The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1930/31-1931/32)
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.
Marlene Dietrich, Morocco
Marie Dressler, Min and Bill
Irene Dunne, Cimarron
Ann Harding, Holiday
Norma Shearer, A Free Soul
Morocco is a Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg movie, with Gary Cooper thrown in as well. The best thing about watching a Gary Cooper movie in this era is, you know he was fucking his co-star.
Cooper plays a French foreign legionnaire and she plays a jaded nightclub singer, as she tended to do. This is the movie where she plays a performance in a man’s suit and kisses a woman on the mouth, which has become pretty memorable. She and Cooper fall in love, and it’s about Dietrich ending up torn between Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, since he’s sent away and Menjou is rich and also going after her. So you know, she’s gotta decide between money or love. Which is just so realistic.
Marlene Dietrich plays the same part she always plays. So much of this is star power. I don’t think she does a whole lot of pure acting here and isn’t worth a vote. But I can see a lot of people taking her on strength of name and persona alone. Maybe she makes fourth for me.
Min and Bill is a nice short film that does its job without getting overly complex.
Marie Dressler runs a seaside hotel and has been raising a young girl since she was born, after her mother left her at the hotel. She has a relationship with Wallace Beery, a sailor. And much of the film is about Dressler trying to raise the girl and keep her sheltered. Eventually the girl is going off to be married, and right at that moment… her mother returns. Dressler does everything she can to try to keep the girl happy and get everything off before the mother can screw it up.
Dressler is good here. It’s the sacrificial mother role. It’s not subtle, but it’s effective. Owing to Dressler’s status as the biggest (or top two or three at worst) female star in Hollywood at the time, it’s understandable why she won this. Not sure where I go, but she’ll probably factor into the decision somewhere.
Cimarron is, funnily enough, a pretty good 30s movie and, when presented in context, one of the first “Oscar” movies. That is to say, this feels like one of the first movies that fits the Oscar brand. But very specifically for 1931 and no other time.
Richard Dix plays a man who can’t resist the call to adventure. He gets word about homesteading out west and uproots his family to go out there. And we watch as over time, their plot of land in the middle of nowhere becomes a town, which becomes a city. And he goes from a guy printing on the local press to a newspaper magnate. And yet, that call to adventure comes knocking once more…
Irene Dunne plays Dix’s wife, who begins as a strong, but ultimately uncomplicated housewife. She comes along with her husband and cares for the family. But then, as he starts to get the itch and leaves town again, she has to take over his business, and becomes a strong, independent businesswoman in her own right. And the last third of the film is almost entirely her.
It’s a solid performance. Very few performances in the early 30s are truly jaw-dropping. Overall, she’s good. Not sure if I take her for any reason except she’s Irene Dunne, but as far as the performance goes, fair.
Holiday is the earlier version of the film most people would see with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in it. That version is better, but this one is still solid.
A man who worked his way up to where he is, is going to marry a woman born into money. He wants to make enough money to live freely and happily. But all she and her family know is money. So that doesn’t really mesh well. And one night, during a New Year’s party, he meets his fiancées sister, who fits much better with him and his views. And they hit it off, and the film is mostly about him deciding between the two women.
Harding plays the sister — the Hepburn role. She comes off very strongly here. And I think it’s probably because the material is really strong. These early films are only as good as the material they’re working with. And as you can see from the remake, it’s good material. I remember really liking her performance five years ago but not voting for her because I didn’t know who she was, and in these early years, it’s more about who you are than what you did. (One can argue it’s still like that, to an extent.) This time, she rates top two for me, and I might end up taking her.
A Free Soul is standard Pre Code fare.
Norma Shearer is the daughter of a lawyer. She starts dating a mobster client of her father’s that he got off for a murder charge. And then there’s a nice guy she should be with, but you know, the mobster is Clark Gable. And some shit goes from there that I won’t spoil.
Shearer is fine here. A bit much, I felt, but overall fine. After winning the year before this, she didn’t rate a second one, not for this performance.
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The Reconsideration: The only person I remember really feeling anything for in terms of performance was Ann Harding, so I guess I’ll just take her and be done with it. Dietrich doesn’t rate for me, neither does Shearer. I liked Dunne, but I would only take her if I had to. Dressler is solid, but not gonna be the vote. Those are the only three I’d consider. So let’s just take Harding and leave it at that.
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- Ann Harding, Holiday
- Irene Dunne, Cimarron
- Marie Dressler, Min and Bill
- Norma Shearer, A Free Soul
- Marlene Dietrich, Morocco
- A Free Soul
- Min and Bill
My Vote: Ann Harding, Holiday
Cimarron is essential because it won Best Picture. Otherwise no. It’s a solid film otherwise and if you like early 30s movies, absolutely see this. In terms of being all-time essential, it’s second tier, maybe third. Otherwise just a solid western (ish) film that’s kinda cool, actually, especially if you want to trace it next to the progression of the western genre.
Holiday is okay, but the Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn version is the one you want. This is just an interesting earlier version. The way the 1931 Maltese Falcon is just an interesting alternative. I say see it if you want to talk about this category or see the other version of Holiday. You’re fine without it otherwise.
A Free Soul is worth it because of the Oscar win and because Lionel Barrymore has a 14 minute monologue at the end. It’s also a famous pre-code movie. So if you’re into pre-code movies or love Clark Gable, go for it. Otherwise it’s just a solid film that’s worth it if you want early 30s movies and are looking for one of the better ones.
