the rumor to her doting grandmother, who has her taken out of the school and then tells all the other parents about this. They too, take their kids out of the school. And the teachers must try to prove the rumor is false. (The complication, though, is that it isn’t. One of the teachers (the single one) is a lesbian. And has had a crush on the other one for a long time and hasn’t said anything about it. And the conversation the girl overheard was between that teacher and her mother, who called her out on it.) So they eventually get the young girl (caught in a web of her own lies) to confess, and get her grandmother to apologize. But still, it’s too late, since their lives have been ruined.
It’s a great story. But, like I said, watch the 1961 version. Now, as for Granville’s performance — she’s great. This is the strongest role in the film and the one that’s pretty much guaranteed to get the best reviews any time it’s performed. It’s like playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, or playing Iago in Othello. It’s the big, flashy part. And Granville is fantastic in it. She’s utterly unlikable as the little girl. But the thing is — this is the first Best Supporting Actress category. You don’t want to establish a category by giving a child an Oscar. Which is why, despite the nice inclusion of her in this category, she was never going to win.
Ouspenskaya — Maria Ouspenskaya is the wise old woman character. That’s all she seemed to play. It’s like — in a non-ethnic way (though she herself was Russian) — you know that old Italian woman you see in all those movies, in the neighborhood, the one who people pay to go see and she sorts out people’s problems? That’s what she’s like. She’s the old lady who shows up for one scene — oh, great-Grammy is coming to visit, and within five minutes, sorts through all the bullshit that’s going on, and is like, “Go and marry the man you love, darling.” And she does. (Nowaday’s Hollywood will give the character Alzheimer’s to try to squeeze some believability out of it.)
Also, just to point out, she was nominated twice for playing almost this exact role.
Dodsworth is a great, great film, and one of the best films I watched on this Oscar Quest that I was 100% sure almost no one had seen. It begins with Dodsworth (played by the great Walter Huston), a major automotive mogul, retiring. He’s in his 50s and has worked to get where he is, so now he’s decided to sit on his millions and live the good life. So he and his wife decide to take a European vacation. And they go there, and very quickly they start to have a difference of opinion. She’s more concerned with going to find the best social circles, going to all the parties, and trying to be taken in by the genteel. And he’s much more interested in seeing the sights, going to see all the local landmarks. Like, he’ll come in, “Honey, there’s this great church in the middle of the square,” and she’ll be like, “Oh, but the Ziegfelds are throwing a soiree and they’ve invited us to come.” And the two soon realize that they are not happy with one another. Him working all those years disguised the fact that they have nothing in common and are not meant to be married.
So she soon leaves him for a rich count or something or other and goes off with him to his island. And he goes and looks at all the sights and stuff like he was gonna do. And while he’s there, he meets a divorcée, interested in all the things he’s interested in, and the two fall in love. But then the trip ends and he goes back home. And while he’s home, he tries to break it to his kids about him and their mother. And he ends up alone for like a month when the wife writes to him and says that she’s coming home. What happened was, the rich dude got bored with her (because he could be getting much younger women) and broke it off. And she (thinking she was gonna marry him) has nowhere to go. So she’s coming back to her husband. And he goes to take her back, but realizes he’s in love with the other woman and goes to her instead.
It’s a great film. Seriously. I’m so glad I discovered this one. It’s so wonderful. And everyone I’ve seen whose covered the Oscars on blogs and whatnot have all said the same things about this film. So it’s one of those that’s universally loved by people who’ve seen it, yet it’s not a film that’s been seen by many. So, if you see it, you’ll really be able to feel like you’re in an exclusive club. Plus you’ll get to see a great film on top of it.
Now, Ouspenskaya plays the mother of the rich dude Dodsworth’s wife wants to marry. And he goes to her, like, “I wanna marry her,” and she’s like, “Fuck no. She’s old.” And the wife tries to argue, and then she’s like, “Bitch, don’t you talk. You ever think about what it would be like to be an old bitch married to a young dude?” And then the wife thinks about it and is like, “Damn. I just got slapped in the face by a Granny.” And then a random kid came in and was like, “Do you assassinate bitches like this all the time, Granny?” And then Granny was like, “Bitch, naw. I was just doin’ it to this bitch cause she had it comin’. Now where’s my manservant at. I gotta take me a nap.” I swear, it happened practically verbatim like this.
Ouspenskaya is literally in the film for about five minutes. There is no way I would ever vote for this performance to win this award. This is seriously like the veteran nomination, of the person who is old (therefore, respected) who shows up, has one scene, and gets a nomination out of it. That’s all this is.
Sondergaard — Oh, Gale, how you made a living playing shifty Asians.
Remember back at the beginning of the blog, when I made the joke/reference to starting the blog so I could be able to easily remember, “What’s the name of that film where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman?” Well, Gale Sondergaard is the Chinese woman. She’s the one who shanked Bette Davis.
She seems to do a lot of shanking.
