The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1935-1936)
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.
John Ford, The Informer
Henry Hathaway, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
Frank Lloyd, Mutiny on the Bounty
(Michael Curtiz, Captain Blood)
Curtiz was a write-in candidate (and finished second in the voting). How he wasn’t on here originally instead of Hathaway, I have no idea. I’m not sure if we count him or not. I guess for this category’s purposes, we shouldn’t. Because he’s not an official nominee. And if we’re allowing him, then we’re allowing write-in candidates. And then I have to mention possibly George Stevens for Alice Adams, Rouben Mamoulian for Becky Sharp, James Whale for Bride of Frankenstein, William Wellman for the Call of the Wild, Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and/or Mark Sandrich for Top Hat. You know what I mean? Write-in candidates weren’t official nominees, but we have to mention him because he got the second most votes. Curtiz definitely deserves to be here, but he wasn’t an official nominee. So I don’t know how to handle this. Fortunately, only 1934 and 1935 were write-in years, so we won’t have too many situations where this is a factor.
I think I’m gonna err on the side of not officially ranking him. It’s just easier and less complicated that way.
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a movie I didn’t particularly like very much when I saw it. It was okay, but I didn’t get anything out of it. I haven’t seen it since, so I haven’t gotten a chance to revise my opinion.
I guess it’s kind of like Rio Grande, but with British troops in India. It’s mainly about a son who enlists in the unit, run by his father, and his father deliberately treating him coldly so as not to show favoritism. And then the son gets kidnapped, and he refuses to let the men go rescue him. Which leads to two of the soldiers (Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone) to go off on their own.
It’s all right. I wasn’t crazy about it, but it was serviceable. I think I might not have responded to it because it reminded me of a John Ford plot but was very clearly a John Ford film. So it felt like a generic knock-off rather than the real deal. I’m sure it’s a better film than I thought the first time. But either way, when you look at the company this one is in, it’s hard for it to make a lot of moves for a vote, whether you like the film or not.
Mutiny on the Bounty is an iconic story. You’ve heard of it, you’ve seen at least one version of it, either as a film or done by one of the shows you watched growing up. (It’s like the story of the Trojan Horse. I can think of at least three or four cartoons or kids shows I saw growing up that told that story. (Hey Arnold, The Simpsons…) Which means you know the story even if you don’t necessarily think you know it.)
The title is self-explanatory. There’s the cruel and sadistic Captain Bligh, who runs his ship with an iron fist. He is unnecessarily cruel toward his crew members, which leads to a mutiny. Bligh and those who support him are cast out to sea, while the rest of the men sailto Tahiti and hang out with the island girls. Meanwhile, Bligh manages to navigate the lifeboat all the way back to England using his skills as a sailor, and sets out to capture the men responsible. It’s a terrific film. Really iconic story. They made it three times in a big way. This was the first, then they remade it with Marlon Brando in the 60s, and then again with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins in the 80s. Very famous movie.
The Informer is an incredible film. Very simple story, but it’s the way Ford shoots it that makes it work as well as it does.
It’s about Gypo Nolan (an Oscar-winning Victor McLaglen), who desperately wants to make it to America to start fresh. He decides to rat out his IRA friend who has a $20 bounty on his head. Only as soon as he does, he is wracked with guilt, and it starts to destroy him. What’s great is that we’re dealing with a small community, so word starts to spread that he was the one who ratted the guy out, and he’s going around, spending money and drinking, and the whole movie starts to close in and get more claustrophobic as McLaglen’s guilt reaches a fever pitch.
Really terrific film, and again, it’s Ford’s direction that really makes it stand out as more than just a small gangster movie.
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The Reconsideration: This is a tough call. Though it’s kind of similar to the previous year, where you have two high profile movies and one that doesn’t quite seem to hold up as much. That last one, in this case, is The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Apologies to Henry Hathaway, but there’s really no way I can consider voting for him with the other two efforts also nominated. It actually would have been way more of an interesting choice if we had Curtiz here as an official nominee instead. But that’s a whole write-in deal, and I’m not getting into those waters.
