The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1929-1930

One of these things is not like the other…

Seriously, look at this category. It doesn’t even require anything more than a simple glance. One nominee is so superior to the rest that they shouldn’t have even had voting this year.

All Quiet on the Western Front is so far and away the best film on on this list, it’s like, if, in the mid-90s, you had a bunch of regular PC computers — the big ass towers, with the floppy disks and the dial up internet, and then put a 2011 Macbook in the middle of them. It’s not even close how much better this is than the rest of the nominees.

It of course wins Best Picture this year, in one of the best decisions of all time. Best Actor for this year was George Arliss in Disraeli, which is a pretty good decision, from what I’ve seen (it’s one of the few categories I haven’t finished yet). And Best Actress was Norma Shearer for The Divorcée, which, I also like based on what I’ve seen (or simply just because of her as an actress. I’ve also not finished the category). But, outside of the acting categories — which, before 1934 are mostly whatever, regardless of who won — they really, really got this year right. Because All Quiet on the Western Front is just ten years ahead of its time.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1929-1930

And the nominees were…

Clarence Brown, Anna Christie and Romance

Robert Z. Leonard, The Divorcée

Ernst Lubitsch, The Love Parade

Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front

King Vidor, Hallelujah

Brown — Two films? That’s not fair. Is this because I got all those easy categories with double nominees? Fine — we’ll do double the work. But I won’t like it!

First, Anna Christie. This film is interesting for several reasons. First, it was shot in both English and German. I’ve watched both. We’re only going to talk about the English version. Because that’s what was nominated. It was also Greta Garbo’s first English-language film, which was big news at the time. Garbo talks! And her first line in American cinema — what was it?

“Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don’ be stingy, baby.”

A woman after my own heart.

The film is about a woman who was sent away from a small fishing town to go to college, and comes back. It’s kind of a — person gets sent away so they can make something of themselves, gets educated, and stays away because they don’t want to go back to the uneducated town they came from. So she comes back, sees her father — who is very uneducated. And it’s about that. And she also falls in love with a sailor, but then she has a “dark” past that of course has to come out — it’s a melodrama. But, it’s short. So that’s good. The only appeal here is Garbo, and the English/German versions for real cinema buffs.

Then, Romance, is about a clergyman who fell in love once with a “fallen woman” — Garbo, of course. Garbo and this dude fall in love, and they have to fight society and their beliefs, but of course, she’s sickly and dies, and he goes into the priesthood. Oscar bait to the max back in 1930.

Both films I didn’t particularly like — they were pretty standard fare for the time. The only attraction, like I said, was Garbo. As for the direction — pretty standard. Even though there were two nominations for Brown, neither stands a chance against All Quiet on the Western Front. Seriously, all of these films being nominated against that — they’re like the goat in Jurassic Park. You know what I’m talking about.

Leonard — Love Robert Z. Leonard. Here’s a director who is quintessentially a 30s director. He made some films in the 40s and earlier, but the 30s is really where he’s remembered from. And outside of that, he’s not remembered at all. Yet, he’s got some pretty big films on his resume. Yet — almost no one knows who he is outside the film history buff community. Shame.

Anyway, The Divorcée is a Best Actress recipient this year, which makes it — I don’t know — high profile. The film is about a woman who discovers that her husband has cheated on her, so she sets out to return the favor. But then things get really out of hand. Since she might have actually fallen for this new guy. It’s dramatic.

The film is actually pretty good, as 1930 films go. It’s a pre-Code film, so the whole film is about her fucking lots of men and is pretty explicit about it. I like that too. But, in terms of the direction — totally standard. Never gonna win in a million years against All Quiet on the Western Front.

Lubitsch — Lubitsch really got fucked out of an Oscar. Here’s a dude that was making interesting silent films back in the day and then went on to make these great musicals, and then these great comedies. And he has nothing to show for it. It’s insane.

He had this run of pre-code musicals that were so hysterical it’s beyond words. Here are movies that are literally all about sex. That’s it. Everyone is fucking everyone else, and they’re not hiding it. But they can’t say they’re fucking, so they have to do it another way. So they get Maurice Chevalier, who is pretty much the human version of Lumiere the candle in Beauty and the Beast. Here’s a dude that wiggles his eyebrows and says “Ooh la la,” and e’erybody knows (before he walks through the goddamn door), he’s gonna get some pussy. It’s glorious. These films have innuendo out-u-endo (there’s an ass joke in there somewhere).

This film is about Chevalier as a military attaché in France who has gotten himself in a lot of trouble. He has the habit of sleeping with other people’s wives. The film opens with him getting caught with the ambassador’s wife. And they send him over to Sylvania (fictional place), where a queen (Jeanette MacDonald) is under pressure by her subjects because she hasn’t married yet. So she invites Chevalier to dinner, and the two of them hit it off, and then decide they want to get married. But then he says he can’t allow himself to be ruled, but then he gives in and is like, “Okay, I can,” and they get married and go fuck a lot. That’s the film. It’s fucking amazin’.

