Armchair Oscars – 1932-33

Best Picture

Cavalcade (Directed by Frank Lloyd)
The Nominees: A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Through, State Fair

King Kong (Directed by Merien C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack)
My Nominees: 
Duck Soup (Leo McCarey), A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage), Freaks (Tod Browning), The Invisible Man (James Whale), Little Women (George Cukor), The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda), Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian), She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman), State Fair (Henry King)


The 1932-33 season was the last time that the Academy Awards were seasonal; henceforth the Oscars would go by the calendar year.  The last seasonal period for the Academy Awards lasted seventeen months and ended with a roster of the most impressive list of Best Picture nominees of the decade.  However, despite the presence of such titles as 42nd Street, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, She Done Him Wrong and The Private Life of Henry VIII, the winner was the least impressive of the nominees.

Cavalcade, Frank Lloyd’s expensive adaptation of Noel Coward’s stage play, traced the triumphs and the heartbreaks of a generation in the lives of and English family called the Marryots, from 1899 to 1933.  We follow them through the century’s red letter highlights from the birth of the 20th Century to the Boar War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and the First World War.  The movie has a heart and some good performances but it hasn’t aged well, and among the list of Best Picture winners, it is more or less forgotten.

Nineteen Thirty-Three was a year of bizarre diversity in film, and I wish the academy voters had opened their minds to include such works of genius as Duck Soup, The Invisible Man, Death Takes a Holiday and my choice King Kong.  I have serious doubts that the high-minded academy would have lowered their standards to honor a monster movie but, I think if they knew the effect it would have on the history of the cinema, they might have considered it.

Of all the films released in the early sound era, no film had more impact than King Kong.  Here was a film of such overwhelming imagination that I shudder to imagine film lore without it. Cooper, along with his creative partner Ernest Sheodsack, used every visual trick at their disposal from stop motion animation, miniatures, back-screens, matte paintings and models to bring this unusual tale to life.

The story is perfect simplicity: A documentary filmmaker, Carl Denhem (Robert Armstrong), sails with a crew through uncharted waters to an island populated by natives and surrounded by a 50-foot man-made wall.  His intention is to document the tribes on the island, and just to add an element of cotton candy he takes along a beautiful young girl that he discovers on the streets of New York.  She is Anne Darrow (Faye Wray) and she accepts his grand promises of “Money and fame!” and “The thrill of a lifetime!”

On the high seas she is kidnapped by island natives who offer her as sacrifice to Kong, their god.  He doesn’t kill her however but instead takes her deep into the jungle.  Denham and his crew give chase but Kong outsmarts them and only three of the men make it back to the ship.  They snatch Anne away from Kong while he wrestles with a pterodactyl.  They knock him unconscious with gas bombs while Denham promises to put him up as an exhibit on Broadway.

Back in the states the mighty Kong is chained up on a stage before a live audience, his primitive instincts take over and he snaps the chains and escapes into the streets.  Kong is a stranger in a strange land as he tries to find Anne, the only thing in this new world that has ever brought him comfort.  He rampages through New York in an attempt to find her and escapes up the Empire State Building where he is gunned down by a swarm of biplanes.

The story of King Kong is split into two equal parts, one on Skull Island and the other in New York City. Every scene on the island has a corresponding scene in New York.  Consider the snake that Kong battles in the jungle and then the train that he knocks off the tracks in the city.  Consider that Kong lives on the peak of his native island so naturally he finds the highest peak in New York (The Empire State Building) to escape his pursuers.  He once fought a giant pterodactyl to save Anne and later he fights biplanes.  She was bound on the island just as he is bound in New York.  He is touched by Anne and will do anything that he thinks will bring harm to her, it is his natural instinct.

Kong himself is an amazing character, good-hearted, passionately in love and with a strong sense of self preservation.  He uses his natural instinct against two worlds that clearly have elements that want to kill him.  His wide, wondrous eyes convey a world of emotion and make up for his inability to speak.  He loves Anne, plays with her hair and let’s her know that and will do anything to protect her.  There are worlds of expression and wonder in his child-like face.  No, he doesn’t look like a real gorilla, that’s not the point.  The point is that he is a savage creature, but not an empty-headed animal.  He is capable of great feats of strength but inside him beats a mighty heart.  Anne represents something he has never felt before, a woman who fears him but means him no harm.

