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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1927/28-1929/30)

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.

1927-1928

Richard Barthelmess, The Noose & The Patent Leather Kid

Emil Jannings, The Last Command & The Way of All Flesh

Analysis:

The Noose is one of the five films on the Oscar Quest that I’ve yet to see. This is the one that I think is at MoMA. The rest of them I think are either at UCLA or AMPAS. This one I’m pretty sure is the MoMA one. But yeah, haven’t seen it, need to. One day I will find a way to make an appointment proper (if that’s even possible) and get this one out of the way.

The Patent Leather Kid is a film that I haven’t seen in five years, but remember being two and a half hours, and being a film that  seems like it would have been great in 1927, but is just okay now.

Richard Barthelmess plays a boxer who refuses to fight outside the ring, under any circumstance. So naturally he gets drafted and has to fight.

A lot of the first half is setting up his character — romance, etc. And then the second half is the horrors of war. Very much a silent Sergeant York in a lot of ways. Mixed with a boxing picture.

Barthelmess is good here, and there isn’t a whole lot to say about the performance. This category is a literal 50/50.

The Last Command is about a former Russian general who is now poor and homeless. And the way he makes money is by being an extra in movies. William Powell plays a studio executive who was a former soldier under the guy’s command. He recognizes him and casts him in a film he’s making. And he does is to fuck with the guy for all the shit he put him through during the war. So the general is forced to relive all these horrors and slowly loses his mind.

Jannings plays the general. He’s good here too. It’s not a performance that holds up 100% today, but as far as silent performances go, he’s very good. Now a whole lot to add here. It’s 50/50, and honestly you could go either way.

The Way of All Flesh is a LOST film. So it cannot be seen. Fortunately for us, in this year, nominees were up for all of their roles and not for both separately, as we’ll see in later years. So you don’t necessarily need to feel bad for not seeing this and voting for Jannings. Sure, us completists would like to have seen it, but it’s like Janet Gaynor in Best Actress — she was nominated for all three, but if one was lost, it wouldn’t take away what’s in the other two.

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The Reconsideration: Since of the films is lost, and the other is really hard to find and I haven’t seen it, we have a 50/50 choice based on two films. Both actors are good and both would have been good winners. I personally preferred the Jannings performance, so I take him. That’s really about it. The most I’ll add is — I always feel like these first categories are more about legitimizing the award than actually awarding the best performance. Since you need to set a benchmark for what they consider to be the best. So it makes sense that they’d award their top stars or best actors in order to show everyone what the category is all about until it gets up on its feet and can be what we know it to be now. And on that note, it seems like Jannings was considered a top silent film actor and would have made a lot of sense as a winner.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Emil Jannings, The Last Command The Way of All Flesh
  2. Richard Barthelmess, The Noose The Patent Leather Kid

Rankings (films):

  1. The Last Command
  2. The Patent Leather Kid
  3. The Noose (HAVE NOT SEEN)
  4. The Way of All Flesh (LOST FILM)

My Vote: Emil Jannings, The Last Command The Way of All Flesh

Recommendations:

The Last Command is a good film. Early William Powell, and the first Best Actor winner. Only essential for real Oscar buffs. Most people wouldn’t ever have to bother with this. You’re not really gonna see an “essential” Oscar performance for a few years, so it’s really about whether you can stand silent or early sound films and if you think you’re gonna like them by the sound of their plots. This one is solid and worth a watch.

The Patent Leather Kid is good, but really long. Most people can skip it. I’d only really recommend this to hardcore film buffs who are into silent films. Otherwise not something anyone needs to see.

The Noose is a film that you should see if you can, because it only exists in print form in an archive. Seeing this movie would be like being able to hear the lost 18 minutes on the Nixon tapes.

The Way of All Flesh is a lost film. So if you have the chance to somehow see it, you should probably take it.

The Last Word: Jannings holds up and was a good choice. Barthelmess would have held up just the same, because nowadays, no one really remembers either of them. At least Jannings is remembered for a classic of a film (The Last Laugh), which helps him. Either way, this one doesn’t really matter a whole lot and would have been the same either way they went.

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1928-1929

George Bancroft, Thunderbolt

Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona

Chester Morris, Alibi

Paul Muni, The Valiant

Lewis Stone, The Patriot

Analysis:

Thunderbolt is a gangster picture.

The one thing you need to realize about these early sound films is that they’re all pretty much of the same genres. The musical, the western, the gangster picture, the mystery and the melodrama. That’s pretty much what everything is. One could argue that’s every genre, but the point is that all these movies are very much those things.

