Mark's Best Actress Challenge

…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!

Actresses in a Nutshell: The 1920s

Welcome to my first recap of the Best Actress films I watched in my challenge during 2011 – and the last time I blogged.  Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts.  Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?


Thanks to YouTube, I was able to view one of the first contenders for the Best Actress award and a performance all but long gone and forgotten: Louise Dresser in A Ship Comes In.  Though she lost the award to Janet Gaynor, Dresser’s performance in this silent as a immigrant mother was effectively tender and meaningful.  Her loss may have been attributed to the fact that she takes a backseat to Rudolph Schildkraut, who plays the father and true protagonist of the film.  His destructive and impetuous actions to keep his job and protect his name provide his family’s ultimate downfall; Dresser as Mrs. Plesnik provides the calm in the storm.

Another nominee from 1927-28 was the famous silent star, Gloria Swanson, who has a keen old time whooping up the screen as vampy Sadie Thompson.  As of one of the original silents queens, Swanson carries off most of her roles with a customary chutzpah, and this one is no exception – even if it does seem a little overdone at moments.  As a wild woman who is seen as a dangerous temptress of evil by a staunch missionary on a remote quarantined island, Swanson pulls out all the stops.  This is perhaps one of her best-known roles.  Sadly, the ending of the film has been lost forever due to degradation of the film negatives – ever more proof at the importance of preserving our films.

(Winner: Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven, Sunrise, and Street Angel)


A strong performance by Corinne Griffiths anchors The Divine Lady, a 1929 silent that chronicles the true-story, clandestine love affair between Lady Emma Hamilton (Griffith) and battle hero Lord Nelson (Victor Varconi). In what would become one of her final roles, Griffith is radiant and charming as the lady instrumental in opening the Naples ports for the English navy (led by Nelson) to defeat the French fleet. Though not quite up to the heights and talents of Greta Garbo as a silents actress, Griffith turns in a convincing portrayal.

The winner this year was Hollywood’s darling, Mary Pickford in Coquette.  Pickford may have been better-suited to silents, as her first talking-picture performance in this sugary-sweet fable seems a touch overdone.  As Norma Besant, a young woman who falls madly in love with a man of whom her stern father disapproves, she makes much use of batted eyelashes, feminine wiles and – it must be said – coquetries that, in the end, just fall flat upon viewing.  All the best acting Pickford tries to summon up in this picture doesn’t pay off very well, even if it did net her the Oscar.  This is a classic example of Hollywood royalty ruling the Academy at the time (it’s no small coincidence Pickford was a founding member, after all).

(Winner: Mary Pickford in Coquette)


Though I was unable to view the entire picture, I was delighted to discover the hard-to-find film, The Devil’s Holiday with Nancy Carroll on YouTube.  I wish that I could say my excitement at finding this film measured up to what I ultimately thought of it.  The story line of Carroll as a careless gold digger who marries a wealthy young man on a lark, only to eventually fall in love with him, is a predictable story that doesn’t allow the petite, pretty actress to flex her acting muscles much, and she feels unconvincing.  As I was unable to see the entire movie, I don’t feel it’s fair for me to make much more commentary on Carroll’s performance, but I can see why she wasn’t a strong contender this year.

Ruth Chatterton, in Sarah and Son, plays a woman whose abusive husband sends her baby son away to live with a well-to-do family.  A majority of the movie has to do with Chatterton being fooled by the family who has adopted her son, as they clearly do not want the poorly, yet determined woman to reunite with her son and demand him back.  Her performance isn’t necessarily bad – Chatterton has a tendency to paint her dramatic strokes a touch too broadly, and it’s not a memorable performance or film by any means.

Rounding out the other nominees I saw for this year, Gloria Swanson turns in a strong performance in The Trespasser.  Swanson plays a typist, Marion Donnell, whose marriage is annulled by her wealthy father-in-law.  Shortly after the annulment, Marion gives birth to a baby boy, and Marion’s kindly – but married – employer agrees to provide for Marion and her young son.  His subsequent death poses a dilemma when Marion is viewed as a ‘kept woman’ out for her employer’s money.  Swanson, as usual, does her best with the material provided, delivering a pretty solid and at times heartfelt performance as a woman wronged.

(Winner: Norma Shearer in The Divorcee)

Stayed tuned for the 1930s…


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This entry was posted on March 31, 2012 by .
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