Category Archives: 1936

Best Actress of 1936 – Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

Other Notable Performances:

Jean Harlow (Libeled Lady)

Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey)

Isuzu Yamada (Osaka Elegy)

Irene Dunne (Theodora Goes Wild)

Ruth Chatterton (Dodsworth)

Chouko Iida (The Only Son)

Isuzu Yamada (Sisters of the Gion)

Sylvia Sidney (Sabotage)

Bette Davis (The Petrified Forest)

Miriam Hopkins (These Three)

Ginger Rogers (Swing Time)

Danielle Darrieux (Mayerling)

 

This was a tough one for me.  It boiled down to a three-way tie between Jean Arthur, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, who gave three of the best performances of their careers.  I loved Jean Harlow’s determined, but ignored fiancée of Spencer Tracey in Libeled Lady – serving as an energetic counterpoint to Myrna Loy’s reserved performance.  On the other hand, Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock is a pure treat.  She’s zany and unpredictable, without sacrificing credibility.  We know Irene isn’t an actual person, but Lombard makes us believe she could exist – not a small fear for such a wacky character.

I finally settled on the less flashy performance of Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  There’s more of an arc for Arthur than Harlow or Lombard, and her journey is genuinely earned.  She plays Babe Bennett, a cynical reporter, ready to do whatever it takes to get the story.  She is particularly eager when her editor promises her an extended paid vacation to get the dirt on New York’s newest millionaire.  Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) has inherited a massive fortune from an unknown distant relative.  The apparent country bumpkin has little understanding of the unwritten rules of fine society, nor does he much care about them.  He freely ignores these phony rules.  Taken out of context reports of his anti-social antics make him look alternately arrogant, crazy and/or stupid.  To get a firsthand account of Deeds’ unpredictable behavior, Babe schemes her way into his life, preying on his neighborliness, decency, and naivety.  She is dismissive of the young man’s plight, apathetic about the damage she is doing.  Like so many movies of the 1930s we see reporters doing anything and everything to get the story.  (I’ve never figured out if they are supposed to be heroes or villains, or some gray area between the two.  I mostly find them obnoxious.)

It wouldn’t be a Capra picture if she didn’t fall for him, but how does she tell him she is really the reporter that has been filing all the distorted, embarrassing stories about him?  Her struggle is sincere, without becoming maudlin.  As she cares more for the man, the more she directs her substantial energy to try and save his fortune from greedy, double-dealing attorneys, and him from the madhouse.  (After all, how else does a society that bases our worth on our bank statements deal with a man who resolves to give away his fortune?)

It’s a great performance by an actress who is sadly not remembered as well as she should be.  She could play hard-boiled, zany, maternal, sincere, and about everything in between.  Her schoolgirl looks and high-pitched voice could have doomed her to supporting comedic roles, but her deep intelligence came shone through on the screen, making it almost inevitable that she would end up playing leading parts like Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

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Best Actor of 1936 – Walter Huston (Dodsworth)

Other Notable Performances:

Charles Chaplin (Modern Times)

William Powell (My Man Godfrey)

Charles Laughton (Rembrandt)

Spencer Tracey (Fury)

Rex Ingram (The Green Pastures)

Jean Gabin (The Lower Depths)

Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur)

Warner Baxter (The Prisoner of Shark Island)

Ken Uehara (Mr. Thank You)

Charles Boyer (Mayerling)

Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

Sacha Guitry (The Story of a Cheat)

Walter Huston (Dodsworth):

Sam Dodsworth is finally retiring.  After decades of nearly continuous work the automobile manufacturer (loosely based on Henry Ford from Sinclair Lewis’s novel) is giving into his wife Fran’s demands to retire.  There hasn’t really been a reason for Dodsworth to work for some time; his plant has been remarkably successful, garnering the man a massive fortune.  But Americans aren’t supposed to be idle – work makes us what we are.  When we get older though, retirement is expected.  The Dodsworths celebrate Sam’s retirement with a whirlwind tour of Europe.  However, it is on this trip that their marriage begins to crumble.  They spent so many years apart that they never had a chance to examine their relationship to see how far apart they had grown while Sam was busy at the office and Fran hosted tea parties at home.  We in the audience immediately understand that they want different things out of the trip, an early indication that their marriage relies more on routine than romance.

