Thursday, April 29, 2010

Early Sound Smackdown

The poll for best song of 1932-33 is shaping up as a two horse race between "We're In The Money" from Gold Diggers Of 1933 and "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf" from Three Little Pigs. The other three songs between them don't have as many votes as either of the top two contenders.

Which really means this is a two man race between dance wizard Busby Berkeley and entertainment genius Walt Disney.

Yeah, yeah, technically the award will go to one of the songwriting teams of Harry Warren and Al Dubin or Frank Church and Ted Sears, but the fact is the guys who really figured how to sell these songs were Busby Berkeley on the one hand and Walt Disney on the other.

So who you got, Berkeley or Disney?

The tale of the tape:

Busby Berkeley
Birth Name: William Berkeley Enos
Nickname: Buzz
Born: November 29, 1895 (Los Angeles, California)
Died: March 14, 1976 (Palm Springs, California)
Height: 5'9"
Marriages: 4
Trademark: Grandiose dance choreography featuring overhead camera shots
Films: 36, including 42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade
Awards: 3 Oscar nominations for Best Dance Direction; no wins
Other Notable Achievements: single-handedly revived the movie musical
Little-Known Fact: never took a dance lesson in his life

Walt Disney
Birth Name: Walter Elias Disney
Nickname: Uncle Walt
Born: December 5, 1901 (Chicago, Illinois)
Died: December 15, 1966 (Los Angeles, California)
Height: 5'10"
Marriages: One, to Lillian Bounds, from 1925 until his death in 1966
Trademarks: innovative animation; making dreams come true
Films: produced 641 feature-length films, shorts, and television programs
Awards: 59 Oscar nominations, 26 wins (including 4 special awards), both records; Congressional Gold Medal, Légion d'honneur, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Special Katie Award
Other Notable Achievements: along with brother Roy, founded the Walt Disney Company, the world's largest media and entertainment conglomerate
Little-Known Fact: was a model train enthusiast

You've got until Sunday to cast your vote.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Missed It By That Much Awards: Golden Globes Edition

So since for the 1932-33 awards year I'm using the expanded "Golden Globes" format (splitting up awards for picture, actor and actress between drama and comedy/musical), I'm sure most have you have been wondering who would have won for the previous five years if I'd been doing the Golden Globes thing all along.

Good question, thanks for asking.

It's kind of a mixed bag, as it turns out, which is why I didn't use this format in the first place. For every inspired choice, such as Marion Davies (comedy, Show People) or Edward G. Robinson (drama, Little Caesar), you get somebody like Maurice Chevalier (comedy/musical, The Love Parade) who'd have readers running for the exits. And then you start wondering whether I would really have given Marie Dressler the best supporting actress award of 1929-30 knowing I'd also give her an award for 1930-31. And on and on.

Clearly, I have too much time on my hands.

Anyway, here they are. Make of them what you will. At least Al Jolson dressed for the occasion.

Picture (Comedy): The Circus (prod. Charles Chaplin)

Actor (Comedy or Musical): Al Jolson (The Jazz Singer)

Actress (Drama): Janet Gaynor (7th Heaven and Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)

Picture (Comedy): Steamboat Bill, Jr. (prod. Joseph M. Schenck)

Actor (Drama): Erich von Stroheim (The Wedding March)

Actress (Comedy): Marion Davies (Show People)

Picture (Comedy or Musical): Hallelujah! (prod. King Vidor)

Actor (Comedy/Musical): Maurice Chevalier (The Love Parade)

Actress (Comedy/Musical): Jeanette MacDonald (The Love Parade)

Picture (Drama): M (prod. Seymour Hebenzal)

Actor (Drama): Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar)

Actress (Comedy): Marie Dressler (Min and Bill)

Picture (Comedy/Musical): À Nous La Liberté (prod. Frank Clifford)

Actor (Comedy/Musical): Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (The Music Box)

Actress (Drama): Mae Clarke (Waterloo Bridge)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Missed It By That Much Awards Of 1932-33

You know it's a great year in movies when these are the people who didn't get a Katie Award nomination ...

