Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1931/32

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

Evidently, the field of films for Best Picture was so overwhelming that limiting the field to five films was deemed to be just too sparse. Or, more likely, they agreed to expand the field after the prior ceremony; either way, we ended up with a total of eight films nominated for the big one in the 5th ceremony. Do all of them deserve the honor? Probably not; I feel I could trim this field down to five nominees fairly easily, but these are the cards we’re dealt. Regardless, Grand Hotel ended up winning, becoming the only film in the history of the Academy Awards to win Best Picture without being nominated for any other categories. Walt Disney would also get an honorary award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, and fittingly this would also be the first year that short films, both live-action and animated, would be awarded Oscars as well.

-Ranking the Nominees-


Arrowsmith is the latest film I’ve seen of these eight, and the one I’d really rather forget the earliest. There was nothing to this film, so much so that I really don’t even want to try and write a whole lot about it, mostly because I already did try in my review. Cut this one out, and I don’t think anybody would miss it that much, if at all.

The Smiling Lieutenant

-I’ve generally had good experiences with Ernst Lubitsch, so to watch The Smiling Lieutenant and end up disliking it the way I did was a little disheartening. Not to say that this is bad, but I just didn’t care for it, and what’s more, I still am unable to figure out exactly why or nail it down concretely in my head. This one ends up second-last pretty much solely from personal preference, so if there’s any placement that comes with a smidgen of salt attached, it’d be this one.

Five Star Final

-I liked Five Star Final, but there wasn’t much to it. Basically, it was an excuse to get Edward G. Robinson up-front and potentially net him an Oscar nom, which ended up failing anyways, but he’s really the only reason to watch this. I find it a little humorous that this was nominated a couple years after The Front Page, since it’s basically the twin film to that one in several ways, but I didn’t feel this had really done enough to warrant the nomination, so it ends up just under the line for me.

One Hour with You

-Mirroring what I said before about Lubitsch and his productions, I’m still unable to discern why I didn’t like his previous one and instead ended up enjoying One Hour with You, but I did, so that’s enough to put it here for me. Repeat what I said about Lieutenant here, but flavor it with positive thoughts instead of negative ones, and you have another mini-review all set to go.

Bad Girl

-Frank Borzage won Best Director for Bad Girl, but aside from that, this seemed a very incongruous nomination. The film was very well done, and really didn’t make any mistakes… but this was just so not-normal a film to be nominated for Best Picture that it bears the question of how it did get nominated. That and that weirdness with how it was titled and marketed, but if you ignore that and watch the film on its own merits, there’s a lot to be gleaned from this, so by sheer virtue of its merits, it ends up in the black.

The Champ

-Now we’re getting to films that I can at least see a fighting chance for to win the big one. The Champ is kinda like a couple of the other nominees, in that it’s mostly a vehicle for Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper to do their thing, but it works, and it works damn well, so I’ll definitely give it some extra brownie points. Is this the Best Picture of the year, though? Not really; there are two other films that are better suited for the title, but it’s still a good picture.

Grand Hotel

-I said in my review of Grand Hotel that it just felt like a Best Picture winner, and that this more than anything is why I had said that it ended up winning it. I stand by that statement, and what’s more, I might’ve totally agreed with the Academy here; Grand Hotel is really quite good, and it works on most of the levels that it aspires to work on. In another year, this would be a winner through and through and a rightly-deserving one… It just so happens there’s one other film among the nominees that takes it to a whole nother level.

Shanghai Express

-I had been prepared to potentially have this be the first year where my ranking of the nominees didn’t end up adhering to the number rankings of the films in question… Then I rewatched Shanghai Express, and knew that wasn’t going to be the case; not yet at least. Shanghai Express is getting the nod over Grand Hotel for a few reasons, but the main one is this: it does what Grand Hotel does, but more and better. This is a film that has been described as ‘Grand Hotel on wheels’, and that’s an apt description – while it doesn’t have the breadth of characters that Grand Hotel does, it makes up for it with the addition of political plot devices, as well as the sheer production value on display; the cinematographer ended up winning for this film, and Josef von Sternberg was nominated for Best Director as well. If Grand Hotel was the Best Picture winner that ought to be, just by feeling it, then by virtue of doing it better, Shanghai Express is the winner that should’ve been.

-What Should Have Won/What I Would’ve Picked-

There’s not a whole lot that I can see in the qualifying period that didn’t get nominated for Best Picture, especially with the modest expansion of the category. The one big omission I can definitely raise an eyebrow or two over is the original Scarface with Paul Muni, which went pretty much completely ignored at the Oscars. Other than that, everything else ended up falling into the second half of the year, which made it eligible for next year’s ceremony instead. That said, if I’d had a vote in 1932 during this ceremony, it probably would’ve went to Shanghai Express; even rewatching it for this segment, I still loved it more than any of the nominees, including Grand Hotel, so for me, that’s the best picture of the year.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Like I said before, if the category hadn’t expanded and instead been kept to five nominees, I don’t think I would’ve missed out on much if my bottom three had thus been scrubbed off the ballot. Of the other five, I enjoyed each for their own reasons, so; not bad, Academy. Now, next year, let’s see if things aren’t even more extraneous with an even larger field to work with.


4 thoughts on “Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1931/32

  1. I’m happy to see Grand Hotel land as highly as it did. I think it’s an undervalued movie in general that for some reason has gotten a lot of bad press and stink-eye from people. I’ve seen it on more than one “Oscar’s biggest mistakes” lists, and I don’t understand that opinion at all. Place it a year earlier and it’s a clear winner with no second thoughts.

    • If I were to wager a guess, I’d say that people see the film as ‘that film that won Best Picture with no other nominations’ and derive an opinion based on that alone, that it wasn’t a good enough film to warrant any other nominations, so it must not have been a deserving winner. I mentioned in my review of it that I was surprised that it didn’t get any other nominations, because it was that good, and I think that’s the crux of why it’s so undervalued.

  2. I haven’t seen Five Star Final, don’t like Grand Hotel much for some reason, and would move the Lubitsch films higher. Can’t argue with you on Shanghai Express though!

    1932 has some fantastic movies in it. I just don’t know on which side they would fall on the Academy’s divide.

    • According to Wikipedia’s articles on the ceremonies, the divide in the early years is slightly more than halfway through the calendar year; so the qualifying period for this ceremony was August of 1931 through the end of July 1932. August 1932 and on is the next ceremony, which in this case, is the one they decided to switch to calendar years, and thus the qualifying period was extended through the end of 1933, so next ceremony will have 18 months of films to choose from.

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