Monday, February 22, 2010

My Oscar Picks, Part 1: 1934-1944

With the Academy Awards coming up soon, I thought it would be fun over the next two weeks to compare past winners in the major categories with my own picks from among the nominees, from 1934, the first year awards were given for the calendar year, through 1955. I tended to divide the best picture and best director awards more often than the Academy for the simple reason that the nominations in these categories don't always coincide. (The entire Academy chooses the best picture nominees; only members of the directors' branch choose best director nominees.) With two exceptions (I'll explain why) I chose only from among the actual nominees, so there were times when my own favorite wasn't in the running, although this really didn't happen all that often. In truth, I haven't seen every single picture and performance that was nominated in every single year, but then I imagine the same applies to quite a few real voters. Here, then, are my picks preceded by the winners. I also included what I thought was the gravest oversight in the nominations for each year. (For the other nominees, click on the link to the Official Academy Awards Database in the sidebar and search by category and year.)

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and are not intended to be taken as objective judgments!


The Winner: It Happened One Night
My Pick: It Happened One Night

The Winner: Frank Capra, It Happened One Night
My Pick: Frank Capra, It Happened One Night

The Winner: Clark Gable, It Happened One Night
My Pick: William Powell, The Thin Man

The Winner: Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
My Pick: Greta Garbo, Queen Christina

This year there were twelve nominees for best picture and three nominees in most other categories. Write-in votes were allowed on the final ballot, and Bette Davis, not nominated for her breakthrough performance in Of Human Bondage, was expected to win best actress as a write-in candidate. She actually came in 3rd (the Academy announced the order of the top three vote-getters in 1932/33, 1934, and 1935), after Norma Shearer for The Barretts of Wimpole Street. I'm a huge fan of Davis—she's my favorite movie actress of all time—and also of Colbert. But I still went with my own write-in candidate, Greta Garbo for Queen Christina. With only three nominations in all categories but best picture, the other choices were pretty easy. I differed from the Academy only in my choice for best actor—William Powell as Nick Charles in The Thin Man, who surprisingly came in 3rd after Frank Morgan for a supporting performance in The Affairs of Cellini. Biggest omission (besides Davis and Garbo): Twentieth Century—for picture, director, actor, or actress.


The Winner: Mutiny on the Bounty
My Pick: The Informer

The Winner: John Ford, The Informer
My Pick: John Ford, The Informer

The Winner: Victor McLaglen, The Informer
My Pick: Fredric March, Les Misérables

The Winner: Bette Davis, Dangerous
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, Alice Adams

There were twelve nominees again for best picture and five nominees in most other categories this year, although still only three for best director. Curiously, there were six nominations for best actress and four for best actor. Three of the latter were for Mutiny on the Bounty, a surefire vote-splitter that guaranteed McLaglen would win. Of the three nominees from Bounty, Charles Laughton got the most votes, coming in 3rd after write-in candidate Paul Muni for Black Fury. (Has anyone ever seen this?) Since this was the last year write-in votes were permitted, I exercised that prerogative and for best actor chose Fredric March as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Even Davis acknowledged that her win for best actress was a consolation prize for being overlooked the year before and that she had expected the Oscar to go to Hepburn, who came in 2nd. Although all four major awards had gone to a comedy the year before, this year the Academy initiated a trend of favoring heavy emoting over comedy, a trend that continues to this day. Biggest omission: George Cukor, best director for David Copperfield.


The Winner: The Great Ziegfeld
My Pick: Dodsworth

The Winner: Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
My Pick: William Wyler, Dodsworth

The Winner: Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur
My Pick: Walter Huston, Dodsworth

The Winner: Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld
My Pick: Carole Lombard, My Man Godfrey

The Winner: Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
My Pick: Walter Brennan, Come and Get It

The Winner: Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse
My Pick: Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse

Ten movies were nominated for best picture, a practice that lasted through 1943 and which has been revived again this year. For the first time, awards were given for best supporting actor and actress, in part because of negotiations between the studios and the recently formed Screen Actors Guild. Walter Brennan won the first of three awards in five years in this category, and until 1968, when Katharine Hepburn won her third Oscar, was the only person to have won three times for acting. (Maybe that early, record-setting winning streak accounts for not being nominated for his great later performances like those in To Have and Have Not, Red River, Bad Day at Black Rock, and Rio Bravo.) It's clear that I'm a big admirer of Dodsworth, choosing it in three major categories. The Academy chose The Great Ziegfeld for best picture, continuing a trend begun earlier (and repeated more than once since) of choosing slick, large-scale spectacles over smaller, more thoughtful films. For best actress I went with Lombard's ditzy but sweet heiress, the only time she was ever nominated. I've always thought the Academy chose Rainer in a much smaller (really, a supporting) role largely for her emotional telephone scene, not the first time voters were swayed by one big, showy scene that stuck in the memory. Biggest omission: Modern Times—for picture, director, or actor.


The Winner: The Life of Emile Zola
My Pick: The Awful Truth

The Winner: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth
My Pick: Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth

The Winner: Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous
My Pick: Fredric March, A Star Is Born

The Winner: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
My Pick: Greta Garbo, Camille

The Winner: Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola
My Pick: Roland Young, Topper

The Winner: Alice Brady, In Old Chicago
My Pick: Dame May Whitty, Night Must Fall

This was one of Hollywood's strongest years, perhaps the strongest until the landmark year of 1939. With so many worthy choices, it's not surprising that I was at odds with the Academy in all but one category. With its award for best picture, the Academy began a trend of choosing a noble but rather dull movie that projects a good image for Hollywood, a self-important message picture that shows the world Hollywood has The Right Attitude. My pick was The Awful Truth, the movie I've called the definitive screwball comedy and which for me typifies the perfect balance of entertainment and sophistication that was Hollywood's forte. Spencer Tracy was a wonderful, unfussy actor, but in the years he gave his best performances, he seemed to be bested by someone else, like Fredric March's unforgettable Norman Maine. The best actress category often has the weakest field of nominees, something that still continues. But that certainly wasn't the case this year. All the nominees gave strong performances, and several equally worthy performances weren't nominated at all: Jean Arthur, Easy Living; Carole Lombard, Nothing Sacred; Katharine Hepburn, Stage Door; Sylvia Sydney, Dead End. I was torn between Garbo and Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth but in the end went with Garbo because of her performance's gravity and range. Biggest omission (aside from the actresses mentioned above): Cary Grant, The Awful Truth.


The Winner: You Can't Take It with You
My Pick: Pygmalion

The Winner: Frank Capra, You Can't Take It with You
My Pick: Frank Capra, You Can't Take It with You

The Winner: Spencer Tracy, Boys Town
My Pick: Leslie Howard, Pygmalion

The Winner: Bette Davis, Jezebel
My Pick: Bette Davis, Jezebel

The Winner: Walter Brennan, Kentucky
My Pick: John Garfield, Four Daughters

The Winner: Fay Bainter, Jezebel
My Pick: Fay Bainter, Jezebel

The best film nominated this year was actually Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion; another foreign language picture wouldn't be nominated until Z in 1969. But since I consider the Oscars at this point awards for English language movies, I went with Pygmalion, the first time I chose a British film. I would have chosen its directors (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard) also, but they weren't nominated. Best actress was a fairly easy choice; best actor wasn't. Again, a good performance by Spencer Tracy in the rather sentimental Boys Town was overshadowed by the work of others. James Cagney's turn in the trite Angels with Dirty Faces was powerful but seemed to me pretty old hat by this time, distinguished from his other performances in this vein largely by the supercharged drama of the final scene. I went with Leslie Howard as Prof. Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, one of the great roles of drama that Howard, who co-directed the movie version, does full justice to. The biggest oversight was Brennan's win over Garfield, hardly the last time a reliable veteran playing a likable character would be chosen over a newcomer saddled with The Curse of the Unsympathetic Character. Biggest omission: Bringing Up Baby—for picture, director, actor, actress, or supporting actor (Charles Ruggles).