Clark Gable (actor) and Mary Astor (actress) (Red Dust)

Gary Cooper (actor, A Farewell To Arms and Design For Living)

Marlene Dietrich (actress, Blonde Venus)

Dick Powell (supporting actor) and Ruby Keeler (supporting actress) (42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade)

Boris Karloff (actor, The Mummy)

Marion Davies (actress, Peg O' My Heart)

Ginger Rogers (supporting actress, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933 and Flying Down To Rio)

William Powell (actor, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage)

Joan Crawford (actress, Rain)

Clara Bow (actress, Call Her Savage)

Jeanette MacDonald (actress) and Maurice Chevalier (actor) (Love Me Tonight)

Irene Dunne (actress, Back Street)

Ben Hecht (writer) (Design For Living)

Glenda Farrell (actress, The Mystery Of The Wax Museum)

Charlie Ruggles (supporting actor, Love Me Tonight and Trouble In Paradise)

Ann Dvorak (supporting actress, Three On A Match)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Street Legal Henry

For a limited time only, the Internet Movie Database is serving up free viewings of Charles Laughton's Oscar-winning performance in 1933's The Private Life Of Henry VIII. And we here at the Monkey pass it along to you, legally and free of charge.

If you've never seen The Private Life Of Henry VIII, I recommend you avail yourself of the opportunity. I nominated Laughton in the drama category, but between you and me, this is really a black comedy about divorce, beheadings, affairs, affairs of state, the sort of movie the studio promoted with the tagline "He gave his wives a pain in the neck—and did his necking with an axe!"

It made international stars of Laughton, Merle Oberon, Elsa Lanchester and Robert Donat, and director-producer Alexander Korda's name became synonymous with the finest in British filmmaking.

What the movie knows about history wouldn't fill out the back flap of Henry's biography, but what it knows about people would fill volumes. Korda and writer Lajos Biró basically threw the facts out the window and made up a very entertaining movie as they went along. It reminds me a bit of a book journalist Mark Shiper wrote thirty-plus years ago, Paperback Writer, a fictional history of the Beatles that includes such little-remembered facts as that their first album was named We're Gonna Change The Face Of Pop Music Forever and that the string-laden "Shake Your Booty" was one of their biggest hits.

If you're a history buff and want to know what Henry was up to with his six wives, look elsewhere. But if you're interested in history the way it should have been written, then this just might be your cup of Earl Grey.

Postscript: Remember to vote
for best original song of 1932-33 in the latest Monkey Poll. Your vote will actually decide who wins the award. Herself, a.k.a. Katie-Bar-The-Door, voted for "Isn't It Romantic" and warned ominously that if it doesn't pick up the pace, "There'll be no lovin' in Monkey Town tonight." But don't let my problems sway your thinking. Click here to watch and listen to your choices, then head on over to the right hand side of the page to cast your vote.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Katie Award Nominees For 1932-33

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)

PICTURE (Comedy/Musical)
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)

ACTOR (Drama)
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)

ACTOR (Comedy/Musical)
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)

ACTRESS (Comedy/Musical)
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)

DIRECTOR (Comedy/Musical)
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)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Latest Monkey Poll: Best Original Song Of 1932-33

This was supposed to be my post on the Katie-Bar-The-Door Nominees of 1932-33, but rather than leave you without anything to chew on while I'm finishing that mammoth essay, I'm jumping ahead in my notes and letting you vote on the "Best Original Song Of 1932-33."

Yes, you get to tell the Monkey where to put it when he hands out the award for best song of 1932-33. And you just know you've been waiting for the chance.

In choosing, you'll have to decide what you think we should mean by "best" when we talk about "best song"—is it a song so successful everybody knows it ("Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf"); a beautiful standard recorded by anybody worth talking about ("Isn't It Romantic"); the memorable wedding of sound and imagery ("We're in the Money" and "Remember My Forgotten Man"); or a pivotal moment in film history ("42nd Street").

The nominees:

"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)

Watch remember my forgotten man in News | View More Free Videos Online at

"Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf" music and lyrics by Frank Church and Ted Sears (Three Little Pigs)

Remember, democracy only works when everyone participates, so get voting!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Recap Of The Katie Award Winners For 1931-32 And The Year's Must-See And Recommended Movies

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.