Monday, July 9, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1931-1932

The Contenders:

Bad Girl
The Champ
Five Star Final
Grand Hotel (winner)
One Hour with You
Shanghai Express
The Smiling Lieutenant

What’s Missing

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.

My 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.

Final Analysis


  1. Wow, I'm actually surprised Shanghai Express ended up in last for you, considering I put it in first. For me, the sheer production value would and should place it above grey-blob-of-nothing films like Arrowsmith. The rest of your rankings I can see, even if mine were a little different, but that one seemed particularly egregious enough that I had to comment about it. And yes, the lack of Scarface and Frankenstein makes more than half the list of nominees basically irrelevant.

    By the way, did you manage to get that copy of the film I sent you? It should be fairly simple to get it working as long as you got it, but if it didn't work for some reason I can try a different route.

    1. I haven't been able to download it yet because I need to get permission from my IT guy. I should see him on Wednesday, though, so I think it will work out.

      Shanghai Express just didn't work for me. I realize I am very much in the minority on that.

  2. My favorite part of Five Star Final is Robinson's unkind remarks to Boris Karloff. I even wrote down one of the lines in my journal, but it's been a few years and it would probably be easier to just watch the movie again than to try to find the right journal.

    I love Grand Hotel! I've seen it three or four times over the years and I like it a little better every time. Maybe it's not my choice for Best Movie of 1932 - Freaks or Frankenstein! - but I think it's a worthy winner.

    I love Bad Girl. And it's not just because of my major screen crush on Sally Eilers. Well, maybe it's mostly for my major screen crush on Sally Eilers. Still, it's very entertaining.

    Scarface is another nominated film with Karloff! It's a good choice. Heck, I've only seen it once. Maybe if I saw it again, it would think it as good as Freaks or Frankenstein.

    I like The Champ well enough, but it's not one of my favorites of the early 1930s. The great cast is worth watching.

    I've other not seen the others or it's been such a long time that I don't remember them very well. I sort of remember being quite amazed by The Smiling Lieutenant when I saw it almost 30 years ago because I knew very little about Chevalier except as a joke in a Marx Brothers movie. It was quite a revelation to see him a movie made in his prime.

    1. It's a sad fact, but there was no way in hell that a movie like Freaks would get a nomination, especially since it pretty much ended Tod Browning's career. Frankenstein had a much better shot at a nomination if only because of its literary past.

      Scarface is worth tracking down again. It's a lot of fun, and I at least like it a lot more than the Pacino remake.

  3. I like the look and feel of Shanghai Express so I'd put it higher, probably fourth out of this lot but would keep your top three though somewhat unenthusiastically in two cases.

    Five Star Final is an enjoyable movie but not that much more distinguished than several other Robinson pictures of the period. I think you're right that the passage of time has dimmed its impact.

    Bad Girl was fine but Sally Eilers was my major takeaway from the film. I think she's one of the best actresses from this period, it's a shame she's so forgotten.

    So my vote would go to Grand Hotel and not unwillingly. You brought up many of its good points, particularly that not all the stories are candy coated. Those tales are all excellently directed and brought to life in almost all cases with depth and sensitivity (I'll never understand how it came up empty in acting nominations-particularly Crawford in her best early work). So here it would come out on top easily and still be my winner even in an open field but the other nominees would be completely different.

    These hump years are so confusing and cut many that I'd include like The Public Enemy, City Lights or Trouble in Paradise. As nearly as I can figure my list would be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Freaks, Frankenstein, Grand Hotel and What Price Hollywood? An odd mix for me since I'm hardly a horror fan but that seems to be where much of the quality was landing in this particular window. I did consider The Miracle Woman but Barbara Stanwyck is what makes that film special.

    1. Yeah, I love The Miracle Woman.

      The other really good Sally Eilers movies are Condemned Women (with Anne Shirley and Jack Carson!) and Without Orders. I have never seen all of Without Orders, but the ending is AWESOME!

      She's in a bunch of movies, and I always like seeing her, but in the other movies I can think of (like State Fair and Danger Patrol and They Made me a Spy), she either has a small part or the movie is … well, some of them actually have some pretty good moments! You gotta love the premise of Danger Patrol, for example.

      But they're not as good as Condemned Women or Without Orders!

    2. And I totally agree with you about Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel. The second time I saw it, it really struck me how good she is! Along with Garbo and the Barrymores (especially John!), her performance is one of the reasons I watch Grand Hotel from time to time.

    3. Grand Hotel is such an oddity--the only film to win Best Picture with that nomination being its only one. I don't know how that happened, either. Edmund Goulding certainly deserved some thought here as well.

      If you haven't seen La Chienne, I recommend it. There are a surprising number of films that I'd love to see nominated here--for a year where most of the nominations left me feeling a bit flat and unenthused, there's really some great stuff.

  4. La Chienne is my pick of all the films out there. I would go with Bad Girl among the nominees. I love it so. It's kind of got an idiot plot but with these two I believe the lack of communication. There basic distrust of the opposite sex prevents them from sharing what's really going on in their heads. I think there are relationships like that - particularly new relationships. For some reason I hated Grand Hotel. I'll need to revisit.

    1. You're not alone in your dislike for Grand Hotel. I love the way that it works, but I've gotten a lot of pushback from people when I've spoken favorably of it in the past.

      Bad Girl really does work in spite of all of its flaws. I'm not sure why it does, but there's a reason it ended up that high on my rundown.

  5. I wish we could see the uncut version of "Freaks," and "Scarface" was truly robbed. Rather ironic that "Scarface" and Muni received no love from an academy that would fall all over themselves, lathered up over "The Godfather" just a few decades later.

    1. Muni got robbed quite a bit. Sure, he eventually got his Oscar, but his genius was also his curse--he melted so well and convincingly into every role he took on that it was easy to forget it was him.

      I genuinely like Muni's version of Scarface more than the Pacino version, which I find overblown and lurid in the wrong way.

      Freaks? Yeah, Freaks is pretty great.

  6. Yes to Scarface! I'd also go with that one and definitely give a nom to Frankenstein. If City Lights is eligible, I'd give that a nom, as well.

    1. City Lights is a great thought, but it would be from the previous year.

      These years are such a pan in the ass sometimes.

  7. I certainly am glad the Academy switched to one year only. It makes retrospective assessment quite problematic! Freaks is my favorite film of all the ones you have listed. However, that certainly doesn't make it the best in an objective assessment. I like Grand Hotel and agree that it's a very worthy choice. You can't go wrong with Scarface or Frankenstein, either. As a Marxist, I'll throw in Monkey Business for honorable mention.

    1. Monkey Business is one of the few Marx movies I haven't seen yet. I should probably track it down.