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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 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.

1932-1933

Leslie Howard, Berkeley Square

Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII

Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Analysis:

Berkeley Square is a weird little fantasy of a film. It’s not that great, but the premise makes it intriguing.

Leslie Howard is a man who inherits a house his family has owned for over a century. Through reading his ancestor’s diary, he discovers that he can use the house to travel back in time, from 1933 to 1784. He goes back and lives his ancestor’s life. Having read the diary, he knows what happens and is determined to let it play out exactly as it had. He falls in love with a woman there, but eventually is forced to come back to his own time.

The premise is interesting, the film doesn’t fully work, but it’s fine. Howard is good, but it’s the usual Leslie Howard we usually get. Not exceptional Leslie Howard, which he is capable of. He’s an easy third in this category, though through no fault of his own. He just isn’t as good as the other two nominees.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a movie about Henry VIII. And his private life. It’s pretty much detailing his relationships with all his wives.

Charles Laughton plays Henry VIII, and this is a very obvious choice for an Oscar. He’s good here, and would normally be a good choice. I think the film is a bit on the nose, very theatrical, and not all that entertaining. Plus — though it doesn’t affect anything here, nor should it, but I must mention it — he’d be better and give better performances in later years. I would probably take him if I had no other alternative, but in this category, there seems to be an alternative.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a classic movie with an awesome title. They don’t title films like this anymore.

Paul Muni gets caught up in a robbery and is sentenced to ten years on a chain gang. Cool Hand Luke style. And conditions are harsh. Real harsh. And the film is mostly about the cruel conditions for prisoners on these chain gangs. Eventually fed up with the inhumane conditions, he escapes. He then goes to Chicago and becomes a respected man, going completely straight. One woman finds out who he is and blackmails him into marriage, even though he’s in love with another woman. Eventually he gets arrested again, though he ends up escaping again, leading to the famous final scene with one of the great final lines in all of cinema.

Muni is incredible here. This is a performance that should have won Best Actor. I get why he didn’t and don’t necessarily advocate that he needed to, but I think this is the best performance in the category (and also, on a side note, Muni winning here might have changed the trajectory of some other Oscar years for what I consider the better). I think most people watching these performances today would concur. Though a lot of that has to do with this film being clearly the best film on the list. I will admit that. But I also think that on pure performance, Muni’s is much more raw and feels more authentic and more cinematic. Call it the changing of times. Whatever you want. This just seems the best choice.

 

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The Reconsideration: For me it’s Muni. I think this is just the most gripping performance in the category, and the one that affects me the most when I watch it. Laughton is doing good work for sure, and between the two, I think most people would say Laughton is more worthy of an Oscar given all his performances over his career (several of which over the next few years did not win (including an unnominated Barretts of Wimpole Street performance the year after this), but in terms of pure performance, I say Muni was best in this one.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
  2. Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII
  3. Leslie Howard, Berkeley Square

My Vote: Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Recommendations:

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is an essential film. All film buffs should see this. The final scene is iconic and it’s so good it actually holds up. See this. You won’t regret it.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is only essential for Oscar buffs. I don’t even really like it as a film. It’s just okay. Light recommend as a film, maybe moderate recommend for most. But unless you’re really into Laughton, the Oscars, or Henry VIII, you don’t much need to bother with this one.

Berkeley Square is a great premise and just an okay film. Very light recommend, and only worth it if you’re really into films of this era. They should remake this now, even if as a BBC miniseries or something, two or three episodes. That would be good.

The Last Word: Laughton holds up because he’s Charles Laughton and because he gave so many great performances over his career. Like Clark Gable the year after this, he won his Oscar before he gave all those performances. So going back, this looks like a good choice because it was the only one. I get it. Plus Muni would win later. But, on pure performance, I think Muni was the best choice and would have held up better. Everything else makes Laughton look like a good choice, and since this is so early in the game, he holds up. Even though no one ever goes back to watch his film as compared to Muni’s.

