Richard Dix: Cimarron
Lionel Barrymore: A Free Soul (winner)
Adolphe Menjou: The Front Page
Fredric March: The Royal Family of Broadway
Jackie Cooper: Skippy
These early years of Oscar are difficult because instead of simply using calendar years, they go from August 1 to July 31 of the following year. That means that it’s always a crapshoot as to what is going to be eligible. I would, for instance, love to include Peter Lorre in M here, but I can’t, because that was released in August of 1931. Regardless, there’s so much room for improvement here I almost don’t know where to begin. But let’s start with Charles Chaplin in City Lights, almost certainly ignored because it was silent in an era in love with the new technology of sound. Foreign language films we not going to get a lot of play in this age, which leaves out Emil Jannings in Der Blaue Engel. I’m a little surprised at the miss on Wallace Beery in Min and Bill (although I wouldn’t include him). I think either Bela Lugosi or Carlos Villarias could be tapped for one version of Dracula or another. The big two, though, the ones I shake me head at, are Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and James Cagney in The Public Enemy.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. I realize that Richard Dix was only doing what he was told in Cimarron, but of all of these performances, it’s not only the one I liked the least, it’s in the movie I like the least. It’s also the character I like the least of the ones on offer. I’ve said before that there’s a reason that the main character in this film is played by someone named Dick Dix. The big issue for me, though, is that this is absolutely Irene Dunne’s film far more than it belongs to Dix, and she’s the one who should be celebrated here…if anyone should be.
4. I realize that in these early years that Oscar was still finding his way, but the nomination of Adolphe Menjou for The Front Page doesn’t make a bit of sense to me. This is Pat O’Brien’s film more than it is anyone’s, so if we’re going to have someone here nominated, it should be him. The truth, though, is that The Front Page is a film that is remembered by me only as an example that there are cases where a remake (His Girl Friday in this case) is vastly superior to an original version of a film.
3. Another case of Oscar not really understanding what it would eventually become is the nomination (and win!) of Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul, a film that includes Leslie Howard and a pre-mustache Clark Gable. Barrymore’s nomination and win almost certainly stem from his speech at the end of the movie, which is, admittedly, the best part of the film. Still, it’s another case where I don’t love the nomination and, while the win might make sense for the time—giving an Oscar to acting royalty, after all—it’s not a choice that has aged well.
2. It was almost certainly unfair to stick poor Jackie Cooper against adults in this race, and yet I’m putting him second for a couple of significant reasons. The first is that it’s clearly a main role and, based on that, worthy of nomination. The second is that Cooper, despite the ridiculous costume he was forced to wear, is surprisingly understated for a child actor in a comedy. He’s really good in the role, and while he doesn’t play as a modern film, it has aged a lot better than all of the other performances in the film.
1. It’s a weak endorsement I’m giving Fredric March here for The Royal Family of Broadway. It’s not a great film by any stretch and I appreciate that March got an Oscar the following year, but given what I have to work with, he’s my choice. March’s performance is manic and insane and it’s the best part of a lackluster and uninteresting film. Honestly, though, given the choice, I’d redo the entire slate of nominees. I don’t hate all of these, but I don’t love any of them as nominations, either.
This is going to surprise no one, but given who was nominated and who wasn’t, the only real choices is the three-way coin flip between the never-in-his-career-nominated Edward G. Robinson, the eventually-got-his-Oscar James Cagney, and the got-an-honorary-but-never-won-competitive Charles Chaplin. Given the choice, I’m going with Cagney, but I’d certainly hear arguments for Robinson and I’d listen to arguments for Chaplin as well.