Friday, September 29, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1934

The Contenders:

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

What’s Missing

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.

My Choice

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).

Final Analysis


  1. Myrna was also overlooked for "Manhattan Melodrama," but I'd give it to her for "The Thin Man" as this was an off year for Barbara Stanwyck. However, having William Powell as a co-star always seemed to bring out the best in both of them.

    1. Loy is so good in The Thin Man. In terms of classic actresses, I only love Stanwyck more than I love Loy. Had she been nominated, I might be tempted to put her at the top, but I'd have both Loy and Colbert as appropriate winners.

      Loy and Powell were such a good team together, although I can't pretend I was a fan of The Great Ziegfeld.

  2. I can't disagree. But I wouldn't be me if I didn't pipe in with more suggestions. The big omission for me is Dita Parlo in L'Atalante, which I know is not a universal favorite. Jeanette MacDonald is fantastic in one of her sexy comedienne roles in The Merry Widow. Finally, I have a giant soft spot for Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. In the end, I would have voted for Colbert.

    1. I can kind of take or leave L'Atalante. The others I haven't seen, but they'd have to be exceptional to bump either Colbert or Loy off that top position.

  3. It really wasn't the strongest year for women's roles despite the number of films churned out but there were certainly enough to have a full complement of nominees.

    I just finally saw One Night of Love and I sat there thinking "Why did this woman rate a nomination?" The answer would seem to be because she was so celebrated at the time as an opera singer (a MUCH bigger deal then than now) and the Hollywood studios were dazzled. As you said she could sing and she wasn't painful to watch but she did nothing that would rate her inclusion in this very short list.

    Barretts of Wimpole Street was tedious outside of Laughton's fearsome portrayal of the horrid father. It was sort of funny to see Fredric March treated almost like a himbo emphasising his handsomeness (though those mutton chop sideburns did him no favors) while making Robert Browning seem like a drip. Norma didn't go down with the ship but she's been much better elsewhere-I think she improved as time went on retiring just when she was freeing herself of some of her silent affectations. Again there were better options than her for this year.

    Looking at her now Bette Davis goes over the top now and then as Mildred but regardless her intensity is undeniable as is her star power. So you can see how this was a revelation in '34 after her previous string of wishy washy roles and established her as an actress of merit. I would have rather seen her win for this truly memorable performance than the next year's makeup award for the messy Dangerous.

    But out of this bunch I can't fault Colbert's win for her charming and resourceful work in In Happened One Night but if I could I'd snatch that sucker right out of her hand and give it to the rightful winner, Myrna Loy. She is sheer magic as Nora Charles as is Powell as Nick.

    Beside her and the others already mentioned, and I second Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress, I'd add Carole Lombard for her breakthrough role as Lily Garland in Twentieth Century. Margaret Sullavan gives a lovely performance, when did she not?, in Little Man, What Now? but the character and film don't make a lot of sense so I can see how she was bypassed. I've heard that Aline MacMahon is fantastic in Heat Lightning but it's one I've never been able to track least not yet! However nobody would beat Myrna in my book.

    1. I don't at all have a problem with that assessment. I think Colbert was grand in It Happened One Night, and that comes from someone who has never been much more than lukewarm about her in general. I get completely why she won.

      But yes, Myrna Loy should have clearly been nominated. At the very least, she was better than Moore and Shearer and better than Davis's write-in. I'd happily go either way on this one, but ties always go to the Academy.