Wesley Ruggles: Cimarron
Clarence Brown: A Free Soul
Lewis Milestone: The Front Page
Josef von Sternberg: Morocco
Norman Taurog: Skippy (winner)
While it’s fair to attribute some of the terrible nominations from this year to the fact that this was just the fourth Oscars, it doesn’t excuse all of the nominations. I realize that this is essentially just my opinion, and that this is about Best Director and not Best Picture, but I’d still offer an almost entirely new slate of nominations. The one that’s on the fence for me is George W. Hill for his work on Min and Bill. It’s not bad, but also not particularly memorable from the standpoint of the director’s chair. This was a pre-code era and pre-noir, but both Little Caesar and The Public Enemy are formative films, and Mervyn LeRoy and William Wellman being ignore here feels very, very wrong. Oscar showed its anti-horror bias early by leaving off Tod Browning and Karl Freund for Dracula. The last one, and I still don’t understand this miss, is Charlie Chaplin for City Lights.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. It’s difficult for me to make a lot of distinctions between the directors of many of these films, because most of them demonstrate the same essential problem. These films are generally melodramatic to a fault and drippy with sentimentality. That’s not specifically the fault of the director, but it does seem to be at least partially the director’s fault. Because of that, I’m dumping Josef von Sternberg first for Morocco. Why? Because you’ve got Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich and there’s nothing that makes them an interesting couple.
4. Norma Shearer is the absolute class of A Free Soul, and while she’s the reason to watch, there are a couple of reaction shots from her that should happen tied to a railroad track by a guy with a Snidely Whiplash mustache. This film is interesting because of Shearer and because it gave Clark Gable a start as a leading man, and while Clarence Brown certainly gets some of the credit for that, he also gets the blame for the soaking-wet melodrama and otherwise sludgy pace. I don’t get why he’s here.
3. It’s entirely possible that I’m not being fair to Lewis Milestone and his work on The Front Page. This is a serviceable if not great movie, and, while I didn’t like it that much, it’s certainly not the worst of its year. The problem it has is that it was remade a few years later as His Girl Friday, which is its superior in every way possible. It’s hard for me to block out the fact that there’s no good reason to watch this when the better version exists and is better known for damn good reasons.
2. I honestly struggled with the order of the top two spots. Cimarron is my least favorite of these five movies, and in a lot of cases, I would happily put it in last place. It has one thing that keeps it from dragging the bottom, though: the Oklahoma land rush scene. While much of this movie is dull and frustrating, the land rush sequence is a piece of old filming brilliance, one that elevates the work of Wesley Ruggles for the rest of the film. If he could have done that consistently, he’d be an easy winner, but alas, this is just a small glimpse of brilliance.
1. And so, based on the five nominees, I ultimately end up siding with the Academy and giving this to Norman Taurog for Skippy. I say this not without reservation, because the thing that makes Taurog’s work so good is also the thing that makes him a terrible human being: the performance of Jackie Cooper. The legend is that, needing Cooper to cry, Taurog had someone fire off a blank, telling the boy that he’d shot his dog. I mean sure, it worked, but what kind of an asshole does that to a kid?
Fortunately, I’m not limited to the nominations and I can go elsewhere for who I want to be on top. I don’t have a specific pick, though—I’d be willing to share this out between Chaplin for City Lights, Wellman for The Public Enemy and LeRoy for Little Caesar, although if I had to give it to one of them, it would probably ultimately be Chaplin.