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Character Actors Before Their Time

Character Actors Before Their Time

It was 1937 before the Academy finally honored supporting actors and actresses with an award and (for the first seven years that it was given) they received plaques – in lieu of the more coveted ‘Oscars’ – to recognize their achievements (though these plaques were later replaced with statuettes). In fact over the past 80 years AMPAS has added and deleted categories to suit their predilections and/or the times e.g. there used to be separate categories for B&W vs. Color cinematography art direction-set direction and costume design.

The first winner of the Best Actor in a Supporting Role award was (appropriately) Walter Brennan (for Come and Get It (1936)) who went on to win two more statuettes – for Kentucky (1938) and The Westerner (1940) – though he lost to Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley (1941)) on his fourth nomination for Sergeant York (1941); I guess because it wasn’t an even numbered year. Among the other actors who were nominated in that first year were Akim Tamiroff (for The General Died at Dawn) Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey) and Basil Rathbone (Romeo and Juliet). As for the ladies Gale Sondergaard won the first Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for Anthony Adverse (1936)) whereas Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth) Beulah Bondi (The Gorgeous Hussy) thirteen year old Bonita Granville (These Three) and Alice Brady (My Man Godfrey) who’d win the following year (In Old Chicago (1937)) were nominated. As you read through the following if you’re familiar with the movies – e.g. know who its leading actor(s) and actress(es) were ask yourself if you can remember the other character(s) listed below. If so then their roles were memorable enough to have been recognized with at least an Oscar nomination right?

Which begs the question: if the Supporting Actor/Actress Awards had existing during the Academy’s early (first eight) years who’d have been nominated (and who would have won them)? While it’s obviously impossible to answer the question(s) in any definitive way one can ponder the selections:


Charles ‘Chic’ Sale played a Civil War veteran grandpa that fought against gangsters in The Star Witness (1931)

Honorable mention: James Gleason who looked after Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul (1931)

Aline MacMahon (in her film debut) served as newspaper editor Edward G. Robinson’s secretary and conscience as the paper’s owners became muckraking sleaze merchants in Five Star Final (1931)

Honorable mention: Zasu Pitts the squeaking maid of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman (1931); also surely someone from Street Scene (1931) deserved a nod.


Frank McHugh perhaps the most endearingly humorous member of Hollywood’s Irish Mafia; in One Way Passage (1932) he (and Aline MacMahon’s character) enables William Powell’s fated escaped convict to have one last romantic fling with (an equally doomed) Kay Francis. McHugh reprised the role in the George Brent-Merle Oberon remake ‘Til We Meet Again (1940)

Honorable mentions: Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton as Kay Francis suitors who lose out to Herbert Marshall in Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy gem Trouble in Paradise (1932)

It wouldn’t be too difficult to select Aline MacMahon again (she’d be the only back-to-back winner in the category though Jason Robards would equal the feat some 45 years later) for The Mouthpiece (1932); in this drama she’s the supportive secretary of the titled lawyer played magnificently by Warren William.

Two others that deserved attention – for their parts in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) – are Ernest Thesiger who played the frail butler or Elspeth Dudgeon the actress that plays the old man. But perhaps it’s better that the supporting categories didn’t exist for films this year because I’m guessing that MGM would have submitted at least a couple of names – and that (given a choice) Academy voters would have chosen one of the stars – from Grand Hotel (1932) to take home the gold which would have marked the first of many instances of lead actors ‘slumming’ to pick up an Oscar in the supporting category.


After much deliberation I’ll have to go with Guy Kibbee who (believe it or not) doesn’t even have a star on the Walk of Fame for his hilarious performance as the pool shark ‘Judge’ in support of Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933) May Robson over two actors who evidently didn’t want their first names known: C. Aubrey Smith as Katharine Hepburn’s mentor in Morning Glory (1933) and C. Henry Gordon as slimy gang leader Jim Crelliman in Penthouse (1933) a year after he’d played gangster Tony Camonte’s (Paul Muni’s) police inspector nemesis in Scarface (1932). I could even throw in Edward Everett Horton as the poor fool that loses Miriam Hopkins to Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Design for Living (1933)

The choice for supporting actress is easier: Billie Burke for Dinner at Eight (1933) an indisputable classic that received no nominations of any kind and (for some reason) has yet to be added to the National Film Registry (a gross oversight). After disappearing from the silent screen Florenz Ziegfeld’s widow found her unique voice in her first talkie comedy and continued to play similar roles for the rest of her career. Obviously these awards are easier to give in hindsight.


Another strong year for the men this one goes to Erik Rhodes as the irrepressible Italian correspondent in The Gay Divorcee (1934) – can you tell that I like comedies? – over Horton in the same film Edward Arnold as the wealthy drunkard husband of Joan Crawford’s Sadie McKee (1934) Ned Sparks the idea man (“box it”) in Imitation of Life (1934) or Leo Carrillo’s murdering Sierra in Viva Villa! (1934).

Since I’ve already awarded this one to Louise Beavers for Imitation of Life (1934) I’ll give Una Merkel an honorable mention for her role as the King’s neglected Queen that earns Maurice Chevalier’s attention in Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934). Of course not mentioning Asta (The Thin Man (1934)) would be unforgivable category or no category.


Academy voters may finally have been ready to bestow an Oscar on the long suffering Edward Everett Horton for his role as dancer Fred Astaire’s producer in Top Hat (1935) but Eric Blore’s performance as his butler Bates (in the same film) caused the vote to be split. Whether this would have opened the door for Margaret Lindsay’s overly protective brother Robert Armstrong (‘G’ Men (1935)) Bette Davis’ ill-fated husband Eugene Pallette (Bordertown (1935)) or even the poor used hapless husband of a social climber – Miriam Hopkins as Becky Sharp (1935) – Alan Mowbray to win it instead is the question.

Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield (1935) or Miss Pross in A Tale of Two Cities (1935) if you’d rather

Honorable mentions for Hattie McDaniel who could have been the second African American – after Beavers above – to win an Oscar (four years before she was the first as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939)) for playing a hired maid that provides the comic relief in Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1935) or Una Merkel as Robert Taylor’s sympathetic secretary in the musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935).

All these new statuettes and still I could find nothing for Alan Hale Grant Mitchell Allen Jenkins Henry Stephenson Reginald Owen Elisha Cook Jr. Henry Daniell Una O’Connor Jessie Ralph or even Isabell Jewell primarily because – even though their bodies of work deserve some sort of recognition – their best days were ahead of them (e.g. after 1935).

© 2009 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog

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