Friday, December 11, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress, 1931-1932

The Contenders:

Marie Dressler: Emma
Lynn Fontanne: The Guardsman
Helen Hayes: The Sin of Madelon (winner)

What’s Missing

There are a couple more Oscar categories where I have seen all of the entrants; this category from the fifth Oscar ceremony is one of the last. It’s also one of those strange early years that bridges two calendar years and opens this category up to only three entrants. I didn’t love Shanghai Express, but Marlene Dietrich seems like a missed nomination. Foreign films got little play in this era, which is going to leave out Janie Marese and La Chienne. Sally Eilers didn’t really get a lot asked of her in Bad Girl, but it’s a very sweet movie nicely made. The same could be said of Jeanette MacDonald in One Hour With You. My love of Barbara Stanwyck will force me to mention Night Nurse, even though it probably doesn’t really deserve a mention. Finally, most of the roles in Grand Hotel were essentially supporting, but Greta Garbo was the closest it had to a lead, and I’d love to see her here.

Weeding through the Nominees

3. I think there’s a lot of evidence that Helen Hayes won this Oscar because of her reputation, not because of the performance. At the time, Hayes was universally acclaimed as the queen of the American stage, and this was a chance for the world to see her at the height of her powers. The movie, though, is pure melodramatic pablum and is a desperate struggle to get through. Hayes would be the only possible reason to watch it, and even then, only if you’re a completist or something of a masochist.

2. That’s not the case with Lynn Fontanne and The Guardsman. While the movie itself is pre-Code screwball fluff, it’s very entertaining fluff. The problem with Fontaine is not specifically her performance, but what she is asked to do in the role. Basically, she has to look pretty, wear some slinky clothes, and be aware that her husband is attempting to get her to stray from their marriage, or at least testing her loyalty. It’s a fun little movie and worth seeing, but Fontanne isn’t really asked to do much.

My Choice

1. Like many movies of the time, Emma is melodramatic to the extreme and hasn’t translated well to the modern era. However, Marie Dressler is absolutely magnificent and 1,000% better than everything and everyone else in this film. Dressler is someone who had that rare quality of being immediately sympathetic, and she proves it with this film that is otherwise not worth your time. She is literally the only reason to see it, and in lesser hands it would be immediately forgotten tripe. Dressler deserved this, no question.

Final Analysis


  1. I'd grudgingly agree that this should have been Marie Dressler's but only within this tiny group of nominees.

    Though since it was her only film and she is a sprightly delight in the movie I wouldn't have been heartbroken to see Lynn Fontanne (whose Broadway rep was almost as big as Helen Hayes's) take this but again only with the parameters of these three noms.

    Helen Hayes would be third for her shooting for the balconies work, though to be fair she's much better in the latter part of the film than the beginning.

    BUT none of them belonged here when there was a whole flock of more worthwhile performances that were ignored! And why only three? These early years are so galling at times!

    I thought of Janie Marèse in La Chienne right away but the film wasn't released in the States until 1976 so she wouldn't have qualified. Also it would have had to have been a posthumous nomination since she was killed in a car wreck before the film's premiere and the Academy doesn't hand them out very often and for an unknown actress I don't see that happening. A shame all the way around she's brilliant in the picture.

    As I've watched more older films I've developed a great fondness for Sally Eilers, along with Wynne Gibson one of the truly worthy but ignored early sound film actresses. I loved her in Bad Girl, more than the film honestly and while she wouldn't be my winner she deserved a place in the line-up.

    I'm a Garbo fan but I thought she was not at her best in Grand Hotel. Firstly she was miscast. A lovely woman with that indefinable something that the camera brought forth but a big solid Swede in no way believable as a ballerina and she strikes me as ill at ease in her scenes. However I'd still give her a nomination but for the same year's Mata Hari which found her right in her zone.

    My list of five would run this way:

    Ann Dvorak-The Strange Love of Molly Louvain
    Dorothy Mackaill-Safe in Hell
    Greta Garbo-Mata Hari
    Mae Clarke-Waterloo Bridge
    Sally Eilers-Bad Girl

    With Sylvia Sidney in Street Scene & Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman just missing.

    I'm really torn between Ann Dvorak and Dorothy Mackaill for the win. I lean towards Dvorak but both are riveting in their respective films.

    1. Naturally, I haven't seen any of your suggested nominees. As always, there's more work to do.

  2. I haven't seen any of these films nor any of the performances you preferred. I realized that I haven't seen Shanghai Express as I do think Marlene Dietrich is cool.

    1. I didn't love Shanghai Express, but she's probably the best part of it. Honestly, you can live without all three of the nominees in your life.