The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1928-1929

1928-1929. The second year of the Oscars. This is the only year that didn’t have any official nominees. That is, people were just given ballots and voted, and whoever won, won. And I think the nominees that were listed were based off of who got the most votes. There are also a couple of issues to deal with for this year, but let’s recap first before we get into that. There were no Supporting categories, so it’ll be quick.

The Broadway Melody wins Best Picture. The first talkie to win, and the first musical to win. Of the nominated films, it was the one that did the most. That is, it used sound to its full effect, and, the industry being in the state that it was, that’s all it took to win. Obviously it wasn’t a particularly strong winner, but it makes sense. They needed to have a sound film win. Best Actress this year was Mary Pickford for Coquette, which — she’s Mary Pickford. She was the biggest female star in the business. Of course they’d give her an Oscar. So that’s fine. And Best Director was Frank Lloyd for The Divine Lady, which seems like a weak choice.

Okay, so now we’re at this category. The problem that gets posed with this one is — The Patriot is a lost film. All we have are some clips from a trailer and stuff that survived. So we have to go in blind  on that. That makes it slightly tougher, since — none of the nominees seemed particularly Best Actor-worthy. So, this is one of those where concessions need to be made.

BEST ACTOR – 1928-1929

And the nominees were…

George Bancroft, Thunderbolt

Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona

Chester Morris, Alibi

Paul Muni, The Valiant

Lewis Stone, The Patriot

Bancroft — Thunderbolt is an early sound film, and is very obviously one.

The film is about George Bancroft as a gangster named “Thunderbolt” Lang, who is caught while trying to see his girl (played by Fay Wray). He’s in the hallway of her apartment building and spends too long befriending a stray dog, and that leads to his arrest and conviction. And he’s sentenced to death. Now, I say this is an obviously early sound film, because there’s one moment in the film that’s really obvious as an early sound moment. As Bancroft is playing with the dog, a woman in the building comes up to him. And there’s this three second pause before she speaks, and it’s clear that it’s only because they want to establish her on the screen before she talks so as not to confuse the audience. Kind of like how 3D shots have to be a certain length so as not to confuse the audience. And she shows up, there’s this long pause, and then she says, “I just love dogs!” and walks away. It’s so awkward.

Anyway, Bancroft is in prison, about to get the chair. He also finds out that his girlfriend (whom he told he was never going to leave) had been seeing another man. She’d been trying to go straight and see a nice guy for a change, a banker. So what Bancroft does, because he sees this as the banker’s fault for taking his woman, is get the guy framed for murder. And the dude gets sentenced to death and put in a cell right across from Bancroft. And Bancroft orchestrates it so he can kill the guy legitimately. But then he sees his girl loves the dude and sort of gives up on her and apologizes to the dude.

Baxter — In Old Arizona is a sort of musical western. Warner Baxter plays a singing bandit — a kind of cartoon character, almost. He’s the guy that the sheriff is after, but always manages to escape. Like, there’s one scene where he’s in the barbershop with the sheriff, and the sheriff is telling him how he’s gonna catch him, meanwhile he doesn’t even realize it’s him. And then he leaves and everyone realizes, “Wait, was that him?” And he’s running away comically. That sort of stuff.

And the film is about him eluding capture, and then he goes to his girlfriend, but finds out she betrayed him, and then he ends up escaping one last time by tricking the sheriff into shooting the girlfriend, because in the dark she looks like him.

There’s not really much here, film-wise or performance-wise. It’s only real interest is in how it uses the sound technology that was available. As for the performance — it’s just kind of there. I feel like anyone writing up this category would have trouble dealing with all the nominees. At least Baxter is having fun with it. And he’s in 42nd Street, so that’s something.

Morris — Alibi is a film that is fascinating to me because it’s so — you can see where the microphones are in every scene. If there ever was a perfect example to use when learning about the transition to sound, this is one of them. You can just picture them having the microphones placed in very specific locations, and the camera sitting in the big soundproof booth — it’s great. At least, for that. The film itself… ehh, not so much.

