The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1927-1928
Ah, the first Oscars. There’s a lot to say here. Let’s see how quickly we can get it in. The Oscars began when Louis B. Mayer (head of MGM, and the second M in the title) thought to have an organization that would honor those people in the industry and also help improve the industry’s image (since at that point, there were a lot of labor disputes. There weren’t really any of the guilds as we know them today. They were still working to be formed. Plus film had a negative connotation to it. The industry had this reputation for putting smut on screen and was just attacked all around). Basically — it was a way to promote the good of the industry, rather than what the perceived opinion of it was. And it just stuck. But it’s important to note that the Oscars were originally more about AMPAS than the ceremony.
This first ceremony happened in May of 1929, and wasn’t even about the ceremony. They announced the winners three months earlier, and it was basically a reception for people to pick up the awards. Kind of like they do now with the Kennedy Center and AFI Awards. It’s about honoring the winners. They kept up the tradition for the first decade, handing out the names of the winners to the newspapers at 11 pm the night of the awards all the way until 1941, which is when they started with the whole envelope and the “and the winner is…” thing. Also of note, the reason the first five ceremonies have two years attached to them is because, until 1934, there was no set ceremony. Starting in 1934 was when they pushed the ceremony to the end of February/March like we know it to be. The 1927-1928 awards were given out in 1929, and they basically spend the nest few years playing catch up. The next two Oscar ceremonies happened in 1930, and then they caught up by 1932-1933, which allowed them to have the 1935 ceremony purely for the films of 1934. (Which also continues to piss me off that people constantly misquote what year it is. For instance, they call them the 2012 Oscars, meanwhile they’re for the films of 2011, just because the ceremony happened in 2012. It’s very infuriating.)
Let’s put the break here, since I have a lot more to say. (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1928-1929
1928-1929 (which, for quick reference, use the year on the right side of the double years to know which year it’s really for) is the first really interesting year for the Oscars. The first one was just, “Let’s get this thing set up.” But now — now it’s a thing. Now there are now traditions to uphold and ideals to strive toward. That is — the first year was giving out awards. Now there are precedents. So you have the beginning of what will essentially be a trend that continues to this day, which is, do they vote with what’s best, or what fits in best with the Oscars? (Usually, it’s the latter.) 1928-1929 are the first years where films could be made with the goal of winning an Oscar. Which changes things.
The other reason this year is an interesting year is quite major, historically — sound. The industry as a whole was transitioning to sound. Several films have used the transition to sound as part of their narrative, the biggest probably being Singin’ in the Rain, with the whole “Talk into the plant!” thing. And then The Aviator hinted at it, with Hughes, after the premiere, saying he has to reshoot Hell’s Angels for sound. And then The Artist, of course, covering that period from a talent standpoint. This intro is basically going to be a history of the transition to sound, because I do like to educate as well as inform.
But what makes this period most interesting is that the transition to sound wasn’t this quick switchover . They had a lot of stuff to figure out, technologically. The entire industry was set up for silent films. And now, all of a sudden, they had to, on the fly, start making films with sound. Because that’s what the audiences wanted. And it was basically an experiment for like, four years, them figuring out how to successfully shoot films with sound. (This was even before learning how to tell a story with sound.) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1929-1930
These were the 3rd Academy Awards, and this was really the point where Hollywood figured it out. The first awards were just laying groundwork, and the second was sort of a period of chaos, since after the first awards, Hollywood had to shift from one style of filmmaking (silent) to another (sound). Here was really the first year where Hollywood started getting sound down pat. It shows. The films, of course, were not perfected yet, but they’re definitely a marked improvement from the films of 1928-1929. You see more complex sound design, and more dialogue. The films of the year before this were more silence than dialogue. Here, they were able to tell stories.
The great thing about this year is that this was really the first year where there was a quintessential “Best Picture.” (Grand Hotel was the first “Academy” decision.) All Quiet on the Western Front is the total package. It’s a big, epic picture. Classy, based on a novel. And it also happens to be one of the greatest achievements ever put to film. The reason for that is — when you see what films of this era looked like (and watch the other nominees to see what I’m talking about), what Lewis Milestone (who won Best Director for the film, talked about here) was able to accomplish with sound design and staging and camera movement — I said it in that Best Director article, but this film is one that, were it made at any point in the first eleven years of the Academy Awards, it would still be better than just about every other film nominated. It’s incredible. And this was an important film for the Academy because it did also establish the classical “Oscar” film (which we really wouldn’t see again until maybe Grand Hotel and then for sure with The Great Ziegfeld). There wouldn’t be another slam dunk winner until Gone With the Wind.
The other winners this year were George Arliss as Best Actor for Disraeli (talked about here), which makes sense (it’s the kind of role that would win Best Actor), and Best Actress was Norma Shearer for The Divorcée (talked about here), which also makes sense, given that she was an actress who would basically become the first lady of Hollywood and was a huge star in the 30s. So, in all, it’s a very solid year, and really the first that you can point to as being representative of the classical Oscar decisions.
BEST PICTURE – 1929-1930
And the nominees were…
All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal)
The Big House (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Disraeli (Warner Bros.)
The Divorcée (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Love Parade (Paramount) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1930-1931
My favorite thing about these early Academy years is that you can see Hollywood becoming — Hollywood, essentially. At least as we know it today. You can see them perfecting sound as the years go along. I think of these double years as a set of training wheels. And then when the Academy got the hang of doing things, they shed the wheels and just hit the ground running. These double years are Forrest Gump with the braces. These were their magic shoes. They would take them anywhere.
