BETWEEN THE quality attractions, the record box office, the publication B of "Indecent Exposure" and the cycle of tragic deaths, 1982 figures to make unforgettable impressions on moviegoers. It may prove peculiarly satisfying to take advantage of an opportunity currently being offered by the American Film Institute Theater to glance back 50 years and observe how movies both reflect and transcend their original time frame.
You can be fairly certain you've entered a remote, savory Hollywood past when confronted by scenes like the following:
A bandleader launches into a ballad with the lines, "It was down in Chinatown/All the cokies lied around," a band singer gives her breast a compulsive squeeze each time she torches the refrain "I'm burning for you" and a guest tenor on a radio broadcast reverently trills "Trees."
A crusading freshman congressman starts to formulate a case against a pork barrel bill drafted for his own state by remarking, "Maybe $2 million doesn't look so important in a $4 billion budget . . . ."
A beautiful woman seeking to transcend a shady past observes, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."
A gentleman at a fashionable hotel instructs the head waiter about arrangements for an intimate romantic repast: "It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous. You see that moon? I want to see that moon in the champagne. And as for you, waiter: I don't want to see you at all."
These random highlights share a 50-year vintage. They may be found among other delightful, smoldering, haunting or slightly excruciating mementoes in the AFI Theater revival series, "1932: The Talkies' First Great Year." Debatably titled but nicely timed, this compact sampler will monopolize AFI Theater programming through next Saturday. The selections range from the securely famous popular and/or critical hits of the year--"Grand Hotel," "Shanghai Express," "Trouble in Paradise," "Tarzan, the Ape Man," "Scarface," "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang"--to more or less fascinating obscurities. Definitely more in the case of the sardonic western "Law and Order," Hollywood's least known but most incisive version of the Earp-Clanton feud in Old Tombstone, which culminated in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the political melodrama "Washington Merry-Go-Round," a diverting precursor to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" produced by the same studio, Columbia.
"Law and Order," which boasts a stirring performance by Walter Huston in the Earp role, will be shown Tuesday at 8:45 p.m. on a bill with the invaluable trifle "The Big Broadcast," which provides a flimsy pretext for specialty numbers by Bing Crosby, Burns & Allen, Cab Calloway and his orchestra, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Kate Smith, Arthur Tracy and Don Novis, the interpreter of "Trees," the Joyce Kilmer poem set to music. In retrospect "Law and Order" also seems to mark an auspicious debut for John Huston, a fledgling screenwriter at the time. Like many films of the period, it's admirably spare--70 minutes of concentrated mythic conflict--and achieves a remarkable period texture and melodramatic impact. The director, Edward L. Cahn, was evidently too discouraged by the film's failure to attempt anything as inventive in its wake. He spent the remainder of his career directing staple westerns. However, one can detect stylistic similarities between his isolated first feature and prestige westerns of a subsequent generation, notably Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon" and Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun."
A few years ago "Washington Merry-Go-Round" had to be scratched from an AFI Theater series because the program staff couldn't locate a playable print. It would provide a useful point of reference if added to the revival repertory in this city, maybe on a double-bill with "The Seduction of Joe Tynan." The 1932 series pairs it Tuesday and Thursday with "Hot Saturday," a lukewarm rebuke of small-town small-mindedness that is mainly notable for the presence of an edgily promising young romantic lead named Cary Grant.
One interlude in "Washington Merry-Go-Round" is certain to provoke coincidental mirth this season: Soon after checking into his hotel, the impudent hero, a freshman congressman who plans to defy the crooked political bosses who engineered his election, is lobbied by the manager: "I have a nephew who wants very much to be a page boy . . ." Moments later, attracted by the sight of the heroine (Constance Cummings as the savvy granddaughter of a senator) dancing in the hotel ballroom, the hero promises, "I'll make your nephew a page, I'll make him a chapter, a whole book. Just tell me who she is."
