1946 Supporting Actress Smackdown

I, for one, have had a very nice time getting to write more companion pieces for the Supporting Actress Smackdown. And I’ve greatly enjoyed reading what this month’s panelists had to say about the five nominated actresses, all hailing from fairly dubious projects. Still, I thought it’d be fun to throw in my own opinions on the films themselves, which can so often be different from how one would vote on the nominated performances. Maybe not the case in this year, and I can’t quite say that all five films have things to endorse them, but they’re an interesting group. Feel free to check out my Twitter thread of all the 1946 films I’ve watched this month. Oh, and also check out my write-ups of:

Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep
Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City
Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit

The Spiral Staircase

Elsa Lanchester and George Brent in The Spiral Staircase

As compared to what’s blatantly campy, outdated, racist, and inconsistent in the other nominated films, The Spiral Staircase is probably the “best” in terms of not tripping over itself on the way to the finish line but also among the least ambitious in tone and character (Saratoga Trunk certainly ranks dead last in this and every possible respect). It’s pretty consistent, never exciting enough to be genuinely intriguing nor lurid enough to disrespectfully earn it. Much like Sorry, Wrong Number a few years later, this feels like a radio play that hasn’t completely figured out how to walk and talk at the same time. Style and atmosphere are convincing, but never memorably or engaging, and most of its flourishes feel too self-conscious for how much it isn’t trying elsewhere. The single best shot in the whole film is the image of a character, suddenly blotted from view after a candle is blown out, reaching their white hands out for support against the crates on either side of them, only for them to sliiiide down as whoever is with them in the darkness strangles them.

Otherwise, this is a mix of thinly conceived and executed genre conceits that I don’t normally like anyways. The plot follows a mute maid named Helen (Dorothy McGuire) in early 20th century Vermont who is unlucky enough to be at a movie theater while a deaf woman upstairs is slain by a serial killer who exclusively targets disabled women. “Disabled” in Helen’s case means she witnessed an event in her childhood that was so psychologically traumatizing she became mute as a result. Which also means the possibility of her being able to talk again can motivate the actions of several characters in ways that wouldn’t be possible if she was irreversibly mute. Johnny Belinda at least commits to Jane Wyman’s muteness, and she’s resourceful enough to serve up an actual character instead of a tremulous waif. McGuire, who I loved tremendously in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and have struggled with everywhere else, is pretty one-note in conveying Helen’s fears and dreams and growing anxieties, but she at least suits the company. Basically every actor is supplied with a single note at best by the script. In Ethel Barrymore’s case, she’s forced to play only one scene, over and over, right until the climax forces her to do something else. The only reason we would even assume Barrymore’s priggish, misogynistic son isn’t the killer is because the film insists on it so strenuously. Elsa Lanchester is the only performer to play her role in a way that suggests a life outside of what’s in the script, and for that she easily wins top honors. At least it’s a tight 82 minutes, and as mechanical as it can be, the plot’s pretty easy to go with.

Duel in the Sun

Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun

Duel in the Sun is premised on some fantastically retrograde ideas about gender, race, and power, even by whatever standards we’d assume those terms would operate on in a mid-’40s Western. For that alone, it’s an intriguing historical document, but Duel in the Sun feels torn between several planes of tone and morality, only held together by the unifying might of its own dubious taste and imposing images. Conflicts between producer David O. Selznick and director King Vidor were so intense during production that over half a dozen men stepped in to perform uncredited directorial work, including Josef von Sternberg and Selznick himself. Even without this context, which I only learned after the fact, one experiences Duel in the Sun as a film deeply at odds with itself.

On the one hand, the film seems to know that the various ways Pearl is taken advantage of and mistreated by the various, powerful white men who decide her fate are more a reflection on their own gangrenous perspectives than anything she’s purposefully provoking in them. She’s mostly looking to make a new life for herself at the McCandles ranch, and if her father’s old love Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) is the most immediately nurturing of her brood, she’s also unable to do more than watch helplessly as her family destroys itself. Lionel Barrymore’s ranch scion Senator, Joseph Cotten’s good son Jesse, Gregory Peck’s caddish son Lewton, and Walter Huston’s dogmatic, lecherous preacher all have clear designs on Pearl that, to varying degrees, are as much about her Mestiza beauty as her actual humanity. Watching the McCandles men come to grips with how they view her as a person (if only by degrees) is as central to the plot as Pearl’s integration into their way of life and torrid love triangle. On the other hand, there’s a real, lurid charge to several of these bullying encounters between Pearl and the men that often goes beyond situating us in someone’s lecherous headspace. The film often feels complicit in Pearl’s torment, even as it makes clear she’s not happy about any of this. A scene of Peck proudly ogling Pearl while she’s trying to bathe in the lake largely shares his delight, even as Jones looks legitimately upset at his actions.

