The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1937-1938)
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.
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
The Life of Emile Zola is a film that’s really about the Dreyfus Affair. It starts as a biopic. We watch Zola follow a hooker around town and write this expose on how Paris is actually not that nice a place to live. He’s known for these scathing critiques on society. And then we follow him years later as he’s now rich and complacent. Only now is when French officers find a letter going to a Germany embassy, and they just decide the Jewish soldier Dreyfus did it. And they throw him in prison without a shred of evidence. And Zola takes up the case. And then the last half of the film is a trial movie.
It’s a good film. My feelings about it being a Best Picture winner aside, it’s actually a really engrossing film. 30s and 40s biopics are all watchable because they all follow pretty much the same format.
The direction is just okay. Pretty standard. I don’t think anything will jump out at you as being truly outstanding. The 30s are an era where most things look the same, and you can spot the outliers. At best it feels like a middling choice in the category. But overall, solid.
The Good Earth is one of those times where I read the book before I saw the movie. Which could only have happened in high school. In high school all I did is read. And then the movies took over in college. But I have fond memories of the book. Kind of hard not to when the wife is dropping babies in rice paddies and the father becomes an opium head the last half of the book.
Anyway, that’s the film. Chinese peasant want nothing more than to own land, which to him is the most valuable thing you can have. And his wife is the rock behind him, skillfully helping and doing hard work herself. And we follow them through prosperity and through famine. It’s a really great book, and the movie is nice and classy. The first time I saw the film, I thought it was terrific, and the second time I saw it (as a refresher for the initial set of articles), my opinion significantly decreased. Not that I thought it was bad, I think I just thought it was much closer to the book the first time. Now, I think I fall somewhere in between. It’s a solid film. Well-made, lot of prestige. Not as good as the book, mostly because it streamlines everything, but definitely holds its own as a solid film.
The direction isn’t bad. I can maybe see someone voting for it. It has a crisp look about it. I remember watching it the second time and thinking the directing wasn’t as good as I remembered. It feels like one of those typical #3 choices, where you guy why it’s there, but ends up middle of the pack because there are just better options.
Stage Door is a film I really loved. It’s about a boarding house for aspiring actresses and dancers. We start with Katharine Hepburn moving in and meeting all the other inhabitants. The main one is Ginger Rogers, a jaded dancer. Then there’s Gail Patrick, who is sleeping with a producer, Adolphe Menjou, who gives her money and gifts. There’s also Andrea Leeds, who had a breakout role on the stage but has yet to get work since. Hepburn, meanwhile, is the daughter of a wealthy and influential man who is trying not to use her name to further her career and would rather do it on talent. And then the producer ends up getting Patrick and Rogers parts in his show, and ends up sleeping with Rogers and moving on from Patrick. And then Leeds, reaching the point of giving up, goes out for the part in Menjou’s new play, which Hepburn is also up for. There are a few stories going on at once here, some are uplifting, others are heartbreaking. It’s a really terrific film.
This is the most standard direction in the bunch. Solid in terms of getting the story across, but in terms of voting, easily it falls to the back of the pack for me. Maybe you can make a case for fourth, but I don’t see this as being something I could vote for in the category.
The Awful Truth is a great film. A really great film. A comedy of remarriage. Cary Grant comes home to his wife Irene Dunne after a business trip. He says it was to Florida, but it wasn’t. Meanwhile, she comes home, having spent the night with her music teacher in his car, saying they broke down and couldn’t go anywhere. This results in an argument, where they both assume they cheated on each other, and they divorce.
The film then splits into two halves. The first half is Dunne moving into an apartment with her aunt, and her aunt trying to set her up with Ralph Bellamy, oil man. And Grant shows up and manages to ruin the whole thing. There’s a really hilarious screwball sequence where all these guys show up and have to hide inside the apartment at the same time. But the first half is him ruining her chance at another relationship. And the second half is her doing the same. Because Grant starts dating an heiress, and Dunne decides to screw it up. She shows up to a party pretending to be his sister, and she acts like a showgirl and a drunken mess, and really just sabotages the whole deal. And eventually in the end, they reconcile and call off the divorce.
It’s a really hilarious movie. One of the all-time great comedies. It’s hard to think that this isn’t the favorite film in the category for most people.
The direction of this movie is great. The screwball sequence in the middle is a showcase of comic staging and timing. The movie itself is actually pretty short and doesn’t really do anything overwhelmingly great. It’s really the strength of the overall film that makes this seem like a good choice. Studying the directing, it still might come out on top, though. There isn’t a whole lot going on this year.
