The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1927/1928-1929/1930)
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.
Louise Dresser, A Ship Comes In
Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven & Street Angel & Sunrise
Gloria Swanson, Sadie Thompson
A Ship Comes In. Technically Louise Dresser is the very first nominee ever for Best Actress. So there’s that.
A Ship Comes In is a story about immigrants. It’s perfectly of its era. You watch the family arrive in the country, deal with living in a cramped tenement building, get low level jobs, work to become citizens, etc. And it’s a story of this family. Until it turns into a Hollywood melodrama. But the best kind. The kind where people get accused of murder.
Louise Dressler plays the mother of the family. Oscar loves a mother role. She pretty much is the backbone of the movie. She’s pretty much there for most of the movie and gets her big dramatic moments. This is the kind of role that would be in the Supporting Actress category if they had one. Otherwise, totally understand the nomination here (as much as one can. Since this is the first Oscars. They’re still figuring everything out). In terms of this category, she doesn’t rate for a vote. Not against someone who has three movies in contention. But it’s a solid enough nominee.
Seventh Heaven is a terrific movie, and one that people end up seeing because Borzage won Best Director for it.
It’s a silent film, through and through, so while it might get crazy in the third act (silent films and Pixar. Always with the third acts. There’s something to be said about that comparison), the first two are so good it really carries it through.
Charles Farrell is a street sweeper who meets Janet Gaynor in a chance encounter. She’s about to be arrested, and he saves her by pretending to be her husband. But because of that, she has to live with him for a month, because, you know, they check up on those things. And if she’s not living there, they’ll both be arrested. It’s actually a perfect rom com set up. Surprised they haven’t made more of this over the past 90 years. Anyway, while living together, they fall in love. And that’s the bulk of the film, really. And it’s beautiful. And then eventually war breaks out and he goes away and melodrama happens and she has to be strong and all that stuff.
Janet Gaynor is wonderful here. She’s a really expressive actress, and the way she conveys emotion is really effective. She’d have won for this alone, but she’s got two more performances here to seal the deal.
Street Angel is another Farrell/Gaynor pairing directed by Frank Borzage.
She’s a girl trying to care for her dying mother. When she can’t afford to get the medicine her mother needs, she decides to sell herself for it. But of course, before she can, she gets stopped by a policeman and has to run away or else be arrested. She ends up being hidden by a traveling circus (which should be a plot point in more movies) and working with them. And Farrell is one of the members, and they fall in love and all that good stuff and end up leaving the circus to start a life together. But then her past catches up to her and she’s thrown in prison. The only problem is, Farrell has no idea what’s happened to her, so he thinks she just left him. And it builds to a big reunion in the end, just when all hope seems lost. Classic cinema.
It’s a really great film. The visuals are great and Gaynor and Farrell really knew how to make the most out of their performances. It’s not the strongest of the three films and is the least remembered of the three, but it’s still quite terrific.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is F.W. Muranu’s silent masterpiece that is unofficially a Best Picture winner. It won Artistic Production while Wings won Outstanding Production. The Academy only counts Wings on their official list, so the Sunrise win gets lost.
Charles Farrell lives in a small seaside town with Janet Gaynor, his wife. He’s having an affair with a city woman, who convinces him to kill Gaynor and leave for the city with her. And he’s about to do it, but then finds himself unable to. She freaks out and runs to the city to get away from him. And the rest of the film is them making up and having a wonderful day in the city, essentially fixing their marriage. It’s a perfect film. It really is.
This performance alone makes Gaynor the vote. The other two are just cherries on top. She wins this category hands down, and anyone watching these performances would say the same thing. No need to waste time here.
Sadie Thompson is a silent film about a hooker. Hollywood loved films about hookers until the Production Code came in.
Gloria Swanson plays a prostitute who falls in love with a sailor and tries to start a new life. Only there’s a religious guy who hates her (and secretly lusts after her) because of her “sinful” ways. And he essentially converts her to repent for her ways, to the point where it ruins her other relationship. You know — they give you all the sex, then redeem the woman to the other extreme, and then that makes her relationship okay in the end. This story only works as a silent.
Swanson is good. She gets a bit too over the top at times, but overall its solid. She might have had a shot if it weren’t for Gaynor. Gaynor takes this by a mile. There’s no point in talking up how good she is, because she has no chance at it.
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The Reconsideration: It’s Gaynor. She wins for any one of those three performances. Dressler is more supporting and Swanson is good, but stood no chance for a vote against Gaynor. This is a perfect choice for the category to get it started.
