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Home Classic Movies Frank Lloyd: Two-Time Best Director Oscar Winner Q+A

Frank Lloyd: Two-Time Best Director Oscar Winner Q+A

15 minutes read

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Like many other Hollywood filmmakers of the studio era, Frank Lloyd (1886-1960) is hardly remembered today despite his numerous box office successes – e.g., The Sea Hawk (1924), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Wells Fargo (1937) – and no less than two Best Director Academy Awards, for The Divine Lady (1929) and Cavalcade (1933).

With Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama (BearManor Media, 2009), author and film historian Anthony Slide rectifies that matter. In his book, which focuses on Lloyd’s most important screen efforts, Tony (we’ve been friends for years) makes it clear that by disregarding Frank Lloyd’s body of work film historians are doing a disservice to Hollywood’s past.

In addition to his two Best Director wins, Lloyd directed two Best Picture Academy Award winners, Cavalcade and Mutiny on the Bounty. (In those early days, there were more Best Picture/Best Director mismatches than matches.) He also helped seven performers earn Academy Award consideration: Corinne Griffith for The Divine Lady (no official nominees were announced that year*); Diana Wynyard for Cavalcade; Leslie Howard for Berkeley Square (1933); the Mutiny on the Bounty trio of Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone; and Basil Rathbone in the supporting actor category for If I Were King (1938).

True enough, a Frank Lloyd film may not have the director’s imprint all over it, but that doesn’t make Lloyd’s work any less assured. On the other hand, if by auteurship one means a penchant for a particular theme, than Lloyd should be considered an auteur, as is pointed out in the aptly titled Master of Screen Melodrama.

* Lloyd himself was “considered” for Drag and Weary River, both starring Richard Barthelmess.

Milton Sills The Sea Hawk
William Farnum A Tale of Two Cities
Milton Sills in The Sea Hawk (top); William Farnum in A Tale of Two Cities (bottom)

Unlike George Cukor, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, or even John Ford, Frank Lloyd specialized in one movie genre: melodrama. From A Tale of Two Cities to Cavalcade, from The Sea Hawk to The Howards of Virginia, from Black Oxen to Blood on the Sun, the vast majority of Lloyd’s movies were supposed to make you leave the theater at least a little shaken up after having suffered for a couple of hours with Pauline Frederick, Norma Talmadge, Milton Sills, Clara Bow, Richard Barthelmess, Ann Harding, Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant, or James Cagney.

His characters were the victims of all sorts of injustices, whether those could be blamed on human beings (meanie Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, child brat Bonita Granville in Maid of Salem) or fate (a time warp in Berkeley Square, early 20th-century history in Cavalcade). And as Tony explains in his book, within the melodrama genre the Scottish-born Lloyd was particularly fond of two settings – British and maritime – combining both in The Sea Hawk, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Rulers of the Sea (1939).

I’ve seen about a dozen of Frank Lloyd’s films. My personal favorite is the curiously neglected If I Were King, which is neither British nor maritime – and it isn’t quite melodrama, either. Ronald Colman stars as 15th-century vagabond poet François Villon, who falls for the beautiful Katherine de Vaucelles (Frances Dee). Why do I like it so much? Well, If I Were King offers romance, action, drama, great performances, and sparkling dialogue (courtesy of Preston Sturges).

I’d say my least favorite Frank Lloyd effort is Cavalcade, in which we accompany a couple of London families (upstairs/downstairs) throughout the first three decades of the 20th century. That’s one of Tony’s favorite Frank Lloyd accomplishments.

So, the highest compliment I can pay to Master of Screen Melodrama is that after having read it I’m not only willing, but eager to give Cavalcade another look.

Tony has kindly agreed to answer several questions (via e-mail) about Frank Lloyd for Alt Film Guide. See below.

Photos: Courtesy of Anthony Slide

Frank Lloyd, Henry King, John Ford, Frank Borzage
Frank Lloyd, Henry King, John Ford, Frank Borzage
Among them, these four filmmakers share eight Oscar wins and four additional nominations

First of all, why Frank Lloyd?

An obvious response might be “why not?” While large, trade publishers are suffering from diminishing sales, it seems that “small” publishers and similar entities, including the “vanity press” and the self-publishing brigade, are expanding their activities and concentrating on many obscure figures from Hollywood history. As a result, a number of prominent “names” have fallen by the wayside. With the relatively recent publication of Michael Sragow’s biography of Victor Fleming, the man responsible for Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, it seems only appropriate to devote some space to another director from Hollywood’s “golden age,” namely Frank Lloyd.

Michael Sragow’s book is very, very long – some critics have argued that it is too long. I didn’t want to devote the same amount of space to Frank Lloyd, not because he does not deserve it, but because there is little to say about his private life – unlike Fleming he did not make a habit of having affairs with his leading ladies. Also, to be purely selfish, I didn’t want to devote the next few years of my life to researching this one man.