Kong is the filter through which the movie finds its heart, but a more comical element comes from the character of Carl Denham, the documentary filmmaker who is high on ambition but alarmingly short on common sense.  When the Island Chief spots the crew and points in their direction, Denham informs his shipmates “They’ve spotted us!” despite the fact that the entire tribe has just turned to look in their direction.  Later, when the crew faces down a fearsome Stegosaurus, Denham helpfully supposes that “It must come from the dinosaur family!”  And if you still doubt his common sense consider that this is a man who is willing to put a 50-foot gorilla in front on a live audience (for whatever reason) and even helpfully explains that “Those chains are made of chrome steel!”  I think Denham is invaluable to the movie, because it just shows that the filmmakers knew they were making a silly action picture and weren’t afraid to go for broke.

In every way, King Kong is a movie that represents everything fantastic and wondrous about the movies.  The movie is big, brash, corny and melodramatic.  It has moments of dazzling special effects and like all great action movies, once it gets rolling it never slows down.  It has all the elements we expect, it has a hero, a pretty girl, danger, fights, cliffhangers, fierce creatures, the element of man treading where he should never go.  What makes it so special is that there was real thought that went into the movie.  Kong isn’t just an impressive special effect, he is a fully realized, emotional creature who doesn’t just hack and slash, but only does what is in his nature.  For these reasons we feel for him.  And there’s something else about Kong that touches us, the fact that the special effects that brought him to life are jittery, not perfect.  That gives him more personality because I think if he were simply a real gorilla marching around he wouldn’t have the element of humanity.

Best Actor

Charles Laughton
(The Private Life of Henry VIII)
The Nominees: Leslie Howard (Berkley Square), Paul Muni (I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang)

Groucho Marx (Duck Soup)
My Nominees: Charles Laughton (The Island of Lost Souls), Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII), Paul Muni (I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Paul Robson (The Emperor Jones)


Charles Laughton did his best film work in the 30s.  His list of credits in that decade included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Island of Lost Souls, I Claudius, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Private Life of Henry VIII, a list of bravura work playing characters of every description.  The academy rewarded him only once, for his one-of-a-kind performance in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, a satire of the great king’s appetites at the table and in the bedroom.

One would be hard-pressed to find an actor having more fun in a role.  I enjoy his performance but having seen Laughton play better biographical roles I’m not going to reward him here, chiefly because I liked his Captain Bligh a little better.  Instead I’m choosing a different kind of leader, Groucho Marx as the leader of the madcap Freedonia in the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup.

I think it would have been beyond the Academy to even have considered Groucho for an Oscar nomination because his act was so far beyond what they look for in a great performance.  He also stands as a reminder of how badly the academy overlooks comedy – though they did recognize him with a lifetime achievement award in 1973.

To describe Duck Soup is an act of futility because the plot of any Marx Brothers comedy was merely a coat hook on which to hang a series of insane routines, one-liners, convoluted setups and meaningless sight-gags.  Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly the leader of Freedonia which has suddenly found itself bankrupt.  Wealthy dowager, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) makes an offer that she will donate 20 million dollars if the country throws out its current dictator and appoint Firefly.  Firefly intends to win Mrs. Teasdale’s hand and constantly strokes her affections.  Unfortunately, so does Trentino (Louis Calhern), dictator of the neighboring country of Sylvania (called “Amnesia” in early drafts of the script).

Through a mish-mash of words and double-reverse insults, Groucho thrusts his beloved country into war with Sylvania.  That leads to the mash-up of a war run by movie clichés hooked onto the Marx Brothers’ gift for comic insanity.  The final act of the film takes place in one room as war wages outside and to accurately describe it is impossible.

The magic of Groucho was his gift for words.  He could complement at the head of a sentence and jab an insult by the end.  His rants were a dance of words, insults, complements, re-insults, double entendres, double-double entendres and backtalk, backtracks, somersaults and frontal assaults.  One would like to think that he had a gift for rattling off words with the perfection of a jazz musician, but I was surprised to learn that everything he said was scripted.  All of the Marx Brothers’ routines were planned. Groucho’s gift was the ability to make it sound spontaneous.

But as gifted as they were, Duck Soup would be the only film in which The Marx Brothers had complete control.  Today the film is lauded as their best work, a comic gem. Their other films are obstructed by studio machinations like romantic subplots and dusty old dance numbers as if the audience could only take so much of the brothers on-screen in one movie.  Although most hail this Duck Soup as their masterwork, at the time it was a box office flop. After this film, the brothers ended their contract with Paramount and came under the microscope of Irving Thalberg at MGM.  Furthermore, all films from the brothers had to go through the studio heads first.  This is why I think the academy would never have considered Groucho for an Oscar.  Hollywood was so dead-set on taming him and his brothers that I don’t think (at the time) they were ready to reward him for his efforts.