One other thing I haven’t mentioned yet about these early years that also has to be taken into account is — Hollywood still hadn’t perfected the screen story yet. That is — when things were silent, they had their own method of performance and storytelling. Now, with sound, they didn’t quite know how to do it yet. So what you saw at the beginning was a reliance on the stage. A lot of the big stars of this era came from vaudeville or from the stage (the “legit”), so a lot of the acting and stories were performed rather than acted. There’s a lot of stage acting on film in this era. You start to see less of it as we move forward. Here, the films are definitely more cinematic than those of previous years. So in judging these films, you have to realize that Hollywood had not yet figured out how to do cinematic and sound. (Be lenient, is the point.)
As for this year, Cimarron takes Best Picture (which I’ll talk about in a second), Lionel Barrymore takes Best Actor for A Free Soul (talked about here), which makes perfect sense, given that he was a very respected stage actor (part of the Barrymore acting dynasty) and gave what is essentially a 14-minute speech in the film in a single take. Marie Dressler won Best Actress for Min and Bill (talked about here), which also makes sense, given her status as one of the top stars in Hollywood. And Norman Taurog won Best Director for Skippy (talked about here), which, holy shit was that an amazing decision. I’ll gush over that film in a minute.
So that’s 1930-1931. Everything makes sense, and there’s really nothing to quibble about. Which is nice.
BEST PICTURE – 1930-1931
And the nominees were…
Cimarron (RKO Radio)
East Lynne (Fox)
The Front Page (Caddo, United Artists)
Trader Horn (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1931-1932
We’re getting closer to streamlined. Now you’re seeing the Oscars start to discover their own identity. The winners are starting to make sense, and the precedents are about to be set, and pretty soon it’s gonna be the way we know it to be. But we’re not quite there yet. Though this is the first year where an “Academy” film won, rather than the “best” film. (All Quiet on the Western Front was just better than the competition. Grand Hotel was an “Academy”-type winner.)
1931-1932 is a noteworthy year in Oscar history because it’s the last time no film would win more than two Oscars at the ceremony. And it would also be the last time until 1989 and Driving Miss Daisy that the Best Picture winner wasn’t also nominated for Best Director. It would also be the only time in which the Best Picture winner wasn’t nominated for any other Oscars. (Though that does technically mean that the film swept.) And then, outside the Oscars, this is also a year that is littered with Pre-Code films, where Hollywood practically got away with murder with what they put on the screen. Watch this clip. Look at how suggestive it is. That’s basically all the context you need for it.
Other winners this year were a tie for Best Actor, with Frederic March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wallace Beery for The Champ, winning (talked about here). March got one more vote than Beery, but Academy rules dictated that anything within three votes become a tie. Best Actress was Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (talked about here), which was the best choice in the category. And Best Director was Frank Borzage for Bad Girl (talked about here), which I love, even though he didn’t really need it (they could have given King Vidor or Josef von Sternberg an Oscar this year). I’m sure many people would go another way there.
Overall, though, another solid year. Out of context, of course, it looks weak like almost all the early years, but in context, most of them are actually pretty solid.
BEST PICTURE 1931-1932
And the nominees were…
Arrowsmith (Goldwyn, United Artists)
Bad Girl (Fox)
The Champ (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Five Star Final (First National)
Grand Hotel (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
One Hour With You (Paramount)
Shanghai Express (Paramount)
The Smiling Lieutenant (Paramount) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1932-1933
This was the last year of the “double years” of the Academy, and it’s fitting. 1932-1933 was the last year before everything became completely “classical” as we know it to be. By around, 1932, Hollywood had perfected sound and started telling stories freely. However, the issue that then arose was one of censorship. There were many scandals out of Hollywood in the 20s and it soiled the industry’s reputation. So they basically started self-censoring, creating a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” of things filmmakers should avoid putting on screen. It wasn’t something that had to be adhered to, so some people didn’t necessarily listen to it. So you had these “Pre-Code” films, as they came to be known, which were, in the words of Dick Powell in The Bad and the Beautiful, “liberally peppered with sex.” And the government was fixing to come down on them if they didn’t stop it, fast. So after 1933, they passed the Production Code (enforced by Will Hays. Which got it the nickname “Hays Code”), which was basically a list of things that couldn’t be shown on screen (and was basically an early form of the MPAA, in that, if you didn’t follow the guidelines of the system, you couldn’t get your film distributed in major theaters. Not having a production code seal was like being rated NC-17.) So this is the real last year of the party, so to speak. Which is fitting that this was the last year before the Oscars really became “the Oscars.”
This last year was basically a free-for-all for Best Picture. It was the first year of ten nominees, and I don’t think the Academy quite knew what to vote for. I think they fell back on classy stage material, which can explain how Cavalcade won Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Lloyd (talked about here). Best Actor was Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII (talked about here), which I don’t particularly like as a decision (based on the category), but was a helpful decision in that it kept him from winning in other years where he really shouldn’t have won. And Best Actress was Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory (talked about here), which — the category only had three nominees, and she was really the best in the bunch. It was a star-making performance, and it showed. I understand that completely.
