Grand Hotel won Best Picture in 1932 without nominations for either John Barrymore or Greta Garbo.

The 5th Academy Awards, for the film year of August 1, 1931 to July 31, 1932.  The nominations were announced on October 12, 1932 and the ceremony was held on November 18, 1932.

Best Picture:  Grand Hotel

  • Five Star Final
  • Shanghai Express
  • Arrowsmith
  • Bad Girl
  • One Hour With You
  • The Smiling Lieutenant
  • The Champ

Most Surprising Omission:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Scarface

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #80

The Race:  The National Board of Review had a top 10 list for 1931 and one for 1932 and none of the eight Oscar nominees ended up on either list.  MGM had come up with Grand Hotel, the first all-star drama (a vast improvement over their all-star revue from three years before).  Paramount had two Ernst Lubitsch films and a Marlene Dietrich / Josef von Sternberg pairing as well as copying Universal’s horror success with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Fox was pushing their film Bad Girl while United Artists was having success with their distribution of Samuel Goldwyn’s independent Arrowsmith.  RKO had A Bill of Divorcement.  Warner Bros, on the other hand, in the midst of financial problems, didn’t have any major film to push.

The Results:  Going into the actual event, Variety predicted that Arrowsmith would win Best Picture.  Bad Girl, Shanghai Express and The Champ were all nominated for Director but Shanghai Express wasn’t nominated for its writing, whereas the previous two winners had been nominated for both.  RKO had to make do with a writing nomination for A Bill of Divorcement and Warner Bros was unable to score a single nomination.  Paramount earned nominations for both Lubitsch films, but Jekyll had to make do with 3 other nominations (which was still better than all of Universal’s horror films had done put together).  Somehow, Grand Hotel and its superstar cast managed to come out on top, the last film to do so without a Best Director nomination until 1989.

Unfortunately, there was no Best Ensemble for Grand Hotel to be nominated for.

Grand Hotel

  • Director:  Edmund Goulding
  • Writer:  William A. Drake (uncredited) (from the novel by Vicki Baum)
  • Producer:  Irving G. Thalberg
  • Stars:  Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Oscar Note:  The only film to win Best Picture with only 1 nomination.
  • Length:  112 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  12 April 1932
  • Box Office:  $1.23 million
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #11 (year)  /  #277 (nominees)  /  #62 (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Garbo)

The Film:  This, I suppose, is what MGM did best.  They used to boast about how they had more stars than were in the heavens.  So they would take a whole bunch of them and put them in a film together.  Certainly they were expecting big things from this film, with both Garbo and the Barrymores (not to mention Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery).  Ostensibly this is adapted from the novel by Vicki Baum, but what it really is, is an excuse for MGM to set their stars to acting.

Which is why I was so surprised when I returned to it to find that I was somewhat disappointed with the performances.  Yes, there was some romantic spark between Garbo and John Barrymore, and yes, they were both good, but neither was as good as I remembered.  The ensemble acting that I was remembering (much like you can see in Dinner at Eight) is less of an ensemble than simply various scenes where a couple of characters interact for a few minutes.  It certainly isn’t comparable to true ensemble pictures like Robert Altman would later make.

It won Best Picture without any other nominations, the only film to do so.  It’s really not all that surprising.  With such an ensemble piece it would have been hard to choose one particular bit of acting and there were only two technical categories.  But MGM had a lot of weight behind it and had lost each of the previous two years and no other film had more than 4 nominations.  It was also the most recent release and was probably still on people’s minds when they were voting.

