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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1939-1940)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1939

Brian Aherne, Juarez

Harry Carey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Brian Donlevy, Beau Geste

Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach

Claude Rains, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Analysis:

Juarez is a place in Mexico. And also the name of this movie. So… yeah.

It’s an interesting set up, this one — Napoleon’s nephew is trying to keep Mexico as a monarchy and not lose it to the president of the country, so he puts a puppet ruler in there as its ruler, figuring the guy will keep the French in power. Only when the guy gets there, he realizes he was lied to (he was told everyone wanted him to rule them), and turns out to not be such a puppet, and is actually pretty fair and reasonable, listening to what the people want. He starts to help the country rather than the French. He tries to win the respect of Benito Juarez, who is the president of Mexico, but it’s tough since he’s always looked at as a friend of France.

Aherne plays Maximilian, the puppet ruler. It’s a strong part. You think of him as an idiot aristocrat at the beginning and then see him as a noble man trying to do the right thing. And he gets a strong ending where they bring him back to France to be executed and he demands to be treated like the rest of his men and die by firing squad. Which is pretty cool.

Aherne is really good in the part and I like the character, only he’s the lead of the film. There’s no denying that he is the lead of the film. Claude Rains as Napoleon gets billing, and Paul Muni as the title character gets billing, but Aherne is the driving forceo f the plot and the lead of the film. At worst, it’s a three-hander. Or a two-hander, since Rains is in France for the film and has no real screen time with either of the characters outside of the beginning and end. As much as I think the performance is really solid, I can’t take a lead performance here. I just can’t. Plus, I have at least two other performances I liked better anyway, so really he’s looking at third best in an ideal situation. Such is the category.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a perfect film. It, to me, is the best movie Capra made. I know It’s a Wonderful Life, and that’s also right there, but this one, to me, is just everything that’s great about movies.

Jimmy Stewart is an idealistic boy scout troop leader who is handpicked to replace a dead senator temporarily. The reason he was picked is because the political boss who runs the state needs to put someone in there who wont’ make waves while a bill is put through that involves the construction of a dam on a national park. Stewart then goes around, being the naive newbie, enamored by everything and doing whatever he’s told, until eventually he learns the truth, and won’t stand for the corruption anymore, culminating in the famous filibuster sequence.

Two performances here.

Harry Carey plays the president of the senate, who pretty much just sits in his chair most of the time. He’s there to lend a smile and a reassuring glance to Stewart when he needs it most. He’s mostly impartial, but is inwardly rooting for Stewart the entire time. It’s a subtle performance, and he’s one of those characters you love even if he’s not a major presence in the film. It’s a performance that, while not quite as showy as to necessitate a nomination, feels nice to see here. Wouldn’t take him, but it’s definitely nice to see.

Now, Claude Rains, he does have the kind of performance that fits the category. He plays the other senator from the state. He’s been in office for a while, and he knew Jimmy Stewart’s father years ago. Stewart grew up idolizing him as the kind of man that should be in government. The kind of noble politician we all hope for. But now, he’s allowed himself to slowly be corrupted by the political boss. He’s lost sight of all those ideals he used to have. And the presence of Stewart is making him realize this. He remembers Stewart’s father, and while his goal was to keep Stewart in the dark and discredit him the minute he found out, he’s having problems with that, because his inherent goodness is starting to bubble up.

It’s a nice performance. He gets to play a conflicted man who comes back to his own humanity over the course of the film. The last scene is a bit ridiculous, but whatever. The character is good, the performance is strong, and in a category like this, he’s probably top two. Definitely the one to take from this film, at least. Though I feel like some people would actually go for the Harry Carey performance because of how low key it is, whereas Rains has the tendency to get a bit over the top in some of his moments. (But that’s the era.)

Beau Geste is an action film, and a remake of a silent version of the story made in the 20s. I always look at it as a Gary Cooper movie. A lot of his movies, especially this kind, all felt the same in this era. Maybe because he always felt like he was playing the same character every time.

It’s about three brothers and a jewel. The family has a priceless jewel that ends up stolen one night. Two of the three brothers run off, each claiming they stole it, and the other one sets out to find both of them. They’re in the foreign legion. And a lot of the rest of the film is them being in the foreign legion, with a sadistic commanding officer.

Brian Donlevy plays the sadistic commanding officer. He just loves torturing his men. One of those cruel bastard characters you can’t wait to see get his in the end. There’s gonna be a similar version of this in 45 years — Adolph Caesar in A Soldier’s Story. That character who is such an asshole that you now someone’s gonna kill him and he’s gonna deserve it.