The direction here is fine. Nothing too special. Pretty standard for the year. I’d put it third for a vote, just because Hallelujah is historically more significant (had it won, that is), and you can’t vote against All Quiet on the Western Front, you really can’t.

Milestone — Okay, let me lay some groundwork for you (this is my new way to describe foreplay) (cunnilingus, in case that joke didn’t translate): I first saw this film a long time ago. Like, middle school. Or high school. It’s one of those movies you see in school because you read the book. Or maybe I watched it on my own because I loved the book so much. Either way, I’d seen this when I was younger, and loved it. And I hadn’t seen it since.

Now, college comes, and I start taking film classes. And I learn about film history and film form, and I take a class on silents, and a history of the American film history. So, a lot of my classes focused on films that were pre-1960. And an entire semester on films pre-1929. So I know what films looked like during this era. In two separate classes we did weeks on the transition to sound. I can watch a film and spot — it’s from 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933 — they have a definite look to them, if you’ve seen enough. But, let me explain how things generally went for films of this era:

Example: 1927 — Wings. Big silent production. You should know how silents looked.

1929 — Something like Alibi, which is early transition to sound (and a Best Picture nominee). The whole thing is tableau. The sets aren’t deep and everything is shot from the front, and it looks flat. Because they had big ass cameras and had to capture sound, which they could only do via stationary mics in pieces of the set (“talk into the plant!”).

And until 1933, that’s pretty much what you had. Films would get better (as the technology got better) at making the compositions better and moving the camera more, but the films didn’t get much more dynamic overall, composition-wise.

So imagine my surprise when I go back and watch this film. From the opening shot, it’s like that moment at the beginning of The Girl Can’t Help It — the full-screen turns into widescreen, and your eyes just open up, like, “Oh man, I didn’t know this was possible.”

The opening shot is a standard tableau shot, as a dude sweeps up a shop and a woman cleans the floor. But then, what he does is, opens the door in the background, which would have never happened in films of this era, because there was nothing behind the door. It was just the end of the set. But here’s a film that’s like, “This isn’t all we have, we go deeper than this.” And he opens the door, which gives us this shot:

And right here, I’m like, “Holy shit, depth!” Because I’ve seen my fair share of late 20s/early 30s films — depth in those films is like seeing an action sequence shot nowadays where you can make sense of what the fuck is happening. (Rare.)

And then what happens is, the camera pans to the right of the shop (in other films, there wouldn’t be an other part of the shop), and gives us this shot, out the storefront window:

And right here, I’m like, “Holy shit, two planes of action. This is incredible.” This is something I haven’t seen since the silent era, because it would literally be impossible in 1930 for 90% of films to not only have all of this action happening at once (deep in the background), and have all the sound be captured as well.

And this is literally less than thirty seconds into the film. Not one word has been spoken yet. This is literally the film telling you, “We’re gonna do more than just leave the camera in a room.”

And then the camera does even more — it tracks outside, through the window and into the crowds and the troops. It moves! Right there, a minute into this film, it’s automatically a better directorial effort than every film that would win Best Director until 1939. No joke. Everything between this and Gone With the Wind is not a better directorial effort than this film. (Unless we’re counting Grand Illusion, which didn’t win, so, 1938. Still…)

And what’s more, the film continues, giving you compositions like this:

It has continuous action going on outside while an entire scene is going on inside. That’s unheard of. Other films could barely handle one continuous plane of action.

The sound design on this film — given when it was released — is flawless. That’s worth a semester’s worth of study alone.

Then there’s this:

Gorgeous composition in and of itself. But what you see is the line of action going horizontally across the bottom (the soldiers), with the CO on top giving you both a focal point for the shot (he’s the one shouting) as well as a line of sight to the vertical plane (all the soldiers marching) that’s also moving along simultaneously with the horizontal one at the bottom. It’s genius. Then:

The film literally goes inside the trenches. It had to — that’s the story. But — the fact that they pulled it off in this era is really a testament to the direction of Lewis Milestone here. You know how hard it was for most films to record sound in a set, on a soundstage? Here’s a film shot outside! A war film!

Seriously, these five images alone should be enough to award an Oscar.

And then — here’s my favorite shot in the film:

Look at the beauty of this image.

First, it’s diagonal! I haven’t seen a dynamic use of the diagonal in American films like this since silent films (you see it a lot in the really old ones, like D.W. Griffith. Since the diagonal gives an actor the ability to walk across the screen and look as though they’re moving across a distance. If they shot head on, you can’t really tell exactly where they are in relation to the camera. Plus moving diagonally makes the frame more visually interesting). But, you have the soldiers moving diagonal down and to the left.

Then, in the middle of the frame, you have the horses and carriages moving diagonal down and to the right.

And then, up in the top left, you have a third plane of action! There are three things happening at once within this frame! The trucks are moving diagonally up and to the left.

And yet — all of this — is not confusing at all. When you see this shot in the film, you can see all of this happening very clearly and concisely, and it looks so smooth. It’s really quite beautiful.