The real question about this year is the Best Picture decision. It’s not that it’s a bad film, it’s just that one other film held up better. So, in a way, it feels like one of those years where they go with the “Academy” decision and overlook the film that’s clearly a better choice. And as a result, this is one of the weakest Best Picture winners of all time, and is certainly one of the two most forgotten (next to The Broadway Melody).
BEST PICTURE – 1932-1933
And the nominees were…
42nd Street (Warner Bros.)
A Farewell to Arms (Paramount)
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Warner Bros.)
Lady for a Day (Columbia)
Little Women (RKO Radio)
The Private Life of Henry VIII (London Films, United Artists)
She Done Him Wrong (Paramount)
Smilin’ Through (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
State Fair (Fox) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1934
(Note: THIS CATEGORY IS NOT FINISHED. I still need to watch one of the nominees. I still have not been able to find The White Parade in any cheap/acceptable format. If anyone has it or knows where it can be procured, let me know, so this category can be finished.)
All right, now we have “The” Oscars. Now the Oscars are a man. Baruch atah adonai. None of that foundation stuff anymore. Now they know what these awards are about and what the criteria for them are, they can just start voting the way we do now. This year really solidified that. They got rid of the double years, all films nominated were for that singular calendar year, and they also gave a film the “big five,” which is like wiping the slate clean and saying, “Okay, now we know what we’re doing.”
It Happened One Night won everything this year. Best Picture, Best Director for Frank Capra (talked about here), Best Actor for Clark Gable (talked about here) and Best Actress for Claudette Colbert (talked about here). And of course, Best Screenplay. Hence the big five. I have absolutely no problem with any of these decisions, and they were all well-deserved. Though my favorite film of all time (The Thin Man) was on almost all those lists (still kind of upset about that Best Actress snub), so despite me being okay with the result, I still won’t vote for it. Still though, this is one of the best Academy years.
Two things to point out — this year and the year after this were the only two years in Academy history in which they allowed write-in candidates (that is, on the final ballot. After nominees were announced). These two years also happen to be the two years with the most Best Picture nominees (12).
BEST PICTURE – 1934
And the nominees were…
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Flirtation Walk (First National)
The Gay Divorcée (RKO Radio)
Here Comes the Navy (Warner Bros.)
The House of Rothschild (20th Century, United Artists)
Imitation of Life (Universal)
It Happened One Night (Columbia)
One Night of Love (Columbia)
The Thin Man (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Viva Villa! (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The White Parade (Fox) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1935
I consider 1935 the first year where the Academy can truly be critiqued. All of the double years are really just them figuring stuff out, and then 1934 was when they came out and were like, “We got it!” That sweep of It Happened One Night in 1934 was basically them really stating what they felt they were all about. So, to me, this is the first year where you can really say, “You know, I don’t agree with that.” From here on out, you can disagree with the decisions the way we do now.
Mutiny on the Bounty is a great film and a classic film, and it makes sense that it won Best Picture. Though it is a bit strange that it didn’t also win Best Director (or maybe the other way round, that The Informer didn’t win Best Picture). Best Director went to John Ford for The Informer (talked about here), which was totally deserved (and it kept Frank Lloyd from winning a third Oscar. He’s not exactly Capra, you know?). Victor McLaglen also won Best Actor for the film (talked about here), which was definitely deserved (plus his competition was Charles Laughton, Clark Gable and Paul Muni, who, respectively, won Best Actor the year before this, the year before that, and the year after this, so it worked out just fine). And Best Actress was Bette Davis for Dangerous (talked about here), which I don’t like at all, but don’t care about because the person who should have won based on performance (Katharine Hepburn) already had an Oscar.
The other note about 1935 is that is was (outside of it being one of only two years in Academy history in which write-in votes were allowed, the other being 1934) that this is the year that led to the creation of the Supporting categories. Franchot Tone, nominated for Best Actor this year, was really no more than a supporting character in Mutiny on the Bounty, but there was no category for supporting performances. So I feel like that led to them creating the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories, to better fit performances like that. That’s probably not true, but as a screenwriter, I like making connections like that, that seem to fit easily enough. So I’m going with it.
Other than that — 1935 was a pretty good year. There were really only two films that were gonna win, and they split Picture and Director, so really it comes down to personal preference.
BEST PICTURE – 1935
And the nominees are…
Alice Adams (RKO Radio)
The Broadway Melody of 1936 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Captain Blood (Warner Bros. Cosmopolitan)
David Copperfield (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Informer (RKO Radio)
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Paramount)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Warner Bros.)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Les Misérables (20th Century, United Artists)
Naughty Marietta (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Ruggles of Red Gap (Paramount)
Top Hat (RKO Radio) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1936
This is another one of those years where the Academy established what they really consider to be a Best Picture. The Great Ziegfeld has everything you’d expect to see in a Best Picture. Though they were still figuring things out, despite that. Until this point, Best Picture and Best Director only synched up three times, which is the opposite of how we know it to be nowadays. (And it wouldn’t start synching up until 1941, with only 5 of the first 14 Best Director winners synching up with Best Picture.) It seems as though they were still equating Best Director with Best Screenplay at this point (since you’ll notice that a lot of the Best Director winners had stronger writing in their films than they did noticeably superior direction. With exceptions, of course), which explains how they could give Best Director this year to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (talked about here). That film isn’t so much well-directed as well-written, especially next to something like San Francisco or even Dodsworth and The Great Ziegfeld. But even so, at least they knew, for the most part, what they were doing with Best Picture.