Jones’ interpretation of Pearl winds up as a striking distillation of her whole film: It’s not subtle, and the politics behind her casting are dubious on its face, yet the intensity of her choices are striking enough that it makes Duel in the Sun not just watchable but strangely compelling. She doesn’t thread anything in the performance that might make her oscillations between Peck and Cotten (both of whom fill their archetypes well enough) read as anything but what she now has to play in the script, yet her commitment to filling those individual beats slowly evolves into a melodramatically layered characterization. It’s Pearl’s conflicted feelings that give the final sequence its lurid, unexpectedly affecting might.

That’s a lot of focus on character and theme in my analysis, which really downplays how well Duel in the Sun functions as a pulpy, trashy melodrama, recontextualizing its frequently disarming politics as another ridiculously heightened aspect of its production. Scenes like Lewton asking Pearl if she’s ever ridden (a stallion) bareback before while they share a close-up speak well enough as ludicrous, barely coded erotic propositioning. A key character, already on the run for murder, takes to blowing up trains for the sake of ongoing business interests. Gish’s ridiculously staged deathbed conversation with Barrymore strains and very nearly explodes the film with the weight of so much thematic heaviness poured onto their relationship from absolutely nowhere. They make it work – her especially – but the sight of her jumping out of bed to prostrate herself at his wheelchaired feet before falling dead out of his lap can barely survive as anything but purple spectacle, with no narrative buildup to scaffold this outpouring of feeling and resonance on either side of this scene.

More than anything the film survives on the strength of its cinematography, which might be the best thing any of these five films have to offer at the level of cinematic craft. Lee Garnes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson all share DP credits. I have no idea who shot which scenes, but their work gives the film tremendous credibility in realist and melodramatic gestures. A scene of Lewt angrily shooting down Pearl’s dream of marriage is expertly shot in a dining room only lit by a party outside, reducing the actors to near outlines while still giving enough attention to their faces and bodies for the interaction to work. Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore stares down a bloody sunset that bathes him and his land in richly saturated crimson, and it looks as though he’s bowing his head before the entrance of Hell to see if his mortally-wounded son is walking towards it. There’s real dynamism and visual identity in its imagery, and the film benefits tremendously from all the coherence and flexibility it can accommodate. More than any of these films, it’s the one whose flaws point towards actual ideas, and its ripeness in style and dialogue is fun without making you think less of the project. I’d watch this again before any of its competition.

Saratoga Trunk

Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in Saratoga Trunk

Did you know that the titular Saratoga Trunk refers to something involving a railroad, and not an actual trunk full of jewels or incriminating evidence or some other shit? It’s a railroad, and in fact a good deal of the film’s second half is premised on train business or some shit. Do you know why? I’m betting they explained it, and maybe it’s simply so they could stage a pretty neat fight sequence with trains in the background, but I honestly don’t care. Saratoga Trunk doesn’t care either, judging by how little and how badly it guides its actors or thinks about such crucial cinematic standards as “pacing” and “theme” and “trying to make anything we’re watching matter“. At least the spectacle of two trains colliding head first into each other provided one of the only interesting images in the whole film, but maybe they should’ve just burned the print. For realsies, y’all, Saratoga Trunk is handily the most disposable, flimsy, miserable thing I hope I’ll ever have the unfortunate obligation to watch because it was nominated for an Oscar. It’s just a hideous, embarrassing object that visibly reeks of mold. Yes, other nominated films have are more insidious in their awfulness, but that at least endows them with some historical value and nasty personality. This is just fantastically, obviously pointless, from its turgid plots to lurching pace. There’s so little there there, and dissing the performances is about the least superficial opening this heap of nothing offers.

Ingrid Bergman shrilly pantomimes her way through the role of a vengeful, half-Creole, wannabe aristocrat named Clio Dulane, who hopes to redeem her mother’s legacy by returning to the New Orleans soil where she met Clio’s father and sired a child before some fucked up shit happened. You wonder why Bette Davis wasn’t cast, and then you’re just happy Bette didn’t embarrass herself by showing up. Gary Cooper, starring as a Texas gambler with his own plans for saving his lineage, is profoundly disengaged from everything, failing to connect with his co-stars and his own lines. Flora Robson, donning blackface to play Bergman’s maid, received Saratoga Trunk’s sole Oscar nomination, and it’s baffling to imagine why. I know she had a fairly significant career at the time, but Christ, there’s nothing for her to do except glower at Bergman and deliver ominous warnings through that hard-r makeup job. Was being in blackface considered “brave” enough for a nomination? It’s the only thing I can think of, and it still doesn’t feel like a legible explanation. It’s almost more surprising Jerry Austin didn’t get nominated for playing Bergman’s spritely, loyal dwarf companion. It’s not a bad turn, but it’s rough to watch him play this demeaning part and look at it like it’s an accomplishment. At least Florence Bates, most famous as Joan Fontaine’s obnoxious handler at the beginning of Rebecca, delivers a genuinely entertaining performance as a socialite who catches on to Bergman’s tricks but offers to help establish her in New York. To hear her talk about Clio’s plans makes them sound almost clever, and her self-amusement is the only indication of fun to be found.