Five Star Final

Better than I remembered: Five Star Final (1931)

  • Director:  Mervyn LeRoy
  • Writer:  Byron Morgan / Robert Lord  (from the play by Louis Weitzenkorn)
  • Producer:  Hal B. Wallis
  • Stars:  Edward G. Robinson, Marian Marsh, H.B. Warner, Boris Karloff, Aline MacMahon
  • Studio:  First National
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  89 min
  • Genre:  Crime
  • Release Date:  26 September 1931
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #9 (year)  /  #263 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Robinson), Supporting Actor (Karloff), Supporting Actress (MacMahon)

The Film:  It’s a nice change to re-watch a film, especially one you’ve only seen once, only to discover that’s it’s better than you remembered.  Such is the case with Five Star Final, which I saw in a fit of quickness in the last months I lived in Oregon in 2005, getting everything from Movie Madness that I possibly could before leaving town.  I’ve also re-watched it at a time when I have just finished reading both The Powers That Be by David Halberstam and The Kingdom and the Power by Gay Talese, both interesting books that give you an idea of the power of the media, and especially newspapers.  Of course, there are two sides to the power issue.  On the one hand, Powers ends with Woodward and Bernstein following up on every lead and helping to bring down a completely corrupt presidency.  It showed the importance of the press, in maintaining its proper role, allowing people to get all the facts.  Five Star Final is almost the complete opposite of All the President’s Men, in that it shows all the reasons to revile the press.  Of course, it is important to look at both sides.  I want to have access to all of this information, but I have no interest in the celebrity crap that tabloids, and increasingly, cable news, thrust down our throats.  That’s what kind of paper the Gazette is in Five Star Final, a trashy tabloid that simply wants to increase circulation and is willing to do anything they can to further that end.  News agencies, when they have agendas, can be dangerous things and the Halberstam book makes that all too clear.  Having lived through a Senate election in Oregon in 1992 where the only major daily in the state deliberately held information until after the election that would have influenced many voters, I am all too aware of such tactics.

But let’s look at the film itself.  It is filled with great performances, from Edward G. Robinson at his most cynical, to Boris Karloff (hot off Frankenstein) at his most repulsive, to the brilliant Aline MacMahon, whose performance might be forgotten because there were no Supporting Acting Oscars back then.  In an effort to increase circulation, the Gazette decides to publish a serial on the murder of a man by Nancy Vorhees, some 20 years before.  Except Vorhees has moved on with her life, married, had a daughter who is about to be married herself.  Using horrifying tactics, Karloff gains entrance to the apartment and is able to interview Nancy and her husband and learn about the impending marriage.  When they print the information, Nancy is devastated and the marriage in danger of not taking place.  But the Gazette refuses to yield and continues to work on the story.  There is a great scene where Nancy desperately tries to talk to either the publisher or to Randall (Robinson), the editor, neither of whom wish to talk to her.  She is set in the center of the screen and the other two go in and out as their secretaries keep her away on the phone.  Finally, there is nothing left for Nancy to do and she kills herself.  Then comes the heartbreaking scene where her husband finds her dead.  He keeps the daughter from finding her, explaining that her mother has gone out and then says he will join her.  The daughter and her fiancee leave and Nancy’s husband goes into the bedroom and joins Nancy in death.

All of this would be simple melodrama if not for the performances that anchor the film.  Marion Marsh is good as Nancy, quite tragic in her attempts to reach someone on the phone and H.B. Warner is solid, as ever.  But it is the other three who anchor the film.  Coming from Frankenstein, who would guess that Karloff had such a film in him, with his disturbing smile, his sneaky way about him in the apartment (compare this scene to the upfront, but steadfast approach of Woodward and Bernstein in APM).  Then there is Edward G. Robinson, always one of the more enjoyable people to watch on film, but perhaps at his best here, because he is allowed to be strong and cynical without the weakness of his Lang roles or the violence of his gangster roles.  All three of the stars get a good drunk scene and the best is from MacMahon.  Celebrated later for playing sweet mothers, here she is cynical and tired and fed up with her work.  She loves her boss dearly, wants him to succeed, but is disgusted with what he is put through and what they both must do.  Her drunk scene is one of the best of the early talkies, with just the right kind of moves and language.  As many offices hinge on the very work of the secretary, so too does this film hinge on her performance and she carries it much further than I had remembered.