The real question here is: Lloyd or Ford. We do have the interesting case that Lloyd had already won twice before this. I’m not going to let that influence me, just because I want to treat the category on its own merits rather than deliberately not voting for somebody because, “Well… they’ve been rewarded enough.”
Now — Mutiny on the Bounty is well-directed and looks like a classy A-level picture. It’s prestige, and it shows. The direction feels fine, but isn’t something that makes me go, “Oh man, look at that.” The exterior shots of the ship on the water are nice, but that’s not great directing so much as it is shots that for a change weren’t clearly shot on a soundstage. Because pretty much everything was shot what was obviously a set back then. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot that stood out to me that screamed “vote for this.” But, the movie won Best Picture, and sometimes people feel like if something is the best movie, by default the directing should also win. But if we’re looking at this from the perspective of, “Here’s what’s nominated, what should win?” then it doesn’t matter that it won.
The Informer isn’t as substantial a film as Mutiny on the Bounty, but the directing effort does stand out more. Ford is obviously a master director, and looking at the film, it’s really no surprise that he won. He creates a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere that really gets the most out of his story. This is a very simply story, yet he squeezes every bit of tension and emotion out of it. It feels richer than it is. That does count for a lot.
I feel like they actually made the right decision here. The Informer was the better directorial effort, but Mutiny on the Bounty was the better overall film, so splitting the vote makes sense. I look at the two choices (since I can’t vote for Hathaway) and Ford’s immediately stands out to me as being the better of the two. So I’m gonna vote for that. I can see people who want to vote for Lloyd, and I wouldn’t say that’s a wrong decision, but to me, this seems like the Ford show all the way.
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Rankings (category and films):
- John Ford, The Informer
- Frank Lloyd, Mutiny on the Bounty
- Henry Hathaway, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
(This gets way more complicated with write-ins. Let’s leave it at the three they nominated officially.)
My Vote: John Ford, The Informer
Recommendations: Mutiny on the Bounty is an essential story. See some version of it. This is probably the best of the bunch. It’s the one that won Best Picture, and it’s the one that gets the most out of the story. Plus Laughton is terrific as Bligh. Then, The Informer is a great John Ford movie, and is one of his most essential non-westerns. Really terrific, and it won the most Oscars this year (4. While Mutiny on the Bounty only won Best Picture.) And The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is okay, but I didn’t love it. It’s a classy 30s movie, though. They’re very easy watches.
The Last Word: Ford seems like the clear winner. My criteria is — if you look at the category, and immediately see a film stick out, that’s probably the best choice. Especially in the Studio System era. Lloyd is an acceptable choice if you want to go that way, but Ford just seems like a clear top choice.
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Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey
Robert Z. Leonard, The Great Ziegfeld
W.S. Van Dyke, San Francisco
William Wyler, Dodsworth
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a film that’s really charming, but doesn’t hold up as well as Capra’s other movies. To me. But it’s also the one of his that I haven’t seen as recently as others, so maybe that’s just that talking.
I feel like, between this version being iconic and the Adam Sandler remake, people have seen this story. Longfellow Deeds is a beloved small town tuba player, who inherit a bunch of money in the big city. So he goes and brings his small town ways there, meanwhile the board members of the company try to swindle him out of the money. Great movie. Gary Cooper is terrific, very famous.
My Man Godfrey is a hilarious movie. Also a very famous story. An eccentric rich family is off on a scavenger hunt at one of those socialite parties. One of the items on the list is a “forgotten man.” (This is the Depression, so they had those back then.) They go to the city dump, where they meet Godfrey (William Powell). The daughter (Carole Lombard) persuades him to go with them to win the contest (mostly because her sister is annoying and treats him like a piece of garbage, so he wants to spite her). This then leads to him being hired as the family butler. And we watch him navigate a family of crazy people. It’s a really, really great movie. Powell is great, Lombard is great, Eugene Palette and Alice Brady are great. This was nominated in every acting category. Yet somehow not nominated for Best Picture. But it’s an all-time classic comedy.
