We celebrate the cinema of yesteryear, by enjoying the line-up that 1932 had to offer: and, yep, there’s something for everyone here.

Happy New Year, and a very warm welcome back our old movies column.

As we roar into the 2022 – or tread carefully as to not break anything – we look forward to a future of films. From big blockbusters to auteur cinema, there is a whole abundance of films to fan, fawn, and get enthused about.

Well, forget all about that. Yes, it’s true that the new batch of movies that 2022 has hold a lot of promise. But why for the minute indulge in the new when we can have fun in the past?

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So, let’s take it back to 1932, exactly 90 years ago, when the Hays Code was just two years from being strictly enforced. The true golden age of cinema was in true force and big stars were producing terrific hits. Okay, that’s an overly glitzy side of it but the pre-code era was a massive riot of emotional movies, gut-busting comedies, and spine-chilling thrillers.

If you want to start your journey into pre-code, or continue by stepping into 1932 cinema, then here’s a small guide into the year.

I’m going to be bold and say that the best film of 1932 is undoubtedly Shanghai Express. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich come together for a fourth time here (of seven films they made together overall) in this astonishing ride. Revolving on a train, the film captures a thrilling tale of mystery and murder. Dietrich is captivating as the mysterious Lily whilst Anna May Wong is terrific in support.

Now let’s dive into genres, starting with the dark heart of cinema. There are only a handful of horrors in the pre-code era and 1932 has a whole bunch. Tentatively, I’m going to mention one of my favourite films of all time Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. It was released on 31st December in 1931 so some count it as a 1932 release. I have described many times over so I will not dwell too much on the incredible Rouben Mamoulian direction, inventive and emotive story, and a positively impeccable performance by Fredric March.

Still, if you weren’t to collate Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde as a 1932 release, there are some tremendous horror films for fiendish minds. The most famous is Tod Browning’s Freaks (pictured below). The story of a trapeze artist who attempts to swindle the kind-hearted Hans, a little person, out of his fortune is well-known. Not only is it a haunting tale of mistrust and prejudice, but Browning’s sympathetic movie, in which he casts people with disabilities to play rounded roles, is a brilliant picture.

Freaks

The other horrors really don’t hold a candle to Browning’s work, but they’re still entertaining nonetheless. Boris Karloff collects another Universal Monster card with his shuffling spectre Imhotep in The Mummy. Other horror icon Bela Lugosi sets a wild ape lose on the streets of Paris in Murders in the Rue Morgue. It may be uneven but the film, based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, boasts an incredible swing shot that has to be scene. Other highlights include islands and mad scientists as a mischievous Charles Loughton blends people and animals in The Island of Lost Souls, whilst Leslie Banks hunts down Fay Wray and Joel McCrea in The Most Dangerous Game.

If you are more into big action or crime movies, then there are a few movies that will tickle your fancy. Swing into adventure with Tarzan the Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller as the titular character. It’s the first film which brought to life Tarzan’s infamous yell. There’s no Al Pacino or huge pile of cocaine in the original Scarface. However, Howard Hawks’ gangster film, and noir precursor, is a brooding and gripping film about a trepid life of crime and boasts an amazing lead performance by Paul Muni. Violence and crime are also vilified in great fashion in The Beast of the City.

Also, if you have a spare 231 minutes, then The Last Of The Mohicans serial is worth investing in.

If you like crime, adventure, and romance, then Jack Conway’s enjoyable Arsene Lupin (with the immutable John Barrymore,) is definitely worth a watch. It has everything – including Lionel Barrymore!

Speaking of the Barrymore Brothers, the pair are on top form in drama Grand Hotel. With supporting roles from Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, it tells of the life and struggles of residents of the titular venue.

Call Her Savage

1932 boasted terrific drama films. Silent film star turned pre-code darling Clara Boy is fantastic in Call Her Savage, as a woman who struggles with her station and circumstance. The film boasts one of the first portrayal of homosexuality on the big screen – in a gay bar no less. Three On A Match sees Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis fall prey to superstition, poverty, marriage, and gangsters in this heart-wrenching film by Mervyn LeRoy.

Three On A Match stars The King of Pre-Code himself Warren William, but his performance in Employee’s Entrance is magnificent. Roy Del Ruth’s drama about a devious department store manager preying on his employee Madeleine with dire and damning consequence is a powerful one. Covering topics such as sexual assault, harassment, and more, this serious drama has an all too familiar, if albeit saddening, finale.

Moving onto history, and big historic dramas don’t come better than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross. Again, I have spoken in great length about this film – which is ironic because there’s no great length in the costume design. The film about the dangers of the saucy Romans is a triumph of biblical proportions. Ass milk, anyone?

Canoodle with a loved one by watching one of the many romance films of the year. There’s quite a few to pick from but a particular highlight is Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go To Hell which pits spouse against spouse in a cutting and satirical way. Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Cary Grant are caught in a triangle in Josef von Sternberg’s incredible Blonde Venus. Grant also gets Nancy Carroll into trouble in romantic drama Hot Saturday. Travel through history with Fredric March, Leslie Howard, and Norma Shearer as star-crossed lovers reunite over time in Smilin’ Through.

Laughter is the best medicine, and these comedies are definitely going to make you laugh. Master of the genre Ernst Lubitsch’s showcased Trouble In Paradise in 1932 and many team it one of the most perfect films to every exist. Starring Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and Herbert Marshall, the film revolves around the perfect thieves and how romance can get into the way. Other comedic highlights included the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers and Laurel & Hardy’s Pack Up Your Troubles.

Red-Headed Woman

Jean Harlow’s racy Red-Headed Woman also came out in 1932. Starring alongside Chester Morris, Harlow played Lil, a young woman who has sex to advance her social standing. Jack Conway’s film is a raunchy outing that has multiple affairs, premarital sex, and even attempted murdered – proof that it ain’t just blondes who have all the fun.

It’s always great to end on a song, so it’s time to dip into musicals. Now technically, a lot of musicals came out in 1932, but most were German or British. Whilst I will most definitely explore them in a future article, we’re looking at Hollywood/Pre-Code movies specifically here. There’s a whole heap of musical adventures including Girl Crazy, Girl of the Rio, and biopic Jenny Lind. Ernst Lubitsch (with a little help from George Cukor) and Maurice Chevalier continue their (tempestuous) musical relationship in One Hour With You which has the sauciest song about cheating since Honeymoon Hotel in The Footlight Parade (1931.)

The best musical of 1932, and my personal favourite of the year, is Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. Now, I’ve seen many people state that this feels like an extension of Ernst Lubitsch’s work with Chevalier. This is wrong. Very wrong. Love Me Tonight is absolutely a Mamoulian effort. The sheer creativity of shots and fluidity of songs is breath-taking. Isn’t It Romantic? – a song that is carried from character to character across Paris – is a perfect example of this. Sadly, the original cut of the film is missing due to post-1934 censorship who thought Myra Loy’s portion of the song Mimi was too revealing. Still, this is a highly enjoyable film.

Have fun exploring cinema from 90-years ago and let me know what you have been watching.

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