Marlene Dietrich being seductive as usual in The Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express

  • Director:  Josef von Sternberg
  • Writer:  Jules Furthman  /  Harry Hervey
  • Producer:  Adolph Zukor
  • Stars:  Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Cinematography
  • Length:  80 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  12 February 1932
  • Box Office:  $3.70 mil
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #16 (year)  /  #351 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Dietrich), Score

The Film:  There was something rather mysterious about Marlene Dietrich.  Perhaps more than any actress in film history, she maintained an allure to both males and females.  And she maintained it so much longer than could have possibly been expected.  Dietrich made 7 films together with Josef von Sternberg and this is the only Best Picture nominee among them.  It’s not the best (that would be The Scarlet Empress), but it’s not the worst either (that would be The Devil is a Woman).  It was a huge hit at the time (adjusted to inflation, its gross would be about $130 million).  And it’s good entertainment.  It’s got an enjoyable cast, some drama, some romance, even a little bit of comedy when the elderly upright passenger runs to look for her dog (which is being carried illegally).

But there’s quite a bit to be said against it as well, and that’s what keeps it down at the *** level (not high enough for me to consider it for Best Picture).  First, there is the hole in the casting of Clive Brook.  He’s fairly boring and other than that he is a doctor and an officer, what is there to attract Lilly?  He doesn’t seem particularly interesting.  Yet, she goes through everything, not just to save him, but then to get him back.  Which leads to my next problem.  I just don’t buy it.  I don’t buy into the idea of this character, played by this actress, would sacrifice so much for him.  It’s not one of Dietrich’s great performances.  She is good, since of course she is rarely not good, but not great, not like her performance in The Scarlet Empress.  In fact, there are no major stand-outs in the cast.

Then there is the problem of the story.  Granted, what can be expected in the racial attitudes of a film about China made in 1932?  But still, most of the characters are various stereotypes.  It was reportedly banned in China due to its subject matter, but it seems more that the conditions of poverty and despair in the country that would be found more objectionable than the idea that there might be some revolutionaries.  This was in the early 1930′s, when China had far more problems with Japan than they had internally.

I perhaps sound more harsh than I mean to be.  It is a good film, it is watchable and even enjoyable.  And in a weak year, it is one of the better nominees.

The film version of Sinclair Lewis' Pulitzer Prize winning Arrowsmith (1931)

Arrowsmith

  • Director:  John Ford
  • Writer:  Sidney Howard  (from the novel by Sinclair Lewis)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn
  • Stars:  Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes
  • Studio:  The Samuel Goldwyn Company  (distributed by United Artists)
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adaptation, Cinematography, Interior Decoration
  • Length:  108 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  26 December 1931
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #17 (year)  /  #360 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Colman), Score

The Film:  It’s rather ironic that Sinclair Lewis would turn down the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith since it is the weakest of his major novels.  Of course, it is still a good book and it makes a good film.  But it wasn’t a great film, not nearly up to the level of Main Street, Dodsworth, Babbit or Elmer Gantry, and the film isn’t a great film, nor even up to the level of the very good Lewis films: Dodsworth and Elmer Gantry.  It’s got one of those good Ronald Colman performances, where he is so noble and dignified, no matter the circumstances, the kind of role that made him a star.  It’s got Helen Hayes, the same year she won the Oscar and though this is a much better film than The Sin of Madelon Claudet, she is not as good as she was in that film.  It’s got Myrna Loy, mostly wasted, since she doesn’t get to do much other than stand around and be an ethereal temptation to Colman.  It’s such a straight-forward by the book drama about a doctor who wants to be a research scientist, ends up a small town doctor, becomes a scientist, but struggles, then goes off to help with a plague outbreak, that it’s hard to believe it was directed by John Ford.

Of course this was in the days before John Ford starting winning Oscars and inspiring French film critics to write about his oeuvre.  And I don’t mean to sound so hard on it.  It is a solid film, as good as many socially conscious dramas that get nominated for Best Picture and better than many of them.  And it does have Ronald Colman, and it’s rare when that’s not something that brightens up a film.  Colman has always been one of my favorite actors, not the least because he has played one of my favorite characters in all of literature (Sydney Carton), but because he has that great voice that allows you to always recognize him.

