The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1931-1932

We’re getting closer to streamlined. Now you’re seeing the Oscars start to discover their own identity. The winners are starting to make sense, and the precedents are about to be set, and pretty soon it’s gonna be the way we know it to be. But we’re not quite there yet. Though this is the first year where an “Academy” film won, rather than the “best” film. (All Quiet on the Western Front was just better than the competition. Grand Hotel was an “Academy”-type winner.)

1931-1932 is a noteworthy year in Oscar history because it’s the last time no film would win more than two Oscars at the ceremony. And it would also be the last time until 1989 and Driving Miss Daisy that the Best Picture winner wasn’t also nominated for Best Director. It would also be the only time in which the Best Picture winner wasn’t nominated for any other Oscars. (Though that does technically mean that the film swept.) And then, outside the Oscars, this is also a year that is littered with Pre-Code films, where Hollywood practically got away with murder with what they put on the screen. Watch this clip. Look at how suggestive it is. That’s basically all the context you need for it.

Other winners this year were a tie for Best Actor, with Frederic March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wallace Beery for The Champ, winning (talked about here). March got one more vote than Beery, but Academy rules dictated that anything within three votes become a tie. Best Actress was Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (talked about here), which was the best choice in the category. And Best Director was Frank Borzage for Bad Girl (talked about here), which I love, even though he didn’t really need it (they could have given King Vidor or Josef von Sternberg an Oscar this year). I’m sure many people would go another way there.

Overall, though, another solid year. Out of context, of course, it looks weak like almost all the early years, but in context, most of them are actually pretty solid.

BEST PICTURE 1931-1932

And the nominees were…

Arrowsmith (Goldwyn, United Artists)

Bad Girl (Fox)

The Champ (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Five Star Final (First National)

Grand Hotel (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

One Hour With You (Paramount)

Shanghai Express (Paramount)

The Smiling Lieutenant (Paramount)

Arrowsmith — Ronald Colman plays an idealistic doctor who takes a job in a small town to support his wife. He’d like to do more (like studying as an assistant under a famous doctor), but can’t because he needs to support his family. Though he does end up creating a cure for a cow disease. And then when there’s a plague outbreak in the Caribbean, he goes down to help, since they figure his work with the cow vaccine will help him. And they work to help save the natives, despite the danger in catching the plague themselves. Eventually his wife dies, but he does manage to save a lot of people. But afterwards, he decides to give up on all the lucrative work he could get from it and decides to go do research. Basically — he decides to help medicine rather than himself.

It’s a good film, and a John Ford film, as well. It has those moments that make it feel like a Ford film. Overall, it’s pretty good, but it shouldn’t have won. It’s simply just pretty good. It wouldn’t have worked as a Best Picture winner. Plus competition is pretty stiff. This is definitely one of the weak links in the field. It wasn’t winning.

Bad Girl — This is one of my favorite films on this Quest. Because it’s a film that takes a standard romantic comedy story, and it tells what happens afterwards. Let me explain.

The premise of the film is that there’s a girl who is very attractive and very flirty. And every man wants her. She does nothing, and they all flock to her and want to go out with her. And she doesn’t want anything to do with them. But then she meets a man who isn’t infatuated with her. He’s not impressed. And in fact, he insults her. And she immediately falls in love with him because he’s the only man whose ever insulted her.

Right there, you can see how a film like this, if made today, would spend 90 minutes on that premise. She’d flirt with guys, meet the guy who insulted her, hate him. He’d do it again, she’d fall for him. Then she’d go on all these attempts to win him over. And there would be montages and stupid comedy with her falling down and being embarrassed. You know exactly what that movie would be like (and who it would star. I won’t soil this article by naming names).

This film? That happens in the first two minutes. No joke. The first two minutes establishes this premise, she meets the guy, she falls in love with him. Two minutes. The rest of the film is what happens after that.

