Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Best Director Of 1931-32: Part One

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.]


Anonymous said...

I haven't had the pleasure of seeing Borzage's Bad Girl - and its unlikely i ever will. Its pretty suspicious that he won if his direction is like what you say especially against the likes of Vidor and Sternberg.
I would really like to see his 7th heaven and street angel and Little man, What Now? tho,

look forward to the contenders!

Mythical Monkey said...

Its pretty suspicious that he won if his direction is like what you say especially against the likes of Vidor and Sternberg.

Suspicious, indeed.

Jon Mullich, over at Madbeast.com
had this to say about Frank Borzage and Bad Girl, which he called the worst Oscar of 1931-32:

Frank Borzage received his second Academy Award for Best Director for Bad Girl (the first was for Seventh Heaven in 1927/28). Bad Girl was a strangely titled (there was no bad girl in it) piece of hack work that was recognized more for Borzage's position as one of the Hollywood Social Elite than for artistic merit. Far more deserving of recognition were the nominated work of King Vidor for The Champ and Josef von Sternberg for Shanghai Express and the non-nominated work of Edmund Goulding for Grand Hotel, James Whale for Frankenstein or Rouben Mamoulian for Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, but since they lacked Borzage's social connections, all they had going for themselves was raw talent - a commodity not always valued by the Academy. The film itself is a forgettable little nonentity about the compromises and misunderstandings faced by a young couple (played by a hammy James Dunn and a wooden Sally Eilers) during the bumpy first years of their marriage. Borzage's movie career dated back to 1912 and he adored implausible, melodramatic material about young married life (Seventh Heaven followed a similar path of showing the early stages of a young couple's marriage, to even more dubiously melodramatic effect, although it had the advantage of the charming Janet Gaynor and the dashing Charles Ferrell in the leads) with simplistic conflicts (Eilers is thrown out of her Simon Legree-like brother's apartment under the slightest suspicion of improper behavior) and some rather crude attempts at humor (after Eilers gives birth to the couple's first child, a nurse inexplicably presents numerous other babies to the new mother who assumes them to be hers, only to be told that they are the children of other women in the ward). It is the type of material that D.W. Griffith could do alchemy with, but Borzage was no D.W. Griffith and his award-winning films now gather dust as forgotten museum pieces.

I suspect the other thing Borzage had going for him was that Bad Girl was considered "important" and a "message picture," which always plays well at the moment but usually becomes dated pretty quickly. It does start well. The first half hour, I had real hopes for it, which makes the rest of it doubly disappointing.

But I wouldn't let that dissuade you from tracking down his work. I haven't seen What Now Little Man, but would like to -- it stars Margaret Sullavan, one of my favorites from the 1930s.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Well and so a misleading title to boot!

I will say I think both pieces of poster art are so bad they're good: Thanks for posting!

In the top one, what is that red feathery stuff that's growing out of her back? Well red, except for the brown color seeping out in the lower left. Yikes and the vampire dude employing two fingers to caress her ... arm pit. "I vant to scratch your peet."

The colors in the second poster are awesome. The blue girl up top, the green man down below, all around the words "emotional expose." That poster may as well be saying, Leave! Leave now and don't look back!"

Mythical Monkey said...

what is that red feathery stuff that's growing out of her back?

I think this was a deleted scene from John Carpenter's remake of The Thing -- he's about to be assimilated and turned into a three-headed dog. Now that would be a movie worth seeing ...