The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1936

1936 is a tough year. There are a lot of good films that were nominated. I’d say, of all the Best Picture nominees, there were only three I didn’t care for. And even of those three — two of them were just monotonous for me, and the other was, whatever. 7 out of 10 is pretty good.

The only thing is, it’s tough to guess what should have won, because — the Best Picture choice, The Great Ziegfeld, is the first biopic to ever win an Oscar. That’s one thing it had going for it. Two is that it’s actually a good movie. It’s a nice mixture of drama, comedy, and larger than life musical numbers. (Larger than life meaning not like Busby Berkeley, but rather — literally larger than life. The sets are fucking huge.) The downsides to it are — it’s long, three hours, and, there are much more “watchable” films on the list. By that I mean, they’re films you’d want to watch more often than the film that won. So ultimately the decision is, which do you vote for? Because the film is a standard “Oscar” film, and an enjoyable one at that (at least, compared to some other epic Best Picture winners), but, on the other hand — there are alternatives.

That aside, we have this category, which, strangely, split from Best Picture. I feel it says a lot when the Best Picture winner and Director split. It’s like they were compelled to vote for the film that seemed most obvious, then went with what they liked for the other choice.

Oh, yeah, Best Actor was Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur, and Best Actress was Luise Rainer for The Great Ziegfeld. Oh, yeah — the Supporting categories are here. First time ever. The first Best Supporting Actress winner was Gale Sondergaard, for Anthony Adverse, and the first Best Supporting Actor winner — very fittingly too — was Walter Brennan, for Come and Get It.


And the nominees were…

Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey

Robert Z. Leonard, The Great Ziegfeld

W.S. Van Dyke, San Francisco

William Wyler, Dodsworth

Capra — Ok, so — I’ll come out and say it (again. I said it two days ago), Capra is a great director who directs great movies. I just never really saw enough in his directorial efforts to warrant giving him THREE Best Director statues. So you already know the end here before I begin. But, this is more about the film than the vote.

The film, in case you don’t know — is about Longfellow Deeds, a small-town Vermont tuba player who finds out that he had a really rich distant relative who died and left him a fortune. So, he travels to New York to sing papers and such, which becomes a media event because — naturally, it’s a story. So, he brings his small-town ways to the big city, and fun stuff happens. And then the scheming board of directors try to screw him out of the money by making him seem unfit and unstable to have such a fortune. And he’s forced to prove that he’s not crazy in a big hearing at the end of the movie. It’s basically the exact formula that Capra repeated two years later to his THIRD Best Director statue.

The film is very good, it’s just — well, you’ll see why Capra shouldn’t have won this statue when I get to some of the other nominees. No vote.

La Cava — Here’s another great Depression-era comedy. This one is more serious than Capra’s. William Powell plays a millionaire who was ruined by the Depression. And now, he’s living as a bum in the city dump. And these rich families — playing a “scavenger hunt” — a very insensitive one at that — come to the dump looking for a “forgotten man,” because that’s the kind of game that rich people play — and they offer him $5 to come with them. And eventually he gets a job as their butler. And he teaches them to be real people, as he’s learned from his time in the dump. And along the way he falls in love with the spoiled heiress daughter of the family and gets his money back. You know, all of that. But, it’s more serious than the other ones because, we actually find out about Godfrey’s history, and find out that he almost committed suicide because of all the money he lost. It’s actually a very great film. But, the problem with the film is that, compared to some of the other nominees, it doesn’t warrant a vote. It’s shot in a pretty standard 1930s manner, with some nice touches here and there. I can’t vote for it. It’s great though.

Leonard — Okay, the film is a biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, creator of the Ziegfeld Follies. He also started the careers of a lot of famous people, including Fanny Brice — she’s the comedian Streisand won an Oscar for playing in Funny Girl. He also worked with Sandow the Strong Man. Those familiar with the old Edison films know all about old Sandow. He’s also played by Nat Pendleton, whom people who love my favorite film of all time, The Thin Man, will recognize as Detective Guild. We see Ziegfeld go from a man who works promoting acts at carnivals, to a small-time musical producer, to the man that he became. And along the way we see his marriages — first to European Anna Held, a role that won Luise Rainer an Oscar, and second to Billie Burke, AKA Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, played by — ready — Myrna Loy. That’s right, it’s a William Powell/Myrna Loy film.

It’s a great film, because we get the standard William Powell witty sarcasm, as well as a very entertaining biopic along the way. Not to mention, we see some Follies skits too, which are larger than life musical numbers. You can tell how much they spent on the numbers because, there are these huge rotating sets — really huge — that feature dozens of performers. Look:

It’s a big, epic film that’s only drawback is that it might be about 30-45 minutes too long. Still, it’s very entertaining, and a lot bigger than most other films at this time. That makes it a worthy Best Picture winner by itself.

Oh, also, the directorial effort. What separates Leonard’s effort from those of La Cava and Capra is the gigantic musical numbers. All of the films are shot fairly standardly, but — La Cava has some brilliant staging in his (I particularly liked the opening World’s Fair scenes), along with the musical numbers. So that immediately separates him from the pack, and puts him in the running for a vote, with, as we’ll soon find out, someone else.

