The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1928/29-1929/30)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.


Lionel Barrymore, Madame X

Harry Beaumont, The Broadway Melody

Irving Cummings, In Old Arizona

Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady

Frank Lloyd, Drag

Frank Lloyd, Weary River

Ernst Lubitsch, The Patriot


To start, The Patriot is the only LOST film on the Oscar Quest. Nobody’s seen it. So we can’t rightly say that Lubitsch should have won. We have to put him at the bottom of the list on a technicality. We’re also dealing with the fact that 1928-1929 didn’t have official nominees. Which makes it slightly problematic in terms of ranking. But these are generally considered the nominees, so let’s just go with it.

And second, Drag is one of the five films I’ve yet to see. It only exists as a print at one of those places (UCLA, MOMA, AMPAS). So until I can get over there and figure out how to see it, I can’t rank it or talk about it. So that’s two off the top.

Getting into the rest…

Madame X — I like that they nominated Lionel Barrymore for Best Director. The Oscars have a long history of nominating great actors in this category when they try their hand behind the camera. I imagine it was a lot easier back then than it is now.

This movie is about a woman caught having an affair and thrown out on the street by her husband. Twenty years later, she’s a gambler’s mistress. He finds out who her husband is and decides to blackmail him. So she kills him to protect her son from the scandal. And, as it turns out, the lawyer assigned to defend her in court is her son.

It’s a good story. The ending is weird. The husband sees her in court and is gonna say something, but then she gives this big monologue and somehow her heart gives out and she dies. Which is one of those old movie conveniences that happen to women. They just sort of die.

It’s not a great movie. They remade it again once or twice. Not sure if it ever really turned out particularly well. Barrymore’s direction is okay. I’m guessing they were giving it to him based on the performances than the actual directing. Since, really, Best Director for the first decade of the Oscars was really more about best story and acting than actual directing. (Because seriously, You Can’t Take It With You won this category. Over an un-nominated Adventures of Robin Hood.)

The Broadway Melody is your Best Picture winner. It’s directed a lot like the others, but has musical numbers, which make it more memorable.

It’s a backstage musical. Two sisters try to get their act on Broadway. Everyone wants the younger one, but she makes them take the older one too. Then there’s a love triangle between the younger one and the older one’s fiancé, and the younger one dating a guy she shouldn’t be. It’s actually kind of fucked up. It ends with the younger one getting everything she wants and the older one sad and alone.

It’s not a bad movie. Probably the best of the bunch. The directing is fine. Nothing too outstanding. It’s lively enough. Could have won here.

In Old Arizona is a western. A fun western. Warner Baxter won Best Actor for this. He’s a singing outlaw that of course you root for. He’s basically a cartoon character. The lawman is after him and he’s always comically one step ahead of him. There’s a humorous scene where he and the deputy are having a shave and the guy’s bragging about how he’s gonna catch him, not knowing the guy he’s talking to is the guy he wants. Stuff like that. And then there’s him seeing a Mexican girl who is going to get him caught. That’s also part of the plot.

It’s a nice little movie. Baxter is a lot of fun here. And ultimately, it’s nice seeing the western sets and stuff. We’re in a weird era for film because they’re just transitioning to sound. So the direction isn’t quite up to snuff yet.

The Divine Lady is the only silent in the bunch. Which is why it won. You can see the direction here. Also, fun fact: the only film to ever win Best Director without a Best Picture nomination. Never happened again.

It’s not exactly a silent. It’s synchronized score and effects and some singing, but there’s no dialogue. So they could shoot it like a silent. It’s basically the story of Captain Nelson and Lady Hamilton (they remade it with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier). I remember thinking a lot of the movie was done in close up and that the wide shots looked nice. Though I don’t think I loved the direction because aside from looking good I don’t think it helped me make sense of what I was watching.

Weary River is part-silent, part-talkie. Gangster shoots a bystander and is sent up the river (the weary river). But in prison, he becomes a musician. And it’s about him trying to go straight but nobody letting him. And love conquers all yet again.

I remember thinking this should have been the film that won because it fits with the time. Though I think a lot of that was the triple nomination by Lloyd, so mostly I was thinking that he should have won for this if anything. But then… there weren’t official nominees, so people actually voted for The Divine Lady. They put it on their ballots specifically.

