Friday, July 12, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1929-1930

The Contenders:

Lewis Milestone: All Quiet on the Western Front (winner)
Clarence Brown: Anna Christie
Robert Z. Leonard: The Divorcee
King Vidor: Hallelujah
Ernst Lubitsch: The Love Parade
Clarence Brown: Romance

What’s Missing

These early years are difficult. I haven’t seen a great deal of the available films from this period (August 1, 1929 through July 31, 1930), and I haven’t liked a ton of them. I might consider George W. Hill and Ward Wing for The Big House, which was at least interesting. I might also consider Alfred E. Green for Disraeli, but I’m not 100% behind either of them. The real miss? Georg Wilhem Pabst and Pandora’s Box.

Weeding through the Nominees

6. Bluntly, Romance was a big, drippy mess. It’s simultaneously too short to build up any real tension and too long to get to the ending it wants to give us. After the first 45 minutes or so, the rest of the movie is just us waiting around to get to the ending that we’re pretty sure is going to happen. I realize that tastes change and that 90 years ago people loved their melodrama like my dogs love treats. Lots of movies don’t translate well to modern times, but few translate this poorly.

5. Clarence Brown is the only guy to get two nominations here, and he’s coming in last and next to last for me. I’m dropping Anna Christie next and for a lot of the same reasons. This is another movie that telegraphs where it’s going early on. That may have worked in 1930, but it doesn’t work now. The biggest issue here is the casting. I buy the main cast in the roles that they’ve been given, but there’s no way in hell I see Marlene Dietrich ending up with the grinning buffoon of Matt Burke. Dietrich is good; the rest is pretty much a waste.

4. The biggest problem with The Divorcee is that it’s a little too short. It’s cast pretty well over all, and Norma Shearer is absolutely brilliant in this role. It’s one of those rare cases where she could easily be plucked from the film and placed in a modern film and it would be difficult to tell. So, I’m happy to credit Robert Z. Leonard with what works here, but even though it’s a screenplay problem that is the biggest issue with the film, isn’t it the director’s job to notice that and deal with it?

3. Hallelujah is another mixed bag. On the one hand, a major production with pretty much an entirely black cast in 1929? That’s a staggering thing and surprisingly progressive. At the same time, it’s a movie that is horribly stereotyped in its look at the main cast. It’s also incredibly slow. The movie is roughly 100 minutes long, and the main event in the film happens with about 20 minutes left. It’s a hell of a fine musical in terms of that music and what surrounds it, but as a film, it’s hard to watch beyond that part of it.

2. There’s a thing called the Lubitsch touch, and it’s a real thing. The Love Parade is noteworthy in the sense that it’s evidently the first musical in movie history where the characters sing their feelings at each other rather than singing as a part of a show. It’s also my opinion that if the supporting roles had had Oscars at this point, Lupino Lane would have been a shoo-in for one. I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would, and much of that comes from Lubitsch’s deft touch. He’d be an okay choice here, but not the best one.

My Choice

1. If someone wanted to pick Georg Wilhelm Pabst for this, I wouldn’t object terribly. In a world where the talkie was still new and exciting, he managed to make a real and vibrant silent. But my winner is absolutely Lewis Milestone and All Quiet on the Western Front. Like all movies of the time, this one has certainly aged, but it’s aged pretty well. The message is one that still resonates strongly, and the battle sequences are surprisingly effective. It’s a hell of a movie, and Milestone was rightly rewarded for his work on it.

Final Analysis


  1. All Quiet on the Western Front is so far superior to everything else in the running (Love Parade is good but just not on the same level) that even if the excellent Pandora's Box had been in competition there should have been no other choice.

    The Garbo films were about Garbo suffering and as such they get the job done but for the most part that's their reason for existence not requiring a great deal of direction and they'd be the first I'd cut too, but for what?

    The period covered (I am SO glad they abandoned this year straddling strategy shortly after this!) is a rough patch for film while everybody was adapting to sound which might explain the dearth of solid choices.

    Almost everyone I thought of as a suggestion (Hawks for The Dawn Patrol, Goulding for Hell's Angel's, von Sternberg for Blue Angel) fell after the cut-off in '30. I would include the other Pabst/Louise Brooks collaboration Diary of a Lost Girl but I think it came out too late in the States to qualify. So the only other title worth mentioning that falls in the perimeters is James Whale's direction of Journey's End which is better than all but your top two picks. It will always be All Quiet for the win though.

    1. I agree. It's exhausting to have to deal with determining what is eligible and what isn't. Thankfully, it only goes through the first six years or so, but it's one of the reasons I haven't done a lot of these early award categories.

  2. I haven't seen a lot of films during that period but All Quiet on the Western Front is incredible yet I'd probably agree with you on Pandora's Box which is a film that I absolutely LOVE.

    1. Those two are far and away the class of this "year."

  3. I was okay with Anna Christie. Maybe because I watched it right after the over-acted Camille. I bought it and the director should get some credit for that. Still there ought to be no doubt that AQotWF should win this one.

    1. I didn't hate Anna Christie, but I didn't love it, either. As I said above, my issue is the casting more than anything else. I can live with melodrama in a time where melodrama was everything.

  4. "The Love Parade is noteworthy in the sense that it’s evidently the first musical in movie history where the characters sing their feelings at each other rather than singing as a part of a show."

    Interesting insight. So before this movie, the singing could be called "diegetic"?

    A coworker of mine got me watching film-crit videos by Lindsay Ellis. I just watched her video essay on Hollywood movie musicals. Have you watched any Ellis? If so, what do think of her essays?

    1. I haven't watched Ellis. I don't actually pay much attention to professional criticism. I like the way Elvis Mitchell writes, despite the fact that he and I appear to disagree on everything.

      The question of diegsis is an interesting one. I think in some respects even in the musicals where people sing at each other rather than on stage there's a case to be made for at least the lyrics being diegetic.

      There's a really interesting case for this in Top Hat. Fred and Ginger do a little song and dance number in a gazebo where they are alone, but naturally accompanied by a full orchestra. Is that music diegetic? If it is, where does it come from? If it's not, how is Ginger humming the tune to herself later? Or is it metaphorically diagetic and her humming is a metaphor for her reliving those emotions?

      I think you can read this in a lot of ways.

  5. All Quiet on the Western Front and Casablanca may be the two Oscar choices that seem to draw the least amount of alternative choices, even after all this time.

    1. I think that's probably accurate. There are probably a couple of others (Lawrence of Arabia? Amadeus? All About Eve?) that would be in that company, but those are probably the most solid locks. In Casablanca's case, you're dealing with perfection. With All Quiet, you've got a thin crowd and a hell of a movie that dwarfs pretty much everything else.