Friday, March 12, 2021

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1928-1929

The Contenders:

Chester Morris: Alibi
Warner Baxter: In Old Arizona (winner)
Lewis Stone: The Patriot
George Bancroft: Thunderbolt
Paul Muni: The Valiant

What’s Missing

So here it is, the final Oscar Got It Wrong post, and through either good luck or bad, I’ve managed to end on Best Actor for the clunky and depressing Oscar “year” covering 1928-1929. Silent film had become a established art form in the 30+ years before talkies, and no one knew what to do with talkies yet. This is evidenced by how much better the nominations were—flawed as they were—in the first ceremony compared with this. I’m tempted to not suggest any possible replacements as a sort of protest, but that would be unfair to George Bancroft in Docks of New York. Other movies I like from this “year” don’t have much in the way of a lead male performance--Pandora’s Box and The Man with the Movie Camera are examples of this.

Weeding through the Nominees

N/A. What can I say about Lewis Stone and The Patriot? Not much, as it turns out. Aside from a still or two and a Wikipedia plot summary, I have nothing to go on and no real information. Perhaps someday an extant copy will be discovered and I can complete this particular quest. I’m not a religious man, but if there is an afterlife, asking for this movie will be high on my list.

4. Of the four nominations that I have seen, Chester Morris in Alibi is the hardest for me to remember. Since I remember the others positively, that’s not in Chester’s favor. This isn’t a very good movie, and Morris isn’t asked to do that much in it. Since my only real suggested replacement was nominated for another performance, I don’t have anyone to replace him with. I wish I did—Morris’s work here isn’t worthy of that much acclaim. Oh well. You work with what you have, right?

3. I consider myself a fan of Paul Muni, so it’s a little sad to put The Valiant, his film debut and first Oscar nomination, in third place, but that’s where it belongs. This film is very short—barely feature length—and while it’s clearly Muni’s film from stem to stern, he also got a hell of a lot better in his career. Saying that he’s the best part of this movie isn’t saying much, sadly, but it is true; he’s the only reason to watch it. And, that said, there’s not a single reason to ever watch this a second time.

2. Warner Baxter won this Oscar for In Old Arizona, and he’s not the worst choice. In fact, I don’t really hate the nomination or the award at all. This is another case where the nominated performance is by far the reason to watch this movie. Baxter’s character is the most interesting and his performance is the best one in the film. It also helps that, as melodramatic as this turned out to be, the movie is surprising in where it goes by the end. Baxter benefits from a good screenplay and the chance to do some really interesting work.

My Choice

1. George Bancroft is my choice, and I think I’m okay with him winning for Thunderbolt rather than Docks of New York. While Docks is a better movie, Bancroft is a lot more interesting and does a lot more with his role in Thunderbolt. Once again, he’s the best part of the movie, and in this case, he’s pretty much the only person involved who doesn’t fall into the silent movie style of over-emoting and overacting. It’s probably not a movie that needs to be seen a second time, but Bancroft makes it worth one watch. He’s my winner.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen any of these films or performances and I can't even consider a performance that is Oscar-worthy that year.

    1. You're not missing a ton. Thunderbolt is fun, and a good example of pre-Code gangster pic. It's worth seeing, but not worth going too far out of your way to do.

  2. Geez, I’m sorry this is the last one of these. I enjoy them and I came to them after you had worked through a bunch already. Oh well.

    I’m underwhelmed by this lineup to say the least. Sorry that The Patriot is mostly lost and what remains is unavailable. With Lubitsch at the helm, a cast that includes Emil Jannings and Lewis Stone, the description of the story and all those nominations it sounds as interesting if not more so than anything else that made the list.

    I’d line the remaining four up in the same order except I’d flip Muni and Baxter, not that I liked either of their pictures that much or was bowled over by either performance, it boils down to the fact that I like Muni as an actor more even if he’s been much better than he is here.

    I would have rather seen George Bancroft here for Docks of New York, a much better film than Thunderbolt but that’s the way it goes. He’s such a strange case, he was as popular as any of these men at the time and continued to work, though in support after the mid-thirties, in important pictures until he retired but he’s all but forgotten now and rarely mentioned when stars of this period are discussed.

    All that said I’d cut everyone save Bancroft giving him a nod for Docks instead so that my ballot would run this way and in this order:

    The Man Who Laughs-Conrad Veidt-Winner
    Erich von Stroheim-The Wedding March
    Lon Chaney-West of Zanzibar
    George Bancroft-Docks of New York
    Donald Crisp-The Viking

    1. I like Docks of New York better than I do Thunderbolt, but I like Bancroft in the latter film more. I think Docks is Betty Compson's film in a lot of ways, and I like von Sternberg's direction more than I like Bancroft's performance.

      Incidentally, if you want to go back and look at the ones you missed, you're more than welcome to--they're all linked (or should be) on their respective pages on the tabs at the top-right.

  3. I get a little amusement that you finished these up the weekend before this year's nominees were announced. :) You gonna hold off on the 2020 ones for the Oscar is Wrong segments for the time being?

    I'm also a little surprised you liked Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona; for me, that whole film was as hammy and cheesy as a ham-and-cheese omelet, including Baxter, who seemed like he had to pause in-between each line to figure out how to deliver the next one. Not that I'd have any suggestions for who should win in his place, though; this whole qualifying year was just a total wash.

    1. I did have the same thought--for a brief, shining moment I was done and now I've got seven new categories. I'll probaly hold off until next year to do those races--I have a dozen and a half movies to watch now, and I'm hoping to knock them out this year.

      Saying that Baxter was the best thing in In Old Arizona is faint praise. And, honestly, it's the ending of that movie that was the best part of it, and I don't mean that in the snarky "at least it's over" way.