And to say it is the weakest of Lewis’ major novels is not to disparage it.  Lewis, after all, was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature.  His novels spoke with a social conscience and they were as perceptive about large cities as they were about the small towns all around middle America.  There is something novel about Martin Arrowsmith, but he is also so wrapped up in his work that he arrives home to find his wife has died.  He has been unable to remember the human cost of pushing himself too much.  And the nominations for Cinematography and Interior Decoration were fairly good choices — Ford seemed to borrow somewhat from the Germans in the institute where Arrowsmith goes to do his research.  This film also, just a year after the ridiculously racist caricatures throughout Cimarron, actually had a black doctor who spoke English quite well.  For 1932, this was one hell of a thing to have on film.

The poster for Bad Girl is more risque than anything in the film. There isn't even a bad girl in the film.

Bad Girl

  • Director:  Frank Borzage
  • Writer:  Edwin J. Burke  (from the novel by Viña Delmar and the play by Viña Delmar and Brian Marlowe)
  • Producer:  Winfield Sheehan
  • Stars:  James Dunn, Sally Eilers
  • Studio:  Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adaptation
  • Length:  90 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  13 August 1931
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #19 (year)  /  #372 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Eilers)

The Film:  It was strange to watch this again so soon after re-watching The Crowd, for there are a lot of similarities between the two.  They both show a couple that marry rather quickly and the financial misfortunes that happen upon them and how they are eventually able to muddle through and come out the other end.  So how is it that The Crowd, which is continually ranked as a great film by critics only merits **.5 from me while Bad Girl, which is mostly forgotten in spite of its two important Oscars, makes it to ***?  Two major reasons.  The first is the couple.  They are simply a more believable couple.  They do almost the opposite of a “meet cute” when she tries to get him to smile on the ferry and he just wants her to go away.  But they somehow manage to connect in the course of that ferry ride and their attraction begins to grow.  They are not nearly so impulsive as the couple in The Crowd and seem more realistic.  He has a dream about owning his own shop and though he is willing to give it up, it is all for her, as opposed to the reckless, impulsive husband in The Crowd.  And when their love struggles, it struggles in realistic ways and they find themselves back together for real reasons, not just for the sake of a happy ending.

The other reason is the performances.  While James Dunn isn’t that great, he is certainly miles above any of the actors in The Crowd.  And Sally Eilers, somehow not nominated for Best Actress, in spite of being better than any of the actual nominees, lends an air of sadness and love all at the same time.  To me, this really is the story of a couple that is struggling, a real couple, real people, with real problems.  It’s not a great film and that it won Best Director (Borzage becoming the first director to win 2 Oscars) probably had more to do with Borzage himself that any great direction in the film.

The best of the Lubitsch / Chevalier Best Picture nominees, but that's not a recommendation: One Hour with You (1932)

One Hour With You

  • Director:  Ernst Lubitsch  /  George Cukor (assisted)
  • Writer:  Samson Raphaelson  (from the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt)
  • Producer:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Stars:  Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Genevieve Tobin
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  80 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  23 March 1932
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #29 (year)  /  #410 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  “Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave, you know?  Got to listen to Maurice Chevalier sing so much.” Alvy Singer says, coming out of The Sorrow and the Pity in Annie Hall.  I’m inclined to agree with him.  I made the mistake of watching all three Chevalier / Lubitsch Best Picture nominees in one day in preparing for this project and it completely wore me out.  Maurice Chevalier was very much the epitome of French charm on the screen when he was younger.  He could smile and be carefree and show the ladies how much he loved them and he definitely could sing.  But what he did could hardly be called acting and there’s really only so much French charm you can take in one day.  Of the three films, this is the best.  There is a certain effervescent charm about someone who so loves his wife that they could neck in a public park.  And certainly by the end of the film, the two of them have again found that bit of charm to their marriage and sing together towards the screen (which somehow seems to work more than it should).  In between, there is the problem of Mitzi, the friend of his wife.  His first meeting with Mitzi is awkward enough and Mitzi makes it clear that she is not happy in her marriage and is perfectly willing to intrude upon her friend’s.  It’s not quite as believable that someone so in love with their wife could so easily cast it off for his wife’s friend, but it’s tolerable.  Their relationship goes through several songs, none of which can I remember well enough to comment upon, because quite frankly, I agree with Alvy and there’s really only so much I can take.

