As the Depression, now its third year, ground on with no end in sight, movie goers and Oscar voters alike flocked to a big budget spectacle about rich people behaving badly. With its fabulous, impossible art Deco sets and its foreign locale, MGM's Grand Hotel was about as far removed from the daily lives of the audiences who paid to see it as a film was likely to get. On November 18, 1932, the Academy named Grand Hotel the best movie of the year, a triumph for producer Irving Thalberg who had bought the rights to Vicki Baum's 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel and shepherded it through every stage of production, honing the screenplay, choosing the cast and putting his personal stamp on the film's every detail.
Grand Hotel won for best picture despite being the only film in Oscar history to win the top prize without receiving a single nomination in any other category. The story of five very different people—a thief, a ballerina, a factory owner, his secretary and a dying man—who meet with tragic consequences, Grand Hotel was a star-studded extravaganza, perhaps the first movie in history to boast so many stars in its cast. It was the highest grossing film of the year for MGM, one of the few studios to turn a profit during this particularly harsh year of the Depression.
The category for best actor resulted in a tie with Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Wallace Beery (The Champ) sharing the award. It almost didn't turn out that way. During the ceremony itself, Norma Shearer announced March alone as the winner. Moments later, the president of the Academy, Conrad Nagel, charged on stage to announce that under Academy rules, candidates for an award who finished within three votes of each other were deemed to have tied. Beery, who had finished a single vote in back of March, came up on stage and accepted a second best actor trophy.
The only problem was, while such a rule had been in place the year before, it had been discarded before the 1932 ceremony. Stories abound regarding the backstage shenanigans that resulted in the tie, the most fun of which is that Beery was so incensed at losing to March, he went to MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer and insisted he be given an Oscar, too. Whatever the story, by 1935, the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse would begin tabulating and certifying the results, another step out of Louis B. Mayer's smoke-filled office into the fresh air of Oscar democracy.
The best actress trophy went to Helen Hayes, a Broadway legend making her film debut in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, a 75-minute super-soaper about a woman who has a child out of wedlock and then endures unimaginable hardships to care for a son who doesn't know she exists. Her performance was a bit stagy and theatrical, not bad but not great, and she had better work in her.
Taken in the context of the times, the Academy's choice was not surprising. In light of the growing threat of state and federal censorship as well as Hollywood's insecurity about the artistic value of its product, it's understandable that the Academy's voters would latch onto any opportunity to enhance the prestige of the industry. The top Broadway actress of 1931 choosing to make a movie would be analogous to Meryl Streep deciding today to do porn—it wouldn't matter if the results seared your retinas and sent you screaming for the exits, she'd win the adult video industry's equivalent of the best actress award just for legitimizing a popular but decidedly unrespected medium.
The only real horror among the major winners was Frank Borzage who picked up his second career Oscar, this time for directing Bad Girl. It's the story of a couple struggling through Depression-era difficulties and while it's not quite as bad as its reputation, neither is it particularly remarkable either. It starts promisingly enough—a jaded girl meets a cranky radio salesman, gets pregnant, then gets married—and for half an hour, I thought Bad Girl might turn out to be a talkie version of The Crowd, a character-driven study of the dark side of the American Dream. But instead, the last hour resolves into an idiot plot and fizzles out, a damp squib now deservedly forgotten.
Jon Mullich calls Borzage's effort "hack work" and chalks up the award to social connections. That's stating the case pretty strongly, but the fact is, the Academy had nominated King Vidor (The Champ) and Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express), two great directors who never won an Oscar, and could have nominated James Whale (Frankenstein), Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel), Howard Hawks (Scarface) and Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who that year had made movies more commercial, more artistic and more interesting than what Borzage served up. At most all you can say is that the chord Bad Girl undeniably struck with audiences in 1931 has long since ceased to reverberate and there's little chance the modern movie fan will make sense of Borzage's award.
As good a choice as Grand Hotel was for best picture, the Academy's prejudice against comedy, horror and gangster movies kept it from recognizing such eligible films as Frankenstein, Monkey Business and Scarface, classics which between them received no nominations at all. The Katie Awards are designed to rectify just such glaring oversights.
As I was putting together my list of nominees, I wrestled with a number of questions—what to do with the cast of Grand Hotel, for one. Perhaps the first movie ever boasting an all-star cast, Grand Hotel ostensibly had five leads; yet except for the possible exception of John Barrymore, no one is on screen long enough or is involved enough in each of the plot's various threads to warrant the designation lead actor.
The Academy apparently didn't know what to do with them either and in the end nominated none of them.
These days, whether a studio pushes an actor in a lead or supporting category is more about billing and star egos than about the actual nature of the role in question. Me, I don't actually have to work with any of these people so despite their star status, I'm treating the members of this ensemble cast as supporting performers and have nominated three of them, Barrymore brothers John and Lionel, as well as Joan Crawford, in the supporting categories. Wallace Beery, who has already won a Katie award for his performance in The Big House, gets his third nom for The Champ. The fifth star of Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo who so famously begged "I vant to be alone," will have to wait another year for a Katie nomination, in her case 1933's Queen Christina.
