Friday, December 16, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1936

The Contenders:

Walter Huston: Dodsworth
Gary Cooper: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
William Powell: My Man Godfrey
Spencer Tracy: San Francisco
Paul Muni: The Story of Louis Pasteur (winner)

What’s Missing

You have to hand it to William Powell, who had as good a 1936 as anyone had a 12-month period in Hollywood. In addition to being nominated for My Man Godfrey, he starred in and wasn’t nominated for The Great Ziegfeld and After the Thin Man. Godfrey is probably the right nomination of the three, even if The Great Ziegfeld was a more “serious” film in many ways. I’d think about nominating Fred Astaire for Swing Time, even if the film itself is a fluffy nothing. The real miss as far as I’m concerned is Charlie Chaplin for Modern Times, desperately clinging to the idea of silent film and turning out one of the great comic performances of the decade.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. This is one of those years where it feels like everyone nominated should be fourth or fifth. As much as I generally like Spencer Tracy, I’m putting him in fifth for this list. Why? Because the role is insubstantial. If the Academy really wanted to nominate someone from San Francisco, Clark Gable was the natural choice. Tracy was, at best, a supporting actor here, and the nomination makes no sense, especially since the Best Supporting Actor category was awarded for the first time at this Oscars. Clark Gable would have been a better choice, but Chaplin deserved this more than Tracy.

4. I also feel wrong putting Paul Muni this low, but that’s where he’s going. I like when science is depicted realistically in films and I tend to like Muni in a lot of roles, but he lost me here. The truth is that Muni probably won because he was snubbed for a nomination (and was written in by many voters) the year before. Muni was a good enough actor that he should have won an Oscar at some point, but this is one of those cases where he got one he didn’t deserve because he didn’t get one that he actually earned. He was better elsewhere, and in much better films. There’s nothing wrong with The Story of Louis Pasteur; it’s just not that great, and while Muni is good, he did better work.

3. And once again, we have an actor I like placed somewhat lower than he would normally be placed by me. I like Gary Cooper in general, but Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a film that I don’t think has aged very well. It’s very sappy, which is not a shock coming from Frank Capra, and while Cooper is a damn fine actor, I’m not convinced there’s enough for him to do here that really makes him a good option for the win. Cooper would never be the worst choice, or at least would be there rarely, but here, he can’t get above third.

2. I like William Powell and his performance in My Man Godfrey far more than I like the film itself. Truthfully, though, the main reason I’m putting Powell this high is that I think it was entirely possible that Powell could have won “for” this movie, but really because of the monster year that he had all around. For most other actors, 1936 would have been a career. For Powell, it was just 1936. He’s the best thing in this film, and combined with his other output for 1936, I could see him as a real contender. But in terms of a single performance, he doesn’t win.

My Choice

1. Walter Huston wins this in a walk. The issue with Dodsworth is that this is a film about rich people problems made right in the heart of the Great Depression. It would be easy to hate Dodsworth himself because of that, and it would have also been easy for this film to slip not-so-gently into melodrama. It never does, and the main reason for that is that Walter Huston makes Sam Dodsworth a real person and someone who, despite his enormous wealth, is someone easy to like. Dodsworth uses the trappings of wealth as canvas rather than the focus, and Huston makes that focus truly work. He should have taken this, although had Chaplin been nominated, I think this race would be a lot closer for me.

Final Analysis


  1. Our personal preferences run pretty much right down the line here. The real shame of Tracy's nomination is that he SHOULD have been nominated this year just not for San Francisco. Fury where he's handed a much better character contains a far superior performance by him.

    I really like Paul Muni in modern dress roles, he should have won in '32 for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but find him fussy and mannered in roles like Louis Pasteur. He reportedly loved them because they gave him a chance to ACT!! under all that makeup and that's just the problem.

    I'm back and forth on Gary Cooper, sometimes his work is very deep and moving but there are times where I find him dull and disengaged. He's charming in Mr. Deeds but neither he nor the picture really blew me away. That may be partly me though. I'd heard so much about its iconic status before viewing that when I finally saw it I was underwhelmed finding it rather precious.

    Powell and Huston would both make my personal ballot and of those two I lean slightly towards Bill Powell since both effortless elegance and breezy comedy are hard work to pull off properly and he was one of the best at it. But Huston is very fine in Dodsworth for all the reasons you mentioned so I wouldn't have been disappointed if either won.

    However if I had my way while both would have been nominated neither would have won. My list would be:

    Charles Chaplin-Modern Times
    Ronald Colman-A Tale of Two Cities-Winner
    Walter Huston-Dodsworth
    William Powell-My Man Godfrey
    Spencer Tracy-Fury

    Chaplin would be my runner-up, though he would have taken the director prize, but I think Ronald Colman is just about as perfect a Sydney Carton as it's possible to find.

    1. It's unfair to Ronald Colman that I didn't bring him up here because I don't love A Tale of Two Cities as a story, but that's definitely the case. I agree that he's the best part of the film. Colman was blessed with a voice that is easy to listen to--talkies showed up at the right time for him.

      I also agree (although I haven't gotten there yet) that Muni had a stronger case in the 1933 Oscars for ...Chain Gang, which still has one of my favorite concluding lines of all time.

  2. Of the lot Sam Huston is my winner as well. He is the best part in a great movie. Dodsworth is an intelligent movie for and about adults and that is just rare enough that it is worth praising.
    The thing with Chaplin is that he is just Chaplin. It is the script and the direction that makes that an exceptional movie.
    I think I liked My Man Godfrey more than you do as a whole. It is hilariously funny and that is not only Powell's doing. He is great, but not the winner here.

    1. That's my feeling about Huston as well. He's genuinely believable in a role that could have easily been a melodrama or someone not worth caring about. He makes the whole story work.