What happens is — they go out talking and fall for one another, and she goes back to his place, only they don’t do anything. They just spend the night talking. Only the next morning, she’s terrified, because they live in a society where a girl simply being with a man for the night automatically means they have to get married. She’s terrified that he won’t marry her now and her reputation will be ruined. She lives with her brother and his wife and they’ll throw her out if they think she did anything. So she waits, worried the man won’t want anything to do with her anymore, but then finds out he does want to marry her. So they get married. And then the rest of the film deals with the problems with a speedy courtship. They get married before they know each other, and now they’re living together, poor. And they start fighting all the time and have all these disagreements, and they start to wonder if they actually should have gotten married and if they’re right for one another. And then she gets pregnant, which makes things even worse between them. It gets to the point where they really think they’re going to get divorced. But then they get married, and they realize they really are in love with one another (at one point, she thought her husband was having an affair, but he was actually working a second job so they can provide a decent life for the baby).

It’s one of the most realistic films I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if there’s ever been a film that ignored the obvious story in the set up and just went right to the next part. I think that’s genius. To me, this film was good enough to win here. And I love that Borzage won Best Director for it. I’ve come to the conclusion that, to the Academy, Best Director for the first decade (and possibly even the second) or so meant “best writing.” Since all the films that won Best Director (with exception. Though usually they’re big exceptions, like Gone With the Wind and All Quiet on the Western Front) are films that don’t necessarily have outstanding directing in them, but do have outstanding stories to them. Look at the winners, post All Quiet: This, CavalcadeIt Happened One Night, The Informer, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Awful Truth, You Can’t Take It With You. I was gonna include the 40s, but for the most part, the Best Directors of the 40s synched up to Best Picture. But looking at the 30s winners, it’s not like the directorial efforts of them were that outstanding (though I’d argue that It Happened One Night and The Informer do count as really strong efforts). I think that since most films of the era generally looked alike, they differentiated by the writing. Since, you look at the efforts those films beat — in some of those years (specifically 1936) — they just weren’t the best efforts. That’s just something I noticed very recently that I wanted to point out (as a way to rationalize and make sense of Academy decisions).

Anyway, this film is amazing, and as much as Grand Hotel probably should have won, I’m voting for this. This, to me, was the best film. (Though it probably wouldn’t hold up as a winner as much as Grand Hotel does.)

The Champ — The Champ is a classic story. Even if people haven’t seen the film (either version. This or the 1979 version with Jon Voight), chances are they know the story, simply from watching it done on various TV shows and stuff. (I definitely remember seeing some cartoon or something do an episode like this when I was a kid. I was introduced to so many classic stories that way.)

The film is about a boxer who used to be world champion but is now poor as hell. He’s poor, a drunk, divorced, and has a young son. And he loves his young son, but his ex-wife hates him and doesn’t want to let him see the kid. And the film is about him, wanting to do right by his son, attempting a comeback. And he gets back into shape and starts fighting again, and eventually he starts winning, and gets a fight with the current champion. And the end of this film is very famous — he wins the fight, and he celebrates with his son, and then they’re in the dressing room, and he collapses and dies, and his son is shouting for him to get up. I’m sure you recognize this scene from somewhere.

The story is amazing. It’s just one of those, like A Star is Born or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, that’s just classic. It’s really great. I don’t know if it should have won, but it certainly wouldn’t have been a bad choice. I wouldn’t vote for it, but I wouldn’t fault anyone who did.

Five Star Final — This is a film about the evils of bad journalism. In fact, it’s very reminiscent of the crap that happens nowadays with the tabloids.

Edward G. Robinson is a classic newspaperman. And his boss tells him, in order to increase readership, he wants to publish a series of articles about a murder that happened twenty years earlier. What happened was, a woman killed a man who got her pregnant and refused to marry her. Now, she’s married to a respectable man and her daughter is about to marry into a very wealthy and prominent family. So the paper, trying to get the story, sends a sleazy reporter (Boris Karloff, of all people) to go find some stuff on the mother. And he weasels his way to talk to the woman and her husband by pretending to be a priest. And she worries that her past will come out and ruin her daughter’s chances at marriage. And he uses this information (thought to be told in the confidence of a priest) to write an article, which gets published. And the woman, after trying to get it retracted, for her daughter’s sake, kills herself. And then her husband kills himself. And now the groom’s family wants him to break off the engagement to the daughter, but he refuses to, because he loves her, and his family disinherits him. And the daughter comes to Robinson (who didn’t want to publish the story in the first place), and threatens him with a gun. But her fiancé calms her down, and Robinson quits the paper. And he gives a speech about how what they did was wrong (and I’m pretty sure Karloff is also arrested for impersonating a priest).

