Monday, September 16, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1934

The Contenders:

Frank Morgan: The Affairs of Cellini
Clark Gable: It Happened One Night (winner)
William Powell: The Thin Man

What’s Missing

I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of many of these earlier years is more limited than I’d like it to be. Where I have dozens of movies in my viewing list of later years, I’m desperately grasping to name 20 from 1934, and a number of those don’t have a worthy actor performance. So, beyond the three nominations, I’ve managed to pull together a few, and I’m not entirely confident on any of them. We can start with Warren William in Imitation of Life, whose nomination probably would have been for Supporting Actor had the category existed in 1934. He’s got a bit more pull here since he was also in Cleopatra along with Henry Wilcoxon. From there, we can talk about Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee, which is a puffball of a movie, but at least entertaining. Fredric March might be worth a nod for The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Evidence that Oscar has never really loved comedy that much, or at least certain brands of it, is that they’ve left of W.C. Fields in It’s a Gift. Also, before anyone goes there, the following are ones I thought of and dismissed: Dick Powell in Flirtation Walk, Will Rogers in Judge Priest, James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in Here Comes the Navy, Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage (really, Bette Davis is the only thing worth seeing in that), both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the fairly dismal The Black Cat, Wallace Beery in Viva Villa!, George Arliss in rich people propaganda film The House of Rothschild, and Michel Simon in L’Atalante.

Weeding through the Nominees

3. There’s not a great deal to say about The Affairs of Cellini. I kind of like that the nomination went to Frank Morgan rather than Fredric March, who played the title character. Morgan is a delight, even if, because of familiarity, it’s immediately going to feel like it’s Oz the Great and Powerful in period clothing. Truthfully, though, the absolute best part of this film is Fay Wray, who didn’t get the respect or the attention she deserved for a very funny, if breezy, performance. Hard for me to give you the win when you’re not the best thing on the screen.

2. I think it’s a good thing that Clark Gable won an Oscar. I think it’s also safe to say that had he not won this one, he would have almost certainly been awarded one five years later for Gone with the Wind. It Happened One Night is a fine movie with a great script and some memorably good performances from Gable and Claudette Colbert. In a lot of other years, I’d be satisfied with a win for Gable, but in 1934, I’m going to take this in a different direction. If you’ve paid attention to my 1934-centric posts in the past, this will not be a surprise.

My Choice

1. William Powell is the one-and-only winner for this award for me. This comes in large part from the fact that I think The Thin Man is the best film of this year and one of the best of its decade. The on-screen pairing of Powell and Myrna Loy is one for the ages. Neither would be half of what they are without the other. When I covered actresses for this year, I was satisfied with Colbert winning (she’s the best part of that film), but said I would have happily accepted Loy. Ties go to the Academy, after all. There’s no tie for me on this one. It might be a close race, but Powell gets my nod.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen The Thin Man nor Affairs of Cellini but I have seen It Happened One Night and that film is a classic. Yes, Oscars fucked that up although I haven't seen a lot of films from that year.

    1. Don't get me wrong--It Happened One Night is a fantastic film. The Thin Man has one of the greatest scripts ever penned, though, and features the perfect (and I mean perfect) chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy.

      Seriously, track it down. You will not be sorry you did.

      As for Affairs of Cellini, you're not missing a great deal.

  2. I kinda like how for the leading performance categories for this, the eternal Thin-Man-vs-It-Happened-One-Night debate, you went one way and I pretty much would've gone the opposite: I only covered Best Picture in terms of the categories for 1934, but I made special mention when I did that I was backing Capra's film for all of the Big 5 Oscars... I think I neglected to mention in my post that there was a big asterisk to that statement - Myrna Loy wasn't even nominated for Best Actress that year. Had she been, I would've picked her over Colbert, and stayed with Gable over Powell.

    I will also second the recommendation to TheVoid for making a point to go out of your way to track down and watch The Thin Man; you will be hard-pressed to find a more rewatchable film from the still-kinda-early sound era. Both that and Night are absolutely the two best films of 1934.

    1. The two movies are really close to each other. Both are dynamite comedies that have managed to survive 80+ years and still be both funny and relevant. I can't think of what I would change in either of them.

      For me, it just comes down to which one I like more, and that's always going to be The Thin Man.

  3. I’m with you on Bill Powell. Love Gable in One Night and if there was a prize for most star magnetism he'd win hands down but Powell has the magnetism as well and creates an enduring character to boot.

    Frank Morgan is highly enjoyable in Cellini but I didn’t quite understand the nomination, but then he seemed to score nods for work that was competent and miss when he was really deserving.

    Why only three? That’s just nuts. Some years, but not many, it’s difficult to come up with five qualifying performances but not this year. At least they did nominate the two best available.

    I think Astaire is a delight in Gay Divorcee but I think a nom would have been stretching it. Fields isn’t a personal favorite of mine but between It’s a Gift and You’re Telling Me this year you would have thought he would be in the running. I agree about Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage being underwhelming, if he were to compete for anything I’d say it should be for The Scarlet Pimpernel but I wouldn’t nominate him.

    Aside from the ones you mentioned I’d throw in Fredric March in Death Takes a Hotel, Charles Boyer in Liliom, Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo and perhaps Claude Rains in Crime Without Passion. So there was plenty, fortunately this was the last year of three nominees. Though the next year they didn’t quite know what to do with the five and awarded three to the men of Mutiny on the Bounty.

    1. Morgan appeared to be nominated like Cary Grant--given attention for roles that didn't really deserve it and ignored for the ones where he made his name.

      I don't know why only three nominations, especially in a year that featured a full dozen Best Picture nominations. I have no idea what Oscar was thinking most of the time, but I'm willing to write this off as the process still being relatively new and not worked out. After all, this was the first year that the handed out awards for a calendar year and not some weird August-to-July thing.

  4. Powell would get my vote too, but it is a close race. Both are comedies and Powell is simply more fun.

  5. I would have had a hard time picking between Gable and Powell but am happy with your choice. Wallace Beery is an immense amount of fun as Long John Silver in Treasure Island but would not have had my vote in this year. Michel Simone I would have slotted as supporting. Coming out of left field, I would have at least nominated and probably voted for Harry Bauer's magnificent performance as Jean Valjean in the three-part French epic version of Les Miserables.

    1. In truth, I'm not terribly upset with Gable's win. The others that you mention that I haven't are performances I don't know.