LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1931 and 1932

Posted by · 1:32 pm · March 23rd, 2010

Peter Lorre in MCatch up with the idea behind this series here.

1931 was the first time the Academy Awards were broadcast on the radio. Can you imagine having to tune in to Sirius channel 2174 to hear Conrad Nagel announce who won everything? I don’t even know who Conrad Nagel is. 1932 gives us my favorite Oscar story of all time. Apparently, Will Rogers was presenting the Best Director award and after opening the envelope he said, “Come up and get it, Frank!” Frank Capra jumped up and waited for the spotlight to find him before it rested on the actual winner, Frank Lloyd. Someone behind him then yelled, “Down in front!” When Capra did win Best Director the next year, the announcement was also jokingly made by saying, “Come up and get it, Frank!” But enough about what the Oscars did, let’s see what they didn’t do.

1931 – “M” (Fritz Lang)

It was a down to the wire call between Lang’s haunting film and Charlie Chaplin’s career peak, “City Lights,” as both were shamefully overlooked masterpieces. In Chaplin’s case, the sound explosion produced a bit of bias against silent films (none were nominated this year), but there’s no such obvious excuse to pass over “M.” Particularly since René Clair’s “À Nous la Liberté” became the first foreign film to garner any nomination in this year (Best Art Direction). Perhaps it was due to the subject matter, a child murderer as protagonist, that caused Hollywood to balk. Whatever the case, history has proven that Fritz Lang’s first sound film is a treasure worth preserving and watching again and again.

That is was his first sound film is mind-boggling when you note what he achieved with that particular tool. Introducing his character off-screen through whistling and then coming back again and again to one particular tune as his calling card are both standard practice today, but revolutionary at the time. The visuals aren’t too shabby either, still riffing on the expressionism movement but moving the chiaroscuro to a more realistic context.

All of Lang’s technical prowess would mean nothing without the lead performance of Peter Lorre, who turned into one of Hollywood’s most reliable supporting players. With that odd face and even odder voice, he was easily associated with gangsters, outcasts and misfits, but his ability to make even the lowest of low-lifes human and complex is what made him a legend. This isn’t exactly a buried treasure, but if you haven’t seen it, do yourself the favor quickly.

Trouble in Paradise
1932 – “Trouble in Paradise” (Ernst Lubitsch)

What can I say, German filmmakers had it going on during this period. Of course, Lubitsch had already transplanted to Hollywood and here produced one of the most sparkling of early romantic comedies. The dialogue is almost impossibly witty and sophisticated, as a bourgeois thief falls in love with a young pickpocket and the two join forces to dispossess a perfume heiress of her diamonds and wealth. The locations, sets and characters are excessively luxurious, a risky proposition for a film released at the height of the Great Depression, but it’s hard to get anything but pure enjoyment from watching and listening to their exploits.

Lubitsch was a master of innuendo, and as you can see from that still, he was not afraid of pushing the boundaries of pre-code sexuality. The opening title famously comes on screen with just “Trouble in” and a graphic of a double bed before the word “Paradise” finally fades up a second or two later. The art of dialogue as foreplay is all but lost in modern cinema so it’s refreshing to bask in the writing of Grover Jones and Samson Raphaelson. But it’s not all sexuality and flirtation as zippy one-liners like this one from a radio announcer attest; “From Geneva comes the news that the famous international crook, Gaston Monescu, robbed the peace conference yesterday. He took practically everything except the peace.”

The key cast is made up of Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall, all successful actors in their day who fail to receive much attention or recognition nowadays. History only seems to have room for the Cary Grants, Greta Garbos and Jimmy Stewarts of the early days but the performances in this film surely set the bar for charm and sophistication in all screwball comedies that followed. It is what came to be known as “The Lubistch Touch”.

Those are my picks, with honorable mention going to “City Lights.” What say you?

→ 20 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

20 responses so far

  • 1 3-23-2010 at 2:26 pm

    Jeff said...

    Great choices, Chad. I do have a soft spot for “City Lights,” but “M” is certainly no slouch. It’s a shame that both were overlooked.

    As for 1932, “Trouble in Paradise” is wonderful, as are Dreyer’s “Vampyr” and Hawks’ “Scarface,” both of which were overlooked.

    Can I put in an early word for Ford’s sublime “Pligrimage” for the 1933 pick?

  • 2 3-23-2010 at 7:58 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “M” is as good as it gets.

  • 3 3-24-2010 at 8:29 am

    Dave V said...

    1931 had a number of great films overlooked – M and City Lights being the two best by far. But two great early horror films – James Whale’s Frankenstein and Tod Browning’s Dracula both failed to land any nominations which is also a shame. Speaking of Browning, his wonderful Freaks would be my honorable mention for 1932 – right behind Trouble in Paradise, which was clearly the best film of that year.

