Friday, July 3, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1937

The Contenders:

Irene Dunne: The Awful Truth
Greta Garbo: Camille
Luise Rainer: The Good Earth (winner)
Janet Gaynor: A Star is Born
Barbara Stanwyck: Stella Dallas

What’s Missing

I have to say, I think the Academy did pretty well this year. As I went through the films from 1937 that I’ve seen, I think most of the nominations I would put forth are the nomations that are already here. If I needed to add anyone, Katherine Hepburn for Stage Door is probably the add. That said, I like Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball more. Still, that’s an addition I’d be fine with, and the closest thing to a snub I can find.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Putting Garbo at the bottom here says less about Greta Garbo than it does about the fairly repellent Camille. I had nothing good to say about this movie when I watched it and nothing good to say about it now. I don’t doubt that Garbo did everything she was asked to do by her director, but in this case, she was led astray. The character is annoying and I felt nothing when she met her fate at the end. I even like Garbo in most roles…just not this one.

4. While fifth place was easy, fourth place was a lot harder. Ultimately, I’m sticking Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth here more for the film than for her as well. It’s hard not to like Irene Dunne or her obvious chemistry with Cary Grant, but the film is complete fluff. These aren’t interesting characters or people worth spending time with. I like what Dunne did with a character who has (if I may refer to my review) the emotional depth of a saucer, but it’s not enough to move her above fourth place.

3: Had I been voting in 1938, I’d probably rank Janet Gaynor higher than third. I think she does a lot with her role in A Star is Born. The problem here is that I’m looking at this in 2015 having seen the remake with Judy Garland and realizing that Garland handled the part even better than Gaynor did. I have no complaints about her, save that I like the other two performances better. I think an argument could be made for her, but I’m not the person to do it. That’s what the comments are for.

2: Luise Rainer won this award, and I’m not completely convinced that she was the wrong pick. She doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue in The Good Earth; it’s much more Paul Muni’s movie in that respect. However, Rainer is the heart of the film, the emotional core of the story that we are told, and she handles this with a quiet dignity that stands out. She embodies the philosophy of her character perfectly, and it’s probably the best performance of her career. Again, it’s just not my favorite.

My Choice

1: Regular readers of this blog know of my undying and unbridled love for Barbara Stanwyck. Stella Dallas is not her best movie, but it is her best performance. This is the movie that proved that she could not merely be sexy and entertaining on screen but could actually act and could demonstrate emotional range on camera. The end of the film is truly heartbreaking and probably the greatest moment of everything she did on screen. She shouldn’t have won every year she was nominated (no, really), but if she won any, this is the one that should’ve been hers.

Final Analysis


  1. I will not argue with you on Stanwyck getting the award. She was awesome in that movie. I will though plead a case for Irene Dunne, though I know it is mainly because I have a sweet spot for that movie. Her role is not Oscar material, but she was able to play up to Cary Grant and that is no easy feat. Agree on Camile. Not Garbo's greatest moment.

    1. This and Double indemnity are the films that made me a Stanwyck fan. I love a lot of her other movies, too, but she is really fantastic in Stella Dallas.

  2. I've seen all the performances and it would be have been 100% Irene Dunne for me. Of course, I love the movie as well. But if I had known when I voted that Stanwyck would never get the Oscar I would have had to vote for her. I probably would have gone for her performance in Double Indemnity over this one. She is also delicious in The Lady Eve. Commediennes always get shafted.

    1. I like all of Stanwyck's Oscar nominations, Double Indemnity in particular behind Stella Dallas. As it happens, I like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, but the character is so lightweight that I have a hard time justifying her for the win, good as she is.

  3. I haven't seen The Good Earth or A Star Is Born. And I'm as big a Barbara Stanwyck fan as just about anybody.

    But I'd still give it to Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth. I've seen that movie over and over and it's always great! I think SJ was in a bad mood or something when he saw The Awful Truth and he should really see it again. (Maybe not. He also dislikes Bringing Up Baby for similar reasons and that's another one I find hilarious.)

    Stanwyck is great in Stella Dallas and it definitely has its moments. But the movie itself is kind of STUPID. (Not nearly as stupid as Camille,)

    I should probably be embarrassed that I've never seen The Good Earth or A Star Is Born. I should keep my eyes open for the next time they show on TCM.