The Winner: Gone with the Wind
My Pick: Gone with the Wind

The Winner: Victor Fleming, Gone with the Wind
My Pick: John Ford, Stagecoach

The Winner: Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
My Pick: James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The Winner: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind
My Pick: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind

The Winner: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach
My Pick: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach

The Winner: Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind
My Pick: Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind

I had very little disagreement with the awards this year. Despite its skewed version of American history, Gone with the Wind is simply great popular entertainment, whereas Stagecoach is great popular art, my own favorite Western ever. I'm not sure that GWTW can really be said to have been directed by Fleming, even though he received sole credit for it. At least two other directors worked on the picture, not counting the contributions of its autocratic producer, David O. Selznick, or of William Cameron Menzies, whose sketches for production design were essentially storyboards. Donat's surprising win is probably attributable to the emotional appeal of his role and to Clark Gable and James Stewart splitting the vote, with voters reluctant either to award all four major awards to one picture (especially as Gable had already won in these circumstances) or to recognize a young and relatively unproven actor like Stewart. Stewart's snub strikes me as one of the all-time biggest Oscar mistakes, one that would have unfortunate repercussions the next year. As in 1937, all the best actress nominees were strong, as were several non-nominees: Jean Arthur (again), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Claudette Colbert, Midnight; Norma Shearer, The Women; Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz (although she did receive special recognition for outstanding juvenile performance of the year). Still, best actress was owned by Viven Leigh from the start, and it is inconceivable that anyone else would have won. Biggest omission (besides those actresses): Lon Chaney, Jr., best supporting actor for Of Mice and Men.


The Winner: Rebecca
My Pick: The Philadelphia Story

The Winner: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath
My Pick: John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath

The Winner: James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story
My Pick: Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath

The Winner: Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story

The Winner: Walter Brennan, The Westerner
My Pick: Walter Brennan, The Westerner

The Winner: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
My Pick: Judith Anderson, Rebecca

Another impressive year for Hollywood, a worthy follow-up to 1939. Of the ten best picture nominees, I would rank five as masterpieces. Two other movies I consider masterpieces, His Girl Friday and The Shop Around the Corner, weren't among the ten nominees and in fact didn't receive a single nomination. In the end I went for the picture I like the best. The lead acting categories exemplified two trends that I find lamentable. Stewart's win was another example of the Oops, We Made a Mistake Syndrome like Bette Davis's win in 1935, in which a superior performance is ignored in the rush to atone for a previous oversight. Henry Fonda would have to wait forty years for his Oscar. Rogers's win was an example of what is referred to as a Career Achievement Award, in which a popular actor giving a good performance in a good part is rewarded for years of hard work as a tireless trouper. There's nothing wrong with that except that it vitiates the notion of recognizing the year's best performance. This year the competition for best actress was fierce, and the nominees didn't even include Rosalind Russell for His Girl Friday or Margaret Sullavan for The Shop Around the Corner. For best actress I went with Kate Hepburn for her best and most typical performance. Darwell's award is attributable to a combination of the Career Achievement Award and the One Big Scene Syndrome (that speech at the end about the indominability of The People). I went instead for Judith Anderson's deliciously malevolent Mrs. Danvers. Biggest omission: Cary Grant for either The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday.


The Winner: How Green Was My Valley
My Pick: Citizen Kane

The Winner: John Ford, How Green Was My Valley
My Pick: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

The Winner: Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
My Pick: Walter Huston, All That Money Can Buy (The Devil and Daniel Webster)

The Winner: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
My Pick: Bette Davis, The Little Foxes

The Winner: Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley
My Pick: Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon

The Winner: Mary Astor, The Great Lie
My Pick: Mary Astor, The Great Lie

What can I say about the best picture and directing awards for this year? The incomprehensible wrongness of these awards speaks for itself. How Green Was My Valley presents in sharp contrast John Ford's strengths and shortcomings: sequences of great emotional and visual pull alternate with sequences of mawkish sentimentality and awkward staginess. There is no way that this movie is in the same league as the rightfully legendary Citizen Kane. My contrariness continued with all but one of the remaining awards. The Maltese Falcon was at least nominated for best picture and supporting actor, but evidently John Huston and Humphrey Bogart didn't then enjoy the respect they would later have. Mary Astor, so memorable in Falcon as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, was nominated for best supporting actress and won for a more flamboyant (arguably, actually a lead) performance in a different picture altogether. Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for Ball of Fire, not The Lady Eve, as I would have expected. If she had been, she might well have gotten my vote. Under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Fontaine gave the second of the two best performances of her career and took home the Oscar, but I preferred Bette Davis's controlled monster Regina, for me her best performance of the 30s and 40s. Biggest omission: Sullivan's Travels—for picture, director, or actor.


