Best Supporting Actor of 1936 – Akim Tamiroff (The General Died at Dawn)

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Oskar Homolka (Sabotage), Louis Jouvet (The Lower Depths), Charles Winninger (Show Boat), John Barrymore (Romeo and Juliet), Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey), Lionel Barrymore (The Gorgeous Hussy), Claude Rains (Anthony Adverse), Frank Morgan (The Great Ziegfeld), John Carradine (The Prisoner of Shark Island), Jules Berry (The Crime of M. Lange), Peter Lorre (Secret Agent), Georges Metaxa (Swing Time), Victor Moore (Swing Time)

Audiences of movies in the 1930s often knew the movies’ villains were bad because the actors mawkishly mugged for the camera or treated them to Mephistophelian laughs.  Today we sense they are caricatures of evil; their wickedness is diluted to fit the tastes and sensibilities of the tastes of the time.  We knew Wallace Beery was bad in China Sea (1935), but we also knew he wouldn’t really throw Jean Harlow overboard.  There was, after all, a limit.  But Akim Tamiroff’s General Yang is less predictable; even today we aren’t sure where his limits might be, or if he has limits at all.

Tamiroff’s icy countenance and deliberate pronunciation immediately tells us that Yang’s rules and ethics do not mesh with the rest of us.  He does what he needs to for his own, almost sociopathic, advancement.  Whenever he is on screen we are uneasy.  There is a moment early in the picture when he picks up Gary Cooper’s pet monkey, smiling at and caressing it.  The menace is implied, the threat magnified as he pretends to play with and admire the monkey.  We wonder if he would actually kill it, just to prove to Cooper the seriousness of his threat.

The General Died at Dawn is one of those tense, fast-paced adventure movies that require a great villain.  General Yang is a Chinese warlord, battling for supremacy in his unstable country.  He is opposed by men organizing villagers in his territory against his repression and tyranny.  They send an American man named O’Hara (Cooper) to Shanghai with a large stash of money to purchase guns to use against the repressive warlord.  O’Hara’s mission however is detected and Yang sets out to intercept him and his money so he can buy the arms himself.

The movie itself is pretty good for an action-adventure movie with plenty of twists and turns (with a pleasantly crabby appearance from William Frawley in a pre-I Love Lucy role).  But the movie would not have been nearly as successful with Tamiroff’s performance, much of which isn’t written on the page.  Without his convincingly malignant presence much of the film would have fallen flat.  With Tamiroff we are left unsure of his capabilities or, more importantly, the direction of the film.  His performance leaves us off kilter and makes Gary Cooper’s trials all the more suspenseful.

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8 Comments

Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Performances

8 responses to “Best Supporting Actor of 1936 – Akim Tamiroff (The General Died at Dawn)

  1. Tamiroff may be the best thing about the film, though I found him unconvincingly Chinese, but having watched it for the first time this summer I was somewhat underwhelmed. It tries to be perhaps too complicated for its own good and is too dependent on a mind game at the climax. While I agree with you regarding Tamiroff’s refreshing contrast with Beery-type or Code-hobbled heels, he doesn’t come close to my standard of Thirties villainy, Eduardo Ciannelli in Gunga Din. From your list of noteworthies I’d probably go with Winninger in Whale’s Show Boat, but there are a lot of performances there that I haven’t seen.

    • I think I may have liked the movie more than you did. It isn’t a great movie, but I found it satisfying for what it was trying to be. And normally it bugs me when actors play different ethnicities, but I thought Tamiroff, who was Hollywood’s generic catch-all ethnic type, did fine. I need to see Gunga Din again (it has been years) before I can comment on Ciannelli.

      I was, however, tempted to go with Winninger. I think he gives a spirited, funny performance in what is a lackluster movie. I think the supporting performances are the best thing about that movie.

  2. “Tamiroff’s icy countenance and deliberate pronunciation immediately tells us that Yang’s rules and ethics do not mesh with the rest of us. He does what he needs to for his own, almost sociopathic, advancement. Whenever he is on screen we are uneasy.”

    Excellent choice here Jason (and superlative framing of the actor’s performance), though I will go with Vanel by a hair over your choice, and a few others here including Paul Robeson, who is glorious.

    My own choices listed alphabetically for this year are:

    Raymond Aimos LA BELLE EQUIPE, Mischa Auer MY MAN GODREY, John Barrymore ROMEO & JULIET, Humphrey Bogart THE PETRIFIED FOREST, Walter Brennan COME AND GET IT, John Carradine THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, Henry Daniell CAMILLE, Dudley Digges THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, C.Henry Gordon THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, John Halliday DESIRE, Louis Hayward TROUBLE FOR TWO, Oscar Homolka SABOTAGE, Peter Lorre THE SECRET AGENT, Victor Moore SWING TIME, Reginald Owen TROUBLE FOR TWO, Leon Quatermaine AS YOU LIKE IT, Paul Robeson SHOWBOAT, Akim Tamiroff THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, Charles Vanel LA BELLE EQUIPE, Charles Winninger SHOWBOAT

    • As always a great and comprehensive list of your own. I still need to see “La Belle Equipe” and “Trouble for Two”. I thought about including Paul Robeson but he missed it just by a hair. An interesting inclusion that I didn’t think about is John Halliday for “Desire”. He had some nice moments in that movie. I always love seeing your choices because I am sure to find new movies to see and am reminded of others I forgot about. Thank you as always.

  3. Must admit I still need to see loads of these, but great performances by both Barrymore brothers that year, John in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Lionel in Hawks’ ‘The Road to Glory’ – I haven’t seen him in ‘The Gorgeous Hussy’.

    • Lionel Barrymore played an idealization of Andrew Jackson in “The Gorgeous Hussy,” a movie that recounts one of the high points of Jackson’s presidency (there weren’t too many). His spirited defense of Peggy Eaton (Joan Crawford), the wife of one of his cabinet members whose past was less than wholesome. When the wives of his other cabinet members refused to accept her in society he fired their husbands. If only Jackson had such high standards for the Cherokee nation…

      But Lionel was great in the part. I haven’t seen “The Road to Glory” though I look forward to any Hawks movie. Lionel and his brother were such good actors I’d be tempted to include all of their roles in my noteworthies.

      • From this description, ‘The Gorgeous Hussy’ definitely sounds like a film I’d like to see. ‘The Road to Glory’ is a First World War film with a great performance by Warner Baxter as a worn-out commanding officer (he was on a roll in 1936 with ‘The Prisoner of Shark Island’ as well) and Lionel Barrymore plays his character’s father, an old soldier who turns up determined to fight alongside his son in the trenches. Sounds as if we agree on the Barrymores in general – I haven’t seen any of Ethel’s roles yet, but really need to do so.

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