Boy, oh, boy! We're finally getting to the heart of what I think of the era of classic movies—and not a moment too soon, I'm sure you're thinking.
Not that I've lacked for great movies to talk about. I've handed out best picture awards to the likes of All Quiet On The Western Front, City Lights and Frankenstein, among others, I've written about legendary sex symbols such as Marlene Dietrich and Clara Bow, and I've shown you comedies from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin that are as funny now as the day they debuted.
But let's face it, many of the stars I've been talking about—Marie Dressler, Anita Page—are virtually unknown today even among film buffs, and the movies themselves—silents such as Sunrise, early talkies like Bulldog Drummond and Hallelujah!—feel alien at times, almost like they're a wholly different medium.
Which is why, as much fun as it's been for me so far, it's a bit of relief to reach a year in film history that I didn't have to research virtually from scratch, and hopefully one that for once won't leave you, my long-suffering readers, scratching your collective heads. As they say in Kathmandu, the ox is slow, but the earth is patient. And you've been very patient indeed.
Although rarely mentioned in the same breath with 1939, I'd suggest 1932-33 was perhaps the greatest year in movie history—well, year and a half, really, since the Oscar season ran from August 1, 1932 to December 31, 1933 as the Academy was bringing its confusing split-year award season in line with the calendar. Clark Gable was now a star, Jean Harlow discovered a flair for comedy, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were at the top of their games. Barbara Stanwyck was taking full advantage of the pre-Code era's permissiveness. And the Marx Brothers were funnier than ever.
Not to mention that Katharine Hepburn not only made her film debut, she won the first (of four) Oscars; Busby Berkeley, that master of wildly flamboyant choreography, was busy reviving the movie musical. And Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together for the first time.
Among my nominees are such classics as Duck Soup, King Kong, Trouble in Paradise, Dinner at Eight, Design For Living, Red Dust, Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Invisible Man, Queen Christina, Sons of the Desert, Baby Face, The Bitter Tea of General Yen. And on top of that, Fritz Lang's classic M arrived in the United States in 1933, making it eligible for an award come Oscar time. Boy, what a year!
So how come you don't hear more about 1932-33 when it comes time to talk about the greatest years in movie history?
Well, let's put it this way: of those movies I listed above, how many Oscars did they win between them?
Zero? Yeah, zero.
Okay, sure, sometimes the Academy screws up, but how many Oscar nominations did they receive between them?
That's right, a baker's dozen of the best movies of all time and as far as the Academy was concerned, they didn't even exist. Still, the Academy did nominate some solid movies, traditional Oscar fare such as I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, A Farewell To Arms, Lady For A Day, 42nd Street and the like.
So which of these fine movies did the Academy choose as the best picture of the year? Cavalcade.
A starchy, stage-bound adaptation of a Noel Coward play, Cavalcade is not much remembered now and may well be the worst movie to ever win the Oscar for best picture. (Aside: Here's a fun little game to play in your head the next time you're out walking the dog—well, fun, that is, if you're an unhinged film fanatic like me: Name the worst movie ever nominated for best picture, the worst movie to win the Oscar for best picture, and the worst movie to win the Oscar for best picture that nevertheless deserved to win. For me, so far, the answers are The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Cavalcade and possibly The Sound Of Music, but I haven't made up my mind about that last one and I have thirty-two years to think it over.)
It's not just that Cavalcade is slow moving and wholly lacking in action (that's true of a lot of good movies), but it's also repetitive and uninvolving. The story follows an upper-crust British family and their downstairs servants through the first thirty years of the Twentieth Century, certainly a volatile time in world history, yet the characters—two-dimensional ciphers at best—bear only passive witness to the passing parade and if you're not already emotionally invested in such moments as the death of Queen Victoria or Louis Bleriot's flight across the English Channel, nothing that happens on screen is likely to make you care.
I'll give you an example. Two newlyweds on a ship talk about how happy they are and if they were to die that very night, well, so be it, and then they step away from the railing to retreat to their cabin and reveal a life preserver with the name (wait for it) "Titanic" stenciled on it. Fade to black and now we're on a train two years later in 1914, just hours before Britain declares war on Germany, and you just know that in a few scenes, the mother of the enthusiastic boy-soldier next to her will be reading a telegram informing her of his death.
And on and on like that, hopping from one event to the next with no insight, no character development, just another "Where were you on the morning of November 11, 1918?" sort of thing. Maybe this was a nice catharsis for a London theater audience in 1933, a chance to remember and shed a tear or two without anything on stage getting in the way. But for a 21st Century audience? It's as dry and mystifying as a chatty Christmas newsletter from a complete stranger.
Basically, it's Forrest Gump without Gump, chocolate or a plot.
