I'm having trouble locating candidates for best supporting actor for some of the years in the 1930s, and will be interested to see the ones the rest of you come up with. 1931 is one of those years.
It was surprising to learn that Marie Dressler was a big box-office star in these pre-Code years. She died not long after DINNER AT EIGHT was made. She got top billing, above Barrymore, Harlow, and Beery. I can't think of another woman of her age and body type who was such a big star at that age.
Something else unusual about the early 1930s: I grew up thinking male movie stars were guys like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Brando, James Dean, etc. You don't find that many handsome leading men in the early 30s. It's easy to see why Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant rose so quickly in this era. They didn't have much competition. The early 30s have quite a few guys who are basically character actors who can carry a movie in a leading role: Wallace Beery, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, for instance. Paul Muni actually had enough looks and sex appeal to be a leading man, but as a serious actor did not want to go in that direction. Spencer Tracy is just good-looking enough to play some romantic leads, but when's he cast with Gable, Gable gets the girl.
The 1930s was a great time for leading ladies, but they may be playing opposite someone like John Boles or David Manners or guys whose names you can't even remember. George Brent would never have had as big a career in any other era. The type of actor the 30s had and we do not have is the suave, sophisticated man like William Powell, Ronald Colman, and John Barrymore. This was an image that women liked and that men wanted to be like.
I agree with you about Marie Dressler.
As far as the handsomeness of the leading men, yes it easy to see how Grant and Gable became sex symbols.
Robert Montgomery was very handsome and became one of biggest stars in MGM in large part because he and Norma Shearer had great on screen chemistry and she asked for him specifically in several movies. Sometimes he got the girl, sometimes he was the other man, but he became a big star. He would go on to serious roles and directing. You may remember that his name appeared above that of John Wayne in We Were Expendable. His daughter used to be referred to as Robert Montgomery's daughter. She knew she made it when he started to be referred to as Elizabeth Montgomery's father.
There are people who you understand right away why they became movie stars in ways that you can put into words.
And then there are men like Humphrey Bogart.
I do wish there were more suave and sophisticated leading men today than there are.
I feel like I am more on solid ground for 1931 than I did for 1930. I've seen a larger number of movies, for one. And the individual performances of the smaller roles are more memorable to me. For example, I have seen more than one child star performance which I think is worthy of a Juvenile award.