Category Archives: 1934

Best Actress of 1934 – Ruan Ling-yu (The Goddess)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage), Marlene Dietrich (The Scarlet Empress), Carol Lombard (Twentieth Century), Dita Parlo (L’Atalante), Myrna Loy (The Thin Man)

Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers, the flirty but malicious gold digger in Of Human Bondage, repelled but mesmerized audiences.  Audaciously unlikeable with her transparent emotional manipulation and financial exploitation of crippled Leslie Howard, Davis delivered the best English language performance of 1934.  It is generally acknowledged that the Academy robbed her of an Oscar when they failed to even nominated her.  A write-in campaign could not break the puzzling It Happened One Night sweep, bestowing the Best Actress award to Claudette Colbert.  Though she dominates the English language field, Chinese actress Ruan Ling-yu work in The Goddess surpasses – only slightly – Davis’ performance.

Whereas Davis’ Mildred uses men for her amusement, Ruan’s nameless character is trapped – there are few legitimate employment options for a single woman and the few are full.  The only alternative to feed and house her son is prostitution.  For this choice (if it can really be characterized as such), she and her son are shunned in their neighborhood.  But she does not worry about the disapproval of her neighbors so long as she can afford to send him to school.  She is determined to provide her son with the tools to make a life for himself better that which she has made for him.  Her almost single-minded determination compels her to make dangerous choices, such as hiding money from her violent pimp, but anything to improve her son’s prospects is worth the risk.  She is strong, but only because she has to be for her boy; we get the sense that she would lose her spunk if she weren’t a mother.  But even with her son as motivation she does not have an endless well of strength.  When the school’s principal comes to possibly expel him because of gossip about her, she breaks down.  The fragile life she has built and the tentative future she envisions threatens to fall apart and she crumbles, pathetically begging the man not to ruin her son’s life because of her transgressions.

Yes, this is an explicit celebration of motherhood, but the boy’s appreciation for his mother – the “goddess” – will only come later (maybe).  What’s important is her devotion to him (especially the sacrifice at the end).  Like most children, he will not understand and value what she has done for him until much later, often too late.

Ruan Ling-yu, like Harry Baur, is an underappreciated actor today.  Both died too soon, limiting their output.  Baur died at the hands of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France and Ruan committed suicide only a year after The Goddess opened.  Both were exceptional actors for movie lovers of any language and, though they died before their times, they have left clear evidence of their talent.  Ruan Ling-yu should be especially remembered today for her timeless, touching part in The Goddess.

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Best Actor of 1934 – Harry Baur (Les Misérables)

Other Noteworthy Performances: John Barrymore (Twentieth Century), Boris Babochkin (Chapaev), Takeshi Sakamoto (A Story of Floating Weeds), Claude Rains (Crime without Passion), W.C. Fields (It’s a Gift), George Arliss (The House of Rothschild), William Powell (The Thin Man), Clarke Gable (It Happened One Night), Wallace Beery (Viva Villa!), Wallace Beery (Treasure Island)

It’s easy to imagine that when Victor Hugo pictured Jean Valjean he envisioned something close to Harry Baur.  Physically, Baur is perfect as the ex-convict remade into a respectable member of French society.  He has lived a hard life; it’s written on every line of his face.  What is remarkable is Baur shows us, in explicit detail and inscrutable believability, Valjean’s evolution from the poor, but good natured man sentenced to an unusually harsh sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, to a bitter desperate ex-convict, to the almost saintly benefactor of society hungry for redemption.  Baur pulls off these moral and personal (not to mention remarkable physical) transformations aided by a great script and director, both of which commit to taking the time to tell Valjean’s complete story.

Baur also succeeds because he enters the frame as a whole person, never completely one thing or another, refusing to reduce the character to simple parts.  When he stomps his foot on the chimneysweep’s coin and growls at him to beat it, we instinctively know that this isn’t a bad man, but like anyone as desperate as him, he is capable of great evil.  At that moment he is a complex person making a rash but bad decision, one any of us, no matter how moral we like to think we are, are capable of making.  When he realizes what he has done and futilely calls the boy back to return his coin we are acutely aware of how society has, through its inability to trust an ex-convict, ground down his moral sense and turned him into something worse than before.  Luckily for him (and society), Valjean is also aware of this dichotomy and overcomes the ex-convict stigma by taking a new name and building a new life on foundations of generosity, service, and doing no harm.

