Friday, March 5, 2021

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1927-1928

The Contenders:

King Vidor: The Crowd
Frank Borzage: Seventh Heaven (winner)
Herbert Brenon: Sorrell and Son
Ted Wilde: Speedy
Lewis Milestone: Two Arabian Knights (winner)

What’s Missing

Kind of surprisingly, I like most of the movies that were nominated for this award, or at least most of those that I’ve actually seen. The first Oscars was a much richer field than the second. I expect at least in part that this comes from the second ceremony being dominated by early talkies when dealing with sound was still new. Regardless, there are some places where I think we can make some improvements. This was a year when Best Director was split into two categories—drama and comedy. On the comedy side, I think I can make a case for Ted Wilde being nominated for The Kid Brother over Speedy. I’d love to see Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton here for Steamboat Bill, Jr. as well. I didn’t like The Jazz Singer, but I’m a little surprised that there was nothing here for Alan Crosland. There were technically two Best Picture winners for this year, and neither director, F.W. Murnau and William A. Wellman, were nominated for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and Wings respectively. Herbert Brenon earned a nomination for the impossible-to-find Sorrell and Son, but could be argued for Laugh, Clown, Laugh. The biggest misses here are Abel Gance for Napoleon and Fritz Lang for Metropolis. Even in these early years, Oscar snubbed foreign films and science fiction.

Weeding through the Nominees

N/A. I have nothing to say about Sorrell and Son or about whatever Herbert Brenon might have done with it. In fact, if you want to know anything about the plot of this movie, you have to look up another version of the same story, at least as far as Wikipedia is concerned. There evidently is a version of this in the Academy’s archive, but the fact that this exists somewhere is very different from my ability to watch it. Honestly, I don’t know why they don’t find a way to release this to the public. What’s the sense in not doing so?

4. Of the four nominations I could see, Two Arabian Knights is the one I honestly didn’t like very much. There are parts of it that work, but it’s not a movie that has translated well to the modern era. Comedy is hard; I can see this being a film that was very popular and considered very funny at the time, but today, a lot of the humor doesn’t work well at all. And, while Lewis Milestone was a pretty good director in general, his work seems to be better in serious drama—see All Quiet on the Western Front for a clear example.

3. It might be unfair to put the two comedies at the bottom of the films I’ve seen, but I think it’s where they belong. This is kind of surprising, considering that I tend to like silent comedies a lot more than I like silent drama. The problem here is that Speedy isn’t as good as Lloyd’s other films. It’s a lot more tame with the stunts in a lot of respects, and that’s disappointing. You only need to look at The Kid Brother from the same era to see the difference. Nominate that one, and Ted Wilde moves up quite a bit.

2. Seventh Heaven suffers from what most silent dramas and silent romances do—an overdose of melodrama. That was the style at the time, and Frank Borzage was good at putting it on the screen. There are some truly magnificent shots in this, and Borzage has to get some of the credit for that. There’s a magnificent sequence of two characters climbing the stairs in an apartment building while the camera follows them to the top. It’s a wonder for the time, and probably the reason Borzage won this Oscar.

1. Limited to the choices here, I’m going with King Vidor and The Crowd. This is a message film written in all caps, and while it’s also susceptible to the melodrama of the age, it’s done really well and holds up for a modern audience much better than it feels like it should. This is a case of, essentially, difference in taste. Put a modern audience down with this and Seventh Heaven, and I think more people are going to react to this one much more intensely and acutely. That it’s also impressive in terms of storytelling only helps its case.

My Choices

On the comedy side, Ted Wilde was nominated for the wrong film. There’s nothing wrong with Speedy, but it feels so much like lesser Harold Lloyd. If we were going to get a Lloyd film, it should be one of his great ones. In terms of drama, I would support a nomination and win for Abel Gance and Napoleon as one of the most inventive and interesting movies of its era. But, the real winner should have been Fritz Lang and Metropolis, a movie whose effects are still being felt today.

Final Analysis


  1. This was a very fruitful period. Sad how the silents were entering a very refined and artistic phase just as they were about to become defunct and the technology took a hit back to a clunky stiffness.

    Seventh Heaven has a certain dreamy beauty but out of these nominees it has to be King Vidor for The Crowd.

    I was surprised not to see Tod Browning mentioned for The Unknown but I see it just missed the cutoff since it was released in June of '27. The only other suggestion I have is Josef von Sternberg for The Last Command.

    I wouldn't have objected had Fritz Lang won this for Metropolis but my vote would go to Murnau for Sunrise.

    1. Sunrise wouldn't be a bad choice; it would definitely make my list if I were to come up with my own collection of nominees.

      I like The Unknown, but it does feel a bit ephemeral for Best Picture as a nomination. Even the fullest version of the film is a flighty 63 minutes, and the most common version is 49 minutes long. It's a great genre film, but Best Picture? That's hard to argue.

  2. Replies
    1. Based on the nominations, I agree. Vidor would be in my list of nominations regardless.

  3. The Crowd is an incredible film and King Vidor should've gotten the Best Director prize while I also enjoyed Speedy as I do like the films of Harold Lloyd. I haven't seen Napoleon as that's a future Blind Spot that I want to do soon but I have seen and own the most-complete version of Metropolis which I fucking love.

    1. I agree--and since there were two Best Director awards, both The Crowd and Speedy can win.

      Napoleon is worth seeing--it's pretty spectacular.

  4. I am on Sunrise or The Crowd. The carry more punch than any I can think of from this period +/- a few years. metropolis is a technical achievement, but the direction is not impressive.

    1. That's an intersting point. I think the direction on Metropolis is better than you think it is, but that's an entirely fair position.