Category Archives: 1937

Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) – Best Actress of 1937

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

Beaulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Jean Arthur (Easy Living)

Greta Garbo (Camille)

Carole Lombard (Nothing Sacred)

Bette Davis (Marked Woman)

Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)

Ginger Rogers (Stage Door)

Sylvia Sidney (You Only Live Once)

Yang Bai (Crossroads)

Greta Garbo (Conquest)

It should be clear by now that I love The Awful Truth.  It’s my choice for the second best picture of 1937 and Cary Grant got the nod as best actor.  And now Irene Dunne edges out Barbara Stanwyck for her fantastic performance in the classic tear-jerker Stella Dallas.  The race between Dunne and Stanwyck was close in my mind and, if I didn’t shy away from shortcuts, I would declare a tie, but the best of the year is just that – the best.  Not the group or a pair of the best, but the best.  So I had to make the tough call and Irene Dunne comes out as my favorite, however slightly, of the two.

Maybe my preference for Dunne has something to do with the bias the Academy has always had against comedy, an issue I discussed in the Cary Grant essay.  Like Grant, some of Dunne’s best work has been in comedy – sometimes alongside him as in The Awful Truth.  As Lucy Warriner she is both airily sophisticated and madcap, the perfect foil for Cary Grant’s Jerry.

Irene Dunne had a talent for humor which she discovered in her first comedy role – Theodora Goes Wild – the year before.  Apparently she had been nervous about playing for laughs, but she did so well that Columbia Pictures immediately cast her in another comedy, The Awful Truth.  Her success came from her willingness to poke fun at her own well-mannered persona.  She was also a master at using non-verbal cues that subverted the meaning of her written line to great effect.  A slight giggle or a crinkle of the nose alerted the audience that she was dipping her toes in ironic waters.  At one point Lucy’s suitor Dan Leeson describes his ranch in Oklahoma and suggests Lucy come out and visit it.  Trying to gracefully decline, Lucy says, “Oh I don’t get out that way very …”  She trails off, as if deciding there’s really no use being polite, crinkles up her nose and quickly shakes her head.  It’s a remarkably funny and subtle moment.

One of her most glorious moments in The Awful Truth is also one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.  She is singing at a recital and Jerry makes an utter fool of himself as he falls and gets his legs tangled in a small table.  Through all the noise, Lucy continues to sing, watching her soon-to-be ex-husband dig himself into a deeper hole of humiliation with every move he makes.  Once he gives up, we cut back to Lucy.  She is ending the operatic aria and she tries to hold it together, to finish with dignity, but can’t suppress a devilish laugh between two notes.  Only someone with the talent and instincts of Irene Dunne could have pulled off such a moment of fiendish glee.

The movie soars when Ms. Dunne is on-screen.  Though it also soars when she is off-screen, suggesting she not only held her own with some great supporting actors like Cary Grant, but was also able to keep up with a demanding screenplay, something only actresses like Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Katherine Hepburn were able to do at the time.  If the situation called for it, she could spit out her dialogue at machine gun pace without ever losing her sophisticated, easy-going charm.

Ms. Dunne handles Lucy’s flightiness, jealousy, and stubbornness with aplomb.  She isn’t thrown by Lucy’s contradictions; she feeds off of them.  Ms. Dunne was able to make sense out of Lucy and translate that interpretation to us.  So when we watch, Lucy makes sense in a screwy way.  We accept her in furs and diamonds, but we also accept her when she dresses up like a woman of questionable values and pretends to be Jerry’s loud, uncouth sister to break up his engagement.  She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Irene Dunne's Lucy (center) comes between Jerry and his finacee

 

Ms. Dunne did not just turn in the best female performance of 1937, but one of the best comedic performances of all time and, alongside Cary Grant, helped put together one of the great classic movie comedies.  It’s an exceptional movie loaded with great performances.

 

 

 

 

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Cary Grant (The Awful Truth) – Best Actor of 1937

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko)

Victor Moore (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Roland Young (The Man Who Could Work Miracles)

Claude Rains (They Won’t Forget)

Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)

Spencer Tracey (Captains Courageous)

Dan Zhao (Crossroads)

Will Hay (Oh, Mr. Porter!)