Baur embodies Valjean definitively, putting most others who have tackled the part to shame, especially Fredric March who almost laughably tackled it a year later in an inferior MGM adaptation.  (Did anyone believe March could lift a cart with his back?)  In one of Baur’s best scenes he has just learned that another man, Champmatieu (also played to great comic effect by Baur), has been arrested and is standing trial for the crimes of Jean Valjean.  What does he do?  Valjean, now known as M. Madeline, has vowed to do no more harm, but no matter what he does here, harm will be done to someone.  If he stays put, saying nothing, an innocent man will be sent to prison.  But, if he turns himself in all the good work he has done in the village and all the people who depend on his charity will suffer.  When Fredric March played the scene we saw ACTING! in the worst way.  With Baur we watch a man struggling with a dilemma (we would now call it a catch-22), not by expressing and emoting, but through introspective, internal debate.  It is a poignant scene that, like the rest of the picture, faithfully explores Hugo’s themes and social criticisms.  How can society truly embrace the ideals of liberty, equality and humanity if a man’s past rather than his current actions determines how we perceive and behave toward him?  Baur plays Valjean as a man to be both admired and feared and this ambiguity would have made Victor Hugo proud.

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Best Supporting Actress of 1934 – Rieko Yagumo (A Story of Floating Weeds)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Louise Beavers (Imitation of Life), Louise Dresser (The Scarlet Empress), Flora Robson (The Rise of Catherine the Great), Alice Brady (The Gay Divorcee)

I don’t know much about Rieko Yagumo.  As far as the English speaking world is concerned, her only screen appearance was in my choice for the best picture of 1934 A Story of Floating Weeds.  Yagumo (on the right above) plays the disgruntled mistress of Sakamoto’s theater troupe leader and her characterization breathes life into what could have been a simplistic caricature of a woman scorned.  Yagumo doesn’t play Otaka as a scheming harpy (though she does scheme); she is instead an artist resigned to a life of poverty and depressed expectations.  The only happiness she gets is from Kihachi (Sakamoto) and when she realizes she might lose him her instincts set in.

Let’s be honest.  Looking at Otaka and Kihachi together, we know she could do a lot better than him, but he’s the best things around to keep her entertained and emotionally fulfilled.  She isn’t evil; she’s bored.  One evening as everyone sleeps, she mischievously eyes the piggybank of the young boy in the troupe.  She gently taps it, not because she wants to rob him (like his father); she just wants to see what will happen.  Yagumo delivers a quietly intense performance.  There is a coldness to her, but we know that coldness disguises bottled passion that has been put on hold for the duration of this stage of her life.  The idea that Kihachi could move on to a better and more stable life before she does is galling to her.  There’s a stunning moment late in the picture where she finally explodes, raging against Kihachi and her life.  In this scene all that passion is spit out, but is quickly suppressed for a later quite, resigned reconciliation scene in a train station.  It’s a perceptive and layered performance worthy of recognition.

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Best Supporting Actor of 1934 – Charles Laughton (The Barretts of Wimpole Street)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Boris Karloff (The Black Cat), Charles Vanel (Les Miserables), Michel Simon (L’Atalante), Henry Krauss (Les Miserables), Boris Karloff (The Lost Patrol), Sam Jaffe (The Scarlet Empress)

I chose Charles Laughton as the best actor for 1933 in The Private Life of Henry VIII and here in 1934 I am choosing him again for recognition, but as best supporting actor in the historical/ romantic (at least according to the publicity) picture The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  The movie lacks the passion or interest one might expect when watching the budding romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, two of the greatest poets of the English language.  One would think that they would speak to each other in more than platitudes and clichés.  It’s all mannered, stodgy, and it doesn’t help that two of my least favorite actors of the 1930s play Elizabeth and Robert: Norma Shearer and Fredric March.    The only time there is any sign of life in the picture is when Elizabeth’s tyrannical father Edward Moulton-Barrett creeps into a room and crushes any and all happiness and goodwill among the people in the room.

Charles Laughton plays Edward masterfully.  Later critics might look back at it and dismiss the performance as a dry run for a similar stickler for the rules character Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, but Laughton makes Edward more than a villain doing everything in his power to chain Elizabeth to him (physically and emotionally) and destroy her budding romance with Robert.  He adds unexpected depth to a thinly written character that a lesser actor would have turned into tyrannical stereotype.  With a simple uncertain, questioning look we see that he is a man who craves the love of his daughter, but because of his unyielding principles he cannot be flexible.  He isn’t a monster: like most people who behave monstrously, he only commits monstrous acts.  He believes he is in the right, unaware that he is using his power to shackle his daughter to him and helping to extinguish her love for him.  His best moments come when he isn’t speaking and we can see him struggle inside.  If he relents he loses his daughter, the only one of seven other children that he really loves.  He is a man trapped by his own emotional shortcomings and uncompromising nature, faults he could never recognize, thus assuring himself a life of solitude as he forces Elizabeth to run off and marry Robert.  Laughton simply does a great job and the movie would have benefited from more time with him, rather than the two boring leads.

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