The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1929-1930
1929-1930 is the first great Best Picture winner. Sure, Wings and Sunrise are great, but they were the first ones, and the fact that they were separate kind of detracts from them. But All Quiet on the Western Front is really the first great Best Picture winner. It also won Best Director for Lewis Milestone. You can read my way too in depth analysis of why it’s an amazing decision here.
Best Actress for this year was Norma Shearer for The Divorcee (talked about here). It seems to have been the best decision in the category. Most people think Garbo should have won, her being the bigger star, but I think Shearer was the more respected actress. Honestly, I just accept that Shearer won and leave it at that.
Since there are no Supporting categories in the early years, they’re mainly judged by their Best Picture choices. This is a particularly great one. As for this category — this is actually a good choice. Sure, we all love Maurice Chevalier, but the biopic performance has been a standard Oscar winner for years and years. It’s nice to see one in the early years.
BEST ACTOR – 1929-1930
And the nominees were…
George Arliss, Disraeli & The Green Goddess
Wallace Beery, The Big House
Maurice Chevalier, The Big Pond & The Love Parade
Ronald Colman, Bulldog Drummond & Condemned
Lawrence Tibbett, The Rogue Song
Arliss — First we’ll talk about The Green Goddess, since I couldn’t find this film for the longest time. In fact, I didn’t find a copy of it until a month after this article went up.
The film is about three civilians whose plane crashes in the Himalayas. And they’re taken to the Raja who rules the land. And he’s friendly to them at first, until he finds out that Britain is about to execute his three brothers. So suddenly he decides to keep the three hostage and kill them as retaliation. He didn’t love his brothers, of course (in fact, it’s probably better for him that they are killed), but them being killed is a slight against his country, and the people will be pissed, so he decides he’s going to kill them. Only, he then falls in love with the girl, and says he’ll spare her if she marries him. Of course, she says no. And then they try to escape by commandeering control of the telegraph wire, only one of the men is shot by the Raja. Then they take the other two to the temple of the titular goddess to kill them, only to have them be saved at the very last instant by British planes, who received the message the dude who was killed was sending.
It’s an interesting film. The only real downside is that it came out when it did. 1929/1930 films are not particularly interesting, on the whole, as it’s during the transition to sound. So there’s a lot of dead air and the staging isn’t particularly interesting. Most people won’t find this film enjoyable. It takes respect for historical circumstances to truly enjoy this. But, it’s okay. As for Arliss’s performance — meh. He’s a white playing an Indian. I don’t support these types of performances. Plus, he was so much better in Disraeli. He did right by having them push back the release of this film until after Disraeli (since he figured that would prove to be a better screen debut for himself). The performance is basically one of those cultured villains, who, most of the time is very polite and classy — “You cannot leave. Here are my reasons. It’s very upsetting that I must resort to this, but I must.” And then by the end he does a really violent act that makes him a true villain. Standard progression. Nothing crazy. So I wouldn’t vote for this performance. But he has Disraeli, so I don’t need to.
It’s a biopic of, as you can tell — William Howard Taft. And the film deals with his attempts to maintain control of the Suez Canal. The whole film is basically a spotlight on Arliss’s performance. And he knocks it out of the part. He looks like Disraeli… that curl in the front. And he does a good job with the performance. I know these performances don’t really stack up against later ones, but you have to realize that at this time, they were still getting used to film acting with sound. So everything was grounded in theater. Only a few people really took to film acting immediately without seeming like they were acting, and those were people like Maurice Chevalier, the musical stars. They were used to singing in cafes and stuff and could talk to the camera as though it were an intimate audience. But in terms of pure acting — Arliss really does a great job with this role, and the film is actually pretty good. And in terms of establishing this award, what better performance to give it to than a biopic performance? Granted, I’d have loved to see Maurice Chevalier win this, but honestly — Arliss was the best choice for the category. He was.
Beery — The Big House is a really solid film. It’s about a dude that ends up in prison and his time there. Beery plays the guy’s cellmate. One of them, anyway. His character is the guy who is both scary as hell but also a nice guy. It’s a very effective performance that plays very well off of Beery’s screen persona. The film itself is about the three of them planning an escape, and then someone rats on them, and then they have this big standoff with the guards, and Beery ends up dying in a gunfight with the guy who ratted them out. It’s the kind of role that, in a later film with a similar story, would instantly get a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Without a doubt.
Beery is good here, and for a second I considered voting for him, but he’d win this award two years after this, so he didn’t need it now. Plus Arliss helps the category more at this stage of the game, so he’s a better choice.
Chevalier — Two films to talk about here. First, The Big Pond.
The Big Pond is about Chevalier, in love with Claudette Colbert. He’s a poor man, and she’s a rich girl. And her father thinks he’s a gold digger. So, to prove himself, he takes a job in the father’s chewing gum factory (since he hears that it takes $20,000 a year to be married in America). And the father tells the forman (Nat Pendleton. Love seeing him in movies) to make it extra tough on him. And Chevalier, motivated by love, doesn’t let it hinder him. And then he continues working there, and works his way up. He invents a new flavor of gum (liquor-flavored), and makes the company a lot of money. He becomes an executive. But he’s now dedicated to his job, so Colbert is upset, and leans toward this other suitor, but then Chevalier whisks her away on a speedboat (as you do).