This one is a gangster picture. George Bancroft gets arrested and sentenced to death. While in prison, he finds out his girl has been seeing another man. He has the guy framed for murder, and the guy ends up in the cell right next to his. Though eventually he lightens up and realizes the girl really loves the guy and admits what he did.

Bancroft is good. He plays a good gangster. Nothing here is particularly memorable, but as far as performances go, he was near the top of the category for me.

In Old Arizona is a western.

I’m telling you, all these movies are one of the main few genres and none of them are particularly memorable, even if they do each hold some sort of interest in their own way.

Warner Baxter is an outlaw named The Cisco Kid. He plays guitar and is charming. The authorities keep trying to catch him and he keeps comically eluding them. There’s a scene where a sheriff is bragging about he’s gonna catch the Cisco Kid to a barber, not realizing the Cisco Kid is in the barber chair next to him. Stuff like that. And eventually, the Kid’s girl gives him up, and he has to leave her in order to not get caught.

Baxter is pretty amusing. As far as this category goes, he’s pretty much the only one that really rates for me, because at least he’s having a good time.

Alibi is  another gangster movie.

Chester Morris gets out of prison, gets back with his gang and starts dating a cop’s daughter. He goes with her to the movies and, while the intermission is happening, he kills a cop. Thus giving him the perfect (insert title here). And of course he gets caught later and killed, because gangsters need to be punished.

I’m not a huge fan of this movie and I think Morris’s performance is very theatrical. A lot of early sound actors came from the stage, and Morris really feels like he came from the stage. It feels a bit wooden and it’s not something I’d take at all. Definitely fifth in the category for me… were it not for the performance that’s impossible to see. So he ends up fourth by default.

The Valiant is interesting because of a piece of trivia about Paul Muni. He’s the only guy to be nominated for both his first and last screen performances. This is his first screen performance, and his last is The Last Angry Man. That’s kinda cool.

He also looks exactly like Benicio del Toro, which is cool.

Muni begins the film, turning himself into police, saying he killed a man. He won’t say why and they sentence him to death. He gives them a fake name so his family doesn’t find out, but then his sister comes to visit him in prison. He pretends he has no idea who she is so as to make her feel better.

Muni’s good here. But the film doesn’t offer him a whole lot to do, and it comes across as theatrical. Maybe in 1929 it might have been great acting, but now, this is pretty middle of the road for me. Good, but ehh. Probably technically better than Bancroft, but Bancroft was more entertaining, and in a category like this, I’d rather be entertained, because it all looks dated to me.

The Patriot is a LOST FILM. It cannot be seen. So we can’t, in good conscience, vote for Stone, even though the nature of the role does seem to fit the category (though it is also mostly silent, which doesn’t seem to be what they were going for this year).

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The Reconsideration: BAxter’s the only one with some energy and fun to his performance. Bancroft almost hits that note, but for the most part his is a theatrical performance like the other two. Morris I wouldn’t take under any circumstances, no one can take Stone because the film is lost. And Muni is good but not as entertaining as Baxter. I feel good with Baxter here.

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Rankings (category and films):

  • Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona
  • George Bancroft, Thunderbolt
  • Paul Muni, The Valiant
  • Chester Morris, Alibi
  • Lewis Stone, The Patriot (LOST FILM)

My Vote: Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona

Recommendations:

In Old Arizona may be one of the bottom three least essential Best Actor winning movies, and is entertaining, but isn’t something anyone really needs to see. As far as early sound films go, this one is pretty fun, but most people need not concern themselves with this.

Thunderbolt is moderately engaging, but really only worth it if you want to see more early sound films.

The Valiant is only worth it for Paul Muni. That’s it, really.

Alibi is not something I really recommend. Only worth it if you’re super into the Oscars and/or early sound.

If by some chance you can see The Patriot, you should probably see it. And then save whatever copy you have because the rest of us would be real keen on seeing it too.

The Last Word: Baxter’s the choice for me, and I think he holds up just fine. This is probably the most forgotten Best Actor result in the history of the category. If anyone actually has seen all four of these nominees and actually has an opinion, then you’re automatically right. Nobody here holds up particularly better or worse than anyone else.

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1929-1930

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

Analysis:

This is an interesting category, because this is the first (and only) time people were nominated for multiple roles but only could win for one of them. So you have five actors nominated but eight total films, and an instance where an actor wins for one of his nominations. The right one, granted, between the two, but still.