It’s quite a strong film. The fact that it’s about an issue that needs to be discussed also helps. It’s not strong enough to win, but I like that it’s here. How many films actually deal with the evils of tabloid journalism in ways like this?

Grand Hotel — This might be the first ensemble film. Don’t quote me on that, but it might be.

The film takes place in a hotel in Berlin, and was based on a memoirs of a former maid at a real life hotel. And we follow a group of characters as they stay in the hotel, all framed around one of the characters, who says, “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” Which, of course, on between, a lot of stuff happens. One of the characters is Greta Garbo, a famous ballerina, who, as the famous line goes, “wants to be alone.” And she meets John Barrymore, a count who has resorted to being a jewel thief in order to make ends meet, and the two fall in love. Then there’s John Barrymore as a dying man who is spending his last days in style. And there’s Wallace Beery, an industrialist, who is trying to close an important deal. He hires Joan Crawford as a typist, and at first she’s willing to sleep with him in order for help from him in being an actress, but soon finds herself more interested in Lionel Barrymore, also Beery’s former employee. And these storylines all intersect, and stuff happens, and of course somebody dies. And the film ends as it began, with that guy saying, “Nothing ever happens.”

It’s a really great movie. It’s a film that feels like an Oscar film, since they got this entire parade of stars, they spent lots of money (the hotel set is pretty lavish), and it’s got that pedigree, material-wise, that makes sense as a Best Picture winner. Plus it is actually a really good film. Some people might not want to vote for it (I’m not even voting for it), but it does fit as a winner. Of these nominees, it makes the most sense.

One Hour With You — I saw this film for the first time in one of my classes (which, in hindsight, is pretty awesome). I knew nothing about it, and hadn’t seen any of the early Lubitsch musicals. I’m certain that no one in my class knew about this film either. But when we watched it — man, was it good.

The film is about Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald as a happily married couple. How happily married? The opening scene are Paris policemen patrolling a park, looking to arrest all the unmarried couples who are “doing things” in the park. And they come across the two of them making out on a bench and go to arrest them and they say they’re married. And the cops don’t believe them. Because no married couple would be that much in love! But they are. And the cop is shocked.

So the film is about them being happily married and faithful to one another, despite constant temptation to cheat (especially on his part). But then his wife introduces him to her best friend, who seduces him. And then his wife is upset because he had an affair. But then she has an affair. And of course, everything works out all right in the end.

It’s a very bold film for 1931. The couple openly has affairs, and the whole film reeks of sex. And it’s hilarious. Trust me when I say this. It is a hysterically funny movie. I watched this in a class of about twenty people and everyone loved it. For a 1931 film, that’s unheard of. This film is actually so funny that I could completely understand people voting for this. Hell, if it weren’t for Bad GirlI might have even voted for this. I don’t know if it would have been a good choice, but damn, is this a funny movie.

Shanghai Express — It’s a Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg film. I never quite got the appeal of these.

This film takes place on a train in China. Dietrich is Shanghai Lily, who is on the train. And there are a bunch of other passengers, and they all have their individual reasons for being there. One guy’s a gambler, one’s an opium dealer, one’s a missionary, one’s a solider, etc. And then they find out there’s a warlord on the train with them, who takes over the train. And he takes one of the men hostage, who also used to be with Dietrich, but left her when she played a trick on him to see how much he loved her. But then he’s stabbed and  killed by one of the other women on the train, and Dietrich and the guy of course end up together.

It’s an okay film, but I wasn’t particularly blown away by it. This wasn’t my cup of tea at all. It was okay, but — I just don’t do China. So I wouldn’t vote for this.

