Friday, August 23, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1931-1932

The Contenders:

Frank Borzage: Bad Girl (winner)
King Vidor: The Champ
Josef von Sternberg: Shanghai Express

What’s Missing

The directors who should be eligible for this award for 1932 should have released a film between August 1, 1931 and July 31, 1932. Oddly, the Best Picture winner, Grand Hotel, is listed as having a September release date. This might explain why Edmund Goulding wasn’t here, but it clearly doesn’t explain why Grand Hotel won Best Picture. Foreign films M and La Chienne were clearly worth consideration, but Oscar didn’t look overseas much at this point, leaving Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir respectively out in the cold. This was a surprisingly good 12 months for horror movies, giving us Rouben Mamoulian’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tod Browning’s effective career-ending Freaks, and James Whale’s timeless classic Frankenstein, but Oscar was unwilling to look to genre at this time. The biggest miss in the more mainstream films was for Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson for the blistering Scarface: The Shame of a Nation.

Weeding through the Nominees

3. A few weeks ago when I did the previous year in this category, I complained about the fact that the nominations were such drips compared with the eligible directors. I’m going to say the same thing this week, starting with the gloopy Shanghai Express. This is a film that desperately wants to be romantic and exotic, and aside from having Marlene Dietrich in a lead role, it fails entirely. There’s no chemistry here, and while some of that is the fault of the casting director or the actors, the director gets the blame. This is von Sternberg’s baby, and he shouldn’t have brought it to term.

2. I respect The Champ more than I like it. That’s no disrespect to the movie, which is very much a product of its time in all respects. It’s creaky and melodramatic, but that’s what audiences wanted in the early days of talkies and the times of the Great Depression. While The Champ is replete with the faults of its time, King Vidor manages to instill it with a great deal of love and warmth, almost in spite of the melodrama. He gets the credit for that, and in a weaker year, I’m okay with this as a nomination.

1. Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl is a fine little film if, like many of the other films of the era, it suffers from an overabundance of melodrama. It’s also terribly named; it feels like a bait-and-switch to call sweet little Dot a bad girl. Still, there’s something here, and having a film with characters that are genuinely likeable and fun 80+ years after the film was made is an accomplishment. Given the three nominations, Oscar did the best it could be giving the statue to Frank Borzage, but Oscar could have done so much more. There were plenty of better options--enough for several entirely new slates of movies.

My Choice

Let’s be serious for a minute here: In a perfectly fair world, we’re talking about how amazing it was that the Academy decided in these early years of giving out golden statues that they nominated and awarded a German director who made a German-language film about a child molester for Best Director. This should have been Lang’s award, and if not his, probably Renoir’s. Given that the Academy wasn’t going to leave the United States for its nominations at this point in history, the true winner should have been James Whale in a walk.

Final Analysis


  1. Of the 3 films that are nominated, I've only seen Shanghai Express while I would definitely agree with you on M as that was a game-changer in the world of cinema. I also agree with you on Frankenstein, Scarface and Freaks as they were incredible films. Yes, Oscars fucked up big time.

    1. It's one of those situations where I simply can't understand how the hell these directors got nominated over who was available. It's either criminal or comical.

  2. Once again Oscar favors the mediocre over the sublime and a bunch of timeless classics. M is absolutely the best picture of this year, if not this decade, and La Chienne comes right behind. You got it right and Oscar got it very wrong!

    1. Honestly, you could say that just about every year in a lot of categories. Not that I got it right, but that Oscar loves the mediocre.

  3. I think in regards to M and La Chienne the fact that they didn't premiere until much later in the States (M in '33 & La Chienne incredibly not until 1975!) is why their directors didn't get nominated. Not sure if it's still a standing rule but I believe that films had to have a US release date within the eligibility period during these years.

    I don't quite understand why there were only three nominees but these early years are full of aberrations. Of the three we have I'd also say they made the right choice though I don't think Bad Girl is any great shakes even if Sally Eilers is.

    More puzzling than the omissions you mentioned is Ernst Lubitsch's exclusion. He had two films, The Smiling Lieutenant & One Hour with You, that came out within the proper period and while comedies never fare as well as drama he was still working in the States in a genre that at least had a better shot than horror for getting in.

    Of everything available I'd say Lang should have won for M but if it was only American films being considered I'd be torn between Whale and Browning.

    1. You're right about the two foreign films, of course, but I do exist in my own little fantasy world on this blog, so there's a part of me that acknowledges but doesn't care about that reality.

      Lubitsch is a good inclusion here, but even with him added and limited to American productions, I'd probably still go with Whale.

  4. Given that the favorites we are talking about is a German movie about a child molester, movie featuring handicapped people used for entertainment and a movie about reviving dead body parts, in friggin' 1932, is it any wonder that the Best direction went to something dull?.
    Eighty years later all three topics would be Oscar-bait, but not back then.
    Of course Lang is the best of the bunch, but I would love to give this one to Browning. This is definitely something no-one ever saw before and I think, not since.

    1. Honestly? No, I'm not surprised at all. There is some level of wanting to stay in the year in this project, but there are times when I just want to slap my head with how backwards the Academy could be.

      Freaks> is definitely a one-of-a-kind film.