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- Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven & Street Angel & Sunrise
- Gloria Swanson, Sadie Thompson
- Louise Dresser, A Ship Comes In
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
- Seventh Heaven
- Street Angel
- Sadie Thompson
- A Ship Comes In
My Vote: Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven & Street Angel & Sunrise
Sunrise is an all-time essential film. Most film people don’t usually watch silents, but if you were ranking the top ten or fifteen silent films of all time, this would be on that list.
Seventh Heaven is an essential film. Not as much as Sunrise, but still very much essential. It’s one of the great silent films of all time. Sunrise is essential if you love movies. If you’re going into the silent era deliberately, then this is an essential film an one of the first ones you need to watch. It’s perfect.
Street Angel is a great, great silent film. Borzage directed some real masterpieces, and this is one of them. I’d rank them thusly: Sunrise is essential for all film buffs. Seventh Heaven is essential for film buffs who are more on the students of film side of things. That second level of film buff. Street Angel is essential for those serious about watching silent films. So like, level two and a half. It’s highly recommended for the second level film buffs and may also be essential for them, but at worst it’s just something you really ought to see if you love movies.
Sadie Thompson is okay. It’s good if you’re into the Oscars and really like silent films. They remade it in 1932 as Rain with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. I imagine most people would watch that version. I don’t not recommend it, but there’s also not that big an audience for this in terms of people I know who would go out and see it.
A Ship Comes In is not essential at all. It’s fine if you’re really into silent film otherwise not something anyone really needs to see unless they’re writing up the Oscars.
The Last Word: Janet Gaynor is the only real choice here, and it’s one of the best decisions of all time. She’s that good in these performances. One of the biggest open and shut cases in Oscar history.
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Ruth Chatterton, Madame X
Betty Compson, The Barker
Jeanne Eagels, The Letter
Corinne Griffith, The Divine Lady
Bessie Love, The Broadway Melody
Mary Pickford, Coquette
Madame X is a classic melodrama. They remade it a few times. The story’s not so remembered as something like A Star Is Born, but when you think of melodrama, you’ll see shades of this in the others.
Ruth Chatterton is a woman who cheats on her husband and then is thrown out of her house and denied the chance to see her child. She then becomes a prostitute (as you do). Eventually she works her way down from rich guys to drunk scumbags, and one of these scumbags tries to blackmail her former husband with what she’s become. So she shoots the guy, not wanting to cause scandal for her son, a budding lawyer. And, go figure… her son is the one chosen to defend her at the trial. So she gets to see her son grown up into a capable man, all while he has no idea who she really is.
It’s a big, melodramatic performance. This might have won in other years, given the nature of the role. But these are the second Oscars — the rules are different. But that aside, it’s been a while since I saw this performance. I should have seen it again to truly gauge where I’d rank it, especially since it seems like I’m the only one who has actually written up this category.
From what I remember, the performance is very histrionic and overall representative of the kind of acting that was around in this era. It’s not Chatterton’s fault, that’s just what the transition to sound was. Taking that into account, she’ll factor in the top half. Not sure I take her, but then again, is there really anyone to take here?
The Barker is one of the five films I’ve been unable to see on this Quest. It only exists as a print at I think UCLA.
So, with me not having been able to see this, it unfortunately needs to be a blank for this article. I’ll rank Compson at the bottom and rank the film at the bottom until I’m able to see this and actually write something up for it.
The Letter is a film we’re going to be dealing with again, when they remake it with Bette Davis and she gets shanked by that Chinese woman.
The film was Jeanne Eagels’ final performance before she died. The cause of death was “alcohol psychosis,” which sounds pretty grand. Anyway…
A woman is having an affair with another man. When he goes to leave her, she shoots him dead. She then says he tried to rape her and that’s why she shot him. And most people seem to believe that. Only there’s a letter that exists that shows the two were having an affair, which is pretty damning. So she has the letter destroyed. Though of course it ruins her in the end anyway.
Her performance works really well. It’s theatrical, but like I said, they all are in this era. This is the type of acting you’d see out of guilty people in the last act of a police serial in the 30s when the woman is revealed to be the one who killed the guy. It is what it is. But if you place it firmly in context, this is one of the top two or three performances in the category. I can definitely see voting for her. Though this would have been a posthumous win. Not sure they’d have done it, but that doesn’t stop anyone else from doing it.
