Best Director 1915
Like the captain of a ship, the film director has ultimate responsibility for what happens on his set. Our captain may be taking orders from higher up (the producer) or attempting to steer the craft according to another’s plan (the screenwriter), but he or she is the one that has to go down with the ship when it sinks, and who sails with it into glory when it succeeds. While the cast and crew each may contribute their own special talents to the finished product, it is the director that coordinates their efforts and looks at the “big picture” or whole.
The nominees for best director for 1915 include names that will be recognized by film fans 100 years later. Cecil B. DeMille, although later remembered largely for large-scale spectacles and biblical epics, got his start with melodramatic romances like “The Cheat,” an excellent investigation of a woman’s dishonor. Raoul Walsh’s later contributions to the gangster and crime drama genres were pre-saged by his movie “Regeneration,” about the redemption of a hardened criminal through love. The Russian Evgeni Bauer would die before the Bolsheviks took power, then dwell in obscurity for decades, but the re-discovery of films like “After Death,” a Gothic twist on a Turgenev story about frustrated lovers, would assure his place in film history. Maurice Tourneur is largely known for stylistic fantasy and fairy tales, but he also took a turn looking at crime and redemption in “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” a movie which mixes his advanced lighting techniques along with the stark images of the real Sing Sing prison in New York. Finally, Charlie Chaplin, whose work would be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences many years later, gets a nomination for his maturing skills in “The Bank,” a movie which combines his established balletic slapstick talents with a sense of pathos and sympathy.
The nominees for Best Director of 1915 are:
- Cecil B. DeMille for “The Cheat”
- Raoul Walsh for “Regeneration”
- Evgeni Bauer for “After Death”
- Maurice Tourneur for “Alias Jimmy Valentine”
- Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”
And the winner is…Evgeni Bauer for “After Death!”
As good as our American directors are getting by 1915, I still felt that Bauer’s approach was the most advanced and exciting of the year. The movie blew me away when I first saw it, it seemed to be ten years ahead of everything else, and it still stands out due to its careful characterization, free-roaming camera, fascinating lighting choices, and use of mise-en-scène, one of Bauer’s specialties. Russian critics at the time gave Bauer a hard time for his “cluttered” sets and for changing the narrative of the sacred Turgenev, but for a modern viewer, this is a visual and emotional treat. What looked “busy” to them is almost reassuring compared to the starkness of early film, and the story works for film, whatever its origins might have been. One hundred years later, I’m happy to honor Bauer for his achievement.