A Star Is Born is a very famous story. You’ve seen it done, even if you haven’t seen one of the three (soon to be four, it seems) versions of the story.
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is a country girl who makes her way out to Hollywood. She becomes an extra and is barely holding onto an existence. She ends up at a party with Norman Maine (Fredric March), a fading, drunk movie star whose best days are behind him. Eventually they meet and fall in love, and he helps her career. And what happens is, she ends up becoming a star while he continues fading into oblivion. But she’s so in love with him, she tries to help him out. And it gets to the point where he realizes that he might be holding her back.
It’s a really great story, and has become a showcase role for a female star, with a great role for the male counterpart. This is the non-musical version of the story. Judy Garland and James Mason were both nominated for the ’54 version, and then there’s the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson ’76 version too. I prefer this version the most, but the ’54 version is also terrific. Either way, fantastic and iconic piece of work.
The directing — I used to think this was a slam dunk winner in the category, if not for a certain technicality I’ll get to in a second. But honestly — the direction is mostly a lot of close ups and dark interiors. It’s the color that makes it pop. It rises to the bottom of the category pretty easily, though I’m not sure that it really does have enough to overtake McCarey.
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The Reconsideration: It’s actually a pretty easy category to decide. La Cava comes off real easily. I’m slightly surprised he got on here, but it actually makes sense. Directing in this era was more about the writing and juggling stories to them than actual directing. So it makes sense. Either way, he comes off first for me. After that, it’s a toss-up between Franklin and Dieterle. Franklin, I felt, gave the better effort, but Dieterle had the Best Picture winner, and would have at least, at a glance, seemed to fit. Or at least have been something you could rationalize. I still wouldn’t take either of them over the other two, so it doesn’t matter.
To me, it’s either Wellman or McCarey. Wellman has the color aspect going for him, and McCarey has the great comic timing and staging going for him. The wild card here is the fact that McCarey also directed Make Way for Tomorrow this year, which is really one of the all-time beautiful films. He himself, when he won this category, said in his speech that he won for the wrong film. I think that fact might put him over the top here. There are some instances where someone has two entries in a single year but is only nominated for one (and in many peoples’ minds it’s the “wrong” one), and the voting takes that into account. It’s not that rare an occurrence. Either way, I think that McCarey probably wins this hands down anyway for just The Awful Truth. So it doesn’t really hold so much weight. To me, it’s a tiebreaker at best. But I think McCarey actually does pull this one out regardless.
I think McCarey is the clear winner, with Wellman a likely second. Though Dieterle would be someone I could see people voting for if they truly felt the film was a worthy Best Picture winner and wanted to give it both. Franklin, maybe I could see people voting for too. There are a couple of things I’d want to see in that scenario, but I guess I could see that happening. I think McCarey easily takes this, though.
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- Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
- William Wellman, A Star Is Born
- Sidney Franklin, The Good Earth
- William Dieterle, The Life of Emile Zola
- Gregory La Cava, Stage Door
- The Awful Truth
- A Star Is Born
- Stage Door
- The Life of Emile Zola
- The Good Earth
My Vote: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
Recommendations: The Awful Truth is one of the all-time great comedies. And if you like comedy, it is an essential film. A Star Is Born is an essential story, and I think people ought to see at least one version of it. I prefer this version and the ’54 version, the way I tell people to see Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. Stage Door is a great ensemble film, and mostly starring women at that. Which also makes it appealing. The Life of Emile Zola won Best Picture and is worth seeing for that alone. But it’s also an engaging biopic and part trial film. And you know how we feel about trial films here. And The Good Earth is worth it because it’s a classy (and to date, pretty much the only) adaptation of book most people read in high school. It’s the kind of movie where you can see it and not read the book and mostly know what you’re talking about.
The Last Word: I say it’s McCarey here. Wellman is a perfectly acceptable alternate. I’d like to see people want to vote for Wellman on strength of film over the fact that he never ended up winning one (since, the way I’m doing this run through is not taking into account the future, and not let the past supercede the category itself). I could understand if people wanted to vote Dieterle, even if I think the effort feels pretty standard. And Franklin I guess might work, but I’d need to see that person had actually watched all five nominees and carefully considered the decision before they did it and aren’t doing it just to do it like a lot of people do. Though, it’s Best Director 1937. Most people haven’t seen any of these, and a lot of people would just vote McCarey because The Awful Truth is entertaining, because he won and because it’s the only film they actually saw here and liked. I doubt there’s a lot of Dieterle or Franklin voting going on.
