Greatest American Directors of the Studio Era

Generally referred to as Hollywood’s Golden Age, the studio system was THE channel of film production and distribution in the US from the early 1920s through the ‘50s, huge studios producing movies mainly on their own lots with creative staff under usually long-term contract. Here were some of the greatest among them. In our liberated age of Julie Taymors, Kathryn Bigelows and Jane Campions, as well as our Spike Lees and Shyamalans, one may take note that these are all white men, a sign of the times. Nevertheless, they were all talented forerunners and laid the groundwork for the conventions, technique and storytelling standards we expect today.
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Robert Aldrich
Director, The Dirty Dozen
Robert Aldrich entered the film industry in 1941 when he got a job as a production clerk at RKO Pictures. He soon worked his way up to script clerk, then became an assistant director, a production manager and an associate producer. He began writing and directing for TV series in the early 1950s, and directed his first feature in 1953 (Big Leaguer)...
“ Famed for reworking classic genres, he took the cynicism, paranoia and fatalism of film noir and turned the amp up higher than anyone ever imagined it could go. With the fall of the Code drawing nigh, he established the very particular “grand guignol” genre, as per his use of legendary A-list actresses in sensational, naturalistic horror films. Ultimately, the triumph of his classic war picture The Dirty Dozen allocated him the establishment of his own production studio for some time. ” - jzappa
Frank Capra
One of seven children, Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897, in Bisacquino, Sicily. On May 10, 1903, his family left for America aboard the ship Germania, arriving in New York on May 23rd. "There's no ventilation, and it stinks like hell. They're all miserable. It's the most degrading place you could ever be," Capra said about his Atlantic passage...
“ Have you ever spent Christmas without flipping past at least a few seconds of It’s a Wonderful Life? Is there a soul who hasn’t heard of it? Even if you haven’t watched it all the way through, though I’m sure you have, you’ve seen enough brief stretches of it to assemble all the pieces together. So yes, you’ve seen it. And we owe this warm-hearted tradition to this producer/director of “Capra-Corn,” social Americana films as tribute to the idealistic common man battling against corruption. He wasn’t just a weepy soapboxer, though he was that to an often almost insufferable degree. He was also known for his fast-paced madcap comedies. ” - jzappa
John Ford
Director, The Searchers
John Ford came to Hollywood following one of his brothers, an actor. Asked what brought him to Hollywood, he replied "The train". He became one of the most respected directors in the business, in spite of being known for his westerns, which were not considered "serious" film. He won six Oscars, counting (he always did) the two that he won for his WWII documentary work...
“ There is unfortunately a great deal of validity in accusing Ford and iconic on-screen collaborator John Wayne of largely contributing to the marginalization of Native Americans as savages who speak terrible English and have only the crudest survival skills. Regardless, there’s no denying Ford was a gifted, hard-wearing and prolific master of not only Westerns but working-class Irish and American period pieces. A pioneer of location shooting and the long shot, Ford’s films were held in veneration by his contemporaries, with Bergman, Welles and later Scorsese among those who have branded him as one of the supreme movie directors of all time. ” - jzappa
Samuel Fuller
At age 17, Samuel Fuller was the youngest reporter ever to be in charge of the events section of the New York Journal. After having participated in the European battle theater in World War II, he directed some minor action productions for which he mostly wrote the scripts himself and which he also produced (e.g...
“ Although this unconventional director’s hard-edged, bold, and tough tabloid-ish films films were not deemed great cinema in their times, they reaped critical admiration in the late 1960s. Fuller embraced his newfound respect, associating himself with the new generation of filmmakers. It was mainly the French New Wave who argued Fuller as a key stylistic inspiration. His visual style and pace were seen as patently American, and admired for their lively minimalism. Scorsese applauded Fuller’s talent for capturing action. A bit more recently, Tarantino and Jarmusch attributed Fuller as influential upon their work. ” - jzappa
Howard Hawks
Director, The Big Sleep
What do the classic films Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rio Bravo have in common? Aside from their displays of great craftsmanship, the answer is director Howard Hawks...
“ A trendy, resourceful, stylistic director of countless genres, from screwball comedy to noir, westerns to gangster pictures, war movies to literary adaptations, Hawks can step to one side and psychologically react to things from both slants at once. He grasps impressions and information, simultaneously conveying his own messages and agenda. Interaction is what it's all about for Hawks, a master of commerce, communication, and all such exchange. ” - jzappa
Alfred Hitchcock
Actor, Psycho
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, Essex, England. He was the son of Emma Jane (Whelan; 1863 - 1942) and East End greengrocer William Hitchcock (1862 - 1914). His parents were both of half English and half Irish ancestry. He had two older siblings, William Hitchcock (born 1890) and Eileen Hitchcock (born 1892)...
