The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1928-1929

(Note: THIS CATEGORY IS NOT FINISHED. I still need to watch one of the nominees. I still have not been able to find Drag in any cheap/acceptable format. If anyone has it or knows where it can be procured, let me know, so this category can be finished.)

1928-1929 is the second year of the Oscars, one where there were no official nominees. They just mailed out ballots and whoever got the most votes won, and the unofficial nominees were the people who got the most votes. These were them for the Best Director category.

As for the rest of the year — The Broadway Melody wins Best Picture, because it was the film to best utilize the wonderful new technology called sound, Warner Baxter wins Best Actor for In Old Arizona (talked about here), quite possibly the least interesting or cared about category ever, and Mary Pickford wins Best Actress for Coquette (talked about here), which is a great historical decision that helped to legitimize the category. That’s it, really.

Remember, we’re working on a different set of rules for these categories than we would for contemporary ones. Though, even with the different set of rules, I really can’t understand this one. Not even a little bit. You just invented sound — why wouldn’t you give Best Director to a sound film? Or even if not, why would you give it to that film? (Though, admittedly, he was nominated three times, so maybe that had something to do with it.)

BEST DIRECTOR – 1928-1929

And the nominees were…

Lionel Barrymore, Madame X

Harry Beaumont, The Broadway Melody

Irving Cummings, In Old Arizona

Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady & Drag & Weary River

Ernst Lubitsch, The Patriot

Barrymore — Madame X was remade at least twice after this, so chances are you know the story.

Madame X is about a woman who is caught cheating and thrown out onto the street. She is forbidden from ever seeing her son again. She becomes a prostitute (basically). Years later, she’s sleeping with this dude who finds out about her and decides to blackmail her ex-husband. She doesn’t want her son to get involved with a scandal, so she shoots the dude. Then, in a coincidence, the lawyer tasked to defend her is her son. And at the trial, her husband sees her and is going to say something, but before he can, she has this big monologue about everyone understanding what drove her to murder, and then she dies (with her son totally unaware of who she is).

It’s a very melodramatic part and it makes sense that it got nominated for this and Best Actress. I wouldn’t vote for it, but it makes sense that it’s here. I also love that Lionel Barrymore directed this. He got his reward with a Best Actor two years after this. He didn’t need this.

Beaumont — The Broadway Melody is the first in what would be a string of similarly named films.

The film is about a vaudeville sister act who come to New York to become stars. And the film is about how one of them falls in love with a song and dance man, and then how he gradually starts falling for the other sister instead. It’s a nice little film, and there are musical numbers throughout.

In terms of direction, this film does the most with sound. That, to me, is really what should be looked for in this category. Again, though, I’m in 2012. I can get why they went with a silent film in this category, since I bet at the time, silents were considered the more artistic format for directors, since they had to tell the story without words. So it makes sense. But to me, I feel like, if you’re gonna give it Best Picture, why not give it this too? I was more impressed with the direction on this than what won anyway.

Cummings — In Old Arizona is a film about a singing bandit cheekily avoiding capture by the law. It’s a fun film. Not fun now, but at the time, I imagine, a lot of fun. As for the direction, it’s nothing spectacular. It’s your typical transition to sound film. Just happens to be a western, which adds a little bit of spice to the proceedings. The Broadway Melody still does a better job with sound, since at least they had musical numbers to stage. Plus it’s the Best Picture winner. That clearly deserves a vote over this.

Lloyd — Well, we have three to deal with here.

First, The Divine Lady. It’s a film about Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton. (Personally, I prefer the Olivier/Leigh version myself.) As for the directorial effort — it’s mostly shot up close. All the scenes are shot real tight on the actors. They’re all medium shots or close-ups, past the one establishing shot at the beginning. It helps performances, but it makes you lose track of space some of the time. The staging is good, some shots that work from background to foreground, and the wide shots look really good because the sets are gorgeous, but to me, the direction didn’t get me invested in the story at all. I don’t see why this is automatically a winner (except for subjet matter, maybe).

Second — Drag is impossible to find. I’m pretty sure it only exists as a print. So I’ll let you know about this once I see it.

And finally, Weary River. Weary River is part silent, part  talkie, which makes it a really interesting hybrid of a film. (It also makes Lloyd’s nominations wonderfully symmetric. The Divine Lady being all silent, this being a hybrid, and Drag having both a silent and a sound version. It’s like synecdoche for the transition to sound, all in a nominee. Which really makes me want to vote for him now, actually.)

It’s a simple gangster story. Richard Barthelmess and Betty Compson are madly in love with one another. We spend the first twenty minutes seeing this. And it’s nice. And Barthelmess is a gangster — the early film gangster, who has feuds with other gangs. And he goes to prison because he accidentally shoots a bystander during a shootout with the other gang. And inside prison, he turns to music, and starts writing songs. And Compson stays away from the prison because the warden tells her Barthelmess will only be able to reform if he can stay away from all the people who were part of his old life. And he gets out and tries to be a music star. And she goes to his performances but doesn’t go to see him. Meanwhile, as he tries to go straight, everyone else won’t let him. They taunt him, call him a convict. It’s one of those films. Where the ex-con actually wants to go straight, but society keeps forcing them out. And then of course the two end up together in the end anyway, and it’s really sweet.

Honestly, I think Lloyd should have won for this film instead. I love how it was shot. It looks just like a silent, yet there’s dialogue. It’s incredible. It really is. This is my vote all the way. I think this is much better than The Divine Lady.

Lubitsch — The Patriot is a lost film. Sadly, I can’t say Lubitsch automatically wins this. I may just vote for him anyway, since he definitely deserved an Oscar. I can do that, right?

My Thoughts: Okay, I’ll say this. Ernst Lubitsch is clearly the filmmaker on this list who most deserves the Oscar. And I think he probably should have won. This is me saying that from a 2012 perspective. However, I told myself that if a film is lost, I wouldn’t vote for it. It’s unfair to vote for a film that nobody can see simply because you like who made it. So I can’t officially vote for Lubitsch.

Which brings me down to Beaumont and Lloyd. Beaumont directed the Best Picture winner, and Lloyd directed three films.

Obviously Lloyd was going to win for all three of these efforts, So it makes sense they went that way. Beaumont did a great job with sound, and for that, I almost voted for him, but I actually like that All Quiet on the Western Front was the first all sound film to win Best Director, because it was actually the best film the Academy had up until that point in time. Plus, Lloyd’s nominations are a nice microcosm of what was going on in Hollywood at the time, and I like that (I’ll always vote for something representative of what is happening in history (assuming it’s worth voting for). Like The Best Years of Our Lives). Plus, it’s part silent-part sound. It’s perfect for this category. So that’s my vote. I really think he should have won for that instead.

My Vote: Lloyd (Weary River)

Should Have Won: Seriously? I don’t know. Any one of them. It doesn’t matter.

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Because it’s early and it doesn’t matter.

Ones I suggest you see: Well, you can’t see The Patriot. That’s for sure. Otherwise — The Broadway Melody is a Best Picture winner. That gives you reason to see it. The Divine Lady is a Best Director winner. That also gives you reason to see it. Otherwise, Weary River is a pretty decent silent picture/part talkie, and worth seeing. Especially since you get to see both silent and talkie in action. That’s fascinating to me. It’s definitely, for my money, the best film on this list. And In Old Arizona is a Best Actor winner. So that’s also reason to see it.


7) Lubitsch

6) Lloyd (Drag)

5) Barrymore

4) Cummings

3) Lloyd (The Divine Lady)

2) Beaumont

1) Lloyd (Weary River)

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