And that’s the role. He’s a prick, he gets his comeuppance. He’s fine in the part, but to me, the part is just pretty good and the film doesn’t rate nearly as much as at least two of the others. So to me, if he’s not fifth in the category, he’s fourth. Maybe I’d want to take him over Aherne because of the category fraud factor, but either way, I wouldn’t take Donlevy here, even though I think he’s a solid entry in the category and definitely does not detract from it.

Stagecoach is John Ford doing his thing. The first great western of the studio era. The western had pretty much been gone for about 13 years. Pretty much since John Ford made The Iron Horse. There were a couple of big ones, Cimarron, The Big Trail, etc, but mostly westerns were either B movies or serials.

The strange thing about this movie is how… the plot is really standard. A bunch of random people end up in a stagecoach, and we see their characters and stories (if they have them) play out. And then they get attacked by Indians, and then they get to their location, and there’s a shootout because one of the characters was going there for that reason. It’s a really simple film, but Ford directs the hell out of it and it’s a real classic.

Thomas Mitchell plays Doc, an alcoholic doctor. And, despite the seeming comic relief of the character set up, he actually becomes complex pretty fast. His first scene is him being thrown out of town along with Dallas, the town whore. And he gives a speech about how these people are just prejudiced against her and how they ought to be proud in who they are. Sure, they then tell him he’s drunk, but it shows his character before that. And then he’s in a bar (begging for a drink, since of course he has no money to actually pay for one) and finds out the dude sitting next to him is a whiskey salesman and becomes real friendly with him the rest of the trip, drinking up all the dude’s whiskey secretly. And then he gets his big moment when one of the passengers is having a baby and he has to sober up in order to deliver it. And of course he ends up helping in the attack later on as well.

It’s a fun character. Is it the best acting performance in the category? No. But here’s the thing about this category — first five years of the category, and a lot of the actors appeared in multiple films the same year. So really, this is gonna come down to certain extenuating factors, not the least of which is the actor themselves. So I guess we’ll just get into the decision-making of it all.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Rains over Carey in Mr. Smith, so Carey is out. I wouldn’t take Donlevy over any of the remaining choices, so he’s out. Aherne is a lead and I also wouldn’t take him over the other two, so he’s out.

The category, as I imagine would be the case for most people deciding nowadays, is between Claude Rains and Thomas Mitchell. Now, they’re both at the same level in terms of being character actors, so that’s a wash.

As for the performances… they’re different, and they’re about the same to me in terms of pure acting. In terms of which is the more entertaining character, that one clearly goes to Mitchell.

And also, looking at what else they had this year… Rains was Napoleon III in Juarez, and they made a Four Daughters sequel. So he had that. Mitchell, on the other hand, had Only Angels Have Wings, where he plays a really sympathetic character, whose eyesight is going and can no longer fly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where he plays another entertaining, drunken reporter, and Gone With the Wind, where he plays Scarlett’s father. It’s a hell of a year, and I think he was rewarded for all of it on top of his thoroughly entertaining performance in Stagecoach. And since I would be leaning toward him in this category without the extra roles, those pretty much put him over the top for me. I like Claude Rains, but I’m not that sold on the performance outside of loving Claude Rains and loving Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach
  2. Claude Rains, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  3. Brian Aherne, Juarez
  4. Harry Carey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  5. Brian Donlevy, Beau Geste

Rankings (films):

  1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  2. Stagecoach
  3. Beau Geste
  4. Juarez

My Vote: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach

Recommendations:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach are all time essential films. Every film buff needs to see them. And I’d also go so far as to say that all people need to see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in their lives at least once. It’s a masterpiece, and it’s everything that we want to be right about our country. It makes you a better person.

Beau Geste is a solid film. Well made. Not an all time classic, but worth the watch. Solid recommend there. Plus Gary Cooper. He’s awesome.

Juarez is solid. Worth a watch. Light recommend. Aherne is good in it, and you get Paul Muni and Claude Rains, who are always solid. Otherwise it’s not something you ever really need to see, unless you’re into films about Mexican independence, etc.

The Last Word: It’s pretty much either Rains or Mitchell, and to me, Mitchell is the full package. Rains is more dramatic, which might appeal to some people, and of course if you love his film more, that might sway you toward taking him as well. Which I get. But for me, it’s Mitchell, and he and Rains would have both been good choices.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1940

Albert Bassermann, Foreign Correspondent

Walter Brennan, The Westerner

William Gargan, They Knew What They Wanted

Jack Oakie, The Great Dictator

James Stephenson, The Letter

Analysis:

Foreign Correspondent is Hitchcock’s second American film, after Rebecca. Hell of a start to an American career.

