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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 1935-1936)

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.

1935

Clark Gable, Mutiny on the Bounty

Charles Laughton, Mutiny on the Bounty

Victor McLaglen, The Informer

Franchot Tone, Mutiny on the Bounty

Paul Muni, Black Fury

Analysis:

Mutiny on the Bounty is a great film. One of the all-time greats. They remade this twice, both times really big budget affairs. Neither really ever captured the greatness of this one.

Captain Bligh is a cruel taskmaster who treats his men like shit. The men eventually mutiny and steal the ship from him, marooning him and those loyal to him out to sea and taking the ship to Tahiti, where they live with all the island girls in paradise. Bligh, however, is a skilled seaman, and navigates his way to safety using only the stars. He then gets a ship and tracks down his mutineers, determined to bring them all to justice.

Charles Laughton plays Captain Bligh. Clark Gable plays Christian Fletcher, the head mutineer. Franchot Tone plays a sailor who is friends with Christian but loyal to Bligh. He isn’t involved in the mutiny but ends up becoming a target of Bligh’s when they are found. And despite all evidence to the contrary, Bligh refuses to go easy on him when the court martial happens.

So, of the three performances, here’s what they are:

Franchot Tone is a supporting performance, and there wouldn’t be a proper category for him until the year after this. Were this in a supporting category, he may well have won it. Here, he falls victim two the other two, who are much stronger for other reasons. He might give the second best actual performance of the two, but I’d still look to take Gable over him for other reasons.

Clark Gable is unquestioningly the star of the film. He’s the big leading role and the one the audiences are coming to see and root for. But…

Charles Laughton is clearly the one with the best performance, the best role and the best everything else. Gable is the star, Laughton is the one you vote for. He’ll be in the top two come decision time.

The Informer is a John Ford film that’s not really remembered, but is really solid. Simplistic, but well made and well acted.

Gypo Nolan is a poor Irishman who dreams of going to America. His friend is wanted by the police, and Gypo sells out his friend for basically thirty pieces of silver, which he’s gonna use to get to America. And from the minute he does it, he is wracked by guilt, which eventually becomes his downfall.

It’s a very strong performance by McLaglen, especially when he is “put on trial” by the IRA. The story is that John Ford would fuck with McLaglen, and tell him that he didn’t have to work the next day until the afternoon, knowing McLaglen would go out and get drunk, and then call him in the morning and have him play the scene hungover and feeling like shit, which owes to his look throughout those scenes. Hey, whatever works.

McLaglen is really solid here, and in a straight up toss-up between him and Laughton, I would probably take him. Especially if you factor in the Laughton win. Though it’s not over just yet, which I’ll get to in a minute. Laughton is top two though.

Black Fury is a film I’ll get into the logistics of in a minute. But since it’s sort of a nominee, we’ll discuss it.

Paul Muni is an immigrant miner who gets caught between a war between the striking union and the mining company. Eventually when his friend is murdered by the company’s hired thugs, he is forced to choose a side. The movie ends with him fighting his friend’s murderer in a collapsed tunnel that had been blown up by dynamite.

The film gets a bit over the top, but Muni is solid. I liked him better in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but this one is definitely solid. I never really go in for these “immigrant” roles, with actors doing accents, in this early era. I don’t know why. He rates solidly, but isn’t someone I’d vote for in this. The performance doesn’t hold up as well as it must have looked in 1935.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’m going to start by dealing with Paul Muni.

Paul Muni was not officially nominated for this award. This was one of the two years where the Academy allowed write-in candidates. This happened as a result of Bette Davis in 1934. So people were allowed to write in whoever they wanted to write in. And because of that, Muni ended up finishing second in the vote. Which is why he won so easily the year after this. Like Bette Davis. He loses in what feels like a travesty, and then walks home with an award the year after.

It has been my policy throughout this reconsideration to not deal with the write-in years because it was only twice. And really only three years in all, if you count 1934, where all the stuff began. I’m not going to change my methodology for those three years and say, “Well, they allowed write ins, so I’m just gonna add whoever I want.” Not sure how that works or would work. However, since he did come second in the voting, and were I in 1935, there’s no way I, as someone in tune with the Oscars, wouldn’t know or have seen his performance, I will consider it something worth voting for in this case.

I just wanted to get that out there, to explain in some detail how I’m going about this, since these three years are oddities in terms of how we’re used to voting for the Oscars.

Also, that all said, I wouldn’t take Muni here. He’s good, but not as good, to me, as he was in Chain Gang, and not as good as at least two other performances in the category. I’d take him over Gable (who I’d put as fifth, even though he is solid in the film), and I may take him over Tone, who is more supporting, but I like what Tone did with his role, and since there are no supporting categories yet, that one’s tough. But still, Laughton and McLaglen rate better than both of them. So it doesn’t really matter.

