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Wallace Beery Movies: Anomalous Hollywood Star Was Oscar Winner AND Runner-Up in Same Year

Wallace Beery Marie Dressler Min and BillMarie Dressler and Wallace Beery in 'Min and Bill'

Wallace Beery movies: TCM offers a glimpse into Beery's extensive filmography

According to the IMDb, the Wallace Beery Filmography features nearly 240 movie titles, including shorts and features, spanning more than three decades, from 1913 to 1949 – the year of his death at age 64. You'll be able to catch about a dozen of these Wallace Beery movies on Saturday, August 17, 2013, as Turner Classic Movies continues with its “Summer Under the Stars” series. (TCM's Wallace Beery movie schedule further below.)

Wallace Beery, much like fellow veteran Marie Dressler, with whom he co-starred in Min and Bill and its sequel, Tugboat Annie, was a Hollywood anomaly. At age 45, the ugly, coarse-looking actor became a top box office draw in the United States after languishing in supporting roles, usually playing villains, throughout most of the silent era. Beery and Dressler, in fact, became MGM stars the same year, 1930, chiefly thanks to the success of George W. Hill's Min and Bill, a highly sentimental waterfront-set comedy-melodrama that earned Dressler the year's (1930-31) Best Actress Academy Award.

Now, when people talk about “dated movies,” they must be thinking of something along the lines of Min and Bill: the story is pure goo, while the mugging – ahem, acting of the two leads makes Jim Carrey's and Ben Stiller's seem like a model of underplaying. You don't believe me? Then take a quick look at the Wallace Beery / Marie Dressler picture above. (See also: “Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery: Q&A with Dressler biographer Matthew Kennedy.”)

Min and Bill's little waif, I should add, is Dorothy Jordan. A pretty MGM ingénue in the late '20s / early '30s, Jordan was featured in three popular Ramon Novarro movies at that time (Devil-May-Care, In Gay Madrid, Call of the Flesh) and might have gone places had she danced with Fred Astaire – as originally planned – in RKO's 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio. Instead, Jordan opted to drop out of the film to marry King Kong co-director Merian C. Cooper. In true 42nd Street-style (minus the temperamental star's broken leg), Ginger Rogers stepped into Dorothy Jordan's shoes and became a star. Jordan's movie career came to an abrupt halt at that time, though she would make a brief comeback in minor supporting roles in a trio of John Ford movies of the mid-'50s (The Sun Shines Bright, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles).

Wallace Beery in 'Grand Hotel,' 'Viva Villa!': An expert at phony international accents

Wallace Beery does some additional mugging (and grunting) in Edmund Goulding's Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel (1932), notable as the sole Best Picture winner that failed to receive any other Academy nods. (Granted, there were fewer categories and fewer nominees per category back then.)

Despite the film's reputation as the (or one of the) crowning jewel(s) in the career of MGM's second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg, I'm not a big fan of Grand Hotel – to put it mildly. Edmund Goulding could be a reliable actors' director (Fay Bainter in White Banners, Miriam Hopkins in The Old Maid, Mary Astor in The Great Lie), but here he allows four of his MGM stars to do as they please, and the results are mostly disastrous.

Greta Garbo delivers what could well be the worst performance of her career (well, alongside her sex worker in the English-language version of Anna Christie), while John Barrymore sleepwalks through his role, Lionel Barrymore whines incessantly, and Wallace Beery sports the phoniest German accent this side of Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno. Meryl Streep he was not. Grand Hotel's one outstanding cast member is Joan Crawford, proving what a sensational actress she could be when given the chance.

Viva Villa! (1934) was one of the biggest box office hits of Wallace Beery's career; in fact, this highly fictionalized film version of Pancho Villa's life and times was a worldwide blockbuster. That could be because Viva Villa! has a lot happening on screen, what with executions, uprisings, a King Kong-less Fay Wray, and Beery playing Pancho Villa as if the bandit-cum-revolutionary leader were a petty five-year-old sporting a Mexican accent that would have given stomach cramps to Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland, Lupe Velez, and Dolores del Rio.

Apparently, during the making of Viva Villa! there was a lot happening behind the scenes as well. As the story goes, Lee Tracy was fired from the project for, while inebriated, urinating from his hotel balcony on a Mexican military parade. That, in turn, reportedly led to the firing of original director Howard Hawks. Lee Tracy was replaced by Stuart Erwin, while Jack Conway was the newly assigned director. Tracy's career would never recover from the debacle, though he would land a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination three decades later, for his role as the U.S. president in Franklin J. Schaffner's The Best Man. (I haven't read Viva Villa!'s co-cinematographer Charles G. Clarke's autobiography, but in it he supposedly asserts that the urinating incident never happened, accusing a Mexican tabloid of causing an uproar following a minor altercation between Tracy and a local.)

