Having emerged from the silent era, Hollywood entered into its first full decade of talkie films and with it came some extraordinary pictures made by some of the greatest directors of all time. Names like John Ford, Frank Capra, Victor Fleming and Leo McCarey all rose to prominence and won Oscars for films that have since become masterpieces. Here are all the Academy Award winners for Best Director in the 1930s.
With this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, Lewis Milestone directed a shockingly realistic war movie that dared to show the true horrors of battle during World War I. The picture won for Best Picture and earned Milestone his second Oscar – his first was for Two Arabian Knights (1927) – beating out double nominee Clarence Brown for Anna Christie and Romance, Robert Leonard for The Divorcee, Ernst Lubitsch for The Love Parade and King Vidor for Hallelujah.
Using a soft touch for this affecting family comedy, Norman Taurog steered nine-year-old Jackie Cooper into becoming the first child to ever be nominated for an Oscar. The picture also earned a nod for Best Picture, but it was Taurog who came away the victor by winning the Academy Award over Wesley Ruggles for Cimarron, Clarence Brown for A Free Soul, Lewis Milestone for The Front Page and Josef Von Sternberg for Morocco.
Starting in 1931/32, the Academy reduced its nominees to three potentials winners in most individual categories while increasing Best Picture nominees to ten. For the second time in only two tries, Frank Borzage won a statuette for this rather dated pre-Code melodrama about a husband and wife (Sally Eilers and James Dunn) struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Somehow Borzage won over his more worthy contemporaries, King Vidor for The Champ and Josef Von Sternberg for Shanghai Express.
A decades-spanning film that goes through several historical events, from the Second Boer War to the sinking of the Titanic and World War I, Frank Lloyd’s sweeping historical drama depicted the lives of an upper class British family and their servants. Though uninteresting by today’s standards – TV's Downton Abby covered the same ground in more entertaining fashion – Cavalcade won for Best Picture while Lloyd took home Oscar over Frank Capra for Lady for a Day and George Cukor for Little Women. Embarrassment ensued at the ceremony when presenter Will Rogers announced, “Come up and get it, Frank,” prompting Capra to stride up to the podium, only to learn Lloyd was the true recipient.
Capra avoided further embarrassment after collecting his first of three Oscars for Best Director after helming It Happened One Night, one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made. Starring Claudette Colbert as a selfish runaway heiress and Clark Gable as a hungry reporter who smells a good story, the film crackled with energy and wit, particularly in the sharp exchanges between the two stars. The film became the first of three (and counting) movies in history to win all five major awards, with Capra easily winning the Academy Award over Victor Schertzinger for One Night of Love and W.S. Van Dyke for the classic detective comedy The Thin Man.
Turning to his Irish roots, John Ford directed this compelling political drama that focused on a simple-minded, but well-meaning man (Victor McLaglen) whose betrayal of his best friend (Wallace Ford) leads to murder, further betrayal and eventually his own salvation. The film marked Ford’s first nomination and win for Best Director, and he would go on to win three more Oscars in the category – a record that stands to this day. He earned the award over Henry Hathaway for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Frank Lloyd for Mutiny on the Bounty, and Michael Curtiz, who was a write-in candidate for Captain Blood.
Even though the Academy returning to a five nominee format, Frank Capra was still the favorite to win the Oscar for his classic screwball comedy, which starred Gary Cooper as a country rube who inherits millions and makes for the big city to help the needy, only to encounter all manner of greedy opportunists. An even bigger hit than It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town received five nominations, but only Capra himself landed a statuette, beating out William Wyler for Dodsworth, Robert Z. Leonard for The Great Ziegfeld, Gregory La Cava for My Man Gofrey and W.S. Van Dyke for San Francisco.
Another great screwball comedy, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a couple on the verge of divorce who are both determined to make the other jealous by carrying on with other people, only to find themselves in need of each other. An underrated classic, the film was deftly handled by McCarery who won his first of two Academy Awards over the likes of Sidney Franklin for The Good Earth, William Dieterle for The Life of Emile Zola, Gregory La Cava for Stage Door and William Wellman for A Star Is Born.
By winning the Oscar for another classic screwball comedy, Frank Capra became the only director (thus far) to win three Academy Awards in the same decade, having previously won for It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Starring James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur, this lighthearted, feel-good comedy brought home Best Director for Capra over double nominee Michael Curtiz for Angels With Dirty Faces and Four Daughters, Norman Taurog for Boys Town and King Vidor for The Citadel.
With 1939 being commonly viewed as the greatest year in Hollywood history, one might think that competition would have been fierce at the Academy Awards. Sure, there were many great films and performances that in any other year would have been shoe-ins for Oscar glory. But one film, Gone With the Wind, far exceeded them all in just about any way imaginable. So it was no surprised that it won a whopping 10 awards – eight competitive and two honorary – a record that stood until Ben-Hur won eleven. Victor Fleming’s masterful achievement earned the director his one and only nomination and win of his career, beating out an unparalleled group that included Sam Wood Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Frank Capra for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, John Ford for Stagecoach and William Wyler for Wuthering Heights.