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Wallace Beery: Best Actor Oscar Winner (AND Runner-Up)

Wallace Beery The Champ Jackie CooperWallace Beery: Best Actor Academy Award winner and Best Actor Academy Award runner-up in the same year (image: Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in 'The Champ')

(See previous post: “Wallace Beery Movies: Anomalous Hollywood Star.”) In the Academy's 1931-32 season, Wallace Beery took home the Best Actor Academy Award – I mean, one of them. In the King Vidor-directed melodrama The Champ (1931), Beery plays a down-on-his-luck boxer and caring Dad to tearduct-challenged Jackie Cooper, while veteran Irene Rich is Beery's cool former wife and Cooper's mother. Will daddy and son remain together forever and ever? Audiences the world over were drowned in tears – theirs and Jackie Cooper's.

Now, regarding Wallace Beery's Best Actor Academy Award, he was actually a runner-up: Fredric March, initially announced as the sole winner for his performance in Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, turned out to have received only one more vote than Beery. As the ballots were being tallied during the awards ceremony, it was discovered that according to Academy rules Beery was a winner as well. (Note: Those rules were changed so that when The Lion in Winter's Katharine Hepburn and Funny Girl's Barbra Streisand tied for Best Actress at the 1969 ceremony, they must have had the exact same number of votes.)

I should add that as a result of the Fredric March / Wallace Beery official tie, there were more Best Actor Academy Award winners than losers that year. The only nominee to go home empty-handed was MGM's recent Broadway import Alfred Lunt, shortlisted for the box office disappointment The Guardsman.

Note: Franco Zeffirelli remade The Champ in 1979, with Jon Voight as the boxer, Ricky Schroder as the son, and Faye Dunaway as the interfering Mother. The year before, Jackie Cooper was seen as The Daily Planet editor Perry White in Christopher Reeve's first Superman movie.

Wallace Beery: The Ruby Keeler of 1930

Released the same year as Min and Bill, the rough prison drama The Big House was another gigantic hit for Wallace Beery. Directed and (largely) written by two Min and Bill collaborators, respectively, George W. Hill and Frances Marion, The Big House was originally intended as a star vehicle for Lon Chaney, one of MGM's top box office draws during the late silent era. However, Chaney died of cancer that year. Enter Wallace Beery, the Ruby Keeler of 1930, stepping into Chaney's inmate uniform and coming out a star – ironically, right at the time when most of the silent movie stars Beery had supported in the past were quickly fading into obscurity.

And remember: A woman, Frances Marion, was credited for the “story and dialogue” of this highly successful “Men's Picture.” Marion, in fact, was reportedly the top-paid screenwriter in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkie era. So don't believe the bullshit that women were allowed to write only fluff back in those days. There were numerous female screenwriters throughout the '20s and '30s, and they tackled all kinds of subject matters.

More Wallace Beery movies: 'Dinner at Eight,' 'The Last of the Mohicans'

Wrapping this up: if Lee Tracy is nowhere to be found in Viva Villa!, he at least can be seen as one of a dozen or so MGM stars in George Cukor's enjoyable Dinner at Eight (1933). The cast is a mixed bag: Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, and supporting player Hilda Vaughn (Harlow's maid) are the standouts. Watch Vaughn's Depression Era maid have a socially conscious chat about jewelry with Harlow, and later on, watch Harlow have an intellectual discussion about books with (a startled) Marie Dressler. Phillips Holmes and Madge Evans, for their part, are standouts in the looks department. As the dinner hostess, Billie Burke somehow manages to be immensely irritating and immensely amusing at the same time. A true acting feat. Wallace Beery is just there, one more name in the cast list.

The Last of the Mohicans (1920) is a surprisingly effective interethnic love story, co-directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of Cat People's Jacques Tourneur) and future five-time Oscar nominee Clarence Brown. Barbara Bedford, who would later be reduced to bit parts in talkies, is the film's pretty and moving leading lady. Victor Fleming's Treasure Island (1935) offers lots of mugging: Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jackie Cooper; while A Date with Judy (1948), reminiscent of Deanna Durbin's Universal movies of the '30s, offers lots of pretty faces: Jane Powell, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Stack, Scotty Beckett, and scene-stealer Carmen Miranda – in addition to vibrant color and some groovy songs. (Durbin's former Universal “mentor,” Joe Pasternak, produced A Date with Judy.)

Directed by the now mostly forgotten Tay Garnett, China Seas (1935) is an enjoyable comedy-drama-romance-adventure tale, with a top-notch cast. Even Wallace Beery is tolerable in this one, alongside Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and a classy-looking Rosalind Russell. Highly recommended.

Now, would it be asking too much for Turner Classic Movies to show a few hard-to-find Wallace Beery movies at some future date? There's the early talkie Chinatown Nights, with Florence Vidor; the 1925 silent The Pony Express, with Ricardo Cortez and Betty Compson; the box office hit The Great Divide, with Alice Terry and Conway Tearle; and the 1923 drama The White Tiger, with Priscilla Dean, among other rarities. That would be much appreciated.

[“Best Actor Oscar Winner Wallace Beery” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery The Chammp photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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