This year was also the first year in which the Supporting Categories were introduced. The first Best Supporting Actor Oscar was given out, which went to Walter Brennan for Come and Get It (talked about here), which — who better to be given the first Supporting Actor Oscar than Walter Brennan? Even though they were still figuring out what “supporting” actually meant here. The category was insanely weak. And the first Best Supporting Actress winner was Gale Sondergaard for Anthony Adverse (talked about here), which I don’t much agree with, but, just like the pre-1934 years, you can’t really fault them, since they didn’t yet establish the category. You can tell they didn’t really know what constituted a supporting performance, since they gave Best Actress to Luise Rainer for The Great Ziegfeld (talked about here). Her performance is definitely what we’d consider nowadays to be a supporting performance, even though she was good in it.
The other winner was Paul Muni as Best Actor for The Story of Louis Pasteur (talked about here), which seems too much like a rush to get Muni a statue, since William Powell and Walter Huston had much better years (and performances) than he did (plus, he could have easily won the year after this for The Life of Emile Zola, which would have helped legitimize that film as a Best Picture winner).
In all, though, 1936 is a strong year. One of those years with several potential winners in most categories. That’s always a good year to have.
BEST PICTURE – 1936
And the nominees were…
Anthony Adverse (Warner Bros.)
Dodsworth (Goldwyn, United Artists)
The Great Ziegfeld (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Libeled Lady (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Columbia)
Romeo and Juliet (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
San Francisco (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Story of Louis Pasteur (Warner Bros.)
A Tale of Two Cities (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Three Smart Girls (Universal) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1937
Yeesh. What happened here? I can’t explain at all what happened in 1937. The best I can figure is that at this point, the Academy became self-conscious and was trying to do the “Academy” thing, but didn’t really have a choice there. That’s really all I can come up with because I don’t understand it at all.
It’s not that The Life of Emile Zola is a bad film — far from it — it’s just a weak Best Picture winner. It doesn’t hold up at all, and is now one of the worst ten Best Picture winners of all time because of that. The film also won Best Supporting Actress for Joseph Schildkraut (talked about here), which is a bad decision in execution, simply because Schildkraut is barely on screen in the film, but a good one in theory, since the role (Captain Dreyfus, of the Dreyfus Affair) is one that would win this award. Add to that the weak category and it does make some sense. Then, Best Actor was Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous (talked about here), which I don’t understand but can accept, given the category. It’s really his win the year after this I don’t like. Then Best Actress was Luise Rainer again for The Good Earth (talked about here), another one where she sneaks in. It’s not a particularly good decision, and yet, I can see exactly how it happened. (Still don’t like it, though.) Best Supporting Actress was Alice Brady for In Old Chicago (talked about here), which makes sense, since she was a respected character actress and was playing Mrs. O’Leary (her cow was allegedly what started the great Chicago Fire), but I still feel like Andrea Leeds should have won there. And Best Director was Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth (talked about here), which was a great decision, only for the wrong film. If you’ve ever seen Make Way for Tomorrow, you know that’s the film he really won for this year. Either way, he deserved it.
So, overall — 1937 — probably one of the weakest years in Academy history, in terms of winners and nominees. It’s just not very memorable. Again, this is one of those years that’s memorable for what didn’t win instead of what won. That’s never a good situation to be in.
BEST PICTURE – 1937
And the nominees are…
The Awful Truth (Columbia)
Captains Courageous (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Dead End (Goldwyn, United Artists)
The Good Earth (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
In Old Chicago (20th Century Fox)
The Life of Emile Zola (Warner Bros.)
Lost Horizon (Columbia)
One Hundred Men and a Girl (Universal)
Stage Door (RKO Radio)
A Star Is Born (Selznick International, United Artists) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1938
This is another one of those years that I don’t much understand, that I try to explain by figuring the Academy went, “Well, it worked once before, let’s try it again!” It’s not that You Can’t Take It With You is a bad film — it’s terrific — it’s just that it’s a weak winner.
Frank Capra also winning Best Director for the film (talked about here), while it makes sense, is not a particularly good decision. Though it does fit with their Best Director choices over this first decade of the Oscars. Best Actor this year was Spencer Tracy for Boys Town (talked about here), which I consider the single worst Best Actor winning performance ever. He’s not the lead, and he barely does anything in the film. Him winning this is beyond laughable to me. Best Actress was Bette Davis for Jezebel (talked about here), which I think is also a poor decision, though an acceptable one. Fay Bainter won Best Supporting Actress for the film (talked about here) as well, which makes sense. She was nominated twice this year. And Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for Kentucky (talked about here), which — it’s Walter Brennan, so it’s acceptable, but on the other hand, Basil Rathbone was so much better.
You can see why I consider this a year of, “Well, it worked the first time…” Capra, Tracy, Davis, Brennan — it’s almost like the Academy doubting themselves, having gone out on the tightrope and, midway through, looking down, and then holding onto where they are just because it’s safer there. I don’t care for this year much at all. It’s one of those things that holds the Academy back in my mind. Their reliance on safe things and fear of bold decisions.
BEST PICTURE – 1938
And the nominees were…
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Bros.)
Alexander’s Ragtime Band (20th Century Fox)
Boys Town (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Citadel (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Four Daughters (Warner Bros., First National)
Grand Illusion (R.A.O., World Pictures)
Jezebel (Warner Bros.)
