1.) Trouble in Paradise (U.S., Dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
This movie set the standard for the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Ernst Lubitsch had been making comedies since leaving Germany for Hollywood but I’m not a big fan of his early talkies like The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You, and Monte Carlo. Much of the romantic comedy hi-jinks are tiresome and not credible. Maurice Chevalier was the star of many of them and, let’s face it, he was just plain unappealing as a leading man. I never believed him as a great lover – or I believed he would have wanted to be a womanizer, but I never believed women would find him anything other than creepy. Chevalier is happily absent from the best film of 1932, Lubitsch’s gleefully subversive Trouble in Paradise. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins play Gaston and Lily, romantically involved thieves who eye a big prize when he gains the confidence of Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the owner of a Paris cosmetics company. Of course complications arise when Gaston falls in love with Mariette and begins to doubt his usually steadfast resolve to steal when moral qualms interfere. Will Gaston abandon Lily, a woman he met while they were stealing from each other? Or will he trade in a life of crime for an honest life with Mariette? The love triangle sets the stage for some of the best comedy not just of 1932 but of all time.
2.) Grand Hotel (U.S., Dir. Edmund Goulding)
With several storylines and multiple major characters, there was a chance that Goulding could have fumbled his job and delivered us a mess. Instead he and MGM helped create a new genre of film in which viewers are served up several stories loosely related, usually by location, in this case the eponymous Grand Hotel of Berlin. We are warned by Lewis Stone, playing a hotel resident, in the opening scene, “People come and go. Nothing ever happens.” Of course much does happen with John Barrymore playing a Baron whose income depends on cheating and thievery, Greta Garbo as a depressed waning ballet dancer, Lionel Barrymore as a timid accountant who has learned he is dying, Wallace Beery as an industrialist trying to close a big deal, and Joan Crawford as a secretary not afraid to use her sexuality to advance herself. The screenplay, based on William A. Drake’s 1930 play, masterfully weaves these characters and their stories together; none exist in a vacuum while they are in the Grand Hotel. We watch the characters manage their little dramas as though we are omniscient: we know what other characters are doing and suspect how it might affect Garbo’s dancer or Beery’s businessman. We can anticipate the twists that the characters themselves could never suspect. The movie makes for an entertaining and moving picture that was a gem for the MGM lot and Irving Thalberg.
3.) Vampyr (France/Germany, Dir. Carl-Theodore Dreyer)
The first time I saw Vampyr was at a Cinefamily screening at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax. The announcement came early that the print they secured had no subtitles. Luckily the movie is a visual feast and has little dialogue (and the few crucial lines were helpfully translated by a man sitting behind me who was whispering his translations to his companion). My first viewing of the picture was odd and I think that adds to my affection for the picture. The nightmarish film chronicles a young man’s discovery of vampirism in a small French town and is meant to be an odd experience. Dreyer eschewed a rigid narrative structure for a more fluid composition that more closely resembles a nightmare. Though the picture was largely rejected by critics at the time, later audiences have come to appreciate its haunting imagery. It clearly ranks above the more famous vampire movie of the same era, Bela Lugosi’s tortuous Dracula. When Dracula told us when we should be scared without ever really inspiring fear, Vampyr only suggests the emotion, but the suggestion comes repeatedly in scene after scene – like the creepy dream sequence in which a character is buried alive – that it is hard not to become unnerved. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said that this is the only movie worth watching more than once. While I disagree that it is the only one worth seeing again, it certainly is one for repeated viewings.
4.) Boudu Saved from Drowning (France, Dir. Jean Renoir)
When Boudu, a bearded tramp played by Michel Simon, loses his beloved dog, he decides to end it all and plunges himself into the Seine. Bookstore owner Édouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) witnesses the attempted suicide and, fulfilling his moral obligation as an upstanding member of society, jumps in after the man and pulls him out of the water. Saving the man, however, isn’t enough for the bourgeois businessman and feels a responsibility for Boudu. How can he truly have saved him if he doesn’t rehabilitate his ethics, morals, and manners as well? At Lestingois’ invitation Boudu moves into his home, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife and maid/mistress. Of course Boudu does not care about the niceties of bourgeois life and tosses the entire household on its head. There is a wonderfully funny scene when Boudu is cleaning up and shining his shoes, but leaves the orderly kitchen a disaster in his wake. Boudu doesn’t consciously function by the same rules and laws we follow; he stands as the ultimate embodiment of the free soul, but a free soul, according to Renoir, is necessarily outside of society and can never be integrated. I don’t think Boudu is meant to be an idealization of behavior, but Renoir uses him as an instrument to show just how fragile our standards and customs really are and how easily they can be subverted despite their apparent immutability.
