Mike’s Top Ten of 1932
You definitely start to see an overall increase in quality when you get to 1932. Previous sound years have really good films, but you can’t really go 20 deep with films most people would want to watch. Here, you’re starting to be able to do that. It’s exciting to me to see Hollywood growing up. To put this into terms you young people who don’t know anything before 2002 can understand: Hollywood in the silent era was a full-sized Groot. And then sound happened and the whole thing got blowed up. And now, we’re dealing with a Baby Groot, slowly coming into its own again. We’re watching it get back to form.
1932 and 1933 are also the two years where Hollywood started really pushing the envelope, subject matter-wise, which lead to the creation of the Production Code. There are a couple of those here. You get your smatter of sex, violence and social problems. And then other cool stuff, like what might be the most bizarre film Hollywood made in the studio era.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1932
A Farewell to Arms
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Merrily We Go to Hell
The Most Dangerous Game
One Hour with You
One Way Passage
11-20: After Tomorrow, Blonde Venus, If I Had a Million, Love Me Tonight, No Man of Her Own, Red Dust, Shanghai Express, Trouble in Paradise, Vampyr, Young America
Tier two: American Madness, A Bill of Divorcement, Bird of Paradise, Horse Feathers, Hot Saturday, Red-Headed Woman, Three on a Match, Virtue, The Wet Parade, What Price Hollywood?
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1. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
“How do you live?”
I love the films that are successful at making you angry. It’s not easy to do with me. A lot of times a film wants to make a point about a certain injustice or how something should change, but it’s rare that it actually works. This movie actually made me feel angry about the broken justice system. And it’s 85 years old.
It’s about a guy who can’t find work and ends up getting caught in a robbery and sentenced to ten years on the chain gang. It’s brutal, and he escapes. And here’s where the film gets way more interesting: when he escapes he starts a new life. He turns over a new leaf, becomes a successful businessman and lives a straight and narrow existence. Exactly what prison is supposed to do to a person. The very definition of rehabilitation. Only he’s eventually found out. They tell him if he turns himself in, they’ll let him go. Naturally, they lie, and they throw him back on the chain gang.
This is a movie that puts its main character through hell, and you’re with him every step of the way. It’s an incredible film for 1932, because unlike the other films that try to be about certain subjects, this one actually does hit its intended target. When you find out that they’re gonna throw him back in prison, you get so pissed off at how broken the system is. Any time a film can make you feel that, it’s gotta get its proper respect.
This film also features one of the great ending scenes of all time.
“Listen, Little Boy, in this business there’s only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.”
The original. Straight gangster, no Cuban. Paul Muni again. Howard Hawks. Perhaps the quintessential gangster picture. A lot of the elements people remember from the Pacino version started here. This is also one of the big films that led to the creation of the Production Code. They forced the studio to tack on an ending because they felt the film glorified violence. In it, Tony doesn’t die, but rather gives himself up to the cops, who then prosecute him to the full extent of the law. A judge gives a long speech admonishing his actions, and then he’s sent to hang. They also made them add a subtitle, calling it ‘Scarface: The Shame of a Nation’. Howard Hughes, the film’s producer, thought that was bullshit, so they put it out the way it was meant to be.
What’s really fascinating to me with this one is how much more it plays up the incest angle than the 1983 version does. For a film made in 1932, that’s so interesting to me.
3. Grand Hotel
“Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
The first all-star cast film. Well, I guess all those Revue films of the late 20s also featured the entire studio rosters, but this is the first dramatic, fiction, straight narrative film to feature an all-star cast. It’s about the goings-on of a four-star hotel in Berlin, switching between all the different storylines, allowing each star to get their moments. That’s what the joy of this is. You get Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt. Everyone of course remembers Garbo’s immortal “I want to be alone” line, but no one remembers the fact that her entire character is that of a suicidal ballerina who is romanced by a guy who was originally trying to steal from her. This feels like one of the first actual “prestige” pictures as we know them.
“We accept you, one of us!”
This film is one of the most interesting case studies in history. From a historical perspective, its director Tod Browning was coming off one of the biggest hits of the year in Dracula. The film was huge and it allowed him to make whatever he wanted. He decided he wanted to make a film about the people who work at carnival sideshows. He himself ran away from home at 16 to join a carnival and worked there for about 15 years. Once he got into film he made a name for himself directing a lot of the Lon Chaney pictures. Then when Chaney died, he was given Dracula. This was his follow-up. He was literally given carte blanche by MGM to make whatever he wanted, and this was the result. This movie was so reviled upon release (and was banned in several countries for years) that it literally ended Browning’s career. He made only four movies after this and maybe you’ve heard of one of them.
