Friday, February 19, 2021

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1931-1932

The Contenders:

Wallace Beery: The Champ (winner)
Fredric March: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (winner)
Alfred Lunt: The Guardsman

What’s Missing

These early years of Oscar are difficult in the sense that it takes me a great deal of time to figure out what movies are eligible. Five months of 1931 and seven months of 1932 are eligible, but a lot of the movies that are great from that era don’t fit into these twelve months. Two movies that are eligible are Freaks and Grand Hotel, both of which I like a great deal, but neither of which have a relevant performance for Best Actor. Boris Karloff’s performance in The Mummy is a great one, but also not a likely nomination with Fredric March already here. I don’t love The Smiling Lieutenant, but Maurice Chevalier seems like someone prime to be on the list. Bad Girl I liked more, and I rather liked James Dunn in it, but he seems like a stretch for a nomination as well. Rather astonishingly, Edward G. Robinson was never nominated. Five Star Final wouldn’t be my choice for him, but it wouldn’t be the worst choice, either. Oscar didn’t love foreign movies in this era, but Michel Simon’s work in La Chienne deserved some love. The big miss, though, was Paul Muni in Scarface.

Weeding through the Nominees

3. I have nothing against Alfred Lunt’s performance in The Guardsman. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s exactly what was intended for the movie. Lunt plays the character broadly and with some level of ridiculousness, but this is a screwball farce and it’s warranted. The reason I’m putting him in third is, at least in large part, the fact that this is such a cream puff of a movie. Lunt isn’t asked to do a great deal here, and what he is asked to do is, in large part, make goo-goo eyes at his real-life wife. It’s a cute movie and I don’t hate the nomination, but I’d only keep it in an expanded field.

2. The biggest problem with The Champ is just how melodramatic and maudlin it really is. The story is one that plays out in the most obvious of ways; you know what’s going to happen long before it does. Wallace Beery, however, is fine in the role and in the movie. He also manages to have, if not a believable relationship with young Jackie Cooper, a relationship that is entertaining and contains some genuine chemistry. It’s fine, and I don’t hate the win, but I wouldn’t have given the statue to Beery.

My Choice

1. I’m going with Fredric March. I like March as an actor, and I’m comfortable with him winning an Oscar in his career. I also rather like that he won for what is essentially a horror movie role. They’re nominated so rarely and given such little respect that when one wins, it’s fun and special. Of course, you could just as easily argue that it was the special effects that won this for March. However, that’s not really fair. March really is great in this, and a lot of fun, especially as Hyde, where he can really let himself loose.

Final Analysis


  1. You're not missing a ton. It's not terrible, but it is very melodramatic and there are elements that are really hard to explain. Beery is good, and he does have chemistry with Jackie Cooper, and it's not bad for that.

  2. This is a weird "year" not just in that hated bracketing of half years but the fact that all the award worthy work in the actor category for both '31 and '32 more or less seemed to fall outside the parameters of the qualifying period this covers.

    That makes this list of nominees somewhat more understandable, though I agree that Muni in Scarface is a major miss even if it's not a film I'm all that fond of outside of Ann Dvorak's kinetic performance as Cesca.

    The Champ is a bathetic glug fest but within it Beery punches his sad sack character across, he was better in Grand Hotel but that was a supporting performance.

    All the points you hit about Alfred Lunt's performance and the film that contains it are valid, but his skill at putting them across and the fact that he doesn't rely on heartstrings being pulled as Beery does would put him in the second position for me.

    There are other performances I'd rather see Fredric March win both of his Oscars for but taking into consideration the competition he was the right choice here.

    1. If Fredric March is going to win one Oscar in his career and I get to pick it, my choice is for his unnominated 1960 role in Inherit the Wind.

      My problem with Muni, who I did consider for the win, is the massive inconsistencies in his accent throughout the movie. It's a fine movie and a find performance, but not an Oscar-winning one.

    2. I'd cosign on Inherit being where Fredric March should have won his Oscar as long as it could be shared with Spencer Tracy for his likewise unnominated work in the same picture. Followed by his performance in A Star is Born.

      Muni is fine in Scarface but in the crazed gunman sweepstakes of these early years he falls well behind Cagney in Public Enemy and EGR in Little Caesar. He's nowhere near the level in it of I'm a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

    3. Tracy was nominated for Inherit the Wind--Best Actor rather than supporting. He lost to Burt Lancaster for Elmer Gantry, but he was my choice.

      I agree on Muni. He's fine in Scarface, but Chain Gang is probably his first truly great performance.

    4. Oops so he was!! Where was my head, probably trying to block out that he didn't win! He should have.

    5. He absolutely should have--Inherit the Wind is a yearly watch for me.