Arrowsmith (1931)

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Starring: Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, Richard Bennett, Steven Tyler

Director: John Ford

Summary: A crusading doctor fights his way through tragedy to find his true calling

Other nominations: Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography

Positives

-This film is beautifully shot and lit, and the whole production from the set design to the sound does have a lot of polish on it. Clearly superior to most films of its time in that department

-Has a positive, non-demeaning portrayal of an African-American character, as well as a not that offensive view of the people of the (then) West Indies. This was a very positive step for the time.

Negatives

-Probably the dullest and slowest movie I’ve watched so far. The story is pretty much one tragedy after another for the main character with him doing boring things in between. The acting isn’t bad (Hayes probably doing the best), but the characters themselves are cold, distant and not all that interesting (although in the case of Arrowsmith himself, that’s somewhat the point).

Overall

I have less to say about Arrowsmith than probably any of the previous movies, because there’s not much else for me to mention. There’s nothing truly awful about it (unlike Skippy and Trader Horn), but it’s boring and I constantly was looking at how much time was left; so was John Ford, who according to Helen Hayes was discarding whole scenes from the script without notice so he could finish as quickly as possible. This was because the studio told him he couldn’t drink during the shoot or he’d be fired. In inauspicious start for Ford, who would go on to direct 8 more films that were nominated for Best Picture. Avoid.

Rating: D

Bad Girl (1931)

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Starring: Sally Eilers, James Dunn, Minna Gombell

Director: Frank Borzage

 

Summary: A man and a woman, skeptical about romance, nonetheless fall in love and are wed, but their lack of confidence in the opposite sex threaten to ruin their marriage

Other nominations: Director*, Adapted Screenplay*

Positives

-Strong characters (mostly) and themes with decent performances. The film does a nice job of treating both genders and both our leads as equals who both want a happy marriage but often have trust issues due to their preconceptions that they came in with. It has more complexity when talking about marriage than most films of this era-that love that lacks complete trust isn’t enough to sustain a lasting relationship.

-The movie does a good job of making you feel like these are ordinary, real people, who have real-person problems. It can definitely get moody at times

Negatives

-The plot for the 2nd half of the movie is substantially built on the annoying and lazy plot device of “if these two characters just told each other what they were doing/thinking, we wouldn’t have a movie.” It gets real old after a while. That, and the movie is very standard rom-com until they get married.

-Most of the film does a nice job of treating the perspectives of both sexes equally, but by the end one character is being treated really unfairly by the other and it makes that character unlikable.

-Lots of period slang is distracting from the otherwise pretty good dialogue

-There is no reason why this was called Bad Girl other than to bring in moviegoers-the poster is more misleading than the Drive trailer.

Overall

This film was a nice palate cleanser after three god-awful films in a row. Borzage does well with romance and relationships (he also directed and won Best Director for 7th Heaven from the 1st Academy Awards) and this was better than I was expecting. It would have rated higher if the script was a little more creative, or if the actors were a little better.

Rating: C

The Champ (1931)

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Starring: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich, Rosco Ares

Director: King Vidor

Summary: A broken-down prize fighter battles to keep custody of his son

Other nominations: Director, Actor (Beery)*, Story*

Positives

-What performances by Beery and Cooper! Beery can lay on it thick a bit too much sometimes (mainly when he’s playing drunk), but was perfectly cast based on his look and his warm but sad demeanor. Cooper puts forth maybe the best performance for an under 10 year old that I’ve seen and if there had been a Supporting Actor Oscar at the time, he should have won it. What’s interesting is that the two have fantastic chemistry on screen between each other, yet Beery didn’t like Cooper and Cooper thought Beery was a horrible person.

-The four main characters are totally believable and have a tremendous amount of depth to them. While the film is very much set in its time, the characters themselves and the conflicts and issues here are pretty much timeless, causing this movie to have aged extremely well. Beery almost certainly had to be an inspiration to Mickey Rourke for the Wrestler, as the characters have a lot of similarities even if Rourke was probably better at it.

-Even if it was predictable about 10 minutes before it happened, the ending is still extremely emotional and well done.

Negatives

-The boxing footage is often sped-up in a way that looks like it should be in a comedy and doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the movie. Takes you out of the big climax a bit

-It’s very melodramatic and lays the pathos on thick. Although this didn’t bother me a lot, it can go a bit too far in certain places

-3rd stuttering character! Going to have to keep a tally.

Other Stuff

-Beery won Best Actor this year in a “tie” with Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) despite not receiving as many votes; this is because rules at the time said that anytime someone was within three votes of the winner, they were given a tie and the award as well. Here, Beery actually had one fewer vote for Best Actor than March.

Overall

The Champ is the second great film nominated for Best Picture IMO. While its character archetypes have been duplicated since (and was remade in 1979 with Jon Voight, Ricky Schroder and Faye Dunaway), they have rarely been acted or written as well as they are here. Highest recommendation for those looking for an emotional drama.

Rating: A-

Five Star Final (1931)

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Starring: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnD_51Vvi1I, Frances Starr, Ona Munson

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Summary: The city editor of a sleazy tabloid goes against his own journalistic ethics to resurrect a twenty year old murder case

Other nominations: None

Positives

-Edward G. Robinson is always good, although he is somewhat miscast here as an editor battling with his own conscience. If he had went further and chewed more scenery, I probably would have liked it more, but as is he’s still the best thing in this movie

-Boris Karloff plays a supporting role as an unscrupulous (and just slightly off) reporter, 2 months before Frankenstein came out. I thought he was just okay, but it’s always interesting to see the one of the few speaking parts he had before Frankenstein defined his career.

