The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1936
I call 1936 the year with the first “Academy” film. That is, a film that seemed designed from the start to win Best Picture won Best Picture. The Great Ziegfeld is one of those films that has everything the Academy looks for in a Best Picture, and it makes perfect sense that it would win.
Luise Rainer also won Best Actress for the film (talked about here), which I don’t really like as a decision, but would have been okay with it, if only she didn’t also win Best Actress the year after this. Best Actor this year was Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur (talked about here), which is a good decision, since Muni deserved an Oscar, but I felt it came a year too early. Best Supporting Actress (the first in the category’s history) was Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse (talked about here), which makes no sense to me. And Best Director was Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (talked about here), which I really can’t even begin to fathom for a lot of reasons. That was a very poor choice, I felt.
And now we have the very first Best Supporting Actor category in the history of the Oscars. The problem with it is — when you look closely at it — it stinks. It’s weak as hell. But fortunately, Walter Brennan is Walter Brennan, so him winning alleviates any concerns of how shitty the category is.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1936
And the nominees were…
Mischa Auer, My Man Godfrey
Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
Stuart Erwin, Pigskin Parade
Basil Rathbone, Romeo and Juliet
Akim Tamiroff, The General Died at Dawn
Auer — My Man Godfrey is a terrific film. A comedy classic. William Powell is a man ruined by the Depression, found in the city dump by a wealthy family. They’re there looking for a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt. The youngest daughter of the family (Carole Lombard) takes a liking to him and hires him as the family’s butler. And he comes, meets all the crazies, keeps them relatively grounded, and basically helps them and himself at the same time. And of course he gets together with Lombard.
Mischa Auer plays another “project” of the family. Basically, each of the women are flighty and spoiled, and they each adopt a pet project. Lombard’s is Godfrey. Alice Brady’s is Auer. He’s a European dude who she basically takes in, and is a moocher onto the family. He sits around, having been adopted by Brady, essentially, and enjoys the lifestyle while providing nothing in return.
It’s a decent performance, but it’s not really what one would consider a Best Supporting Actor nominated performance. That’s because this is the first category, and they didn’t really establish the criteria we know as the Supporting Actor criteria. So, while the performance jumps out at me because I like the film, it’s not worth voting for. It wouldn’t be nominated in any year except this one.
Brennan — Come and Get It is a Howard Hawks film, actually. A nice bit of trivia about this film — it features Frances Farmer, who was played by Jessica Lange in another Oscar-nominated performance in 1982. This film actually features into that one, as the premiere for it is one of my favorite scenes in the film.
Anyway, it’s about a bunch of loggers in the north midwest. Or lumberjacks. And the whole thing is basically about a dude who is ambitious, and is dating a simple waitress, but then leaves her so he can marry into money, but then years later ends up falling for her daughter. It’s not actually a very good film. It’s okay, but it’s nothing compared to Hawks’s other movies.
Brennan plays — basically the simple naive man of the film. He has a Swedish accent. I didn’t immediately recognize him when I watched the film for the first time. He’s there, he’s nice, he’s unassuming. And when the girl gets dumped by the main character, she goes and marries Brennan, since she knows he’ll be a good husband, even though she’s not really in love with him. That’s pretty much Brennan’s performance. It’s not really a great performance, but it’s Walter Brennan, and who better signifies this category (aside from Claude Rains) than Walter Brennan? And this category is so weak. So he actually becomes the best one to vote for by default. Since you have to realize these categories were about setting up a standard and not voting for best performance. The first five years are all foundation. (Which, having Walter Brennan win three times in those five years certainly helps.)
Erwin — Pigskin Parade. This is a perfect example of what a regular 30s movie was like. It’s one of those movies that gets nominated in the supporting categories that’s not very good, so when you watch it outside the one performance (which, this one isn’t even that great), you’re like, “Wow, this should not be here at all.”