5.) Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (U.S., Dir. Howard Hawks)
Producer Howard Hughes charged Hawks, a relatively unknown director not contracted to any studio, with directing this gritty tale of the rise and fall of an urban crime boss. Shot in 1930 the movie sat in limbo for two years as censors demanded changes to satisfy their moral whims. Loosely based on the life of Al Capone, Paul Muni (in his first Hollywood role, though other films were released first) plays Tom Camonte, an ambitious strongman for a local crime boss, Johnny Lovo. Camonte helps his boss clear out the competition in the city while setting his eyes on Lovo’s job. Camonte thinks violence and strength are all that are necessary to succeed in Prohibition America. At a certain level his business philosophy isn’t far off. Look how far he gets. Scarface is a tough indictment of modern U.S. society (though it is tinged with an anti-immigrant stance that Hawks attempted to soften with depictions of some “good” immigrants). The parallels between Prohibition crime bosses of the 1920s and 1930s and today’s drug cartels are striking – which Brian De Palma picked up on when he remade the movie with Al Pacino, realigning the story to the cocaine-rich city of Miami in the 1980s. But Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht accomplished something deeper her, highlighting our natural fear of violent crime while simultaneously being fascinated by it. They suggest that our attraction and fascination fuels crime waves by mythologizing criminals. The irony of course is that many, including a large number of censors, thought the picture was glorifying the life of Camonte and protested bitterly. But Hawks, one of my favorite directors, considered this to be his favorite picture. I’m not sure if I agree that it is his best, but I do agree that it is the best of the gangster movies of the 1930s.
6.) I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (U.S., Dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
This movie forced Americans to acknowledge that their justice system often worked cruelly, arbitrarily, and contrary to society’s best interest. I usually react against any picture that claims to be based on a true story; I don’t think true stories have more value or worth than fiction, especially since Hollywood has a way of twisting fact-based content beyond recognition. But Warner Bros. used I Am a Fugitive for a purpose: to confront Americans about what the justice system is doing in their name and to agitate for reform. Paul Muni plays James Allen, a destitute World War I vet who stumbles into a restaurant robbery. He is innocent, but is sentenced to ten years hard labor (for stealing $5 which, incidentally, they recovered). Life is hard on the chain gang, but he escapes and makes his way north where he establishes himself as a productive member of society. But the forces of “justice” cannot rest because that $5 robbery MUST be avenged. No matter how productive his life is, no matter how clearly reformed, officials from the unnamed Southern state (Georgia in actuality) continued to hound the man, actually forcing him into a life of crime. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy: the pursuit of an innocent convict turns him into a criminal. LeRoy’s picture illustrates how laws, when rigidly applied without thought or compassion, can be as oppressive as crime itself. And Muni turns in another outstanding performance, helping cement his reputation as one of the best movie actors in the history of film.
7.) Freaks (U.S., Dir. Tod Browning)
Director Tod Browning may have prematurely ended his career by making this picture, but he succeeded in creating one of the oddest and moving pictures of the 1930s. Browning recreates a close-knit community of circus “freaks” – performers valued for physical deformities: a human skeleton, little people, pinheads (or, if we want to be accurate, microcephalics), conjoined twins, etc. In Browning’s story the physically repulsive prove to be more human than the non-deformed performers. Sexy trapeze artist Cleopatra seduces and marries a member of the freak community, little person Hans (Harry Earles). She is not, however, the kind of person to look past physical variances; she is after a large inheritance Hans will receive. She keeps up her affair with the strong man Hercules and together they plot to poison Hans, a man blinded by love. As Hans gets sicker and sicker from Cleopatra’s poison the other freaks grow suspicious. Once their suspicions are confirmed they exact a horrible revenge (so horrible, in fact, that MGM drastically cut down some of the later scenes after test audiences reacted unfavorably to them). Browning chose to use real freaks and in doing so brought humanity to people that most would view with either curiosity or repulsion, rarely with any sort of empathy. We see a community that must remain tight and bitterly defensive against an apathetic and hostile world. Their solidarity in the film results in one of the most disturbing and memorable movie endings.
8.) Shanghai Express (U.S., Dir. Josef von Sternberg)
Hollywood never explicitly dealt with sexuality even in pre-Code films, but Sternberg explored themes of sexuality more explicitly than most major Hollywood directors. Shanghai Express uses a fairly routine adventure plot to explore the tragedy and waste of stunted love. A train full of mostly Western passengers chugs through civil war plagued China and is hijacked by a cruel warlord anxious to use his hostages to secure the release of his recently arrested second in command. And a Sternberg picture would not be complete without romantic melodrama: a stereotypically proud British officer discovers that one passenger, the notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), is in fact a former lover of his. Though he is repulsed by her reputation as a “woman who lives by her wits” (i.e. prostitute, courtesan, gold digger, etc.) he remembers their past life together and pines for the woman he loved. She too still nurses feelings for Captain Harvey (Colin Brook), but neither can overcome their pride and admit fault. Being held hostage together alternately brings them closer and further apart, until the thrilling climax. I’ve never understood why melodrama gets such a bad wrap. Like any other genre, if it is done well it can be insightful and intelligent. Often, of course, melodrama turns out plain hokey, but that shouldn’t tarnish the truly great melodramatic films of which Sternberg’s Shanghai Express is one.
Other Notable Pictures of 1932: The Old Dark House (U.S., Dir. James Whale), Red Dust (U.S., Dir. Victor Fleming)