HERBERT BRENON FOR SORRELL AND SON (1927/28)
The competition (Cliff: 3 for 3!)
Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven
King Vidor for The Crowd
The First Academy Awards teemed with films that depicted the grim battlefields of World War I (Wings, Two Arabian Knights, Seventh Heaven), but Herbert Brenon’s Sorrell and Son was perhaps the only one to look past the conflict itself to the story that followed. The film begins at medal ceremony at the war’s conclusion, compressing an entire film’s worth of battlefield heroics into a single title card:
The story that follows will test what remains of the valiant soldier as he suffers quiet humiliations of a veteran fending for himself and his son. A forerunner to Oscar giants like The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home, Brenon’s sensitive paternal melodrama handles the compassionate look at the difficulties of a man trying to rebuild a life for himself from the ground up. The second half of the film (in an era before Hollywood began streamlining its storylines) focuses on the son he strove to raise, now a successful surgeon but not exempt from dramatic misfortune. Brenon handles the paternal melodrama with a sensitive hand, placing his emphasis on H.B. Warner’s stoic endurance of his lifelong travails.
Unfortunately, the severely bleached image quality of the restored safety print I saw makes it impossible to fully evaluate the directing of this film. Apart from a couple of visual flourishes, such as the dynamic chiaroscuro of the dance hall sequence or Sorrell Sr.’s tear-blurred POV shot from the operating theater, Brenon clearly prioritizes directing the performances over a bold visual style. The deflated physicality that Warner brings to the lead role is still clear, but the blown-out image quality scrubs almost all of the detail out of the actors’ faces (see above screenshot) whenever they’re the brightest thing in the frame. That’s pretty much all of the time, though I was grateful for the prominence of white lab coats in the medical drama that dominates the film’s second half, forcing James Wong Howe to stop down the exposure and inadvertently preserve some legible facial expressions. Nevertheless, the art direction by William Cameron Menzies is still discernable, and the sentimental treatment of a father-son relationship is a welcome supplement to the many maternal weepies of the period.
Herbert Brenon, whose directing career began in 1912 (for Carl Laemmle’s IMP, pforerunner to Universal), beats out his fellow nominee King Vidor by a single year for the mantle of the most senior filmmaker ever nominated in the category. Everyone at the 1927-1928 Academy Awards was a first-time nominee, but Brenon was the only one who would never return to the race: Frank Borzage, winner for the staggeringly popular Seventh Heaven, would win again for Bad Girl, while Vidor would make a total of five winless trips to the ceremony. There was no stopping Borzage’s Parisian rooftop romance that year, but if I had my druthers Oscar history would have kicked off with an award for The Crowd, Vidor’s tragicomic fanfare for the common man and one of the last masterpieces of the silent era.