Test Pilot (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
You Can’t Take It With You (Columbia) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1939
1939 is the golden year of cinema. The amount of great (not good, great) films that came out in 1939 has never been matched in any other year, ever.
And as an Oscar year, this is also a year that, in terms of achievement, will never be matched. Gone With the Wind is the perhaps the greatest cinematic achievement in history. This is, to me, the quintessential Best Picture winner and the best Best Picture of all time. It also won Best Director for Victor Fleming (talked about here), who was basically a figurehead for what was essentially a David O. Selznick film, Best Actress for Vivien Leigh (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (talked about here), all of which are perfect decisions. Best Actor was Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (talked about here), which, while he was great in the film, Jimmy Stewart really should have won for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Best Supporting Actor was Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach (talked bout here), which was an awesome decision, as much as I love Claude Rains and would have liked to see him win.
This is the finest year of American cinema, and there was a guaranteed winner. Really, what you do with this year is just marvel at how great everything is. Don’t think, just marvel.
BEST PICTURE – 1939
And the nominees were…
Dark Victory (Warner Bros.)
Gone With the Wind (Selznick, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Love Affair (RKO Radio)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia)
Of Mice and Men (Roach, United Artists)
Stagecoach (United Artists)
The Wizard of Oz (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Wuthering Heights (Goldwyn, United Artists) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1940
It’s hard to follow up 1939. But 1940 makes a real go of it. This is, while not in 1939 territory, an exceptionally strong Best Picture list. And the decisions they made this year were really strong too. Which is a bit of a shame, since it’s sandwiched between the strongest year in film history and the biggest Best Picture screw job in Academy history.
Rebecca wins Best Picture, which isn’t a great decision based on the category, but is lessened by the fact that the film that should have won Best Picture, The Grapes of Wrath, won Best Director for John Ford (talked about here). If John Ford didn’t win Best Director, then we’d be talking about how weak a choice Rebecca is (if some people don’t already do that). It’s a great film (and a Hitchcock, which is what leads people to defend it so vehemently), but it’s just not on the level The Grapes of Wrath is. And the split does help alleviate some of that tension (kind of the way the Shakespeare in Love/Saving Private Ryan split does), because at least then you can say, “Well, at least they recognized one was superior, but they just preferred the other.” So I can accept it. Jane Darwell also won Best Supporting Actress for The Grapes of Wrath (talked about here), which is awesome, since she is the “Ma” of cinema. Best Actor this year was Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story (talked about here), which is the most blatant makeup Oscar perhaps in the history of cinema. It’s terrible. He should have won the year before this. But, it gave him an Oscar, and for that, it’s okay. Even though he did beat both Charlie Chaplin and Henry Fonda, depriving Chaplin of an Oscar and delaying Fonda’s win for 41 years. Best Actress was Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle (talked about here), which I love as a decision. Joan Fontaine, to me, gave the best performance, but Rogers was likely to never have another shot at winning, so I support the win (plus Fontaine got her makeup Oscar the year after this anyway. For a Hitchcock again, no less). And Best Supporting Actor was (surprise, surprise), Walter Brennan, for the third time in five years, for The Westerner (talked about here). This was actually the strongest of the three performances he won for (in a terribly weak category too), so he deserved it.
Overall, 1940 is a strong year, and anything weak about it is actually alleviated in context. Jimmy Stewart shouldn’t have won, but he should have won the year before this, so it’s understandable. Ginger Rogers never had another shot at an Oscar, so the win makes sense. And Rebecca isn’t as good as The Grapes of Wrath, but Grapes of Wrath won Best Director. So, to me, 1940, while not being a standout year, is still a damn good one.
BEST PICTURE – 1940
And the nominees were…
All This, and Heaven Too (Warner Bros.)
Foreign Correspondent (Wanger, United Artists)
The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Fox)
The Great Dictator (Chaplin, United Artists)
Kitty Foyle (RKO Radio)
The Letter (Warner Bros.)
The Long Voyage Home (Argosy, Wanger, United Artists)
Our Town (Lesser, United Artists)
The Philadelphia Story (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Rebecca (Selznick, United Artists) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1941
I don’t have to say anything about 1941. We know Citizen Kane should have won. Let’s not dwell on that. (Though for a very quick history, it’s thought that the reason the film didn’t win is because William Randolph Hearst made huge threats against Hollywood simply because the film was even coming out. So it’s thought that people deliberately didn’t vote for it because they feared him. So if that’s the case, we can’t be angry at this decision. We can only understand it, and be disappointed.)
Since Kane wasn’t being voted for, How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture, Best Director for John Ford (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actor for Donald Crisp (talked about here). None should have happened, though the Crisp win is the closest to being okay (and it probably is. I just love Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon). Best Actor was Gary Cooper for Sergeant York (talked about here), which, as an alternative to Orson Welles, it’s fine. Best Actress was Joan Fontaine for Suspicion (talked about here), which was a makeup Oscar for the year before this, which is okay (even though Greer Garson gave the best performance. Though she got her Oscar the year after this, so everything worked out). And Best Supporting Actress was Mary Astor for The Great Lie (talked about here), which seems insignificant, but if you realize she was also in The Maltese Falcon this year, it becomes a good decision (though for a forgettable film).
So, in all, when you ignore the controversy, this is a very serviceable year. But the controversy is going to outshine everything, so it’s pretty much always going to be considered a bad year.