Anthony Adverse is a film about a child, born to a mother, cast aside — holy shit, this is sounding way too movie trailer-y. Okay, Claude Rains is an evil Italian dude. He’s married to a woman. She doesn’t love him. She has an affair with another man. They have a son. Rains finds out about both of these things and chases them down. He kills the man, and rapes the woman (his wife). She dies giving birth. He dumps the son in a convent. The kid grows up. His grandfather (woman’s father) thinks the kid is dead. However, by chance (just like Dickens), he meets the kid and finds out who he is. And when he dies, he leaves the kid a lot of money. And Rains, along with his shifty housekeeper Gale Sondergaard (I feel like we should name all shifty females Gale Sonderaard, regardless of their station in life. “Here is my shifty bus driver, Gale Sondergaard.”), plan to swindle Anthony of his inheritance. Because the money goes to them unless Anthony comes to Paris to get it. So they try to keep him out of Paris, which eventually means trying to kill him, and then they end up going off a cliff with their horses. That’s pretty much it.
The film is okay. I don’t really feel either way about it. Sondergaard’s performance is just kind of meh. She’s there. She does a lot of shifty face in this. If you clicked that link up there and saw the picture of her as the Chinese woman who shanks Bette Davis, look at that face, and then picture it more scheming rather than crazy-eyed killer. That’s pretty much all she does. I wouldn’t come close to voting for her over Brady and Bondi. But, the Academy did. I don’t know. They built this category on shiftiness.
My Thoughts: Looking at this from a pure performance standpoint — Ouspenskaya is out first. She’s old, and shows up for like one short scene. This is actually the extreme end of the veteran nomination that we’ll see over the years (still, to this day — Ruby Dee in American Gangster), so it’s very fitting that it exists in the very first one. Still, clearly out first.
Then, Bonita Granville has to go as well. She was really great in the role — and the role is notoriously great for those who play it (Karen Balkin was good enough to be nominated for The Children’s Hour in 1961, but, instead, the Academy went with the veteran nomination for Fay Bainter) — but, she’s a child, and voting for a child in the very first Supporting Actress category is not the right way to start it. (Which isn’t strictly performance, but, still, she wasn’t my favorite performance, so, either way.) So, she’s out.
So that leaves — Alice Brady, Beulah Bondi and Gale Sondergaard. These are the three actual character actors that would be good choices in terms of category foundation. But, we’re going purely on performance at the moment. And, based on performance:
Sondergaard is off first. All she did here was play scheming Asian. Which, she’s very good at. But, I didn’t see anything in there performance to make it worth voting for over these other two.
So now it’s Bondi and Brady. And, personally, I go with Alice Brady. Because, while Bondi was awesome and stole scenes, Brady was charming, flighty, funny, and in a better movie. And, she won the year after this in a category I feel someone else should have won, so really everything points to me voting for her here. So that’s what I’m gonna do.
Now, as for the Academy end — Brady, Bondi and Sondergaard were the best choices. So, honestly, I don’t know why they don’t go with either Brady or Bondi. Because, if they’re all even (and if they’re not, Sondergaard is clearly a #3 there), how can you not go with the better performances?
My Vote: Brady
Should Have Won: Brady, Bondi
Is the result acceptable?: No. I don’t think so. I don’t like the performance and I don’t think she was the right actress to help establish this category. So really there’s nothing here that makes this even remotely a good decision.
Performances I suggest you see: My Man Godfrey is by far the best film on this list. Like, by a long ways. It’s funny, it’s well-acted, it’s entertaining, and it’s about the Depression, which makes it interesting from a historical perspective. But, mostly, it’s hysterical. And a classic. So, I really recommend that you see this film, because it’s really, really great.
And Dodsworth — this is also a great, great film. The reason I don’t put it as high as My Man Godfrey is because this film is all but forgotten today. And, because, if I don’t oversell it, we can keep it a secret amongst us real film people. Because this film is one of the biggest hidden gems in this Oscar Quest. Trust me on that. This is a really, really great film. Walter Huston probably should have won Best Actor for his performance here. It’s just so well made, and so engaging, through and through. I really loved this. So, while My Man Godfrey is the flashy item on mantlepiece, this is also a prominently displayed next to it that only the people with keen eyes will look at and notice actually means more than the other one.
That’s it, really. Those two are the big ones.
Otherwise — These Three is essentially The Children’s Hour. See it if you want to see an earlier version of that film. But, if you’re going to see any version of this story (and you totally should) I recommend you see that one. You get Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Why wouldn’t you choose that one?
The Gorgeous Hussy is not a very good movie at all. Half of it is a boring Joan Crawford melodrama and the other half is Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi as Andrew Jackson and his wife. That’s the only interesting part of the film. See it for that, if at all. I do recommend that half. That half was pretty great.
Anthony Adverse — I liked, but, it was too long, and too — 30s literary adaptation. I hate the 30s literary adaptations. Because they still hadn’t found a way to make them interesting most of the time (and for my money, still haven’t. At least, the big ones). I did enjoy it as compared to some of the other ones, but, overall — meh. See it if you like the book. Otherwise, why would you bother?