The 5th Academy Awards Assessed (1932)

Lionel Barrymore, host Conrad Nagel, and Wallace Beery

Slowly but surely, the Academy Awards were addressing more aspects of the film industry in the flourishing sound paradigm, in spite of the pressure the Great Depression was bringing to bear on the country. The 5th Academy Awards — held on November 18, 1932 and honoring the films released between August 1, 1931 and July 31, 1932 — expanded the number of categories from nine to 12. The three new criteria honored the short film format, from cartoons to live action productions of comedy and “novelty.”

Besides these central changes, a number of milestones of the 5th ceremony, hosted by actor Conrad Nagel at the Ambassador Hotel (of which there is apparently no existing cinematic evidence), denotes the ever-changing nature of the awards that were yet to be known as the Oscars.

Walt Disney and his honorary award for the creation of Mickey Mouse

The industry’s acknowledgement of Walt Disney and his studio’s increasingly impressive wizardry took a couple of forms, besides the winning of a competitive award I’ll get to shortly. First, Walt himself was given an honorary award for the creation of Mickey Mouse (forget that Ub Iwerks essentially co-created the already famous character). The studio also produced a Mickey cartoon especially for the ceremony, PARADE OF THE AWARD NOMINEES (1932), the first color short in the series and a fun little bit of caricature work and background illustration.

As some spoilers for some information to come: GRAND HOTEL became the only Best Picture winner to date to not be nominated for any other category and the first of five to win it without a Best Director nomination. A unique situation of a tie for Best Actor from this year has yet to be replicated, and the 5th Academy Awards were also the last in which no movie won more than two awards. The two movies that did win two and therefore became the “winningest” of the 1932 show, however, were BAD GIRL and THE CHAMP. The latter and ARROWSMITH, ahead of the ceremony, were the most nominated with four.

FREAKS (1932)

These milestones and recognitions of course belie many of the great achievements from the eligibility period. Some of those snubs include William A. Wellman’s subversive and daring Pre-Code drama SAFE IN HELL (1931) and Tod Browning’s incredibly humane FREAKS (1932). Of course, even more foreign films stood above much of the Hollywood output of the time, and usually I can’t really concede to that in consideration of the Academy’s American exclusivity at this time.

But the appearance of À NOUS LA LIBERTÈ in the Best Art Direction category opens up consideration of films like LA CHIENNE (1931), MARIUS (1931), and VAMPYR (1932). Of course, the Academy of 90 years ago would never have been so daring so as to recognize these kinds of movies even with nominations, a charge that has been leveled at the institution since its first iteration. But appreciate this list of other things to check out from this time!

But for now, I’ll rank the films in each category from top to bottom, bolding my “what should have won” choice and marking the actual winner with a * and lost films/films that are not easy to track down with a ~, removing the latter from consideration.

  • GRAND HOTEL (1932)*
  • SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)
  • THE CHAMP (1931)
  • FIVE STAR FINAL (1931)
  • ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932)
  • BAD GIRL (1931)
  • ARROWSMITH (1931)
  • THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931)

