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The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1930-1931

It’s Best Director month here at the B+ Movie Blog. The reason for that is, one — how do you really talk about Best Director? Do you go by innovation? Best film? Most stylistic? How do you judge? Best Director is perhaps the most nebulous of the awards. Logic dictates that — well, the best film, by default, had the Best Director. But sometimes it doesn’t. How does one mediate? Also — what exactly does a director do? Film is a collaborative medium. How much are we to say is the choice of the director and not, say, the writer, or the DP, or the set designer, or even producers or the actors. Sometimes the producer will say, “We need more action here,” or the actor will refuse to shoot a scene a certain way and the director will have to change it to suit the actor. Where do you draw the line at what a director does?

So, not really having an answer to that, along with the fact that — it needs to be done — I’m just gonna lump all the Best Directors as closely as possible. There are 83 of them. Eleven are already done. I’m doing thirty this month. That leaves — quick, math whizzes, crunch the numbers — 42 left from May. That’s not bad. Another Director month around, say — November — or maybe sooner if I really want to be rid of them — along with a few interspersed here and there — we’ll be done in no time.

Also, for those of you who are reading this and not really knowing what to take from it — basically, you’re gonna hear what I think should have won the Oscar based on the criteria that I’ve set aside as what I think is acceptable in regards to earning a vote and/or a victory in this category. Also, since I do have some respect for the entity that is the Academy Awards, I will, of course, take into account the criteria that they go by — which, is much more nebulous than the criteria that we, the people, use. You’ll see as we go along. Basically, what you will get out of this are certain films — which, granted, a lot will overlap with the other categories, but still, there are “lone directors” almost every year for films that don’t necessarily fit the mold of the Oscars — like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007 — that you might not see if it weren’t for me speaking insanely well of them. So, like all the other categories, my rankings will be your way of seeing which ones I personally liked best, and, for the most part, are the films in the order I feel you should see them, if at all. You’ll figure out from my tone throughout the article how strongly I feel you should see certain films. And then probably once this is done, I’ll make up just an article of all the nominees and actually rank just how strong I think you should see certain films.

There really isn’t a set list of things that people can go to and say — “This is what should be seen.” My goal is to make some sort of list — of just the Oscar nominees. Everything else you’ll just have to ask me personally about — of films that should be seen, or films I think people who think even remotely like me will like. That’s that. Now —

This year. 1930-1931, aka 1931. This year is an interesting year in the Academy because — there really was no set Oscar film. I say this a lot but, if there are two years in the Oscar year, the Academy has not yet figured things out. Which makes them the most fascinating (and in a way, the most contentious/the worst choices, by and large) years, because, you actually see them figuring it out on the fly. Kind of like watching the Harry Potter movies and seeing these three kids grow up on screen. It’s weird and yet interesting at the same time.

So, 1930-1931 — Best Picture went to Cimarron. It’s an “epic” Western based on a best-selling novel. One of those films people just overlook because — well, it was old and back then, whatever. It’s not a bad film, but, if the Academy were on top of their shit, this wouldn’t have won. But that’s what makes these years so fascinating. Best Actor went to Lionel Barrymore for A Free Soul. This was Hollywood giving their respected actors the statues first. Best Actress went to Marie Dressler for Min and Bill — if you remember, Marie Dressler was the biggest star MGM had back between 1930 and 1933. Seriously. It was like Julia Roberts circa 1999/2000. That big a star. Noticing a pattern here, huh? The acting categories generally make sense until after 1935. It’s the choices for Best Picture that are the most interesting. Oh, and, no supporting categories until 1936. That’s why the recap seems so short.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1930-1931

And the nominees are…

Clarence Brown, A Free Soul

Lewis Milestone, The Front Page

Wesley Ruggles, Cimarron

Norman Taurog, Skippy

Josef von Sternberg, Morocco

Brown — Since I really don’t know any way to describe Best Director, I’m going to tell you about the film and then what I noticed about the directorial effort. These early years — there really isn’t much to talk about. Everything was mostly shot very classically. Which makes it easier if you see something innovative that stands apart from the others — that’s the one you pick. But, when everything is pretty classical and normal-looking, then what do you vote on? Picture quality? The director himself? (Because no female was nominated for Best Director until 1976.)