At the time, and probably today, it doesn’t occur to most people to see Duck Soup as an anti-war film. The battle scene in the third act, in which Groucho changes uniforms every time we see him, and an odd scene in which he puts out a call for recruits which is accompanies by stock-footage of motorcycles, firetrucks, elephants are indicative of a film critical of the insanity of war.  The buried message of Duck Soup, oddly enough, is the same as in All Quiet on the Western Front, that war is the same over and over and the only thing that changes are the uniforms.

Best Actress

Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory)
The Nominees: Diane Wynard (Cavalcade), May Robson (Lady for a Day)

Greta Garbo (Queen Christina)
My Nominees: Katharine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), Katherine Hepburn (Little Women), Miram Hopkins (The Story of Temple Drake), Barbara Stanwyck (The Bitter Tea of General Zen), Barbara Stanwyck (Baby Face), Mae West (Night After Night), Mae West (I’m No Angel), Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)


Twenty-six year old Katherine Hepburn was everywhere in 1933 – five films! – so it is no surprise that this was the year in which she not only became a full-fledged star but received her first of what would total four Academy Awards for Best Actress.

It is easy to understand their enthusiasm, but in rewarding Hepburn for playing the wildly theatrical Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, I think the academy may have jumped the gun.  The film established the sensitive, jittery chatterbox that would endear her to the public and impressionists (unlike most Hollywood stars, she looked like a real person) but based on the performances that would follow, it is easy to conclude that her performance is kind of middle-of-the-road. To be honest, it is hard for me to drum up excitement over any of Hepburn’s Oscar winning performances: Morning Glory, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, or On Golden Pond, however I must note that this film is the only one of the four in which she didn’t play a dutiful wife.

Looking back over Hepburn’s career I think her best work came in films for which she received no nominations.  The best was yet to come and sadly, when some of her best roles did come, they weren’t nominated.  For 1933, I much preferred Kate in the role of Lady Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong in which she plays a woman so passionately in love with flying that she has no time for men (she’s still a virgin!).

My initial choice for my Armchair Oscar was Mae West, a woman for whom the word “virgin” was just Mary’s tough luck.  West gave three brilliant performances that year in She Done Him Wrong, Night After Night and I’m No Angel but it is now well known that all three films (which she wrote herself) were strangled by studio meddling.  Try to imagine the headlines if Mae West had been named Best Actress while Groucho walked home with the award for Best Actor.  Can you imagine the two of them together at the podium?  The public would have thought the academy had gone mad.  This was a year in which they both did their best work on film but I can also say the same of Greta Garbo.

While Katharine Hepburn and Mae West were new in 1933, Garbo had been working in movies for a decade.  Grand Hotel and Anna Christie proved that she could make the difficult transition from silent films to talkies (she had a thick Swedish accent to overcome), but Queen Christina would show that she could carry an entire sound film.  The irony is that while Queen Christina is today hailed as her best performance on film, it was initially a box office disappointment and this is probably why she wasn’t nominated for Best Actress.

In her career, Garbo was nominated for Best Actress three times but never won a competitive Oscar and when she was given an Honorary award in 1954 for her body of work, it surprised no one that the famously illusive star didn’t show up to receive it.  But before she became illusive, she was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet and Queen Christina is the film for which she is best remembered.

Directed with a loving feminist slant by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie follows the rise and abdication of Christina, the first Queen of Sweden who ascends to the throne at the age of five when her father is killed on the battlefield.  At her coronation, we see the young Christina (nicely played by child actor Cora Sue Collins) with glimpses of the spirit that she will carry into adulthood especially in a moment when she deviates from her prepared preamble.

Then we jump forward in time and meet Christina as a breathtaking beauty somewhere in her late twenties (Garbo was 28 at the time).  She stands out in her court, not just because she is queen but because her point of view is so different.  The men who occupy her court are passionate in their insistence that Sweden should make a violent conquest against their European enemies.  Christina is dead-set against it, she will not send her countrymen onto the fields of battle to die for selfish conquest. Her perspective is that she would prefer to see her subjects embrace peace and love and passion and art, a lust for life rather than a testosterone-fueled lust for blood.

