(the LAST installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)
LYNN FONTANNE IN THE GUARDSMAN (1932)
The competition (Cliff: 2 for 3):
Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet
Marie Dressler in Emma
Watching this hammy, wafer-thin comedy made me realize just how towering Lynn’s reputation must have been in the early days of the Academy Awards. Swept up in the invasion of Broadway talent that won Oscars for George Arliss, Lionel Barrymore, and Helen Hayes, the fact that Lunt and Fontanne both got nominated (in a year of three nominees) for adapting their own hit play is a tribute to their sterling reputation on the Great White Way. The first ten minutes erase any doubt regarding their exalted status, as a recreation of the final scene from their actual recent stage triumph, the Maxwell Anderson-penned “Elizabeth the Queen,” is intercut with helpful gasps of adoration from the boxes. The twist is that these barely-veiled characters can’t stand each other, and he’s constantly enraged by her hints at infidelity, setting in motion the plot of a twenty-two minute I Love Lucy episode over the course of the next hour (seldom has an eighty minute movie plodded so).
But I’ve given the film enough grief. Lynn doesn’t amaze me, but even if she and her husband struggle to modulate their easy but broad style for the screen (or perhaps the problem is that they don’t), they still do have a wonderful rhythm together. She plays by far the more subdued character, parrying and taunting the husband’s jealousies like a bored cat. Despite what her character thinks, she’s really only interacting with the same actor all movie long, and only has to operate at three speeds: annoyed, amorous, and astonished, the last when the husband’s phony Russian seducer is exposed at the film’s end. It’s a pretty uninspiring performance that falls far behind the work of Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet for the 5th Best Actress Award, although in such a small pool of nominees, I certainly can’t make any decision until seeing the always entertaining Marie Dressler in Emma.