At this point, the film’s become a point of pride among film buffs. That oddity you watch just because it’s so weird. It’s actually like its subject matter. You go to a sideshow to see the sights. That’s exactly what watching this is. You watch it because you can’t believe that someone wanted to make this and that someone let it get made. It’s glorious.
5. One Hour with You
“When I married her, she was a brunette. Now you can’t believe anything she says.”
This film is, to me, the quintessential Pre-Code film. If you’re in tune with what it’s doing and can stand films from this early in cinema, you’re in for a real good time.
The film is about sex. That’s all you need to know. The opening scene is cops going to arrest people who are fucking in the park. They come upon Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, who are actually married. And the cops are amazed that a married couple would be so in love as to fuck in the park. And then it takes off from there. He’s a doctor whose female patients all want to fuck him. But he’s faithful to his wife. Only Her best friend is determined to get him. Chevalier is like, “How dare you? I love my wife,” and then tries to avoid her. And MacDonald, blind to the whole thing, forces him to see her. And then pretty soon one affair happens and then everyone’s having an affair and everyone’s fucking everyone. It’s just glorious.
If you understand the rhythms of the studio era Hollywood movie and know how Hollywood dealt with subjects like sex in its heyday, then you’ll find this movie hysterical. Because it doesn’t give a fuck.
6. Doctor X
“What will you do if I start to sink and yell for help?”
“Throw you an anvil. Good night!”
There aren’t a whole lot of two-strip Technicolor horror films out there. Mystery at the Wax Museum is the most known, but this one’s the most entertaining. They both share the same leads, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.
This is a weird comedy horror movie. Though I guess it’s not really meant to be a comedy. It might just be campy. Though the lead character is a wisecracking journalist who has a joy buzzer he uses on people. So I don’t know what they were going for here.
Here’s the plot. You ready? It’s nuts. A serial killer is on the loose in New York. All the murders happen during a full moon, and all the victims have been cannibalized. Every description of the killer is that it was a monster. The murder weapon is traced back to a specific medical institution where a bunch of doctors do research that all seems to be tangentially related to the killer. So our journalist goes around, trying to figure out who the murderer is.
I’ll say this — it’s fun as shit. Without getting into detail, when I saw this movie for the first time, the words “Synthetic flesh” made me physically laugh out loud. The color looks nice too.
7. One Way Passage
“Remember our first?”
“We thought it was our last. You never can tell.”
I love this story. They only remade it once, yet it feels like the kind of movie that should have been remade a bunch. How did someone like Cary Grant not end up in a remake of this?
William Powell is a convicted murderer sentenced to death on the run from police in another country. He meets Kay Francis in a bar and falls for her. Shortly thereafter, he’s captured and is put on a boat with a police escort back to America to serve his sentence. On the boat, he sees that Francis is also a passenger and asks the cops to allow him to not be handcuffed so she won’t know his situation. He and Francis fall in love. She doesn’t know he’s facing the death sentence and he doesn’t know she’s got a terminal condition and is also going to die soon. It’s a perfect tragic romance.
I think I prefer this version to the remake, but both are solid. I’m really surprised no one ever tried to remake this. Of course now, people find this stuff hokey and no one would make it right. But the story’s so good and it sucks there isn’t a classic film based on this story.
8. A Farewell to Arms
“Are you badly hurt?”
“Oh my poor darling, it’s your leg, isn’t it?”
“You’re the loveliest thing I ever saw.”
The novel is so famous that every film based on it is gonna be well known regardless of how good it is. For what it’s worth, this is the best film version they’ve made thus far. (The 1957 version just feels like prestige for the sake of prestige, without much to offer except nice sets and Technicolor. Or I guess, Deluxe Color.
I would presume that everyone knows this story, but I feel like nobody knows much of anything anymore. A World War I soldier falls in love with a nurse. It’s directed by Frank Borzage which, for those who know how Borzage make films, should know you’re in for an emotional ending. It’s one of those films that’s just solid all around. Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, a great supporting turn by Adolphe Menjou, it’s pure 1932 prestige filmmaking.
9. The Most Dangerous Game
“This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that.”
One of those movies that I’m both surprised no one’s tried to remake now, but also not surprised, since the set up is so commonplace now it would be about all the crazy shit they’d throw on top of it to make it “work” for today’s audiences.
A crazy big game hunter causes a shipwreck just so he can hunt (insert title here): humans. And he lets people loose on the island so he can hunt them down and murder them. Simple premise, effective execution. Only like an hour long. It definitely does not overstay its welcome.