So, all of that is why I’m voting for this film.

Now, in case you don’t know what the story is, it’s about a German soldier who becomes disillusioned after spending lots of time in the trenches during World War I. It’s the most famous World War I film made and one of the best war movies ever made. And the book is incredible. Chances are, if you’re educated, you’ve read this in school. And probably have seen this as well. And if you haven’t, do so. I guarantee you they will never make a better version of this book than they did with this one. This holds up even today.

This is hands down the winner of Best Director in any category between 1927 and 1937. No joke. That’s how good it is.

(Also, you have no idea how proud of myself I am that I got to go all film major all over this one. My professors would be proud. I’m not a total fuck up.)

Vidor — Halleuljah is a very interesting film. And one you have to watch very carefully. That is, to the untrained eye (and even a bit to the trained one), the film will come off as racist. The characters seem like caricatures of blacks and the whole thing seems very — almost minstrel show. It’s not. I mean, in a slight way it kind of is, but, it’s really not. You have to understand that there were no movies at this point in time about blacks. The best a black actor could hope for is playing a slave or servant and really being a caricature. There were almost no films featuring predominantly black casts with black stories. So this is actually a landmark film, despite its — appearance — to modern audiences.

The film is about two black farmers who make some money selling their cotton. And one of the men’s girlfriends is also involved with some shady gamblers, and she conspires with them to cheat him out of the money. And they get him in a rigged card game, and he loses (his and his partner’s money), and then he realizes he was cheated and demands his money back. But, in the ensuing ruckus, the partner is killed. So the man runs away and reforms himself. He becomes a minister. He gets engaged to a good woman. But then, the old girlfriend finds him and decides to show up and ruin his life. She comes back, and he’s still interested in her, so she tempts him with her sexy ass, and he runs off with her. So then, years later, he’s married to her, but she’s cheating on him with her gangster pal. But then the guy finds out about it, just as they plan on running away together. But in the chase, she dies, and he kills the gangster dude. And the film ends with the dude returning to his other family (the preacher one).

Now, the plot sounds like a regular film, albeit one with slightly black-oriented overtones. And it is. The thing is, when you watch it, the actors are very — it just doesn’t feel totally right. I don’t know how to explain it past — just watch it. You’ll see what I mean. It just doesn’t feel quite okay. Good film, though. I really enjoyed it.

The film is actually really well-made. And, honestly, were it not for All Quiet on the Western Front being a film that would have won Best Director if it were nominated 8 years after this, I’d probably vote for this film in this category. Because the direction is good, and it would be the best historical choice here. So I do really like it. But there’s a clear winner in this category, and this isn’t it.

My Thoughts: It’s All Quiet on the Western Front by a mile. If you’ve seen a bunch of films between 1927 and 1932 like I have, you’ll see just how far and away better that film is to them.

My Vote: Milestone

Should Have Won: Milestone

Is the result acceptable?: No joke, one of the top ten best decisions of all time. It’s that good. When you watch the film, especially if you’ve seen other films that came out at the same time — there’s no comparison. All Quiet on the Western Front looks like a film that was directed ten years after it was. The staging is just so good. In an era when people were having trouble dealing with sound and moving the camera, you look at some shots in the film, and there are three planes of action happening at once. And most importantly, that first shot, which begins like a film of the era, on a set without that much depth, and then it moves onto a huge set that’s outside — it’s really one of the best decisions ever made. I could honestly teach a class on this film and how ahead of its time it is.

Ones I suggest you see: All Quiet on the Western Front is a must-see for everyone. Chances are, you’ll see it in school or something at some point, but if not, watch it. It’s truly astounding. One of those old films that is interesting even to people who hate old films (those fucks). You really need to see it. It’s incredible. I doubt they’ll ever make a version of that book that’s even half as good as this one.

And also, The Love Parade is a very enjoyable film. Chances are, if you’re watching a Lubitsch film, it’ll be very good. Lubitsch was great at what he did. Most people are familiar with his later comedies, like To Be or Not to Be or The Shop Around the Corner, but his earlier musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are so hysterical. They’re really just great. Because they are so obviously about sex, and manage to get around censorship in the most hilarious ways. Really, The Love Parade is very funny. My personal favorite Lubitsch musical is One Hour With You, but this one is also very, very funny. Highly recommended.

And also, for the real film fan — Anna Christie and Romance are Greta Garbo, and her films always hold some interest. They’re very short. You can take care of both films in just over two and a half hours, which is a plus.

And Hallelujah is an interesting example of an all black film. It’s stereotypical as hell, but it’s also pretty good, and very interesting for someone who’s into film history. I recommend it. Very historically significant. Shines light onto how racist the industry was at the time, a much bigger light than the bigger films do.

And The Divorcée is another one of those Pre-Code films. That automatically makes it worth checking out. It really pushes the limits of censorship at a time when they couldn’t even mention anything even remotely related to sex. It’s also not half bad.

Rankings:

5) Brown

4) Leonard

3) Vidor

2) Lubitsch

1) Milestone

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