The Winner: Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: The Magnificent Ambersons

The Winner: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver

The Winner: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy
My Pick: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Winner: Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year

The Winner: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
My Pick: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager

The Winner: Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver
My Pick: Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons

For best picture I chose Orson Welles's melancholy contemplation of loss and change—even in its truncated form, a masterpiece—over the meretricious Mrs. Miniver. Lillian Hellman tells the following anecdote about Mrs. Miniver: Seeing her in tears after a screening of the film, William Wyler asked if she was really that moved by the experience. "I'm crying," she answered, "because it's such a piece of shit." I can see her point: it might have been what those involved thought America needed to spur it to join the war (although by the time the picture was released this was a moot issue, since the US was already in the war), but today it feels awfully sanctimonious and manipulative. Still, I went with Wyler for best director because Welles wasn't nominated, because Wyler did his usual professional job, and because the other nominees were so weak in comparison. James Cagney trounced the competition for best actor with his energetic impersonation of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. For best actress I again chose the divine Kate in her first teaming with Spencer Tracy, as a self-centered, independent woman whom the gruff but patient and down-to-earth Tracy humanizes by teaching her to control her ego (and enjoy baseball too). Biggest omission: Orson Welles, best director for The Magnificent Ambersons.


The Winner: Casablanca
My Pick: Casablanca

The Winner: Michael Curtiz, Casablanca
My Pick: Michael Curtiz, Casablanca

The Winner: Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
My Pick: Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca

The Winner: Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette
My Pick: Jean Arthur, The More the Merrier

The Winner: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier
My Pick: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier

The Winner: Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls
My Pick: Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Every time I watch Casablanca, I grow more fond of it and am more impressed by Curtiz's masterful direction. Why, then, did the Academy not see that Bogart's Rick was a performance that would last, whereas in time Paul Lukas's Nazi-fighter would fade? Lukas's award is an example of the recurring practice of rewarding a sincere performance more for the nobility of the character being played than for the actual best performance of the year, something that seems to happen especially during times of national stress, particularly when the alternative is someone playing a morally ambiguous or outright monstrous character. (Adrien Brody's win over Daniel Day-Lewis in 2002 is a recent example.) Although the Academy has traditionally been chary of recognizing relatively unknown young actors for breakthrough performances, it has seldom shown this same reluctance toward actresses, and this year gave the award to 24-year old Jennifer Jones for her first major picture, The Song of Bernadette. I think Jones was a better actress than she is generally given credit for (especially considering her troubled personal life and her Trilby-Svengali relationship to David O. Selznick), but I see her Oscar as a duplication of Lukas's for best actor, an award that put the nobility of the character before the quality of the performance. For best actress I went with the shamefully ignored Jean Arthur, who received her only nomination for this, her best and most charming performance. Biggest omission: Henry Fonda, The Ox-Bow Incident.


The Winner: Going My Way
My Pick: Double Indemnity

The Winner: Leo McCarey, Going My Way
My Pick: Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity

The Winner: Bing Crosby, Going My Way
My Pick: Bing Crosby, Going My Way

The Winner: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
My Pick: Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity

The Winner: Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
My Pick: Clifton Webb, Laura

The Winner: Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart
My Pick: Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart

I like Going My Way; it's an enjoyable, lightweight sentimental heart-warmer. But I have no doubt that Wilder's pitch-black Double Indemnity is the best picture of the year. I also like Bing Crosby as the easygoing Father O'Malley in Going My Way and chose him over Barry Fitzgerald (who was simultaneously nominated for best supporting actor for the same role and won). I think Fitzgerald is a great character actor, but I have a low tolerance for this kind of cornball blarney and believe he gave better performances than this one. For best supporting actor I went instead for Clifton Webb's delightfully campy Waldo Lydecker. I like Ingrid Bergman too and think she was very affecting in George Cukor's florid take on Gaslight (which contrary to much critical opinion I prefer to its rather enervated 1939 British version). But in Wilder's nasty Double Indemnity Stanwyck gives the best performance of her impressive career, the definitive film noir femme fatale. Biggest omission: Meet Me in St. Louis—best picture, director, or actress (Judy Garland).


