The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1937
I don’t like 1937. I think we’ve established this by now on the blog. I think The Life of Emile Zola is one of the weakest Best Picture choices of all time, and I think the Academy didn’t know what to do here and gave it to that film as a cop out decision. You can tell it probably was that because it didn’t also win this category. Joseph Schildkraut won Best Supporting Actor for the film, which, as I said here, I don’t really care about, even though I didn’t think the performance was anything to write home (or anywhere) about.
Best Actor this year was Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous (talked about here). I don’t particularly like it as a Best Actor-winning performance, but I can live with it (it’s really his 1938 win that I can’t live with). Best Actress was Luise Rainer for The Good Earth, which, as I said here, I think is a horrible, horrible decision. And Best Supporting Actress was Alice Brady for In Old Chicago. You can read my problems with that decision here.
And this category, I’ve talked about it in the intros of the other articles I’ve written about this year, I think it’s a great decision, but I think it was for the wrong film. So I intend to talk about both the film he won for and the film he should have won for. But either way, this was a great decision.
BEST DIRECTOR – 1937
And the nominees were…
William Dieterle, The Life of Emile Zola
Sidney Franklin, The Good Earth
Gregory La Cava, Stage Door
Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
William A. Wellman, A Star is Born
Dieterle — The Life of Emile Zola is about — well, you can probably guess. We start with Emile Zola as a muckraking journalist, writing these critical pieces about the government. And he gets fired for writing them, and then he meets a prostitute and gets her story, and writes his first book. And he gets really famous for writing these exposes on the seedy underbelly of Parisian life. And we flash forward to years later and he’s like 50 and still doing what he does. And this is when the Dreyfus Affair happens. Captain Alfred Dreyfus is accused of being a spy (because he’s Jewish) and is thrown in jail for no reason and without trial. And Zola comes to his defense and tries to defend him, even though all the military people are lying under oath and covering for their fellow corrupt officers. And Zola doesn’t really get much accomplished with the trial, but he keeps fighting and fighting, and eventually Dreyfus is released.
It’s a good film. Really strong. The only thing bad about it is the fact that it won Best Picture. Otherwise I’d have absolutely nothing against it.
Dieterlie’s direction is fine, but nothing extraordinary. I’d consider it, but I have both a personal favorite and a clear winner in the category, so for me he’s like a third choice.
Franklin — The Good Earth is based on the book. Wang Lung, Chinese farmer, cares about land. He loves his land. He marries O-Lan, and the film is about them fighting for their land through bitter winters, famines, through the good and bad. It’s a great book, and the film is okay too. I didn’t particularly love the film. It felt like a Hollywood version of the book, which means they streamlined certain aspects that weren’t as interesting as what the book dealt with and softened the edges. So I’m not as high on this film as others might be.
The direction is fine. It looks crisp, but, like I said with Dieterlie, I have a personal choice and a clear winner here, so at best, this is like, fourth for direction. I don’t like the film as much as I like Emile Zola, plus that won Best Picture, so this really isn’t any higher than fourth for me.
La Cava — Stage Door was actually a film that surprised the hell out of me. I had it on DVD because I bought this DVD comedy collection for like $20, and it had Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, To Be Or Not To Be, Libeled Lady (with Bill Powell and Myrna Loy), Dinner at Eight, and this film. And I just kind of tossed it aside when I got it and was like, “I’ll watch this eventually.” And then I started this Quest, and was like, “Wait, don’t I have that film? And wow, three Oscar nominations,” so I put it on when I got down to films with three nominations. And I was actually very surprised by how good it was. It actually belongs in that set.
The film is about a boarding house for actresses. And the main character, if you can call her that, is Katharine Hepburn. She’s the daughter of a wealthy man who wants to make it as an actress on her own. And she comes to the house, doesn’t tell anyone who she really is, and tries to make friends with everyone. And they’re all aspiring actresses. And the main plot of the film is her getting a role in a big play, that another actress in the boarding house wants, and, while she has some talent, she comes off as distant, and no one really believes what she says. And she goes through rehearsals for this play, which actually leads the other girl, who desperately wanted the role (Andrea Leeds, who was fucking incredible in this movie) to kill herself. And Hepburn, so distraught over this, goes out and gives a terrific performance and then dedicates it to the other girl.
I actually really liked the film. I don’t know what it is about it, but I really, really liked it. As for the direction, though, it’s pretty standard, nothing particularly groundbreaking at all, and actually, in terms of individual effort, it’s actually a #5. I like the film as like a #3, maybe, but this effort is a #5 for me. I can’t vote for this at all.
McCarey — Pulling double duty here. Because it needs to be done. I will preface this by — Leo McCarey deserved to win this award, and I’m voting for him all the way. Now, thing is, the film he won for, is not the film he should have won for. Let’s start with the film he won for:
The Awful Truth is a great film, a classic screwball comedy. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are married, and he comes back from a trip and is discovered to have not been where he said he was, and he comes home and finds that she spent the night (as in slept, not, fucked, but back then, the act of spending the night implies so much) at her music tutor’s house. So, both suspecting the worst, they divorce. But they still love one another. And the rest of the film becomes about the two of them sabotaging each other’s attempts at relationships. First Grant screws up her chance to marry Ralph Bellamy (because he still loves her), and then she, to get back at him (and also because she still loves him), ruins his chance to marry a socialite. And eventually the two of them realize they’re still in love and remarry.