“ For Hitchcock, recognized master of audience manipulation and calculating thrillers, no one inside the world of a Hitchcock film has authority or influence over it but Hitchcock. But it's also true that, generally, these substitute instigators also lack his humanism. As well, no description of a Hitchcock film is finished exclusive of observations of his camera and its distinctive imagery and composition. Hitchcock is far and wide branded as the Master of Suspense and possibly the most emulated director of all time. ” - jzappa
John Huston
An eccentric rebel of epic proportions, this Hollywood titan reigned supreme as director, screenwriter and character actor in a career that endured over five decades. The ten-time Oscar-nominated legend was born John Marcellus Huston in Nevada, Missouri, on August 5, 1906. His ancestry included English...
“ A well-known director and storyteller of all genres, Huston continually opened up the visual outlook of his films all through his filmography. While most directors trust in post-production to smooth the ultimate piece, Huston actually molded his films while shooting them, making them both more sparing and more analytical, with little cutting required. The “Huston look” comes from his sense of what’s genuine to the eye and his down-to-earth feel for interaction. ” - jzappa
Elia Kazan
Known for his creative stage direction, Elia Kazan was born Elias Kazantzoglou on September 7, 1909 in Constantinople, Ottoman Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey). Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his actors, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. He directed a string of successful films...
“ Kazan introduced an untried new generation of raw young actors to movie audiences, including Marlon Brando and James Dean. Most distinguished for obtaining the paramount dramatic performances from his actors, he guided 21 different actors and actresses to Oscar nominations. He became one of the most deeply influential filmmakers of the 20th century, though a highly contentious one. His choice, if you can call it that, to testify before HUAC cost him the respect and friendship of many, but it was never able to take the impact of his gritty psychological dramas and prophetic social commentaries away from him. ” - jzappa
“ Considered a progressive hero of a notably traditionalist social era, Kramer was a highly regarded producer and director who concentrated on social themes and issues in the 1950s and into the ‘60s. He was a filmmaker passionate not only about cinematic storytelling but about the impact those stories made on the moviegoer’s conscience. Without him, there would be no Judgment at Nuremberg or Inherit the Wind. ” - jzappa
Fritz Lang
Director, M
He studied at the College of Technical Sciences of Vienna's Academy of Graphic Arts but unhappy with the career path chosen for him by his parents, he ran away to study art in Munich and Paris. He then spent many years travelling the world including Asia. In 1913, he returned to Paris to paint. When World War I began...
“ A ground-breaking abstract German Expressionist and ingenious early director of sinister films noir, he was also accountable for timeless and iconic precursors to the noir genre, which American studio heads would’ve done well to have kept in mind as he was helming the tapering end of the classical era of noir. ” - jzappa
Sidney Lumet
Director, 12 Angry Men
Sidney Lumet was a master of cinema, best known for his technical knowledge and his skill at getting first-rate performances from his actors -- and for shooting most of his films in his beloved New York. He made over 40 movies, often complex and emotional, but seldom overly sentimental. Although his politics were somewhat left-leaning and he often treated socially relevant themes in his films...
“ Doesn’t really count, as his first theatrical film was released in 1957 when the Code was crumbling and independent film was nigh. However, he carried over a sense of the “workhorse director” into the modern age of American movie-making, making something like fifty films in fifty years, electing to function to serve the material, not for the material to serve his idiosyncratic vision. ” - jzappa
Anthony Mann
Director, El Cid
“ The inspired, profoundly humanistic and alas lesser known antidote to the gushing holier-than-thou corn of Frank Capra and the contrivances of Howard Hawks. It's extraordinary that a movie as real and unyielding as the crushingly bittersweet Make Way for Tomorrow was made by Hollywood in 1937. That very same year, this even-tempered artist leapt empty-handed into the void and came out the other side with The Awful Truth, a high-spirited, feather-hearted screwball comedy armed not with tigers and dinosaur bones or soapboxing and melodrama but merely the incomparably paradigmatic pairing of two effortlessly charming stars. Though the two pictures reach opposing ends of a spectrum, the scales balance with his warm, ingenuous touch. ” - jzappa
Vincente Minnelli
Director, Gigi
Born Lester Anthony Minnelli in Chicago on February 28 1903, his father Vincent was a musical conductor of the Minnelli Brothers' Tent Theater. Wanting to pursue an artistic career, Minelli worked in the costume department of the Chicago Theater, then on Broadway during the depression as a set designer and costumer...
Michael Powell
Director, The Red Shoes
The son of Thomas William Powell and Mabel (nee Corbett). Michael Powell was always a self-confessed movie addict. He was brought up partly in Canterbury ("The Garden of England") and partly in the south of France (where his parents ran a hotel). Educated at Kings School, Canterbury and Dulwich College...
