Picture: Frankenstein (prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)
Actor: Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
Actress: Norma Shearer (Private Lives)
Director: René Clair (À Nous La Liberté)
Supporting Actor: Lionel Barrymore (Grand Hotel)
Supporting Actress: Miriam Hopkins (The Smiling Lieutenant and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
Screenplay: Ben Hecht; continuity and dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett; from a novel by Armitage Trail (Scarface)
Special Awards: À Nous La Liberté (prod. Frank Clifford) (Best Picture-Comedy/Musical); Mae Clarke (Waterloo Bridge) (Best Actress-Drama); The Music Box (Best Short Subject); Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Best Actors-Comedy and Career Achievement); Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express and Scarface) (Cinematography); C. Roy Hunter (Frankenstein) (Special Achievement In the Use Of Sound); Charles D. Hall and Kenneth Strickfaden (Frankenstein) (Art Direction-Set Decoration); Jack Pierce and Pauline Eells (Frankenstein) (Makeup); Wally Westmore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) (Special Effects)
Must-See and Recommended: À Nous La Liberté; The Champ; Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde; Emma; Five Star Final; Frankenstein; Freaks; Grand Hotel; The Guardsman; I Was Born, But ...; Mädchen In Uniform; Marius; Monkey Business; The Music Box; One Hour With You; Private Lives; Scarface; Shanghai Express; Skyscraper Souls; The Smiling Lieutenant; Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas; Waterloo Bridge; What Price Hollywood?
As you can see from the list of winners and must-see movies, the year running from August 1, 1931 to July 31, 1932 was a great one for horror films. Frankenstein, Freaks and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all hit the big screen during the year (albeit, Freaks only briefly—it was withdrawn from circulation just days after its premiere and didn't surface again until the 1960s). Throw in Dracula, another 1931 horror film released in the previous awards cycle, and you can see that what we think of as the horror genre was pretty much defined during this time period.
Of the four of them, Frankenstein is the most indispensable. As I wrote recently, not only was it the top grossing film of the year, "it defined its genre for generations with imagery and film language so much part of the vocabulary of Western culture that even people who've never seen it know what it's about" and more than any other film released during 1931 or 1932, be it horror or otherwise, Frankenstein "is a fundamental building block, not just of movie literacy but of cultural literacy. Its look, its feel, its conventions and its concepts have so permeated the bedrock that even if you've never seen the 1931 version of Frankenstein, you've drunk from its well."
You don't want to miss Freaks, though, which while a cult movie that for years was more spoken of than seen, is perhaps the most modern of all the movies that was released during the year. Helmed by Tod Browning, who not only directed Dracula but also ten Lon Chaney vehicles, Freaks is a story of exploitation and revenge centering on the lives of those circus performers once described as "sideshow freaks." Despite Browning's sensitive treatment of his stars, the combination of sex, horror and forbidden love proved too much for audiences and censors alike, and after a brief release, the film was withdrawn from circulation for more than thirty years.
Admittedly the acting is at times amateurish, but if you like your horror genuinely disturbing, this is a must-see movie. And I don't mean faux disturbing like Hostel or Saw or any of those other slaughterhouse cheesefests with stock characters and recycled plot lines. Freaks is too real to dismiss as playacting and no pose of ironic detachment can shrug off the violence done to the "freaks" and in turn by them. It's a movie that will get under your skin—or anyway, it got under mine.
On a wholly different note, the year also gave us some fine comedies, including René Clair's À Nous La Liberté (the first foreign language film to be nominated for an Academy Award); Ernst Lubitsch's naughty pre-Code musical, The Smiling Lieutenant; a good Norma Shearer movie, Private Lives; and Laurel and Hardy in the Oscar-winning short, The Music Box.
As was usually the case during the early sound era, the best comedy of the year starred the Marx Brothers. The story of four stowaways who wreak havoc during an ocean voyage, Monkey Business represents the Brothers at their most transgressive—if you can use a word like "transgressive" when referring to a man wearing a grease-paint moustache. Instead of playing a hotel owner, college president, petty dictator or some other reputable scion of society, Groucho is an out-and-out bum who happily hires himself out as a gunman for a mobster, and his brothers are even worse, stealing, chasing women and making everyone around them miserable simply because they can.
In other words, it's great stuff.
The plot of Monkey Business is mercifully slight, and the shipboard setting is merely an excuse to move the Brothers from one comic situation to another. But that's true of every Marx Brothers movie—the good ones anyway—and the audience only suffers when the focus turns to irrelevant matters, such as story and motivation. In fact, given that the appeal of the Marx Brothers is the subversive anarchy of their caustic wit and arbitrary actions, plot and motivation only undercut what they're trying to do. Of all their movies, Monkey Business came the closest to their vaudeville roots (the wonderful Maurice Chevalier bit, for example, was a variation on a routine that the Brothers had performed years before) and was the first to shed the trappings of the Broadway musical, freeing them for even greater efforts—Horse Feathers and Duck Soup—in the eighteen months that followed.
And then there are a couple of movies, Shanghai Express and Waterloo Bridge, that critics, Academy voters and fans of the Saturday night fun-stupid movie might dismiss as "women's pictures," "three-hanky weepers" or "chick flicks," but which we here at the Monkey refer to as stylish, well-acted romances that get right to the heart of the only thing that's really important in this crazy, mixed-up world—love. Marlene Dietrich never looked better in the former, and in the latter, Mae Clarke gave the best performance of her criminally-overlooked career. I highly recommend both and I wouldn't say that lightly.
Among the movies I've listed as must-see, three are must must-see movies—Frankenstein, Scarface and Grand Hotel. Frankenstein, I've just mentioned. Of the other two, Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks (more about him in the coming years), was the best gangster movie of the decade, which is saying something considering James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart all made their mark in the genre during the 1930s. I consider it indispensable, though, not just because it's a great movie, but because it influenced so much that came after it.
Similarly, Grand Hotel may be a bit dated by modern standards but it boasted the first all-star cast and without it, there may well have been no Dinner At Eight, no Stagecoach, no Airport, or any of the other big cast potboilers, good and bad, that have imitated Grand Hotel over the years. As with Scarface and Frankenstein, I consider Grand Hotel indispensable not just because I think it's good, but because so much of what we think of as the Hollywood movie flows from it.
Besides, it gives you a chance to see Joan Crawford at her loveliest and, dare I say it, sweetest before her face hardened into that kabuki mask of unbridled ambition and paranoid rage we so often associate her with.
Coming up next are my nominations for the movie year 1932-33. Because the Academy was preparing to abandon the crazy split-year format it followed for the first six years of the Oscars, the next award season covered seventeen months rather than the usual twelve, with everything released between August 1, 1932 and December 31, 1933 being eligible.
And what a great year it was, too. Not only did such classic movies as Duck Soup, King Kong, Trouble in Paradise and Dinner at Eight premiere during these seventeen months, but Katharine Hepburn broke into pictures (and won her first Oscar), Busby Berkeley revived and redefined the movie musical, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together for the first time. It was a big year for movies, ranking with 1939 as one of the greatest "years" in film history.
Too big, in fact, for the standard Oscar format I've been following to cover it all. But that's a subject for my next post.