    1. I really dislike both The Good Earth and Louise Dressler in it but I think that's just me. Picture Walter Connelly as a Chinese and you will have a lot of what I hate about the movie. Then Dressler's acting is kind of wandering around with a vacant dazed expression that makes her look simple as far as I am concerned. I will admit I am an outlier on my opinion though.

    2. Check that review of The Awful Truth; I did review it favorably. My issue with it is strictly that it's lightweight and fluffy and that the characters are superficial and generally unlikeable. I stand by that as someone who holds Cary Grant in the highest esteem.

      I'll disagree on Stella Dallas as well. There's a sense of real people here--people who want something out of life and can't attain it because of their own problems or short-sightedness. Stanwyck plays Stella as a real person, and she's complemented well by Alan Hale, who is more or less a tragic clown in his role. There's a depth to the character here that The Awful Truth lacks.

      That's not Dunne's fault, but it is the reality of what appears on the screen.

    3. @Marie--we were evidently posting right about the same time. We'll disagree on The Good Earth. I like Rainer in the role certainly more than I liked her in The Great Zeigfeld, and barring Stanwyck, I'd give her the Oscar she won.

    4. The acting in Stella Dallas is top-notch. Anne Shirley and Alan Hale are great, and we've already discussed Stanwyck's all around awesomeness. (I know I'm supposed to pick Double Indemnity as my favorite - and yes, it's a great movie that I've seen a bunch of times - but my favorite Stanwyck movie is Night Nurse,)

      I was totally sucked into Stella Dallas while I was watching it. The whole scene at the country club is just AMAZING. Alternately hilarious and heart-breaking in a way that is seldom seen in the movies.

      But seconds after Stella was driven away by the cops after her watching in the rain while her daughter got married, I started thinking "wait a minute."

      Stella's sacrifice is stupid. I really just don't see why the only two choices are 1. "go away forever" and 2. "dress badly, act obnoxious, embarrass daughter beyond endurance and ruin her life."

      Really. How much brain power do you need to come up with a compromise? Especially considering how understanding Anne Shirley's step-mother is. How about helping Stella with her clothes when she attends the wedding?

      And instead of going away forever and pretending that her daughter means so little to her, maybe she could just live in New Jersey and still visit.

      I understand why it's a classic and I get why people love it. Heck, I love it. I mentioned how I bought it hook, line and sinker when I first watched it.

      But The Awful Truth is nonstop hilarious. It may be fluff - depending on how you define fluff - but it's a near-perfect movie and there's a lot to be said for a near-perfect hilarious comedy, even if it is fluff.

      The scene at the night club kills me every time. Cary Grant's girlfriend and her "Gone with the Wind" number. And then Cary Grant taunting and teasing Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy until they get out on the dance floor.

      And at the end, where Irene Dunne decides to ruin Cary Grant's new romance by showing up at the party and pretending to be his crazy sister. When introduced to the prospective father-in-law, I love it where she says "I'd never have recognized you from HIS description."

      Irene Dunne just makes it LOOK easy.

    5. You can type in all-caps as much as you like; you're not going to convince me that The Awful Truth is anything more than a goofy comedy populated by people with the emotional depth of a dinner plate. I agree that it's a worthwhile film, but there's no substance to it. It's cinematic candy; no nutritional value. As good as it is, it's lacking in ambition.

      Stella Dallas as a film had ambition the way Stella Dallas as a character had ambition. I have more respect for that.

  4. Well, thanks for allowing me to use all-caps as much as I want. Which was twice in a 500-word comment. Once in support of Stanwyck and once in support of Dunne.

    1. I'm just playin' man. It's just a blog.

    2. HEY! "A Star Is Born" is PLAYING on TCM on TUESDAY! Been WANTING to see it for YEARS!

    3. It's worth your time. I don't think it's as good as the Judy Garland/James Mason one, but it's solid.

    4. I saw the 1937 version of A Star Is Born last night and it was a delight from start to finish. I'm kind of mad at myself for resisting it for so long just because I thought it might be boring.

      It was really cool to see some of my favorite character actors, like Andy Devine (who was credited), George Chandler (the delivery boy, who thinks Fredric March is Mr. Lester), Franklin Pangborn (a radio announcer/gossip columnist) and Vince Barnett (as Otto, the photographer that keeps pissing March off).

      Also, a Dorothy Parker screenplay! I'm surprised I didn't see it earlier just because of this.