It’s a nice film. Decent story, actually. You know, for these 1930 films. I enjoyed it. Not as good as The Love Parade, but still pretty good. You know what you’re getting with Chevalier. He’s awesome. He’s charming, he’s likable. Are his performances incredible? No. But they’re great.
Now, The Love Parade. This is definitely my favorite of the two films. It might be my second favorite Lubitsch/Chevalier movie after One Hour with You. It’s about the queen of a fictitious kingdom who is unmarried and unhappy about it. (It’s Pre-Code, so the whole film is really about how much she wants dick.) The place is called — I’m blanking — I think Sylvania. And she has this great line (that I’m totally gonna steal at some point) where she sticks out her stockinged leg and goes, “You see this leg? There’s only one other like it in the entire kingdom.” And she sticks out her other leg and goes, “And there it is.” God, I love that line.
Anyway, Maurice Chevalier plays his usual character — the lecherous dude. He’s always having sex with women and raising his eyebrows suggestively. We first see him getting caught sleeping with another man’s wife. He’s a soldier and he slept with his CO’s wife. So they transfer him to the Sylvanian embassy, and the queen meets him and decides she wants to marry him. And, well — the rest is great. It’s a great film.
Chevalier is great as always. You know what his character was. And in a category like this, him being so much fun to watch, I bet most people automatically want to vote for him, because him being so easygoing in this category is almost like a defibrillator. But you have to take category establishment. They need something to legitimize it. Chevalier isn’t really it. It’s something we want now. Back in 1930, Arliss was the right choice. So as much as we all love Maurice, at this point, Arliss was the better choice.
Colman — Two performances here too. First, Bulldog Drummond.
It’s kind of weird that this got nominated. But I guess this is the more comic one to the dramatic one of Condemned. They show his range, I guess. Anyway, this is a film — it’s actually kind of like Sherlock Holmes meets The Thin Man. But without the drinking. Colman plays a wealthy dude who is bored and decides to moonlight as a detective. And he uses his skills and intelligence to solve cases. And this film is just one of those cases. And they made sequels. It’s not that great, but at the time, I imagine it was fun. It’s basically a standard mystery/sleuthing film. All the usual twists and turns and escapes and villains explaining their plans long enough to be foiled. It’s that. Colman does well with the character, but this isn’t a performance you vote for. It just isn’t.
Now, Condemned. This is actually a pretty good film. This category is actually pretty strong in that sense. The film is about Ronald Colman as a thief who is arrested for trying to rob a bank. He gets sent to Devil’s Island and has to endure terrible cruelties along the way. Then, once on the island, he is sent to be an aide to the warden’s wife. And of course, he and the warden’s wife, in that From Here to Eternity kind of way, fall in love. But then a rumor gets out and he gets thrown in solitary. And he decides to escape, since he knows it’ll only get worse for him. So he escapes, but is found (and the warden dies in a struggle with a buddy of his), and goes back, but then is released and meets up with her and they’re reunited.
It’s actually a pretty good film. I don’t see how Colman’s performance is anything spectacular, but it’s good. I always considered him a fine actor, but not really someone whose work you look at and go, “Oscar.” I guess, kind of like Brad Pitt is now. I love his work, but very rarely do I see something of his and go, “Oscar.” (And if I do, the Academy doesn’t.) And like Colman, I’m sure he’ll get an Oscar one day.
Anyway, Colman is fine here, but I wouldn’t put him above third for a vote. Arliss gets the performance vote, Chevalier gets the popular vote, and then it’s Colman, since Beery, while I liked his performance better, won an Oscar the year after this. So Colman is third. Good movie, though.
Tibbett — The Rogue Song is a film that’s largely lost, save for some sequences and clips. Most people will never see the clips, so it doesn’t really matter what it’s about.
I have seen the clips, but let’s just say — from what I’ve seen, this doesn’t seem like a performance that would win Best Actor. Even if the entire performance was really good, there’s no way I’d vote for it over Chevalier or Arliss. So we’ll just toss him at the bottom, given the lack of a complete film. Again, we blame nitrate.
My Thoughts: It’s clearly between Arliss (for Disraeli) and Chevalier. A lot of people might take Chevalier given his — cheekiness, and how great he always is. And I’d be totally okay with that. And it would be okay to vote for him in a year like this because it’s so early and free-wheeling. But honestly, I’m a proponent of history and all that, and the biopic performance aspect of Arliss’s performance (plus the performance itself — it’s really strong) makes me vote for him despite my love for Maurice. (If only Maurice could have been nominated the year before this…)
My Vote: Arliss (Disraeli)
Should Have Won: Arliss (Disraeli), Chevalier
Is the result acceptable?: Yes. I look at the early years as foundations for what would become the standard Academy decisions that still exist. And this is the biopic winner. So I love that he won.
Performances I suggest you see: The Love Parade and The Big Pond are great films. Anything with Maurice Chevalier that’s a musical is worth seeing. See these movies.
Disraeli is really good too. A strong performance by Arliss, and a really engaging film. You just need to be willing to watch transition to sound films. If you can do that, you’ll enjoy this one.
7) Arliss (The Green Goddess)
6) Colman (Bulldog Drummond)
5) Colman (Condemned)
4) Beery (The Big House)
3) Arliss (Disraeli)
2) Chevalier (The Big Pond)
1) Chevalier (The Love Parade)