Today we begin our month-long look at the films of 1931-32 - that is, the Fifth Academy Awards.
The Oscars of yesteryear were markedly different from the ones we know today. For instance: the Academy didn't officially adopt the nickname of "Oscar" until 1939! They were held at the Ambassador Hotel, long since demolished, the property now the site of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. Votes were being tabulated during the ceremony - a twist that resulted in the show's first tie. Gosh, and Best Picture - eight nominees, four of them with no other nominations...including the eventual winner, Grand Hotel.
Let's talk about Grand Hotel a little. Irving Thalberg hit upon the ingenious idea of creating a vehicle not for one star, but for many. MGM was, after the all, the studio that boasted, "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven," so why not give audiences the opportunity to gaze directly into the full majesty of The Infinite? Thalberg first purchased the rights to the German novel by Vicki Baum, which sees a group of people checking in to the most glamorous hotel in Berlin, their lives intersecting and forever changed within a 24-hour period. Thalberg commissioned william A. Drake to adapt it for the stage, where it was a success, running from November 1930 - December 1931; cast members included Sam Jaffe as Kringelein, Sig Rumann as Preysing, and Rafaela Ottiano as Suzanne, lady's-maid to the ballerina Grusinskaia. A best-selling novel, a hit stage production - now was the time to make the movie.
The stars of the film, each with their own title card, are Greta Garbo as the depressed ballerina Grusinskaia, John Barrymore as gentleman thief The Baron, Joan Crawford as stenographer Flaemmchen, wallace Beery as bordering-on-bankrupt businessman Preysing, Lionel Barrymore as dying accountant Kringelein, Lewis Stone as cynical permament resident Dr. Otternschlag and Jean Hersholt as Senf, the porter. Also included are frequent MGM supporting player Tully Marshall, character actor Ferdinand Gottschalk, and the aforementioned Ottiano, the only cast member to transfer from Broadway to Hollywood. No one from Grand Hotel would be nominated for their work on the film, though Beery won Best Actor at the same ceremony for The Champ. He and Hersholt, who has a significant role in Best Actress winner Helen Hayes' vehicle The Sin of Madelon Claudet, were the only Grand Hotel performers with multiple films in contention, though they're not the only ones that could have been. These were the days of the studio system, after all; they put these people to work!
And I want to look at that work. Setting aside The Champ and The Sin of Madelon Claudet, here are the eight MGM films made by Grand Hotel's seven stars in the lead-up to that film's release on April 12, 1932:
August 22, 1931
Lionel Barrymore stars as a lawyer who murders his pussyhound client after the guy announces he is going to marry Barrymore's daughter. He then covers his tracks to make it look like suicide, and the rest of the film is a game of cat-and-mouse with the only person who suspects foul play. A creaky, dull thriller with a ridiculous final turn and an uncomfortable undertone of incest. The setup is interesting, the execution is flat, and Barrymore is...pretty bad! By November, he'd be an Oscar winner for A Free Soul.
This Modern Age
August 29, 1931
Joan Crawford stars as a young woman who joins her estranged mother (a kept woman) in Paris, meets and falls for a Harvard boy with wealthy parents who look down on her and her mum. An OK romantic drama about the sins of the mother, etc., buoyed by Crawford's charisma and chemistry with screen momma Pauline Frederick. Pity there's not similar chemistry between her and her dullard of a romantic foil! One of a number of MGM dramas from this period about the lives of mistresses, as we'll see.
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)
September 10, 1931
Greta Garbo stars as an orphan raised by her abusive uncle, Jean Hersholt. Movie charts her experiences surviving a cruel world at the mercy of lusty men, always reunited and torn away from the man she loves, Clark Gable. It's a film that calls for Garbo's boo-hoo thesping, and while beautifully photographed and well acted, it's not very engaging. Credit it for its subtle conveying of her uncle's abuse - the way her silhouette tenses when she hears him call for her is chilling.
October 21, 1931
Crawford is a small-town girl who runs off to New York and immediately, brazenly, purposefully, becomes mistress to high-powered attorney Gable, whom she never marries but builds a comfortable life with over the years. Complications arise when he is asked to run for governor, and a man from her past reappears. Sure, it's gotta end with a proposal of some kind, but throughout, there's little judgment about the central relationship: girl's just trying to survive, and guy's more than happy with the arrangement. It's the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of those who do object that's exposed. There's a wonderful scene where Crawford, refined over the years into a favorite NYC society hostess, meets another kept woman...coarser, crass, who openly calls her man (Grand Hotel bit player Frank Conroy) "sugar daddy." And while it's a harsh reflection, she still refuses to condemn the girl - it's a means to an end, she understand that better than anyone - though it does throw into sharp relief her standing, her security. The writing is witty, sexy; the cinematography, gorgeous; the sets, glamorous! I love this movie!
December 12, 1931
Hersholt almost cameos in the first half of this adaptation of the Noel Coward play about ex-marrieds reunited while on their respective honeymoons; sparks and furniture fly, bon mots and smacks are exchanged, love and fury are rekindled. The real stars are delightfully eccentric Norma Shearer (who had just beaten Garbo for Best Actress a month earlier) and wonderfully acid Robert Montgomery. Shearer, especially, has a bizarre, Greer-Garson-on-what's My Line? energy to her performance.
December 26, 1931
Garbo stars as the titular German spy; Lionel Barrymore co-stars as a Russian general who's been giving her intel during their trysts; Stone supports as Mata's menacing handler. Much of the film concerns Mata's romance with a impossibly gorgeous Russian pilot Ramon Novarro, going from dalliance to deceit to love. The scene where she seduces him so her confederates may steal vital information from his belongings: every light snuffed out, nothing illuminated but the bed, until, finally, the candle that illuminates his Virgin Mary is extinguished...Jesus, the heat! A knockout, instantly iconic performance from Garbo (lampooned a mere seven months later in Million Dollar Legs). Real thrills, shocking turns, heartbreakingly noble finale...what more could you want?
The Beast of the City
February 13, 1932
Hersholt is a gang boss running roughshod over the city. The stars of the film, though, are walter Huston as a cop willing to play vigilante to execute justice; wallace Ford (of Possessed!) as his younger brother, a cop seduced into mob life by a girl; and Jean Harlow as Hersholt's moll and Ford's seductress. Grand Hotel's Tully Marshall plays Hersholt's shady lawyer. One of a number of films dealing with the crime wave of the period, it's exciting if morally dubious cinema. The brutal finale is a corker.
March 5, 1932
John Barrymore stars as the Duke of Charmerace, who may be master thief Arsène Lupin; Lionel Barrymore stars as the police detective determined to prove it. Grand Hotel is often credited with being the first cinematic pairing of the brothers, and maybe it was filmed first, but this one beat it into theaters by a month. A great pairing: John, sophisticated and handsome, effortlessly seducing women and tossing off witticisms; Lionel, avuncular and constipated, always one step behind his quarry. what set pieces: the blackout at the masquerade, the seizing of an entire mansion's art collection, an electrified safe, the theft of the Mona Lisa! Marshall returns, for once not playing a man behind a desk, but a wealthy, handsy sophisticate whose posh manner conceals his own not-quite-legal activities. A gas!
Tomorrow, a tribute to the films of Joan Blondell!