Sacha Guitry (Désiré)

Humphrey Bogart (Black Legion)

Charles Boyer (Conquest)

Spencer Tracey would walk away with the first of two consecutive best actor Oscars as a colorful Portuguese fisherman mentoring a spoiled brat in Captains Courageous.  Though he was good in the movie, he wasn’t the best actor of the year.  Several other leading men delivered better performances, including Jean Gabin’s work as the conflicted fugitive in Pépé le Moko.  Victor Moore’s sympathetic portrait of an old man, now a burden on his family in Make Way for Tomorrow, also outshines Tracey’s work.  And this doesn’t even take into consideration other fine, lesser-known performances from Claude Raines in They Won’t Forget, Roland Young in The Man Who Could Work Miracles, Will Hay in Oh, Mr. Porter!, and Dan Zhao, the charismatic and handsome Chinese actor, in Crossroads.

For me, Cary Grant comes out on top.  He is an actor whose talent has often been underestimated.  Some came to believe, erroneously, that he wasn’t really acting, that he just showed up on set, got in front of the camera, and played himself.  This misconception has grown legs because his effortless acting was so consistently good.  (Can you name a bad Cary Grant performance?)  It’s ironic that his mastery of the craft of acting would lead many to assume he wasn’t actually acting at all, dismissing his talent, his abilities, his dedication and his hard work.  In his long career he was only nominated for two Academy Awards, both of which recognized dramatic work in Penny Serenade (1941) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), rather than his masterful and nuanced comedic work.  Predictably the stuffy Academy, eager to prove that movies had artistic and social merit, privileged theatrical dramatic acting over low-brow comedic work, a trend which, sadly, continues to this day.  Cary Grant really shines in comedy but the Academy’s anti-comedy bias excluded those roles from awards consideration.  So some of the best performances of one of the best film actors of all time (if not the best) did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved.

A nomination, though, would not have been sufficient recognition for his fine work in The Awful Truth.  Nothing less than a win is appropriate for one of his first box office hits as a leading man, along with Topper also of 1937.  I’ve already written about The Awful Truth (which you can read about here), so I won’t go into detail about the plot.  Briefly, Cary Grant’s character, Jerry Warriner, is a man ill-suited for marriage.  Lucky for him he married Lucy (Irene Dunne), a woman who is almost a mirror-image of his connubial incompetence.  Both privilege fun over duty (it’s never clear how they earn their money) – even if their exploits may appear indiscreet.  When they catch each other in lies, all they can do — indeed all they know how to do – is to follow tradition and get divorced.  They spend the rest of the picture alternately trying to hurt and trying to win back the other before their divorce becomes final.

Jerry is inconsistent, contradictory, and impulsive.  Of course he still loves Lucy and doesn’t want a divorce.  And he knows she doesn’t want a divorce either.  He recognizes her absurd relationship with Dan Leeson as the jab at his vanity and jealousy that Lucy meant it to be rather than a profound expression of new love between them.  His impulsive nature suggests he should take her in his arms, proclaim his feelings, and call off the divorce.  Jerry’s struggles though, between his impulsiveness and his stubborn pride: he won’t admit he’s wrong until she does so first.

It’s great fun to watch Grant here because much of what he says and does is clearly ironic.  He goes through all the moves of pushing Lucy away, finding a new fiancée for himself, and advocating divorce while at the same time sabotaging Lucy’s new relationship with Dan and keeping her in his life through shared custody of their dog, Mr. Smith.  Surreptitiously, he does everything he can to keep Lucy single and in his life.

Cary Grant uses his natural charm to great effect here, convincing us that he loves Lucy utterly and completely, would never cheat on her, and longs to reverse the forward motion of the divorce.  But this isn’t something he can come out and say.  Almost all of his true emotions are expressed non-verbally, like his bemused face when his date performs her nightclub number or when Lucy crashes his fiancée’s party pretending to be his alcoholic, reprobate sister.  In both of these moments Jerry should be mortified, but there is a glint in his eye as he sees his humiliation pushing him closer to Lucy.  Grant communicated pages of dialogue with a simple smirk or a slightly exaggerated widening of his eyes.