A Free Soul is one of those films you see lots of in the 30s. It’s a pre-code film. It’s about Lionel Barrymore as an alcoholic lawyer who sits around being drunk and worries about his daughter. His daughter begins dating a gangster — as it always happens in the 30s if you lived in New York/San Francisco or Chicago. Or anywhere, really. EIther you’re a rich person with rich person problems or you have to deal with gangsters. Life was much simpler back then.

So, she’s dating the gangster — played by Clark Gable. This was one of, if not his first role. His screen appeal just jumped out in this movie and he became an instant star. He was relegated to playing gangsters for the next five years until he became the leading man he’s known for. So, Gable is the gangster, and Leslie Howard plays the love interest that she should be going after — you know, the regular guy who doesn’t get into trouble — which, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes in a film eight years earlier, that’s pretty funny — oh, and Norma Shearer plays the daughter.

And they have a relationship, and Lionel is defending the gangster, but doesn’t want to, because he doesn’t want him near his daughter. He gets him acquitted and the dude starts coming around to see his daughter. Eventually he gets bumped off and Lionel must defend his daughter in court.

The reason they say he won Best Actor this year is because, in the film, he delivers a monologue that lasts about, 14 minutes end to end. It’s not one continuous take, but it is a continuous monologue. That sort of performance wasn’t really done back them — and still isn’t — so the feat was considered tremendously impressive. And it’s one of those films, you know, he delivers the monologue, the one that basically gets his daughter acquitted, and I think he implicates himself in the murder in doing so even though she actually did do it, but in self-defense, and then he dies dramatically at the end of it (probably from liver failure. But, you know, back then, stress could just kill a person. No heart attack, just, you know, “all that worryin'”). That’s the film.

Also, note: Wikipedia says the monologue was filmed in one, continuous 14-minute uninterrupted take. Though since a reel of film only lasts 10 minutes, the performance was achieved with more than one camera. So, it’s possible it’s one uninterrupted take, but, I swear I saw some cut-ins during this scene. Unless they cut in with camera two and then reloaded camera one, but — I don’t know. I have to see it again to know for sure.

Now — the directorial effort — nothing special, really. When I know the director was nominated, I keep an eye out for something that catches. Nothing, really. No insanely interesting shots or camera placement. Everything is pretty straightforward. So, if someone was gonna vote this on they’d have been doing it for love of the film. A Picture/Director coupling. I’m certainly not voting for it. It’s the blandest of the bunch.

Milestone — Lewis Milestone is one of those directors who — knows how to do epic. All Quiet on the Western Front is still — today — even breathtaking. The staging he accomplishes is nothing short of brilliant. But I’ll talk about that when I get to that year. Here, he’s directing a small film. That is to say — not a film I’m used to seeing him direct.

For those of you who don’t know, The Front Page is essentially the script, based on the play, that was used and turned into — His Girl Friday. The reason they changed the title is because, in this version, and in the play, and in all subsequent remakes of it — Hildy Johnson was a male character. The only made it a woman in the Hawks version for the sexual chemistry and because — well, you can’t cheat Hawks out of his Hawks woman. Here, Hildy is played by Pat O’Brien, and in the Billy Wilder remake from ’74, Jack Lemmon plays Hildy (while Matthau was Walter Burns). Here, Adolph Menjou is Walter Burns.

So, that pretty much covers the whole synopsis deal. I’m assuming everyone’s seen His Girl Friday, because, if you haven’t — well you’re pretty much dead to me. But I’ll do a quick rundown anyway. Walter Burns is upset that his ace reporter, Hildy, is leaving to be married. He’s pretty much a conniving fuck, so he does everything in his power to get Hildy to stay, including getting his/her fiance thrown in jail by planting counterfeit money on their person. Meanwhile, Earl Williams, a convicted felon — a dude who snapped one day and killed some people — is about to hang. Walter’s paper has been very liberal and has been for months berating the governor for pushing through with the execution because it’ll make him look good and election time is just round the corner. Also, the paper believes — rightly so — that Earl Williams is criminally insane, and should be in an institution and not killed. So, they fight to get him a reprieve. While this is happening, Earl escapes from prison and shows up in the reporter’s room at the building across the street. Hildy and Walter hide him in a rolltop desk until they can get his story out, which is sure to earn him a reprieve. Hilarity ensues.

Now — the difference between the two versions is that this one isn’t played so much for laughs as the other one is. Mostly because, the other one has Howard Hawks dialogue in it. This one is played pretty straightforward, which makes the scenes of him in the desk and him with his girl much more dramatic. As a film, it’s not as good as His Girl Friday, but we respect it as needing to be there for the other to exist. It’s like the earlier version of The Maltese Falcon or the earlier Wizard of Oz. Clearly the later versions are better, but, the earlier ones are still there. Like beta testing, I guess.

