Thursday, October 8, 2020

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Some Nominees: 1931-32, Day Eight

A week from today, I'll discuss the eight Best Picture nominees, eventually crowning my personal favorite. But there were nine other films nominated in seven categories at the 5th Academy Awards, and while we'll delve into some of those individual elements so honored, here I'd like to talk about the films as a whole.

À nous la liberté (1931)
nominee, Best Art Direction (Lazare Meerson)

A pair of ex-cons meet again on the outside, with one a multi-millionare music magnate, the other lovestruck and looking for work. A quasi-musical-comedy whose farcical tone belies its grim picture of modern life: prison is identical to daily working life, the factory worker is gradually being phased out by new technology, wealth is best accrued dishonestly, money is being groped for impotently in the wind. Some things never change! The first foreign language film to receive an Oscar nomination, it probably should have won: the vastness of these art deco sets is not to believed, and if it seems like the factory floor is just a barely-redressed set... well! Aha!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
winner, Best Actor (Fredric March)
nominee, Best Adaptation (Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein)
nominee, Best Cinematography (Karl Struss)

Classy, thoughtful horror. Dizzying cinematography puts us in the first person for a number of sequences: we are Jekyll watching ourselves transform into the unrecognizably monstrous Hyde. Groundbreaking then, just as startling now, are the transformation sequences: continuous shots, Jekyll staring into the camera, Hyde's features gradually revealing themselves, a breathtaking feat of cinematography, makeup, and performance. Very horny movie, too, thanks mainly to Miriam Hopkins' music hall singer, her swinging thigh like a pendulum hypnotizing Jekyll, her whispered, "Come back," a chant that haunts his memory...and ours - the last time I saw this movie was in fourth grade, and I could still recall that scene vividly, accurately. 

Emma (1932)
nominee, Best Actress (Marie Dressler)

A maid whose raised her young charges since the death of their mother finds herself conflicting with them when their father proposes to her. I don't know that it needs to go the places it goes: I believe the children she's more or less raised would turn on her once she goes from housemaid to stepmother, absolutely, but I don't know that we need to immediately pivot to trying her for the murder of her husband. Then again, reality has thrown bigger curveballs, so who's to say? What it is, first and foremost, is a great showcase for Marie Dressler, whose performance we will discuss further on Thursday. 

The Guardsman (1931)
nominee, Best Actress (Lynne Fontanne)
nominee, Best Actor (Alfred Lunt)

A famous actor fears his famous actress wife is cheating; he disguises himself as another man to seduce and expose her. The funniest movie I saw from this period. Real-life spouses Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne (a pair of famous actors themselves) bring their stage success to the screen; they both work the camera beautifully, especially because they're so theatrical. Everyone's a hoot: Zasu Pitts barely says a word but steals every scene she's in, Roland Young's a camp delight, Herman Bing gets two scenes and the best line in the show, Maude Eburne's devotion to the wife and hatred of the husband is delicious to watch. It's a silly premise, and everyone knows it and plays to it beautifully.

Lady and Gent (1932)
nominee, Best Original Story (Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt)

A boxer and a speakeasy hostess run into some trouble when the boxer's manager is killed; they find out he has a son, and raise the kid as their own. Stars George Bancroft and Wynne Gibson only made one other movie together, 1937's Racketeers in Exile, and that's a shame: they're terrific, hilarious sparring partners sharing the intimacy of longtime lovers. I'll discuss more of the story on Sunday, but suffice it to say, I don't think the movie as a whole is as interesting as these two together, largely because of the ultimately uneven turns the film takes. Young John Wayne as a boxer!

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)
winner, Best Actress (Helen Hayes)

Woman falls in love, gets pregnant, is abandoned, then wrongfully imprisoned, becomes a prostitute so she can afford her son's medical school; he thinks she's dead! Shades of Madame X, of course. Producer Irving Thalberg and star Helen Hayes were both famously dismissive of this melodrama, but gosh, I really liked it! It's a corrupting of innocence: Madelon's closest friends leave her, her lovers leave her, the police punish her for not knowing more than she knows. What else is a gal to do? Hokey framing device, but we can't have everything.
The Star Witness (1931)
nominee, Best Original Story (Lucien Hubbard)

A family is targeted by a gang when they become the only people able and willing to testify against a crime boss. Preachy drama about the crime wave in our cities, and how it's up to us, the common citizen, to help stop it. Noble enough! But then they get into the nitty-gritty of what it means: it's those blasted foreigners and we need to root them out and show them America is for Americans! Charles "Chic" Sale jumpin' Jehoshaphats about as the Civil War veteran grandpappy (the star witness!), tough to take seriously. Walter Huston huffs and puffs. Turgid, reprehensible trash.

Transatlantic (1931)
winner, Best Art Direction (Gordon Wiles)

Difficult to find - I watched a poor-quality stream on some Russian site where all the inserts were in French - and an odd win. Not quite to the scale of competitor À nous la liberté, nor that of Grand Hotel or Shanghai Express. It is strikingly art deco, though. Predating Grand Hotel by a full eight months, it's an ensemble film about the goings-on among passengers on a cruise ship, its central character a gentleman crook, with Jean Hersholt in a supporting role. Not terribly memorable, but enjoyable to watch.

What Price Hollywood? (1932)
nominee, Best Original Story (Adela Rogers St. John and Jane Murfin)

I confess I don't know much about director George Cukor's personal life, but I'd very much like to, if just to ascertain why it is that he captures so truthfully the dark nights of the soul. It's what impressed me with A Double Life; it also impressed me in the climax of this film, which sees Lowell Sherman as an alcoholic producer who launches Brown Derby waitress Constance Bennett to Hollywood stardom. As her star rises, his wanes - sound familiar? Written and directed without condescension towards its subjects or audience, it's a raw, realistic portrayal of the whirlwind of showbiz success, human floundering, and professional stall-outs. 

A day of rest tomorrow, but starting Sunday, it's the 5th Academy Awards! Featuring:

Original Story - Sunday, 10/11
Adaptation - Monday, 10/12
Director - Tuesday, 10/13
Actor - Wednesday, 10/14
Actress - Thursday, 10/15
Picture - Friday, 10/16

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