When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1932, it gave its Best Picture award to Grand Hotel, a flick that's a mixed bag. These are all better:
Directed by Carl Dreyer
Written by Dreyer and Christen Jul, from stories by Sheridan Le Fanu
Forget Dracula: This is the best vampire picture I've ever seen.
2. Island of Lost Souls
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Written by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young, from a novel by H.G. Wells
With the possible exception of The Bride of Frankenstein, this is my favorite American horror flick of the '30s: a mad pre-Code picture based on H.G. Wells' best book, starring Bela Lugosi and the great Charles Laughton. It also inspired an Oingo Boingo song.
Written and directed by Alexander Dovzhenko
Suppose you're a brilliant Ukrainian director working in Stalin's Soviet Union. Your last film upset the art commissars, and you've been assigned to put together a propaganda picture about the building of the Dneiper Dam. And then you turn in this crazy masterpiece. You, sir, have brass balls.
Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Al Boasberg, Charles MacArthur, and Edgar Allan Woolf, from a story by Tod Robbins
Keep forgetting Dracula: This is Browning's greatest film. Even its flaws work in its favor: Stiff acting usually drives me crazy, but here it actually adds to the movie's mysterious flavor—perhaps because it reminds us that these folks aren't actors in weird get-ups, but honest-to-god circus freaks.
5. Love Me Tonight
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, George Marion Jr., and Waldemar Young
This is as good as a Maurice Chevalier movie gets.
6. Horse Feathers
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Written by S.J. Perelman, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Will B. Johnstone
"You've got the brain of a four-year old child, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it."
7. Boudu Saved from Drowning
Directed by Jean Renoir
Written by Renoir and Albert Valentin, from a play by René Fauchois
The anti-My Man Godfrey.
8. Land Without Bread
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Buñuel, Rafael Sánchez Ventura, and Pierre Unik
The first great mockumentary.
9. Trouble in Paradise
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones
To see the range of what filmmakers could get away with in the pre-Code era, watch this cheerfully amoral romantic comedy back to back with Freaks.
10. Million Dollar Legs
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Henry Myers, Nicholas T. Barrows, and Ben Hecht
"What a marvelous country. Say, I'll bet you if they laid all the athletes end to end here, why they'd reach—" "484 miles." "How do you know?" "We did it once."
11. Betty Boop, M.D. (Dave Fleischer)
12. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
13. American Madness (Frank Capra)
14. Betty Boop for President (Dave Fleischer)
15. One Hour with You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor)
16. Minnie the Moocher (Dave Fleischer)
17. Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway)
18. Murders in the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey)
19. The Idea (Berthold Bartosch)
20. Kongo (William J. Cowen)
WHAT'S THAT, WALKER? you ask. YOU HAVE ROOM FOR THREE GODDAMN BETTY BOOP CARTOONS BUT YOU DON'T MENTION SCARFACE, THE SHAME OF A NATION? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?
Look, I like Scarface, but it's an uneven movie. Now obviously I can forgive a certain unevenness if the high points are high enough: I listed Murders in the Rue Morgue, after all, and in the case of Freaks I pretty much counted the film's flaws as virtues. You could make the case that Kongo is nothing but flaws, crammed together into some sort of crazy pre-Code fever dream. But with Scarface, I can't get past that awful crime-doesn't-pay lecture that the studio insisted on inserting into the movie.
Yes, I let in Ivan, and it's full of propaganda for a totalitarian regime—quite a bit worse, morally speaking, than telling viewers not to be gangsters. But Dovzhenko played off the material that he was forced to include, made it part of its art, and subverted it. Howard Hawks just walked off the set for a while, let another director shoot the scene, and shoved the ungainly thing in. So the film falls off the list. If you want to imagine that it's at #21, I can live with that.
Of the films of 1932 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Night at the Crossroads.