As for the directorial effort, I did actually like it. There’s some interesting stuff going on, and Milestone is very good at staging scenes. I can’t view this objectively because, well, I’ve seen the later version, and all the scenes I saw reminded me of that one. But still, as a 1931 film, Milestone was ahead of his time and staging things much more intelligently than the rest of Hollywood was. However, I hesitate to vote for him because — well, there are two reasons, and I’ll explain them shortly.

Ruggles — Wesley Ruggles. What a name, right? Not a major director at all. Back in these days, there existed a curious pattern in all Best Director nominations. You’d get a lot of repeats. All the well-known directors would be nominated for just about everything they did. And then, the big “Oscar” films would have their directors nominated by default, which lead to a lot of — I guess you’d call them “studio guys” — getting nominations. These kind of directors are the equivalent of bit players. The studios had stables of all sorts of people, and naturally their big names went to the big projects. But, here’s a regular guy getting put on something that could be big. The studios didn’t really know what was “big” and hadn’t really fastened the “Oscar” film until after this (the next year was Grand Hotel — methinks they figured it out right quick). This is the equivalent of Tom Hooper directing The King’s Speech. Now, Tom Hooper is an able-bodied director. But, before that film, he’d directed many TV shows and such. He’s one of those working directors that barely gets any recognition. But, with the right film, when it blows up huge and wins Best Picture, he comes along for the ride. And then after that film, you almost never hear from them again. That’s what this is like.

The film is about Richard Dix — Ruggles and Dix, sounds like a cop show — as a newspaper reporter who decides he’s going to conquer the west. Not, by himself. Just, you know, professionally. The Homestead Act is on, and this film does a great job of showing just how the west was won. A huge wagon train full of people go out west, to the area that’s up for grabs. Then, they get there, and they run into the area and say, “Here’s my plot of land,” before the next person can get there. It’s like Black Friday. People rushing stores. Or it’s like — colonization. If you planted the flag, it’s yours. So he settles down with his wife — Irene Dunne — and they start living there. And at first, she’s not happy with it at all. She wants city life. She hates this. But eventually she grows to like it. And he builds up the first newspaper in the west, and becomes this hugely successful businessman within the blink of an eye.

The film actually does a really amazing job of showing how western towns came to be. People settled, and then were like, “We need things,” and at first, there were wagons of people who — a shopkeep decided he could do well, so went out west with his things and set up shop. And it’s literally out of the back of his Oregon Trail carriage. And from that, shops go up, and the town gets built, literally from the ground up. Few films have ever shown that. And there’s one scene where they’re like, “What should we call it?” Because I think they need a name sos they can stuff via Pony Express and what not. And they’re like, “Hell, let’s call it this,” just, off the top of their head, because of, whatever reason. And then after the next passage of time, you see a mini street sign, like, the name on a wooden plank nailed to a pole. And after the next one, the town is built up more and it’s an actual street. And then five years later, that’s what the town is named. That, I think, was my favorite part of the film.

And Richard Dix, he’s now successful, since he’s the newspaper man when there are none. And he’s almost single handedly making this town legitimate. And his wife thinks, “I can live now. We can settle down.” Nuh uh. He’s a western man. It’s all about the spirit of adventure. Motherfucker’s like, “Yeah, this was fun, but I’m bored with newspaperin’. I’m gonna go out even more west and see what I find.” And the dude just ups and leaves and goes out and does shit for like, thirty years. And the wife just keeps on keepin’ on by herself. And eventually, she becomes the big CEO of the company, and there’s a whole nice, Women’s Rights undercurrent to it (nice to see, in 1931), and eventually dude dies, kicked by a horse or something. And they find him — unrecognized — dead in a ditch. And they’re like, “Oh, some vagrant.” And then the wife realizes it’s him, and they’re all like, “What? This dude has this town named after him. He can buy us all ten times over. What’s he doing all muddied up and trying to change a horseshoe?” And they’re like, “That’s what he did.” It’s a nice film. Not amazing, but, I can see why they voted for it.

Anyway, the direction — it’s fine. Like I said, there were really nice elements in it. And I think that a lot of that was either the writer’s or the director’s decision. They often had to figure out how to show the passage of time in a concise matter. And goddamn is this isn’t one of the best examples of this I’ve ever seen.

