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
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.
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.