Five Star Final
Grand Hotel (winner)
One Hour with You
The Smiling Lieutenant
In these initial years, knowing what is eligible from what isn’t can be difficult. It’s why, for instance, in this case Dracula isn’t eligible, but Frankenstein would be, and should have been nominated. Then again, horror movies have never been Oscar’s bag, so Frankenstein got pushed to the curb along with Freaks and White Zombie. The surprising miss here is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, since it was nominated in other places. Beyond the horror collection, Night Nurse was probably too lurid. Emma seems like a natural choice even if I wouldn’t want it nominated. Since foreign films didn’t get much love in this era of Oscar, La Chienne didn’t have much of a chance of a nomination. No, the real miss for me is Scarface: Shame of a Nation. While I’d love to say the same about Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, those qualify for the previous year. M wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1933.
Weeding through the Nominees
8. This is an odd collection of movies because I don’t really love any of them and I don’t desperately hate any of them, either. Of all of the nominations, I suppose Shanghai Express does the least for me specifically because it wastes Marlene Dietrich by putting her in a romance with the doughy, puffy Clive Brook. There’s a story here if you want to dig down beneath the layers and layers of melodrama, but I’m not sure it’s worth doing. There are better Dietrich movies available. In fact, there’s at least one in the list of nominees.
7. Arrowsmith’s biggest problem is that it’s dull. That might be the second biggest problem, honestly; the larger problem is probably that it’s completely unmemorable. I know that I watched this but I have very little memory of it. It’s one lone bright spot is that it features Clarence Brooks—a black actor—as a medical doctor. Not even the presence of Myrna Loy can save this one. When your big moral quandary is between saving plague victims with a serum or letting half the population die off, I’m not sure you’ve really got a lot to say worth hearing.
6. For a wonder, I kind of liked One Hour with You, which is the sort of film that I normally dislike. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was completely watchable. Because it’s an Ernst Lubitsch film, it has at least a veneer of class and dignity overlying a plot filled with sex and, in this case, marital infidelity. I suppose what puts it on the bottom of this middle section of movies is that ultimately I don’t find marital infidelity that funny. Times change, I guess.
5. The biggest problem with The Champ is that we’re discussing it now instead of 80+ years ago when it was new. It’s every inch an early talkie, from the overblown characters to the overacting. It’s not a bad movie, but even when it was made I can’t imagine that there were a lot of people who were somehow surprised at where the movie went with the plot. Add to that the fact that the boxing scenes are pretty terrible, and you’ve got a movie that’s more a curiosity than one that desperately needs to be watched.
4. The Smiling Lieutenant is another Ernst Lubitsch film starring Maurice Chevalier. As such, it doesn’t have a great deal that makes it different from One Hour with You. In fact, it has similar issues just mildly focused in a different direction. Our hero is placed in the position of a forced sexual relationship outside of his control, which causes him to, ultimately, happily give up on the long-term relationship he had. It’s not a story that plays well today. I don’t dislike it, but it’s no better than average.
3. The middle section of films is finished up with Five Star Final. It’s biggest problem is that it’s too simple for most modern audiences, a problem it didn’t really have when it was released and the idea of talkie films was still in its relative infancy. What I like most about this is that it very much seems to presage film noir. The plot dives head-first into prurient material, but it does so with Edward G. Robinson at the helm, and really, that goes a long way toward making this something worth seeing. I don’t love it, but I think it’s interesting.
2. I’m honestly not sure what makes Bad Girl work for me as well as it does. For starters, it’s a movie that trades on the device that a single, simple conversation would kill the entire plot. It’s also terribly named, since our titular bad girl isn’t bad at all. In fact, there’s a lot about this movie that is silly or maudlin, or just plain sappy. And yet it works for me for some reason. I really root for these two crazy kids and the life that they’ve created for themselves. I want this all to work out for them.
1. This leaves us with Grand Hotel, which did ultimately win. Of the eight nominees, it is the one that I think is the most deserving. It gets a great deal of grief from what I’ve seen in the past, but there’s a lot here that really works. I like the episodic feel of it. I like that there are stories that end well and stories that end badly. It feels like a slice out of real life, and when the film ends with new people showing up at the hotel, I want to stay and see their stories as well. I like it as the winner given what we have, but it’s not my ultimate choice.
In a year? Twelve-month period? that includes both Frankenstein and Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, there’s no real chance for Grand Hotel to be the best picture. Add in La Chienne, Freaks, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I’m not sure it gets above sixth place. I like that it was nominated, but in an open field, it doesn’t win.