-There’s an (accused) killer mother named Voorhees, which I laughed at.

Negatives

-While there’s not much that’s outright bad (although there’s an extended phone-tag sequence with the characters that is really badly executed), there’s also nothing exceptional whatsoever about it.

-Uses the most hilariously obvious metaphor ever, when Robinson literally washes his hands when he’s on the straight and narrow as an editor, doesn’t wash them for most of the movie, and then washes them again (all in closeup) once he’s made the decision to get back on the honest path.

Overall

Solid but unexceptional movie with a couple of good or interesting performances in it. Director Mervyn LeRoy would go on to direct better movies, with 7 others being nominated for best picture, although none of them won.

Rating: C

*Grand Hotel (1932)*

grandhotel

Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore

Director: Edmund Goulding

Summary: Guests at a posh Berlin hotel struggle through scandal and heartache

Other nominations: None

Positives

-This was the first all-star cast film, and pretty much everybody’s great in it. Crawford was the up-and-comer and ends up stealing the show, John Barrymore is as charming and likable as his character is supposed (…) to be, Beery and Lionel Barrymore are solid with some great scenes and Garbo, while my least favorite of the five main actors actually, has her exotic charm going for her.

-There’s a constant energy throughout the movie which nicely fits thematically with the hotel itself which you associate with hustle and bustle

-I certainly did not expect in this kind of movie for *spoilers* one of the main characters (Beery) to murder another character (John Barrymore) *spoilers*, but it gave some real punch to the finale and made the whole end work with where the other characters end up at the end as of result of it.

Negatives

-I don’t think John Barrymore’s character was intended to be seen as creepy, but I’m not sure how you can get past this exchange from the first time he meets Garbo’s character:

“Don’t be alarmed madam”

“Who are you?”

“Someone who happened to be waiting in your room”

“Why?”

“I often come here when you’re at the theater”

“Why?!”

“Just to be alone in your room, to breathe the air you breathe!”

THIS IS NOT CHARMING. Yet of course, they instantly fall in love.

-It is entertaining enough to be a really solid movie, but to be exceptional, it either needed to have more of an emotional core to it, or just be full-on pure fun. I think the romance plot in it was meant to be that core, but it was the weakest aspect of the film to me.

Overall

Grand Hotel was a box-office smash and it’s obvious to see why, as no real film before had so many big names in it (no, Hollywood Revue of 1929 doesn’t count). Beyond the star power though, there’s a very enjoyable movie with interesting characters and great performances, even if it feels like it’s lacking real weight for most of it.

Rating: B

One Hour With You (1932)

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Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Genevieve Tobin

Director: Ernst Lubitsch & George Cukor

Summary: Both members of a married couple fight the temptation to stray

Other nominations: None

Positives

-Maurice Chevalier is still super-charming here and again is easily the best part of the movie; I will say that I liked MacDonald better here than in The Love Parade though.

-The movie does bring something different than most of these types of plots, with kind of a comedic double layering of actual and imagined infidelity with different characters that’s creative.

-An easy watch, coming it at about an hour and 15 minutes, which is good for lighter fare like this.

Negatives

-Except for a few good laughs near the beginning, this movie isn’t all that funny. The movie trades having fewer jokes for a more involved story, but the plot really isn’t what people are coming to see a light romantic musical comedy for anyway.

-Most of the songs range from bad to mediocre (although the title song is alright). I’m not much of a musical fan, especially early musicals like this where there’s not much in the way of things to look at like scenery or dancing to go along with the songs.

-Again, like in The Love Parade, this movie has an ending that feels off, although in a completely different way.

Overall

It’s hard not to compare this film to Chevalier, MacDonald & Lubitsch’s previous collaboration The Love Parade, which had more humor and better song numbers than this does. I really like Chevalier, but he’s pretty much exactly the same here as he was in his last movie, which for me means diminishing returns since I saw this movie second. It’s okay, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.

Rating: C-

Shanghai Express (1932)

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Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Warner Oland (aka Charlie Chan), Anna May Wong

Director: Josef Von Sternberg

 

Summary: A beautiful temptress rekindles an old romance while trying to escape her past during an eventful train journey in the midst of the Chinese Civil War

Other nominations: Director, Cinematography*

Positives

-Really strong female characters in this movie. Dietrich is wonderful and so is her character-she’s strong, sexy, mysterious, and totally independent in that she makes all her decisions based off what she wants to do vs. what other people or society at large tell her to be. Wong isn’t anything special, but her character is dignified and also very independent. It’s rare for any Hollywood film, much less one from 1932, to have its two most dynamic characters (i.e. the ones who move the movie along and actually get the stuff done that needs to get done) be women.

-Really nice cinematography, especially the lighting. This is a film well-served by being in black and white, as you couldn’t have lit Dietrich’s face as effectively in color

-While the film has a couple of racist characters, there’s amazingly enough no bothersome racism from the film itself that would take you out of it despite its period and setting.

Negatives

-The dialogue is a weak point here, as line delivery can be stilted and isn’t all that well-written in general

-While it isn’t a major detriment overall as it can help build the atmosphere of the movie, it’s definitely languidly paced and as a result it felt slow at times, especially at the beginning

Overall

Even if Shanghai Express may not be for everyone due to its pacing and dialogue, in my opinion it’s a pretty great movie with a magnetic performance by Marlene Dietrich that carries the day.
Rating: B+