It’s a great film, very hysterical, and I love that McCarey won for it. But the film he should have won for is…
Make Way for Tomorrow. The film is about old people. About how old people are still useful in society, yet we toss them away like they’re nothing. (Asians don’t need to be told this.) Fay Bainter and Victor Moore are an old couple. They lost their home to foreclosure. He can’t get a job because of his age. So they go to their five children and ask to live with them. None of the kids want to do it. They call each other like, “Can you deal with them, please?” And eventually one of them finds enough space to take them in. But, just Bondi. Moore is sent elsewhere. So the two are split up for several months just because the kids don’t have enough room for them. Pretty soon the two become a burden to their respective children. There’s a great scene where Bondi is sitting in her rocking chair, knitting, as the daughter hosts a bridge game. And her chair creeks and she gets up and fusses and pretty much annoys everyone without realizing it.
Then, since he sees the kids aren’t happy, plans are made for Moore to go to California with the fifth child. But the thing is, that will mean that he and his wife will almos certainly never see one another again. Like, ever. And they spend one final day together, before they have dinner with all the kids and he leaves to go out to California, and they have great fun, going into a bar, traveling around New York. It’s the most tender date in the world. It’s making me cry just thinking about it. And then they decide to skip the dinner and eat by themselves. Meanwhile the kids have a moment of, “Wow, we’re terrible children.”
Meanwhile, Moore and Bondi have a goodbye at the train station, knowing that they will never see each other again.
This movie makes me fucking bawl every time I see it. It’s so fucking beautiful it’s beyond words. This is a movie that should have probably won Best Picture this year, it’s that good. And so many people don’t even know it exists. I’m telling you, this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, Oscar Quest or not. One day, I’m going to program this film on a double feature with Up, and the people who sit down and watch it are gonna be blown away by how beautiful and poignant, and ultimately sad this film is. I’m going to show this film to my kids one day, as an example of, “Don’t let this happen to me.”
There are no words here except — he earned it.
Wellman — A Star is Born is a film that’s so classic that everyone has seen some version of it. Most have probably seen the Judy Garland version. This version is the non-musical version of the same story. It’s just as good as the Garland version, but incomparable because it’s like Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Same story, just, one has music, one doesn’t. And both later versions were directed by George Cukor.
It’s about a small mid-western girl, Esther Blodgett who moves to Hollywood in order to make it big. She struggles for a while, but soon gets noticed and is groomed to be a star, named Vickie Lester. Meanwhile, she meets Norman Maine, a former top actor whose star is now fading and who is now an alcoholic who is most known for creating scenes wherever he goes. And the two fall in love. And her star goes up as his goes down. She gets big movie parts and he can’t get work anywhere. But they’re in love, so much so that she openly tells him she’d quit movies to be with him. And he realizes she can’t do that, so what he does is, he kills himself by walking out into the ocean. And the film ends with her, standing outside Grauman’s Chinese theater, after the premiere of her film, which has just made her the biggest star in Hollywood, and says, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
It’s a fucking great film. I love it so, so much. Wellman’s direction is fantastic here, and, it’s clearly my favorite of the bunch. Plus, Wellman is a dude who should have an Oscar. So, really, if it weren’t for McCarey’s fantastic year, I’d be voting Wellman all the way. But here — can’t do it. McCarey had too good a year.
My Thoughts: This is McCarey all the way. I love Wellman and wish he had an Oscar, but he did a lot better with Battleground in 1949, and had a much better chance of winning there. For me, between The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow, McCarey earned this one hands down. The second one he won in 1944? Ehh — let’s just focus on the positives at hand. He deserved this one.
My Vote: McCarey
Should Have Won: McCarey
Is the result acceptable?: Hell yeah. Watch both films. You’ll understand.
Ones I suggest you see: The Awful Truth is a classic screwball comedy and is one of the funniest films ever made. I highly, highly recommend you check this one out, and if you’re a fan of comedy or want to become involved in comedy, then it’s essential. (Also, see Make Way for Tomorrow for one of the most beautiful films ever made. Trust me. Did you like Up? Well this is like Up from 1937.)
A Star is Born is an essential film. I think both this version and the Judy Garland version from 1954 are both essential viewing. This story is so classic, and the films are so good — you need to see them. They’re incredible.
Stage Door is a great film. I really liked it a lot. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good. I recommend this one pretty highly. It’s hard to go wrong with a Ginger Rogers film, I find, most of the time.
The Life of Emile Zola is a strong film, and the only knock I have against it is the fact that it won Best Picture. Otherwise, it’s a really great film. Great all around. Highly recommend this one.
The Good Earth is pretty good too. I actually (and I rarely say this) preferred the book more than the film. The film isn’t bad, but it just feels like — it feels like an outline of the book. Like an autopilot version of it that’s pared down and made more palatable for audiences. I imagine that those not familiar with the book would like this more than I did. But it’s still pretty good. People should check this out. It’s pretty strong.
4) La Cava