Another question for me involved the Marx Brothers, no doubt the greatest comedy team of all time, who put on another great show, this time in Monkey Business, the first of their films not based on a Broadway stage play. I think the work of Groucho, Chico and Harpo during their years with Paramount Pictures was uniformly terrific, but despite their very different strengths, I think of them not as separate individuals but as a team, each playing an important part of a whole, even Zeppo, whose role as long-suffering straight man was filled by Allan Jones after the brothers moved to MGM. I could nominate them separately, with perhaps Groucho Marx in the lead actor role and his brothers as supporting players, but in the end I decided that these are my awards, I make the rules. I've nominated the Marx Brothers as a single contestant in the best actor category.
You might notice as you scroll down the list of nominees that I've nominated Norma Shearer for her comedic performance in Private Lives. Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning probably know I'm no fan of her work. Yet, I would be doing you a disservice not to recognize that she was a big star in the 1930s and that she has legions of fans to this day. Private Lives, though little known now, was for my money the best performance of her career, perfectly suited to her personality and talents. She winds up with a nomination for best actress.
You may also notice I am breaking with this blog's tradition of nominating five movies for best picture and three nominees in each of the other categories. As you may remember, I recently conducted a poll to name the fifth nominee (see here) and wound up with a three-way tie. Rather than hold a run-off over the Christmas holidays, I decided in the spirit of the season to be generous and expand the field to include seven movies. Certainly if the Academy could nominate eight in 1931-32 (and ten this year), I can nominate seven.
Note: I subsequently went back and expanded the field of actor and actress nominees to four each.
I also expanded the other categories, in some instances, to include as many as five nominees. All I promise in the future is to nominate at least three in each category, but will allow for as many nominees as it takes to give you a well-rounded picture of the movie year as a whole. After all, the point of the Katie Awards is not to prove I'm right, but to entice you into expanding your movie repertoire. If I have to nominate a hundred movies to convince you to see something worthwhile that you might have otherwise missed, I see that as a small price to pay. Certainly I'm not worried about my integrity—anyone who practices law for any length of time has had to abandon all pretense of that. I am perfectly willing to humble myself in this greatest of all causes.
Here are the nominees:
À Nous La Liberté (prod. Frank Clifford)
Frankenstein (prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)
Freaks (prod. Tod Browning)
Grand Hotel (prod. Irving Thalberg)
Monkey Business (prod. Herman J. Mankiewicz)
Scarface (prod. Howard Hughes)
Waterloo Bridge (prod. Carl Laemmle Jr.)
Wallace Beery (The Champ)
Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)
The Marx Brothers (Monkey Business)
Paul Muni (Scarface)
Mae Clarke (Waterloo Bridge)
Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express)
Norma Shearer (Private Lives)
Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman)
René Clair (À Nous La Liberté)
Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel)
Howard Hawks (Scarface)
Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)
James Whale (Frankenstein)
John Barrymore (Grand Hotel)
Lionel Barrymore (Grand Hotel)
Boris Karloff (Frankenstein)
Roland Young (The Guardsman and One Hour With You)
Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel)
Ann Dvorak (Scarface)
Miriam Hopkins (The Smiling Lieutenant and Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)
Anna May Wong (Shanghai Express)
René Clair (À Nous La Liberté)
Frances Marion (story), Leonard Praskins (dialogue continuity) and Wanda Tuchock (additional dialogue) (The Champ)
Christa Winsloe and Friedrich Dammann (as F.D. Andam); from the play by Christa Winsloe (Mädchen in Uniform)
S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone (screenplay); Arthur Sheekman (additional dialogue) (Monkey Business)
Ben Hecht; continuity and dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett; from a novel by Armitage Trail (Scarface)
Bonus Feature: For the 1932 Oscar ceremony, Walt Disney produced a brief animated short featuring the year's Oscar nominees, which I found on the blog "Motion Picture Gems." "Tom" listed the identity of the caricatures as follows: "1.Wallace Beery (as "The Champ") - Won Best Actor (tied with Frederic March) 2.Jackie Cooper ("The Champ") (nominated the year earlier for "Skippy") 3.Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt (both nominated for "The Guardsman") 4.Helen Hayes ("The Sin of Madelon Claudet") - Won Best Actress 5.Frederic March ("Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde") - Won Best Actor (tied with Wallace Beery) 6.Marie Dressler ("Emma") - Nominated for Best Actress"
I present Disney's "Parade of the Award Nominees" here with an introduction from Leonard Maltin for your viewing pleasure.
Postscript: Since returning from Philadelphia the day after Christmas, I've posted some ten thousand words including the four-part essay on Chaplin's City Lights which I wrote from a standing start in as many days. And now, I'm taking a couple of days off. See you next week.