Sunday, January 20, 2008

OK, last night, while TCM had its Greer Garson night, i watched "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" again. Well: if there is a sentimental comedy-drama from 1939 i'm going to like, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" might as well be the one. And Robert Donat's performance is simply perfect.

I bring this up because in 1939, his Oscar win for that performance was one of those generally well-liked awards. Clark Gable had already won an Academy Award, and he wasn't considered such a great actor to begin with; James Stewart was the leading contender for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", but this was a case of studio politics: Stewart was an MGM star and he was in a movie on loan-out to Columbia. At that time, the Academy was just getting started in terms of having a membership, and there really was block-voting, i.e., Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer would tell you who to vote for. Obviously, Robert Donat got the support from MGM that might have gone to James Stewart.

(This accounts for what happened next year: Stewart was nominated for "The Philadelphia Story"... for the second lead part! Cary Grant was playing the lead... but Cary Grant was not an MGM star, he had signed a one-picture deal, for a huge salary - at the time - for "The Philadelphia Story". Grant had non-exclusive contracts with RKO and Columbia, but he was NOT on "loan-out" to MGM, he had the ability to sign outside deals. Cary Grant was one smart cookie: he was one of the first free agents in Hollywood. Anyway, Louis B. Mayer wasn't going to nominate Cary Grant for the top grossing movie for MGM in 1940, and the nomination of Stewart for "The Philadelphia Story" was also a rebuke to Margaret Sullavan, because Louis B. Mayer hated her. Sullavan was one of the few who always stood up to Mayer, who always disagreed with his ideas, Mayer couldn't see the potential of James Stewart, but Sullavan did and worked to make her friend a star. The reason his nomination was a rebuke was that in 1940 Stewart also appeared in "The Shop Around the Corner" and "The Mortal Storm", two of his best performances, but Mayer would not have him nominated for those movies, which led to the erroneous idea that "The Shop Around the Corner" and "The Mortal Storm" had been failures.)

But Robert Donat's inherent reticence and elegance as an actor help to keep the mawkishness of the material from slopping all over the place. (Just imagine if someone like Lionel Barrymore had played the role!) It's a truly heroic performance. (The New York Film Critics Circle did give their award to James Stewart for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington".)


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