The 1930s marked the first full decade for Oscar and with it established the beginning of the classic Hollywood era. Silent films were a thing of the past with the transition to talkies in the late 1920s, which gave rise to stars like Paul Muni, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. The decade saw some amazing performances, especially from the great Charles Laughton, and had the only tie for the award in Academy history. With indelible performances all throughout, the 1930s remains one of the greatest decades for Best Actor of all time.
Nominated twice in the same category that year – he also received a nod for his performance in The Green Goddeess – George Arliss made his talkie debut reprising his role of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, which he first played in th the 1921 silent picture of the same name. Arliss scored both an Oscar and his biggest box office hit for his turn as the wily Disraeli, who was instrumental in securing the Suez Canal for the United Kingdom. The actor managed to beat out the likes of Wallace Beery in The Big House, Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond, Ronald Colman in Bulldog Drummond and Lawrence Tibbett in The Rogue Song.
Barrymore won his one and only Oscar for playing an alcoholic lawyer who must defend his daughter's ex-boyfriend from charges of murdering a mobster he previously had gotten acquitted on a similar charge. Co-starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in a star-making performance as a knock-around gangster, A Free Soul was famous in large part for Barrymore’s 14-minute courtroom monologue that was said to have secured his win over youngster Jackie Cooper in Skippy, Richard Dix in Cimarron, Fredric March in The Royal Family of Broadway and Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page.
The first and only time there has been a tie for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, Wallace Beery (The Champ) and Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) shared the award, even though March actually had one more vote. Back then, it was considered a tie if the vote came within three, a rule that changed sometime in the 1940s. Still, both Beery and March delivered powerhouse performances – Beery was a down-and-out boxer determined to make his son (Jackie Cooper) proud, while March was masterful as the kindly Dr. Jekyll whose quest for knowledge unleashes a powerful evil. Only one other actor was nominated that year, Alfred Lunt, for his portrayal of the namless Actor in The Guardsman.
Charles Laughton’s exuberant performance as the notorious monarch not only earned him the Oscar for Best Actor, but also helped put previously ignored British cinema on the map. Filled with gusto and mouthfuls of mutton, Laughton’s Henry VIII mirthfully goes through one wife after another until his final wife, Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg), manages to outlast him. Laughton’s upbeat turn made him an international star and helped him win the Academy Award over Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square and Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Having been turned into a star with his supporting role in A Free Soul, Clark Gable was a bona fide leading man by the time he played an out-of-work reporter who trades barbs with a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) hiding from her father in Frank Capra’s classic screwball comedy. Gable had only two competitors – it would be the last year the Academy had only three nominees – and easily beat out the likes of Frank Morgan in The Affairs of Cellini and William Powell in The Thin Man.
After a three year experimentation in nominating just three actors for the award, the Academy returned to having five nominees for Best Actor. This year it was Victor McLaglen who triumphed over the competition for his turn as the simple-minded, but well-meaning Irishman Gypo Nolan, whose treacherous betrayal of his best friend (Wallace Ford) for a small reward leads to murder, more betrayal, and eventually spiritual redemption. Directed by John Ford, The Informer proved to be McLaglen’s career highpoint, as he won the Oscar over Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, Paul Muni in Black Fury and Franchot Tone in Mutiny on the Bounty.
Paul Muni was a perennial nominee all throughout the decade and finally won the Oscar for his performance as the famed French microbiologist, who tirelessly searches for a cure for anthrax and hydrophobia which is in part fueled by his ailing daughter. More fictional than fact-based, and occasionally melodramatic, The Story of Louis Pasteur nonetheless showcased a nuanced turn by Muni, who delivers one of the best performances of his career. Muni won the Oscar over Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Walter Huston in Dodsworth, William Powell in My Man Godfrey and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco.
Having ended his career by sharing the record for all-time nominations for Best Actor with Laurence Olivier – nine in all – Spencer Tracy earned the first of two wins for his performance as a salty sea captain who rescues an overboard lad (Freddie Bartholomew) and teaches him the value of friendship. Tracy earned the award over Charles Boyer in Conquest, Fredric March in A Star Is Born, Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall and Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola.
Tracy earned his second career Oscar playing Father Edward J. Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest who founded the famous Boys Town orphanage for disadvantaged boys. Of course, he runs into trouble in the form of delinquent Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), who tries to escape the youth center three times. Tracy graciously thanked Father Flanagan all throughout his acceptance speech, while MGM gave Flanagan his own statuette with an inscription signed by the actor. Tracy beat out Charles Boyer in Algiers, James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, Robert Donat in The Citadel and Leslie Howard in Pygmalion.
Without a doubt his most remembered role, Robert Donat’s portrayal of the titular schoolteacher avoided sentimentality in favor of nuance and subtly. The results are nothing short of amazing, as Donat delivered one of the most beloved performances of the 20th century. In his second and last career nomination, Donat won the Oscar for Best Actor in a highly competitive year over Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.