The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1930-1931

1930-1931 is one of the early years. Different set of rules.

Cimarron wins Best Picture. The first Western to win, and, honestly, a decent choice. I’d have probably went another way, but it’s a matter of personal preference. Cimarron is an epic western, takes place over a number of years, is based on a best-selling book — it’s a good choice. Best Actor was Lionel Barrymore for A Free Soul (talked about here). He was a respected actor, and was a good choice for a year that was about legitimizing the awards. I wouldn’t have voted for it, but it makes sense. And Norman Taurog wins Best Director for Skippy (talked about here), which is a terrific, terrific decision, and one of my favorites of all time.

Okay, now we’re at this one. Tough call. Like I said — different set of rules. The rules dictate that the most respected/popular actors of the day win, in order to legitimize the award. You have Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer winning — and here, Marie Dressler, the most popular star in Hollywood (at age 60, to boot), is nominated. Of course she’s going to win. But does that mean it was the right decision? I don’t know.

BEST ACTRESS – 1930-1931

And the nominees were…

Marlene Dietrich, Morocco

Marie Dressler, Min and Bill

Irene Dunne, Cimarron

Ann Harding, Holiday

Norma Shearer, A Free Soul

Dietrich — Morocco is a Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg film. Which means lots of great lighting for Dietrich.

It’s a film about a jaded cabaret singer in Morocco who falls for a French legionnaire, played by Gary Cooper.  And she’s also being courted by Adolphe Menjou, who has money, so the film is about her either staying jaded and taking the money, or going with love and picking Cooper.

I’m not the biggest fan of the Dietrich/von Sternberg films. I get their importance (and greatness) in terms of film history and film form, but as pure forms of entertainment, I don’t really like them. I can’t watch them all the time, they’re just boring to me. And I never really understood why Marlene Dietrich would ever require an Oscar. To me, she’s just like Greta Garbo — great actress, but not someone who needs an award. Her iconography takes care of it. Like Marilyn Monroe. None of these women were really technically great actresses. They were great for other reasons. So I’m not voting for her. I don’t see it.

Dressler — Marie Dressler was the biggest female star in Hollywood in 1930, which is amazing, since she was 60 at the time. She was kind of like a lower class, uglier Judi Dench. You know how Judi Dench always plays those tempestuous older women? Well that’s Marie Dressler. Just American, and much, much courser.

Min and Bill is about her as a proprietress of a seaside hotel who has adopted a girl whose parents are either dead or abandoned her. And she’s also secretly seeing Wallace Beery, a local fisherman. And basically the film is about her trying to retain custody of the girl, since the powers that be (which, since it’s 1930, are mostly created by the narrative to provide a threat to overcome) want to take her away.

There’s not really much of a film here, and Marie Dressler gives the same performance she gives in everything. The only reason she won is because she was the biggest star in the world at the time. Kind of the same way Julia Roberts won in 2000. (How many people made that comparison?) This is the fourth overall Best Actress award. They’re still legitimizing the category. And when you can give the most popular star in the business an award, it goes a long way to legitimizing the award. So I understand it. But I’m not voting for her. The performance isn’t that great at all.

Dunne — Cimarron is the first real big budget western. Richard Dix plays a dude who travels out west in search of adventure. Irene Dunne is his wife, who he brings with him. And for the first half of the film, she’s a demure housewife, along with her husband. But over the course of the film, as it’s clear that he’s more in search of adventure and isn’t really spending time with her, she becomes a strong, independent woman. He ends up building a local newspaper into a huge state newspaper. And then he goes off for more adventure, and leaves her in charge of it. And she spends a good twenty years running the paper and becoming a very powerful and respected woman (which would have been unheard of during those times). It’s a good film.

Dunne’s performance — while not amazing (since very few performances at this point were actually amazing), is very good, type-wise. What it represents is actually really worthy of winning. Plus she’s Irene Dunne, who would give such great performances over the next three decades. So that makes her an automatic vote for me. Plus it’s the Best Picture winner. It’s a good vote on so many levels.

Harding — Holiday is actually an earlier version of the film more people would know with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn from 1938. Same film, same story.

A self-made man is going to marry a rich woman. And he’s got these simple tastes, while she comes from privilege. And all her father knows is money. So his views seem crazy to them. And he starts to question the marriage, since her father puts pressure on him to take a lucrative job, meanwhile all he wants to do is live a simple life. And Ann Harding plays the sister of his fiancée, who is much more suited to him, emotionally. And the film is about the dude deciding between the fiancée or Harding. It’s a good film. Both versions are well-made. Honestly, you should just see the Grant/Hepburn version and not this one, since at least that one has the stars in it. It’s not really a film you need to see both versions of.

Harding does a really good job with the role. She does. But I can’t vote for her. Irene Dunne is much more worth of an Oscar, and Marie Dressler helps legitimize the award more than Harding does. Plus Marlene Dietrich is also a bigger name. So she’s a #4 at best. (That’s how these early categories work.)

Shearer — A Free Soul is a film about Norma Shearer as the daughter of Lionel Barrymore, a lawyer who has defended Clark Gable, a gangster, and gotten him off some very serious charges (that he knows are true). And Gable starts courting Shearer, and this upsets Barrymore, since he knows the things Gable has done. And he tries to get Shearer to marry Leslie Howard, who is a much better man for her. But the attraction to Gable can’t be denied. There’s that sexual energy there. And what ends up happening is — Gable gets killed (I won’t tell you how), and Barrymore has to defend the person who killed him. It’s a pretty interesting film, mostly because it’s a Pre-Code film that deals with sex pretty openly for the era.

Shearer does a good job here, but she had an Oscar from the year before this. So she wasn’t winning. And I wouldn’t vote for her. So it all works out.

My Thoughts: My natural instinct is always to go by performances. Can’t really do that here, since none of them is particularly win-worthy. Plus the Academy went by different sets of rules here. So I’m gonna go by a different set of rules.

First off is Dietrich. Most people think she deserved an Oscar — I don’t. She was a movie star, not an actress. Helen Hayes was an actress. Irene Dunne was an actress. Nothing against Dietrich, but — I don’t think she deserved to win.

Then Harding is off. I liked her performance, but — she wasn’t well-known enough, and the film wasn’t particularly amazing. Different set of rules here.

Shearer is off because she won already. You need to be really good to win a second one at this point.

So it’s Dunne and Dressler. And I think we all know which way I’m going on that one.

I get the Dressler win, but, clearly, for me, it’s Dunne. How this woman never won an Oscar is beyond me. But, her winning her makes it more okay for her not to win later on (kind of like Claudette Colbert, or Charles Laughton, or even Spencer Tracy). Those 30s wins are low-risk (that is, they’re not likely to cause many problems based on who won and who didn’t), and they get important people Oscars. To me, Irene Dunne is an important person. She’s my vote.

My Vote: Dunne

Should Have Won: Dunne. And I guess, Dressler

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. She was the biggest star in Hollywood at the time. But Irene Dunne having an Oscar is unacceptable. So maybe this is unacceptable.

Performances I suggest you see: Cimarron is really good. And a Best Picture winner. That’s a reason. Highly recommended. It’s really great.

A Free Soul — worth a watch. Not bad, not great. Decent.

Morocco — Dietrich, Sternberg — always worth a watch.

Holiday — a version you’re more likely to enjoy was made 8 years later with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Trust me, just watch that one.

Min and Bill — it won, it’s enjoyable. Not great, worth a watch.


5) Harding

4) Shearer

3) Dietrich

2) Dressler

1) Dunne

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