BEST PICTURE – 1941
And the nominees were…
Blossoms in the Dust (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Citizen Kane (RKO Radio)
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Columbia)
Hold Back the Dawn (Paramount)
How Green Was My Valley (20th Century Fox)
The Little Foxes (RKO Radio)
The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros.)
One Foot in Heaven (Warner Bros.)
Sergeant York (Warner Bros.)
Suspicion (RKO Radio) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1942
Things changed this year. Now America is in the war. So you have to shift your thinking to taking that into account. The war was a huge deal. Patriotism (and to an extent propaganda) was a big thing. And that’s ultimately what helps this year make sense.
Mrs. Miniver is a good film, but more importantly — it’s a good war film. It promotes the values of the family sticking together during war time and doing their part to help out their country, despite hardships that come of it. A film like this makes sense for 1942. It also won Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here), Best Actress for Greer Garson (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actress for Teresa Wright (talked about here). All were fine decisions, ranging from simply okay to really great. Best Actor was James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy (talked about here), which was an amazing decision. And Best Supporting Actor was Van Heflin for Johnny Eager (talked about here), which was a pretty insignificant decision in one of the weakest Best Supporting Actor categories of all time.
So, overall, while I’m sure we all prefer a different film for Best Picture, 1942 is a solid year. There’s really not much else to say. There’s a war on, Fink.
BEST PICTURE – 1942
And the nominees were…
49th Parallel (GFD, Columbia)
Kings Row (Warner Bros.)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Mercury, RKO Radio)
Mrs. Miniver (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Pied Piper (20th Century Fox)
The Pride of the Yankees (Goldwyn, RKO Radio)
Random Harvest (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Talk of the Town (Columbia)
Wake Island (Paramount)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Warner Bros.) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1943
This is the last year of ten nominees. I never mentioned the number of the nominees yet. The way it had been until this point was: three the first year, no official nominees the second, then five from 1930-1932, then they went to ten from 1933 until this year (with the exception of 1934 and 1935, the two “write-in” years, which had 12 nominees). After this year, they went strictly to five, which lasted until 2009.
Outside of that, the great thing about this year is that it’s the year of Casablanca, which makes it quite easy to discuss. Two things to note about the film: first, while the film did premiere in November of 1942, it didn’t go into wide release until early 1943, which is why it counted amongst the films of 1943. (It’s basically the same as a film getting that late December limited release nowadays to qualify for Oscars, but not getting a wide release until January, only with different rules since it was 1943.) The other thing is that: while the film is a classic and one of the best films ever made, it also is a war film. The story is about Bogart, a neutral man, choosing a side in a war. So it does actually fit with the times. Oh, and, aside from Best Picture, Michael Curtiz won Best Director for the film (talked about here). Nice to see him finally get his due.
Other winners this year included Paul Lukas as Best Actor for Watch on the Rhine (talked about here), which is one of the worst Best Actor decisions of all time (it’s so bad), Jennifer Jones as Best Actress for The Song of Bernadette (talked about here), which was deserved (since Ingrid Bergman was nominated for the wrong film), Charles Coburn as Best Supporting Actor for The More the Merrier (talked about here), which, despite my love for Claude Rains as Louis Renault, is a good decision, and Katina Paxinou as Best Supporting Actress for For Whom the Bell Tolls (talked about here), which — meh. So, overall, many of the individual categories are either forgettable or not particularly memorable, yet the year remains strong simply because of the Best Picture choice. Which again shows how a good or bad Best Picture choice can make or break a year.
BEST PICTURE – 1943
And the nominees were…
Casablanca (Warner Bros.)
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Paramount)
Heaven Can Wait (20th Century Fox)
The Human Comedy (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
In Which We Serve (United Artists)
Madame Curie (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The More the Merrier (Columbia)
The Ox-Bow Incident (20th Century Fox)
The Song of Bernadette (20th Century Fox)
Watch on the Rhine (Warner Bros.) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1944
And this is where we settle into routine (for the most part) for the next 65 years. From here on out (until 2009), it’s five nominees a year. Also, we’re nearing the end of the war. This is the year where the tide turned. Not to mention, this is the year where America started to tire of the war. At first it was nice: “Support the war! Support our troops!” But then, after three years and no end in sight, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t be so quick to support that message. So what happens is — they try escapism. They go for the gay musical starring the biggest star in Hollywood. Then, when that doesn’t work, they become cynical. That’s when the noir kicks in. If Double Indemnity came out in 1945, it would have won. But here, America wasn’t cynical yet.
Going My Way wins Best Picture, Best Director for Leo McCarey (talked about here), Best Actor for Bing Crosby (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actor for Barry Fitzgerald (talked about here). I support all the wins except Best Director (though that makes sense). Then, Best Actress was Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight (talked about here), which feels like a makeup Oscar for the year before this (where she should have been nominated for Casablanca). Shame that she beat Barbara Stanwyck, but — shit happens. And Best Supporting Actress was Ethel Barrymore for None But the Lonely Heart (talked about here), which is just a weak and boring decision.
So that’s 1944. Most people would (and rightfully so) say that Double Indemnity should have won here. But, when you take into account the state of the industry (and the country) at the time — it makes sense why it didn’t.