Anna and the King of Siam

Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison in Anna and the King of Siam

There are some real pleasures to be found in Anna and the King of Siam. The craft of it is roundly impressive, from Bernard Hermann’s score to the Oscar-winning production design to the lush costumes, all sumptuous to witness without tilting into gross Orientalism. Both Lee J. Cobb and Gale Sondegaard give unexpectedly engaging performances, even as their yellowface makeup keeps a firm ceiling on how much one can appreciate their work. The few scenes of genuine discussion between Anna and the King – namely their long, midfilm conversation that pivots on the American Civil War – hint at a genuine sense of cultural exchange that the script is ostensibly premised on but so rarely delivers. And, blessedly, there’s no romantic tension between the titular characters. But what few successes lie in Anna and the King of Siam ultimately point to the overwhelmingly colonial perspective that poisons every aspect of the film. The accusations of historical revisionism that Leonowens’ original memoir has been accused of feels exacerbated here, for the sake of making a cinematic showstopper out of yet another British-Western narrative about white people saving the East from itself. You don’t need to have any historical background in this story to know that a key character’s astonishingly abrupt, off-screen death is pure Hollywood manufacturing, particularly in the cliched reactions it provokes from the other characters.

Still, what’s toxic about Anna and the King of Siam on a base level shouldn’t overcrowd how badly key roles are directed, acted, and rewritten against well-documented history to suit a ginned-up narrative. Rex Harrison’s performance always feels snidely condescending to his own character, making King Mongkut equal parts alienating and awkward. It’s not an outright disaster, but he’s never complicated, or even very appealing. Dunne is more ingratiating almost by default, bringing real warmth and approachability rather than arch superiority, but she doesn’t really do much with Anna’s own tendencies to misunderstand or refuse to engage with her host’s culture. She doesn’t foreground Anna’s intelligence in condescending ways, but her standoffs with the King often ring of an inherently knowledgeable, emotional Western femininity going up against a cold, snide, incosiderate Eastern masculinity. Linda Darnell’s Tuptim feels like a confluence of every wrong thing with the movie. Playing the King’s newest slave, she’s slathered in less obtrusively “ethnic” makeup to allow her to be more attractive and sympathetic. Darnell’s performance is barely shaped by the direction, and the cruel resolution of her fate reads as both a cheap tack to make the Siamese people seem barbaric juuuust as Anna was warming up to the King and a blatantly ahistorical trip. Frankly, everyone feels out of place, and what does work feels routine to studio standards (the visual opulence) or complicit in the film’s colonial perspective (Sondegaard). There’s so little risk, and what’s familiar is so, so old.

The Razor’s Edge

Herbert Marshall, Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter, and Tyrone Power in The Razor’s Edge

The Razor’s Edge feels like it should be a better film than it is. Alternating that, it’s surprising it doesn’t implode more spectacularly or gracelessly than it does. Instead, we’re treated to a film that slowly makes itself into a sillier, campier, less nuanced version of itself without quite breaking face from the Serious Message Picture it would really like to be. The cinematography keeps up a healthy clip of interesting motions and compositions, though each one can’t help but register as deeply, distractingly self-conscious given how sporadically The Razor’s Edge chooses to sock it to us visually. And even then, images like Tyrone Power descending from a mountain as the clouds in front of him part with sun shining down upon him can be . . . . a lot.

It opens promisingly enough, or it at least captures the veneer of how a highbrow, thoughtful film would start itself. Virtually all the major players are in attendance at a resplendent outdoor party held in a Chicago country club in 1919. I had briefly misremembered this as being a New Year’s party, which probably reflects more on how often the characters talk about the new age of the American empire now that the Great War is over (Discussions at parties are basically the only way we learn anything about America’s economy). One by one we meet our key players: Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb, fresh off Laura), an expat who’s returning to the US for the first time in years to visit his family; Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney, also fresh off Laura), rich and happily engaged; Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter, our Oscar winner and our Smackdown winner), not as rich but very happily married; W. Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall), occasional narrator and irl author of the actual novel of The Razor’s Edge; Guy Maturin (John Payne) business owner and certified boring but rich alternative to Irene’s fiancé.