The Smiling Lieutenant — Ah, a second Lubitsch musical. I love seeing these here. Because, most people, they wouldn’t bother with films during this time. They’d maybe see Grand Hotel because it is what it is and because of the Garbo line and whatever, but almost no one would venture past that. People into film might see The Champ, and people more into film might check out Bad Girl (especially now that they released that amazing Borzage/Murnau box set a few years back), but you’d really need to reach to see a lot of the films pre-1934. So I like that these Lubitsch musicals are here, because they’re films that, if you put them on for the average moviegoer, they’d enjoy them. So the more that are here, the more people can potentially see them and like them, and then go, “You know, maybe these old films aren’t so bad after all.” Because people just have a preternatural aversion to old movies. It’s sickening.

Anyway, this film is about Maurice Chevalier as a lieutenant in the army who, while standing in a procession to honor the princess of the country, happens to be winking at his girlfriend the moment the princess rides by. And she sees the wink and thinks it’s meant for her. And in order to avoid an international incident, they decide to have him marry her. And this poses a problem, since he loves his girlfriend. But the girlfriend, seeing that the princess is actually in love with Chevalier (oh, the girlfriend is Claudette Colbert and the princess is Miriam Hopkins, just FYI), gives her a makeover and basically helps her get Chevalier fall in love with her, sacrificing her love for the good of the two of them.

It’s quite a good film. It’s perhaps my third favorite of these Lubitsch musicals. I love One Hour With You and I love The Love Parade. This probably goes right after that for me. But they’re all great.

In terms of this category — I’d vote for One Hour With You over this, which pretty much means I’m not voting for it. It’s great, though.

My Thoughts: Lot of films here. Let’s go by process of elimination…

Arrowsmith is out. Good film, but, it shouldn’t have won. Shanghai Express I don’t like as a Best Picture winner either. Five Star Final is too — 1929. We need something more modern (of course, modern is only a matter of three years, but still, you need to keep moving forward in these early years. Then, between the two Lubitsch musicals, I like One Hour With You better, but even so, neither really should have won. You might want to vote for them because you like them best, but neither should have won. They also would have been better in 1929.

So that leaves us with Bad Girl, The Champ and Grand Hotel. I love Bad Girl, but I understand that it shouldn’t have won. (Though I’m still voting for it, because I love it.) The Champ and Grand Hotel are the two films that are most fully-formed, in terms of what you’d consider a classical Hollywood film to be. I think Grand Hotel was the right choice, because it was big and ensemble, and most approximated studio filmmaking. And that’s what they needed this year. So that was the right choice. But I’m still voting for Bad Girl, because I love it so much.

My Vote: Bad Girl

Should Have Won: Grand Hotel

Is this result acceptable?: Yes. Terrific decision. It doesn’t hold up as much on the list of Best Picture winners, but in context, this is a great decision.

Ones I suggest you see: You should see Grand Hotel. It’s awesome. It’s a really terrific film. Highly recommended, and also essential for the film history buff. It’s very representative of a lot of things — the ensemble film, the “A” picture, even the “Oscar” film. It’s a film that I’d like to call essential, but can’t. But you still should see it.

Just watch One Hour With You and The Smiling Lieutenant and don’t think about it. You’ll thank me later.

Bad Girl — not for everyone, but man, did I love this movie so, so much. So, I love it, and recommend it very highly. You do what you want. See it, don’t see it, I don’t care. Because I’ll still always have it.

The Champ is a classic story, and is an amazing film. You need to see at least one version of it. This one is probably the best version.

Shanghai Express is a Dietrich and von Sternberg film, and those are classics in their own right. It’s one you should probably check out if you’re serious about film.

Arrowsmith is an early John Ford. That’s worth mentioning. It’s not particularly good or bad. See it, don’t see it, whatever.

Five Star Final — worth a look. Not essential by any stretch, but definitely decent.


8) Arrowsmith

7) Shanghai Express

6) Five Star Final

5) The Champ

4) The Smiling Lieutenant

3) Grand Hotel

2) One Hour With You

1) Bad Girl

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