Van Dyke — Here’s a film I wasn’t overly crazy about for 3/4 of it. It starts as a regular 30-s type film. That is, it’s about Clark Gable as a saloonkeeper in — guess where — who hires Jeanette MacDonald to sing in his club. She’s a classically trained singer who should be singing at the opera. And she starts singing for him, and they fall in love. However, she’s asked to actually sing at the opera, which will make her a huge star, whereas singing at the club only gets her famous on a neighborhood level. And Gable is against it, partly because he loves her and is protective of her, and partly because it’s bad for business. And eventually he makes her choose between marrying him or the opera. And she chooses the opera. (I believe. I forget. It’s pretty irrelevant.) And this whole time Gable is having a conflict with his childhood friend, Spencer Tracy, a priest (naturally), over the fact that he’s an atheist (it’s dealt with rather openly, which I found refreshing. It was very plain and open in the movie). Tracy offers him practical advice on the woman too. But Gable is hard-headed, as Gable often is.

Anyway, the whole film plays out like that. And then about 90 minutes in, there’s a contest about which bar has the best musical acts. And then MacDonald, seeing Gable has no act to go on since she left, comes on and wins the contest for him. And then he refuses the prize money, and continues the hard-headedness. But that’s when the film takes a complete 180° turn.

The San Francisco Earthquake hits.

The film is the equivalent of Titanic, in that, you know (at least, the people at the time knew) what it’s about, and then the film shows you this whole storyline you become engaged in (or at least, watch) for most of it, then reminds you what’s really going on. Out of nowhere there’s this giant fucking earthquake sequence of shit getting destroyed. It was actually pretty breathtaking for 1936. Check it out:

And the rest of the film is dealing with the aftermath of the quake, and all the thematic elements come together. It’s actually pretty great.

The directorial effort, like the others, is pretty standard for most of the film. However, that earthquake scene, as well as the aftermath, is pretty incredible considering the time period. That’s why I separate this effort and Leonard’s effort as being the two clear best ones.

Wyler — And finally — Old William Wyler. I’ll say right off the top — I’m not voting for him. William Wyler will go on to get nominated at least ten more times and win two Oscars. He doesn’t need this one. That said, this was a really good effort. This was a film I didn’t expect to like as much as I did.

The film is about Dodsworth — there’s a surprise — a retired automobile tycoon, who retires pretty early. And he thinks retirement is gonna be great. However, he’s only like 50, and pretty soon on his vacation of Europe he becomes bored. His wife, younger than him, wants to go out to parties and act like a young woman. She’s worried about getting old and wants to pretend like it’s not happening. Whereas Dodsworth is very okay with it, and likes going to see the sights and everything. Pretty soon their marriage dissolves, and he goes back home to see his children, while she stays with a man she picked up along the way. And the rest of the film becomes sort of a charming love story, as Dodsworth meets a widower who is much more his speed, and at first he rejects her because he still thinks his marriage is okay, and the second time he realizes how he should have picked her instead. It’s quite a nice film. I’m really surprised at how much I liked it. I liked it so much that I still consider voting for it for Best Picture. But, that’s not a decision I have to make just yet. So, the film is great, and Wyler’s direction is really good — it’s a very crisp-looking film. But, like I said, no vote.

My Thoughts: The best two efforts were Van Dyke and Leonard. Leonard had nice staging and the musical numbers. Van Dyke had the amazing earthquake sequence. Those are the only two that should have won. I take Van Dyke purely because he directed The Thin Man and didn’t win for that. It’s a personal matter. Tie always goes to who I like better.

My Vote: Van Dyke

Should Have Won: I’d say, Van Dyke or Leonard. Wyler did a good job too. Come to think of it, I kind of like them all. But, should — I’d go first two. Anyone but those two is a cop out.

Is the result acceptable?: No. And not because I don’t like Frank Capra either. But you have to understand, the man won THREE Best Director Oscars in six years — 1934, 1936 and 1938. I think we can afford to not give him one of them (though I think we should have taken away two of them, but that’s a personal matter). This is a strong category, Depression or no Depression, and between Leonard’s making what looks like a regular film with really epic musical numbers included, and Van Dyke’s making what looks like a regular film with a masterpiece of special effects, they both supercede Capra’s effort here.

Ones I suggest you see: Honestly, all of them. Realistically, that earthquake scene is probably enough for Van Dyke if you don’t care about old movies. In context though, it works really well. It’s quite the crazy Ivan. Wyler’s is really good, but, I don’t think carries the broad appeal. Capra is one that everyone will like — watch this version over the Adam Sandler version. Just trust the individual track records on that one. La Cava is worth it if you like screwball comedies or William Powell. (I like both). Oh, yeah, it’s also a William Powell/Myrna Loy film. That’s probably the highest form of recommendation I can give. And Leonard — well, it’s a Best Picture winner, kinda long, mostly entertaining, but I think many people could skip it. I guess this really amounts to which ones you want to watch. I recommend them all, but, Capra’s is definitely the most likely to be enjoyed, then probably La Cava, then Van Dyke, Leonard ten Huston. (I just assume people want comedy from old movies over drama.)


5) Capra

4) La Cava

3) Wyler

2) Leonard

1) Van Dyke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.