The first edition of the International Venice Film Festival (called 1st International Film Festival of the Art Biennial) was carried out from the 6th to the 21st of August in 1932. The festival began with an idea of the president of the Biennial of Venice, the count Giuseppe Volpi of Misurata, of the sculptor Antonio Maraini, secretary general, and of Lucian De Feo, secretary general of the Society of Nationals headquartered in Rome, who agreed the review should be held in the lagoon city, and that he would be the first director.
With good reason, the festival was considered the first international event of its type, receiving strong support from authorities. The first edition was held on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior at Lido of Venice, but was not yet regarded as a festival for competitive review. Although only the names of the films were presented to the public, this edition of 1932 boasted titles of great merit, which later on became true "classics" in the history of cinema. Among these should be noted Forbidden, by the great American director Frank Capra, Grand Hotel by Edmund Goulding, The Champ by King Vidor, the first and unmatched Frankenstein by James Whale, The Devil to Pay! by George Fitzmaurice, Men, Those Rascals… by Mario Camerini and Liberty for Us by René Clair. In addition to the films cited, in competition were the works of other great directors, such as Raoul Walsh, Ernst Lubitsch, Nikolaj Ekk, Howard Hawks, Maurice Tourneur, and Anatole Litvak.
Prominent personages of this first show were the actors that appeared on the big screen and guaranteed great success for the festival in every aspect, bringing over 25 thousand spectators to the halls. Some of the greatest stars of the age were present, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Fredric March, Wallace Beery, Norma Shearer, James Cagney, Ronald Colman, Loretta Young, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, not to forget Italian idol Vittorio De Sica and the great Boris Karloff, remembered for his role as the monster in the first Frankenstein.
The very first film in the festival was shown on the evening of August 6, 1932: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" of Rouben Mamoulian; after the film followed a great dance in the halls of the Excelsior. The first Italian film, Gli uomini, che mascalzoni… (Men, Those Rascals…) of Mario Camerini, was introduced on the evening of August 11, 1932.
Due to the lack of a jury and the awarding of official prizes, introduced only later, a list of acknowledgements was decided by popular vote, an tally determined by the number of people flocking to the films, and announced by the Organizing Committee on which presided Attilio Fontana of the I.C.E. – Istituto Commercio Estero (Institute of Foreign Trade): from this the best director was declared – Russian Nikolaj Ekk for the film The Road to Life, while the film by René Clair Give Us Liberty was voted best film.
The second edition was held two years later, from August 1 to 20, 1934. Initially, in fact, the festival adopted the timing of the larger Venice Biennial to which it was firmly tied. The experience of the first film festival quickly led to an important new innovation: the first competitive edition. At least 19 nations participated, sending representatives including more than 300 confirmed journalists to the screenings. The Mussolini Cup was instituted for Best Foreign and Best Italian Films, but still no true jury existed. The president of the Biennial decided the winners after consulting with several sources: Luciano de Feo, the director of l’ Istituto Internazionale per la Cinematografia Educativa (the International Institute of Film Education); other experts; public opinion; and the festival director.
In addition to the Mussolini Cup, "le Grandi Medaglie d’Oro dell’Associazione Nazionale Fascista dello Spettacolo" (The Golden Medals of the Fascist National Association of the Show) and the prizes for the best acting also were given out. A young Katharine Hepburn was awarded Best Actress for her outstanding role in Little Women by George Cukor. The award for Best Foreign Film went to Man of Aran directed by Robert Joseph Flaherty, well-known for using this "documentary" film style, a new and popular genre at that time. Also represented was one of Frank Capra’s more celebrated films It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. The second edition also boasted its first scandal: during a sequence of Ecstasy, by the Czechoslovakian director Gustav Machatý, Hedwig Kieslerová, who later become known as Hedy Lamarr, appeared on the big screen completely nude.
Due to overwhelming public success and critical acclaim of the first two editions under the direction of Ottavio Croze, the festival became an annual event and the third edition was held in 1935. With its growing notoriety and prestige, the number of works and countries participating in the competition also increased. Starting from this edition and until the end of the post-war period, no more Soviet films would participate. In edition, the award for the actors was changed to the "Volpi Cup", named for the count Giuseppe Volpi of Misurata, father of the festival.
Once again the festival boasted films of great merit: The Informer by John Ford; The Devil is a Woman by Joseph von Sternberg, with Marlene Dietrich; and the Best Foreign Film award winner Anna Karenina by Clarence Brown, with Greta Garbo present for the second time at Lido of Venice.
1936 brought another innovation, that of the international Jury, while the prestige of the festival drew great films by directors such as Frank Capra, John Ford, Max Ophüls, René Clair, Josef von Sternberg, and Marcel L’Herbier. The greatest public event, however, culminated with Italian star Amedeo Nazzari.
At the 1937 edition, the new Cinema Palace was inaugurated. This "Modernistic" work by architect Luigi Quagliata was built in record time. Except for the years between 1940 and 1948, the Cinema Palace would be the home of the Venice Film Festival throughout the rest of the 20th as well as into the 21st Century.
This Festival was even bigger with an increase in the number of participants and accepted films. This time the stage lights were all shining on Marlene Dietrich, who brought the chaos of super stardom to Lido of Venice, and the immensely popular Bette Davis, who won the award for best actress. The revelation of this edition was the young French actor Jean Gabin, protagonist in The Great Illusion, by Jean Renoir, and award winner of the international jury.
In 1938, unfortunately, the festival endured heavily dictated political pressures from the fascist government. Film winners were German Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl and Luciano Serra Pilot by Goffredo Alessandrini, two films of explicit propaganda, even though the first one is still recognized today as one of the masterpieces of 1930’s cinema.
During this edition American cinema did not participate as it had in previous years. However, one of Walt Disney’s best animated films, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, received the festival’s Special Prize.
Following the standard of continuous innovation, 1938 was the year of the first great retrospective, dedicated to French film winners since 1933 because among all the nations, they had offered the most masterpieces: Liberty for Us (1932) by René Clair, Dance Program (1937) by Julien Duvivier, The Great Illusion (1937) and The Human Beast (1939) by Jean Renoir, Port of Shadows (1938) and Daybreak (1939) by Marcel Carné.