This article is part of a three-part series about Hollywood directors, stretching from the birth of sound films until the modern day. This is the first part of that series, where I will list the Top 10 Hollywood Directors whose work I think has had the greatest impact on Hollywood, general audiences, American culture, and my own appreciation of cinema. For the purposes of this list I will define “Classical Hollywood” as extending from the 1930s until the 1960s, with directors here releasing their work primarily between 1935 and 1960. Works outside of this time-frame won’t be unmentioned, but this helps establish a more specific criteria from which to choose directors that I think are worthy of recognition. I will mention what I believe to be each director’s best or most noteworthy film, as well as selecting some honorable mentions. This list is part of a three-part series including one about New Hollywood Directors and Modern Hollywood Directors. So make sure to check those out when they’re released.
William Wyler (1902-1981): William Wyler’s stamp on Hollywood spanned a 45-year career in the film industry including such classics as Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mrs. Miniver, all of which won Best Picture and Best Director. His works were known for making big office returns and propelling actors to stardom including Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Wyler is also noteworthy for films such as Funny Girl, The Children’s Hour, and Jezebel, as well as his collaborations with Bette Davis. It pains me to leave such a beloved director off of this list, but I needed to make some cuts, and thus here he is.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993): Joseph L. Mankiewicz is another director with a sprawling and impressive oeuvre to draw from. He won the Oscar for Best Director twice for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, as well as directing twelve Oscar-nominated performances. Mankiewicz also directed classics like Julius Caesar, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Sleuth. However, like Wyler, he falls just short of this list because while he is certainly a major part of Hollywood’s history, others compared better when measured for impact and the breadth of their work.
The Top Ten:
10) John Huston (1906-1987)
John Huston’s career extended over half-a-century in Hollywood, during which he directed, wrote, and acted in some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Huston’s debut was 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, which says enough about his innate talent as a director. Seven years later Huston topped himself and won the Oscar for Best Director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Two years later he made Marilyn Monroe a star in The Asphalt Jungle, then won Humphrey Bogart an Oscar for The African Queen. His last two films: Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, saw him get nominated for major awards and win serious acclaim, despite being released while Huston was in his seventies and eighties. Not only this, but he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his excellent villain role in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, proving his talent on both sides of the camera. Huston’s legacy continues, as his daughter Anjelica remains one of our biggest stars.
Best Film: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
9) Stanley Kramer (1913-2001)
Stanley Kramer remains the pinnacle of providing movie-going audiences with thought-provoking and socially-conscious films. While he began his directing career with Not as a Stranger in 1955, Kramer reached his peak form in 1958 with The Defiant Ones, in which Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis played escaped inmates forced to confront their own racial prejudices while on the run together. His next film, 1959’s On the Beach tackled the pressing issue of nuclear warfare, which he followed with issue-driven works like Inherit the Wind (evolution vs creationism), Judgement at Nuremberg (the Holocaust), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (interracial marriage). Even with lighter films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Kramer always brought a sense of craft and intelligence that has allowed his films to stand the test of time.
Best Film: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
8) Frank Capra (1897-1991)
Frank Capra is another great director who may surprise some with how low he is on this list considering his work. In a twelve-year period, Capra directed It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Known for films exploring working-class Americans with strong ideals and a populist message, Capra and his partnership with Jimmy Stewart produced some of our greatest classical films, and ones that are endlessly rewatchable and inspiring. Capra has not only influenced the realm of acting and directing, but also documentary with his World War II documentaries like The Battle of Russia. Capra was also very involved with the modern formation of the Hollywood guild system and the preservation of the Academy through trying times. The reason he’s lower on this list is that after It’s a Wonderful Life flopped in theaters, he had trouble securing funds for later projects and his body of work suffered. Nonetheless he’s had a considerable impact on American movies that deserves to be recognized.
Best Film: It Happened One Night
7) Howard Hawks (1896-1977)
Howard Hawks is a the definition of a Classical Hollywood director. He was never typecast as a director and was thus able to extend his reach into all sorts of genres, work with a wide variety of actors, and yet all of his works have been hailed for their energy and quality. Hawks basically founded the modern gangster film with 1932’s Scarface, created one of the best 1930’s screwball comedies with Bringing Up Baby, topped it two years later with His Girl Friday, and earned an Oscar nomination for 1941’s Sergeant York. Hawks’ work extended well beyond World War II with films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rio Bravo, and The Big Sleep. Nine of Hawks’ films have been preserved in the National Film Registry for being historically and culturally important, and his influence on a variety of genres, ranging from comedies, to gangster films, to romance, to musicals, is still felt in the industry today.
Best Film: His Girl Friday
6) David Lean (1908-1991)
For much of his career and even today David Lean is the master of the epic film. Not just big budget films with fancy locations and costumes, but ones that explored grandiose themes and ideas with terrific acting and direction. Lean is primarily known for directing two Best Picture winners: The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Both of these films are consistently ranked among the best films ever made thanks to Lean’s talent behind the camera. Lean has also directed a number of other great films like Doctor Zhivago, Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, and Ryan’s Daughter. These works have lead such talents as Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick to hail Lean’s craft as a director. He has three films in the British Film Institute’s top five British films ever created, and his influence on both sides of the pond continues to this day.
