Norma Shearer: The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Claudette Colbert: It Happened One Night (winner)
Bette Davis: Of Human Bondage (write-in candidate)
Grace Moore: One Night of Love
The 1934 Oscars was the first year that the Academy decided to go with calendar years for eligibility. What this means is that the nominees were films that had to be released in 1934 rather than operating on something closer to a school year in the previous ceremonies. It was also a year that allowed write-in candidates, which gave us a fourth “nomination” for Best Actress. Even with the ability to write in a candidate, the Academy voters managed to ignore Myrna Loy’s brilliant performance in The Thin Man. Claudette Colbert was already nominated for It Happened One Night, but just as easily could have been nominated for Cleopatra or Imitation of Life. Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee might be an interesting addition as well, and I like her more than at least one other nomination. The Academy didn’t go across the seas in 1934, but this was also the release year for The Goddess, featuring a great performance from Ruan Lingyu.
Weeding through the Nominees
4. Grace Moore had decent comedic timing and could sing, but I didn’t love the performance and I hated One Night of Love. When I reviewed this, I said that this was a movie that believed that singing really high notes faster means love is in bloom. And the damn thing doesn’t even give us a real conclusion! But that’s on the film, not on Moore. Again, I don’t dislike her, but her performance is very standard fare for an early rom-com, and given at least one of the other nominations, she doesn’t do enough with the role or the genre to warrant being here.
3. I like Norma Shearer as an actress, and in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, she is asked to do the majority of her work while bedridden. That she was capable of being at least mildly interesting while unable to movie is a demonstration that she knew what she was doing when it came to her craft. But it also hampers her quite a bit, making her a lot less interesting than she was capable of being. That she’s the best thing in the movie speaks well of what she did. That she was acting in a movie that wasted a talent like Fredric March demonstrates that it wasn’t hard for her to be that interesting.
2. I completely understand why people wrote in Bette Davis for Of Human Bondage. While Oscar didn’t generally reward villains and villainous roles in these early days, Davis demonstrated in this film that she was capable of being supremely awful and being absolutely magnetic while doing it. I won’t say that Of Human Bondage moved her career in particular ways, but it did demonstrate that she could kill this kind of miserable human being effectively. I get why she was written in despite her awful attempt at an accent, and she clearly should have been one of the nominees. But she’s not my winner.
1. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Claudette Colbert had the best year of anyone nominated in 1934. There were a full dozen movies nominated for Best Picture, and Colbert starred in three of them. That’s impressive. While she could have been nominated for any of those roles, she was nominated for the right one in It Happened One Night. She manages in this film to become something much like a template for that role in hundreds of rom-coms to follow. I’d put her tied with Myrna Loy for this award, but since the tie always goes to the Academy, I guess they got this one right (but I’d accept Loy here as well).