Also of note is that — this is the first epic western to really come out. Most westerns till now were serials, or adventure films. This is a classy version of a popular genre. And that does count for a lot. This does look like a big budget western. Though, admittedly, a lot of the carriage riding is clearly green-screened. But, whatever. It’s 1931. They can’t all be All Quiet on the Western Front. So, great job directing, and I’d say this is one of the two that I’d vote for before Milestone, mostly because Milestone has one already and, if it’s actually for All Quiet, giving it to him for this is like giving Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for Last of the Mohicans. I mean, sure, you could, but, have you seen the films he won for?

Taurog — This film is nothing short of brilliant. I have to say — this is one of the first films I watched upon beginning my Oscar Quest. I think it was unavailable and was only on Netflix Instant but was expiring like two days later or something. So I watched it, thinking, “Oh, great, a Best Director from 1931 — this is gonne be boring. I guess I’ll have to get through it.” Boy, was I wrong.

The film is — for lack of a better term — a POV film. It’s not shot that way or anything, but, the film itself is actually from the perspective of a child. You understand this world through the child’s eyes. And it’s fascinating. I make no secret about the fact that movies about children fascinate me. There’s just something about them I find more relatable to than I do with humans. Probably because I’m a child myself in many regards.

The film is about Skippy, who is a young boy — five or six — who is a regular kid. Doesn’t want to brush his teeth in the morning, asks a lot of questions — regular kid. And the film does an amazing job of immediately making you align with him and feel for him. If you can understand how the littlest thing can be the most important thing for a child, then you immediately can feel for this kid and be with him for the entire film. Like, when you wanted to go to the store for some gum, but you needed five cents, and your parents didn’t want to give you that five cents — that’s a fucking travesty when you’re five. Because what else do you know?

So, at first, the kid wants a bike. And his father is like, “Well, I don’t know, maybe.” And this kid really wants the bike. And while the father is out at work, he goes and hangs out with his friend, Sooky, who lives in a shantytown. After all, this is the Depression. And the friend is poor, and Skippy is pretty well-to-do — well enough, anyway — and his parents don’t want him there because it reflects poorly on them socially. But what does he know, he’s five. It’s his friend. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. (Note: Thank god.) So, he’s hanging out with the kid, and, the big conflict in the story is that — the friend’s dog gets abducted by the pound. At first, Skippy and Sooky have fun with the dog catcher (I think they accidentally break his window with a baseball and run away), and the next day, Sooky’s dog is mysteriously missing. The family is too poor to afford tags for the dog, so the catcher made up a story about the dog not having tags and took it. And he says the tags will cost a certain amount of money. It’s probably the same as the window cost. And now their goal is to raise the money.

So they have a montage of failed business ventures, like lemonade and stuff. And with the overhead, and what they made, they’re actually in the red. So, Skippy goes to ask his father. And the father won’t give him the money because, it’s a lot of money for a child. It’s like if you were ten and were like, “Can I have $20 to go to the store?” And your parents are like, “What do you need $20 for?” And you don’t want to tell them, because it’s a big enough purchase that, they feel they should know what it is. $2, okay, here you go, buy whatever. $20 — what are you spending $20 on? So, Skippy doesn’t say anything, because he’s not supposed to be hanging out with the friend. And the whole thing is fucking heartbreaking, because we know why he’s doing it and why he can’t say anything, and we can’t do anything about it because he’s five and also because he can’t find a way to get the words out.

So, eventually, the dog gets put to sleep. They show up with the money and the dude’s like, “Oh, sorry, you just missed it.” And they’re like, “You said we had until Thursday!” and he’s like, “Meh, whatever.” He’s a mean fuck, this dog catcher. And now Sooky is upset because the dog is dead and Skippy is upset because in a way it’s his fault. And he goes home all sad, which is the moment his father brings him the new bike he wanted. Which now, he doesn’t want. And then — well, things work out happily enough, and family values are upheld, and we find out the father isn’t an uptight douche like he seemed, all of that. I can’t recommend the film highly enough. But, it’ll be hard to find. It’s not on Netflix and is only on TCM like once every six months or so. But don’t worry, I have a copy.

