- Grand Hotel, Edmund Goulding
- Arrowsmith, John Ford
- Bad Girl, Frank Borzage*
- The Champ, King Vidor
- Five Star Final, Mervyn LeRoy
- One Hour with You, Ernst Lubitsch
- Shanghai Express, Josef von Sternberg
- The Smiling Lieutenant, Ernst Lubitsch
Now we’ll see just how committed I am to this project, as the next decade or so will see the nominees grow first to eight and soon to twelve every year. To kick it off, the fifth Academy Awards offers an eclectic bunch that includes two films in the “Maurice Chevalier sleeps around” genre (if he’d made any more I’m sure they’d have just given him his own category). And yet, despite eight nominees for Best Picture, there were only three for Best Director, a very curious situation. The Academy was still figuring out just how these awards were supposed to work.
Nothing underlines the confusion more than their choice for the fifth Best Picture, Grand Hotel, which wasn’t nominated for any other award. Yes, the movie they deemed the best to come out between August 1, 1931 and July 31, 1932 just wasn’t exceptional enough to earn individual recognition for its writing, acting, cinematography, directing, or even its sound. Its sound, for heaven’s sake, and this was a technician who had to make Greta Garbo intelligible. It’s the only Best Picture winner in Academy history to be nominated only in that category. And yet, given what I’ve seen—what we’ve seen, if I’m being optimistic about my readership—thus far, it’s less surprising than it looks if taken as an isolated fact.
This year more than any other so far reveals a curious aspect of these early years when the awards were so spread around, and that is that the Academy seemed to view Best Picture as an isolated category. Perhaps they reasoned that, if a film won Best Picture, it wasn’t necessary to recognize its individual achievements, since it was inherently understood that a Best Picture winner was axiomatically the best in the other categories, or at least the best confluence of all other categories. Perhaps they preferred to give the other, more specialized awards to films that exhibited mastery of that category in particular. While the Best Picture winners so far have been nominated in other categories, this seems to be the philosophy they were adhering to early on. Anyone familiar with the awards nowadays knows that a dramatic paradigm shift is coming.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
First, Bad Girl, which won Frank Borzage (he of Seventh Heaven) his second Best Director award (and which features a poster that is much, much more provocative than the film itself). It is the story of a girl looking for something which is never quite made clear, but anyway she finds a man and after a series of painfully un-comic misadventures they end up married with child. It contains such classic dialogue as this:
Random man: “Hey beautiful, doing anything tonight?”
Our heroine, who takes no guff: “I’m taking my two pet fishes for a drive. There’ll be room for one more if you’d care to go.”
This exchange comes right after she brags to her friend about how good she is at deflecting unwanted romantic overtures. I’m no professional but I think the screenwriters could have topped that.
Now, it may be the direction—Frank Borzage has not impressed me thus far—or the writing, but this girl is not worth the effort. Nowhere in the film does it show her as having any discernable personality. I suppose back then, women did not have to have those in movies; they were just “nice girls” in need of rescuing by the charismatic guy. I hate to say it but it’s true: this girl has no redeeming value other than being young, pretty, and ultimately helpless on her own, which is brought out by the man. The whole first act is her “I don’t need a man” façade crumbling and showing the audience that yes, yes, for the love of Christ yes, she does need a man; what’s more, she needs a man who doesn’t need a woman, who has no reason whatsoever for falling in love with her. He, unlike her, has his own thing going on.
After suffering through a “realistic” relationship, it was nice to follow it up with One Hour with You, a wonderful reunion of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. This film picks up where The Love Parade ended, except the King and Queen have renounced their titles and are living as socialites in Paris or wherever. Ernst Lubitsch continues to innovate the musical form, and here the action leads into the songs more “naturally” than in The Love Parade, with the characters beginning to speak to one another in rhyme and rhythm before the song begins, which is something I’d like to have in my real life.
A damn fun romp, with great songs and very funny Chevalier moments. Overall, it’s a more cynical film than The Love Parade, perfectly encapsulating the odd place sex holds in relationships. As Peter Cook pointed out in Bedazzled, couples will forgive everything but “a bit of harmless fun.” Here, they even forgive that—although with the caveat that he doesn’t really think she was unfaithful, for, as we’ve seen in The Divorcee, a man can’t stand for that…although perhaps Maurice Chevalier would. He’s a very modern gentleman.
Following this raucous comedy I watched The Champ, which starred the kid from Skippy (who, I was disappointed to learn, is Jackie Cooper, not Jackie Coogan, i.e. Uncle Fester). It tells the tale of a washed-up boxer (Wallace Beery) who continually mucks up his life and that of his adoring son. The boy’s mother, who abandoned them before he was born to marry some rich guy, suddenly returns and self-righteously demands full custody, because plot points, only to shrug and say “Oh, that Skippy” (probably) when the kid absconds and returns to Mexico to be with his father again. The film rolls out as if it were written in one sitting, with an ending that suggests the screenwriter just really wanted to go to the pub and would do anything to make that happen. It does feature a tour-de-force performance by Beery, or at least what passed for tour-de-force before Marlon Brando, but overall it’s pretty weak. I would call it the weakest of the eight nominees, if it weren’t for what I watched next.