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The Reconsideration: The Patriot and Drag, I can’t vote for, so nothing changes there. The Divine Lady, I like the direction, but I can’t figure out why they voted for it. I guess because it was an interesting story that also used sound. I still feel like if you’re gonna reward Lloyd and gonna vote for him, why not Weary River, which actually does use music in it and uses sound?

As for Beaumont — pairing with Best Picture would make sense, and the direction is okay enough to work. It’s not particularly standout work, but at this point, what is? I barely remember the direction here, so I don’t know if I can vote for it purely to make things look neater in the box score.

I actually rewatched In Old Arizona a few months ago because I found a remastered copy and wanted to take screenshots. The direction is actually quite good. There are some solid images there, and I think it’s a legitimate choice in the category. Of course, you go back and watch it with the eye of “good direction/bad direction,” you’re going to have a tough time, because it’s so clearly of a certain era that it’s hard to view it through your normal prism. But in terms of a film made between 1928 and 1932, the direction is actually really solid. It falls into the same early sound traps that almost all the films of this era fall into, but, in context, the direction here is actually really solid.

To me, the only two of the “nominees” (since, again, no official nominees) that are worth voting for are Frank Lloyd for Weary River and Irving Cummings for In Old Arizona.

I’m trying not to make decisions like the one I’m about to make and really just limit it to the efforts, but this year is such an outlier in Academy history that I feel all right doing it. The lack of official nominees makes it difficult to say. Theoretically I could have voted for anything if I had a ballot. There was a judging period, and I guess there are movies they evaluated specifically, which gave us this list. So I don’t know.

It’s hard for me to say what I’d do in a vacuum, of just the efforts themselves. Because on the one hand, yes, In Old Arizona’s effort is probably the one I’d vote for. But I’m also presented with a category where Frank Lloyd is nominated three times. And in this ideal scenario, I’d have seen Lloyd’s third nominee and Lubitsch’s nominee. So my knowledge base is completely different.

I’m doing it this way: yes, In Old Arizona probably has the best direction. But Lloyd is here three times, and that’s impressive. So, I’m gonna take the film that’s on here that uses sound more than just for talking. There’s music and dancing there. (Beaumont’s film has the same thing.) I don’t want to factor in their careers to this (The only time that might be a factor for me is, say, 25 years from now, if someone has made great movies and hasn’t won yet. You can’t not take that at least a little into account), plus you can’t, because before this is all silents.

I say — if the vote is Lloyd, how can it not be for Weary River? Just to go with the period. The Divine Lady is good directing, but I don’t know. And then Cummings and Beaumont are both solid alternatives. Beaumont because he has a full talkie that also has some dancing and singing it it. Cummings because his film actually has some good images and shots in it and is a western.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Frank Lloyd, Weary River
  2. Irving Cummings, In Old Arizona
  3. Harry Beaumont, The Broadway Melody
  4. Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady
  5. Lionel Barrymore, Madame X
  6. Frank Lloyd, Drag (haven’t seen)
  7. Ernst Lubitsch, The Patriot (LOST FILM)

Rankings (films):

  1. In Old Arizona
  2. The Broadway Melody
  3. Weary River
  4. The Divine Lady
  5. Madame X
  6. Drag (haven’t seen)
  7. The Patriot (LOST FILM)

My Vote: Ultimately, I’m probably sticking with Lloyd for Weary River, but catch me five minutes from now, and I might even say Beaumont.

Recommendations: The Broadway Melody is worth it as a Best Picture winner and an example of an early sound musical (plus — sad ending. Not a lot of those in Best Picture winners). In Old Arizona is a fun early-sound western. The Divine Lady looks nice and is a familiar story (well… to some). Honestly, really you only need to see most of these either because they won or if you’re really into the transition to sound. Most people wouldn’t bother with this category, to be honest, outside of the two that won other awards.

The Last Word: This is probably my least favorite overall Oscar category. I’m talking category, year. Of the entire Quest, I dislike this one most because of all the circumstances involved with it. I honestly don’t know what the hell to do with it. And I especially hate this category because I just went into an in depth analysis of the directing merits of five movies from 1928-1929, am unsure of which one I’d consider best, and there’s less than 2% of the population that I can actually sit down and talk this one out with.

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Clarence Brown, Anna Christie

Clarence Brown, Romance

Robert Z. Leonard, The Divorcée

Ernst Lubitsch, The Love Parade

Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front

King Vidor, Hallelujah

 Well this’ll be an easy one.