We understand why.  We see that Christina is a woman who wants to examine all aspects of love and passion and has no desire to fill the expected trappings of her gender or her position.  She wears men’s clothing, she has affairs, and she speaks to men face to face, not just as a woman speaking to a man.    She delights her subjects by having many affairs to the degree that they place bets on how many lovers she has had.

Early in the film we see her in the late stages of an affair with one of her court officers.  More alarming are the fleeting glances to suggest that she is carrying on a lesbian affair with the Countess Ebba Sparre (played by Elizabeth Young a.k.a. Mrs. Joseph Mankiewicz) in a scene that is handled only with a light kiss on the lips but we sense that there is one thing that eludes her, the efficacies of true love.  In moments of true happiness, there is a light in her eyes, a spark that only comes from self-discovery.  For a star so famously elusive, it is striking that we are seeing her face so open, so curious.  There is passion and wonderment just under the surface. This is a woman with a lust for life.

Her fortunes begin to change one night in a town tavern which the Queen visits disguised as a man. She wants to view her subjects at ground level and just enjoy a night out without anyone at her feet.  At the Inn she is privy to a conversation among the drunks over how many lovers the queen has had in the past year. “Six!” one says, “Nine!” says another and a donnybrook erupts.  She breaks up the argument with the proclamation that the queen has had twelve, “A round dozen”, she tells them which is greeted with applause.

Someone else in the tavern can’t help but admire her spirit.  He is Antonio (Garbo’s real-life lover John Gilbert), a visiting Spanish Envoy who is delighted by this “young man” and they spend a delightful evening getting to know one another.  We are suppose to be convinced that Antonio is unaware that Christina is a woman but we kind of have to go along with it – there is simply NO WAY that a woman as gorgeous as Greta Garbo could ever be mistaken for a man.  When it comes time to turn in, Antonio is kind of delighted to learn that the inn is full and that he will be forced to share a room with this “man”. The Queen has only to remove her cape to reveal her true gender – I love the amused look on her face, her eyes cast to the floor as he discovers her.

Antonio and Christina spend several days making love and afterwards we are invited into one of the most beautiful sequences ever put on film, lying at his feet she is fed grapes from his hacienda.  She gets up and begins touching the objects in the room, a candle, a spinning wheel, a painting and of course the bed in which she rests her cheek on one of the pillows and the camera catches a glowing, almost ethereal image of her lovely face as she remembers the previous few days. This is a woman who is not overtaken by her passion, but who carries her passions and embraces every inch these earthly pleasures.  She does not play a victim, or a victimizer, this is simply a woman uncovering the passions that lie within her.

I love when Antonio tells her, “We’re inevitable”.  There is a look between them that doesn’t suggest two actors playing a scene but two people locked at the soul who are simply caught up in one another. What will carry us through the rest of the film is whether or not Christina can give up her reign to remain in Antonio’s arms.  Will she give up the country that adores her for the man who loves her?  It is inevitable that she will have to make that choice but for me the strength of Queen Christina doesn’t lie in the third act – though it contains the most famous final shot in movie history – rather in Garbo’s confident performance as a woman for whom life is one discovery after another. This is one of the most complete characters in the early years of the cinema, a specific person with a lust for life.

Such a character would prove too much for the times.  Two years after Queen Christina, the studio code of conduct was set in place and the place for a woman was suddenly in the un-erotic arms of a loving husband.  Garbo’s career would last only six more years and in that time she gave wonderful performances in Anna Karenina, Camille and Ninotchka but none would approach the depth and humanity of this film.  This is a humane film, a beautiful film about love, passion and the freedom of the human heart.

 What is all this? | Contact Me

2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 | 1998 | 1997 | 1996 | 1995 | 1994 | 1993 | 1992 | 1991 | 1990 | 1989 | 1988 | 1987 | 1986 | 1985 | 1984 | 1983 | 1982 | 1981 | 1980 | 1979 | 1978 | 1977 | 1976 | 1975 | 1974 | 1973 | 1972 | 1971 | 1970 | 1969 | 1968 | 1967 | 1966 | 1965 | 1964 | 1963 | 1962 | 1961 | 1960 | 1959 | 1958 | 1957 | 1956 | 1955 | 1954 | 1953 | 1952 | 1951 | 1950 | 1949 | 1948 | 1947 | 1946 | 1945 | 1944 | 1943 | 1942 | 1941 | 1940 | 1939 | 1938 | 1937 | 1936 | 1935 | 1934 | 1932-33 | 1931-32 | 1930-31 | 1929-30 | 1928-29 | 1927-28


Contact me @