BEST PICTURE – 1944
And the nominees were…
Double Indemnity (Paramount)
Going My Way (Paramount)
Since You Went Away (Selznick, United Artists)
Wilson (20th Century Fox) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1945
I don’t really have much to say about 1945. It was the end of the war, and the year is actually kind of a lost year, Oscar-wise. (Fitting, I guess.) There’s not much memorable about it, which I guess is owed to a pretty weak set of Best Picture nominees (which, for the record, do not include National Velvet or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). Though, the year is to be commended for choosing a strong, bold film such as The Lost Weekend. This film deals with a subject most of Hollywood wouldn’t go anywhere near. (And if you think that’s progressive, just wait until we get to 1947.)
Aside from Best Picture, The Lost Weekend win Best Director for Billy Wilder (talked about here), which he deserved between this and Double Indemnity the year before this, and Best Actor for Ray Milland (talked about here), which was also well-earned. Best Actress this year was Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce (talked about here), which was well-deserved. Best Supporting Actor was James Dunn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (talked about here), which was an amazing decision for a great performance in a terrific film. And Best Supporting Actress was Anne Revere for National Velvet (talked about here), which was so deserved.
In all, this year was actually really strong. All the winners were fantastic decisions. So it’s weird that I continue to think of this year as being weak or forgotten. I guess it’s because it gets lost on the shuffle amongst other 40s years. (Plus the nominees this year are very weak. Just because the best performances and films won doesn’t change that.) But this is actually one of the strongest years I’ve seen.
BEST PICTURE – 1945
And the nominees were…
Anchors Aweigh (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The Bells of St. Mary’s (RKO Radio)
The Lost Weekend (Paramount)
Mildred Pierce (Warner Bros.)
Spellbound (United Artists) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1946
A lot of people like to argue about 1946. They like to say that It’s a Wonderful Life should have won Best Picture. Bullshit. I love that film, but it shouldn’t have won at all. 1946 is a year where America was dealing with the after-effects of the war. There was no better film to reflect those sensibilities than The Best Years of Our Lives. The fact that the film is just as good as It’s a Wonderful Life also helps. I just wanted to get my opinion on that out of the way up front, so there’s no confusion.
The Best Years of Our Lives, aside from winning Best Picture, won Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here), his second, Best Actor for Frederic March (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell (talked about here). All of those decisions make perfect sense. Best Actress this year was Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own (talked about here). That had been a long time coming for her, and despite Celia Johnson being amazing in Brief Encounter (and that film also being amazing. Not that I ever expected Hollywood to place it on this list), was deserved. And Best Supporting Actress was Anne Baxter for The Razor’s Edge (talked about here), which was not only deserved, but makes her loss for All About Eve in four years easier to take.
So, that’s 1946. You know my opinion already, so, let’s just go into this saying — whatever your opinion is, let’s just celebrate the strength of the year more than anything. Be glad the films exist, rather than argue over whether or not they should have won.
BEST PICTURE – 1946
And the nominees were…
The Best Years of Our Lives (RKO Radio)
Henry V (United Artists)
It’s a Wonderful Life (RKO Radio)
The Razor’s Edge (20th Century Fox)
The Yearling (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1947
1947 is one of the most boring years in the history of the Oscars. It’s so weak. But, they made a solid (and bold) choice, so that makes up for it.
Gentleman’s Agreement wins Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm (talked about here). Best Actor was Ronald Colman for A Double Life (talked about here), a veteran Oscar if there ever was one (though he did do a good job). Best Actress was Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter (talked about here), one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Oscars (and a terrible decision to boot). And Best Supporting Actor was Edmund Gwenn for Miracle on 34th Street (talked about here), which — he played Santa Claus. Obviously.
See what I mean? It’s a boring year. Gentleman’s Agreement is a great film, but it’s not a very sexy choice. And none of the acting winners is particularly memorable. I mean, Gwenn is good, but otherwise — no one really remembers anything. It’s just a boring year, 1947.
BEST PICTURE – 1947
And the nominees were…
The Bishop’s Wife (RKO Radio)
Crossfire (RKO Radio)
Gentleman’s Agreement (20th Century Fox)
Great Expectations (Rank-Cineguild, U-I)
Miracle on 34th Street (20th Century Fox) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1948
I consider 1948 to be the single worst Best Picture decision in the history of the Academy Awards. With good reason, too. Take a look at those nominees. The fact that they went the way they did, while wholly unsurprising, is still just terrible. Maybe I make a bigger deal out of it than it is, but I feel strongly about it.
Outside of Best Picture, Hamlet also won Laurence Olivier a well-deserved Best Actor (talked about here), which was a good decision aided by a horribly weak category (the snub for Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is horrendous). Best Actress was Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (talked about here), which I consider to be a top five decision for all time. I love her performance so much. Best Supporting Actor was Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (talked about here), which he’d had coming for a good twelve years by this point. John Huston also won Best Director for the film (talked about here), which he greatly deserved. And Best Supporting Actress was Claire Trevor for Key Largo (talked about here), which, as much as I love the film, I don’t like as a decision. Though seeing the film there is nice.
So, in all, 1948 is a really strong year. And when you look at these Best Picture nominees, you’d think you couldn’t lose. And then they went with Hamlet. Hamlet? Seriously? From this field?
BEST PICTURE – 1948
And the nominees were…
Hamlet (J. Arthur Rank-Two Cities Films, Universal International)
Johnny Belinda (Warner Bros.)