Shanghai Express. Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, directed by Josef von Sternberg…this should have been great. And, cinematographically speaking, it was quite beautiful. But narratively speaking? I don’t know, maybe it’s watching all these films in quick succession that has caused this build-up of vitriol, but I have to say, this repeated trope in Hollywood that love is something that is just there, and despite mountains of evidence against your partner’s character you should just keep on loving them and assume the best, always, is driving me absolutely bonkers. Even if, as is the case with most of these films, the evidence is wrong and they can put their partner’s mind at ease with a simple explanation, they withhold it to “test” their love and faith in them. This is, of course, utter bollocks and a dangerous and manipulative basis for love. I’d rather have the kind of relationship in One Hour with You, where they are open and honest with one another and yet still love each other in spite of all their faults, as opposed to torturing one’s love interest for the sake of some vague and ultimately stupid idea of love based purely on faith.
“Oh, darling, forgive me for the completely logical and reasonable belief I had that you betrayed and once again made a fool out of me. How wrong I was for not passing the test you put me through years ago when you slept with another man in the hopes that my forgiveness would prove, and thereby strengthen, our love. I don’t deserve you, but I promise to put up with all the horrible abuse you’ll doubtless put me through if you take me back.” Ah, true Hollywood love. It really makes me a little sick.
It was a timely picture, though, one that probably introduced Americans to the trouble brewing in China at the time, but with that immediacy gone, we’re not left with much today.
Again, Maurice Chevalier saved me. The Smiling Lieutenant features more of his impish antics, this time with Claudette Colbert, as he falls in love with one girl, accidentally makes a pass at a princess, and marries the latter while reserving his energies for the former. The ending is about as ridiculous as any I’ve seen, and in the hands of anyone but Ernst Lubitsch would have been cringeworthingly sexist, but wouldn’t life be wonderful if relationship troubles were solved with such ease, and such catchy tunes? It’s the sense of irony and whimsy that makes this film work, just as it made One Hour with You and The Love Parade work.
Incidentally, it was released on August 1, 1931, the first day of eligibility for this year’s awards. Imagine a film released on January 1 ever being considered for Best Picture nowadays; it says a lot about the changes in Hollywood in the past eighty years.
Then, I came to Five Star Final, which, despite what the poster suggests, is not about a voyeur who lives in a paper bag. I tried not to be prejudiced against it due to the long and tedious process of obtaining it from the New York Public Library (which adopts a somewhat laissez faire attitude towards alphabetization of its DVDs), and it turned out to be well worth the wait, a brief return to the social-mindedness of the 3rd Academy Awards amidst the escapism that pervades this year’s slate. It is the story of a yellow newspaper manufacturing headlines, and although it takes a serious turn for the melodramatic (as pictures from this era were wont to do), it is a great picture, the best of the nominees by a long way.
Edward G. Robinson’s character is a complex, thoroughly unlikeable protagonist who consciously makes the worst decisions possible for his soul, which ultimately leads to the suicide of an innocent person. The fact that he quits at the end doesn’t absolve him at all, and the newspaper will continue its horrible practices without him. The ending is extremely dark, though it plays like a triumph, emphasizing his personal victory over the bleak objective truth: the paper won’t replace him with a more conscientious editor, they’ll get someone exactly like him, because he was damned good at his job and chose to bury his scruples.
I imagine that this film lost because it depicted a situation that just hit too close to home in the thick of the Depression: people had to do whatever it took to earn their keep, even if it meant betraying their own values. Honestly, even the personal triumph I mentioned a minute ago is unlikely to last. In that economic climate, what will happen to our hero? Likely as not he’ll get a job at a competing newspaper and continue ruining lives for the sake of circulation.
Arrowsmith is similar to Cimarron, except it’s good. It unfolds over a long period of time, following the exploits of young doctor Ronald Colman and his wife Helen Hayes. The story is not bad—a doctor rises from country doc to research specialist trying to stem an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Caribbean—but it’s the sure hand of John Ford that really impressed me. I knew this already, but watching all of these old films, especially those by people such as Ford and King Vidor, and naturally the German expressionists, one really sees that Citizen Kane didn’t appear out of a vacuum in 1941. This film is a clear forerunner of the kind of things that Orson Welles would bring together ten years later, such as playful use of light and shadow and cinematography that exploits space for maximum visual and symbolic value.
For instance, there’s a shot where Dr. Arrowsmith enters a massive lobby that looks like it’s about a hundred yards long, completely empty save for a small receptionist’s desk at the far end. He starts across, and we fade to his arrival at the desk. It is not as ambitious a shot as we’d see from Orson Welles (he would have let us watch the character walk all the way across the room before cutting), but for 1931, it’s nice to see directors and cinematographers start thinking of different ways of approaching the medium. John Ford should have taken Best Director for this film.
Finally, Grand Hotel. While I suppose it was slightly innovative in its ensemble portrayal of the extreme melodrama that apparently goes on in high-class European hotels, it never really finds its tone and thus oscillates wildly depending which MGM star the story is presently following. It is, if anything, a slightly more sophisticated version of The Hollywood Revue of 1929, insofar as the studio decided to hang a very loose narrative around a gathering of prominent feature players. The story veers abruptly into absurdity about seventy-five minutes in—like The Champ, it seems like the writers suddenly remembered they needed to add drama and didn’t bother rewriting the previous pages to actually build to it—and the anticlimactic ending would work fine in a film by Antonioni but instead just putters across the finish line and leaves the hotel largely as we found it. The final shot features the arrival of a busload of people who aren’t famous enough to have their stories told.
Still, there is an otherworldly feel to the film, which never ventures outside the foyer of the omnipresent Hotel. Dr. Otternschlag, a minor character who patiently observes the chaotic proceedings, at the end of it all says sagely, “The Grand Hotel. People come, people go, nothing ever happens.” If we assume, as I see no reason not to, that David Byrne is a time-traveling entity upon which the foundation of life is built, this means that the Hotel is heaven. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.