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The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1931-1932

1931-1932. Not much to say about this one. Grand Hotel — an “Oscar” film if there ever was one. Only film to ever win Best Picture without gaining a single nomination in any other category. That’s interesting. The film was designed for one purpose and achieved that purpose. In today’s world — that would never happen.

We actually covered one of the categories in these year very recently. Best Actor this year was the tie between Frederic March and Wallace Beery. Remember that? That saves us some time on one of the nominees. Best Actress was Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. That’s 1932. Let’s get into it.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1931-1932

And the nominees are…

Frank Borzage, Bad Girl

King Vidor, The Champ

Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express

Borzage — There’s a reason I picked this one for the weekend. It doesn’t have films most people would ever see. Like, ever. Even though I like them and love one of them a lot — they’re not films a regular person would put on. Starting with this one.

Frank Borzage, as I’ve said before, is one of those directors who was huge in this era. Or at least, was well-regarded. How do I know? He won the first Best Director and won this one too. Though largely forgotten today, he directed — Seventh Heaven, a genius romantic comedy that moves you without words, Street Angel, another fascinating movie that just engrosses you for some reason that you don’t know why, as well as — and this is probably what he’s most well-known for in mainstream circles (if that) — the original A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. That was the year after this. I’ll get into Seventh Heaven and Street Angel another time, but, for now, let’s talk about Bad Girl.

Bad Girl — today — would be a shitty romantic comedy. A really bad one. You can just see where the premise would end up today. The premise is, there’s a girl who flirts with every man alive. Just, everyone. Not to get with them, just, because it’s fun for her. She knows they want sex, and she takes advantage of that. And she’s beautiful, and everyone wants her. And she rejects them all. She knows the power she has and exploits it. However, she meets one guy who is just impervious to her charms. No matter what she does, he doesn’t give a fuck. He’s like, “Does that work on a lot of guys?” and starts making fun of her. His lack of interest in her makes her determined to get him. However, this is the key — they get rid of the premise within the first fifteen minutes.

A modern romantic comedy would not have them meet until fifteen minutes in — after they showed you how she’s a flirty woman and also a struggling professional, and then rejects a guy, has a best friend (female or gay male, or both) who she tells her stories to, and then we get a hint of her longing to have a guy in her life, and then she goes on doing what she does. Then, fifteen minutes in, she’ll bump into the guy, and think, “I’ll get him,” and starts flirting with him. That doesn’t work and he leaves. Which then leads her to follow him, show up where he hangs out, and try again. Perhaps there is slapstick in here, perhaps not. It depends if it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Because you know in this scene, she’d follow him and end up tripping on a dog leash or something. So then she’s realize it didn’t work, then get interested, then they’d get together and — well, I don’t even want to think about what happens after this.

In this movie, the first three minutes, they’re talking. Then they’re flirting. Then, ten minutes in, they’re walking around together, on a date. And we see they like each other, and he walks her home. And then the story completely shifts gears. Which is the key. Modern Rom Coms have one strategy. Start with them not together, end with them together. Throw in some conflict along the way where they might not be together. The key to a smart romantic comedy is to shift gears. Make it seem like it’s about them getting together, then shift it just a bit. I’ll show you, using this film as an example.

They get together the next day, and end up fucking in his apartment. It’s pretty obvious they end up fucking. And they want to get married. It’s one of those whirlwind romances. However, she lives with her brother and his wife. And the brother is very overprotective of her and doesn’t want her to. This happened a lot in older movies. And really — it’s interesting. Because at first you think the film is about her flirting with men and then falling for one. But by the end of the first act, she’s now engaged and pregnant.

The rest of the movie then becomes about “Are these couple really suited for one another?” They spend the rest of the film worried. She’s worried about him leaving her and making her be a single mother because she made an impulsive decision. And he’s worried because the country is in a Depression and he has to raise a child in a world where he can barely afford to take care of his wife. And she’s getting shit from her brother who thinks she’s a harlot and whatever, though his wife comes and helps her out, because she understands her true feelings. And for the rest of the film we see the relationship go from bad to worse, as they stop talking to one another, and are on edge, and we see the strain that a relationship really puts on a couple. Not only that — there’s actually the issue of abortion in this film. That’s another thing that makes it so great. They can’t say it, of course, but they’re both thinking, “If we abort this baby, everything will be all right.”

What’s great about this film is that — it’s all so real. You can relate to everything that happens. Naturally, you understand that it’s a movie and has some degree of separation from reality — but how far apart was that separation in 1931? How far apart is it today? There aren’t any plot devices or coincidences — that old screenwriter’s trope of, “We need to ratchet up the tension.” None of that. It’s the Blue Valentine of relationship movies, made in 1931. It just feels so real, it’s incredible. Now, about the direction.

The film doesn’t look anything astounding. It’s not shot in some enlightening way. There’s really nothing completely stand-out about it. However, since another nominee is practically the same thing, and the other is — well, Sternberg — I really do think this was the best directorial effort of the year. And I daresay that this film might have even won Best Picture this year if it weren’t for the obvious “Oscar” choice in the pack.

This is the best relationship movie I’ve seen in a long time, apart from Blue Valentine. I wholeheartedly support this choice for Best Director.

Vidor — This is the movie about the boxer — custody battle with his kid — comeback — dies in the ring at the end — you know what I’m talking about. That one. Even if you don’t know it, you know it.

The direction really isn’t anything outstanding. It’s pretty standard for most films. I wasn’t all that moved outside of Beery’s performance. It’s a fine movie, just — the direction — next to Borzage, not as good. Sternberg was stylistically better, but not story-wise, and Borzage just was the best overall. So, sorry, King.

Sternberg — This is, like all Sternberg films, beautifully shot. He knows how to shoot Dietrich.

It’s about a prostitute on a train during the Chinese civil war. She encounters a former lover — of course — and we find out it’s because of him she became a prostitute. We also meet other people on the train and get to know them. We find out there’s an enemy agent on the train. He tries taking it over — the guy has to fight for Dietrich, proving his love, all that jazz. They end up together. It’s one of those films.

I wasn’t terribly taken by the film. Watched it twice because the first time I was halfway through and didn’t know what the fuck was going on. It’s shot nice, lots of black-white contrast. Dietrich looks good. I just can’t vote for it. There’s a sentimental favorite here, plus — there’s no story here. It just looks good. Best Director ought to be everything taken into account. In that regard, this can’t win. If you’re going style alone, this is clearly the best. But, you have to include everything, and if you’re doing that, no vote.

My Thoughts: Bad Girl is a film that’s 70 years ahead of its time. It works today, as do most of Borzage’s films. Seriously. If I stuck you in a theater — because a theater is the only way to truly immerse you in a film — and you watched this of your own accord (willingly is a big part of it) — I guarantee you that this, Seventh Heaven and maybe even Street Angel — would go over really well. Because — Borzage is the kind of director that just knew how to create human emotion with his films. He really was the best choice of this category.

My Vote: Borzage.

Should Have Won: Borzage.

Is the result acceptable?: Amazingly good choice.

Ones I suggest you see: Borzage. Vidor if you like the story, and for Beery and all that. Your call. How into Oscars are you? And Sternberg — well, if you like Dietrich or Sternberg.

Rankings:

3) Vidor

2) Sternberg

1) Borzage

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