He also shows off his talent for physical comedy, something he was never be too stuffy to indulge in and would become something of a hallmark of his work (probably another reason the Academy didn’t deem him serious enough for recognition).  Whether it’s when a jujitsu-trained butler sends him face first into the carpet, or he gets tangled up with a chair and table during a recital, Grant reminds us we’re all a little awkward.  After all, if things like that can happen to Cary Grant, they can happen to anyone.  He realized early on in his career that it’s funnier if someone as graceful and debonair as Cary Grant can has a piano top fall on his hand rather than any schmuck off the street.  Grant never took himself or his persona all that seriously and was more than willing to poke fun at himself.

In The Awful Truth, with his ironic lines readings, clumsy physical comedy, and charming demeanor, he proved that he was a fine actor and he would continue to consistently deliver inspired, funny, and truthful performances for the next 30 years.  It’s truly a treat to choose this performance as the best of 1937.

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Best Supporting Actress of 1937 – Dita Parlo (Grand Illusion)

Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances:

Mary Astor (The Hurricane)

Fay Bainter (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)

May Whitty (Night Must Fall)

Gail Patrick (Stage Door)

Mary Nash (Easy Living)

Gale Sondergaard (The Life of Emile Zola)

Constance Collier (Stage Door)

Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)

Since Dita Parlo’s Elsa appears on the screen so little in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Grand Illusion, my choice may appear frivolous – a brazen attempt to shoehorn in an actor I admire.  While my overall admiration for Parlo’s skills may have influenced my decision, it did not determine it.  Yes, she has a relatively small role, but what she does in that limited time is so heartfelt and convincing that, for me, it’s an obvious choice.

In the last third of the picture, after the pair of French prisoners of war escape from the German POW camp, we meet a woman who has to bear the true cost of war on an intensely personal level.  Elsa’s husband and brothers have died leaving her to take care of the isolated family farm and raise her child alone.  When Maréchal and Rosenthal stumble into her life she has already mourned.  There is no more time for frivolous emotion and she has resigned herself to her fate without a word of complaint, as though complaint could change anything.  With this fact in mind, she quietly goes through the motions of life, resolved to raise her child as best as she can in her war-scarred home.

Maréchal, though, gives her a glimpse of happiness and Parlo does a wonderful job of gradually letting down Elsa’s guard as she allows the French officer into her life and her heart.  She knows his foreign language and uniform makes him the enemy, she knows his countrymen killed her men, but she doesn’t have the emotional energy to hate any more than she has the energy to mourn anymore.  Blind hatred won’t bring back her loved ones; it was, after all, blind hate that caused their deaths in the first place.  Just as she abandoned overt sentimentality for the dead, she also rejected unnecessary antipathy.  This pragmatic approach to human relationships grants her the ability to love again, something the nations of Europe were not able to translate diplomatically after the First World War leading to another disastrous war, exactly as Renoir feared.

Of course she knows it can’t last.  Maréchal has to leave her or he will be arrested.  This awareness tinges her rare smiles with a wary fatalism.  Yes, Maréchal promises to return after the war, but does she believe him?  Does he believe himself?  When he leaves her, alone on the farm with her child, she probably knows she will never see him again, but accepts the fleeting joy he brought her.  It is better to enjoy the spurts of good time life gives, than to dwell on that which is lost.

Dita Parlo is able to temper her natural vulnerability for a much stronger, weather-beaten woman.  Elsa may have been sweet-natured and sensitive at one time, but it would be safe to assume those traits were beaten down with each successive death notice along with the day-to-day burden of caring for a child and farm.  Elsa’s story is written on her face; there are no histrionics or award-obvious monologues.  It’s all Dita Parlo’s subtle performance which turned a small part into a major character, both narratively and thematically.  It’s the kind of performance that is easily overlooked, but deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

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Best Supporting Actor of 1937 – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (The Prisoner of Zenda)

Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances of 1937:

Thomas  Mitchell (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Erich von Stroheim (Grand Illusion)

Lucas Gridoux (Pépé le Moko)

Thomas Mitchell (The Hurricane)

Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth)

Thomas Mitchell (Lost Horizon)

Edward Everett Horton (Shall We Dance?)

Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola)

Charles Winninger (Nothing Sacred)

Edward Arnold (Easy Living)

Edward Everett Horton (Lost Horizon)

My head tells me I should choose Thomas Mitchell in Make Way for Tomorrow as the lousy son who knows he’s lousy, doesn’t want to be lousy, but isn’t strong enough to do stand up to his wife and be decent.  He gives a subtle, conflicted performance that deserves recognition, especially considering the fine supporting performances he gave in John Ford’s underrated The Hurricane and Frank Capra’s overrated Lost Horizon.  But my heart wants Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. to get some recognition too.  In the end, Mitchell comes up a close second to Fairbanks’ devilish performance in an awkward movie.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert of Hentzau

The Prisoner of Zenda is, all things considered, a pretty goofy movie.  It’s one of those Victorian swashbucklers replete with kidnapped princesses, royal treachery, and a convenient double for the king.  Ronald Colman plays Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman visiting the fictional Central European kingdom of Ruritania.  As luck would have it (or as the author of the original novel needed it), he is a perfect double for the soon-to-be-coronated king, Prince Rudolf (also played by Colman).  As is always the case with these silly stories, he stumbles into a plot to incapacitate the prince with drugged wine, so his brother Duke Michael can declare his brother incompetent and have himself crowned king.  English Rudolf is asked to help thwart Michael’s plans by impersonating the unconscious prince and go through the coronation ceremony.  It’s a standard plot of a standard nineteenth-century action story.  It’s so bad that Raymond Massey, usually a good actor, gives an overbearing, melodramatic performance – a rare misstep.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. has some real fun with his part as Rupert, Duke Michael’s henchman.  He does all the dirty work, arranging the drugging of Prince Rudolf, later kidnapping him and killing (or at least trying to kill) those who get in the way.  Fairbanks uses his natural charisma, screen presence, and physical attractiveness to turn Rupert into the most dangerous sort of villain: a likeable one.  He’s charming; even when we know he’s lying, we still believe he could charm his way into our hearts.  Everyone wants to win his approval, knowing all the time that he wants something or else he wouldn’t bother to waste his time.  People like Fairbank’s Rupert depend on his marks to weigh the risk: how much are we willing to sacrifice to keep this person’s approval?  The dumb ones are willing to give up everything, like Lady Flavia (Mary Astor).

Fairbanks and Ronald Colman battle it out -- but don't we kind of root for Fairbanks' villain?

I’ve always felt that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was underappreciated as an actor.  He had a natural, easy presence on the screen.  Like his father, he was a perfect leading man and he had range allowing him to play comedy, action, romance, and drama.  And this wasn’t the first time Fairbanks played a villain.  He was less successful as mentally unbalanced Tsar Peter in The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), but he had nice moments, especially as he struggled with the delusions and paranoia his madness caused.  There is no such struggle here.  Rupert is simply out for himself and will work any angle to further his ambition.  He is a lout, ready to do anything, break any law, or betray any confidence.  At one point Michael sends Rupert to kill the royal imposter.  Instead of killing him, Rupert proposes a double-cross whereby they would kill both the real king in captivity and Michael and rule the kingdom together.  Only after Rudolf declines the sincerely sociopathic proposition does Rupert essentially shrug his shoulders (it was, after all, worth a try) and throw a knife at him.

Fairbanks plays Rupert with a joy not often seen in a fictional criminal (Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game or Wallace Beery’s 1934 portrayal of Long John Silver in Treasure Island both come to mind).  In the end, he wants the money and the women, but I think he would trade that all in to continue the game, the sport of intrigue and treachery.  At one point, Rudolf is cornered and he and Rupert get into a shoot out.  Rupert grins like the Cheshire Cat.  Sure his life is in danger, but what, for him, would be the point of life without the fun of danger.  The testament to Fairbanks’ skill in the role is that the Hayes Office did not demand his death or capture, as villains were routinely required to face some sort of retribution at the time.  He gets away in the end, with his characteristic aw-shucks grin.  He may have lost this particular game, but it was still fun to play.  Besides, for someone as enterprising and ruthless as Rupert, there will always be opportunities.  He knows he’ll be back.

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