More Chevalier and Lubitsch: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant

  • Director:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Writer:  Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson  (from the operetta Ein Walzertraum by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dormann and the novel Nux der Prinzgemahl by Hans Muller)
  • Producer:  Ernst Lubitsch
  • Stars:  Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  93 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Release Date:  1 August 1931
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #31 (year)  /  #452 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I spent much of the early part of this film knowing I had seen it before and not being able to remember a single thing about it except that it seemed to be a pale echo of von Stroheim films (his comment on Lubitsch, which I mentioned in my review of The Love Parade is especially apt here).  Then Claudette Colbert came into the film and I started thinking, what on earth is she doing in this film?  I think of her as a nice light comedic actress.  Not in a musical.  Then Miriam Hopkins, whom I remember much more fondly from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Story of Temple Drake appears as the princess whom Maurice Chevalier accidentally smiles at.  She is horribly taken aback and circumstances being what they are in a Lubitsch musical, she and Chevalier are soon engaged.  But he is still in love with Colbert and sneaks off to her.  Then comes the fateful meeting between Hopkins and Colbert.  And they insult each other.  Then Hopkins slaps Colbert.  Colbert slaps her back.  Hopkins collapses in over-the-top tears.  Then Colbert also collapses in over-the-top tears.  And I really couldn’t take any more.  The film had reached such a point of ridiculous stupidity that even being a musical was no excuse.  Perhaps this could have functioned properly as an opera where the lines are all sung, usually in a foreign language.  But I couldn’t be expected to take any of this even remotely seriously.  I thought of Chevalier as he was in later years, still existing on his charm in films like Gigi and Fanny.  And I thought of how he was here.  And I couldn’t wait to start getting to the later films, because if I have to see a musical I don’t like with Maurice Chevalier, I’d prefer him to be singing “I Remember It Well.”

Just as bad as the remake: The Champ (1931)

The Champ

  • Director:  King Vidor
  • Writer:  Frances Marion
  • Producer:  King Vidor
  • Stars:  Jackie Cooper, Wallace Beery
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Story, Actor (Beery)
  • Length:  86 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Sports)
  • Release Date:  21 November 1931
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #33 (year – out of 33)  /  #470 (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  For people of my generation, Jackie Cooper will forever be Perry White, the great editor of the Daily Planet in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.  He was quick-witted, blustery, charming; in short, he was everything I would have expected Perry White to be.  But Jackie Cooper had a long career and some 80 years ago what he was, was the most annoying child star to ever come out of Hollywood.  His two biggest roles were his Oscar nominated performance in Skippy (which he so didn’t deserve) and as the kid in The Champ.  Now, The Champ was re-made in 1979 with a young Ricky Schroeder making his film debut as the kid and Jon Voight as the Champ.  That film is terrible and Schroeder is painfully irritating, but let’s not let that color any impression of the original.  Because the original is just as bad and Cooper is just as irritating.  Wallace Beery plays his father, the down on his luck drunk of a boxer, raising his kid on his own because his wife up and left them both.  Beery managed to win an Oscar only because he finished one vote behind Frederic March and the rules at the time considered that a tie.  Beery’s performance is full of the kind of over-acting that he was best known for, but that’s not the real problem, because in spite of his Oscar, it’s really Cooper who is the lead.  And King Vidor, a director known for great wide brilliant sweeping shots, can’t help but constantly give us close-ups of Cooper and his endless over-acting.  The story itself would be full of ridiculous sentimentality even if it wasn’t for the style it was filmed in.  We, of course, get the big fight that the Champ puts himself through to win enough money to be able to hold on to his son (for his ex-wife has re-entered the picture and wants the kid to herself), but also to win back their horse.  So, of course, in the true melodramatic sense of the times, the Champ wins the fight, only to collapse afterwords, allowing us a horribly overwrought close-up of Cooper to end the picture before he runs to his mother’s arms.

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