I had already gathered together a fair amount of original research on Frank Lloyd, and I felt the time was opportune to put together a small, hopefully useful, book, which will provide an introduction to Frank Lloyd’s life and career, and will concentrate on a handful of what I consider to be his most important directorial achievements.


Now, who was Frank Lloyd?

Frank Lloyd was a prominent member of a hard-working group of Hollywood filmmakers, who began during the pioneering days of the motion picture and continued to make film after film, almost effortlessly, through the 1950s – and sometimes beyond. You can speak the name of Frank Lloyd in the same breath as the aforementioned Victor Fleming, Henry King, Allan Dwan, and Frank Borzage. Lloyd began his career in the industry in 1913 as an actor at Universal, becoming a director (also at Universal) the following year. He worked for all of the major studios, including Fox, Goldwyn, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He ended his days, sadly as did quite a few other directors of his ilk, at Republic.


Frank Lloyd, Corinne Griffith in The Divine Lady
Frank Lloyd, Corinne Griffith while filming The Divine Lady


In your view, why isn’t Frank Lloyd, the winner of two Academy Awards (The Divine Lady, Cavalcade) and the director of two Best Picture Oscar winners (Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty), better remembered today?

In the book, I put the blame in part on Andrew Sarris and his “auteur” theory. The “auteur” theory is not necessarily one in which I wholeheartedly believe, but if I did I would argue that Lloyd, who also served as actor (at least in the early years), screenwriter and producer on many of his films is deserving of the title. Andrew Sarris would disagree, and in his seminal work, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions1929-1968, published in that last year and still widely used by academics and students, he fails to list Frank Lloyd in any of his categories. In fact, what is worse, he compares Lloyd to Cecil B. DeMille and finds him wanting. I would argue that DeMille, at least in the sound era, is pretentious, while Lloyd is not.

Another reason why Lloyd is perhaps largely unrecognized today is because he was what is best described as a studio director. His style is as much the style of the studio as it is his own. He did not make waves; he did not overly publicize and promote himself. What he did was for the good of the studio – not for his own ego.

Pauline Frederick in Madame X
Pauline Frederick in Madame X

Frank Lloyd’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker? His greatest weaknesses?

I have partly answered this question above. And I suppose, in a way, one might argue that his greatest strength – as a studio director – is also his greatest weakness. He put the studio first. He seldom went over-budget. He brought his films in on schedule. He worked well with actors and actresses, some of whom were known to be temperamental.


Frank Lloyd directed numerous melodramas of various subgenres, but do his films – or at least a majority of them – share any sort of directorial or thematic element(s), e.g., the way male or female characters are portrayed, or the focus/setting of the stories?

The term “melodrama” is a pretty sweeping one, which, as I point out in the book, falls into various sub-categories. A good melodrama is a good melodrama, and I don’t think that it necessarily shares a thematic element with another film that might be considered a melodrama. I suppose one might argue that a good melodrama should make one cry, but it should also make one smile, at least gently, and it should make one cheer. There is no better example of a melodrama with all these qualities than Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade. And yes, I’ll also give credit for that to Noel Coward.


Charles Laughton, Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty
Charles Laughton, Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty


Frank Lloyd worked with top talent in front of the cameras. What was his relationship with his actors like? Was he considered an actor’s director like George Cukor or William Wyler, or …? What did his actors think about him? Were you able to find any quotes from actors discussing their work with Lloyd?

Frank Lloyd obviously had a good working relationship with some actors known for their temperament. I am thinking particularly of Corinne Griffith. But I would not describe him as a woman’s director, like George Cukor. Lloyd’s early films demonstrate his ability to work steadily with male performers, notably Dustin and William Farnum. Lloyd certainly liked actors from the stage, as were the Farnums.

I don’t think – and this is a supposition – that he was too happy with male stars with large egos. Thus, Mutiny on the Bounty was not the happy experience it might have been thanks to his having to deal with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, who didn’t like each other, and, when the opportunity arose, didn’t like their director.


Richard Barthelmess, Marion Nixon in Young Nowheres
Richard Barthelmess, Marion Nixon in Young Nowheres


Frank Lloyd was credited as the director of four films starring top First National star Richard Barthelmess. How did that association come about? What was their relationship like?

I don’t know how the association came about. It appears that it was Barthelmess who selected Lloyd as his director, and that may have been simply because Barthelmess was intelligent enough to know that Lloyd was a good director, on a par with Henry King, who had made Barthelmess a star [in Tol’able David in 1921], and in the tradition of D.W. Griffith, with whom the actor had started his career. Interestingly, both men lived away from the film community, owning homes in [the eastern Los Angeles suburb of] Whittier (the birthplace of Richard Nixon).

Jackie Coogan in Oliver Twist
Jackie Coogan in Oliver Twist

In your book, you discuss a number of early Frank Lloyd efforts, including many rarities from the 1910s. I’m assuming you got to watch many of those films. The questions are: Are there many extant Frank Lloyd silents? How do they compare with the work of other major silent filmmakers who tackled melodramas of one form or another, say, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, or Rex Ingram?