A curiosity: Wallace Beery had played Pancho Villa once before, in the William Randolph Hearst-produced 1917 serial Patria, a sort of anti-Japan, anti-Mexico Red Dawn of the 1910s, somewhat incongruously starring ballroom dancer Irene Castle.

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')

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.

Wallace Beery Pancho Villa Fay WrayWallace Beery from Pancho Villa to Long John Silver: TCM schedule (PT) on August 17, 2013 (image: Fay Wray, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa in 'Viva Villa!')

3:00 AM THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1920). Dir.: Maurice Tourneur. Cast: Barbara Bedford, Albert Roscoe, Wallace Beery, Lillian Hall, Henry Woodward, James Gordon, George Hackathorne, Nelson McDowell, Harry Lorraine, Theodore Lorch, Jack McDonald, Sydney Deane, Boris Karloff. Black and white. 76 min.

4:30 AM THE BIG HOUSE (1930). Dir.: George W. Hill. Cast: Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion, J.C. Nugent, DeWitt Jennings, Matthew Betz, Claire McDowell, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Tom Wilson, Eddie Foyer, Roscoe Ates, Fletcher Norton, Noah Beery Jr, Chris-Pin Martin, Eddie Lambert, Harry Wilson. Black and white. 87 min.

6:00 AM BAD MAN OF BRIMSTONE (1937). Dir.: J. Walter Ruben. Cast: Wallace Beery, Virginia Bruce, Dennis O'Keefe. Black and white. 89 min.

7:45 AM RATIONING (1943). Dir.: Willis Goldbeck. Cast: Wallace Beery, Marjorie Main, Donald Meek. Black and white. 93 min.

9:30 AM THE CHAMP (1931). Dir.: King Vidor. Cast: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich. Black and white. 86 min.

11:15 AM TREASURE ISLAND (1934). Dir.: Victor Fleming. Cast: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Otto Kruger, Lewis Stone. Black and white. 103 min.

1:15 PM AH, WILDERNESS! (1935). Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Aline MacMahon, Mickey Rooney. Black and white. 98 min.

3:00 PM A DATE WITH JUDY (1948). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Wallace Beery, Jane Powell, Elizabeth Taylor, Carmen Miranda, Xavier Cugat, Robert Stack, Scotty Beckett, Selena Royle, Leon Ames, Clinton Sundberg, George Cleveland, Lloyd Corrigan, Jerry Hunter, Jean McLaren, Franklyn Farnum. Color. 113 min.

5:00 PM GRAND HOTEL (1932). Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, Mary Carlisle, Tully Marshall. Black and white. 113 min.

7:00 PM DINNER AT EIGHT (1933). Dir.: George Cukor. Cast: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Phillips Holmes, May Robson, Jean Hersholt, Louise Closser Hale, Karen Morley, Grant Mitchell, Phoebe Foster, Elizabeth Patterson, Hilda Vaughn, Harry Beresford, Edwin Maxwell, John Davidson, Edward Woods, Anna Duncan, Herman Bing, Edward Arnold, George Baxter. Black and white. 111 min.

9:00 PM MIN AND BILL (1930). Dir.: George W. Hill. Cast: Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Don Dillaway a.k.a. Donald Dillaway, DeWitt Jennings, Russell Hopton, Frank McGlynn Sr., Gretta Gould. Black and white. 66 min.

10:15 PM VIVA VILLA! (1934). Dir.: Jack Conway. Cast: Wallace Beery, Leo Carrillo, Fay Wray, Donald Cook, Stuart Erwin, Henry B. Walthall, Joseph Schildkraut, Katherine DeMille, George E. Stone, Phillip Cooper, David Durand, Frank Puglia, Ralph Bushman a.k.a. Francis X. Bushman Jr., Adrian Rosley, Henry Armetta, Pedro Regas, George Regas, Mischa Auer, Gino Corrado, Emile Chautard, Claire Du Brey, Nigel De Brulier, Sam Godfrey, Brandon Hurst, George Irving, Francis McDonald, Herbert Prior. Black and white. 110 min.

12:15 AM CHINA SEAS (1935). Dir.: Tay Garnett. Cast: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Rosalind Russell. Black and white. 87 min.

1:45 AM THE BAD MAN (1941). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Laraine Day. Black and white. 70 min.

Wallace Beery movie schedule via the TCM website. Fay Wray and Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa in Jack Conway's Viva Villa! photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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

Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery Min and Bill photo: MGM.

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