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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 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.

1930-1931

Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul

Jackie Cooper, Skippy

Richard Dix, Cimarron

Fredric March, The Royal Family of Broadway

Adolph Menjou, The Front Page

Analysis:

A Free Soul is a melodrama. Pre-code melodrama to boot.

Norma Shearer is the daughter of Lionel Barrymore, an alcoholic defense attorney. Barrymore gets Clark Gable, a gangster, off on a murder charge. Gable then starts dating Shearer’s daughter. And Barrymore, knowing who Gable is, tries to get his daughter to stop seeing him. It doesn’t go well. Eventually he ex-boyfriend kills Gable and Barrymore has to defend him, culminating in a trial scene that is generally thought of as the reason he won this award. That and the fact that he’s Lionel Barrymore.

Barrymore is fine here, but the movie is very melodramatic and doesn’t hold up. But at the time, I can see why he, and the role, resonated with voters. I wouldn’t take him, but I can see why he won.

Skippy is a movie based on a comic strip. I always thought that was odd and never forgot it.

It’s about a young boy who finds a lost dog with his friend, who lives in a nearby shantytown. They care for the dog, until it gets picked up by the local dogcatcher, who tells them they need to raise a certain amount of money in order to legally free the dog. So they go around, trying to get the money. It’s a simple story, well told.

Jackie Cooper was incredible in this movie. I was really taken by the film and by his performance. I loved them both. A lot of people will disagree. He probably comes across as a whiny, annoying child to some. I get it. But I loved the film and the performance. That’s just me. To each his own.

Cimarron is a solid western. It actually sort of transcends the western genre and becomes a bit of a historical adventure film.

Richard Dix plays an adventurous type, who can’t resist the call to adventure. He hears about the opening of land in Oklahoma and uproots his family to go out there. So we watch as they run out there with the other land rushers, and stake out a little piece of land for themselves. And then he starts a newspaper in the town, which becomes a giant publication and makes him and his family rich. And just when things are totally settled, he gets the call to adventure again, and leaves them to go further west, leaving his wife in charge of the business.

Dix is fine here. He’s entertaining here. Doesn’t do a whole lot of pure acting. Probably fifth in the category on pure performance, fourth on a vote, just because I wouldn’t take March at all. Not someone I’d vote for here.

The Royal Family of Broadway is a parody of the Barrymore family. Which probably means nothing now, but was known at the time. Anyone watching films of this era knows the Barrymores — John, Ethal, Lionel. Hell, Lionel won this category. And the film is basically a parody of them.

March is playing, essentially, John Barrymore. And that’s it. It’s a parody. No real characterization there. He’s just doing a version of John Barrymore. Not sure why he was nominated, but he’s here, so we rate him. I rate him an easy fifth in the category, and it’s hard to put him higher than fourth for pretty much anyone going through this category.

The Front Page is one of the most famous film stories of all time. They’ve been putting it on as a film or play for almost 90 years now. (His Girl Friday, for those who don’t recognize it by this title.)

The editor of a newspaper is about to lose his star reporter because of marriage, and into their laps falls a giant news story — a man convicted of murder escapes from prison the night before he is to be executed. He ends up in a roll top desk in the reporter’s room across from the prison. The editor holds him there, believing his story that he is innocent and has been framed, and coerces his star reporter (through ego) to stay and cover the story, all while hiding the murderer from police and fellow press.

Adolphe Menjou plays the editor, the Cary Grant role, and is awesome in it. It’s a well written role and it’s almost impossible not to look good in it. Menjou is also a good actor and knows exactly what to do with a role like this. I could see taking him here, and I suspect a lot of people would, owing to it being the best remembered film on this list. That tends to happen with people. They equate “best film” or “best remembered film” as “best performance.” And that’s fine. As long as you’ve seen all the performances and can make an argument that backs up the decision. He does rate highly for me. Probably top two. Not sure I take him though, even though he is worth taking.

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The Reconsideration: I get the Barrymore vote, but I wouldn’t go there. The actor is there, the role is there, but the performance is just okay. And the film is somewhat over the top, much of it owing to the era. I just didn’t like it enough to take it, that’s my deal.

March is a blank and I wouldn’t take Dix over Barrymore, so that leaves Menjou and Cooper. And I should take Menjou, but I honestly prefer the Cooper performance. So I’m gonna stick with Cooper. I just really like the film and performance and have no stake in the rest of the category. So I’ll just take my favorite and let the chips fall where they will.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Jackie Cooper, Skippy
  2. Adolphe Menjou, The Front Page
  3. Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul
  4. Richard Dix, Cimarron
  5. Fredric March, The Royal Family of Broadway

Rankings (films):

  1. Skippy
  2. Cimarron
  3. The Front Page
  4. A Free Soul
  5. The Royal Family of Broadway

My Vote: Jackie Cooper, Skippy

Recommendations:

Skippy is incredible. I love this film so much and think it holds up. If you watch The Little Rascals, this is very much in that ilk. Almost entirely starring children and even, in a way, for children. It’s great. Jackie Cooper is astounding and it’s just a really terrific film. Is it essential? No. Not unless you’re an Oscar buff, given the Best Director. But I recommend this movie very highly. I think film buffs should see this because it’s really good.