Quirky Character said...

Absolutely agree:
1939 - Stewart should have won for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
1940 - Fonda should have won for "The Grapes of Wrath."
It's strange that these two were friends, and one got his Oscar early in his movie career, but the other only at the very end of it, and Fonda was never so close to the Academy Award as in the very year when his friend got it, having been criminally overlooked the year before. Weird.
Katharine Hepburn should have won for "The Philadephia Story."
And Judith Anderson should have won for "Rebecca."
1941 - everything you say about "Citizen Kane." And Orson probably should have won the Best Actor award, but I absolutely ADORE Gary Cooper and his performance in "Sergeant York" (I know you don't like him as an actor and this movie.) I yet need to watch The Devil and Daniel Webster" -- primarily because of Edward Arnold whom I adore, but I have started to appreciate Walter Huston recently, so I would very much like to see him as well. However, this movie isn't available in my country, helas.
I also agree about Bogart ("Casablanca") and Jean Arthur ("The More the Merrier") -- totally adore both of them. And about Clifton Webb.
I'm not sure about Barbara Stanwyck being better than Ingrid Bergman (and, mind you, I adore the former, but am indifferent to the latter), they were both amazing in their respective films.

Sorry for the long post, I wish you had covered fewer years in one post, it's difficult to be concise. I look forward to what you will say about the 1950 Oscars (at least three of them misawarded, in my opinion)!

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Great arguments, R.D. and I don't really disagree with any of them!

However, I'd like to add something to 1940: The most sinful omission is no nomination for Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. If Hepburn's role in The Philadelphia Story defines her career "comeback", then Roz in HGF defines the first half of her career, with Auntie Mame defining the second half.

Kim said...

I totally agree with Stewart in 39, Fonda in 40, Hepburn in 40, Bogart in 43, Stanwyck in 46.

Would have went with Dunne & Grant in 37 (although if can only go with the Oscar nominees than March would be my 2nd choice).

For films I agree on Awful Truth in 37 but I would have picked La Grand Illusion in 38, foreign film or not. It's an amazing film and it deserved the award.

And it does seem crazy now that Citizen Kane didn't win best picture considering how well regarded that film is today. But I think the Academy gets it wrong more often than not.

Kim said...

Correction I mean Stanwyck in 1944 :)

Actually I would have given the award to Bergman in 46 for Notorious, alas she wasn't even nominated.

Sam Juliano said...

This is staggering post that I can only marvel at and issue my strongest praise for. This is similar to what Danny Peary did with his terrific volume, ALTERNATE OSCARS, and of course your timing here is impeccable. I have stated my own year-by-year digressions at Dave's and Jeffrey's sites, so I won't dive in again and be redundant, but my disgreement at least equals my agreement with AMPAS. Kane, The Grapes of Wrath, Day of Wrath, Wife Be Like a Rose! or The Informer, and the French Les Miserables would be my own #1 choices of the corresponding years. But I'm with you a lot, and much appreciate the stellar discussion you had here defending your wonderful choices in both the picture and various acting categories.

Quirky Character said...

Totally agree with Mr. Haven about Rosalind Russell. Generally, if we start to enumerate the performances and movies that were not nominated, oh, one can come up with a huge list of them. Looking back, one cannot believe that Barbara Stanwyck never won an Oscar (for performance, not honorary). Or Irene Dunne. Or Carole Lombard. Or Myrna Loy. Or Jean Arthur. Incredible, right? Or Cary Grant (for performance). Or Orson Welles (an acting or directing Oscar, I mean). Or William Powell. Or Charles Boyer. This list is interminable. Sad, real, real sad...

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

While we're talking awards:

As ever, you're an inspiration.

Sam Juliano said...

"1939 - Stewart should have won for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Quirky Character: I loved Stewart in MR. SMITH, but Robert Donat, who probably posessed the most wonderful voice ever in English language cinema, gave one of the greatest performances of all-time as the beloved headmaster "Mr. Chipping" in GOODBYE MR. CHIPS and his Oscar win was one of the Academy's finest moments.