There were some tough choices to make within the eight nominees for Outstanding Production, AKA Best Picture. And although it was not nominated in any other categories, I have to agree with the Academy and name GRAND HOTEL the best film listed here. The ensemble drama truly felt like a fresh approach to a new mode of cinematic storytelling, full of complex and compelling characters brought to life by some of the best actors of their day. In spite of his personal troubles and alcoholism, John Barrymore was in the greatest part of his career in the early 1930s, and his noble thief role here is proof of that. Joined by brother Lionel in a similarly powerful performance, Barrymore anchors a few threads that are ultimately woven together in an emotional fashion at a brilliant art-deco hotel. GRAND HOTEL plays out like, well, a stage play, which makes since its source material is such. Its performances are the central draw, but it’s also rendered with great cinematic flourishes. GRAND HOTEL is indeed nearly matched, however, by Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Later von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich collaborations could not match the heights of THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) and MOROCCO (1930). Still, there’s no doubt that SHANGHAI EXPRESS is a beautiful and lyrical cinematic poem, a step ahead of the more grounded yet no less emotional THE CHAMP. Director King Vidor draws out a tender father-son relationship between Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper, all the more impressive considering Beery was supposedly a salty son of a bitch. Mervyn LeRoy’s cynical newspaper drama FIVE STAR FINAL, on the other hand, feels like a more fatalistic depiction of Depression-era concerns. It’s less consistent throughout and ultimately less satisfying, but that’s also somewhat the point. From this point on, the list isn’t quite next-level good. ONE HOUR WITH YOU is a perfectly enjoyable Ernst Lubitsch-esque musical comedy. It’s so Lubitsch-esque that it was indeed developed and partially directed by the legendary director with the light touch. George Cukor came in to take over and just who exactly should get “most” of the credit has been debated ever since. I’m just not a huge Maurice Chevalier guy, and not for lack of trying, so the main character of ONE HOUR WITH YOU rankles at times. Another unexpected disappointment was BAD GIRL, a film from one of my favorite directors, Frank Borzage. It carries some of the Romanticism and Expressionist look of his best movies, but the chemistry between the leads never gelled for me. ARROWSMITH is a minor work from John Ford, in spite of a decent Ronald Colman performance, but much of its pace is out of wack and its look doesn’t always guide the eye the way Ford’s compositions usually do. Finally, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT ends in last place as a Chevalier starrer with even less appeal than ONE HOUR WITH YOU, which by comparison is a comic masterpiece. People like these two movies much more than me, but THE SMILING LIEUTENANT is essentially the only thumbs down for me here. Ultimately, GRAND HOTEL tops the list with decent competition from SHANGHAI EXPRESS and THE CHAMP.

  • Josef von Sternberg — SHANGHAI EXPRESS
  • King Vidor — THE CHAMP
  • Frank Borzage — BAD GIRL*

The Academy, in opposition to my own statements in the introduction, also slimmed down a comprehensive approach to awarding the industry by only nominating three people for Best Director (and Actor and Actress and more as you will see). All three of the men represented here, and the movies they directed, also showed up in Best Picture. But as has been noted, GRAND HOTEL wasn’t nominated for anything else, including its director Edmund Goulding. So what we’re working with here is the same order of operations for how I ranked Best Picture. Von Sternberg’s eye is the most clear and beautiful of those here, as represented by SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Vidor’s is a little more plain in THE CHAMP, not underwhelming but more conducive to the intimate familial drama. As mentioned, he does extract a couple incredible performances from the lead actors, an obviously key aspect of direction. But how much can be attributed to Vidor himself, who knows, but if we’re blending the look and performances approach to direction, reality’s winner Borzage, for BAD GIRL, unfortunately takes the bottom spot in my book. He imbues a luminous beauty to a rough-and-tumble urban setting, but some aspects of James Dunn’s character and performance especially rankle me. If I wasn’t clear about this before, I do think BAD GIRL is a good movie, albeit one I wished was better. It’s clear SHANGHAI EXPRESS has the most concerted and meticulous direction behind the camera.

  • Fredric March — DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932)*
  • Wallace Beery — THE CHAMP*
  • Alfred Lunt — THE GUARDSMAN (1931)

As I intimated, there were two winners for Best Actor at the 5th Academy Awards. Beery’s part in THE CHAMP, as a washed up boxer taking care of his son in a less than traditional manner, has been referenced and praised already. But as good as it is, the lunacy and desperation that Fredric March takes his titular character(s) to in Rouben Mamoulian’s phenomenal DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE are palpable. It’s undeniable that the innovative camera tricks and make up that transform March into the monster lend themselves to that palpability, but the fraught tone and menace is all him. THE GUARDSMAN stars contemporary stage icons Alfred Lunt and (as you’ll see) his wife Lynn Fontanne in their only film roles together, based on a play they also popularized. Lunt may have been great on the stage, but he and the movie in which he plays “The Actor” are stodgy and lacking energy. March is the clear MVP here.

  • Marie Dressler — EMMA (1932)
  • Helen Hayes — THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET (1931)*
  • Lynn Fontanne — THE GUARDSMAN

Now, distinguishing between the top two choices here was a tough one, not because they were similar at all, but they were both good and weakened for similar reasons. Both EMMA and THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET are not, as a whole, as good as their stars’ central performances, if that makes sense. Let’s take the Marie Dressler example to start, since I do think she ekes out (my version of) the win over Helen Hayes. Dressler was a great comedic actress who could turn on the heartfelt emotion when she wanted to, and she does relatively well in EMMA. But the movie itself is paced somewhat strangely and doesn’t ever really wow visually. THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET is a conventional fallen woman movie that redeems itself, to the greatest extent it can, by Hayes’ portrayal of an old mother in the finale. She is indeed the best part of the movie. Dressler is more consistent than Hayes and is given more chances to shine, but in any event, both are leagues ahead in the watchability department than Fontanne in THE GUARDSMAN, which I’ve already described in reference to her husband Lunt’s role.

  • WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932) — Adela Rogers St. Johns
  • THE CHAMP — Frances Marion*
  • THE STAR WITNESS (1931) — Lucien Hubbard
  • LADY AND GENT (1932) — Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt~

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? is shockingly modern and vibrant, a crucial example, I think, of the bonds of stagebound creakiness being loosened from early talkies. It was George Cukor’s first great film, developing the earliest examples of Hollywood mythmaking about itself that appeared in the early 1920s and presaging the Star is Born legend. Cukor would of course return to that theme himself with Judy Garland’s 1954 version. But this rendition of Adela Rogers St. Johns’ story is great, which I think clearly has a female viewpoint at a time when that was more common than you might think, but still certainly not ubiquitous. THE CHAMP, penned by not only a reigning female screenwriter of the time, but a top talent in the industry period, is a moving example of Frances Marion’s powers. But it’s not quite as tragic or mythic as WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?, not impressing me at the same level exactly. William A. Wellman is one of my favorite directors and his THE STAR WITNESS is indicative of his gritty style, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s fascistic in the vein of DIRTY HARRY (1971) as it follows Walter Huston’s crusading district attorney. So that of course comes from the story written by Lucien Hubbard, the most frustrating part of the movie. Finally, I wasn’t able to track down nominee LADY AND GENT, so I can’t evaluate that among this batch. But even still, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? would likely still reign supreme as a brilliantly paced story with a strong commentary tied to likable characters.

  • DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE — Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein
  • BAD GIRL — Edwin J. Burke*
  • ARROWSMITH — Sidney Howard

The challenge with evaluating the Best Adaptation category is answering this question: should it be the movie with the best story, period, or the one that is the “best adaptation” in how faithful it is to the work? I often have to answer the former as I am often not versed with every piece of source material. In the case of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, however, I know how evocative and strong Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous story is. And Mamoulian, while playing with just how that tone is evoked and adding new subtexts, hits many of the same highs the written word on which his movie is based was able to achieve. Now, in the case of BAD GIRL and ARROWSMITH, I can’t take into account their origins. But at the level of compelling dramatic situations, BAD GIRL is able to make its characters interesting while ARROWSMITH is a bit too righteous, not as nuanced. Regardless of faithfulness or the process of adaptation for the screen, however, the psychological investigations Mamoulian makes with DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE makes it the clear winner here.

  • À NOUS LA LIBERTÈ (1931) — Lazare Meerson
  • ARROWSMITH — Richard Day
  • TRANSATLANTIC (1931) — Gordon Wiles*

À NOUS LA LIBERTÈ has the distinction of being the first foreign film nominated at the Academy Awards, as far as I can tell. René Clair’s wonderful French film indeed had beautiful art direction, a style influenced by Expressionism, Romanticism, and Impressionism that ends in industrial destruction and bucolic rumination. ARROWSMITH, for all my criticism of it so far, does indeed have a good look informed by Ford’s “Murnau period” where he was aping some of the set design and aesthetics of the great German director when he wasn’t literally using the same backlots as Murnau at Fox. And TRANSATLANTIC is a sleeper good movie, one I had not heard of until I watched it for this piece. It’s more compelling as an overall story than it is as an example of set design, but there’s no denying that its passenger ship is rendered with depth and shadow. À NOUS LA LIBERTÈ is one of those movies that you feel that you are wallowing in, though, an easy winner here.