Sam is almost childishly giddy over the historic sites and European manufacturing.  His wife is more interested in mingling with European nobility – much classier than society in Zenith, Winnemac (Lewis’s fictional city and state in which many of his later novels took place).  Of course they grew apart long before the trip.  Neither of them knew this until they passed sustained periods of time together, but it isn’t long before Fran (marvelously played by Ruth Chatterton) is dazzled away from her husband by a young nobleman.  Soon Sam has to face the once unthinkable: that his marriage is over, but what does he, a man who assumed the presence of his wife in the future, do now?  Director William Wyler’s Dodsworth is a sensitive and intelligent examination of a marriage’s slow end in a way that would have made Henry James, one of my favorite authors, proud.  (James’s novels are chalk full of naïve Americans being seduced by wicked, worldly Europeans.)

They're excited for two completely different reasons...

Walter Huston breathes such life into Samuel Dodsworth that we never notice acting is in progress.  The evolution of his character is remarkably convincing – from a reluctant retiree to an excited traveler to a disillusioned husband to a happy, complete human being.  Huston made the part so much a part of himself that we can’t imagine Dodsworth without Huston’s gentle gruffness, wide smile, and expressive eyes.  This is one of the least remembered of all the great performances of 1936, but it is one for all movie lovers to rediscover and treasure.

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Best Supporting Actress of 1936 – Alice Brady (My Man Godfrey)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Elsa Lanchester (Rembrandt), Helen Westley (Show Boat), Gail Patrick (My Man Godfrey), Suzy Prim (Mayerling), Hattie McDaniel (Show Boat), Helen Broderick (Swing Time), Edna May Oliver (Romeo and Juliet), Beulah Bondi (The Gorgeous Hussy)

In My Man Godfrey Alice Brady accomplishes what any good supporting role is supposed to do: she constructed a believable world in which the main characters could operate and the plot could move along.  This is no small feat for the wealthy but wacky Bullock family who hires “forgotten man” (i.e. bum) Godfrey Smith (William Powell) as their butler.  We have to believe they are as crazy as they are written.  Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), the long-suffering patriarch of the family, can’t just tell us Irene (Carole Lombard) rode a horse into the house; we have to believe it possible in their world.

Alice Brady’s scatterbrained matriarch not only makes everything believable, but she presents us with an explanation for Irene’s zaniness and Camilla’s childishness.  Having Angelica Bullock as a mother would confuse anyone.  After all, she’s hardly a mother at all and, we suspect, she never was one.  She’s a nice enough person – there’s no malice or snobbiness evident in her – but her attention and interest rarely lasts a few minutes.  Her mouth operates faster than her mouth, but her memory doesn’t work much at all.

I admire any actor who can deliver rapid-fire dialogue convincingly.  Brady never falters, with her dialogue or her mannerisms.  She is completely this good-hearted, but harebrained, society matron.  She’s the kind of person who in the middle of a bridge hand unapologetically stops and asks what she bid.  Five spade?  Oh, no, she says, she meant five hearts.  Woe to her partner.

The choice of Alice Brady as best supporting actress was fairly straightforward, though Elsa Lanchester in Rembrandt and Helen Westley in Show Boat were close runner ups.  Brady, however, is more memorable.  She doesn’t allow herself to be upstaged by an entire cast of superlative performances, from Carole Lombard and William Powell in the leads to great supporting turns by Eugene Pallette and Gail Patrick with a nice small comic performances by Mischa Auer and Jean Dixon.  Brady steals just about every scene she’s in.  Angelica Bullock would think she should be the star of any story about the Bullock family; Brady makes her, if not the star of the picture, at least the star of her scenes without overshadowing everyone else, and that is the definition of a truly great supporting performance.

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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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