So why did it win the Oscar for best picture? A lot of reasons, I think. The threat of govern- ment censor- ship, for one. You see a lot of Oscars then (and now) handed out to movies with the stale whiff of "art" about them, and this was especially true during the early sound era when Hollywood was absolutely paranoid about its worth compared to the so-called "legitimate" theater. On display as well was America's insecurity about its young culture compared to Britain's venerable old one. Once America dropped the atomic bomb in 1945, it was never insecure about anything again. But in 1933, we still felt a bit like provincial rubes sitting at the grown-up's table.
Yet another factor may have been labor unrest among the Academy's ranks. Faced with mounting losses during the Depression, the studios had just announced an across-the-board pay cut of 50% for all its employees, a move that prompted the formation of the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild (the latter founded by Frances Marion, Hollywood's top writer who swiftly found herself unemployed in retaliation). Many of the voters simply refused to vote for a Hollywood product and opted for the British Cavalcade instead.
Whatever the reason, what was a popular choice in 1933 is a puzzler now.
(Another aside: one of Oscar's most embarrassing moments resulted from Frank Lloyd's win as best director of Cavalcade. In announcing the win, host Will Rogers said only "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy! Come up and get it, Frank!" Frank Capra, nominated for Lady For A Day, was halfway to the stage before he realized it was Lloyd, not he, who had won. Capra called the trip back to his seat "the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life." He got the last laugh, though, winning three of the suckers over the next five years.)
The categories for best actor and actress were considered upsets and their winners received only lukewarm applause from the assembled guests. Maybe it was lucky neither winner bothered to attend the ceremony.
As the title character in The Private Life of Henry VIII, Charles Laughton chewed scenery with as much gusto as the king he portrayed chewed on those big turkey legs we always associate him with, and his narrow victory (vote totals were made public) over Paul Muni was not a popular one. The Private Life of Henry VIII is actually a very fine movie, something of a British bedroom farce disguised as a history lesson, and you could just as easily call it a comedy as a drama. But I'm willing to bet it's the least seen of all of Laughton's great performances.
As for the best actress winner, it had taken Katharine Hepburn less than two years to establish a reputation for being a snooty prima donna, and her win over the popular May Robson (Lady For A Day) was a shock. Still, Morning Glory, the story of a naive country girl who takes Broadway by storm, got good reviews, and she was even better in three other movies she made between 1932 and 1933, A Bill Of Divorcement, Christopher Strong, and especially in Little Women, in which she gave not only the definitive interpretation of Louisa Mae Alcott's tomboy heroine, Jo March, but the first indispensable performance of her great and illustrious career.
(Aside number three: On March 16, 1934, when Walt Disney won the award for producing the year's best cartoon short, Three Little Pigs, he thanked the Academy for giving him an "Oscar." This was the first time the term "Oscar" was used in public to refer to an Academy Award. How about that.)
Anyway, 1932-33 was a big year, too big, in fact, to stick with the conventional Oscar awards format I've been following—too much risk of skipping over too many good movies I think you'll want to see. Since we're on the cusp of Hollywood's Golden Age, let's adopt instead the Golden Globes format, with its separate acting and best picture categories for drama and comedy/musical. And let's throw in an award for best foreign-language film, too. The Nazis may have finished off the German film industry in 1933, but the French filmmakers were flourishing and there are a lot of good foreign movies to choose from.
You okay with this set-up? Yes? Good.
Among the actors, there are a lot of first-time nominees here, too many to mention, so I'll say instead that previous Katie winner Marie Dressler gets the third and final nomination of her career (she died a year later), and Miriam Hopkins and Joan Blondell, who also have previously won, each receive their second. Paul Muni, John Barrymore, James Cagney, the Marx Brothers, Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou also receive their second noms.
All of the directors are first-time nominees. [6/1/10 After a an online discussion with my readers, here and here, I likewise split the director nominees in the categories of drama and comedy/musical. Better too many nominees than too few.]
Other than a handful of director-producer types, no one gets nominated in more than one category; thus, you get John Barrymore as supporting actor in Dinner At Eight, his best role that year, rather than for the lead in the less well-known Counsellor-at-Law. Mostly, I wanted to spread the wealth and encourage you to see as many movies as possible—thirty-two (plus one cartoon short) in all.
But to pull that off, I fudged a handful of nominations— Jean Harlow, for one. I've nominated her in the lead actress in a comedy category, based in part on her terrific performance in Bombshell. But of the other two movies I mention, Red Dust is a drama and her role in Dinner At Eight is supporting; still, all three performances are primarily comedic, classically so, and rather than nominate her in three categories or ignore any of her great performances from this period, I lumped them all together under one umbrella.
Likewise, Kay Francis receives a nomination in the drama category for a pair of little-seen but really-good movies she did with William Powell, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage. The latter is a romantic weeper—Powell and Francis fall in love on an ocean voyage from Hong Kong to San Francisco, neither knowing the other hasn't long to live, she because of a terminal illness, he because he faces execution for murder—but the former is more a crime-caper-comedy-romance than strictly a drama. (Powell is a suave jewel thief who plays classical music and forces his victims to smoke marijuana while he robs them; during the movie's first robbery, Francis is so taken with him, she encourages a repeat performance.) One Way Passage is the indispensable one, so into the drama category her nomination goes, but you don't want to miss Jewel Robbery if you can find it.