Between Laughton and McLaglen — I have two lines of thought on this. Knowing Laughton had won already, if presented these two in the moment, I might have taken McLaglen. I probably would have taken McLaglen, who is very strong. But, on the other hand, Laughton creates the most iconic character in the category. And he had Ruggles of Red Gap this year, which is just a tremendous film and a tremendous performance. And ultimately, in this iteration of the Oscar Quest, that’s what puts him over the top for me. In a straight up one for one scenario, I can find reasons to take McLaglen over Laughton. Namely Laughton winning before and his Bligh being good, but somewhat too over the top evil. It works, but I think I could take McLaglen over him if really presented just those two. But with Ruggles of Red Gap in there, I gotta take Laughton. That’s the tiebreaker. He deserved this one. But I get why he didn’t win.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Charles Laughton, Mutiny on the Bounty
  2. Victor McLaglen, The Informer
  3. Franchot Tone, Mutiny on the Bounty
  4. Paul Muni, Black Fury*
  5. Clark Gable, Mutiny on the Bounty

Rankings (films):

  1. Mutiny on the Bounty
  2. The Informer
  3. Black Fury*

My Vote: Charles Laughton, Mutiny on the Bounty

Recommendations:

Mutiny on the Bounty is an iconic film, a great film, a classic story, and this is the best version. Essential all around. No film buff should skip this.

The Informer is close to being essential. Probably not, except for Oscar buffs, but it’s great. High recommend at worst. John Ford, and it won Best Director and Best Actor. Chances are, as a film buff, you will come across this at some point. So just see it. Because it’s really good.

Black Fury is not an official nominee, so you don’t really need to count it. It’s also just okay. If it’s on TCM, go for it. Otherwise no need to seek it out.

The Last Word: McLaglen holds up well enough. Laughton would have been the best overall winner, but I don’t think he needed two. He’d have looked best if he won for this instead of 1932/33 and then Muni won there. (And then someone else could have won that category instead.) On its own, McLaglen and Laughton were the best choices. Either would have held up. I guess Laughton would have looked the best based on the role, but I don’t know if this category is all that remembered. I say McLaglen was fine. Maybe Laughton was better. They didn’t do poorly here.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1936

Gary Cooper, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Walter Huston, Dodsworth

Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur

William Powell, My Man Godfrey

Spencer Tracy, San Francisco

Analysis:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is our second classic Frank Capra film on this list.

Everyone knows this movie (and god help you if you’re a film buff and only know this story through the Adam Sandler version). A small town man inherits a bunch of money from a dead relative. He’s taken to New York and learns about big city life, all the while falling in love and having the dead guy’s company men try to get the money away from him.

Gary Cooper plays Deeds, and he’s great here. Eminently likable, with a lot of great comic moments. It’s a classic Gary Cooper performance. He won’t always give you range, but he’ll give you a steady presence you can root for. I wouldn’t take him, but I could see how he might have almost won this. I’d probably rate him a solid third in this one.

Dodsworth is one of the great hidden gems of all of cinema. When I first saw this, I was amazed that I hadn’t heard about it, and that everyone hadn’t heard about it and considered it an all-time classic. Since then, it’s kind of out there, but not at the level it should be.

Walter Huston is a man who built a car company from the ground up. He is now ready to retire, having made his millions. After years of hard work and no time for his family, he’s going to take his wife on a cruise of Europe. Though very quickly into the cruise, he realizes he may not know who his wife really is at all. He wants to go and do touristy things and see the country, and she wants to hang around with the upper class people and network. She quickly grabs the arm of a count, and he goes to see the sites alone. He finds another divorcee (or maybe she’s a widow) and they hit it off. And the rest of the film is this beautiful meditation on aging and him realizing the life he thought he was making isn’t quite the one he has.

Huston is absolutely incredible here, and he’s one of those actors you always find yourself being impressed by in films, even though he never quite had the stature of some of the other actors of his generation. Only those in the know recognize how great he is.

On pure performance alone, he is the choice. This was always a category that had its own quirks and logistical factors, but on pure performance, this is the one.

The Story of Louis Pasteur is a pretty self-explanatory title. Louis Pasteur has to fight the idiot scientists who refute his idea that diseases are cured by microbes and helps develop a cure for anthrax.

Paul Muni plays Pasteur. It’s an admirable performance. This is a lot like Bette Davis in 1935, where she clearly won because it was thought of as a “snub” the year before. He’s fine, but this feels like a by the numbers, “safe” performance. Not something I’d take, even though clearly one that they would normally vote for. Maybe he’s a second choice here. Not one I’d take. It’s one of those solid seconds that I might even have third for the vote, just because it doesn’t feel great, just very good.