The film is about husband and wife football coaches who are hired to get their college teams into shape, and of course have to face each other. And it’s light and there’s the romance angle, and a younger romance angle — all of that. Stuart Erwin plays a ringer. They find him midway through the film, when they see that the team is lacking in talent. He’s a complete redneck, who doesn’t wear shoes, and they get him to play, and he’s really good. And the joke is that he grew up on a farm and has no idea about anything.
It’s really not a performance that should be here, but I guess when you have a new category and don’t really know what the criteria is for a supporting performance, it makes sense something like this would get nominated. Still, though — clearly a #5. This would really only be acceptable in this category.
Rathbone — Romeo and Juliet is pretty famous. You probably should know what it’s about.
Basil Rathbone plays Tybalt. It’s a character that should, classically, be nominated for this award. It would have even made sense for Rathbone to win here, since he’s a very iconic supporting presence in films. And Tybalt is a character that could win this award, especially here, and it would be okay. So, really, this category comes down to Rathbone and Brennan. One’s for the character, one’s for the actor. Neither is for the performance. But, it’s year 1, so that’s okay.
Tamiroff — The General Died at Dawn is one of those classic adventure films of the 30s. Not classic in the sense that it’s remembered, but classic in the sense that — it’s very representative of the genre.
Gary Cooper plays a mercenary who is trying to prevent guns from being shipped into China to a warlord. And he falls in love with a girl, and has to protect her. You know the drill.
Tamiroff plays the warlord, and it’s the kind of performance where, he sort of befriends Cooper, and has these conversations with him, and keeps him close, even though they both know they’re on opposite sides of the fence. And they have these conversations and stuff, and then at the end Cooper naturally has to shoot him — it’s very standard fare.
Tamiroff is fine, but, the film isn’t that great, and I don’t think having a white dude playing an Asian is the best way to kick off a category. I wouldn’t vote for it anyway, but do you really need something like this to be your… oh wait, Gale Sondergaard. Never mind.
My Thoughts: The category is really bad. Erwin shouldn’t have even been nominated, Tamiroff is not worth a vote at all. Auer was great but not worth voting for. So right there, you’re left with Brennan and Rathbone. Both good choices. Rathbone is playing Tybalt, which is historically a Best Supporting Actor-type role, but you know my aversion to Shakespeare. Plus I voted for Rathbone over Brennan in 1938, so I’m just gonna reverse that and vote Brennan here. And while I didn’t particularly like the film that much, and didn’t love his performance (the way I loved many of his other performances), he was still very good, and did a Swedish accent. So that was nice. Plus, in the very first Best Supporting Actor category of all time, who better to represent what a supporting actor is than Walter Brennan? So I vote for him on principle. I treat this like those early Oscar years, where it’s more important about who/what wins based on perception than actual performance/quality. You know? So it’s Brennan.
My Vote: Brennan
Should Have Won: Brennan
Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Who represents this category more than Walter Brennan?
Was you ever bit by a dead bee?
Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen My Man Godfrey, you’re dead to me.
Romeo and Juliet. Worth seeing if you really like Romeo and Juliet or want to see how they did it in the 30s. If you’re content with just seeing one or two versions of things, then stick with the Zeffirelli version and the Luhrmann version over this one. This one is standard 30s.
Come and Get It — okay, but not really that great a film at all. Two things it has going for it — Walter Brennan playing Scandinavian (and winning an Oscar for it), and Frances Farmer as the lead female. If you saw Frances, which Jessica Lange was nominated for, and are a film history buff like I am, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the film as it relates to the way it’s shown in the other movie. I quite enjoyed that. Otherwise, not particularly essential.
Pigskin Parade, enjoyable but forgettable. Not necessary.
The General Died at Dawn — I didn’t like it. You need to really love Gary Cooper or military films about China. Or rather, films dealing with Chinese politics and shit. Definitely not my cup of tea at all. I just mention it because — well, I don’t know. I started typing and had to go in for the course. I don’t really recommend this all that much. Title’s nice, though. So — enjoy the title.