August 28, 2014

Greta Garbo, Ninotchka

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After years and years of suffering miserably yet fabulously in talkies, Greta Garbo decided to end the decade with a little bit of laughter. I’ve had an interesting viewing relationship with Garbo throughout the course of the 1930’s—more often than not I haven’t cared much for her performances, which I tend to find as being too distant and too focused on alluring our gaze through her beauty as opposed to her acting ability. And still, I’ve sat through her many performances regardless of my feelings about her, either because she was nominated (Anna Christie, Romance, Camille), because of a different category’s nomination (Conquest, Grand Hotel) or because of my personal inquiry (Queen Christina, Anna Karenina), each delivering the same model: “I am beautiful, I am also deeply in love with (insert name of actor here) but (insert circumstances here) is keeping us from being happy together. I am depressed because of said circumstances. Depending on the film, I may be depressed enough that I might just die.” So it’s rather interesting (and great) that she got her final nomination for a performance completely unlike any of her others. 

August 24, 2014

James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor
Immersing myself in 1930’s films has led to my bitching quite a bit about pictures that are too cheesy, too hokey, and/or too sentimental. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one such film—and it’s really surprising that the same man who made a fan out of me with the effortlessly entertaining Lady for a Day and It Happened One Night would end the decade with a string of underwhelming flicks. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tackles two subjects that I really don’t care for—the first being overwrought patriotism and the second being children (AGAIN with the little boys! Why were 1930s audiences so enamored with little boys?! When in God’s name will this madness end?!) Usually there’s no saving these pictures that feature such contrived circumstances as a handful of boys influencing who is elected to the senate or a group of men hitting a bunch of boys with their car to stop them from delivering their children-printed newspaper—I simply sigh, roll my eyes, drown in the ridiculousness of it all, and hate my life—but thank the heavens for James Stewart, who manages to keep this film from collapsing under the heavy weight of its own absurdity, who is the heart and soul of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and who, with his earnest and almost palpable charisma, singlehandedly makes this film worth the watch. 

August 23, 2014

Bette Davis, Dark Victory

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Inside Oscar states that "when Dark Victory opened early in the year, most of Hollywood conceded that the Best Actress Oscar was now spoken for..." But Judith Traherne is a remarkably juicy role, the kind that could garner notices when played by much lesser actresses--the drama associated with finding out that you've got an incurable brain tumor pretty much ensures that. The New York Times in 1939 concurred, saying that "admittedly it is a great role--rangy, full-bodied, designed for a virtuosa, almost sure to invite the faint damning of "tour de force"..." before mentioning that "that must not detract from the eloquence, the tenderness, the heartbreaking sincerity with which [Bette Davis] has played it. We do not belittle an actress to remark upon her great opportunity; what matters is that she has made the utmost of it." I've read a lot of praise for Bette here, so much so that it made me feel very strange when I ended up not liking it as much as I felt I ought to have.

August 21, 2014

Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights

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Naturally, I had to follow up my post on a soon-to-be Academy darling with an even bigger soon-to-be Academy darling. 1939 marked Laurence Olivier’s official star-is-born moment after having had two previously botched attempts at fame in Hollywood. With his (faux?) tan, chiseled jawline and a cleft that looks as though it could swallow you whole with the right camera angle, Olivier was first a heartthrob before becoming the respected thespian known the world over. It is said that Olivier wasn’t above being full of himself when it came to acting and comparing himself to his contemporaries, and he hadn’t much respect for fellow co-star Merle Oberon, whom he called a “silly little amateur”. Now with an ego like that and the fact that he is the Sir Laurence Olivier--the second most nominated male actor in Academy history and the man tied for the most Best Actor nominations--needless to say I came into Wuthering Heights expecting to be astonished by a display of top notch acting.

August 14, 2014

Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

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Before Greer Garson went on to dominate much of the 1940’s with 5 consecutive Oscar nominations, she popped up on the shortlist for Best Actress in 1939. Perhaps she got the nomination because voters were blinded by their love for Goodbye, Mr. Chips and didn't know any better. Perhaps she got the nomination due to studio politics and MGM wanting to prep her for star status. Perhaps it was a combination of the two factors. But the fact of the matter is, to say that her role in the film is leading anything is a load of flaming hot rubbish with a sprinkling of lies and deception on top. Her nomination is definitely one of the most flagrant examples of category fraud I’ve seen from the 1930’s, and it’s essentially the female equivalent to Spencer Tracy’s San Francisco nomination. But unlike Tracy, Garson is better. And despite the size of her role, there’s much to like here. 

August 12, 2014

Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Every few years or so a performance like that of Robert Donat's in Goodbye, Mr. Chips comes along and like clockwork, people can't help but pay attention. Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Charlize Theron in Monster, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club are just a few recent-ish examples of acclaimed performances that nabbed Oscars and generated buzz in part because of the makeup and prosthetics. By 1939, a 12 year old Oscar had already shown signs of fascination with the transformation--and it's a word that you'd be hard pressed not to use when talking about performances where makeup plays a huge role in delivering a certain character. Say what you will about Warner Baxter's Portuguese bandit, Fredric March's monstrous brute, Helen Hayes' grandmafication and Luise Rainer's Chinese peasant, but it's hard to deny the impact of makeup in shaping our perceptions of an actor's work. But does a makeup-heavy performance really equate to a great one? Transformation talk aside, how much does visual stimulus really translate to quality?

August 11, 2014

Irene Dunne, Love Affair

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Love Affair is said to be Irene Dunne's favorite film. I found out this factoid after having watched it, and I'm rather perplexed as to why she liked it so much. Perhaps it's because the movie itself is sweet like a Hershey's kiss, but I personally found it to be a very ordinary and often times boring romantic drama. Love Affair is not nearly as memorable as The Awful Truth or even Cimarron for that matter (though the latter is memorable for all the wrong reasons). Many consider that it's not even the most memorable adaptation of its own story (re: An Affair to Remember). Performance wise, while there were parts of Dunne's performance to appreciate, I can't say that I was enthralled by her.

August 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms

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With his hog-like facial features, crooked teeth, and short stature, there's precious little about Mickey Rooney that bears semblance to your traditional male movie star. But much in the spirit of Marie Dressler, Rooney too was the number one box-office attraction of his time. So while his popularity with audiences likely played a role in him earning his first Oscar nomination, that's not to say Rooney isn't deserving of it. I came into Babes in Arms anticipating a contrived musical...and was pleasantly surprised to have ended up liking both picture and Rooney a lot more than I had expected to. 

August 1, 2014

1939 - 12th Academy Awards

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and the nominees were: 
Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind
Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights
Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms
James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Bette Davis, Dark Victory
Irene Dunne, Love Affair
Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind

After what has felt like an eternity I've finally made it to the end of the 1930s, to the last year of what I like to call Oscar's "dark ages" (1927-1939). It's a great way to go out with a bang, and such a great year--considered by many as one of the finest in movie history. On the acting front, perennial Oscar favorites Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Irene Dunne would essentially get no love from the Academy after this year (save for one more nomination for Dunne in 1948), whereas this is also the year Oscar found brand new infatuations in Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Coincidentally enough, the wonderful Alex of Alex in Movieland will also be covering 1939's Best Actress slate the same time as myself. It's not often I cover the same year as another blogger at the same time so I for one am pretty thrilled and am pondering if I should do something special...But be sure to check out our simultaneous thoughts because this may just be a one time thing!

Feel free to let me know which nominees are your faves and who you think will be my faves :D