Armchair Oscars – 1931-32

Best Picture

Grand Hotel  (Directed by Edmund Goulding)
The Nominees: Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, Five Star Final, One Hour With You, Shanghai Express, The Champ, The Smiling Lieutenant

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Directed by Howard Hawks)
My Nominees:
A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage), Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg), Destry Rides Again (Benjamin Stoloff), Dracula (James Whale), Freaks (Tod Browning), Horse Feathers (Norman Z. MacLeod), Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway)


Grand Hotel has long been accused of being the first Best Picture Winner that slid by on star power alone – half the academy was either in the cast or behind the scenes!  Based on a best selling book “Menschen im Hotel” by Austrian author Vickie Baum and adapted by William A. Drake the film is a soup-to-nuts a star vehicle, a movable feast of various personality types who converge on one Berlin hotel with their various underlying problems, sex scandals and immoral backroom shenanigans.  The film is suppose to be a peek-a-boo exposes on the kinds of scandalous good-for-nothings that keep the tabloids in business.  Personally, I like the film.  It’s a nice trashy bit of early 30 cheese featuring some of the most famous faces of the day.  Today, however, Grand Hotel is mostly remembered for Garbo in the role of a fading Russian ballerina who laments “I just want to be alone.”  Yet, the much better part goes to Joan Crawford as Fläemmchen, a stenographer and aspiring model who gets wrapped up in a nasty love triangle.  That character has more depth, more personality and more to do plot-wise.

I like the film, but . . . Best Picture?  I don’t know.  It’s fun in a nostalgic sense, but it’s adult-oriented spice seems to have diluted long ago.  The peeking-through-the-keyhole draw that the film once promised has been washed away in an era that favors reality-TV, tabloid shamelessness and celebrities behaving badly.

Grand Hotel
was a box office smash and no small part of its popularity came from the presence of stars like Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt, Lewis Stone, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery.  The grouping of this cast may have been thrilling to the films initial audience but, for me, there was no bigger thrill from nineteen thirty-two than Howard Hawk’s gangster epic Scarface, the best gangster film of the early years of talking pictures.

Paul Muni gives an explosive performance as gun-happy Tony Camonte, who works as a hired gun for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, father of Anthony) and happily helps rub out the competition.  There is a rift in their friendship because Tony has taken an interest in Johnny’s mistress Poppy (Karen Morley) who doesn’t much like Tony personally but is drawn to his dangerous nature. Tony would happily make time with Poppy but he is too busy keeping an eye on his sister Cesca (Anne Dvorak). With a possessiveness that borders on incestuous, Tony refuses to allow Cesca (pronounced SES-CHIA) to date men probably because he knows the evil that men do.

On the business end, Johnny begins to suspect that Tony is trying to muscle in on his business and, just to be safe, tries to have Tony killed.  He fails and, in retaliation, Tony sends his friend Guino (George Raft) to kill Johnny. Tony goes away on business as an alibi and comes back to find that Guino and Cesca have married.  In a rage, he kills Guino and an outraged Cesca orders him to never to see her again.

Where Tony’s obsession, greed and lust for violence eventually lead him is not a surprise but it is not the point of Scarface. The point is the lifestyle that Tony has created for himself.  He is clearly insane and his whole life is a violent high-wire act fueled by his obsessions.  He laughs while he mows his enemies down with a machine gun and there is a scary ferocity in his eyes when he becomes angry.

The violence in Scarface remains shocking even after the studio ordered that the violent scenes to be trimmed.  Some of the violent moments that remain are punctuated by the presence of bold X’s to signal when a murder is about to take place.  Even during the St. Valentine’s Massacre the camera pans up to feature a wooden overhang made of X’s.  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre takes place off-screen.  While the movie is exceedingly violent, most of the gorier scenes are left to our imagination.

Tony Camonte, at all times in Scarface, seems exaggerated.  His personality seems outsized and more theatrical than it should be.  This is off-set by the fact that director Howard Hawks creates a story around him that is based mostly on fact.  Many of the elements of Tony’s story echo that of Al Capone (who went to prison on tax evasion the year this movie was released).  In the beginning Tony rubs out Johnny Lovo just as, in real-life, Capone ordered the murder of Chicago boss Big Jim Colosimo.  He suggests that the ugly scar on his face came from a confrontation in the brothel, just like the one the Capone got while working in a saloon.  Capone apparently loved the film and it was rumored that he owned a copy for himself. However, some of Capone’s cronies were not so joyous.  Legend has it that screenwriter Ben Hecht was visited by two of Capone’s bricks who asked him if the film was about their boss.  The writer explained that the story was based more on gangster “Big Jim” Colosimo and Dion O’Bannion (another Chicago mob boss that Capone had killed) and that it meant that more people would come and see the film.  They were flattered and left him be.

