People talk about 1939 as Hollywood’s best year, since it was when such films as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, The Women, and Stagecoach were released, but I’m also partial to 1932. It’s not as popular or well-known, and it’s not at the peak of pre-Code abandon, but here’s a few films from 1932 I have enjoyed.
Lady With a Past — This was one of those undiscovered gems I stumbled across on TCM on their recent Constance Bennett day. She plays an attractive heiress who’s considered miserably boring by all the men she knows. Her opening line when meeting them, “Have you read any good books lately?”, sums up why. They’re instead fascinated by one of her acquaintances who’s rumored to have poisoned her husband.
When she departs for Paris, she meets a broke American (Ben Lyon) whom she hires to teach her to be more alluring. He tutors her in becoming more attractive to men, a bit of a reach, since Bennett is gorgeous, but the comedy is funny, with outstanding exchanges like this one. Bennett’s character is named Venice. When asked why, she says her parents honeymooned there and continues, “Lucky for me they didn’t spend it in Brussels.” Although beautiful, Bennett does an excellent job playing a shy wallflower in the beginning. You can see why she’s having no luck with men, in spite of her desires.
Sadly, you can buy the poster, but not the movie. I have hopes for it appearing in the Warner Archive line, though. Bennett also starred in three other films that year, one of which, What Price Hollywood?, more than inspired A Star Is Born.
One Way Passage — Speaking of the Warner Archive, they’ve just made available this classic romance. William Powell and Kay Francis meet on board ship. He doesn’t know she’s deathly ill; she doesn’t know he’s a convicted criminal going to his execution. She’s beautiful; he’s charming, with a slight air of danger. They promise at parting to meet again for New Year’s Eve in Mexico, in spite of their separation.
The movie is bittersweet but affecting, especially when he gives up a chance to escape to make sure she’s okay. It was another world then, when a slow-going ship provided a place to live differently for a while. Lovely to look at, and heartstring-touching.
Jewel Robbery — The two stars also appeared, that same year, in this lesser-known caper comedy. Francis married a nobleman for money and the lovely baubles he could give her. One night, while shopping at the jewelry store, they become part of a robbery by Powell’s crew. Francis is fascinated by the gentleman thief, and he returns the attraction. The open suggestions of a wife playing around to assuage her sexual appetite while keeping a comfortable lifestyle wouldn’t be permissible in movies just two years later.
Trouble in Paradise — Kay Francis‘ third major film of 1932 (there were seven in all; she made eight the year before) is a wonderful, playful Ernst Lubitsch movie about a con artist couple (Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall) who want Francis’ jewels. Excellently written and executed romantic comedy. You’ll notice that many of these sparklers about adults and their connections are set in Europe, as an excuse for more flexible mores. It’s the only one I’ve mentioned so far commercially available, with a Criterion DVD release.
Other outstanding titles released this year: the star-studded soap opera Grand Hotel, with both John and Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford; Red-Headed Woman, starring Jean Harlow as golddigger destroying her boss’ life and marriage; and the immortal, original Scarface.