The Red Shoes (Rank Organisation, Powell & Pressburger, Eagle-Lion Films)
The Snake Pit (20th Century Fox)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Warner Bros.) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1949
1949 is a strange year. All the films are strong, yet there’s no clear winner amongst them. It does make sense, though, that the films aren’t particularly standout, since this was the year after the Paramount Decision was decided. So this year was the first set of films affected by it (sort of. It wouldn’t go into affect until 1950, but still, they had to be cognizant of it).
For brief recap — the Paramount Decision was basically a mandate that the studios could not own a monopoly on production, distribution and exhibition. The way things worked was — the studios were originally founded by producers, distributers and exhibitors joining together. For example: Marcus Loew (who owned Loew’s Theatres) bought Metro and Samuel Goldwyn and merged them, and then went into business with Louis B. Mayer to create MGM. As such, MGM was able to produce and distribute films and then put them into Loew’s theaters, which they owned. And by 1945, all the studios basically combined to own the majority of the major theaters in the U.S. And what they did was essentially let each other exhibit films in their theaters for nominal fees and worked together to keep out the independents. If you weren’t affiliated with a studio, it was nearly impossible to get your film shown in any significant theaters. And eventually a lawsuit was filed against this obvious monopoly, and in 1948, it was decreed that the studios had to divest of all their theaters. They could still produce and distribute their films, but the theaters had to be open market. Because what they used to do with the theaters (if they didn’t own them) was — they’d block book their films, which was essentially them saying, “So you want Mrs. Miniver? Well, if you want that, then you have to take all these other films as well.” And there would be all these B movies and minor films that the theaters would then have to rent as well. And all of that was declared illegal. This was the first major blow against the studio system and would eventually lead to its collapse in the 60s.
So now the studios no longer owned the theaters, which completely changed their production strategy. When they owned the theaters, they could pump them full of B movies and shorts and newsreels. Now, since they didn’t own the theaters, exhibitors weren’t forced into those films. So B movies started going by the wayside. At least, studio B movies. This led to the rise of the independents, which led to the rise of the drive-in feature, low budgets (like Roger Corman’s films and such), exploitation films. And then there was also the rise of television during this time as well. So all of this really started threatening the supremacy of the studios, which led to them consolidating all their power and money into those blockbusters in the 50s and 60s, which helped bring about the fall of “Old” Hollywood and the rise of New Hollywood (along with the breaking down of social taboos with films like Bonnie and Clyde). So the Paramount Decision was a huge deal for film history. (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1950
This year is sure a contentious one, isn’t it? I tried to think of something more to say about the year, but that’s what it seems to be about — All About Eve vs. Sunset Boulevard. Which is a good situation to be in.
All About Eve wins Best Picture, Best Director for Joseph L. Mankiewicz (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders (talked about here). It’s clear which way the Academy went on this decision. I like the Supporting Actor decision, don’t mind the Best Picture decision, and hate the Best Director decision. (Carol Reed seriously deserved that so badly.) Best Actor was José Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac (talked about here), which is a pretty boring decision. Best Actress was Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday (talked about here), which is pretty weak considering she beat Anne Baxter and Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. She was good, but — not as good as those other three. And Best Supporting Actress was Josephine Hull for Harvey (talked about here), which was a spirited decision.
So it’s clear that the Academy sided with All About Eve. I can’t tell which of the two (if either) has held up better over the years. Either way, it’s a good year, and when the choice is between two great films, everybody wins.
BEST PICTURE – 1950
And the nominees were…
All About Eve (20th Century Fox)
Born Yesterday (Columbia)
Father of the Bride (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
King Solomon’s Mines (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Sunset Boulevard (Paramount) (more…)
The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1951
1951 is an important year in film history. After the end of the war, the threat of Communism became very prevalent in the U.S. And a nice portion of Hollywood, especially in the 30s and 40s (before Stalin), attended communist party meetings because communism sounded like a nice alternative to the Depression. Now, with the Red Scare in full effect, Hollywood, with its loose morals and subversive tendencies, was an easy target for communist witch hunters. So in 1947, HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities) summoned members of Hollywood to Washington to investigate whether or not there were comunists among the ranks. And some people, like Walt Disney and Adolphe Menjou, were outspoken against communists and named names, while others, like Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, signed a petition to protect the first amendment and refused to.
About 40 people were called to testify. 19 of them refused to. 11 of those 19 were called before the committee. Of the 11, 10 refused to answer the question of whether or not they were or were communists on the grounds of freedom of speech and assembly. And Hollywood, under immense pressure from the government (which was the last body they wanted to piss off, with the issue of them having a monopoly on theaters, the constant issue of outside censorship, and the government never having quite been able to come after them despite definite means to do so), decided to blacklist those ten, who became known as the “Hollywood Ten.” And what happened was, the studios basically had to say they would never hire anyone who was a communist or a communist sympathizer.
So from 1947 on, the blacklist grew, and it had huge repercussions on Hollywood, notably the demise of RKO and the death of John Garfield (who was blacklisted and was under so much stress because of that, that he ended up dying of a heart attack — at 39!). Outspoken Democrats were basically pushed out, and people like Henry Fonda found it very difficult to find work on the screen and stayed on the stage until the whole thing blew over (Fonda didn’t make a feature film between 1948 and 1955). Those who refused to name names were blacklisted, and those who named names got others blacklisted. (Famously, Elia Kazan named names and as a result, wrote On the Waterfront.) And those who were blacklisted (specifically the writers) would start to use fronts to get their work up on the screen. (Dalton Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday and didn’t get credit for it until years later when the blacklist was over.) (more…)