The most entertaining aspects of the film are the astringent comic presence of Lee Tracy, cast as the idealistic but not at all gullible newcomer to Congress, and the snappy dialogue supplied by Jo Swerling. The abiding defect is a woefully inadequate plot contrived by Maxwell Anderson. Nevertheless, it reflects a paranoid streak that seems to have been fairly common during the disintegration of the Hoover administration and the advent of FDR. Several other movies of the period share an identical notion of the cause of the country's economic misery, a "hidden government" of corporate fat cats, along with an identical notion of the solution, timely vigilante measures. In this case, the hero enlists members of the Bonus Army, camped in Anacostia, to help undermine the villain, a power broker who envisions himself an American Mussolini or Stalin.
An equally persuasive case could be made for 1931 or 1933 as "the talkies' first great year." At the time, 1932 was not considered a great year for the business. The statistical record supports the contemporary impression that things really were tough all over.
The effects of the Depression caught up with Hollywood in 1931-32 and found the major companies vulnerable because of expanded theater construction, acquisition and renovation sparked by the success of talking pictures. In retrospect it seems fortunate that the technical transition from silents to talkies occurred before the economy caved in. By 1932 almost 14,000 theaters had been equipped for sound, while slightly fewer than 5,000 remained silent.
Four films in the AFI Theater series were among the year's top grossers: "Grand Hotel," "Shanghai Express," (both showing tonight) "Tarzan" and the Rouben Mamoulian "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," shown earlier in the series on a bill with the sizzling "Red Dust," which launched Gable and Jean Harlow as a heaven-sent erotic match at MGM.
"Grand Hotel" was the Oscar-winning film of the year. A logical choice, the film nevertheless seems more ponderous than Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated romantic comedy "Trouble in Paradise," which wasn't among the best film nominees. Curiously, two of Lubitsch's Maurice Chevalier musicals, "The Smiling Lieutenant" and "One Hour With You," were nominated, suggesting it was rather a dazzling year for Lubitsch.
The celebrated Lubitsch Touch represented a clever expression of a tendency to orchestrate scenes, images and dialogue for delightfully symmetrical payoffs. It remains one of the most satisfying legacies of the period.
For example, in "Trouble in Paradise," scheduled for a single showing Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., one finds The Touch deftly illustrated in the quick sequence that introduces Kay Francis as the fashionable Madame Colet, who has inherited a cosmetics empire from her late husband. We see her sweetly refusing a board request to cut salaries at the factory, then shopping for a purse--after rejecting a 3,000-franc item as "too expensive" she selects one priced at 120,000 francs, because it's "too beautiful" to resist--and finally rejecting stolidly persistent suitors played by Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles.
She lets down Horton lightly with the following explanation, brilliantly composed by Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson: "You see, Franc,ois, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you--it would be . . . a mistake."
In an interview several years ago Raphaelson tried to recapture the essence of the technique: "I never caught Lubitsch ever thinking in terms of a formula; that is, he wouldn't say, 'How can ve use a door in this scene?' Never once would he say that. He would face the problem and say, 'Vat do ve do here? How do ve lick dis? How do ve say it vit style? How do ve say it different? How do ve say it different and good? Different and true?' He was one of the few great practitioners who was not a victim of his own inventions and his own style."
One of the charms of the films of this period is their relatively candid, good-humored attitude toward sex, a tendency that was soon to be circumscribed by enforcement of the Production Code, a list of restraints introduced largely for publicity purposes in 1930 but then imposed in desperate self-defense four years later when religious pressure groups organized against the industry.
According to legend, the emergence of Mae West as a movie star in 1933 with "She Done Him Wrong" was the cheerful affront that did in Hollywood "permissiveness" for the next three decades or so. Fortunately, the rebuke was never as effective as the reformers must have intended, but many of the talkies of the pre-Code years seem peculiarly appealing now, perhaps because contemporary movies find it so difficult to recapture that worldly assurance despite the absence of strict restraints.
It's as if 1932 classics like "Trouble in Paradise," "Red Dust," "Grand Hotel," "Tarzan" and "Scarface" shared a secret of innate sexiness and potency that had become as hard to find as the Lost Ark a mere half-century later.