The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1932/33-1934)
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.
Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory
May Robson, Lady for a Day
Diana Wynyard, Cavalcade
Morning Glory is a real star-making film for Katharine Hepburn. That’s really all its remembered for today.
She plays a girl whose sole ambition is to be a broadway star. She’s young and naive, and unflappable in her conviction for what she wants to do. So we see her struggle in small parts and menial work until that one chance can come when she can show what she’s got and give it her all.
Hepburn shows why she’s the star she is. This was the first time people really saw her on screen (she also had Little Women this year, and was equally great in that), and this was a slam dunk win for her, especially with the category being what it is. I wouldn’t take this performance on its own, but in this category, absolutely. It’s not the weakest of her four wins, simply because she was the best performance in the category. This one’s all her. It’s hard not to be charmed by her in this.
Lady for a Day is a wonderful idea for a story that, as I say every time this film comes up, was one Frank Capra never could quite crack. He made it twice. Two bites at the Apple Annie, so to speak. And he never quite licked it.
May Robson plays Apple Annie, an old apple seller who is basically homeless and sells apples on the street. Her daughter was raised overseas and was led to believe that Annie is actually a wealthy woman. She writes to her mother, saying she’s gonna get married and she’s coming to visit with her fiancé. Which of course is the worst possible news for Annie. But, this is a Frank Capra movie, and everybody who has friends is a wealthy person. Annie happens to have a big fan who thinks her apples bring him luck — a gangster. He uses his influence all around town to make it look like Annie is everything she says she is, but only for a day. And the rest of the film is all these people putting on this facade, and all the hilarity that ensues in them doing so. It’s a good movie, but not a great movie.
May Robson is great and comes off as very, very likable here.
Cavalcade is one of those Best Picture winners that almost no one sees. It’s so theatrical.
It’s structured around a couple of New Years Eves for a family. We see them happy at the turn of the 20th century, and then the husband goes off to war, and comes back, and we check in with them over the years and all the major world events in between. That’s pretty much it. A drama about a family. Based on a Noel Coward play.
Diana Wynyard plays the wife. It’s a typical housewife kind of role. She gets to cry and be worried for her husband, and go through all the emotions.
She’s fine. It’s probably a better performance than May Robson, but the character isn’t as charming as May Robson. So I have no choice but to put her third. I wouldn’t take her. And she’s not nearly as electric as Katharine Hepburn is. So I can’t see really voting for her in this one.
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The Reconsideration: I almost don’t want to vote for Katharine Hepburn, knowing how many more times I will be doing so in the future. But you know — sometimes an actress is just that good. You gotta take the best choice. And here, she’s the best choice.
Wynyard is just okay. I wouldn’t take her. And Robson is very charming and really likable, but I still would take Hepburn over her. Hepburn is so dynamic here, and given the category, she is easily the one to take.
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- Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory
- May Robson, Lady for a Day
- Diana Wynyard, Cavalcade
- Lady for a Day
- Morning Glory
My Vote: Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory
Lady for a Day is Frank Capra and is highly recommended. Not essential, but very good.
Cavalcade is only essential because it’s a Best Picture winner, but as Best Picture winners go, this might be the second least essential next to The Broadway Melody. It’s worth it, and it’s a good film, but you don’t need to rush out and see it unless you’re specifically looking at films of this era or doing an Oscar Quest of sorts.
Morning Glory is really only worth it for Hepburn’s performance, and only essential for Oscar buffs. That’s really it.
The Last Word: It’s Hepburn. The category makes her a great choice. Plus it’s cool that she has Oscars across six decades. Not sure you really vote for anyone else here on pure performance.
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Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage (write-in)
Grace Moore, One Night of Love
Norma Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street
1934 and 1935 are the two years where write-ins were allowed. This is of particular note because Bette Davis (and a lot of people) thought she was robbed by not being nominated and people complained so much they allowed write-in nominees. And she ended up finishing second in the voting (they announced that stuff back then) based purely on write-ins.
Also Myrna Loy allegedly also finished fifth for The Thin Man, which makes me happy.
It Happened One Night is the purest form of romantic comedy.
Claudette Colbert is a spoiled heiress who wants to marry a playboy. Everyone but her can see that she shouldn’t do this, but she’s stubborn and escapes her father off the coast of Florida to go elope with the guy in New York. This becomes news. Reporters are looking for her so they can get the story. Clark Gable, meanwhile, is a reporter who stumbles upon her at a bus station and immediately notices who she is. So he finds a way to go along on the trip with her so he can get the exclusive story. And of course they fall in love along the way, and all that good stuff. It’s a perfect movie. It really is.
