Thursday, May 14, 2009

Best Supporting Actor Of 1927-28: Jean Hersholt (The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg)

Before his name became synonymous with humanitarian causes, Jean Hersholt was also a fine character actor and never better than he was here in The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, one of the last silent films directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch.

Old Heidelberg, as the movie was originally known, is the story of a young prince (Ramon Novarro, who played the title character in the silent classic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) who is torn from his family to prepare to take the reins of government
from his uncle, the king.

It proves to be a lonely life and Hersholt, who plays the prince's tutor, Dr, Jüttner, is the only real friend and father the prince has ever known. While everyone in the palace is always telling the boy what he should do, the tutor is the only one who ever encourages him to do what he wants to do, and what little fun there is to be had for a prince growing up in a gated palace, the tutor provides.

Admittedly, Jüttner is not much at teaching the young man what it means to be a prince—in a funny scene during the prince's university exams, we learn that not only does the prince not know his country's history, neither does Jüttner—but he's done a first rate job at teaching him what it means to be a human being, and let's face it, future kings get their diplomas whether they know anything or not.

After graduation, instead of getting the expected medal and a forced retirement, Jüttner accompanies the prince who is sent to Heidelberg for graduate studies—studies which focus
primarily on beer and a romance with Norma Shearer. The few months in Heidelberg are the best the prince has ever known.

Incidentally, this is one of Shearer's most appealing performances in a career that often leaves me cold. Here, she plays the niece of an innkeeper, the prettiest and most lively girl in Heidelberg, and the main attraction for the hoards of beer-swilling fraternity boys who crowd the inn's garden. Jüttner is delighted by her spunk, the prince by her beauty, as she shows them to their rooms in the tiny, third-rate inn and enthusiastically recommends the couch. "You can sit on it, you can lie down on it! You can't expect any more of a couch!"

She then proceeds, to the prince's embarrassment and the tutor's amusement, to demonstrate the virtues of the bed.

Love is in the air, but of course the tutor knows (and we suspect) that royal protocol will never allow the marriage of such a socially mismatched couple. And this ultimately is what The Student Prince is all about. The old tutor knows what the young prince doesn't, that you have to live as much as you can while you can because all things eventually end, and in one of the film's most poignant moments, Jüttner gently, but firmly steers the prince toward his inevitable duties as head of the government.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg represented something of a turning point for Hersholt. Before this role, he had primarily played villains, and quite successfully, in classic silent films such as Tess of the Storm Country and Erich von Stroheim's Greed. His performance here was so effective, he afterwards became known for playing kind if weary wise men. His most remembered role may be that of the cantankerous yet caring grandfather searching for Shirley Temple in the 1937 version of Heidi.

Hersholt was twice awarded honorary Oscars, once in 1940 for his work in establishing the Motion Picture Relief Fund which was designed to help out-of-work and ailing actors, and again in 1950 after his years of service as president of the Academy. Shortly before his death in 1956, the Academy created the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award which is bestowed periodically on those from the Hollywood community who have significantly furthered humanitarian causes.

Note: I very seriously considered giving the first supporting actor award to Gary Cooper for his performance in Wings. He's only on screen for three minutes, he doesn't talk (of course), exits stage left and gets killed immediately. Given the way I usually feel about Gary Cooper's acting, I would normally say the only way his performance in Wings could be any better is if he wasn't in the movie at all. But the fact is, he's terrific—cocky but human, naturalistic and above all riveting—and those three minutes made him a star.

It wouldn't have been the briefest performance ever nominated—that would be Hermione Baddeley who was on screen for all of two minutes thirty-two seconds in 1959's Room At The Top. And Beatrice Straight won for Network in a role that lasted only five minutes forty seconds, so short in fact that the first time I saw the movie I didn't realize she'd been on screen until she was already gone.

There have been two dozen actors who have received Oscar nominations for performances that clock in at fewer than ten minutes (three of them won). So I think I could have gotten away with selecting Gary Cooper. But in the end, it was Jean Hersholt's performance that moved me most.

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