Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Best Director Of 1931-32, Part Two

[To read part one of this essay, click here.]

II. The Contenders
I chose five nominees for best director of 1931-32: René Clair (À Nous La Liberté), Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), James Whale (Frankenstein), Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel) and Howard Hawks (Scarface). It's a deep field and any one of them would be a good choice, I think, but from looking at other alternate Oscar type blogs, there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus as to who it should be. Danny Peary, whose book Alternate Oscars inspired this lunacy, picked Howard Hawks, as did Nighthawk of The Boston Becks. Jon Mullich at chose Rouben Mamoulian, while Masted at Listology went with James Whale (although Masted follows the calendar rather than Oscar year). Boudu at Top Movies, who also follows the calendar year, threw me a curveball and picked Yasujiro Ozu for I Was Born, But ... Can't say he's wrong, but I've got Ozu's Tokyo Story down in my notes as the winner for 1953 and that award is written in permanent ink. Finally, although Films 101 doesn't pick winners, that site has ranked René Clair's À Nous La Liberté as the best of the eligible movies, so that probably means something.

Which seems to leave poor Edmund Goulding out in the cold, but as Jon Mullich wrote, "Goulding did a remarkable job in directing so many high caliber, high ego names in the cast [of Grand Hotel], and got particularly remarkable performances from Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore." He deserves serious consideration.

René Clair you already know, if you've been following this blog. The French director was one of the true pioneers of the early sound era, not only figuring out how to integrate sound with a fluid camera—a real technical achievement in and of itself—but also using the new technology in ways no one had before thought of to enhance his storytelling. Between 1929 and 1931, he made the three best films of his career, Under The Roofs Of Paris (which I wrote about here), Le Million (here) and this year's best picture nominee, À Nous La Liberté. I won't reiterate here what I've already written about him except to say that what I wrote about Le Million—"[It] really is a Saturday night movie, full of slapstick and sightgags, and the only thing that keeps me from naming it the best Fun-Stupid movie of [the year] is my reluctance to task your patience with subtitles"—also applies to À Nous La Liberté, a whimsical and sometimes biting comedy about two prison inmates, one of whom escapes and winds up as the CEO of a factory that, ironically, he runs like a prison; the other who later coincidentally takes a job in the same factory with all hell thereafter gently but decidedly breaking loose. It's witty, inventive and unforgettable, a real contender.

Like Clair, Rouben Mamoulian immediately grasped the storytelling possibilities inherent in the new sound technology and like Clair and Fritz Lang, he figured out how to work around the limitations of bulky sound recording equipment to maintain the fluid camera work that characterized the end of the silent era. I mentioned him (here) in connection with the 1929 movie Applause which he filmed on location in the New York subway system and used recorded traffic and crowd noises for the soundtrack. I'll mention him again when we get to the 1932 musical comedy Love Me Tonight, which includes an inventive introduction to the song "That's the Song of Paree" using only the sounds of the city—the swish of a broom, the snore of a sleeping drunk, etc.—and a clever staging of the standard "Isn't It Romantic," which starts with a three-sided reflection of Maurice Chevalier in a tailor's mirror and winds up on the balcony of a princess.

"Realism and naturalism are not for me," Mamoulian said later. "I think it's too feeble an instrument."

His Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opens with a tracking shot so audacious, the studio later cut it out the film and it wasn't seen by audiences after its initial release until the film's restoration forty years later. Mamoulian didn't care that audiences might hear the movement of the era's bulky sound cameras—if the scene was good enough, he reasoned, they'd be too engrossed in the action to notice. This approach was nearly unique in Hollywood during the early sound era and having immersed myself in the films of the period, I can tell you the work of those directors—Clair, Lang, Mamoulian—who solved the technical and artistic puzzle of sound fairly leaps off the screen.

In addition, the special effects in Dr. Jekyll, while primitive by today's standards, equal or better those of any movie before 1933's King Kong. Relying on layered makeup and filtered camera lenses, Jekyll makes a seamless transformation into Hyde, a truly impressive bit of filmmaking.

A Broadway stage director by trade and preference, Mamoulian returned to the theater where in 1944, he directed the groundbreaking stage musical Oklahoma. He directed only seventeen movies in his career, very few of which are known to modern audiences. Aside from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his best known films are Greta Garbo's Queen Christina, Tyrone Power's 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro and the late-era Fred Astaire musical Silk Stockings. He also directed the first three-strip Technicolor film, Becky Sharp, starring Miriam Hopkins, and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for directing the 1936 musical The Gay Desperado, starring Ida Lupino. He was fired from his last two directing gigs, the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess and 1963's Cleopatra, and retired. In 1982 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America. He died in 1987 at the age of ninety.

