NORMAN TAUROG FOR SKIPPY (1930/31)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Clarence Brown for A Free Soul
Lewis Milestone for The Front Page
Wesley Ruggles for Cimarron
Josef von Sternberg for Morocco
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
For as ubiquitous as adaptations from the comics have become in recent years, Marvel and DC have yet to match the Oscar success of Norman Taurog’s Skippy way back in 1931. Following the ups and downs of Percy Crosby’s comic strip hero, a rambunctious ancestor to Dennis and Calvin, the film showcases Taurog’s signature strength directing child actors. Indeed, his effective (if underhanded) techniques were sufficient to earn his 9-year-old nephew Jackie Cooper the only child nomination in the history of the Best Actor category. The infamous story of Taurog faking the killing of Cooper’s dog to get those tears does diminishes this accomplishment somewhat; in his defense, though, everyone in Hollywood seems to have borrowed this page from his playbook, if you believe the preponderance of stories out of classic Hollywood. And it is a good performance, ranging from the character’s indomitable brightness to those cruelly extracted (but convincing) tears.
For better or worse, Cooper’s performance is the major highlight of Taurog’s directing. After a promisingly energetic dolly shot that climbs upstairs into the bedroom to introduce the main character, the film’s visual style settles into a flat setup-gag routine that wears awfully thin at points. The strength of the film, however, lies in the surprisingly hefty dramatic stakes that Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Sam Mintz fold into the hero’s lighthearted escapades. The main conflict starts with Skippy being unfairly blamed for breaking Mr. Nubbins’ windshield. At first a seemingly inconsequential injustice, the crime is never remedied and reappears with a vengeance to thwart Skippy’s efforts to free his impounded dog. The pathos of Skippy’s tearful hour-mark scenes, a violation of the sunny, unchanging comic strip world, surely explain in part the film’s Oscar success. The comedy in Skippy doesn’t quite hold up apart from a bit of old-fashioned charm, but the dramatic scenes still have their proper effect. By the end of the movie, Skippy’s life has regained its rosy color, but I respect the filmmakers for presenting a world governed by real, permanent consequences—many of today’s comic adaptations could learn a thing or two from this film.
Skippy cemented the 32-year-old Taurog’s reputation as a youth filmmaker, setting in motion a career that would stretch from Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to Elvis. In the short term, it carried him to victory against a rather formidable slate of early Oscar talent. Lewis Milestone, the first three-time Best Director nominee, made the cut for his snappy newspaper comedy The Front Page, while Clarence Brown made his second trip to the show with the gangland drama A Free Soul, powered by Lionel Barrymore’s show-stealing tour de force in the courtroom finale. Rounding out the group were Josef von Sternberg’s first of two career nominations with the intoxicatingly stylized Morocco, and one-timer Wesley Ruggles for RKO’s only Best Picture winner, the sweeping Oklahoma saga Cimarron. Even in the early years the Directors Branch could usually snag at least one nominee that really stands out today, but none of this year’s films quite breaks through for me. My favorite of the bunch, though, is definitely Ruggles’ frontier saga, an impressive feat of filmmaking on the underrated side among Best Picture winners.