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1934

Clark Gable, It Happened One Night

Frank Morgan, The Affairs of Cellini

William Powell, The Thin Man

Analysis:

It Happened One Night is a perfect film. This is the first perfect Frank Capra movie. He made at least two more, possibly more.

Claudette Colbert is a spoiled heiress who wants to marry a playboy. It’s pretty clear to everyone but her that he’s only after her money. Her father forbids the marriage. She runs away to go elope with the guy in New York. Clark Gable is a newspaperman who finds her at a bus station and makes a deal with his editor to get the exclusive story for a lot of money. (Very Roman Holiday.) So he goes with her on the bus (since she has no money and has no idea how the real world works) and keeps her sheltered from other reporters while he gets the story. And naturally they fall in love at the same time.

Gable is awesome here. It’s a pure star power performance. It’s not great acting by any stretch, but this was really the last year where you could get by on pure star power and nothing else. Especially given the category. As far as actors go, Gable was certainly worth an Oscar, and he looks good as a winner. But can one categorically say he was better than William Powell in this category? Not really. You can prefer him, but you always have to bring in outside factors other than the performance in order to justify it. Not that he isn’t deserving, I just like to point that out.

The Affairs of Cellini is a movie that no one sees at all nowadays. I didn’t even know what it was until I watched it for this Quest.

Fredric March plays a dude named Cellini. He’s a regular dude who is known for seducing scores of women. People are in awe of him and say he has mystical powers, by the way he is able to seduce women. Enter the Duke and Duchess. The Duke is sleeping with a younger woman and is hiding it from his wife. And the Duchess decides she wants to fuck Cellini. So the film is mostly about the Duke and Duchess trying to hide their respective affairs from one another. And the Duke ends up enlisting Cellini to help him keep the affair from his wife, not knowing Cellini’s sleeping with the wife. It’s pretty funny, all things considered.

Frank Morgan plays the Duke, and it’s a very Frank Morgan performance. Think of him in The Wizard of Oz and you know what I mean. He’s good here, but clearly third of three. He’s borderline supporting, but works as a lead. Either way, Gable and Powell are head and shoulders above him here.

The Thin Man is my favorite film of all time, and I say that at the top to let you know that I am extremely biased when it comes to this category. But I also think that my opinion is actually legitimate too, which makes me wonder if it is bias or not.

William Powell is Nick Charles, a detective who has married a rich socialite and retired to go live off her money. She’s heard stories about how he works and wants to see him try a case. But all he wants to do is drink. And then the daughter of an old friend of his says her father went missing and that she’s worried about him. And, despite his best efforts to not be involved in the case, ends up right in the middle of it. It’s one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s perfect on every level.

William Powell is amazing here. It’s hard not to love him. This is his signature role. He played it five times after this, he was so good in it. He’s my vote, and he’ll always be my vote. The only question is whether or not he’s better than Clark Gable.

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The Reconsideration: I will always take William Powell here. Between him and Gable — it’s close. Neither gives a Shakespearean effort, but they’re both really solid with a lot of charm and star power. I think it’s a 50/50 call. Gable seems like the obvious winner based on a lot of outside reasons, but I think Powell is equally worth taking. Either works, and since Powell is in my favorite film of all time, he’s gonna be my choice.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. William Powell, The Thin Man
  2. Clark Gable, It Happened One Night
  3. Frank Morgan, The Affairs of Cellini

My Vote: William Powell, The Thin Man

Recommendations:

It Happened One Night is one of the 100 most essential American movies ever made.

The Thin Man is essential for all film buffs. Don’t make me fight you.

The Affairs of Cellini is a fun movie. Not essential, and not for everyone. Solid recommend though, especially if it happens to be on TCM and you’ve got 80 minutes to kill.

The Last Word: Of course Gable holds up. Gable was well worth an Oscar and delivered enough performances later to more than earn this. Sure, this isn’t his best acting, but he fits here and holds up. Powell would have held up too. But Gable is a great choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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