The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1930/31-1931/32)
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.
Clarence Brown, A Free Soul
Lewis Milestone, The Front Page
Wesley Ruggles, Cimarron
Norman Taurog, Skippy
Josef von Sternberg, Morocco
A Free Soul is a Pre-Code drama. Lionel Barrymore is an alcoholic lawyer whose daughter starts dating his client, a gangster he just got off on a murder rap. Norma Shearer is the daughter and Clark Gable is the gangster. And Leslie Howard is the guy Barrymore wants his daughter to be with. And James Gleason is in it too, for good measure. It’s memorable mostly for the fact that it’s Pre-Code (lot of sex hinted at) and because Barrymore delivers a monologue that lasts about fifteen minutes at the end of the movie. He won Best Actor, most likely because of that monologue. The film itself is all right. Not bad, not great. In terms of direction, it’s fine. Nothing particularly memorable. This is the entry that’s bringing up the rear in this category.
The Front Page is a movie you know about, even if you haven’t seen it. Because the story they used for this film eventually became His Girl Friday. The major difference is that here, Hildy is a guy. Same story, though. Rolltop desk, escaped convict, them working on the story even though Hildy’s quit. That’s all there. The direction is solid, mostly owing to Milestone being a great director and knowing how to stage a scene and where to put the camera. Though, honestly, at best I see this only ending up in the middle of the pack. It’s not memorable enough to win.
Cimarron is the Best Picture winner. The first grand scale western. Not that it’s really a western. It’s a western drama, more so drama. It’s about a guy who can’t sit still and gets the call to adventure. So he drags his family out west to become homesteaders. They race out in wagons with everyone else, and pretty much wherever they can stake a claim, that’s the land they can have. So we see them get out there, and start building this place. And we watch as the wagons become a village, which becomes a town, which becomes a city. And our guy becomes the head of the newspaper, and a major figure in town. Until he gets the call to adventure once again and leaves his family to go out on more adventures, leaving his wife in charge of all his businesses. It’s a good film. Enjoyable, and has a lot of nice moments on it. The one I always point to is when they’re sitting in this makeshift town with wagons and haphazardly give something a name, and then later on, when it’s a city, that’s the name of the major street in the city. You can tell they put a lot of money into this (for 1931). It’s big and classy. And the direction is just limber enough to be considered strongly for a win.
Skippy is one of my favorite films of the era. Because it’s a film essentially told through the eyes of a child. We see a day in the life of this boy. He gets up, tries to get away with not having to brush his teeth, things like that. And him and his friend (who lives in the poor section of town) find a stray dog. And they adopt it. And everything is great until the local asshole dogcatcher takes it and says they have to pay a fine to get the dog back. So they go around town trying to get enough money to get the dog back. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a really effective film. Jackie Cooper is incredible, and the direction is really good. The thing that Taurog did with this movie is shoot it from a child’s height, essentially. There are moments where he’s walking up the street, and the camera is low to the ground. So you’re right there in this boy’s world. And it really draws you in. It’s not amazing direction for all-time, but for this story, it’s really evocative and really does a good job of drawing you into the story.
Morocco is another von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration. She’s a cabaret singer and she falls in love with Gary Cooper, a soldier. Though there’s also Adolphe Menjou, a rich guy, who also wants her. Mostly this is famous for the musical number where Dietrich dresses like a man and kisses a woman. The direction is your typical von Sternberg stuff. I wasn’t overly blown away by it, but it’s appropriately solid.
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The Reconsideration: Clarence Brown is the number five on this list for me. I just didn’t see enough here to rank it any higher than that. Number four is a toss up between Milestone and von Sternberg. They’re fine, but they’re not winners to me. The vote is between Ruggles and Taurog. You can make a strong case for either. Ruggles has the fact that his film won Best Picture going for him, which would make a won look nice and tidy on the lists. His film looks good and has all the production value going for it. Taurog’s film is smaller, but more emotional. I really like how he shot it and how it brings you into the perspective of a child and keeps you there. The drawback there is that, ultimately, it’s not that incredible a job. Sure, the camera is low, but he’s not giving anything so groundbreaking as to necessitate a victory. You can make a case for or against either. Fortunately, we don’t have to get into the stuff of, “Well this person hasn’t won before and made some other classic movies, and I want to get him one, so I’ll vote for him.” Some people might feel that way about von Sternberg here, but I clearly don’t. Ultimately, I think it’s either Ruggles or Taurog. And since I’m such an admitted fan of Taurog, and I don’t really see a negative either way, I’ll stick with him. It’s my favorite film on the list, and hey — he did win. So it’s not like you can call me that crazy.
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- Norman Taurog, Skippy
- Wesley Ruggles, Cimarron
- Lewis Milestone, The Front Page
- Josef von Sternberg, Morocco
- Clarence Brown, A Free Soul
- The Front Page
- A Free Soul
My Vote: Norman Taurog, Skippy
Recommendations: I really like Skippy. I think you should see that. Plus it won the category. But even so, it’s really engaging, and was even an influence on Charles Schultz (well, the comic it’s based on, at least). Cimarron won Best Picture, and you almost have to see those, especially if you’re reading this article. You didn’t come here by accident, so see that one. A Free Soul has a lot of reasons for seeing it, namely the Best Actor win, the fact that it’s Pre-Code, and that it’s the first time Clark Gable and Leslie Howard worked together (they made a pretty memorable film a few years after this). Morocco has the memorable image of Dietrich dressed as a man, plus it’s her and von Sternberg. That’s big for people into film history. And The Front Page is interesting if you want to see the early version of His Girl Friday.