The Divine Lady is the only silent film on this list.
It’s about Lady Hamilton and Admiral Nelson. So if you saw the Vivien Leigh/Laurence Olivier version of the story, then you know the broad strokes of this.
She’s a cook’s daughter who ends up married to a man of title and embarks on an affair with a naval man, who also happens to be married. So that’s not great, and people don’t like that.
The performance is really good, to the point where, had they not been actively trying to move away from silents, she’d have won this category. The film is really based around her performance, and she nails it. This is probably the best all around performance in the category.
The Broadway Melody is an amusing movie. Can’t say it’s a great movie, but it won Best Picture. So that’s something.
It’s about two sisters who come to Broadway to make it big. One is more talented, and the other is prettier. They both end up in shows, and the older one disapproves of the younger one skating by on her looks, plus the younger one steals her man. There’s tension between the sisters, but eventually they end up okay and happy.
Bessie Love plays the more talented sister. She gets to play the stable, jilted sister, who loves her sister but is constantly upstaged by her. She gets to look all concerned while her sister starts running around town being reckless. She’s pretty good.
Coquette is a Mary Pickford movie. She was the biggest female star in Hollywood for the 20s.
Here, she plays a southern girl who flirts up a storm with all the men. Though eventually, she really does fall in love with a guy. Though this guy is the one man her father doesn’t want her to marry. Though, you know, shit happens, and her father murders the dude.
The film itself isn’t particularly great. Nor is the performance anything to write home about. But Mary Pickford was so famous at the time, and founded the Academy, she probably won this for reasons other than the performance. But it’s the same as Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts winning. Their performances weren’t that outstanding either. They won because of who they are. I get it. I mean, sure, the performance is weak and isn’t the best in the category, but what better time to legitimize the category by having America’s Sweetheart win it in its second year?
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The Reconsideration: Analyzing the performances, and nothing more…
I can’t rate Compson, so she has to be #6. Love and Pickford are just fine. So they’re 4 and 5. Chatterton makes 3 for me, but that’s only because of the nature of the role. If I saw it again, I might have her below Pickford and/or Love. Eagels I know was solid, and Griffith for sure gives the best performance in the category. The only problem with hers is its a silent performance, so its on a different ratings system from the others.
I’m gonna take Griffith on pure performance, but I think Mary Pickford should have won just because of the nature of where we’re at in the history of the Oscars.
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- Corinne Griffith, The Divine Lady
- Jeanne Eagels, The Letter
- Ruth Chatterton, Madame X
- Mary Pickford, Coquette
- Bessie Love, The Broadway Melody
- Betty Compson, The Barker
- The Broadway Melody
- The Divine Lady
- The Letter
- Madame X
- The Barker
My Vote: Corinne Griffith, The Divine Lady
The Broadway Melody is only essential because it’s a Best Picture winner, but even then, it’s probably the absolute least essential Best Picture winner of all time. There’s some stuff to recommend, but it’s only for people really into specific things. Oscars, transition to sound, early musicals. Take it or leave it otherwise.
The Divine Lady is well-directed for a silent film. Not essential for anyone except silent film buffs or Oscar buffs. See the Vivien Leigh/Laurence Olivier version instead if you need to see any version of this story.
Coquette is only essential because Mary Pickford won for it. 1929 Oscar films are among the least essential films of all the Oscars. The movie itself isn’t even particularly regarded as very good, so if you’re gonna see this, it’s either because you love the Oscars or love Mary Pickford.
The Letter is fine. It’s worth it if you really want to see Jeanne Eagels. Or if you want to see an alternate version of the Bette Davis remake. But that’s the version I’d recommend. Not this one. It’s good, but not particularly essential unless you’re studying the transition to sound in depth.
Madame X is okay. Early melodrama. See it, don’t see it. Only you know if you’d be into something like this.
The Barker is a film I recommend just because even I haven’t had a chance to see this yet. You have to have the drive to go seek this out in order to see it, and any recommendation from me won’t change that.
The Last Word: Griffith, in my mind, gives the best performance. Eagels may also be that person as well. But since none of these are remembered at all, just let Mary Pickford have it. At least she has a huge place in the history of film and her win does legitimize the Oscars in a way. So I’m fine with it and I think it was a good choice. This year is a pretty forgettable year anyway. They’re just getting their footing under them. It works. Call it a serviceable choice and move on.