Colbert is great here. I can’t say this is the best acting job I’e seen win the Academy Award for Best Actress, but she’s definitely really terrific here. Plus, she had two other Best Picture nominees this year in Cleopatra and Imitation of Life. So this was kind of an easy choice for them. Not to mention It Happened One Night being a film that really charmed everyone and took their minds off the Depression, which also helped.
Given the category, I get it. I’d probably take her too. Though, were this actually 1934, I’d have written in Myrna Loy and called it a day. Plus there’s this other business we now have to deal with…
Of Human Bondage is based on a famous novel, and they made it twice or three times over the years. This was Bette Davis’ starmaking performance.
Leslie Howard plays a club-footed artist who falls in love with Bette Davis, who is a lower-class waitress. He’s a sophisticate, and she’s… not. He loves her, and she’s a bitch to him. And she keeps coming back to use his love for her to manipulate him. Every time she comes back into his life, she uses him.
I get why they loved this performance. It’s the best dramatic work in the category. But why are we rating dramatic over comedy? I think you can definitely take her, should you so choose. She’s definitely top two.
But here’s the rub — she wasn’t officially nominated. So are we allowing write-ins or are we not? I don’t know. I guess we’ll figure that out in the end.
One Night of Love is a film that only exists between 1934 and 1937. That’s the only time period where a film like this happens and goes over as well as this one did.
Grace Moore is an opera singer who trains under a famous vocal coach, and falls in love with him. It’s like The Red Shoes, but if they fucked. Or maybe like Whiplash, but if they fucked.
Grace Moore was an opera singer and plays an opera singer. Not exactly a stretch. But in this era, someone who can sing well does stand an advantage over most for a memorable performance. She’s easily the weakest in the category for me, and I imagine, for most people. Never really stood a chance here and came along with her film.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a chamber drama, of sorts.
Charles Laughton is the patriarch of the Barrett family. All his kids live in the house with him. He’s overbearing and cold, and controls all his children’s lives, even going so far as to forbid them from getting married. Ever. Norma Shearer plays the oldest daughter, who is a poet. She’s sickly and falls in love with another poet, who helps her overcome her illness. But then, she has to overcome her father, which is a different conversation entirely.
Shearer is very good here. She helps you to fall in love with her character. It’s clearly Charles Laughton’s film, but Shearer emerges as second best. Some might find it histrionic, but I liked it. I’d say she’s third best on performance and second for my vote.
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The Reconsideration: Claudette Colbert is the only choice here. Grace Moore sings and does nothing else, Shearer is very strong but I wouldn’t take her. And Davis gives a strong performance in a bad film. I think Colbert wins easily, despite not reinventing the wheel with the performance. If Myrna Loy is here, I take her. But since she isn’t, I’ll take Colbert for the quintessential romantic comedy and one of the most famous films ever made.
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- Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
- Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage (if we’re officially counting her)
- Norma Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street
- Grace Moore, One Night of Love
- It Happened One Night
- The Barretts of Wimpole Street
- One Night of Love
- Of Human Bondage
My Vote: Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
It Happened One Night is 100% essential for all film buffs and enthusiasts. This is the kind of movie you can show non film buffs and they’ll still enjoy it. It’s perfect
The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a great film for acting. Charles Laughton is terrific here, and I recommend it as a film too. Not essential at all, but if you’re looking for a strong 30s film, this is it. Strongly recommended.
One Night of Love — ehh. I don’t like it. Maybe it’s worth it because it was nominated for so many awards and was such a big film for 1934, but I don’t know if I can really recommend it.
Of Human Bondage — if we can officially count it. The Academy seems to have changed their records to include Davis as an official nominee, even though she wasn’t — not something I can recommend. I don’t love it. It’s only noteworthy because of the write-in campaign to get her an Oscar. That’s really all.
The Last Word: Oh hell yeah, Claudette Colbert is a great choice. She holds up fine. This film is one of three to win the Big Five. That looks great, historically. Plus, none of the other three performances are really so strong as to make this look like a bad choice. She doesn’t give an all-time performance, but she gives enough of a performance to not seem like a bad winner in any regard.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)