The Hays office – the self-appointed Hollywood watchdog outfit that was appointed with cutting and trimming adult content from American films – wasn’t so easily sated. They demanded cuts in the violence and the addition of an opening and closing scene in a police station that would drive home the point that this is NOT a glorification of the gang lifestyle.  They insisted that the subtitle “Shame of a Nation” be added for fear that audiences would think that it was affirming the violence (I think it works well without it).  A scene involving Tony’s mother (Inez Palange) was added in which she scolds her son for his choice of career and there were additions to the dialogue to downplay Camonte’s image (a police officer opens the film by bad mouthing his foul deeds).

Yet, no matter what dissenting element was glued to the film, nothing could deaden the impact. Scarface is still brutal, still shocking and still brilliant.  No matter what true-life or fictional elements are employed in this film, it displays the prohibition gang life as the public heard about it.  It seems to follow the pattern of a sensational news story (it helped that Ben Hecht had been a journalist).

What Scarface has that no other gangster film of the era had was fearlessness and the courage to tackle subject matter that no other film would dare touch, it was a film ahead of its time.  So, in that way, maybe it was fitting that after its initial release it was pulled from release never to be seen again until the late 1970s.

Best Actor

Fredric March
(Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Wallace Berry (The Champ)
The Nominees: Alfred Lunt (The Guardsman)

Bella Lugosi (Dracula)
My Nominees:
Wallace Beery (The Champ), Groucho Marx (Monkey Business), Paul Muni (Scarface: Shame of a Nation)


By a margin of a single vote, Fredric March and Wallace Beery became the only actors in Oscar history who tied in the Best Actor category.  March won for playing the tortured duo in the Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while Beery won for playing a boozed-up boxer redeemed by the love of his son in King Vidor’s The Champ.

Of the two, I prefer Beery because his character seemed a little more natural.  March’s performance, to me, is marred by overacting and the fact that Mr. Hyde is so inhuman that we have trouble believing that Jekyll and Hyde are one in the same.  March gives his all but I always notice the make-up first.  Plus I am always put off by Mamoulian’s distracting experimental camera tricks.

Fredric March was in good company, because Nineteen Thirty-One was a great year for actors in character roles. Aside from March as Jekyll and Hyde, there was also Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein, Groucho in Monkey Business and to a lesser degree, Paul Muni in Scarface (I wouldn’t classify his work as a character role though he does play it as one).

They were excellent but, let’s face it, Bela Lugosi leaves them all behind.  It is one thing to play a part brilliantly, but it is something else to occupy a role so well that you end up owning the part forever.  Lugosi’s performance as Dracula has been lauded and exalted as one of the best performances in the horror film genre.  So, it is a mystery to me why the academy chose to ignore it.

Perhaps because Dracula was deemed a simple-minded horror film, both Lugosi and the film went completely unnominated.  That’s a shame because between his performance and the brilliant set decoration by the legendary Karl Freund, Dracula contains some of the best work of the early years of talking pictures.  The film is as much art as it is entertainment, and Lugosi is much of the reason why.

Lugosi had been in America for a decade, working mostly on the stage.  In 1927, he had even starred in Dracula – the version upon which the film is based.  He was Hungarian and spoke with a thick accent. He was a very theatrical man who was rarely off-stage, a quality that lends the character elegance and charm.

Through Lugosi’s performance, we sense a creature that seems to have spent centuries on earth but has remained outside normal human contact.  His speech is slow and deliberate.  When he speaks, his words are evenly spaced.  His physical movements are odd too.  When he walks, it almost seems as if he is floating.  We know that the count can periodically transform himself into a vampire bat, and his movement suggests that his brain has forgotten that his feet are suppose to be firmly planted to the ground.

Those are the outward charms of Lugosi’s performance.  What really gets our attention are the hidden moments, the attempts to get around the Hays code.  Lugosi’s Dracula is a very sexual being.  There are things he does with women in this movie that would never have happened if the character weren’t a vampire.  For example, it was taboo to have a man kiss a woman on the neck, but it was not taboo to have a vampire bite a woman on the neck.  Another example, Dracula comes to his female victims at night in their beds and approaches them – again, because he’s a vampire, it passed the code.

What Bela Lugosi created in Dracula would cement the vampire myth in the public imagination: The bloodsucking, the transformation into a bat, the eastern-European accent, the regal cape, his fear of daylight, the fact that he sleeps in a coffin and, of course, his erotic charm. These vampire myths had been set forth in Bram Stoker’s original novel, but Lugosi put the living image of Dracula into the public’s bloodstream.

Sadly, while Bela Lugosi gave us the definitive vision of Dracula, the role is the high point of his movie career.  With his odd mannerisms and deliberate speech he seemed resigned to cheap horror films, playing loony scientists and other eccentrics (even Frankenstein’s monster!). Though he was obsessed with the part of Bram Stoker’s nightcrawler, he only played the character again in a negligible Abbott and Costello comedy a decade later.

His later years found him even worse roles in Ed Wood pictures and he made his swan song Plan 9 From Outer Space – the movie that is, today, hailed as the worst movie ever made.  It is left to wonder what might have become of Lugosi’s career had he won an Oscar for his performance in Dracula.  He gained immortality as Stoker’s vampire but I always wonder if a little more affection from Hollywood might have shed some daylight on his movie career.

