Thursday, June 4, 2009

Best Supporting Actor Of 1928-29, Part One: The Nominees And The Problem Of Film Preservation

It's quite possible that the best sup- porting per- formance of the year was turned in not by my choice (who I will not reveal just yet) but by Lewis Stone, remembered now mostly for his recurring role as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movie series (or perhaps for speaking the famous final line of Grand Hotel: "People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.").

But Stone was also a very fine character actor and he received his only Oscar nomination in 1928-29 for his performance in the Ernst Lubitsch movie The Patriot. For contemporary accounts, Stone's role was probably more of a supporting one (the Oscars didn't distinguish between lead and supporting performances back then) and if it's as good as people eighty years ago thought it was, he'd be a very good choice for the Katie Award for best supporting actor.

Unfortunately, like many silent films, The Patriot long ago vanished, leaving only a few fragments and it's impossible to tell from the trailer I've posted here, which focuses on the lead actor, Emil Jannings, what Lewis Stone did that so enchanted audiences and critics alike.

Jannings, as you may recall, won the first Oscar for acting but in this trailer at least, he serves up more ham in three minutes than you'd find in one of those two pound sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli. As for Stone, except for a single mention, the trailer ignores him completely.

And while you might be okay with giving an award for a performance you have never and will never see, Katie-Bar-The-Door doesn't put up with that sort of nonsense and I answer to her, not to you. So I had to pass on Stone and The Patriot.

I gave serious thought to shoe-horning Lewis Stone into the award for his supporting performance in A Woman Of Affairs, the third movie pairing of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, and the first of seven movies Stone made with Garbo. Stone was quite good in the thankless role of the family doctor and friend who stands around being wise while everyone behaves like a jackass, good enough to earn at least a nomination.

But in the end, the preposterous nature of the story, about a woman who destroys herself and everyone around her to protect the reputation of a man hardly worth protecting, undermines Stone's effort, leaving him hanging, as they say, like an elephant on a clothesline.

Stone starred in another Garbo movie in 1929, Wild Orchids, in which he plays a cuckolded husband who gets his revenge while on a tiger hunt with a Javanese prince. The New York Times called his performance "splendid," others have called it "solid," but quite frankly the story is even dumber than the one in A Woman Of Affairs (and I like Garbo). So a nomination for Stone, admiration for a long career that covered nearly forty years and a hundred and fifty movies, but no Katie.

Also missing in action, thanks to Hollywood's shoddy treatment of its own past, is Reginald Owen in The Letter. Readers of my generation may remember Owen best as Admiral Boom in 1964's Mary Poppins, but he was also a hard-working character actor and always worth a look come award time. Unfortunately, as I will discuss at greater length when I write about the brief life of Oscar-nominee Jeanne Eagels, The Letter is partially lost and what is left sits in a film archive, unavailable for viewing except for rare exhibitions—which is my way of saying I haven't seen it and am not likely to anytime soon.

Another possible nominee was veteran character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz for his role in Greta Garbo's The Mysterious Lady, but in the end his sole mode of acting, a holdover I suppose from the Silent Era, is to glower. He juts out his long, granite chin, beetles his eyebrows and glowers angrily. And then when watching other von Seyffertitz performances, I began to realize he glowers a lot. Like all the time. He was Hollywood's go-to guy for glowering. You want to hand out an award for glowering, von Seyffertitz was your man (okay, I like the word "glower"), but you want an actor with a bit of range, you look elsewhere.

I also considered Donald Calthrop who plays a twitchy little weasel in the first Alfred Hitchcock talkie, Blackmail. He's pretty good in it, but overall, it's not one of Hitchcock's better efforts and given that Hitchcock and his oeuvre will wind up being well-represented during the course of this blog, I didn't see any need to make more of Calthrop's performance than it deserves.

Which to my mind leaves two major contenders for the prize of best supporting actor of 1928-29, Ernest Torrence in Buster Keaton's comedy classic, Steamboat Bill Jr., and Wallace Beery in the movie that vaulted Louise Brooks to the first rank of American silent actresses, Beggars Of Life.

I'll talk about both of them in my next post and then bless one of them with a coveted Katie.

[To continue to Part Two, click here.]

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