Disraeli is a biopic of Benjamin Disraeli. But just while he was trying to get control of the Suez Canal.

I don’t remember too much about the movie, except thinking that the performance was admirably fine, and that it fit the category real well. I also remember it feeling like the entire movie took place in a single room. Very theatrical. Plus — I’m pretty sure the whole film is him scheming to get a canal, and then the people who want to stop him from doing this are treated like the bad guys. Which is kinda weird.

Arliss looks like Disraeli. Though the curl is really pronounced here. Almost caricature level. The performance is fine though. And in this category, he easily rates top two in terms of people who would have held up. So I get it. Not sure I take him, since I don’t love the performance. It just makes sense, is all.

The Green Goddess is one of the absolute last films I was able to find on this Quest. Took me forever to get a hold of.

It’s a completely ridiculous early 30s film. The kind they parodied a lot later on. The set up is Lost Horizon and then it turns into a weird campy thriller. A plane crashes in the mountains and this east Asian ruler takes them in… until he finds out their country is gonna kill his brothers. Then he kidnaps them and decides to kill them as retribution. But of course he falls in love with the woman of the group, and she’s his downfall.

The performance is entertaining on a pure watch level, but there’s no way you vote for it in this category. Disraeli is the one to take, even if this one is fun in a very campy sort of way.

The Big House is a prison film. It’s probably the only film in this category that holds up even remotely. Standard progression too. Guy ends up in prison, gets to learn the ropes, goes from naive guy to hardened inmate and “one of the boys.” They plan an escape, but then it doesn’t go well, and there’s a big riot. Usual prison movie deal in these early years.

Wallace Beery plays Morris’s cellmate. He’s the guy you are immediately scared by, but then realize he’s actually nice. And of course he gets to die while also killing the rat who gave them up to the warden.

Beery is awesome here. This is the only performance most people would want to take, if they watched these movies cold. There’s only one issue with it, and it’s something we’ll need to work through in a minute — he’s a supporting character. Chester Morris is the lead, and Beery is supporting. There was no supporting category until 1936, so everything funneled here. He is really great though. So we’ll figure out how that shakes out in a bit.

The Big Pond is Maurice Chevalier. But not a musical. Usually he’s in musicals.

Chevalier wants to marry Claudette Colbert, whose father doesn’t approve. So to gain his approval, he gets a job in the father’s gum factory. Naturally the father makes the managers be extra hard on Chevalier. But Chevalier works his way up, invents a new type of gum and makes the company a lot of money. And he becomes a big executive… but now he has no time for his girl! Wah wahhh.

The film’s okay. Very dated. Chevalier is always amusing. His schtick is being charming and likable and borderline really fucking creepy. It feels okay in these films because this is the Pre-Code era. In the 50s, in shit like Gigi, when he’s 70, it’s creepy as fuck. What he does will hold up well among most people today, but I don’t think anyone can really call them solid performances. They’re just fun. I like him and am not sure I’d really take him.

The Love Parade is the Chevalier musical. The kind he was known for. Sexually overtoned romps.

Jeanette MacDonald is a queen who isn’t married and wants to be. Chevalier is a soldier of the kingdom who sleeps with a lot of women. He’s about to get transferred because he slept with his COs wife. But then the queen meets him and decides she wants to marry him. It’s fun.

This is the classic Chevalier performance. And it’s early enough into the Oscars that you actually could think about voting for him. Not that he needed an Oscar. But you could definitely consider him. Not sure which performance is the better of the two, but at this one definitely represents him better. So there’s that.

Bulldog Drummond is the first of Ronald Colman’s two nominations here. This one is a classic detective movie. They made something like 15 Bulldog Drummond films between 1929 and 1939. He’s more of a “gentleman detective.” So Nick Charles but without the drinking. Or as I like to call it, boring.

He’s a wealthy dude who decides to be a detective and uses his intelligence to solve cases. Standard type of film.

Colman is fine here. He’s charming. This character fits his screen persona. I don’t love the performance enough to want to take it, and most of the time never liked him enough as an actor to really consider voting for him for an Oscar. Plus, between his two nominations, this one really isn’t the one you take.

Condemned is about Colman as a thief who gets sent to an island prison and falls for the warden’s wife. So, Shawshank meets From Here to Eternity. Then the warden throws him in solitary and he decides to escape.

This is the better of the two performances on an acting level, even though Bulldog Drummond is the more entertaining of the two. I guess you could take him, but this doesn’t do a whole lot for me. At this point, I think we can agree that if you’ve actually seen all seven of these performances and can actually explain why you prefer one of them over the others, no one will argue with you. Because this is 1929-1930. If there’s a hyphen in the Oscar year, your opinion is valid.