Equally creative was James Whale, who if he didn't invent the horror genre, redefined it so thoroughly that it's difficult, even now, to make a horror film without dipping into the bag of tricks he came up with for Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. While Dracula was the first blockbuster horror film of the sound era, Whale's Frankenstein was the first to make use of sound's potential to scare the bejeezus out of an audience. (Fritz Lang's M also took full advantage of the new medium, but wouldn't be released in the United States until 1933, two years after Frankenstein.) Whale also worked hand-in-hand with set designer Charles D. Hall and makeup artist Jack Pierce to create some of the most iconic images of film history. And of no small consequence to the people who paid his salary, Whale also single-handedly kept Universal Pictures afloat during the early years of the Depression with a string of hits that included not only Frankenstein but also The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride Of Frankenstein, offsetting, for a time at least, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr.'s spendthrift ways.

Yet, for all his mastery of the horror genre, Whale didn't think of himself primarily as a horror director. He got his start on the London stage, both as an actor and as a set designer and most of his films were adaptations of theatrical dramas rather than horror. He directed another Katie nominee, Waterloo Bridge starring Mae Clarke, and Show Boat (the version with Paul Robeson's legendary performance of "Ol' Man River") (more about that when we reach 1936).

Despite reaching such heights, though, glory proved to be fleeting for Whale. After 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, which he resisted making for as long as he could, he never again directed a horror picture, and although credited with directing Show Boat, he was actually fired before production ended, having uncharacteristically gone way over budget. Whale's career took a nosedive after that. He directed a string of commercially unsuccessful pictures and was pretty much out of movies by 1941, directing only once more, filming in 1949 a forty-minute stage performance that was never released. In 1957, after a series of strokes, Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool.

His life was the subject of the 1998 movie Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen. Over the years, some critics have attempted to reinterpret Whale's work in light of the fact that he was one of the few openly gay directors working in Hollywood—for example, "Sexual Subversion: The Bride Of Frankenstein" by Gary Morris writing for Bright Lights Film Journal—but friends and colleagues have dismissed the effort. "All artists do work that comes out of the unconscious mind," said friend and fellow film director Curtis Harrington, "and later on you can analyze it and say the symbolism may mean something, but artists don't think that way and I would bet my life that James Whale would never have had such concepts in mind."

Me, I don't know and I have no opinion. Arguments between film critics are mostly of interest only to other film critics and they aren't much help to an audience sitting in a dark theater. All I know is that I like those old Universal horror movies and that Whale was their principal author. Good enough for me.

Of Edmund Goulding, you're likely only to remember the last thing I will tell you, so here are three facts to chew on before we get to it: (1) he had an eye for emotional truth that made him one of the best directors of actors ever, with nine of his stars receiving Academy Award nominations (two—Mary Astor in The Great Lie and Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge—won), and others such as Joan Crawford and Tyrone Power, though not nominated, giving arguably the best performances of their careers in his movies; (2) while known primarily as a director of so-called "women's pictures" such as Dark Victory and The Old Maid, he was a master of many genres, including action (the 1938 remake of The Dawn Patrol with Errol Flynn) and film noir (Nightmare Alley); and (3) on the set, he was a jack-of-all-trades, not only directing, but writing screenplays, composing music, and overseeing the details of set design, costumes and even makeup; everything, in fact, but cinematography: according to Lee Garmes, Goulding wasn't good at picturing what the camera was filming and wasn't much interested either.

And here's a fourth fact: three movies he directed, Grand Hotel, Dark Victory and The Razor's Edge were nominated for best picture (with Grand Hotel winning). Yet he was never nominated for best director.

Why not? Well, quite possibly because Goulding, not to put too fine a point on it, was a bad, bad boy, a bisexual voyeur who held elaborate orgies in his house, directing movie stars and nameless-faceless hookers alike in elaborate sexual scenes that horrified the part of Hollywood likely to be horrified by such things, and potentially embarrassing the part of Hollywood that secretly indulged themselves of his offerings. In fact, right around the time Grand Hotel was raking it in at the box office, Louis B. Mayer was hustling Goulding out of the country one step ahead of the cops who wanted to question him about two women who wound up in a hospital after one of these parties.

How wild were these parties? Let's put it this way: Katie Award-winning actress Louise Brooks, who is one of the most scandalous figures to grace the pages of this blog, was considered too much of a Midwestern prude to receive an invitation to these little shindigs, despite being one of Goulding's friends and one of the few people who had nice things to say about him later in life. It's kind of like how Jenna Jameson, the most famous porn star ever, turned down a date with Charlie Sheen because she didn't want to ruin her reputation. You don't have to know the details to know it was bad.

Which leaves Howard Hawks. If the best director award were purely a matter of career achievement, Hawks would be the winner, hands-down (and he may be anyway). Not only did he direct more great movies during the course of his career than any of his competitors—maybe more than all of theirs combined—he directed as many great movies as any director you can name and belongs, to my mind at least, on a Mt. Rushmore of great American directors.

But the best director award is not a career achievement award—well, not entirely a career achievement award—and so Hawks isn't guaranteed to win the award if and/or when I ever get around to making a decision, at least not this year. Still, I'm either going give him a Katie Award at some point, whether tomorrow or for Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Rio Bravo or something else. You can count on it. He directed forty-seven in all, mastering every genre in the process, and is movies will be a recurring feature of this blog.

