Friday, November 2, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1929-1930

The Contenders:

Greta Garbo: Anna Christie
Nancy Carroll: The Devil’s Holiday
Norma Shearer: The Divorcee (winner)
Greta Garbo: Romance
Ruth Chatterton: Sarah and Son
Norma Shearer: Their Own Desire
Gloria Swanson: The Trespasser

What’s Missing

I honestly don’t have a great deal to say in terms of suggestions. This is a case where I think we have too many nominations, in fact. I’d love to suggest Anny Ondra in Blackmail, but her accent was evidently so thick that all of her lines were dubbed. There is one major omission here, and it’s Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. Brooks was probably ignored because the film was silent and talkies were all the rage. It’s a damn shame, though, because Brooks really should be here. I should also say before I wind this up that there’s a temptation to nominate Marlene Dietrich for The Blue Angel, but that performance wouldn’t be eligible until the next year.

Weeding through the Nominees

7. We have a case where, if we drop off the duplicate nominees, we have the standard five people. That being the case, I’m not at all feeling guilty for not dropping those duplicates right away. Of these seven performances, I’m launching Ruth Chatterton and Sarah and Son right away. Part of this is almost certainly that this is by far my least favorite of these seven movies. This is melodramatic in the extreme, and Chatterton’s performance is as melodramatic as they come. It hasn’t aged well, and I think I’d have found this hard to take in 1930 as well.

6. It’s fortunate for Norma Shearer that she got another nomination here, because I don’t really understand her nomination for Their Own Desire. Much in the style of the time, this is a pure melodrama from start to finish. Hollywood evidently decided that the best uses for sound were to have musicals and to have people wailing about their terrible fate at the hands of supremely terrible people. I like Norma Shearer, but once this movie ended for me, I put it aside and pretty much haven’t thought of it since.

5. The middle section of these performances is more difficult for me to address here because these performances all have significant similarities. They are all uniformly melodramatic and all uniformly in films that are equally melodramatic and pretty forgettable. I’m going to drop Gloria Swanson and Trespasser in this position only because I like the movie less than I like the others. Swanson is fine here, but the film isn’t that interesting and she does nothing to make it any more interesting. It was her last big hit for years, but that doesn’t help, either.

4. I’ve made it all the way to the middle and both of Garbo’s nominations are still here. That’s going to change, as I’m dropping Romance in this middle spot. It’s a good enough performance for what it is. People who are fans of Garbo will find it to be pretty good, if not exceptional. For people who aren’t fans of Garbo, this is not the sort of performance or film that will turn someone into a fan of hers. It is what it is, and it’s not better than fourth place—Garbo didn’t need this nomination.

3. I don’t have a lot of memories of The Devil’s Holiday, except to say that the story that it tells doesn’t live up to the title. I feel like I’ve said this a great deal—Nancy Carroll is fine in the role and in the movie, but it’s very much the product of its time. This is pure, unfiltered melodrama from the opening title screen to the close at the end. Carroll does what is expected of her and does it well enough. I don’t honestly hate the nomination that much, but this is not a film that I remember or care to remember, and not one I think I’ll ever find reason to revisit.

2. Remember what I said about Garbo above? Anna Christie is the sort of film that could make someone a Garbo fan. I like her in this role quite a bit. Garbo tended more toward the glamorous, so seeing her as a former brothel drudge is fascinating. I love that she’s playing against what would eventually be her type in many respects. In fact, my biggest problem with Anna Christie is that I don’t for a second buy the romance that is central to the film. That’s maybe a little on Garbo, but it seems more to be a problem with casting.

1. What this means is that, based on the seven nominations we have, Oscar managed to get this right by giving the statue to Norma Shearer and giving it to her for The Divorcee. It’s a broken record to say once again that this is a movie filled with melodrama, but this is a case where Shearer transcends that melodrama and gives a performance that is in so many ways ahead of its time. It feels like she could be plucked from the celluloid and dropped into a movie made 50 years later and she’d fit right in. Given the nominations, I approve.

My Choice

While I don’t entirely disapprove of the Oscar for Norma Shearer, my vote is eternally for Louise Brooks and Pandora’s Box. Much like Shearer, Brooks could be pulled out of the film and placed in a modern film without looking out of place. It is a fully-realized performance, and while I don’t always love where the film goes, there is not a moment where Brooks doesn’t command the screen and demand attention. She’s my real pick.

Final Analysis


  1. Was it not Marlene Dietrich who was in The Blue Angel?
    I quite liked Garbo in Anna Christie. It is a slow movie but works surprisingly well and Garbo is central to that movie.
    Still I have to agree, Brooks rules.

    1. Yeah, you're right--I'll fix it.

      It did seem wrong when I wrote it.

  2. I haven't seen The Devil's Holiday much to my chagrin, not that I'm expecting some masterpiece but I hate to have holes in these contests, but the rest would line up pretty closely with your placement. I'd put Their Own Desire in last because I thought it was a dreadful picture terribly acted.

    I should probably watch The Divorcee again, it's been a very long time and Shearer is an actress whose work I prefer towards the end of her career when the theatricality was lessened. With that said I'd lean towards Garbo in Anna Christie but I'm with everyone else that this should have gone to Louise Brooks.

    The only two suggestions I have are Mary Duncan in City Girl, which probably suffered from having a silent as well as a sound version, and Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure, it's the role that made her a star and maybe that's what held them back from nominating her she was just so new.

    1. As is often the case, I haven't seen the two you mention at the end.

      My guess is that Louise Brooks was ignored here mostly because it was a silent performance in a world that had become obsessed with moving on from them.

      You're really not missing a damn thing with The Devil's Holiday.

    2. The silence of Pandora's Box might have had something to do with her lack of a nomination but the bigger issue was that she had walked out of Paramount when they denied her a raise she was due and went to Europe to work for Pabst then when she returned she refused to record dialogue for a film she had completed before that had been filmed as a silent. Paramount blackballed her, effectively ending her career.

    3. Well, there ya have it. Politics ruins everything.