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Nancy Carroll, The Devil’s Holiday
Ruth Chatterton, Sarah and Son
Greta Garbo, Anna Christie & Romance
Norma Shearer, The Divorcee & Their Own Desire
Gloria Swanson, The Trespasser
The Devil’s Holiday is about a gold digger who sets her sights on a rich man. His family says that’s what she’s doing, but he’s in love. And after they get married, she realizes she actually loves him. But at this point, her family is doing everything they can to get rid of her. So she needs to prove that it’s really love.
The film’s okay. Definitely devolves into one of those typical, “Oh, I’m a city girl who should know better, but goddamnit I love that country bumpkin.” But otherwise it’s pretty good.
Nancy Carroll gives a really solid performance here. It’s one of those examples where a musical star makes good with a great dramatic performance. She could definitely be the choice here, should you want to go that way. She’d definitely be top two or three for me.
Sarah and Son is a really interesting film. About a douchebag husband who spends years verbally and physically abusing his wife. And then one day he up and leaves and takes their son with him. He sells the kid to a rich family and disappears. And the wife goes off and becomes a famous singer and uses her stature to look for her son.
The film doesn’t hold up that well, but the performance is pretty good. Chatterton plays an immigrant, so she’s got an accent and plays it pretty melodramatically. She’s fine. It’s a different era, so you have to take all that into account. She feels middle of the pack for these nominees.
Anna Christie. “Garbo talks.” That’s this film.
She’s a woman who left her seaside town year ago and is now coming back. She left young and eager, now she’s older and broken. She’s trying to hide that she worked as a prostitute. She falls in love with a sailor and tries desperately to keep him from finding out the truth. But, as we all know, the truf vil set you free.
I’m gonna say this again for the next performance — I never loved Garbo as an actress. I never understood how fetishized she’s become. I think she’s fine, but I always found the accent too thick and the mannerisms too melodramatic. I mean, “I vant to be alone.” Seriously.
I think the performance is pretty good, but so much of it is magnetic star power more than acting. Star power alone almost powers her to the top of this list and I imagine most people would take her simply because she’s Greta Garbo and “she should have an Oscar.” And this is the time period to do it. So I get it. But for me — ehh. She’d be a #4 most years. Here, with seven choices, she’s still a #4. I just have to decide which of the two performances I like better.
Romance is the other Garbo on the list. I love how they’re still just getting these categories figured out. First Janet Gaynor wins for three movies, and now Garbo and Shearer are legit nominated for two separate ones and able to win for specific individual ones.
Here, the movie is about a doomed romance, framed by a successful romance. A kid tells his priest grandfather he’s gonna marry a woman below his social class. His grandfather tells him the story of him as a young man, where he fell in love with a woman beneath his class. And of course their social status makes romance unattainable. So they suffer and eventually she dies and he becomes a priest. And then he’s like, “You know, marry who you want, because that’s all that matters.”
Garbo plays the woman in the flashback. The one who dies. As I said with Anna Christie, I never loved her as an actress, and I can never fully love her nominated work. I appreciate what she did for the films of this era, but in terms of voting for an Oscar, this is not a performance I love. I’d take some of the other performances over her. Most people would find those more melodramatic, but I see those as more in line with what “good” acting of this era was. But that’s just me. I’d probably take the Anna Christie performance over this one, but, either way. Doesn’t much matter to me.
The Divorcee is an awesome film. Dated, but Pre Code movies are the best.
Norma Shearer finds out her husband has cheated on her. So she, to get even, fucks his best friend. They divorce. He becomes a drunk, and she starts sleeping with lots of men. And of course they eventually realize they need one another, but by that point, they’re just fucking wrecked from life. Which is pretty cool.
Shearer is really good here. When she’s playing big, she plays really big. I quite liked her smaller moments, where she’s not speaking and using body language to convey what she’s feeling. She was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, and I imagine a lot of that had to do with her husband being the head of MGM, but you know. It is what it is.
She rates top two for me in the category, and it all comes down to how I’m feeling the day I’m picking whether I take her or Gloria Swanson.
Their Own Desire is another Pre Code movie. Gotta love these sex films.
Norma Shearer falls in love with her brother. That’s the movie. Not her brother brother, by marriage. Her father marries his mother. She hates that he left her mother to marry a younger woman. But, you know, that woman’s got a hot son. So she and the son get together, which of course is threatened by everything, and melodrama happens, and someone almost dies but love conquers all.
