Friday, November 27, 2020

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1928-1929

The Contenders:

Harry Beaumont: The Broadway Melody
Frank Lloyd: The Divine Lady (winner)
Frank Lloyd: Drag
Irving Cummings: In Old Arizona
Lionel Barrymore: Madame X
Ernst Lubitsch: The Patriot
Frank Lloyd: Weary River

What’s Missing

We’ve got a lot of the same issues this week that I did last week, and so we’re going to be looking at a lot of the usual suspects in this section as well. The big missing four from this Oscar “year” are the same ones I mentioned last week. We can start with Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York. Just as impressive in this category is Pandora’s Box and the work of G.W. Pabst. I’m a huge fan of how Carl Dreyer framed and filmed The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Dziga Vertov created one of the first great experimental films in The Man with the Movie Camera. The big addition for me this week is Abel Gance’s Napoleon. That said, Gance’s epic was released in a much-reduced format in the States, which might well keep it off the list.

Weeding through the Nominees

N/A. As I said last week, I don’t necessarily have a lot to say about The Patriot. It’s considered a great movie despite there being not a single extant copy available. I don’t doubt that that is the case, though. Ernst Lubitsch has earned a great deal of trust from me. So many of his movies were worth seeing, that I don’t really doubt that The Patriot was worth seeing. Of all the missing films of this era, this is the one that I would like to see the most. Maybe someday someone will discover a copy in an attic somewhere, but until then, this is where we are.

N/A. I’m not going to be nearly as effusive about Frank Lloyd as I was about Lubitsch. However, it’s interesting to note that Lloyd managed to swing three nominations for Best Director in this set of Oscars including this one for Drag, which is impressive. What I know of the story, though, puts it in similar company with something like The Broadway Melody, and anything that puts me in mind of that film is not generally going to get a lot of respect from me. It’s possible I’ll see Drag someday, but I have no idea how to find it. And, honestly, I’m not that fussed by missing it from what I know.

5. There are plenty of reasons we can praise Lionel Barrymore, but Madame X isn’t one of them. I freely admit that movies were finding their way into the talkie era at this time, but this is a movie that comes across as extreme and overly melodramatic even for this early stage. Ruth Chatterton is perhaps the best part of this as she becomes less overwrought as the film continues, but that doesn’t say a great deal. There’s some leeway given here because of the era, but honestly, there’s only so far I can go with that.

4. I’ve not been shy about my dislike of The Broadway Melody in the past and I’m not going to shy away from it here. I understand that it was natural that the minute sound became a thing in movies we started singing in them, but the acclaim this movie got for the time is absolutely ridiculous. The plot isn’t very interesting, the musical numbers are rudimentary, and there’s not a great deal here to recommend it to anyone but the most obsessed completist, like your humble host. You’re otherwise safe to ignore it and Harry Beaumont’s work in it.

3. Ultimately, I like Weary River a little more than the next entry, which was also directed by Frank Lloyd. I’m not a huge fan of the direction on this one, though, in large part because of some of the choices that Lloyd made. The main choice is the almost continuous presence of the title song. If you’ve ever seen the movie That Thing You Do!, you know just how quickly you can get of a song when it becomes an environment. That’s exactly what Lloyd did here, and it becomes oppressive.

2. I’m not a huge fan of The Divine Lady, which is ultimately the film that handed the Oscar to Frank Lloyd, but it does have a redeeming quality or two. For the time, it has very well-filmed and blocked naval battles. In that respect, it follows the trend set by Wings in the previous Oscar year, showing warfare in as most realistic a way as possible for the time in which the film was made. It’s worth seeing it for that, but not a great deal else. I guess I don’t hate the win, but it’s not close to the best choice from this era.

1. What I like about In Old Arizona is the work of Warner Baxter more than anything else. I also really like the way the film ends. It’s gutsy, especially for the time, when this ending might well have been a pearl-clutching moment for many a viewer. I give credit to Irving Cummings for sticking to that ending and filming it in a way that sticks the landing. While I don’t hate Lloyd’s win, I think if I were limited to the nominations, I’d give the Oscar to Cummings, but not without a lot of reservation, and not just regarding the other films that were actually nominated.

My Choice

Once again, we see the problem that happened when sound showed up in films and Oscar decided that, essentially, anything without sound wasn’t worth seeing. I wouldn’t hate giving this to Abel Gance for the full three-screen version of Napoleon, and I could absolutely make a strong case for Carl Dreyer’s use of intimate close-ups in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But it Dziga Vertov who did more than anyone else to advance the medium, and both he and The Man with the Movie Camera should have been recognized with a statue.

Final Analysis


  1. The Patriot would seem to have been the frontrunner here in terms of quality considering Lubitsch's later achievements. Since I found Weary River a slog to get through I don't think not seeing Drag is a big miss.

    I didn't think much of any of the five surviving films (I've read that Drag has been found after being considered lost but it's impossible to locate.) and like last week my answer to who should win would remain none of the above. If pressed I guess my choice would be the same as yours. In Old Arizona at least feels like a whole film.

    In an open field I'd be drawn to Gance's Napoleon but I think my choice would be Victor Seastrom for The Wind. But if Man with a Movie Camera had won I wouldn't complain.

    1. My guess is, had I been able to see The Patriot, it would be my choice. I say this based on its reputation as well as how I tend to react to Lubitsch.

      Of the films that are still availabe, though, the "none of the above" choice is the clear winner no matter what you decide to pick

  2. I haven't seen any of these nominees and Napoleon has been in my watchlist for years as I'm waiting for it to arrive on TCM soon or a major Blu-Ray release to come. I'd agree with you on Vertov who should've won as he did a lot for what cinema could be.

    1. You're safe not seeing the actual nominees. In Old Arizona is interesting in how it ends, but it's hardly essential viewing.

      This is yet another case where I'd toss the entire slate of available films and replace it with an entirely new set.