Cimarron is a classic western, a classic film. Of sorts. Almost like a pre-classic. Of the early Oscar era. They remade this in 1961, but no one really saw that or remembers that. This is the one. But mostly if you’re into the Oscars. It’s a solid film. I like it a lot. It’s not something casual or even moderate film buffs ever need to see or would want to see. Hardcore film buffs should check this out. But for people who just love old movies, this is totally worth seeing. Plus, as a Best Picture winner, why would you want to skip it?

The Front Page is an iconic that they’re still telling. It’s on Broadway even now. And if you saw His Girl Friday, you know how great a story it is. This version is solid. Worth seeing and an easy watch when you know the story. As far as versions go, His Girl Friday, while not the same exact version as this one, is the best. So you’re okay without this. But this one is pretty awesome and worth a watch. Very famous 30s film. Essential for the decade, but not necessarily for all time.

A Free Soul is okay. Worth it because of the cast. Shearer, Barrymore winning the Oscar, and Clark Gable making himself a star with the part. Highly recommend as far as 30s and pre-code films go, and just moderate recommend as a film on its own.

The Royal Family of Broadway is a forgotten movie and not that great, really. It’s interesting because it’s basically a parody of a famous family at the time, but that’s about the extent of it. Not something most people need to bother with.

The Last Word: Hard to argue with Lionel Barrymore as a Best Actor winner. Another nominee in the category was in a film that was parodying him. He was a big deal at the time and won in an era where he could win for lead and be an appropriate winner. Fast forward a decade and he’d be a shoo-in Supporting winner. Like his sister was. So, in all, they made the best choice. But I was really impressed by Jackie Cooper and think he’d have been a great winner on performance alone. But he wouldn’t have held up as well as Barrymore. So they made the right choice here.

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– – – – – – – – – –

1931-1932

Wallace Beery, The Champ

Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Alfred Lunt, The Guardsman

Analysis:

The Champ is a famous story. They’ve remade this at least twice, and the story is one that just about every film buff knows simply by being alive. I feel like I’ve seen them redo this a bunch in cartoons and stuff growing up.

A former heavyweight champ is now retired, a drunk, and takes care of his son. He tries desperately to clean himself up, mount a comeback, and be a role model for his son. Of course it culminates in a championship fight, and has one of the most famous final scenes in the history of cinema.

Wallace Beery totally earned this Oscar. It was a tie, so really the only decision to make is whether or not you take him or March. Otherwise, he was totally worth the vote and the win here.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a really famous story that I don’t have to waste a second explaining to you.

The beauty of this film is the camera tricks and use of makeup. It was a pioneering makeup job, this film. And I think a lot of that, plus March playing two roles, is what put him over the top and got him the votes. It’s a solid performance. Not sure it feels like something I’d take for Best Actor, but you could certainly make that argument. This category is always between him and Beery, and that’s pretty obvious from the jump.

The Guardsman is a really fun film that just does not hold up. But it’s still fun.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, an actual married couple, play a married acting couple. They bicker all the time and their marriage is getting stale, so he orchestrates a ruse. He pretends he’s going away for the weekend and then comes back disguised as a Russian soldier to see if she’ll have an affair with him and “catch her in the act.” And that’s pretty much the movie. In the end she reveals she knew it was him all along, of course.

It’s a fun movie. Though very clear that Lunt is third choice in this category. No one would take him, nor should they. The film is very theatrical, and he and his wife were a famous stage couple. Completely get the nomination, but it doesn’t hold up at all, especially against the other two nominees.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Beery for me. I just like the film, the role, and his performance too much to not take him. March is good, but I think Beery is better. So I’m fine with the tie, but Beery is the one I vote for.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category and films):

  1. Wallace Beery, The Champ
  2. Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  3. Alfred Lunt, The Guardsman

My Vote: Wallace Beery, The Champ

Recommendations:

The Champ is an iconic film. When going through film history and picking the most essential or important films, it’s hard not to mention this one. It’s not maybe first tier essential like some others, but it’s definitely one you need to check out as a student of film history. It’s iconic on a lot of levels, and won Best Actor. As far as the 30s go, this is definitely an essential film.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a story everyone knows and one that doesn’t really have an iconic film version, but also one where there doesn’t need to be. But this is definitely worth watching for the makeup job and how well the special effects are done in an era where special effects aren’t exactly advanced. Solid recommend for film, very high recommend, if not essential for the 30s as a decade, and essential for Oscar buffs.

The Guardsman is a film I really like. Not a great film, per se, and just moderately entertaining for most, but I like it. So moderate recommend for most, solid recommend for those really into films of this era. Not essential, but I enjoy it, if that means anything.

The Last Word: Well, sure, they made the right decision. The two best performances won. And basically the entire category won. So you can’t say they did poorly here. Beery, to me, was the best choice and if there were a single winner, but since there were two winners, there’s not a whole lot of negative to say here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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