The Next Best Thing: Lesser-Known Directors Whose Work You Should Know


In the annals of film history the names of certain directors are so well-known and so widely respected that when mentioned they immediately evoke, not just recognition, but also appreciation for their work. Such is certainly the case with names such as Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Capra, Wyler, Lang, Wilder, Hawks, Huston, as well as others. Not just the movies themselves but even a type of movie may come to mind when thinking of them, giving birth to such terms as “Hitchcockian”, “Wellesian”, or “Capraesque”, showing the influence their types of films have had on others.

However, it must also be admitted that just below the level of these directors is another group that may not be as well-known by name to the general public, but their work may be well-known, and among film aficianados their names are recognized and held in high regard. Such is certainly the case with directors such as Michael Curtiz, John Sturges, Jaqcues Tourneur, Robert Wise, Mitchell Leisen, Frank Tashlin, Andre De Toth, Allan Dwan, King Vidor, Anthony Mann (a personal favorite), Robert Siodmak, Anatole Litvak, etc. Together, these directors made some of the best movies to come out of Hollywood, and the skill and craftsmanship evident in their work to this day testifies to their skill as visual storytellers.

Well, just below these was another group. These were what are commonly referred to as “journeymen” directors, that is, studio directors who worked on one project after another without a particular style that stood out or made them as well-known as the others mentioned. Some are better known than others and have even had things written about them, such as Henry Hathaway, Richard Fleischer, Gordon Douglas, Jean Negulesco, Jack Arnold, and Vincent Sherman. Most others toiled away in relatively obscurity. But they weren’t all just churning out one picture after another with little regard for quality, far from it. As opposed to this, though not as well-known as their counterparts, a few of them turned out, not just an occasional good movie, but one after the other of very high quality, even on occasion equaling those of their more famous contemporaries. It is their work that is being celebrated here. With that in mind, this post is entitled The Next Best Thing, in other words, unsung directors of the golden age whose body of work had a standard of excellence almost equal to those directors far more renowned. Three in particular are highlighted here and they are listed in order along with their best work:

(1) John Cromwell-An actor-director with 48 films to his credit, he directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations which illustrates the quality of his work. This includes Bette Davis, Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert, and Eleanor Parker. With his name in the credits you’re almost always assured of getting a movie of high quality from that era.

Must Sees: Of Human Bondage (1934, Bette Davis pictured above), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937, Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll pictured above), Algiers (1938, Charles Boyer pictured above), Made For Each Other (1939), In Name Only (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Caged (1950), The Goddess (1958)

(2) Clarence Brown- He directed or produced 50 highly acclaimed films and worked with many of the best performers in Hollywood history. Like John Cromwell, he also directed 10 actors to Oscar nominated performances, with two of them, Lionel Barrymore and Anne Revere, winning Oscars. He also has the distinction of being tied with both Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock for most nominations as best director without a win (5). Just like those two, this in no way detracts from the high quality of his work which continues to entertain to this day.

Must Sees: A Free Soul (1931), Anna Karenina (1935, Greta Garbo pictured above), Wife vs. Secretary (1936, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy pictured above), The Human Comedy (1944, Mickey Rooney pictured above), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), National Velvet (1944), the Yearling (1946), Intruder in the Dust (1949, Juano Hernandez pictured above)

(3) Sam Wood- He directed 11 actors to Oscar nominated performances with 3 winning Oscars. Like Clarence Brown his work dates back to the silents with his best work being in the sound era, and has amassed a list of credits that have thrilled many classic movie fans over the years.

Must Sees: A Night at the Opera (1935), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940, Ginger Rogers pictured above), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Kings Row (1942, Robert Cummings pictured above), The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

This should be enough to get anyone interested started. But time (and space) will fail me if I include the work of other lesser-known craftsmen of the day such as John Farrow, John Brahm, John M. Stahl, Henry King, Jack Conway, Archie Mayo, W.S. Van Dyke, Robert Stevenson, Robert Z. Leonard, George Sherman, William Keighley, etc. Oh, and there’s one more ‘journeyman’ director of the period, Victor Fleming, who directed a couple of little movies you may have heard of-“Gone With the Wind and “The Wizard of Oz”-both in the same year! So look for their work, see it if you can, and gain a better idea of the range of greatness, from both the best and the rest, available from Hollywood’s golden age.

About bjbradford

An avid collector of classic movies for over 20 years ranging from the silent era through the early 1960's, from the justly famous to the unjustly obscure and quite a bit in between.
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