Morocco is Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg and Gary Cooper. That’s why you see this. Her in the suit singing, breaking gender stereotypes. That’s why you see this. As a film, it’s okay. Essential for early 30s, just recommended for everyone else.
Min and Bill is only essential for Oscar buffs because Marie Dressler won for it. Essential maybe for early 30s because Dressler and Wallace Beery were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time. Otherwise, meh. It’s easy to watch, only 70 minutes. Nothing particularly noteworthy with it. Take it or leave it.
The Last Word: Dressler is a good winner for 1931, Dunne or Dietrich would have looked good now, as Dunne was nominated about five times and never won, and Dietrich is Dietrich. Shearer had won and didn’t need back to back. To me, Harding was the best performance (though admittedly, I didn’t go back and watch all five), so I take her. But in terms of what the best decisions would have been… probably Dressler and then Dunne. Dietrich, I don’t know, but possibly. It’s early. Nothing’s truly that bad a choice. It’s just a matter of how well it’s held up.
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Marie Dressler, Emma
Lynn Fontanne, The Guardsman
Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet
Emma is not based on the Bronte novel.
Marie Dressler is housekeeper to a widowed inventor and his kids. She’s been lovingly caring for them for over thirty years. She decides to finally take a vacation, and ends up going with the inventor. He proposes to her and she accepts. But now the children hate her, despite her raising them, because how dare their father marry the housekeeper. Then the inventor dies and they really get mad. They take her to court, saying she killed him. A whole thing. Of course she ends up giving everything away to the ungrateful little shits and going back to what she does best.
Marie Dressler… plays Marie Dressler. That’s all she ever did. The film is fine, and she does a pretty good job in it. If she hadn’t won for Min and Bill, she’d have definitely won for this. If Helen Hayes weren’t so good, Dressler would seriously contend here. But it’s too uneven a performance and film to really make any headway against Hayes.
The Guardsman is a film starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a famous husband and wife acting team. The whole film is designed to be about them acting opposite one another.
They play, surprise surprise, a husband and wife acting team. They have a jokey, sarcastic kind of relationship that I just love. The husband thinks the wife is being unfaithful to him, so he shows up, the actor that he is, at the house, disguised in a heavy beard and with a thick accent. He shows up to “woo” her to see if she’d be willing to cheat on him. And then he (as himself) comes back to see if she tries to hide the whole thing. He’s basically fucking with her. But of course in the end she reveals she knew it was him the whole time and went with it anyway.
It’s an amusing film. I like it more than most would, but I think it’s fun. Fontanne is fine. Her style of performance is very much of its era, and now would not be seen as particularly great by anyone if they went back and watched it. And I get that. She had very specific mannerisms and was definitely one of those people who was so famous and so specific that I’ve seen people imitate her in movies of the 30s and 40s more than once.
The Sin of Madelon Claudet is a quintessential melodrama. When I think of melodrama, specifically of the 30s variety, I think of a woman getting a marriage ended through whatever means, having a child illegitimately, either sleeping around or becoming a prostitute, and sacrificing herself for the sake of the child. That’s just standard.
She meets a man and runs away with him, but he leaves her through circumstance. She has a kid. Then she has to become a mistress in order to provide for the child. She leaves the kid with some friends and sleeps with the man… who turns out to be a criminal and kills himself rather than go to jail. And she ends up going to jail for him. Then when she gets out, she becomes a prostitute in order to help pay for her son’s education so he can become a doctor. Her son, by the way, thinks she’s dead. But then she gets too old to be a prostitute so she becomes a thief. She puts her son through school and he becomes a wealthy doctor. And all she really wants is to see her son one last time…
I really liked this movie. The ending gets a bit… well that part doesn’t matter. But still. This is quintessential melodrama, and I love it.
Not to mention, Helen Hayes plays this woman from like 18 to 50. Maybe older. She plays this woman over a real range of ages, and really delivers a heart-wrenching performance. She’s the one to take here, and I think if people watched all three of these performances, she’d easily be a consensus #1. If Dressler’s film had been just a bit better, she might also contend here, but she falls to a safe #2. This is Hayes’ category al lthe way. She’s magnetic here.
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The Reconsideration: It’s Hayes’ category. She’s unforgettable as Madelon, and wins this in an easy landslide. Dressler’s a solid #2 and Fontanne is an amusing but distant #3. Easy category.
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- Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet
- Marie Dressler, Emma
- Lynn Fontanne, The Guardsman
- The Guardsman
- The Sin of Madelon Claudet
My Vote: Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet
The Sin of Madelon Claudet is interesting as an Oscar winner because you get to see Helen Hayes play young and old and age on screen. That’s cool. And the film is pretty good. So I recommend it. But it’s not essential except for Oscar buffs.
The Guardsman is an awesome movie, but very very theatrical. Not everyone will enjoy this as I did. But I did enjoy it and think people should see it if they like early 30s films.
Emma is good. I liked it. Not great, but I liked it. See if if you’re into films of the era.
The Last Word: Helen Hayes holds up great. Fontanne wouldn’t have held up and Dressler already had one. She’s really the only choice here, and the role is a perfect Oscar winner on paper. And it’s actually good when you see it. Good shit all around.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)