By Alan Hurst
1933 was the depth of the depression, but a fantastic peak for some truly iconic movies at the start of Hollywood’s first golden age. Astaire and Rogers were teamed for the first time in Flying Down to Rio, Busby Berkley broke through with multiple films at Warner Brothers, MGM gave Garbo one of her best vehicles with Queen Christina, the cementing of Universal as the exemplar of horror films continued with The Invisible Man, Mae West saved Paramount with her first two starting vehicles, Katharine Hepburn made her big breakthrough with the RKO hits Morning Glory and Little Women, and of course King Kong towered over everything – literally and figuratively.
It was also the final year that the Academy honoured films based on a split year, recognizing films released between August 1932 and December 1933. By eliminating the mid-year cut-off, it paved the way for films to be honoured within a calendar year from 1934 onwards. For the purpose of rewriting history, we’re going to stick with the calendar year. There were 10 – sometimes 12 – nominees for Best Picture throughout most of the thirties and into the forties before cutting that back to 5 – a practice that lasted until 2009.
The Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director that year went Cavalcade, a British drama by Noel Coward depicting life among the British upper and working class between 1899 and 1933. It was the Downton Abbey of its day and the second biggest grossing film of the year, but it hasn’t aged as well as some of the others and gets pushed down the list when you look back at it’s competition.
Best Picture: King Kong
It’s a true classic and a great film – a compelling and timeless story, technically spectacular, good performances and incredibly suspenseful and exciting. It had a major impact at the time of its release and you can still see why. It’s exclusion from the nominees for best picture that year is one of the great Oscar oversights (along with the fact there were no other nominations). One of the best films of the decade.
- Duck Soup – One of the era’s defining comedies and nearly perfect.
- Design for Living – Sparkling sophisticated comedy from a Noel Coward play filmed by famed director Ernst Lubitsch.
- Little Women – George Cukor’s faithful and well cast version of the classic novel.
- 42nd Street – The first great musical of the sound era.
- The Invisible Man – Funny, scary, terrific atmosphere and great performances.
- Dinner at Eight – Another from director George Cukor – a terrifically funny and moving look at New York’s upper crust during the depression.
- Queen Christina – Quite stagey by today’s standard, but still beautifully filmed and a great Garbo performance.
- Cavalcade – A grand scale, reverential look at British society. And about as exciting as it sounds.
- I’m No Angel – A still funny showcase for Mae West before the production code removed her sting.
Best Director: James Whale for The Invisible Man
I’m going with Whale instead of the duo behind King Kong. The Invisible Man is smaller in scale, but just as iconic many wonderful set pieces. And Whale works wonders with this cast, particularly Claude Rains and Una O’Connor.
- Lloyd Bacon for 42nd Street
- Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack for King Kong
- George Cukor for Dinner at Eight
- Ernst Lubitsch for Design for Living
Best Actor: Charles Laughton in The Private Lives of Henry VIII
Although somewhat mannered and melodramatic by today’s standards, Laughton’s Henry VIII has been the benchmark for years. It’s a strong, flamboyant portrayal of one of history’s most notorious kings and definitely deserving of the year’s best actor Oscar.
- James Cagney for Footlight Parade
- Gary Cooper for Design for Living
- Fredric March for Design for Living
- Claude Rains for The Invisible Man
Best Actress: Greta Garbo in Queen Christina
Katharine Hepburn won the award for her mannered performance as an aspiring actress in Morning Glory. Her work in Little Women is better, but Queen Christina is probably Garbo’s best performance and the one that best plays off her stunning looks and somewhat androgynous appeal.
- Katharine Hepburn for Little Women
- Miriam Hopkins for Design for Living
- Mae West for I’m No Angel
- Barbara Stanwyck for Baby Face
Best Supporting Actor: Edward Everett Horton for Design for Living
One of the great character actors of the era, Horton appeared in dozens of comedies and musicals before heading to television. He didn’t have a large range, but his comedic skills were almost always a bonus in each of his films. This is probably his best film and one where he’s key to driving the story, not just twittering off to the side.
- Fred Astaire for Flying Down to Rio
- John Barrymore for Dinner at Eight
- Wallace Beery for Dinner at Eight
- Paul Lukas for Little Women
Best Supporting Actress: Jean Harlow for Dinner at Eight
Harlow wasn’t a great actress, but she developed into a terrific comedienne and this is the best performance of her short career. She’s the standout in the all-star ensemble with her portrayal of a brassy, gold digging, not-so-dumb blonde married to Wallace Beery’s shady business man. Her scenes and line readings still sparkle today – and you can see the influence she had on Betty Grable’s performances in the forties, Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain, Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria and many others.
- Billie Burke for Dinner at Eight
- Marie Dressler for Dinner at Eight
- Una O’Connor for The Invisible Man
- Ginger Rogers for Flying Down to Rio
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.
Great article, Alan! 1933 was definitely a fantastic year for film!