Chester Morris plays a gangster who gets out of prison and gets back in with his gang. And what he does is, he starts dating a policeman’s daughter, partly to avoid suspicion, but also because he does think about going straight a little bit. And one day, he goes to the movies with her, and during the intermission, goes out, kills a cop, and comes back. And when he’s questioned about it, he has a perfect alibi. (Get it?) And then he’s with her, and the cops use an undercover agent to catch him in the act, and they do, and he gets shot and killed, and winds up being a little bitch, even though he seemed cocky earlier in the film.

It’s really not that great a film. Morris’s performance is — it’s just weird. It’s how I’d picture an actor to be acting in a transition to sound movie. But, having seen so many more where the actors were nuanced and acting for film instead of acting in between film and stage, it just comes off as theatrical. He seems like he’s projecting for a stage, but acting for film. It’s weird. I didn’t like the performance that much. He was definitely the weakest on this list for me.

Muni — The Valiant is  a film about Paul Muni as a dude who turns himself into police, saying he killed a man. He tells them he shot the man and that the man had it coming. He refuses to say why, and that the reason is between “him and God.” And he gets sentenced to death for it. And then, when it’s reported in the papers, an old woman sees his picture and is convinced he’s her long lost son. And her daughter goes down to see him, because she is confident that if she sees him, she’ll know he’s her brother. And they meet, and what happens is, he tells her he’s not her brother, but tells her he might have met her brother, and puts her mind at ease, so that way she thinks her brother is still alive and doesn’t give up hope, even though it’s clearly him.

This was Muni’s first film role, and he’s great in it. Hs’s the only thing that holds the film together. I understand the nomination completely. Unfortunately, the film is basically a play on screen. Muni is fine in it, but he’d put in better work over the next decade. I don’t know if I’d vote for him. I felt Bancroft and Baxter were better in their respective roles. Plus, knowing he’d win, that removes any interest I’d have in voting for him.

Stone — The Patriot is a lost film. Sadly, none of us will ever get to see what this is.

My Thoughts: I don’t particularly like the category at all. I don’t like the nominees to the point where I strongly considered just voting for Lewis Stone based on a trailer I saw for a film and what I know the performance is about. But then I realized — that’s not fair. I can’t do that, sight unseen. So I took him out of it and put him #5. I had to. Nitrate did this, not me.

And then, of the other four nominees…

Morris is too… I don’t know, I didn’t like the performance at all. He just didn’t feel natural on screen. Bancroft was very good in his role, but who was he? What has he done outside of this? I mean, he’s been in some stuff (was MacWade in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Curley in Stagecoach, and made some von Sternberg silents), but he’s not really an actor who necessarily deserves an Academy Award. He was fine here, but I wouldn’t necessarily vote for him. He did show great nuance with the character (outside of the dog. That was just manipulation), and I liked the performance, but I can’t vote for him. It’s an early category, and — I don’t know. Why? And Muni — nah. Don’t like it enough to vote for it.

Honestly, I’m voting for Baxter through process of elimination. At least he’s having fun, and he’d go on to be in some big films, like 42nd Street and Broadway Bill and The Prisoner of Shark Island and The Road to Glory. Really, it’s between him and Bancroft, but Baxter, I feel should have it. Maybe it’s because I know he won and it’s just easier voting for him, but, whatever. It’s early, and is pretty insignificant, historically, so why not?

My Vote: Baxter

Should Have Won: No preference. The category is awful.

Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah.

Performances I suggest you see: Hmm… I guess In Old Arizona, since it won and all. That’s the Oscar Quest Lite, seeing all the winners. So I guess that’s worth seeing.

You can’t see The Patriot. Alibi is really only worth seeing because of how clearly transition to sound it is. Other than that, it’s of no interest. Thunderbolt is okay, but most people wouldn’t care for it.


5) Stone

4) Morris

3) Muni

2) Bancroft

1) Baxter


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