Friday, February 26, 2021

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actress 1928-1929

The Contenders:

Betty Compson: The Barker
Bessie Love: The Broadway Melody
Mary Pickford: Coquette (winner)
Corrine Griffith: The Divine Lady
Jeanne Eagels: The Letter
Ruth Chatterton: Madame X

What’s Missing

This second Oscar “year” is a hard one—a lot of the movies I would want to talk about fall outside of the range of this specific 12-month period. As I’ll discuss below, I haven’t seen Betty Compson in The Barker, but I have seen her in The Docks of New York, and I could argue for her nomination there. There’s also Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. For the record, I awarded her the Oscar for the previous “year,” but she really belongs in this one. You’ve been warned.

Weeding through the Nominees

N/A. I don’t really have anything to say about Betty Compson and The Barker other than the fact that this is a movie I’ve seen, at least in spirit. It’s been remade multiple times under different names. Clara Bow remade it as Hoop-La, and Betty Grable as Diamond Horseshoe. Notably, Yasujiro Ozu remade it twice—both versions of Floating Weeds are essentially this story as well. So, in that respect, it was probably at least decent, but I’ll likely never see Betty Compson’s take on the character.

5. I think this is unprecedented for me. As a sort of initial guide, I check my ratings on Letterboxd for the nominated films. In this case, all five have the same rating—1 ½ stars. Winner Mary Pickford is my last choice here because I can’t remember a single redeeming thing about Coquette. My gut is that Pickford won because she was Mary Pickford, and it made sense to put an Oscar in the hands of one of the greatest stars of the medium. She may well have been a great actor, but you’d never know from this movie.

4. Jeanne Eagels has the odd distinction of being the first person to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination. Eagels may have well had a promising career, but it was cut short by her death from heroin overdose. This is another case where the talent may have been there, but this isn’t a great indication of it. The Letter is ridiculously short and doesn’t really give Eagels that much to do. Her life was a tragedy, but even with that being true, I wouldn’t have nominated her for a performance that is forgettable except for it being her last one.

3. Corrine Griffith comes in third for me with The Divine Lady for a rather unimpressive reason: I can’t really remember anything she did to either bother me or impress me. The movie is pretty standard fare (actually, it seems like what the Gene Kelly character would make in Singin’ in the Rain) and Griffith is fine. It’s important to remember that this is an early talkie, and a film converted from silent to talkie mid-production. Even remembering that, though, this is no better than forgettable, which is also true of Griffith here.

2. My overriding memory of Madame X is that it was so melodramatic you could hear the violins even before the movie started. It is absolutely dripping with melodrama in every frame. Ruth Chatterton manages to make it all the way to second place for one significant reason: she gets better as the film goes on. I’m not sure she ever gets to great, but she at least gets to passable, and for this year and this award, that’s pretty much what we can expect. As a side note, Chatterton managed to turn in one of my least-favorite Oscar-nominated performances the following year.

1. Shockingly, for the nominees, I’m putting Bessie Love and The Broadway Melody first. This is shocking because The Broadway Melody is probably my least favorite Best Picture winner. So why is Love in first? Because she is the only thing in the film worth seeing. The characters are jerks and not worth the time…except for Bessie Love’s Hank, who brings a world weariness to the role that works and cuts through at least a little of the schmaltz and overacting. I don’t like the movie, but she’s at least moderately worth seeing.

My Choice

I know I said that The Passion of Joan of Arc was my choice from the previous Oscars, but it really belongs here. Maria Falconetti gives a performance for the ages, and she deserved a nomination and was a clear win. Oscar’s reluctance at the time to nominate something from overseas and sudden problem with silent films accounts for her absence.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen any of these performances that were nominated yet I did see The Passion of Joan of Arc which is a true masterpiece and... that performance is one for the ages.

    1. The only one of these that might be worth watching is The Broadway Melody if you want to watch all the Best Picture winners.

  2. This is definitely one of those years in this category where my vote would be none of the least of what's available. Maybe Betty Compson would have been my choice if I'd ever been able to track down The Barker, but I've seen her in other films and never been overly impressed with her acting.

    Dead last for me would be Mary Pickford as well. I'm not a fan of hers overall, she is rightfully considered a legend and she did help mold much of what the movie industry was for almost a century but watching her in her films her style seems like a relic of another time. She's precious and coy, never more so than in Coquette. There are other winning actress performances that I haven't liked but hers is the absolute worst Best Actress winner in the category's history (yes even worse than Jennifer Jones!)

    Jeanne Eagels was reportedly electrifying on stage so perhaps she wasn't comfortable in the medium or her special brand of presence didn't register on film or maybe it's Bette Davis's long shadow on the role but she doesn't make a powerful impact in The Letter.

    Both Corinne Griffith and Ruth Chatterton's (who I've come to like more over the years after seeing more of her films-she is very much an acquired taste and even now I still think she was awful in Sarah and Son) style is in the grand manner which has dated badly and I think both of their nominations came because of their respective reputations-Corinne enormous screen star/Ruth celebrated stage star.

    So I guess grudgingly I'd go with Bessie Love too. The problem with that though is that I've never thought Bessie Love was much of an actress and remember little of her work in Broadway Melody. Ugh this year!

    The only other performance beside Maria Falconetti's that I think should have been included is Lillian Gish in The Wind and I'm incredulous with what got in that she didn't. But then it is equally amazing to me that Gish was only nominated one time in her entire career. And for what? Not The Wind, not Night of the Hunter, not even The Whales of August but for Duel in the Sun!!! Cripes!

    Anyway my vote would have gone to Falconetti but had Lillian been in the mix it would have at least provided some competition.

    1. I still need to see The Wind (it's on the big list), so I will hopefully get there eventually.

      I have to say, I didn't like any of these movies. That's happened once or twice before, but never to the extent of just how much I really didn't like these movies. That made this very difficult.

  3. It is very difficult to comment anything when I have not seen any of the nominees and do not even know which actresses would be eligible.
    In these early years the Academy was essentially a back-scratching club, celebrating themselves and given Pickford's position in this elite, her winning the award should not be a surprise. In my opinion the Academy only grew sufficiently out of this closed club mode to be taken serious when they awarded All Quiet on the Western Front Best Picture a few years later. Certainly, there is no way they would have considered a European movie in 29.
    I also agree that during these years, Hollywood was heed over heels with sound movies, completely disregarding movies of much higher quality simply for being silent. It is telling that none of the nominees are on the List.

    1. Honestly, none of them need to be. Unless you are a completist and want to see every winner of particular awards, there's nothing here worth spending time tracking down.