Victor Fleming: Gone with the Wind (winner)
Sam Wood: Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Frank Capra: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
John Ford: Stagecoach
William Wyler: Wuthering Heights
As I’ve been saying every Friday all month, when you have a year as good as 1939, there are going to be some people and movies left out of the awards. The race for Best Director is no different. There are a few directorial performances that were worthy of a nod, and a few I’d pick over some of the films we’re given. For starters, I’ve not been shy about my enjoyment of Ninotchka and much of the reason comes from Ernst Lubitsch’s deft touch. I might toss out Marcel Carne’s work on Le Jour se Leve, which is a film I liked more than I should based on how predictable it is. I’d absolutely nominate Jean Renoir for Le Regle du Jeu, a film that is still astonishing to me and that I think of as a film that is nearly perfect technically. This is also a case where one of the actual nominees may well have deserved a second nod. In addition to Gone with the Wind, Victor Fleming directed The Wizard of Oz in 1939, making it one of the truly great years in someone’s career.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: It may not really be fair of me to start out by dumping my least favorite of the five films in the bottom spot, but that’s precisely what’s happening here. Wuthering Heights is a well-made film, nicely acted and well shot. And that’s really all I have to say about it. It’s entirely possible that William Wyler deserved this nomination, but I struggle to understand exactly what he did that makes his work noteworthy. Were it left off the list and replaced with, say, Jean Renoir, the category immediately gets more competitive and better.
4: With Goodbye, Mr. Chips we at least have a film that I like, but we again have a nomination that I struggle to understand. What specifically was special about Sam Wood’s direction here? That the story remained consistent over a long space of time? That the performances are good throughout? This is a fine character study and a film I enjoyed watching, but I don’t see it as being much more than serviceable when it comes to the man behind the camera. I hate repeating myself, but what I said about Jean Renoir above applies here, too.
3: With Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we have a film that is well made and that delves pretty heavily into that Capra-corn territory where he loved to work. But it’s also a film that could have very easily become even more melodramatic than it is and turned both silly and maudlin. I think it skirts the edge of that. I also like to think that Capra may well have wanted to go there, as he frequently did. I’m putting him third for showing restraint in this area. More of the credit goes to James Stewart and his excellent performance, but Capra deserves a little bit of love here.
2: For as dopey as it is in a lot of ways, and for as predictable as big chunks of it end up being, Stagecoach is still a hell of a good Western. It’s important for a modern audience to remember that a lot of the conventions and clichés we think of in this genre got their start with this film. It’s worth seeing mainly because for all its sweep and scenery, Ford is smart enough to have the film focus instead on the characters and their various arcs through the film. Sure, the characters are two-dimensional, but they all have a story and they all have a resolution.
1: There really isn’t a choice other than Victor Fleming, though. Love Gone with the Wind or hate it, it’s a film that has to be respected and admired on some level. This is the film that defined the epic until Lawrence of Arabia took that mantle in 1962. It will never be my favorite film from 1939, but it is far and away the greatest spectacle and the grandest production, and would remain so for any number of years. Fleming earned this for the sweep of the story, the depth of the characters, the performances he elicited, and probably for the burning of Atlanta, too. For this award, there really was no other choice. It's an added bonus that Fleming did The Wizard of Oz the same year, but that makes him doubly worthy.