I will say one thing about Scarface, though—while it is undeniably one of Hawks's best movies, it's also wholly atypical of his work. Although it was here he first began to experiment with faster-paced dialogue, it's staid by comparison even to Twentieth Century which he directed just two years later. Nor does it feature the overlapping dialogue that became a mainstay of his work nearly four decades before Robert Altman invented it. There are no "Hawksian" women either, no male comradery, no songs or purposeful lulls in the action, and no action-packed meditations on stoicism in the face of danger. Not to mention there's an awful lot of the sort of fancy camera work—for example, the elaborate tracking shot that opens the picture—that Hawks would later eschew. In fact, if you didn't already know this was a Howard Hawks film, you'd never know it was a Howard Hawks film. And I'm sort of thinking when I finally get around to writing about him, I want to be writing about him, not just a facsimile thereof. You know?

Still, a great movie is a great movie, right? But then the same can be said of À Nous La Liberté, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein and Grand Hotel.

In any event, there are your five nominees. While all of them are deserving, only one can win. I don't know about you, but I'm on the edge of my seat wondering who it will be.

To read part three of this essay, click here.


Mz. Louise Brooks said...

Trust me darling -- those parties were tame.

I've had more .. . exciting. . . picnics than some of G.'s soirees.

Not that I didn't search for pearls at a few, if you follow.

Mz. Louise Brooks said...


Louis B. Mayer was hustling Goulding out of the country one step ahead of the cops who wanted to question him about two women who wound up in a hospital after one of these parties.

When I left, they were both still tied up.

Louie had no sense of humour. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Actually, for those who are interested in Louise Brooks's take on Edmund Goulding, you should track down a copy of Lulu In Hollywood, which is a collection of her essays about Hollywood of the silent and early sound era. In the collection's epilogue, which she titled "Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs," she noted that she was one of those "Midwesterners born in the Bible Belt of Anglo-Saxon farmers who prayed in the parlor and practiced incest in the barn. And, although our sexual education had been conducted by the elite of Paris, London, and New York, our pleasure was restricted by the inbred shackles of sin and guilt. Thus at the same time our reputation for immorality excluded us from the parties of respectable Hollywood, which devoted itself to presenting a picture of moral beauty to the world, our reputation for sudden attacks of puritanism excluded us from the delights of the carefully arranged parties that ended for us after lunch or dinner when we were dismissed with a firm goodbye."

Of Goulding specifically she wrote, "In June 1977 when Kevin Brownlow went to Hollywood to interview old filmmakers for the Thames TV series on silent pictures, I asked him to question them about Eddie Goulding. Two weeks later he reported that no one would talk about Goulding. His name evokes a vision of sex without sin which paralyzes the guilty mind of Hollywood. All for love he directed his sexual events with the same attention he gave the directing of films. His clients might be the British aristocracy, bankers, or corporation executives. His call girls might be waitresses or movie stars. During a thirty-eight year career he touched the lives of many people who subsequently withdrew from his name."

Goulding's biographer, Matthew Kennedy, tells the same story.

Mz. Louise Brooks said...

Excuse me, darling, but I gave you my "take" on G. [why my editors insisted on "Eddie" I'll never know].

But you have earnestly and correctly amplified my thoughts on G.

Thank you.

As for the parties,
You can take the girl out of Kansas, and all that. . . .

oh my -- the "word verification" is "trymore"

Mythical Monkey said...

oh my -- the "word verification" is "trymore"

Which begs the question, how can you try more when you've already tried everything?

Uncle Tom said...

Brother Monkey - Sorry to contact you this way here but my email is out until at least Tuesday - just wanted to let you know.

I could have called but that's so impersonal.....much better this way

Mythical Monkey said...

I could have called but that's so impersonal.....much better this way

I like it! Maybe we can do Christmas this way, too!

Erik Beck said...

Since you mentioned my choice of Hawks as winner, I'll let you my nominees as well (though it is Becks, not Berks).

In order, my top 5 for the year were Hawks (Scarface), Dreyer (Vampyr), Whale (Frankenstein), Clair (A Nous La Liberte) and Tod Browning (Freaks). Mamoulian came in sixth on my list.

Mythical Monkey said...

though it is Becks, not Berks

Sorry about that -- somehow I typed it wrong when I added a link to your site some time ago and then I copied my own mistake. I've corrected the error in both places.

In order, my top 5 for the year were Hawks (Scarface), Dreyer (Vampyr), Whale (Frankenstein), Clair (A Nous La Liberte) and Tod Browning (Freaks). Mamoulian came in sixth on my list.

That's an awfully good list. Regardless of who I wind up picking, my real hope is that someone will be inspired to sit down and watch all of these movies. That was pretty much the effect Danny Peary had on me -- I'd always loved movies, but the whole alternate Oscars concept gave my viewing more breadth, making me take time to see movies I otherwise might never have bothered with. Even now, writing this blog, I'm running across movies I had either promised myself I'd watch but never gotten around to, had only the vaguest awareness of or flat out never heard of.

By the way, I check in pretty much every day to see who's won what lately. Great stuff.