Best Film: Lawrence of Arabia
5) Elia Kazan (1909-2003)
No one director has ever had such influence on the art of cinematic acting as has Elia Kazan. Beginning with Group Theatre, a theater collective that honed Stanislavski’s work into American method acting under Lee Strasberg, Kazan made his name as a wonderful director of stage and, eventually, screen. Kazan’s work has included such legendary movies as Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and many more. He produced some of cinema’s finest performances, especially in On the Waterfront with award-winning roles for Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and many others. Despite some denigration of his talent due to his compliance with HUAC, Kazan remains one of the best directors in terms of talent, craft, and consistently creating films that have left a huge impact on the American cinematic landscape. Stanley Kubrick named Kazan as “the best director we have in America”and his work continues to earn tributes today from the likes of Martin Scorsese.
Best Film: On the Waterfront
4) Billy Wilder (1906-2002)
Okay so here’s where my taste really helps to elevate someone to higher than others might rank them. However, Billy Wilder is also very deserving of praise and for his consistently amazing work as a director and indelible work behind the camera. Wilder’s work stretched across a number of genres including Double Indemnity, which defines the film noir genre, The Seven Year Itch, which has become a classic of the romantic comedy, and Witness for the Prosecution, which is a classic of the courtroom drama. And that’s not even scratching the surface. Wilder has also directed some of the most iconic American films in The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, and The Apartment. Sunset Boulevard produced an iconic performance from Gloria Swanson, Some Like it Hot made Marilyn Monroe a sex symbol, and The Apartment remains one of the finest romantic dramas ever made. His best lines as a writer-director have become classic like “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small,” “Well, nobody’s perfect,” and “Shut up and deal,” and that’s in just the three movies I just mentioned. Wilder’s talent and creative output are unparalleled among Hollywood’s directors, except for those above him on this list.
Best Film: The Apartment
3) John Ford (1894-1973)
Now we’re really getting into some major industry heavyweights. John Ford may be primarily known for his Westerns, but his work spans a number of genres and their exploration of the craft of directing has had a major impact on Hollywood. Ford has often been named among the best directors who have ever lived for his work on films such as The Informer, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Battle of Midway, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. Not only did he direct a number of classics, but at such an output that for a thirty-five year period between 1928 and 1963, one could see a new John Ford almost every year, sometimes with more than one in a single year. Ford’s output and talent are legendary, and many people whom I will mention on the New Hollywood list have named him as an influence. And it’s not hard to see why.
Best Film: The Searchers
2) Orson Welles (1915-1985)
There are few people who have individually had such a wide and far-reaching impact on Hollywood filmmaking as Orson Welles. At the ripe, young age of twenty-five, Welles and his friends were essentially handed the keys to RKO Pictures and allowed to make whatever they wanted. The product of that was Citizen Kane, often considered the greatest film ever made for its quality in every respect, sheer innovation and influence, and the craft and detail that went into every frame of its final product. In making Citizen Kane, Welles not only revolutionized Hollywood directing, screenwriting, and acting, but his work with cinematographer Gregg Toland revolutionized the way that films are shot and assembled in a way that is still influential today. The film was also incredibly innovative in its use of makeup and hair-styling, set design, and a wide variety of tricks that were used to make Charles Foster Kane larger than life in every sense.
In addition to Citizen Kane, Welles has created such films as The Magnificent Ambersons, which was notoriously re-cut by the studio after Welles filmed it. But in both its theatrical and restored cuts, the film has been compared favorably with Welles’ masterwork Citizen Kane. Welles continued to work in Hollywood for decades on films such as The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake. He was renowned for his work both as a director, an actor, and a screenwriter, and has since been hailed as the great Renaissance man of Classical Hollywood. Film historians today continue to ponder over Welles’ great pictures that were never made like Don Quixote and The Merchant of Venice. His impact is not only almost without parallel, but also his sheer talent is admired by cinematic artists today the world over.
Best Film: Citizen Kane
1) Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
Much like every other director on this list, Hitchcock never went to film school. Rather, he was trained to be a director by working in the film industry in just about every department that one could imagine before he was finally asked to direct his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925. From there he began a sprawling list of early works that include The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, and many, many more. Known by many with the moniker “The Master of Suspense,” Hitchcock earned the nickname with every film that he released. Known for his cameo appearances in his films, he later became a star of the small screen as well with the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
However, it is for his work on the big screen that Hitchcock will always be regarded among the greatest artists who have ever lived. Hitchcock’s work continued to improve as his career hit its stride in the 1950’s with Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Each film has become exemplary of the thriller genre, and with each film Hitchcock explored new cinematic techniques and technology for great effect. Not only was Hitchcock a great innovator, but also a great artist due to his history with silent films, which allowed his brilliant mind to flourish and to produce some of the greatest cinematic images to have ever graced the screen. Thus it may come as a surprise today that Hitchcock wasn’t even considered an artist in his time due to his tendency to work in “lesser” genres like thrillers and crime.
His most influential work, and one of the most influential films of all time, came in 1960 with Hitchcock’s Psycho. Never before had a horror film so perfectly tapped into the growing sense of dread in the American popular consciousness due to the Cold War and serial killers like Ed Gein. Combining this timeliness with excellent craft and performances from Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock established his mark on the global cinematic landscape. That’s not even mentioning the infamous Shower sequence, considered among the most iconic ever produced. Hitchcock’s work has had a huge influence not only on world culture, but also on a number of directors who have grown up watching his work. Thanks to revived interest in him as an artist due to his published conversation with French director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock remains one of the most iconic and influential artists to have ever lived.
Best Film: Vertigo