Some of Lloyd’s Universal one- and two-reelers survive at various archives. They are not “masterpieces,” but they are on a par with films from other secondary directors of the period. In other words, they are not comparable to those directed by D.W. Griffith, but are as good as those directed by Allan Dwan. One of the earliest Lloyd features to survive is Madame La Presidente, starring Anna Held. I think it is a very good film, but I suspect that is largely due to its star, who is quite bewitching with the most incredible of eyes.

Other Lloyd silent films that have survived and are available on video are A Tale of Two Cities, A Tale of Two Worlds and Oliver Twist. George Eastman House has preserved Lloyd’s version of Madame X. UCLA has preserved The Sea Hawk, The Divine Lady and the part-talkie Weary River. The Library of Congress has preserved Children of Divorce.

Lloyd’s films are very different to those of Griffith or DeMille. Watching The Sea Hawk, I am reminded of Rex Ingram in that Lloyd loves to create a tableau, which is often short of action, and then move on to another tableau – again beautifully staged but somehow lacking in vitality.


Frank Lloyd This Woman Is Mine
Frank Lloyd’s This Woman Is Mine


During the talkie era, how would you compare Frank Lloyd to someone like William Wyler or John Ford, both of whom also directed a fair share of melodramas?

Let’s be sensible here. Much as I like to promote Frank Lloyd, I do not believe his sound films are, on the whole, comparable to those of William Wyler or John Ford.


Apart from two minor efforts in the 1950s, in the mid-’40s Frank Lloyd stopped directing movies. Why?

Frank Lloyd gave up directing in the mid 1940s, because he wanted to retire with his longtime wife, Alma. They had been married 32 years. It was time to relax. The couple bought a new home in the Carmel Valley [in Northern California], and Lloyd planned to work as a rancher. Unfortunately, Alma died in 1952, and that is why Lloyd decided to return to films. He made the two productions at Republic, then remarried, and retired again – but this time for good.

Frank Lloyd, Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, Einar Hanson in Children of Divorce
Frank Lloyd (below the camera), Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, Esther Ralston, Einar Hanson in Children of Divorce

Any movies Frank Lloyd wanted to make, but that he wasn’t able to? What were his biggest financial and/or critical hits? His biggest flops?

I am not aware of any films that Lloyd wanted desperately to make but could not. Certainly, he would have liked to have made a sequel to Mutiny on the Bounty, and even had plans to shoot the scenes with Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh in England as the actor was unable to travel to the U.S. at that time. He did try and purchase the rights to The Hurricane, which Goldwyn acquired and which John Ford directed [in 1937].

The two Republic films [The Shanghai Story, 1954; The Last Command, 1955] were not particularly successful, but I don’t believe that Lloyd had any real flops as such. Mutiny on the Bounty is arguably his most famous film, but it is not my personal favorite.


Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square
Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square


Did Frank Lloyd have a favorite among his films? Or a favorite performer? What are your favorite Frank Lloyd films? And why?

Berkeley Square is probably Lloyd’s favorite film – and a hard one to see. The negative has not apparently survived. [Berkeley Square was remade as the Tyrone Power vehicle I’ll Never Forget You (1951). It also inspired Somewhere in Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve.] In the 1910s, Lloyd was very fond of William Farnum, with whom he had a good professional partnership. He and Clara Bow got on one well [while working on Children of Divorce, 1927], surprisingly, and she really liked him.

My favorite Lloyd film is The Divine Lady because of its sweep, its stature and the emotional intensity of its love scenes between Victor Varconi and Corinne Griffith. I also find the latter incredibly beautiful. The camera loves her – and so do I.

As an Englishman, I must also single out Cavalcade. I acknowledge that a lot of the emotion that the film engenders has to do with Noel Coward’s original stageplay, but Lloyd brings all the elements from the theatre together to make a motion picture that is far more than a filmed stageplay. Watching that film, one is moved to tears by Diana Wynyard, and one regards Una O’Connor with fascination, realizing as did Hollywood that here is a great character actress.


How do you believe Frank Lloyd’s movies hold up for a modern audience? Which Lloyd films would you recommend to a “beginner,” someone who hadn’t heard of Frank Lloyd but would like to become acquainted with the director’s work?

Frank Lloyd’s films hold up as well as do the films of any other Hollywood director of his stature and his time period. The obvious choice for a “beginner” would be Mutiny on the Bounty, simply because of the presence of Laughton and Clark Gable.

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mike akerlund -

Just for the record. Lloyd and Bow made “Black Oxen” already in October 1923 as well as “Hoop-La” in September 1933. I don’t quite follow your sentiment that working “well” with Bow is a “surprise”. Bow was a workhorse and a team-player which was part of her package which made her great.


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