Gonna be perfectly honest with you — I can barely remember the difference between Anna Christie and Romance. If I had to guess, Anna Christie is the one with Garbo and the fishing village, with the “Give me whiskey. And don’t be stingy, baby,” line. And if that’s the case (I’ll find out in a second), then that’s the better of the two.

Garbo Talks! That’s the one. Okay, so I remember Anna Christie. She’s sent off by her father to get an education and comes back for the first time in years. Meanwhile, she’s been a prostitute and has secrets of her own. It wasn’t bad. Mostly what I remember is the fishing town set and the fact that they shot the movie twice, once in German and once in English.

Romance is a frame story. A guy tells his father he wants to marry an actress. And he’s like, “Hang on a minute, listen to this story.” And that’s what we watch. Garbo is an opera singer who falls in love with an upper class guy. She’s sleeping with another guy, and lies about it. His family disapproves, and he finds out. It’s about them not being able to marry because of their class. Doesn’t end well for Garbo, but the moral of the frame story is basically, “Ah, fuck it. Marry who you love.” I honestly barely remember anything about this movie.

The Divorcée is a great film. Pre-code. Norma Shearer finds out her husband had an affair, so she sleeps with his best friend. And then he becomes a drunk and she goes off to party and sleep with lots of men. It’s uhh… a nice little drama. Don’t remember the direction much here, and quite honestly, with such a clear winner in the category, I don’t feel the need to get into it that much. The film is good, but it’s clearly a second choice at best here, so I’m not getting any more complicated than that.

The Love Parade is an awesome film. Maurice Chevalier is sent back to his country from Paris because he’s banged too many women. The Queen, meanwhile, is single, and everyone keeps asking when she’s gonna get married. So she sees this guy and is like, “Well that’s interesting.” So she invites him to dinner. And it goes from there.

I’d love to get Lubitsch an Oscar, but again… at best, second choice. So what are we really doing?

All Quiet on the Western Front is an all-time great film. Everyone needs to have seen this movie. It’s also a clear winner. You’re actually an insane person (not to take an adversarial tone, but seriously) if you see all of these nominees and actually consider anyone else a legitimate choice. It’s no contest. This movie legitimately wins Best Director any year before 1939. Read the original article if you don’t believe me. I broke that stuff down. It does stuff that some movie wouldn’t do for years after this. This all in an era where they could barely record sound! Trust me. Watch the other five nominees here, and then watch this movie. You’ll see.

Hallelujah is an all-black cast movie. Vidor actually put his own salary into this movie.

Two guys sell their crops for $100. They get cheated out of the money and one of them is killed. They’re cheated out of it because the guy who died’s girlfriend sells them out to a gangster who ends up killing the guy. The other guy goes off and becomes a minister. Meanwhile, the girl shows up and starts tempting him. So he gives up the church and goes with her. But she’s still sleeping with the gangster. And it ends with death and stuff. It’s actually a good movie. It’s legit the second choice here, in terms of direction. I also really like that it’s an all-black film.

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The Reconsideration: It’s clearly Milestone, by a mile. It’s not even close. I’m not kidding when I say this film wins Best Director in any year before 1939. Vidor is the strongest case for a second choice (not even counting the lack of win for The Crowd). He legitimately does a solid job with the direction, and would rather see him win for an all-black film than see anyone else (if not Milestone) win. After him, it’s a toss-up between Leonard and Lubitsch. Brown is an also-ran in a category with mostly also-rans. So he’s fine. Kudos for being on here twice. But this is one where you can plainly see who the winner is. It’s actually black and white.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front
  2. King Vidor, Hallelujah
  3. Ernst Lubitsch, The Love Parade
  4. Robert Z. Leonard, The Divorcée
  5. Clarence Brown, Anna Christie
  6. Clarence Brown, Romance

Rankings (films):

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front
  2. The Love Parade
  3. The Divorcée
  4. Hallelujah
  5. Anna Christie
  6. Romance

My Vote: Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front

Recommendations: You need to see All Quiet on the Western Front. If you like Pre-Code movies (and who doesn’t?), you should see The Divorcée. The Love Parade is great and a lot of fun. Also Pre-Code, but in a much more playful sense. Hallelujah I recommend because it’s an all-black film in an era where they just didn’t make those. Anna Christie is worth it because “Garbo Talks.”

The Last Word: It’s clearly Milestone. I don’t throw grand statements out there lightly (anymore), but seriously — I will call you a crazy person if you don’t see these nominees and think Milestone is the clear winner.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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