The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1929-1930

I call 1929-1930 the year with the first real (or is it great? Either way, really…) Best Picture winner. There aren’t any real definitive Best Picture winners for the first decade, really. I mean, Wings, but there you have the confusion of two winners. But here — All Quiet on the Western Front. A definitive winner. And something you can point to as an “Oscar” film, too. We wouldn’t get another one of these until The Great Ziegfeld, and then Gone With the Wind. (Though, It Happened One Night is also a real Best Picture winner.) The rest just feel like decisions. You know?

Lewis Milestone also won Best Director for All Quiet on the Western Front (talked about here), which is a top ten decision for all time. And George Arliss won Best Actor for Disraeli, which is actually a strong decision, historically, based on all it represents.

And then this category — I don’t really know what to do with it. I really don’t like any of the nominees. So it’s pretty much a crap shoot. (Note the pun.)

BEST ACTRESS – 1929-1930

And the nominees were…

Nancy Carroll. The Devil’s Holiday

Ruth Chatterton, Sarah and Son

Greta Garbo, Anna Christie & Romance

Norma Shearer, The Divorcée & Their Own Desire

Gloria Swanson, The Trespasser

Carroll — The Devil’s Holiday is about a woman who’s a gold digger and is only marrying a dude for his money. And his family tells him this, but he ignores them. But then, after they’re married, she realizes that she loves him and actually wants to stay married to him, even though now his family really wants her gone. It’s not that bad. If you can stomach transition to sound films, it’s not that bad.

Carroll does a good job here, but, this being a double year, and this still being part of the foundation of the Oscars — it’s the kind of thing where either you need to go with the unquestionably best performance, or go with the biggest name. And Nancy Carroll is not the biggest name here. So I can’t vote for her. It’s just not a good business decision. And when you look at these early, pre-1934 years, it’s all business decisions.

Chatterton — This is a really interesting film. It’s about a woman who is abused by her husband for years. And then one day, he disappears and takes their son with him. He sells the kid to a rich family. And then, years later, Chatterton, now a famous singer, has the means to search for the kid. So she does. It’s an okay film. Pretty standard. The performance was just like most of the others on the list, as in, it doesn’t really stand out that much. And since all of these performances are basically the same, and it’s one of the early Academy years, it’s better to go with the bigger names. So, while Chatterton was good, she’s not worth a vote.

Garbo — These were Garbo’s first two talkies. “Garbo talks!”

Anna Christie is about her as a girl who left her seaside town to get educated and now returns. And she’s reunited with her father and also falls for a sailor, but of course she’s concealing a dark past. It’s a decent film. I’m interested in this film for two reasons: first, they shot it as both a silent and a talkie. That’s fascinating to me, to be able to see both and see how they shot the same story in two separate styles. And second, Garbo’s first line that she ever spoke on film was: “Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!” How awesome is that.

Romance is a standard romantic tragedy. It’s a frame story. An old priest meets a young man who is about to elope with a woman society wouldn’t deem “pure.” One of those — nobleman wants to marry a common woman, sort of thing. And the priest tells his story about that. And we flash back to him as a younger man, in the same situation. And Garbo is the common woman. And we see the romance, and all the pressures put on them, and then she dies and he goes into the priesthood because he’ll never love anyone like he loved her ever again. It’s not very good.

Garbo does what she always does — she’s basically playing Garbo. Neither of these performances are really worth an Oscar. I know people idolize her as an actress like they do Marlene Dietrich, but I just don’t see it.

Shearer — Two films to talk about here. First, The Divorcée.

The Divorcée is a really interesting Pre-Code film. Norma Shearer’s husband comes to her and says he had an affair. But he tells her it “meant nothing.” So what she does, to settle the score, is have an affair with his best friend. And she also says it meant nothing. It’s about that double standard that exists with men and women and sex. And he can’t handle it, so he divorces her. And they both want to be married, but get divorced anyway. And he becomes a drunk, and she starts sleeping with a lot of men. And then he realizes he does need her and they reconcile. It’s a really strong film for a Pre-Code. Shearer does a good job here, and this is definitely the performance to vote for. It’s between this and Gloria Swanson. Those are the two.

Their Own Desire is — well, it’s definitely a Pre-Code film. Norma Shearer loved these types of movies. This film is basically about her falling in love with her brother. Not biological, but still, it’s 1929 — it’s still scandalous. Shearer plays a woman who finds out her father is divorcing her mother to marry a younger woman. She’s pissed off by this, but then she realizes she’s in love with the woman’s son. It’s a decent film and a decent performance.

Norma Shearer was the biggest actress at this time. Mary Pickford was big, but she had all but stopped working and was married to Douglas Fairbanks. Shearer was the actress. It makes sense that she won. If I had to pick which one she should have won for, I’d have picked The Divorcée too.

Swanson — The Trespasser is actually a strong film. Gloria Swanson plays a regular woman in love with a rich man. His father objects to the marriage, but they elope anyway. And after their wedding night, we find out that the father had the marriage annulled. He considers her to be after the son’s money. And she, being principled, walks out. And the man marries another woman. And what happens is, she finds out she’s pregnant and has a child. And she lets herself be taken in as a mistress of sorts to an older man. And then when he dies, he leaves her a bunch of money. But now that she has all this money, the press starts to ask questions about the father of the child. So she goes back to her ex-husband and tells him about the child (she never told him because she didn’t want or need his help), and he’s overjoyed. And he’s married to this sickly woman, who sees how in love he is with both his son and his ex-wife, so she tells Swanson that when she dies, she wants her to marry her husband so he can be happy.

It’s actually not that bad. And Swanson is terrific. I like how they made her a strong, principled woman. She wants to marry the man, but she doesn’t want to be called a gold digger. So she walks out. And then she doesn’t tell the man about the kid because she doesn’t need his help to raise it. She’s a strong woman. In fact, I’m actually considering voting for her. (I’m not even taking into account how much Sunset Boulevard helps her chances. I’m talking solely this performance. Which is even more impressive.)

My Thoughts: This is between Shearer for The Divorcée and Swanson. Both were the best performances. Now, from 2012, Swanson seems like the better choice. She was a respected actress, and was in Sunset Boulevard. Most people would automatically go with her. And I almost had that same instinct. However…Norma Shearer was the biggest actress in Hollywood at the time, and was the best decision that year. In 2012, sure, maybe Swanson is a better choice. In 1930, Shearer is a much bette choice, and I think they made the right decision here.

My Vote: Shearer

Should Have Won: Shearer, Swanson

Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah. She was the biggest actress in Hollywood at the time, and this definitely helped legitimize the category. Great decision for 1930.

Performances I suggest you see: Uhh…I’d say, The Divorcée is the best film on this list and the one people should see. If only as a great example of what a pre-Code film was like. Then, The Trespasser is good and definitely worth a look. Sarah and Son is also pretty good, as is The Devil’s Holiday. But they’re definitely not for everyone. If you can handle films like this, they’re worth seeing. And the Garbo films — unless you love Garbo, maybe Anna Christie is the only one that holds some interest, simply because they shot it as both a silent and a talkie. That, to me, is fascinating to watch. Otherwise, I bet most people wouldn’t want to see any of these. So, I say, if you’re gonna watch any, you should definitely see The Divorcée for sure, and then after that, The Trespasser is the next best one to watch.


7) Garbo (Romance)

6) Shearer (Their Own Desire)

5) Garbo (Anna Christie)

4) Carroll

3) Chatterton

2) Swanson

1) Shearer (The Divorcée)

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