The film’s okay. Not the best. One of the weakest in the category, if not the weakest. Of all the performances in the category, this is probably last for me, rankings wise. And the performance too. The Divorcee is clearly the Shearer to performance to take with this one.
The Trespasser is one of the last movies I saw on this Quest, if I remember correctly. And if I don’t, okay.
Gloria Swanson marries a rich guy, and his father doesn’t approve. So he gets the marriage annulled, because rich people can do that. She calls bullshit and walks out. Because she’s got class, if not money. Problem is, she got knocked up from the wedding night. So now she has a kid and the guy just goes and gets remarried to someone else. Because that’s what you do. Guys will just marry anything. So she ends up being the kept woman of sorts to an older man, but only so she could provide for the child. And then he dies and leaves her a bunch of money, but now people are asking questions. And just at that point, the ex-husband comes back into the picture. He loves that she has a kid, and she offers to give up the kid to the husband and his wife, so the kid will be provided for and not have to live with scandal. But then the wife dies, so the family can be reunited. Because it’s 1930. That shit happens.
I actually kind of liked this film and really liked Swanson’s performance in it. She’s a woman of principle who can stand on her own. She definitely rates top two for me in this category.
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The Reconsideration: These categories are why I do what I do. How many people honestly have seen all seven of these movies and can write them up?
I feel like most people going over this will have only seen maybe three or four of these movies and will take Greta Garbo on principle because she’s the biggest name. I am not one of those people.
To go down the category — The Divorcee is the Shearer performance to take and Anna Christie is the Garbo performance to take. So no to Romance, no to Their Own Desire. The Devil’s Holiday is meh.
To me, the only performances to consider are The Divorcee, The Trespasser, Sarah and Son and Anna Christie.
I don’t think Garbo is that great, so I don’t take her. Sarah and Son is okay, and I might even take Garbo over Chatterton, but Chatterton is good enough to rate a vote.
To me, the top two in the category are Norma Shearer and Gloria Swanson. Shearer makes the most sense, but I also really like Swanson’s performance. I think you can safely take either and be fine here, especially since it’s almost as much about their stature as it is about the performances.
I’m not actually sure which one I prefer. Last time I took Shearer. This time I kind of want to switch to Swanson, just to shed more light on the performance. But when we get down to it, I think The Divorcee is the best overall film, and since these performances always seem about the same to me, I think I’ll just stick with Shearer. I haven’t really analyzed them in depth, so I don’t feel confident enough to actually change my guess. They’re both very good.
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- Norma Shearer, The Divorcee
- Gloria Swanson, The Trespasser
- Ruth Chatterton, Sarah and Son
- Greta Garbo, Anna Christie
- Greta Garbo, Romance
- Nancy Carroll, The Devil’s Holiday
- Norma Shearer, Their Own Desire
- The Divorcee
- The Trespasser
- Anna Christie
- Sarah and Son
- Their Own Desire
- The Devil’s Holiday
My Vote: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee
The Divorcee is the only film that’s close to essential in this category. Won Best Actress, classic pre-code film. Generally regarded well historically. I’d recommend it highly for serious film buffs. It’s probably second tier essential, for when you get the really important stuff out of the way. Definitely worth seeing.
Anna Christie is only essential for people who really dig deep into this era. Greta Garbo essential. This is one of her famous roles. The film is fine. Not my favorite. Decent recommend for people looking for films of this era. Probably essential for the early sound era.
Romance is also just fine. Only recommended for people seriously into this era or into Garbo. Otherwise it can be skipped.
The Trespasser is a film I liked for the performance. I’d recommend it for that. But even then, only if you can take films of this time period. Most people can’t. Most film buffs don’t even bother with anything this far back.
Sarah and Son is — honestly, I’m not even gonna put the caveat here anymore of being into the era. It’s fine. Average film for this era. Take it or lave it.
Their Own Desire is not a film I’d recommend. It’s fine, but wasn’t my cup of tea. This one’s on you if it’s something you want to see.
The Devil’s Holiday is also not a film I’d recommend. Also on you if you want to see it.
The Last Word: I think Shearer holds up, owing to the film quality. I think Swanson is also worth taking for performance and, quite frankly, because she’s Gloria Swanson. Part of why you take Norma Shearer here is because she’s Norma Shearer. And the reason people are taking Garbo here is because she’s Greta Garbo. I think that’s the reason. But that’s also coming from someone who doesn’t love the performance. So to each his own there. I think Shearer holds up okay, all things considered.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)