So, the direction — wow, is all I have to say. I mean, clearly this film is shot on a set, but — it is clearly shot outdoors. You feel as though you’re on a street with this kid. And, the camera is mobile. The camera tracks with Skippy as he walks along the street. You actually feel as though it’s when you were five and the whole world was those three blocks you were allowed to play. That and, the camera being mobile enhances the film so, so much. It’s so much more dynamic this way, and engages you so much more. Plus, coupled with the performance that Taurog got out of Jackie Cooper for this movie — the dude totally deserved a statue. Hell, I’ll go one step further — Jackie Cooper deserved Best Actor for this movie. (He was nominated, too. He was 9 years old.)

Seriously, this is one of those movies you see, and — if you’ve seen a lot of 30s movies like I have, you’ll watch it and go, “Well this is something new,” and the whole film is a breath of fresh air. Because, really, every film was basically shot the same way in the 30s. The only real innovations where when they added shadows and played with the sets. It wasn’t until noir that the camera angles got real interesting. And Hitchcock. This movie is so original it deserved Best Director, because clearly a lot of that was influenced by Taurog. You know the performance was. That alone earned him this.

Sternberg — Josef von Sternberg is a director who made his name shooting Marlene Dietrich films. He was a director — perhaps the only director — she fully trusted. He shot her so well she became an international sex symbol because of it. He knew how to shoot her just right that all her best features came out. He was also exceptional at using lighting to create these dark, sultry atmospheres. This film is a prime example of that.

The film is your standard Romantic Comedy. Though, standard, of course, is relative to the time period. Those familiar with this era will read this synopsis and be like, “Yeah, sounds about right.” Dietrich is a showgirl, who is in Morocco because of something that happened to her former lover a long time ago. She does this because she’s not forced to be committed, and doesn’t have to relive the past. She’s being courted by a rich man, played by Adolph Menjou. Gary Cooper, on the other hand, is a legionnaire. He shows up, in trouble from his group for something or other, and sees her. Immediately, we know — they’re gonna fuck. Because, it’s Gary Cooper. He fucked everyone. Plus apparently he had like a horse cock. Which, I guess, makes sense, considering the Warren Beatty type number he put up in his career.

So, she sings a couple of numbers, sits down with the men, talks about shit, then he comes in her dressing room and talks to her more, finds out about herself, they exchange some banter and stuff. Eventually, she falls for him, despite not wanting to. Then, fate intervenes, because he’s sent out to fight. Now, she’s torn between the other man or waiting for him to, possibly never, return. And she sings a bunch of numbers in between because — well, there has to be music. (Note: There’s a very famous number here where Dietrich dresses like a man and kisses a woman. This film is the definition of a “blue” film, by 1930s standards.) And then Cooper returns and she happily becomes his wife and travels around with him. She goes from, “I will never be domesticated again,” to, “Oh, yes, I’ll come with you. I don’t care if we’ll be living in tents and dealing with sandstorms. How do you like your coffee and how well-done do you like your eggs?” — There’s a reason Madeline Kahn’s performance is so spot-on in Blazing Saddles.

So, that’s the film. Pretty standard fair. It’s designed as a star vehicle for Dietrich above all else. Cooper was only becoming the star. Him being in this is like Cary Grant being in She Done Him Wrong with Mae West. It elevates him, being a midrange star at the time, but when you look back, you’re like, “He was in that?” The film looks good, it’s dark and erotic, everything it’s supposed to be. But, knowing that Sternberg was basically employed to make Dietrich look good, I can’t really vote for it. I just can’t. I like that he’s here though, because his films are definitely more distinctive than 90% of the other directorial efforts out there at this time. So, for that, I’m grateful. But, no vote.

My Thoughts: The two best efforts here are Ruggles and Taurog. Ruggles directed a great epic film in an era that was still transitioning to sound and couldn’t really do all that much yet. Taurog on the other hand did wonders with a small film, really letting the camera run wild (within its limitations) and coaxed a brilliant performance out a child actor (which, ask any director, is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Children and animals, they say. Don’t do it). So, really, I’d be happy with either one of them. But my heart was, and always will be, with Taurog here. Skippy is a brilliant film. That gets my vote.

My Vote: Taurog

Should Have Won: Taurog. And I guess, to a lesser extent, Ruggles.

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. Him or Ruggles would have been fine. This makes me happier overall. Great job.

Ones I suggest you see: Taurog. (Unless you hate children.) Ruggles. (Unless you hate Westerns and/or film history.) Sternberg. (If you like film history.) Milestone. (If you like His Girl Friday.)

Rankings:

5) Brown

4) Sternberg

3) Milestone

2) Ruggles

1) Taurog

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