- Shanghai Express
- Grand Hotel
- Horse Feathers
- I Was Born, But…
- Chandu The Magician
- Island of Lost Souls
- I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
- Boudu Saved From Drowning
Paul Muni was famous for his ability to put on any accent for a role, sort of the Meryl Streep of his day, but I find his most energetic and enjoyable performance happened well before the days he was headlining bloated biopics about the likes of Zola or Juarez. In Scarface he is alternately scary and hilarious as Howard Hawks’ unreliable anti-hero, and the film far outshines the epic remake by Brian DePalma many decades later. In I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, he is charismatic without overwhelming a very watchable message-driven drama, probably giving his most sympathetic and human performance.
Marlene Dietrich only ever received one Academy Award nomination, for Morocco, and even then it was more like Hollywood welcoming her to its shores than a recognition of her unforgettable screen presence. 1932 might have had more impressively dramatic performances to give awards to (including Garbo in the great Grand Hotel), but nothing beats Dietrich’s control and mysterious passion in her best collaboration with her Svengaliesque Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express.
He could be notoriously hammy, but there were often cases when Charles Laughton‘s overacting was used to such delicious effect. In The Island Of Lost Souls, the best adaptation of Wells’ The Island Of Dr. Moreau, Laughton chews up and spits out every bit of scenery as the shady doctor whose “experiments” are terrifying and also not so subtly instructive as a lesson about colonialism. Under ridiculous makeup and a hilarious goatee, Laughton emotes with gleeful relish before receiving his much deserved comeuppance.
Believe it or not, somewhere beneath that frightening statue of a 1940s movie icon, Joan Crawford was undoubtedly a human being. Watch any of the many delightful musicals that she made in the 30s (before she was labelled “box-office poison” and made her comeback) and you’ll find the evidence. Most enjoyable is her non-musical but fetching turn as the secretary in Grand Hotel, in which she is shockingly relatable in her delight and desperation. Oscar didn’t have a supporting category for actors yet, and the film went completely unrecognised in all categories except the one that it triumphed in (oddly, Best Picture), but if things were different you can bet she would have at least scored a nomination.
Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express