Best Actress

Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madelon Claudet)
The Nominees: Marie Dressler (Emma), Lynn Fontanne (The Guardsman)

Jean Harlow (Red-Headed Woman)
My Nominees: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express), Ann Dvorak (Scarface: Shame of a Nation), Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman)


In 1932, Helen Hayes – “The First Lady of the American Theater” – made her film debut in The Sin of Madelon Claudet and became the first actress to win an Oscar for playing a prostitute.  The screenplay, written by Charles McArthur (her husband) and Ben Hecht, was an adaptation of a godawful Edward Knoblock play called “The Lullaby” that shamelessly runs the entire melodrama playbook.  In the title role, Hayes gives a hard-working performance as a sweet-natured French farm girl who gets mixed up with a man who dumps her after getting her pregnant, then she falls for a jewel thief who commits suicide upon his arrest, forcing her to turn tricks to make enough money to keep her son in medical school.

Hayes was a legend in her own time, a great actress who deserved her reputation, but even she couldn’t save this lousy script (she openly admitted that she hated it). It is so soppy and forced, and it pushes poor Madelon down into the depths of despair before jamming her into a sappy, half-baked happy ending that redefines the term “tacked on.”

The film is emotional, it is hard not to be moved by the plight of a woman who sells her dignity to make a better life for her son, but I think Hayes’ Oscar came mostly for her reputation and for the physical transformation of Madelon from young and beautiful to a tired-looking old hag – a credit that really goes to the make-up artists.  It is the script that sinks her performance.

Madelon Claudet’s journey may have been emotional but the journey of my choice for Best Actress was a devilish bit of fun.  Hayes character was forced into a life of debauchery but the character played by Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman went willingly and with a wicked smile.

Based on the book by Katherine Brush and adapted by Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman finds the usually blonde Harlow playing carrot-topped Lil Andrews – a happy, mischievous gold-digger whose hours of enjoyment come from withering the inhibitions of married men.  It is all an effort to climb the social ladder, and she’ll do anything to get there.  That is why she hooks up with Bill (Chester Morris), her boss, who is passionately in love with his wife Irene (Leila Hyams) but who can’t help himself when Lil throws herself into his arms.

Lil convinces Bill to divorce Irene – not because she loves him but because it will get her in with the “in crowd.”  It works, but Bill’s society friends don’t feel the need to associate with a tramp, Lil tires of Bill and tries another target – his best friend Charles.  He wants nothing to do with her but she marches ahead anyway and eventually he melts.  Bill isn’t so unhappy with the results, it gets Lil out of his hair and he can get down to the business of regrouping what remains of his marriage to Irene.

We understand right away what makes men fall for  Lil. She works on her seductive appearance, like an actor getting ready for a role.  Buying a new dress she asks the sales girl if the dress is see-thru, when she is told yes, she smile and says “I’ll wear it.”  Later, when putting Bill’s picture into her garter she remarks “It’ll get me more there then it will hanging on the wall.”

When she is with a man, Lil seduces a man by pushing her body against his.  She doesn’t lie back as an invitation, she thrusts herself upon her prey, kissing them and pressing herself against them like a predator.  There’s a look in her eyes, a tremble of her bottom lip, a turn of her hip that we sense she has worked to perfection.  Her slight body, short stature and little girl voice suggest to her prey a woman who is naive and easily taken.  She has trained her way with men, which makes even the viewer tremble.

There are no wounds to Lil, no shattered past that makes her this way.  She’s sexy, she likes it, and she likes what it does to men.  Harlow displays such a joy at breaking down a man’s moral wall that for a while, we are happy to go along.  We can’t believe that these men would be such dopes but if you study her body language you can see the seductive power.  Her performance is not all that different from another gold-digger, the one played by Barbara Stanwyck a year later in a film called Baby Face.  In that film, an equally trashy Stanwyck literally sexes her way from the gutter to the gold, seducing one man after another (including a 26 year-old John Wayne).  But Stanwyck’s Lily Powers had a reason for her machinations – she was trying to pull herself out of the gutter of prostitution provided by her no-good father.  Harlow’s character has no such reasoning; she just wants to get to the top because she has the organic tools to do so.  She laughs at her seductive powers when they work and she gets vindictive when they don’t.

The only weakness in the film is the ending, which seems a little contrived and hurried.  After getting herself into a hornet’s nest of trouble, Lile is forced to shoot Bill, who survives but won’t have her charged with murder.  He returns to Irene.  We catch up with her two years later as a race track in a scene that seems to have been added sometime later.  There’s some indication that Lil is headed off to her death, but it is left somewhat ambiguous.

That odd ending doesn’t speak to Harlow’s performance – just some bad writing.  Harlow’s performance is an act of depraved giddiness but as the film goes along, we begin to sympathize with those she is attempting to destroy.  There comes a point at which every time she shows up in a doorway, we feel pity for anyone who tries to leave the room.

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