And then, a couple of comedy acts—Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers—I treated as single entities for the purposes of best comedy actor nominations. This may strike movie fans, who aren't primed for ensemble awards, as odd, but music fans, I think, readily grasp, for example, that the Beatles as a group is a different animal from John, Paul, George and Ringo as individual solo acts—and if you don't believe me, compare "A Day in the Life" to, say, "Ebony and Ivory." The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy are teams and I've nominated them as teams. So there.
Finally, there's the problem of when to nominate Carl Theodor Dreyer's horror classic, Vampyr, which was filmed in 1930, first premiered in Berlin in May 1932, then after scathing reviews was substantially reworked and re-premiered in Paris in September 1932. I can't say for sure when it showed up in America (under the title Castle Of Doom) but my guess it that it was some time after that. I probably could have chosen just about any year to nominate it for a Katie Award, but I went for 1932-33 on the theory that the version Dreyer wanted the world to see was released during that time frame.
If you would have handled these issues differently, I for one won't say you're wrong.
The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (prod. Frank Capra)
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (prod. Hal B. Wallis)
The Invisible Man (prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)
King Kong (prod. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Red Dust (prod. Hunt Stromberg and Irving Thalberg)
Dinner At Eight (prod. David O. Selznick)
Duck Soup (prod. Herman J. Mankiewicz)
42nd Street (prod. Darryl F. Zanuck)
Gold Diggers Of 1933 (prod. Jack L. Warner and Robert Lord)
Trouble In Paradise (prod. Ernst Lubitsch)
PICTURE (Foreign Language)
Boudu Saved From Drowning (prod. Michel Simon)
Liebelei (prod. Herman Millakowsky)
The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (prod. Fritz Lang and Seymour Nebenzal)
Vampyr (prod. Carl Theodor Dreyer and Julian West)
Zero For Conduct (prod. Jean Vigo)
Nils Asther (The Bitter Tea Of General Yen)
Charles Laughton (The Old Dark House, Island Of Lost Souls and The Private Life Of Henry VIII)
Paul Muni (I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang)
Claude Rains (The Invisible Man)
Paul Robeson (The Emperor Jones)
James Cagney (Footlight Parade)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Sons Of The Desert)
Herbert Marshall (Trouble In Paradise)
The Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers and Duck Soup)
Michel Simon (Boudu Saved From Drowning)
Kay Francis (Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage)
Greta Garbo (Queen Christina)
Katharine Hepburn (Little Women)
Barbara Stanwyck (The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and Baby Face)
Fay Wray (The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong)
Joan Blondell (The Gold Diggers Of 1933)
Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner At Eight and Bombshell)
Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise and Design For Living)
May Robson (Lady For A Day)
Mae West (I'm No Angel)
Frank Capra (The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and Lady For A Day)
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (King Kong)
Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyr)
Fritz Lang (The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse)
Mervyn LeRoy (I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Gold Diggers Of 1933)
Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight and Queen Christina)
James Whale (The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man)
Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street and Footlight Parade)
George Cukor (Dinner At Eight and Little Women)
Victor Fleming (Red Dust and Bombshell)
Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living)
Leo McCarey (Duck Soup)
Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved From Drowning)
Jean Vigo (Zero For Conduct)
John Barrymore (Dinner At Eight)
Edward Everett Horton (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living)
Edgar Kennedy (Duck Soup)
Guy Kibbee (Gold Diggers of 1933, Lady For A Day and Footlight Parade)
Adolphe Menjou (A Farewell To Arms)
Billie Burke (Dinner At Eight)
Marie Dressler (Dinner At Eight)
Margaret Dumont (Duck Soup)
Elsa Lanchester (The Private Life of Henry VIII)
Una O'Connor (The Invisible Man)
Jean Renoir and Albert Valentin; from a play by René Fauchois (Boudu Saved From Drowning)
Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz; additional dialogue Donald Ogden Stewart; from a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (Dinner At Eight)
Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin (Duck Soup)
Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, from the autobiography by Robert E. Burns (I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang)
Grover Jones and Samson Raphelson; from a play by Aladar Laszlo (Trouble In Paradise)
BEST SONG (Reader Voted)
"Forty-Second Street" music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin (42nd Street)
"The Gold Diggers Song (We're In The Money)" music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin (Gold Diggers Of 1933)
"Isn't It Romantic" music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart (Love Me Tonight)
"Remember My Forgotten Man" music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin (Gold Diggers Of 1933)
"Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf" music and lyrics by Frank Church and Ted Sears (Three Little Pigs)