Last but not least is said loving fiancé, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power, foxy as fuck), a WWI pilot who quickly establishes himself as Some Guy, and wants to take a year of his life living in Paris off of a $3,000 a month allowance so he can Discover Himself amongst Real People before he gets married. Elliott disapproves, but decides to help Larry establish enough connections in Paris so he can keep up a good name and reintegrate himself into civilized society when this stupid game is said and done. Irene is enchanted by the idea, but is so put off by how down to Earth Larry has become, plus his contentment with the idea of living off his measly, paltry, godforsaken $3,000 a month, that she ditches him for Guy, even though she never stops loving him, and will remind herself of this in a big way once Guy’s businesses tank. Nothing in the film (to include Tierney’s performance) paints her desire as being primarily gold-diggery. Nevertheless, Irene’s territorial selfishness loses layers as the film progresses, and by the end she’s just monstrously unsympathetic rather than complicated.

Larry is nominally regarded as the center of The Razor’s Edge, according to advertising at the time. This isn’t structurally untrue, but it also feels like this is mostly because Power does the most powerful job of imparting how much Larry has changed since the last time we saw him. For a character who’s continuously swathed in Goodness and Noble Kindness and whatever, Power stays remarkably grounded in how he wears Larry’s decency and self-assuredness. His simple, quiet reading of “I know who did.” in his last scene with Tierney is more powerful than a louder, self-righteous declaration would’ve been. Baxter handily takes second place of the ensemble for a role that never stops reading as a satellite for the leads than a proper showcase. She also has to make the severest jumps in personal and material conditions – I won’t spell the whole thing out, but it’s very easily the most tragic and overtly sympathetic arc in the film, and Baxter does some damn good work with it. A sudden re-acquaintance with most of the cast at a Paris bar is perfectly played. Sophie drunkenly wobbles around, conversing with her former friends, and reveals her new life as open wound that’s never properly healed but has made trying to drown out the pain her final mission. Her acting in subsequent scenes is comparable to Andrea Leeds in Stage Door, where what’s shaky and a bit performative about the actress can be productively justified as the character trying to play a version of themselves they desperately, nakedly want to be.

Those two, at least, do a good job of adding stakes to a film that mostly feels like it wants to have them and doesn’t. Elsewhere, Webb is uncannily synced up to the film’s growing campiness and steadfast Face, and Marshall remains fairly welcome whenever The Razor’s Edge remembers he exists. I forgot to mention Guy – he remains a lump of wet cement, imparting no qualities even after we learn how badly his mental health has been after his business crashed. As with The Spiral Staircase, Elsa Lanchester shows up and gives a terrifically layered turn from her discreet corner of the film. But there’s too many scenes that read as outmoded even by ‘40s standards of drama, made sillier by a refusal to play towards melodrama even as it might benefit from bigger gestures and emotions. A character’s heavily-foreshadowed death, can’t prepare you for the absurd spectacle of him dying in bed with his mouth lolling open and his eyes wide the second he finishes delivering a flowery speech. It’s funny, but not in a way that feels purposeful or endearing. It’s just smaller than it wants to be.

Other Options

Anne Baxter would be my easy vote of this lineup, which says as much about how much room The Razor’s Edge gives her to build a memorable characterization as it does the patent limitations of her fellow nominees. Sondegaard and especially Gish do sterling work, but their films don’t give them enough to do for me to get behind either of them. Still, it’s a strange quintet, and it’s stranger still considering better films that received Oscar’s attention in other categories couldn’t break through to this one. Where are Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives, who may have confused voters by straddling the lead-supporting line but do valuable, expansive work in their film? What about the newly minted Ava Gardner, seizing her stock role in The Killers with enough charisma to knock the rest of the cast on their asses? How did Notorious get so poorly served by the Academy a year after they went nuts for Spellbound? I do wish I’d found a few more tangible alternatives, but that only means more to look for the next time I dive into 1946. As it is, here is my Supporting Actress lineup for the year:

Ava Gardner, The Killers
Leopoldine Konstantin, Notorious
Anna Magnani, Rome, Open City (a lead?)
Margaret Rutherford, Blithe Spirit
Martha Vickers, The Big Sleep

Runners-Up: Anne Baxter (The Razor’s Edge), Lillian Gish (Duel in the Sun), Florence Bates (Saratoga Trunk), Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life), Donna Reed (It’s A Wonderful Life), Maria Casares (Children of Paradise), Dorothy Malone (The Big Sleep), Gale Sondegaard (Anna and the King of Siam).

For the sake of ensemble-ness, I’ve left Loy and Wright as leads, though I’d probably throw in Loy over Gardner if I were to reconsider her categorization. Also, check out how wonderfully Cláudio Alves wrote about Loy’s performance! But what about you, dear reader? Who would you recommend as supporting actressing from this year? What films should I look out for in the future? And what should I check out for the upcoming 1998 Smackdown? Please comment with your suggestions and thank you for reading!

Other smackdowns this season

1946 | 1998 | 1986

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