Otto Preminger
Otto Ludwig Preminger was born in Wiznitz, Bukovina, Austria-Hungary. His father was a prosecutor, and Otto originally intended to follow his father into a law career; however, he fell in love with the theater and became a stage director. He directed his first film in 1931, and came to the US in 1936 to direct on the Broadway stage...
Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in 1911, in small-town Galesville, Wisconsin, to Lena (Toppen) and Raymond Joseph Kienzle, a contractor and builder. He was of German and Norwegian descent. Ray's early experience with film came with some radio broadcasting in high school. He left the University of Chicago after a year...
Carol Reed
Director, The Third Man
Carol Reed was the second son of stage actor, dramatics teacher and impresario founder of the Royal School of Dramatic Arts Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Reed was one of Tree's six illegitimate children with Beatrice Mae Pinney, who Tree established in a second household apart from his married life. There were no social scars here; Reed grew up in a well-mannered...
Don Siegel
Director, Dirty Harry
Don Siegel was educated at Cambridge University, England. In Hollywood from the mid-'30s, he began his career as an editor and second unit director. In 1945 he directed two shorts (Hitler Lives and Star in the Night) which both won Academy Awards. His first feature as a director was 1946's The Verdict...
“ Whereas producer-director sounds like a far-off call from lab and second unit labor at Warner Bros., Siegel internalized that hard-line technical work's effective discipline by the time more modern audiences began seeking more realism and grittier attitudes in movies. His shrewd and thrifty technique at the helm squeezed full advantage of his creative power. Point to Harry Callahan and Charley Varrick for characters who have whipped up some argument simultaneously while delivering the full-tilt gratifications required of testosterone-driven action thrillers, but point to Hell is for Heroes for an early example of Siegel's ability to juggle various wholly sympathetic and entertaining characterizations in what feels like a leisurely way throughout the backdrop of a taut, spare combat picture. ” - jzappa
George Stevens
Director, Giant
George Stevens, a filmmaker known as a meticulous craftsman with a brilliant eye for composition and a sensitive touch with actors, is one of the great American filmmakers, ranking with John Ford, William Wyler and Howard Hawks as a creator of classic Hollywood cinema, bringing to the screen mytho-poetic worlds that were also mass entertainment...
Orson Welles
His father was a well-to-do inventor, his mother a beautiful concert pianist; Orson Welles was gifted in many arts (magic, piano, painting) as a child. When his mother died (he was nine) he traveled the world with his father. When his father died (he was fifteen) he became the ward of Chicago's Dr. Maurice Bernstein...
Robert Wise
Robert Earl Wise was born on September 10, 1914 in Winchester, Indiana, the youngest of three sons of Olive R. (Longenecker) and Earl Waldo Wise, a meat packer. His parents were both of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) descent. At age nineteen, the avid moviegoer came into the film business through an odd job at RKO Radio Pictures...
“ Accountable for being the editor-for-hire who scrapped more than half of the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons, the footage he cut never to be seen by anyone. But, you know. A job’s a job, right? Regardless, he became his own multitalented, adept veteran producer-director. ” - jzappa
Billy Wilder
The second of two sons, his father ran a chain of railway station cafes. As a youth he was obsessed with everything American. encouraged by his mother he enrolled as a law student at the University of Vienna but quit after 3 months to be a writer on a magazine which although poorly paid it gave him a great amount of experience interviewing such as Richard Strauss and Sigmund Freud...
“ What separates Billy Wilder from the other film-making icons of his day is that an actor has a bigger chance of making a goofy face in one of his films than he or she does under the helm of Otto Preminger or William Wyler. In spite of his brazen sense of humor, he could enrapture a broad audience of common filmgoers with suspense or melodrama with a haunting movie like The Lost Weekend, a legal drama like Witness For the Prosecution, a noir like Double Indemnity or an eerie piece of meta-Hollywood like Sunset Boulevard. I believe that, while I've begun to consider him primarily a director of comedies, he learned a great deal from the apparent zeal of said classics. In an unprecedented surprise like The Fortune Cookie, a rubber-faced farce, he still takes his time and builds drama and moral dilemma that projects beyond the comfortable arm's-length distance of slapstick. Yet these curious instances of eyebrow-curling don't breach or sully the comic tone. ” - jzappa
William Wyler
Director, Ben-Hur
William Wyler was an American filmmaker who, at the time of his death in 1981, was considered by his peers as second only to John Ford as a master craftsman of cinema. The winner of three Best Director Academy Awards, second again only to Ford's four, Wyler's reputation has unfairly suffered as...