The film is a fairly typical Hitchcock thriller. It’s pre-World War II, where the plot is essentially the Nazis trying to start the war.

Joel McCrea is a journalist assigned to cover a party for a diplomat. He ends up driving there with the diplomat, who later disappears during the party. McCrea then follows him to where people say he went — a political conference — only to see him assassinated on the steps as he enters. McCrea follows the assassin to the countryside, where he finds the diplomat alive and held hostage. And thus ensues a plot to uncover a political conspiracy. It’s a really solid film. Not as well remembered as his later thrillers, but very, very solid.

Albert Bassermann plays the diplomat. He gets a nice scene with McCrea early on, but then we see him drugged and incoherent in the windmill (which is a great sequence, by the way), but then he’s gone for a lot of the film. He’s the guy they’re trying to find. Then when we find him, he’s being tortured. He doesn’t really get all that much screen time at all, even though intellectually, when you see this category, he seems like someone you’d want to vote for. But he’s about as helpful in this movie as — and yes, I know I’m about to make this comparison — John Hurt in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. They’re trying to find him, and then he’s mostly incoherent, and while he can help unlock a lot of the mystery, he’s not really the most important part of it all. That’s really what this character is. At best he’s the third best performance. Maybe if he had more to do I could put him higher, but no.

The Westerner is an interesting two-hander of a western.

Judge Roy Bean runs a corrupt town from his bar, pretty much taking whatever he wants and imposing “sentences” on people as he sees fit. Mostly he sentences people to hang when they don’t agree with him. Into town rides Gary Cooper, who is accused of stealing a horse, which he didn’t do. Bean’s gonna hang him, but Cooper realizes Bean has a thing for Lily Langtry, the famous actress of the era, so he claims he knows her. So Bean agrees to keep him alive to find out more about her. So the rest of the film is a weird pseudo friendship between the two of them, where they’re so clearly opposed and are gonna end up in a shootout, but also kind of respect one another in a weird way. It’s a western, so it’s about respecting a person’s values and understanding where they come from, even if they are opposed to your own values. I like the film. It’s solid.

Walter Brennan plays Judge Roy Bean. He’s almost the lead of the film. And at worst, he’s a co-lead. That’s a problem in this category. But he’s really great in the part. So this one comes down to not taking him because of category fraud or taking him because there’s no other choice, knowing he’s a co-lead. Because he’s certainly good enough to take. It’s Walter Brennan. He always is.

They Knew What They Wanted is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, but man, did I find it boring. Haven’t seen it since, so don’t take my opinion to heart. I’m basing this on five years ago.

Charles Laughton is an older man who spent his life working on a vineyard and wants to settle down and have a wife. He sees a woman while on a trip to the city and falls in love with her. He’s illiterate, so he has his friend write the letter for him. And he also sends a picture of his friend instead. She then falls in love and agrees to marry him… only she thinks these letters were written by the friend. So now she’s there, finds out it’s Laughton. So she fell in love with Laughton’s words, but in her mind, she thinks it’s the friend, since it was his photo and name. Complications ensue, etc, etc.

William Gargan plays the friend. He’s fine. Nothing particularly memorable or great in the part.

The Great Dictator is… I’d say it’s Chaplin’s masterpiece, but there are at least four of those.

It’s his satire of Hitler, where he plays both a Jewish barber and a comic version old Adolf. It’s hilarious, it’s perfect, and that final speech… wow.

Jack Oakie plays Benito Napaloni… guess who he’s a parody of. He gets a nice comic scene. Most of his work is physical comedy and not necessarily acting, but he makes a good show of it. Very entertaining stuff. Wouldn’t vote for him though. The nomination is most certainly the reward here.

The Letter is… I mean, you’ve heard me talk about this film a bunch. I can’t stop saying how this is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. It’s so funny to me that I don’t even care that I ruin the ending by saying that.

The original version was 1929 and it was Jeanne Eagels’ last film for which she was nominated for Best Actress. And now you get the big, classy, William Wyler/Bette Davis version.

She’s a woman who shoots her lover and claims it was self defense. And since he’s not there to argue, they pretty much take her word for it, as they were apt to do for women in this era. Only there exists a letter that basically shows they were lovers and that she might have killed him to prevent her husband from finding out. And she seeks to get the letter and destroy the evidence. (And then she gets shanked by the Chinese woman. The dude’s wife.) I haven’t seen the film in years. Didn’t particularly like it when I saw it, but I bet I’d appreciate it more now.