      I was wondering if A Star Is Born was based on the real life of anybody in particular, so I looked it up online and it's often rumored that it was inspired by Barbara Stanwyck and her first husband Frank Fay! They married when Stanwyck was a struggling showgirl and Frank Fay was a Broadway star. (They were in the same show when they met.)

      Stanwyck's star rose pretty quickly after her movie career took off, but Fay only made a few pictures. And he was an awful awful awful person. He couldn't get along with anybody. He was worse than Norman Maine! Supposedly Milton Berle punched him in the face when Fay said "Get that Jew bastard off the stage!"

      Another reason I'm glad I saw this is that I was able to see Janet Gaynor in a sound film. One of my favorite movies ever is Sunrise, and I've seen it a bunch of times over the years. Janet Gaynor is really good! But I've never seen another movie with her in it.

      None of that makes me change my mind that Irene Dunne should have won in 1937.

  5. I have not seen that version of A Star is Born yet. I've seen the other four. Of them, the movie I liked the least was Stella Dallas. I felt it was a stupid story since it was so avoidable. There was a comment earlier discussing that, so I won't revisit it.

    Of the four films, the only one whose performance made a significant enough impression on me that I can recall it now was Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. That doesn't necessarily mean she was the best, of course, but simply the most memorable.

    1. I can see that. I don't agree, but I can see it.

  6. This is a strong year with so many terrific performances that didn't make the cut but all five of these are excellent. I like Garbo in Camille although she wouldn't be my winner.

    I think Luise Rainer getting the award the year before was a travesty but she's absolutely the best thing about The Good Earth, I thought Muni was bad but then he's an actor who I think is wonderful in his everyman roles like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and affectedly arch in his heavy makeup roles like this and Emile Zola. Anyway if it hadn't been for another amazing performance in the line up she would have been my choice to take this year's prize.

    My list of nominees would be somewhat different from the academy's-Beulah Bondi-Make Way for Tomorrow, Luise Rainer-The Good Earth, Ginger Rogers-Stage Door, Sylvia Sidney-Dead End and Barbara Stanwyck-Stella Dallas but my winner would be the same as yours.

    It's Stanwyck in a walk. She is a revelation in a role that could have been a hoary old chestnut and she really poured herself into it even changing her natural hair color for the only time in her career. It seems incredible now that she lost for both this and Double Indemnity. But I think the fact that she wasn't tied to one studio but had independent deals with two and was able to do outside films beyond while giving her more freedom then most stars of the period cost her in the block voting that the studios did, perhaps the reason she never came out on top.

    1. I'm partial to Garbo, but I can't stand Camille. It's hard for me to overcome that sometimes, and in this case, my dislike for the movie overrides my appreciation of the person in the role.

      I like Muni a little more than you do in The Good Earth, but I agree he's better in other roles. Chain Gang is a great film, and he's absolutely worth seeing in The Last Angry Man. He's sadly forgotten today. I think a lot of the reason for that is tha the was such a chameleon, there's no real iconic role for him.

      Beulah Bondi is a good addition. I missed that at the top and shouldn't have.

      That said, I'm obviously in agreement on Barbara Stanwyck. She (and to a lessen extent the tragically never-nominated Myrna Loy) is my favorite actress of the era, and this is the film that proved she deserved to play with the A-list of the time.

    2. I love Missy Stanwyck, she's not my favorite-that would be Linda Darnell but she'd absolutely be in my top ten. I think of the big name classic stars..Davis, Crawford, Kate Hepburn etc...she was the most versatile. She could handle the heavy dramatics as well as all of them but she was more at home in comedy than any of them. Hepburn was close but her comedy was very specific where as Stanwyck could relax into it more.

      And I totally agree about Myrna Loy's lack of Oscar recognition, I mean Millie in The Best Years of Our Lives..COME ON!! along with so many other great performances. But she belongs in a truly awesome group, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Edward G. Robinson etc. who were never acknowledged. That's the danger in always being good, it becomes expected so it's hard to be recognized when you're extraordinary.

    3. Loy is great in The Best Years of Our Lives, but I will always always think of her as Nora Charles. Whenever she scrunches up her face to look at William Powell, my heart skips a beat. But if I can only choose one, I pick the divine Miss Stanwyck. She could even rock the George Washington wig in Double Indemnity.

      For actors, the never-nominated category for me starts with Joseph Cotten and Peter Lorre. Seriously, how the hell did Joseph Cotten never get nominated? For modern actors, Donald Sutherland and Alan Rickman are the two whose lack of nominations continue to baffle me.