Friday, August 11, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1935

The Contenders:

Michael Curtiz: Captain Blood (write-in)
John Ford: The Informer (winner)
Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
Frank Lloyd: Mutiny on the Bounty

What’s Missing

When I dig into the earlier years of Oscar, I’m keenly aware that there are a lot of movies I haven’t seen. In this case, probably the biggest is David Copperfield, which means I don’t know if George Cukor belongs here or not. 1935 is the year where Hitchcock made his first really notable film (my opinion) with The 39 Steps, and I think he could be here. This is also an era that loved the musical, and Top Hat was a damn good one, which makes Mark Sandrich’s absence strange. Since hindsight is 20/20, it seems natural that James Whale should have been nominated for The Bride of Frankenstein. Finally, I’d love to suggest Leo McCarey and his work on Ruggles of Red Gap, although really that movie is all about Charles Laughton.

Weeding through the Nominees

4. There’s a reason that people wrote in a candidate for this category; it’s because there were some better choices than what they were given. Mutiny on the Bounty might have won the top honor, but I didn’t love the film. Much like Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty is all about Charles Laughton for me, and for a big, blustery nautical adventure movie, I found it mostly kind of dull. That’s not a good thing for an adventure movie, and I think the issues fall squarely on the shoulders of director Frank Lloyd.

3. The same is kind of true of winner John Ford’s The Informer. The issues I have with The Informer are that there’s not enough story here to really fill up an entire movie and, regardless of how well acted it is, Gypo Nolan isn’t an interesting enough character to need an entire film for his story. Not all of that is Ford’s fault, of course, but it is his name on the movie and he is at least in part responsible for making a movie that couldn’t sustain interest through its entire running time.

2. There’s a lot to like about The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. While the movie is very much a product of its time and those early years of Hays Code and talkie film, it does some really interesting things, including some surprisingly heartfelt scenes that are very modern and still play to a modern audience. Of the three directors officially up for the win here, I’d give this to Henry Hathaway for having a surprisingly deft hand in a time when overacting and playing to the back rows was still the norm.

My Choice

1. Like I said above, the reason that people wrote in Michael Curtiz for this award despite his not being nominated is that there were better choices than the actual nominees. Curtiz should have been nominated and he should have won. A movie like Captain Blood is how you did action in 1935. Even today, there are moments of this that thrill and get the blood moving, something pretty exceptional for a movie that is 82 years old. It does the action right and it does the romance right. Hell, it does pretty much everything right. So, while the voting members of the Academy were correct to write him in, the Academy itself pantsed this up.

Final Analysis


  1. I agree Top Hat could have done well in this company. It works surprisingly well.
    Captain Blood is a lot of fun, but I wonder if the Academy thought it was simply too light a movie.

    1. Well...Captain Blood, Top Hat, and Ruggles of Red Gap were all serious enough to be considered for Best Picture.

  2. I like Mutiny more than you but I'd agree that it's a ragged lot of nominees. Hitchcock should have been there and so should Whale and Cukor but since they weren't I'd go with the write-in, never meet a genre he couldn't make work for him Curtiz.

    1. Even today, horror gets such a bum deal at the Oscars that Whale would never have a chance at a nomination. That the film has become iconic and is almost certainly the best of the classic Universal monsters notwithstanding, there's just no love there.

      Still, in an ideal world and with the ability to get this up to five actual nominees, I'd include Hitchcock, Whale, Sandrich, and Curtiz in those five, and I'd almost certainly still go with Curtiz. The jury is still slightly out since I haven't seen David Copperfield yet.

  3. I'll have to disagree with you about Leo McCarey and Ruggles. I love the improvisational feel of his films, including this one. My second favorite scene after Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address is the one where Leah Hyams teaches Roland Young to play the drums. I would have been hard pressed to choose between McCarey and Hitchcock.

    I like David Copperfield, mostly for the acting, but I don't think it would have impacted your decision.

    1. I tend to like McCarey's films as well. I could see him in a field of five nominations, but he wouldn't take the spot from Curtiz for me.

    2. Michael Curtiz was robbed by the so-called academy multiple times because he was never a director's director, but he always got the best out of his actors as all those Oscars his actors won can attest to. Hell, he made Errol Flynn into a world-class actor with their work together (it helped that he also cast Olivia de Havilland with Errol more than once), and he even proved Elvis could act. A more modern director who also got overlooked by those academy idiots is the late John Hughes. Watch the link to the biography of "The Inside Story of 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,'" and you'll see that not only did he direct this often overlooked gem (and several others), but he wrote, produced, cast, edited, and chose most of the musical selections used in it. How many other directors, besides maybe Preston Sturges (often overlooked as well), have done so much actual direction in a film? Yeah, but like Curtiz before him, Hughes also didn't play the Hollywood game. Dang, now I have a hankering for a Curtiz and Hughes marathon tomorrow. I guess I'll start with "Captain Blood," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," and finish with "Ferris" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." All great films that you can watch with anybody. My nephews may not like the B&W color of the first two, but at least they will see the original "light sabers" in action in full color in "Robin Hood."

    3. Ultimately, Curtiz did get a little bit more love from the Academy than either Sturges or Hughes, since he did earn four nominations and one Oscar. Years ago, I worked with a guy who had a Casablanca poster on his office wall. Referring to it, he once said, "Guy makes one great movie and never did anything else." I didn't know him well enough to know if he was joking or really didn't realize that Curtiz made tons of great films.

      I should probably also come clean in saying that despite Ferris Bueller's Day Off being directly in the wheelhouse for my age, I've never really liked the movie that much. I can't get beyond just how much of a douchecanoe Ferris is. That said, Hughes, for a guy who directed only eight movies, had a unique ability to nail that high school angst from the '80s. I think five of his eight movies are really good (and if I include Ferris as a classic I just don't like, six movies) or better than really good. Sadly, the kind of movies he made just aren't "award material" despite being smart and pitch-perfect in all the right ways.