The Great Ziegfeld is your Best Picture winner. It’s a big, expensive studio picture. This has prestige written all over it. It’s an almost three-hour biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld. And if you know film history — the first 30 years of movies were heavily reliant on the stage. Movies weren’t their own art form yet, so Hollywood relied on theatrical conventions to portray stories until they learned how to tell stories cinematically. Especially once sound came in. A lot of the early sound stars were Broadway stars who could talk well. So a biopic of Ziegfeld makes a lot of sense during this time.
The movie is split into three parts. The first is early Ziegfeld, starting off as a circus promoter who eventually goes off and starts his own show, the Follies. The second third is him with his first wife, the part that won Luise Rainer Best Actress. And the final third is him with his second wife, Billie Burke (Glinda), played by Myrna Loy. And spread throughout the film are 10 giant musical numbers. They really go all out here. The sets, the costumes, the budget — watch the scope of the musical numbers in this movie and compare those to the rest of the nominees. They stand out. It’s one of those situations where you see them and go, “Well of course this won Best Picture.” It’s a great movie with a lot of great performances (and cameos), and has just about everything you want out of a 30s movie.
San Francisco is a film that I could make a strong case for in this category, based on its third act. It’s one of those movies that I knew nothing about going in. I put it on and was watching, and I’m seeing this love triangle play out, and I’m marginally interested. But then the film becomes about what it’s really about, and turns on a dime.
The movie begins with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald. Tracy’s a gambler, Tracy’s a priest (and his best friend) and MacDonald is a singer who wants to hit the big time. She falls for Gable, who has her sing at his club. She’s a huge hit, but it’s clear she’s meant for more than this. She could be on the big time, and not singing these dance hall numbers. Only Gable selfishly doesn’t want her to leave. But eventually she realizes she probably needs to. And this whole thing plays out for the better part of the movie, until very suddenly, the San Francisco earthquake hits. And it’s just mass destruction. This movie was hanging around an, “Okay, this is decent, but it’s at the bottom half of the nominees” until the earthquake happened. And that just took it to another level. Because the special effects there are really impressive. And the rest of the film is everyone trying to survive the earthquake, then wondering if everyone else is alive, and realizing that their problems are pretty insignificant in the face of this giant disaster.
I was really impressed with this movie. I almost wanted to tell people to see this without explaining the earthquake part, but I feel like it’s impossible not to know what this is about. Plus it’s not like it’s a huge twist. It’s just one of those things that came out of nowhere because I had no idea where it was going and didn’t realize this was 1906 San Francisco. But either way, really terrific film with some of the best special effects of the era.
Dodsworth. Man, oh man, oh man, what a film. One of the most under-appreciated films of all time. Don’t believe me? Watch it.
Walter Huston is an auto man who owns a giant factory. And he’s made his money and is about to retire to enjoy the rest of his life. Because he doesn’t need to work anymore. He’s worked long and hard and now gets to reap the benefits. So he and his wife go on a boat to Europe. Only very quickly on the journey does he realize that he and his wife want different things. And because he was working all those years and never really spent time at home, he didn’t realize how poorly matched they were until now. So his wife goes off to meet people and become part of the social circles, while he wants to get out and explore and see new things and learn new things. And he meets up with Mary Astor, a divorcee, who understands him. Eventually he goes home by himself while his wife goes off around Europe. And when he gets home, he realizes that his family might have moved past him. It’s a really, really great movie. No one remembers this movie anymore, but they ought to. This is a proper movie for intelligent viewers. It stimulates you on an intellectual level, and has more complexity to it than most 30s movies.
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The Reconsideration: Okay, where to start — I guess we should start with the fact that these are all great movies. Top ten for the year movies. But despite that, we should really hunker down and figure out what the best efforts in the category are and not let overall film quality sway us away from that.
Gregory La Cava is the first one off. I’m sorry, but he is. I love My Man Godfrey, , and it’s probably my favorite film in the category. But the direction is standard. Compared to the others, it’s downright generic. I know the first decade of Best Director is more about screenplay than direction, but compared to the other efforts in the category, his looks like a typical 30s movie. So he’s first one off.
