Sunday, October 01, 2006

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1936

The boys in the Best Supporting Actress band have collected for another monthly cocktail party over at StinkyLulu's pad. The year in question is 1936, the ninth year of the Academy Awards, but the first year of the Supporting awards. Previously, supporting performances had been just as eligible as leads for the Best Actress and Best Actor races, though of course they never had a fair shake. Only three non-lead performances eked out nominations during those first eight years of Oscar, all of them by men: Lewis Stone playing second fiddle to Emil Jannings' insane czar in Ernst Lubitsch's lost silent film The Patriot; Frank Morgan, aka The Wizard of Oz, camping it up as the Duke of Florence in 1934's The Affairs of Cellini, starring Fredric March as the scandalous sculptor; and Franchot Tone, offering a very nimble turn as the green midshipman Roger Byam in 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty, for which he was nominated right alongside his own leading men, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable.

Though you'd never know it these days, when above-the-title stars like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger win "supporting" Oscars for heavily showcased star turns—and attention-hungry studios shill out obvious leads like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (unsuccessfully) and Jamie Foxx in Collateral (successfully) as "supporting" players—the Supporting Actress and Actor trophies were primarily invented to recognize character actors and even some borderline bit-players for their crucial contributions to the movies. The recipe never worked perfectly; Stuart Erwin, very much the lead in 20th Century Fox's 1936 football-themed musical Pigskin Parade, was mysteriously nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Still, the 1936 races skew much more heavily to second- and even third-tier roles than today's Oscars tend to do, and watching this month's Smackdown performances puts one nicely into the mindset of early-Hollywood voters, who happily poked around movies with very large casts in order to find a performance they liked, rather than having ravenous publicists and ubiquitous pundits tell them where to look.

Granted, for my money, these industrious 1936 voters only uncovered one certified gem: that's 13-year-old Bonita Granville as the ruinously nasty schoolgirl in William Wyler's These Three. You'd never know from this startling performance that the same actress would soon farm a career as Hollywood's most famous, virtuous, and heroic Nancy Drew. Still, the Actors Branch earns points for effort, and the movies toward which the voters gravitated are often better than the nominated turns themselves. Easily the best of the lot is Wyler's magnificent Dodsworth, a drama about divorce, middle-aged sexuality, and rejuvenating love that still feels incredibly contemporary. Visually, the movie is sophisticated and precise, with brilliantly coded costumes and sets. The editing pushes us briskly and clearly through an emotional multi-character storyline, helping us feel the implacable momentum of aging and the poignant, possibly delusional longing for the past; it's not quite The Magnificent Ambersons, but it's getting there. And the acting simply can't be beat. Walter Huston earned a richly deserved Best Actor nomination as the titular patriarch, but the unnominated Ruth Chatterton should have won the Best Actress prize as Dodsworth's pathetic, adolescent, but affectingly desperate and compellingly real wife. Dodsworth also houses superlative turns from David Niven, Spring Byington, and especially The Maltese Falcon's saucer-faced Mary Astor. Queue it up this. second. and pop it in your player the moment it arrives in the mail.

Since the nominated work by Alice Brady and Beulah Bondi was good without being great, and the winning turn by Gale Sondergaard is a simple, vamping villain in an increasingly tedious globetrotting epic, I dug around 1936 a little bit in search of a lost, unnominated treasure, like I found last month in Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side. Turns out I didn't look in the right places, or at least nothing grabbed me on the level of Astor's yearning maturity or Granville's malefic intensity. Still, I can report that Richard Boleslawski's The Garden of Allah, with early and Oscar-winning Technicolor photography, is a stitled but weirdly compelling slice of North African exoticism, starring Marlene Dietrich as a walking vale of unwept tears and a very good Charles Boyer as a lapsed monk. My other underdog foray was, unfortunately, William Dieterle's Satan Met a Lady. This attempt to play The Maltese Falcon as a semi-screwball detective story is a virtually unmitigated disaster, not because it pales alongside John Huston's later and more earnest version (perhaps too earnest, that one), but because Satan itself simply isn't funny, it's hell to follow the desultory plot, and a young Bette Davis as the central woman of mystery looks as understandably exasperated as we are.

If there's any other female performance worth trumpeting in 1936, it's the complex and charismatic work by Frances Farmer in a double-role in Come and Get It, a boisterous but serious Edna Ferber adaptation that William Wyler finished up after initial director Howard Hawks left in a huff. If you've been keeping up, that's three estimable films from William Wyler in a single year, yielding pristine work from female actors in all three (though Joel McCrea and Oscar winner Walter Brennan are also very fine in Come and Get It). I think Farmer is rightfully a lead in Come and Get It, and anyway, it's the movie on which her entire on-camera Hollywood legacy is pinned. Then, of course, there's her howling and horrible off-screen legacy to consider, but you'll have to return chez StinkyLulu at the end of October to hear more about that...

(Photos © 1936 United Artists, reproduced in the Bright Lights Film Journal review of These Three; and © 1936 Selznick International Pictures.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm wondering about Franchot Tone--not that I don't think of him as a supporting player, but in a way, he's our guide through the film. It opens and closes with him, and I think he racks up more screen time than Gable does. However, it was only on second reading of this post that I started to wonder about him, as he's so completely a supporting performance, however much screen time he gets.

And I have to disagree on Satan Met a Lady, which I found amusing, although it appears that I'm the only one who does--I can't find any positive reviews other than mine.

6:45 PM, October 01, 2006  
Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Interesting info concerning the supporting performances. Among the woman, Luise Rainer in Ziegfeld could be the first supporting performance to be nominated in the lead category in, of course, the first year of the Supprting Actress race. Hmmmm.

I think These Three stirs the drama as efficiently as Dodsworth and, in terms of entertainment value, both films hold up equally well 70 years later. The acting in these classics is first class all the way down the line, and I wish we had a Wyler now to create such great ensemble work.

12:10 AM, October 02, 2006  

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