The Last Word: To me, the category is between either Taurog or Ruggles. You can maybe make a case for von Sternberg, but I can’t see it. I don’t think Milestone merits a vote, and I don’t think Brown does either. The films are all fine, but in terms of this category, I feel like it’s either the guy who actually won or the guy whose film won Best Picture.
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Frank Borzage, Bad Girl
King Vidor, The Champ
Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express
Down to three nominees. And it’s a rough category, to boot.
We start with Bad Girl. I bought this box set, Borzage and Murnau at Fox, and I have all their early stuff. So I knew I had this one when I started the Quest. And when I put it on, I wasn’t expecting much. I knew the general logline, which was, “Girl flirts with all men knowing they all want her. She finally meets a man who doesn’t want her, and falls in love with him.” And I thought that was the film. Turns out – that’s the first five minutes. The rest of this film is so fucking good. It becomes about them falling in love, and then dealing with social norms – she ends up spending the night at his place – presumably platonically, I forget if it’s implied if they slept together or not – and then her sister and brother-in-law, whom she’s living with, throw her out of the house because she brought shame to herself, so the two have to get married. And then they get married and have to deal with finances, and then she gets pregnant, so they’re worried about the baby, and then they worry about whether or not they’re actually in love. It’s a really progressive film for 1931. It’s very ahead of its time. This is shit people have to deal with today. Meeting someone, falling in love, rushing into marriage and on your way to having a baby before thinking about whether or not you’re actually in love with this person and want to spend the rest of your life with them. This movie is really good. And the direction – I liked it. Of course, my love of the film makes me biased toward it, plus it won, so I see no reason why I shouldn’t continue voting for it. Plus the category isn’t particularly overwhelming with a favorite.
The Champ is an iconic story, at least in movies. It’s been remade a couple times. Alcoholic ex-champ, gambles a lot, loves his son. Then the mother enters the picture, and he loses the son, so he goes back into training for a comeback. The ending of this story is very famous. The locker room scene. Most people remember the Jon Voight ending. Still, the story is iconic. I don’t remember much about the direction. I imagine it’s solid. I don’t remember too much standing out to me, so I figure it’s probably worth a vote if you’re for it, or for Vidor, who always seems to be getting the short end of the Oscar stick. So I can’t say too much here. I imagine the direction is solid, but haven’t seen it since. It’s a solid choice.
Shanghai Express — It’s about a bunch of people on a train in China. One of them is Marlene Dietrich. Shanghai Lily. Banging men Shang-high and Shang-low. And there are a bunch of others, and we follow them as the train is taken over by a warlord. It’s a pretty good movie. I’m not in love with it. It’s okay. Sternberg has a reputation. He lit Dietrich really well. Every time I watch his movies, I never really see it. I still don’t. Maybe I haven’t reached that level of maturity yet. I know people could make a case for him in this category. I, personally, don’t love the film or the directorial effort enough to do so.
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The Reconsideration: You can really go whatever way you want in this category and be justified. I, personally, remain a moderate fan of Shanghai Express and don’t like it enough to vote for it. It’s my number three in the category. The Champ is iconic, and the direction is fine. If you want to take past into account, Vidor has earned one of these by this point (and even afterward), so you could vote for him based on that and based on your thinking the film is the best. For me, all things being equal (and the directorial efforts, in my mind, are pretty equal), I’m gonna take my favorite, and that’s Frank Borzage, Bad Girl. Not a particularly memorable category, so honestly, you can’t go wrong with whatever you feel here.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Frank Borzage, Bad Girl
- King Vidor, The Champ
- Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express
My Vote: Frank Borzage, Bad Girl
Recommendations: In terms of stories, The Champ is one of the most memorable. It deserves to be seen. Bad Girl is amazing, and is really progressive for its time. Highly recommended. And Shanghai Express is von Sternberg and Dietrich, and a lot of people consider it a classic, so that should be seen if you’re really into movies (like on a film student level). This isn’t quite the time period or the category for the “casual movie watcher.”
Final analysis: Honestly, this category could have went any way and no one would really feel one way or another about this. I’m happy Borzage won, because I like him and like his movies. People in this era who got multiple Oscars did so before the norms we recognize today were put in place. So you can’t really judge on that level that some people do with the Oscars. Sure, Vidor probably deserved a statue. No one’s denying that. But how does one vote? Do you really try to handle it logistically? “Well, this category isn’t memorable, so I’ll give him a vote here, because he deserves one, and this is the best category to give him one, and then I can make up for it in this category…” Honestly, just vote the way you want. Go whatever way you want with this. I’m trying to treat the categories on their own as much as I can. It’ll become more difficult later on, but for now — Bad Girl was my favorite movie in the category, and since I honestly didn’t see that much difference in the efforts, I’m voting for my favorite.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)