  • 4 3-24-2010 at 9:04 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    My own favorite from 1932 was Frank Capra’s American Madness. I think it is among the best of Capra’s work.

  • 5 3-24-2010 at 11:06 am

    Jeff said...

    I sometimes think “American Madness” is Capra’s best film. It’s so good, in fact, that he remade it (in one variation or another) over and over again.

  • 6 3-24-2010 at 1:28 pm

    Fitz said...

    You’d be hard-pressed to top Freaks for 1932.

  • 7 3-24-2010 at 1:31 pm

    John said...

    1931..FRANKENSTEIN seems the obvious choice, Dracula would be my #2.

  • 8 3-24-2010 at 2:31 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Best Picture was a real mess in ’31, so I wish we had room for M and City Lights and William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women and some others. Claudette Colbert should have sailed to an early Best Actress nom for Dorothy Arzner’s Honor Among Lovers. I’m absolutely with you on Trouble in Paradise as a ’32 pick, though Arzner deserved to make a mark here, too, given the saucy performances in Merrily We Go to Hell.

    (Psssst: that Frank Lloyd/Frank Capra mixup happened in ’33, when Lloyd won for Cavalcade; Capra won in ’34.)

  • 9 3-24-2010 at 3:50 pm

    Jim T said...

    Just saw the movie because of Chad and Nick. (Well, other people seem to like it too :p )

    I have to think about it. Something inside me tells me I want to hate this movie. But something else tells me, “come on, this film suits you so much!”. the other voice says “that’s exacly why you have to hate it! It’s too compatible with you!”

    I will probably like or love it in the end but now, I don’t know! By the way, was the ending ambiguous or should I assume the obvious?

  • 10 3-24-2010 at 5:16 pm

    mark kratina said...

    The Frederic March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1932 is still the best version, IMHO. Great film.

  • 11 3-24-2010 at 5:25 pm

    mark kratina said...

    Other memorable films from 1932:

    Jewel Robbery (William Powell)
    Skyscraper Souls (Warren William)
    I am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Paul Muni)
    Three on a Match (Bogart, William, Bette Davis)

    The Public Enemy (1931) got very little love from the Academy, too, and it is one of my favorites films. Street Scene (1931) with Slyvia Sydney is another great film.

  • 12 3-28-2010 at 12:18 am

    Kevin said...

    This might be a silly question given how everyone here seems to be speaking about these films as readily accessible…how exactly do you guys get a look at these films? I’ve barely heard of most of these (except for M and City Lights).

  • 13 3-28-2010 at 8:05 am

    Chad Hartigan said...


  • 14 3-28-2010 at 11:49 am

    Speaking English said...


  • 15 3-28-2010 at 5:34 pm

    mark kratina said...

    Turner Classic Movies. Heaven for film fans.

  • 16 3-28-2010 at 10:13 pm

    Marvin said...

    That’s my favorite image from Trouble in Paradise. That film is one of my favorites by Lubitsch. I adore Miriam Hopkins.

    Speaking about her, and though this movie was actually nominated for Best Picture, The Smiling Lieutenant is far and away my favorite Lubtisch and remains to this day criminally underseen despite being released by Criterion’s Eclipse line. There’s a movie everyone should see at least once in their lives to help them “jazz up your lingerie!” The Smiling Lieutenant is best-film-ever great in my book.

  • 17 3-28-2010 at 10:33 pm

    Marvin said...

    Did Blonde Venus and/or One Hour with You get any Oscar nominations?

  • 18 3-29-2010 at 1:20 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    One Hour With You was a Best Picture nominee, actually. Nothing for Blonde Venus.

  • 19 4-01-2010 at 4:59 am

    Dean Treadway said...

    In order of preference:

    For 31:
    City Lights
    Scarface: The Shame of a Nation
    The Criminal Code
    The Front Page
    Monkey Business
    The Public Enemy
    Little Ceasar
    The Champ

    From 32:
    42nd Street
    Trouble in Paradise
    I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
    The Old Dark House
    Boudu Saved From Drowning
    The Most Dangerous Game
    Horse Feathers
    Island of Lost Souls

  • 20 5-19-2010 at 4:36 pm

    Steven said...

    My picks (again, deserved but unlikely):

    Rene Clair’s “Freedom for Us”
    Rene Clair’s “The Million”
    Tod Browning’s “Dracula”
    James Whale’s “Frankenstein”
    Charles Chaplin’s “City Lights”
    Fritz Lang’s “M”
    Jean Renoir’s “The Bitch”

    Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Vampire”
    Rouben Mamoulian’s “Love Me Tonight”
    Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved From Drowning”
    Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise”
    Howard Hawks’s “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation”
    Tod Browning’s “Freaks”
    Raoul Walsh’s “Me and My Gal”

    Great, fantastic years. Some sadly missed opportunities at the Oscars.