James Stephenson plays Bette’s lawyer. He’s really the only one who suspects the killing wasn’t done in self-defense. And he reluctantly gets involved in the plot to buy the letter and destroy it, even though it goes against all his moral instincts. He has to get her husband to agree to put up the money for the letter, lying about what’s in it

It’s good work by Stephenson. I can definitely see considering him in this one. Wyler lets him have these long takes and frames them really well, enhancing and highlighting his performance. It’s a very measured performance. There’s not a lot of overt emotion that he shows, but I guess that’s what you want out of a lawyer, especially one playing opposite Bette, who’s going full melodrama. He’s definitely a solid entry in the category, though I’m not sure if I’m gonna take him.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Herein lies the rub with this category — the best performance is a co-lead. So what do you do? Bassermann and Oakie are two performances a lot of people would want to take because of their films. Chaplin and Hitchcock. They’ve seen them, and the films are awesome, and instinctively you want to take those performances. I get it. But Oakie is just a comic performance that’s really good. I don’t think I could take it, but maybe someone would. Fine. As long as you justify it among the others, I can accept that. Bassermann really has no screen time of significance to speak of, and it’s difficult to see him as a legitimate choice. Gargan — I don’t like the performance all that much, and I’m sure most people going through this won’t have even seen the film so they won’t take him anyway. So that leaves, without any real deliberation, Brennan and Stephenson. And for me, it’s Brennan all that way. And even though he’s a co-lead, and is in basically every single scene of the film, there’s no one that comes close enough for me to even make a case for aside from him. I respected Stephenson’s performance, but in a normal year, he’d be a #3, and in a strong year, he’d be a #4. Here he’s a default #2. Not someone I liked enough to take simply because of category fraud. So Brennan gets his third. That’s just how it works. It is what it is. Gotta take what I thought was the best performance. The category fraud reflects on them. I vote on what I’m given.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Walter Brennan, The Westerner
  2. James Stephenson, The Letter
  3. Jack Oakie, The Great Dictator
  4. Albert Bassermann, Foreign Correspondent
  5. William Gargan, They Knew What They Wanted

Rankings (films):

  1. The Great Dictator
  2. Foreign Correspondent
  3. The Westerner
  4. The Letter
  5. They Knew What They Wanted

My Vote: Walter Brennan, The Westerner

Recommendations:

The Great Dictator is an essential movie. Almost life essential, but definitely film buff essential. You should know how much you need to see that movie.

Foreign Correspondent is Hitchcock, and good Hitchcock. So it’s basically essential. Not for all film buffs, but for people who love Hitchcock, you should see it. It’s very good Hitchcock. In terms of his films, there’s the all-time essential ones like Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho (three years in a row, those last three films, by the way), and then there’s the more film buff essential ones like Rope, Lifeboat, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt. Then there’s the culturally essential ones like The Birds, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief — the ones that are really solid, but also ones you need to see because they’re so famous within the landscape of film. This one is in that next tier, of great films that aren’t as essential as those other ones. Like Marnie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Spellbound, Suspicion and The Wrong Man. Really great, but not ones you need to rush out and see as quickly as those other ones. But see them, because any of those movies are better than 80% of other filmmakers entire resumes.

The Letter is William Wyler and Bette Davis. Those films are of interest to serious film buffs. You never turn down a William Wyler. It’s really well made. Plus Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman.

The Westerner — remember how I said you never turn down a William Wyler? This is also a William Wyler. And it’s Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. If you love movies and the thought of a movie with those three names doesn’t appeal to you, then I don’t know what to tell you. Also essential for Oscar buffs, since Brennan won for it.

They Knew What They Wanted is a film I don’t particularly love. And it’s not essential in the least. But you have Laughton and Lombard, so that makes it of interest to some. Otherwise there’s no need to see it unless you think the subject matter is interesting.

The Last Word: Seems like an easy Brennan win, despite the category fraud. In a category like this, maybe you make a case for Stephenson, and I can see trying to go for Oakie, but even the most staunch supporters there probably will agree the nomination is the reward. Seems like a fairly mediocre category where the largest performance wins by sheer lack of having anything else to vote for. Plus it’s Walter Brennan doing great work, and we love him, and he represents the category, so it feels kinda fitting. Don’t really see how someone goes elsewhere in this one.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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