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Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It With You
Michael Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces
Michael Curtiz, Four Daughters
Norman Taurog, Boys Town
King Vidor, The Citadel
You Can’t Take It With You is almost the forgotten great Capra film. It always seems to get squeezed between It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and It Happened One Night. Those always get mentioned first. For good reason. But it’s not like this film is any worse than those others.
This is very much in the Capra formula. Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur wanna marry. He comes from a family of uptight bankers (his father is played by Edward Arnold, one of the many Capra stalwarts in this film), and she comes from a family of eccentrics. Her father, Lionel Barrymore, has a house of creative types, who pretty much do what they want, when they want, and nobody works. Arthur is worried his family won’t approve of hers, and they’re worried how the two families, who are polar opposites, are going to react to one another. Hilarity ensues, and it ends with a moving message about love for one’s friends and a sense of optimism. You know, Capra.
I will admit that this is a well-directed film. It’s definitely not as plain, visually, as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. That said, I’m really not in that much favor of it as a choice unless I have to be. I’m not taking into account that Capra won twice before this. I can’t let that taint how I’d vote. I can argue both sides as to whether or not he deserved three Oscars, so let’s not bring that into this. He’d normally be one of those third choices, maybe second for sentimental reasons, in most years. This year, he might be the only one you can vote for. Let’s see how it shakes out.
As you can see, Michael Curtiz is nominated twice, and neither nomination is for The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is so clearly the film that should have won this category. It’s kind of a joke that Four Daughters got nominated instead of that. But, we’re only dealing with what was nominated. (I’d also like to mention that Jean Renoir was not nominated for Grand Illusion. But that’s another conversation entirely.)
Angels with Dirty Faces is mostly famous for being the movie that influenced Angels with Filthy Souls, the movie that Kevin watches in Home Alone, which gave a whole new meaning to giving someone the count of ten to do something. Otherwise, it’s a pretty well-known gangster movie, memorable for it’s James Cagney performance and ambivalent ending. Otherwise, it’s a pretty fractured film, part engaging gangster tale and part Dead End Kids film. The Dead End Kids were a group of teens who starred in these kind of movies, who were like if the Our Gang kids grew up in Brooklyn and hung out with criminals.
The main plot is Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Best friends. One goes to the church, the other goes to the streets. And the Dead End Kids look up to Cagney, not realizing he’s actually a bad influence and is taking them down the wrong path. And O’Brien tries to at least get Cagney to be a better influence on the kids at the very least, since he seems totally unrepentant in his criminal ways. Cagney gets involved in some bad stuff with Humphrey Bogart and George Bancroft, and the film makes him out to be a sympathetic gangster. Every terrible thing he does (since run of the mill gangster stuff is forgivable) is made out to be something he has to do to protect a friend or something of that sort. The really memorable part about the film is when Cagney is sentenced to death (spoiler alert: gangsters in the 30s are punished for their actions), and as he’s being led to the chair, O’Brien asks him to for once pretend to be afraid, so the kids don’t idolize him so much and have a chance at a normal life. And he does, though it’s ambiguous whether he’s doing it for his friend or that he actually broke down crying.
It’s a good film. If you’re gonna pick the top five gangster pictures of the 30s, this one probably isn’t one of them. Maybe top ten. Still, it’s a solid movie that’s very much worth seeing. Direction-wise, not astounding. Pretty standard all around. Shot on the Warner Bros. backlot. Nothing really jumps out at you as being that great. The main reason I’m tempted to vote for Curtiz is because of Robin Hood, which seems unfair. Though, if you’re gonna vote for anything that’s not Capra, this is probably the one, I’d imagine.
Four Daughters is about Claude Rains, who has (insert title here). They are planed by the three Lane Sisters, plus one other woman who looked like she could be their sister. This is actually the first in a trilogy (Four Wives, Four Mothers. Get it? The natural progression of a woman in 30s Hollywood). The family runs a boarding house and takes in tenants. And we watch the girls sing and get into hijinks and get courted by men. If you watch a lot of 30s movies, you’ll recognize this type of movie. It was made a bunch in different ways. Oh, and it was remade in 1954 as Young at Heart with Sinatra and Doris Day. The memorable thing about this film is John Garfield, who became a star from his supporting turn here (for which he was nominated).