  • SHANGHAI EXPRESS — Lee Garmes*
  • DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE — Karl Struss
  • ARROWSMITH — Ray June

This is one of the hardest categories to rule, and the decision comes down to two singular shots from the “top two.” Yes, that just excludes ARROWSMITH, which in conjunction with its Murnau-esque set evocation is a capable rendering of depth from Ray June. But in SHANGHAI EXPRESS and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, Lee Garmes and Karl Struss, respectively, achieve some bone-chilling shots, in very different ways. Much of March’s first transformation from Jekyll to Hyde was, as I understand it, accomplished in-camera and with lighting alone, before cutting to him in his full make up. And that’s incredible, because it doesn’t seem possible that March’s face can be contorted and strained and darkened in such a practical way. And if there was someone who could do it, it would be Struss. But over on SHANGHAI EXPRESS, Garmes was able to achieve something not terrifying, but no less thrilling: Dietrich, wreathed in darkness, aching with emotion and smoking a cigarette. It’s an iconic image, one that acts as a thesis for the entire movie. And so does the shot of March’s transformation for DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. But in the end, the poetic angst of Garmes’ cinematography in SHANGHAI EXPRESS appeals to my tastes more than the horrific image of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, a brilliant and intense horror, it is true.

  • Walt Disney Productions
  • Paramount Publix Studio Sound Department*
  • MGM Studio Sound Department
  • Warner Bros. First National Studio Sound Department
  • RKO Radio Studio Sound Department

This is another difficult category. I may be writing that too much. But in this case, it’s more technical: how do I evaluate the entire body of work from a studio’s sound department over an entire year? No individual titles are specified for Best Sound Recording, so it’s up to me to interpret what applies. Mostly working within what was nominated at the 5th Academy Awards, and supported somewhat by the studios’ other releases besides, I had to come to the conclusion that the brain-scratching, otherworldly delight of the sounds and music to be found in Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse cartoons looms large. Paramount, however, “reality’s” winner, does come close in its production of a number of musicals, like ONE HOUR WITH YOU and THE SMILING LIEUTENANT. MGM’s standout work in sound includes THE CHAMP, Warner Bros.’ is THE STAR WITNESS, and RKO’s WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? This is the vaguest of categories at the 5th Academy Awards, but one that holds the future of non-diegetic soundtracks and stronger vocal performances.

  • FLOWERS AND TREES (1932)*
  • MICKEY’S ORPHANS (1931)
  • IT’S GOT ME AGAIN! (1932)

Two of the three cartoons nominated for the first iteration of this category were Disney’s. The third and “worst,” IT’S GOT ME AGAIN!, was from Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes sister series Merrie Melodies. At this time, they were mostly one-shot exhibitions of hit tunes, interpreted in animated form, against the Looney Tunes’ lead Bosko, a problematic and ultimately boring character. So it’s better in that context, but IT’S GOT ME AGAIN! cannot reach the fluidity of MICKEY’S ORPHANS, one of the best animated and funniest shorts with Disney’s star rodent yet made. FLOWERS AND TREES, however, is an otherworldly delight, deploying three-strip Technicolor for the first time to incredible effect. It’s a transformative work, and while it may seem simple by today’s animated storytelling standards, FLOWERS AND TREES’ simplicity is exactly what makes it timeless and resonant.

  • THE MUSIC BOX (1932)*
  • THE LOUD MOUTH (1932)~
  • SCRATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN (1932)~

Laurel and Hardy’s THE MUSIC BOX is the only comedy short nominated for the 1932 awards ceremony that is really accessible, but I can’t imagine a later Mack Sennett production or RKO program support could match what is considered one of the iconic duo’s best films. While my infatuation with THE MUSIC BOX is definitely at a lower level than the critical consensus, it’s clear that it is a work of comedic forces at the top of their game.

  • SWING HIGH (1932)
  • WRESTLING SWORDFISH (1931)*~
  • SCREEN SOUVENIRS (1932)~

The “novelty” live action short subject essentially includes little documentary promotions. The one accessible nominee from this category, SWING HIGH, is a look at the trapeze artist family The Flying Codonas. The exhibition of their skills and athleticism is relatively impressive, but it’s also given the cheesiest, time-reflective narration. Missing are THE WRESTLING SWORDFISH, an “adventure” short, and SCREEN SOUVENIRS, of which just a small clip of its depiction of a few California events exists. But sure, check out SWING HIGH, the default winner that is a look into the supporting programming for the more famous feature films and short cartoons you may associate with this period.

Ultimately, I aligned with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences five of 12 times. Even within their own nomination framework, the Academy overlooked some truly great work. Like the 90-year-old iteration of the organization, my top winners were also tied for two awards; in my case, however, they were SHANGHAI EXPRESS and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, great movies outside of the context of the 5th Academy Awards!

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