I. And The Winner Was
In selecting the best director of 1931-32, I had a deep field of fine directors to choose from, but with the exception of Howard Hawks, they are by modern lights an obscure lot, none more so than the Academy's pick, Frank Borzage who at the 1932 ceremony picked up his second best director trophy in five years. Like most of his films, Bad Girl focuses on the trials of a young couple in love—in this case, the girl (Sally Eilers) conceives a child out of wedlock and the boy (James Dunn, who later won an Oscar for A Tree Grows In Brooklyn) gives up his dreams of owning his own business in order to marry her—but there's nothing memorable about the direction, not by the standards of today or 1932, and after a promising first half hour, the picture devolves into an idiot plot and fizzles like a damp squib.
While admittedly, Bad Girl is not as bad as its reputation, neither is it very good, and like the picture that won Borzage his first award, 7th Heaven, both he and Bad Girl are virtually unknown today. As I have previously written, "At most all you can say is that the chord Bad Girl undeniably struck with audiences in 1931 has long since ceased to reverberate and there's little chance the modern movie fan will make sense of Borzage's award."
So who should have won the award in 1931-32? Well, the Academy also nominated King Vidor (The Champ) and Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express), two great directors at the top of their games. Vidor was already a Hollywood legend, having previously directed the 1925 blockbuster war movie The Big Parade, and von Sternberg had not yet worn out his welcome; Shanghai Express was a big hit in 1932. Neither men had won before (or would ever win, for that matter). Either of them would have been a solid choice for the award this year.
And then there are my five nominees, all of them having directed critically and/or commercially successful movies during the Oscar season: René Clair, whose comedy À Nous La Liberté was the first foreign language picture to ever receive an Oscar nomination (for set design); Rouben Mamoulian, who directed Fredric March to a best actor Oscar in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; James Whale who directed one of the true blockbusters of the age, the groundbreaking and influential horror movie Frankenstein; Edmund Goulding, who directed the movie that won best picture, Grand Hotel; and Howard Hawks, at the front end of what would become one of the greatest careers in Hollywood history.
I could have also gone with Yasujiro Ozu for the silent Japanese comedy I Was Born, But ..., Tod Browning for his cult classic Freaks or Ernst Lubitsch for the musical comedy The Smiling Lieutenant. They're all great directors, they're all great movies. Maybe one of them would be your choice for best director of 1931-32. You won't hear me say you're wrong.
But one thing I'm sure of: you could pick a name out of a hat and draw a better one than Frank Borzage.
[To continue to Part Two of this essay, click here.]