The Rogue Song is a mostly lost film. There are some segments that can be viewed, but not enough to get any sense of the performance. So it has to remain at the bottom of the list, because we can’t fairly judge it based on what’s survived.

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The Reconsideration: This the category everyone’s been waiting to read about. I know we all have such heated opinions on Best Actor 1929-1930.

This is an easy one to knock out, since three actors are nominated twice, and Lawrence Tibbett cannot accurately be rated (though this is one of those “opera” films and would never get my vote anyway). So Tibbett is out from the top.

Between the Arliss performances, Disraeli is the one.

Between the Chevalier performances, The Love Parade is probably the one, but you can also take The Big Pond as well. I’ll take The Love Parade for my own purposes here.

Between the Colman performances, Condemned is the one.

And Beery is awesome but is clearly supporting.

So four choices.

Colman is weakest for me and comes off first. And as much as I love Maurice Chevalier, I ultimately wouldn’t take him over Arliss or Beery.

So it comes down to Arliss, who gives the performance that looks the best but isn’t my favorite, versus Beery, who gives what I feel is the best performance but is very much a supporting part in his film.

My tiebreaker is this: since there’s only one category and not two, there is no such thing as category fraud. The category is Best Actor. And in this category the best actor, meaning the best performance, was given by Wallace Beery. Since they haven’t differentiated lead from supporting, I have no choice but to take the best performance, which also happens to be my favorite performance. And that’s Wallace Beery.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Wallace Beery, The Big House
  2. George Arliss, Disraeli
  3. Maurice Chevalier, The Love Parade
  4. Maurice Chevalier, The Big Pond
  5. Ronald Colman, Condemned
  6. Ronald Colman, Bulldog Drummond
  7. George Arliss, The Green Goddess
  8. Lawrence Tibbett, The Rogue Song

Rankings (films):

  1. The Love Parade
  2. The Big House
  3. The Big Pond
  4. Disraeli
  5. Condemned
  6. Bulldog Drummond
  7. The Green Goddess
  8. The Rogue Song

My Vote: Wallace Beery, The Big House

Recommendations:

The Big House is the film that will most closely resemble a movie that people would enjoy. I’m thinking of the average film buff, who rarely goes back this far to watch movies. It’s entertaining. I definitely recommend it, but only if you can handle films of this era. Not everyone can. It’s okay to admit that you can’t. But this is an easy one to ease you into early sound films.

The Love Parade is a lot of fun, and really great if you like pre-code musicals. At least one Maurice Chevalier/Jeanette MacDonald should be considered essential. I don’t know if there’s a particular one you need to see, but you should see one of them. And then if you love that, then go see the rest of them.

Condemned is entertaining. Most people can get through this one. It’s not great, but it’s engaging.

Disraeli is fine. Not great, not terrible. Very stagy. Only worth it for Oscar buffs or people studying the era, otherwise most other people won’t get much out of it.

The Big Pond is okay. Not great. Only worth it if you’re watching films of the era or are really into Claudette Colbert or Maurice Chevalier.

Bulldog Drummond is fun. It’s a pulpy, serial-type detective story. If you watch stuff like The Falcon or Dr. Kildare, this is just like that. It’s perfectly entertaining. Only worth seeing if you’re really into movies of this era. Otherwise you’re fine without it.

The Green Goddess is fine. Very reminiscent of all those 30s “thrillers” they made. It’s fine. Not something most people need to see. It’s just fine.

The Rogue Song — if you can see it in its entirety, go for it. Because the rest of us would be real interested in seeing that same copy.

The Last Word: No one here really holds up. That is to say, this category was gonna be forgotten anyway. Colman later got an Oscar (in another forgotten category). Chevalier didn’t need an Oscar. Beery got an Oscar two years after this. Arliss didn’t need an Oscar, but he got one. So sure. And of the performances, Arliss’s makes the most sense on paper. He plays a famous person in a baity type role with a big lead performance. In terms of legitimizing the category, that performance makes the most sense. Beery’s performance holds up best and is the one that most people would take, but I don’t think that legitimizes the category as much as Arliss’s does. So, I think in all, Arliss winning was the best case scenario and the best possible outcome for setting the blueprint for what this category should be. Maybe not “should be” but you know what I mean. What it is. So I think they made the right choice, but I personally would take Beery because I think, from a current day perspective, that he gave the best performance in the category.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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