Second one off for me, honestly, is Capra. Mr. Deeds is a great movie, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why they gave him Best Director again. I guess because his movies were what Hollywood needed during this era. And I guess it’s also because I really do think this first decade of Best Director categories are really more of a Best Screenplay award, simply because film directing hasn’t really come into its own quite yet. I feel like the standards were different at the time. But that aside — I just don’t see what makes this effort any better than the other three choices left. Capra is a great director, but this isn’t one of those ones you have to vote for. I think he’s solid at best. Maybe, depending on your read of the category, he can make it as high as #2. But does anyone think he was clearly the best effort on the category? I don’t see it.
William Wyler is always solid, and his direction with Dodsworth is really good. I think you actually can not only consider him for a vote here, but you can actually vote for him. I wouldn’t, just because of who he’s up against, but I actually think he can be a solid second place finisher here. Again, though, it all depends on where you shake out with the category. There are legitimately up to four choices here.
To me, the category comes down to either W.S. Van Dyke or Robert Z. Leonard. Van Dyke has a solid movie with some great special effects, and those make him stand out. Now, sure, a lot of his effort is fairly standard until that happens, and at that point, how much of that is an argument for the effects winning over his direction, but it does make him stand out from most of the pack. And selfishly, I also feel like him not getting it for The Thin Man carries at least a little bit of weight. Not much, since I don’t want to let that dictate who I vote for (because then it’s, “Well Capra got three with this one, so him not winning gives him two, which is fine. But then I’d also vote for him here, where he lost, which gets him back to three, but then I can go for someone else in this other category…” or it’s “Let’s vote this guy because the other guys won more than once.” I don’t wanna do that).
Anyway, last man up is Leonard. He has the Best Picture winner, he has a big, classy movie, and he gets these lavish musical numbers that look great. I’m actually pretty shocked he didn’t win this. He seems the logical choice.
Coming down to who I’d vote for — taking La Cava off the top. Taking Capra off because I’d vote for the other three over him…
Van Dyke, I’m starting to wonder how much of his effort is special effects and B roll stock footage. And since the first half of the movie is standard, almost nondescript directing, I actually feel like he might slip to third choice for me.
Wyler is appropriately solid and does a great job here. That might push him over Van Dyke. And even if it doesn’t, that’s really just enough for me to stick with Leonard. It just seems logical. He’s got the prestige picture, he gets a big biopic, it looks great, it’s got big musical numbers he gets to shoot well, and there’s that single take phone conversation scene that won Luise Rainer the Oscar. He’s the one that decided it should be single take. So that counts as part of his directorial effect.
I think it’s Leonard for me. I like the scope of those musical numbers. Though, honestly, you can go with him, Wyler, Van Dyke or Capra, really, and it would seem okay. I’m taking Leonard, though.
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- W.S. Van Dyke, San Francisco
- Robert Z. Leonard, The Great Ziegfeld
- William Wyler, Dodsworth
- Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
- Gregory La Cava, My Man Godfrey
- My Man Godfrey
- The Great Ziegfeld
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
- San Francisco
My Vote: Robert Z. Leonard, The Great Ziegfeld
Recommendations: All of them. Seriously. To begin, The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture, which makes it a certain type of essential. (If you’re reading articles about the Oscars, it would seem weird to then not see a movie that won the biggest Oscar.) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is an iconic story, and you really shouldn’t be that person who’s only seen the Adam Sandler version of it. That’s not okay. San Francisco is worth it for the special effects. Really terrific work for the 30s, and you have Gable, Tracy and MacDonald, which is as solid a cast as you’re gonna get. My Man Godfrey is one of the great all-time comedies and you should see it because it’s one of those 30s movies you can show anyone and they can enjoy. And Dodsworth is seriously one of the great underrated movies of all time. I am working to get this movie back into the public’s eye as one of the great masterpieces of all time. People need to know about this movie.
The Last Word: You can go with almost anyone in the category. La Cava seems like a weak choice, but outside of that, I really wouldn’t fault someone for how they go with this. I don’t love Capra as a winner, but I can understand it. Van Dyke, you couldn’t argue with, given the effects of his film. Wyler, I don’t think most people would go for, but it would be a respectable choice. Low-key, but very respectable. And Leonard just seems like the obvious choice in the category. Maybe I’m crazy, but it seems like this should have been his category.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)