My Man Godfrey is one of the all-time great comedies.

William Powell is a homeless man picked up in the city dump by a rich family on a scavenger hunt. He decides to play along, if only to help the likable, ditzy sister beat her older, bitchy sister. She then decides to hire him as the family butler. And he begins working at the house, seeing how insane all these people are, and also falling in love with the ditzy daughter at the same time. Or rather, she falls in love with him and he starts to feel some fondness for her.

Powell is good here, but this feels a lot like a “typical” William Powell performance. So much of this is him reacting to the insanity of the family and getting a few sarcastic, dry retorts. There’s not a whole lot of real acting here, and I’m surprised he got nominated for this and not for The Great Ziegfeld. Not that the Ziegfeld performance is a feat of great acting, but because at least there, it’s a big movie that won Best Picture, a biopic, and he’s playing a man they all held in high esteem, who got a lot of people who became movie stars work on the stage. Still, on performance alone, he’s fourth. I’d want to take him, but I really would only do it because I want to get him an Oscar. Even with both performances, he might still only be a second or third choice at best. I can’t truly say this was the best performance.

San Francisco is a film that I love. I had no real idea what it was gonna be about, which tuned out to be the best thing that could happen.

The first half of the film is a love triangle of sorts between Spencer Tracy, a priest, Clark Gable, his best friend, a saloon owner and sort of gangster (but not really), and Jeanette MacDonald, a nightclub singer and Gable’s girlfriend. She gets an offer to be a real time singer and wants to take it, but Gable doesn’t want to let her go, which causes tensions. Tracy tries to convince Gable to see reason, and Gable seems completely unrepentant in every way. Eventually, the whole thing reaches a fever pitch, which is exactly when the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 hits. And the film turns into a disaster movie.

I quite liked this. Because the first half held my attention just enough to get me slowly invested in everything, and then boom, earthquake. Which was awesome. I loved the disaster sequences here.

Tracy is fine as the priest. He’s his usual self. I don’t much love the performance, and consider him an easy fifth here. This is a starter nomination, and he springboarded this into two consecutive wins. This one, though — doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: On pure performance alone, Walter Huston is by far the best. And since that’s what I’m doing this time, picking what I feel is the best performance, he’s gonna be my vote.

I get Paul Muni winning. He’d be my second choice on performance, and I can see why he was the overwhelming choice, given that he almost won the year before this on write-in votes alone. I can also see why some people would want to take Gary Cooper as well.

Powell, given the two performances this year, might get some consideration, but no one would want to vote for him more than I would, and I still wouldn’t take him on pure performance. I’d take him because I love him and love both his films.

Huston is the choice on performance. He’s — awesome.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Walter Huston, Dodsworth
  2. Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur
  3. Gary Cooper, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  4. William Powell, My Man Godfrey
  5. Spencer Tracy, San Francisco

Rankings (films):

  1. My Man Godfrey
  2. Dodsworth
  3. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  4. San Francisco
  5. The Story of Louis Pasteur

My Vote: Walter Huston, Dodsworth

Recommendations:

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is essential, and I think we all know this. All film buffs need to see this, and especially those who have no idea this exists but have only seen that… other version… instead.

My Man Godfrey is one of the all-time great comedies. An essential film. All film buffs need to see this. And it’s public domain, which means you can find it literally anywhere. There’s no excuse to not have seen this. It’s also only 96 minutes. It’s amazing. You need to see this if you love movies.

Dodsworth is essential. Don’t argue, don’t think about it, just see it. This is one of the best films of the 30s that almost nobody remembers anymore. This should be looked at as an all-time classic, and no one seems to know this exists. It is incredible, and much like Make Way for Tomorrow, I will pound the drum for this film until it gets recognized as such.

San Francisco is awesome. I love this movie. The disaster sequences are some of the best put on screen in this era. The first half is just okay/pretty good, but it’s also Gable, Tracy and MacDonald, which is worth watching in and of itself. But watch this for the disaster scenes. Trust me, if you’ve seen a lot of films of this era, you will be impressed by them. I’d call this a high recommend.

The Story of Louis Pasteur is only essential for Oscar buffs. There are a lot of standard biopic films of this era, and this is no different. Solid performance, good film, solid recommend, but not something you really need to see unless you’re really into the Oscar or into 30s films. Deep queue/TCM kind of film.

The Last Word: Muni holds up as a winner. I used to think this was a poor year for him to win, but honestly, it’s fine. Tracy would get two, Cooper would get two, Huston would win for Supporting Actor, which fits who he is and what he’s best known for. And Powell never did win, which is a shame, but honestly, Muni gave a better performance than he did. So I get it. I’m not necessary happy with the way they did it, but the result is ultimately fine, even though Walter Huston has, to me, held up as the overall best performance in the category.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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