The direction is completely standard in every way. Very generic 30s. Not bad, just, it looks like a typical 30s movie. You wouldn’t really notice the direction unless you were looking for it. There is no way I can really consider this for a vote. I’d rather take Curtiz’s other film on this list than this one.
Boys Town was a huge film for 1938, so I’m not surprised this ended up here. It makes even more sense as a nominee when you consider what I always say — that Best Director before 1939 is basically an extended Screenplay award.
The film is about Father Flanagan and his (insert title here) for delinquent and underprivileged boys. He sets up this place to prevent kids from going down the wrong path later in life. A lot of the film is actually focused around the boys. Mickey Rooney is one of them. It’s actually a really engaging film. But the direction is also completely standard. At best this is a third choice here.
The Citadel is about Robert Donat as a new doctor in a town who shows up with these lofty scientific goals. He’s going to treat miners suffering from TB. And along the way, he allows himself to become corrupted. He ends up moving to the rich part of town and being one of those doctors who goes golfing all day and charges ridiculous fees and turning down people who can’t pay. The film is about him losing his way and ultimately finding it again. It’s very solid. Definitely one of the better films of 1938.
I remember being pretty surprised at how plain the direction was here. I guess you could vote for it if you wanted to, since the category feels pretty bland on the whole. Some people might want to vote for Vidor simply because he’s Vidor and because he hasn’t won. Objectively, I’m not really sure if I love any of these enough to declare a favorite.
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The Reconsideration: This category feels like one of the worst of all time. They’re all 3s and 4s with no 1. Then again, does that make it better or worse than the category with the slam dunk 1 and the rest 4s and 5s?
Ignoring the people who weren’t nominated and one director being nominated twice and neither for the right film, I feel like Capra might just be the default winner. I can’t vote for Four Daughters. I just can’t. The Citadel and Boys Town were standard directorial efforts for me, and I can’t put either higher than 3. Angels with Dirty Faces is solid, but the fact that it can even make #2 here is surprising. I can’t vote for that simply because that’s my only option for Curtiz. (That’s like voting for DiCaprio in Blood Diamond in ’06 even though he clearly should have been on there for The Departed. I’m not voting for something that shouldn’t win on its own because you fucked up.) Which pretty much leaves Capra. It’s my favorite film in the category, arguably the best film in the category, Capra always manages to have interesting wrinkles in his direction that make it more than just a standard effort, and, even though this really shouldn’t be part of the argument — it won Best Picture. I’m supposed to be voting as if we don’t know what wins, but it does look better after the fact having won both. So since I really don’t like much of anything here, I’m gonna take Capra. So what if he has three, that’s the way things go.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It With You
- Michael Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces
- Norman Taurog, Boys Town
- King Vidor, The Citadel
- Michael Curtiz, Four Daughters
My Vote: Frank Capra, You Can’t Take It With You
You Can’t Take It With You is a Best Picture winner, one of the great Capra pictures, and is basically an essential movie all around.
Angels with Dirty Faces is worth it because 30s gangster pictures are awesome, because James Cagney is awesome, because James Cagney is awesome in it, and because it’s the basis for “keep the change, you filthy animal.”
Boys Town is a solid picture. Won Best Actor for Tracy. One of those movies that became a cultural reference point for many generations (remember Caddyshack? “What time are you due back at Boys Town?”). Worth seeing.
The Citadel is a film you likely haven’t heard of unless you study these categories as I do. But it’s really solid. It’s not what you’d expect, and it’s one of those where you go in with no expectations, you’ll likely be surprised by how engaging it is. King Vidor, you’ll find, is usually a harbinger of a watchable picture.
Four Daughters is cute. Very 30s. You don’t need to see it. You do get Claude Rains and John Garfield, and those sister singing groups that were prevalent in the era. It’s a good time capsule for a specific type of film in a specific time period. Otherwise, you’re probably not missing out on a whole lot if you don’t see it.
The Last Word: I say Capra wins this pretty easily, in an objective world where we don’t look at the fact that Michael Curtiz also directed Adventures of Robin Hood and wasn’t nominated for it and look solely at the nominees. If I had to guess how people would vote on this, I’d say it’d be like 70% Capra, 18% Curtiz for Angels, 6% Taurog, 5% Vidor, and 1% Curtiz for Four Daughters. And I’m probably being generous on those last three. I can see either Capra or Curtiz (specifically for Angels with Dirty Faces) being choices. Anyone voting otherwise is either being deliberately contrarian or has really strong feelings about a particular film, which I can understand, as long as the feelings are articulated correctly.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)