10. Merrily We Go to Hell
“The only thing worse than a drunkard is a reformed drunkard.”
What a great title. One of the great movie titles.
It’s an alcoholic who falls in love with a rich woman. She tries to get him to sober up, but nothing seems to work. So instead she decides to have an open marriage. Alcoholism, sex — great stuff all around.
There are a couple of early Pre-Code films dealing with alcoholism. This, to me, is the most entertaining. But I also am tickled by these Pre-Code movies flaunting all this stuff out there without hiding it at all. Watching these movies is like finding out the timid librarian also strips on weekends.
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After Tomorrow — Frank Borzage. A couple is engaged but can’t get married because of the Depression. So they dream about their future together, while their wedding keeps getting postponed by their respective families. You’d think it was a comedy, but it’s not. It’s a drama. And it’s good.
Blonde Venus — Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg again. She wears a gorilla costume in this movie (don’t ask). Very Pre-Code. Her husband get sick so she starts fucking a rich dude to pay for his medical expenses. You really can’t go wrong with Dietrich and von Sternberg.
If I Had a Million — Anthology film about eight people who are randomly given a million dollars and how they decide to spend their money. Interesting concept. Anthology films are almost always interesting.
Love Me Tonight — Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. He’s a tailor pretending to be a rich dude and she’s a princess who falls in love with him. (Hint: It’s Pre-Code and Maurice Chevalier. That means lots of sex.) This one features Myrna Loy!
No Man of Her Own — Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. He’s a gambler laying low in a small town and she’s a librarian with whom he falls in love. Well… eventually. They get married first after a coin toss. And the rest of the film is about him going back to his gambling ways and her trying to get him to stop. Anything with the two of them is worth seeing.
Red Dust — Victor Fleming, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor. The original “lust in the dust.” John Ford remade this as Mogambo twenty years later. The basic premise is that Clark Gable is a plantation owner involved with Harlow, a hooker. Mary Astor shows up with her husband, and she starts a thing with Gable. So basically, everybody fucks Gable. That’s pretty much what the movie is. The Wikipedia synopsis for this movie ends with the sentence “… as he playfully tries to fondle her.” Weren’t the 30s fun?
Shanghai Express — Dietrich and von Sternberg again. She’s a hooker on a train who gets involved with a warlord coming on the train for some guns. Oh, I’m sorry — notorious hooker. It’s better when they’re notorious. It starts as a bunch of people on a train ride, and the story focuses once the warlord shows up. Naturally the only man she ever loved is on the train, and that all takes place during the whole hijacking bit. The cinematography here is quite good.
Trouble in Paradise — Ernst Lubitsch. That’s the only stamp of approval you need. A male thief and a female pickpocket join up to swindle a rich woman. And a bunch of romantic entanglements ensue. It’s fun.
Vampyr — Carl Theodor Dreyer. Mostly silent, but with some sound. Gorgeously shot. The visuals are what makes this. Dreyer is a great visual filmmaker (as evidenced by his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc), and he makes a horror movie whose images remain scary to this day.
Young America — Frank Borzage again. The man just made good films. It’s about kids. It’s a film about juvenile crime but takes a very different approach than you’d suspect. You think you’re gonna get one of those 50s B movies where the kids are all in gangs. But here, all the adults see the kid as a troublemaker, yet the kid never really does anything bad. Borzage is a man whose films were built on sympathetic characters and sentimental moments. This is no different. I’m a fan of child protagonist films, and despite this film’s (insane) climax, I like it quite a bit.
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- American Madness
- A Bill of Divorcement
- Bird of Paradise
- Horse Feathers
- Hot Saturday
- Red-Headed Woman
- Three on a Match
- The Wet Parade
- What Price, Hollywood?
American Madness is early Frank Capra, about a bank robbery and how it affects all the different characters working there. A Bill of Divorcement is Katharine Hepburn’s first screen appearance. Bird of Paradise is this insane tropical romance about a guy who falls in love with a girl set to be thrown into a volcano. Horse Feathers is more Marx brothers. What Price Hollywood is the original story that later became all the different versions of A Star Is Born. Three on a Match is a Pre-Code film about drugs and sex. The Wet Parade is about alcohol destroying a family. Virtue is about a hooker who falls in love with a cab driver. Red-Headed Woman is another quintessential Pre-Code film. Jean Harlow is a secretary whose sole purpose is to fuck her boss. The movie actually features the line, “I’d like to take dictation from him.” (This is why Pre-Code films are awesome.)
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