Mark's Best Actress Challenge

…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!

Actresses in a Nutshell: The 1930s


Most folks today may not be familiar with the very talented, blustery and (I’ll just say it) robust actress Marie Dressler, but back in the 30s, she was one of the best.  According to the Academy, Dressler was at the top of her form playing Min Divot in Min and Bill, a role for which she won the Oscar playing a tough-as-nails dockside innkeeper who tries to protect her daughter’s innocence while trading barbs and matching wits with drunken fisherman Bill (Wallace Beery).  I loved her performance and found her especially endearing.  A scene in which she basically tears up an entire room in a mad tirade against Beery is particularly humorous; for her size, Dressler displayed terrific physical comedy and tossed furniture and knick knacks around the set like they weighed nothing.  Personally, I find it charming that she won the Oscar over glamour legends/fellow nominees Norma Shearer and Marlene Dietrich that year.

In Holiday, based upon a stage play by Philip Barry (of The Philadelphia Story fame), Ann Harding plays Linda Seton, the discontented socialite daughter of a wealthy New York  family.  While sufficient in the part, she comes across as bland and displays little of the latent passion and fire the role requires. I couldn’t help but feel she was out of her element. Mary Astor, who played Julia, her snobbish older sister, put in a more solid performance.  In 1938, Kate Hepburn would play Linda Seton (a role she understudied on the stage) opposite Cary Grant.  I found her rendition of the role to be a stronger and more convincing one than Harding’s.

Norma Shearer, fresh off her win for The Divorcee the previous year, snagged another nom in A Free Soul as a woman torn between the love of her alcoholic lawyer father (Lionel Barrymore, in a Best Actor-winning performance) and a free-wheeling, notorious gambler (Clark Gable). Shearer does her usual, turning in an effective performance with a few occasional, non-convincing splashes of overacted melodrama. Still, it’s a decent performance and her glamorous looks and fashion seem to be what sold her the most at the time. Marriage to successful producer Irving Thalberg couldn’t have hurt either.

(Winner: Marie Dressler in Min and Bill)


Marie Dressler was nominated again for playing matronly housekeeper Emma to a widowed inventor and his family.  When Emma subsequently marries the inventor and he passes away, the children she has raised so lovingly turn upon her, trying to prove their father was insane when he wrote his will and left his money to Emma.  While it isn’t as strong and humorous a role as Min in Min and Bill, Dressler is still very touching and believable, and her heart is in the character.  Look for a particularly funny scene when one of the children, who has grown up to be an airplane pilot, has her ride a demo airplane.  As it spins up, down, and all-around, Dressler’s frightened facial expressions, screeches and scoldings are priceless.

(Winner: Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet)


I’m pretty certain that no one would argue the constant charm in every moment of May Robson‘s superb performance in Frank Capra’s engaging Lady for a Day. I fell in love with Robson as Apple Annie, a rugged apple peddler beloved by all who know her – including Dave the Dude, a gambler who relies on Annie’s apples for his luck.  Dave and his henchmen help Annie masquerade as an elegant lady of good fortune and wealth when her young daughter, who was sent away at a young age to be raised in a convent, comes home to introduce Annie to her fiancé and his father, a count.  Robson has such a tender sensibility for her role, demonstrated so wonderfully in a tender scene in the beginning where she tearfully pens a note to her daughter.  She definitely tugs at your heartstrings.  The dueling flickers of gratitude and astonishment that cross her face in a single moment when she realizes she was able to pull off the ruse of being “Mrs. E. Worthington Manville” are pitch-perfect (one such expression is shown in the picture above).  It’s a shame Robson did not win the Oscar for this acclaimed and very deserving performance.  As much as I am a Katharine Hepburn fan, her over-the-top hamminess in Morning Glory did not merit her win that year; Robson should have taken home the prize.

(Winner: Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory)


In One Night of Love (1934), opera songbird Grace Moore stars as a Mary Barrett, a young woman with a gorgeous soprano who risks it all and ventures to Italy on her own to study opera. Predictably, she catches the attention of a famed voice instructor and they begin a Pygmalion-like love affair. Moore is engaging and her acting is not forced; it’s an endearing story in her capable hands. As much as I admired her singing, however, I found myself fast-forwarding through her lengthy and spontaneous arias.

(Winner: Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night)


Exotic yet delicate beauty Merle Oberon, best known as Cathy in the classic Wuthering Heights, received her one and only Oscar nomination years earlier for the WWI weepie drama, The Dark Angel. Playing a woman torn between the love of two childhood friends, Oberon more than holds her own against strong costars Fredric March and Herbert Marshall.  The film borders on trite at times, but it has its good moments, and as this photo will attest, Oberon was such a stunning beauty to behold; the camera truly loved her.  She lost the Oscar to an – I feel – undeserving performance by Bette Davis in Dangerous.  Instead of Davis, this should have been Katharine Hepburn’s first win, for her near-perfect Alice Adams.

(Winner: Bette Davis in Dangerous)


1936’s Romeo and Juliet was probably one of my least favorite films I’ve had to withstand in this challenge.  Norma Shearer, nominated for playing Juliet Capulet, stars as the doomed young lover opposite Leslie Howard as Romeo.  Both seem entirely too old for their respective roles (Howard was 43!), and the production is just too long.  As it’s such a well-known story, I don’t feel the need to provide the synopsis here, but let’s just say that it’s evident director George Cukor and his cast and crew had a wonderful time shining at their flamboyant best with Shakespeare’s drama.  It’s not that the acting is bad – but it’s not entirely good either.  Shearer does, well, fine with Juliet, but that’s all.  I was relieved when the film wrapped and felt I had watched an hour too much of it.

(Winner: Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld)


I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Fay Bainter, and therefore was thrilled to discover a hard-to-find print of White Banners uploaded on YouTube.  Nominated for Actress in the same year she won her one and only Oscar for Supporting Actress (deservedly) in Jezebel, Bainter portrays Hannah Parmalee, a poor but hard-working and honest woman who, one snowy night, peddles apple peelers at the home of the Ward family, who are enduring financial struggles of their own.  Taking a shine to her immediately, the Wards decide to take Hannah on as a cook and housekeeper and throughout the course of the film, she acts as a calming voice of reason to each member of the family.  Eventually, we come to discover that Hannah has some secrets of her own that personally tie in to the family who embraced her.  Bainter is engaging to watch and faithful to the strength of her character in every frame.  The film slides into slight soap opera territory and explores some unnecessary tangents a little too long (in particular, an incidence where the son of the family, who invents an early refrigeration system, has his ideas stolen by a neighbor), but Bainter rides it through and carries us along with her.  The curious choice of title perhaps alludes to a film grander than it actually is, but it’s a nice showcase of Fay Bainter’s talent as an actress.

(Winner: Bette Davis in Jezebel)

Purchase MIN AND BILL on DVD from Amazon!

Purchase A FREE SOUL on DVD from Amazon!

Just around the corner: the 1940s…


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This entry was posted on April 5, 2012 by .


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