Fixing Oscar For One Film: Part One
Okay, so I’m obviously an unrepentant lover of the yearly film Bacchanalia that is the Oscars. That should be obvious by my obsessive yearly coverage of the awards here at LeBlog. At the same time, it’s not like I’m not fully aware of the shortcomings of the whole exercise and some of the mistakes the Academy’s voters might have made along the way. My recent article on the history of the Best Picture category touches a bit on these things. Anybody with a love of film who has taken the time to consider the winners and losers with any detail or who has sat down and watched the ceremony play out in real time more than a few times probably has that one choice by the Academy that sticks in their craw just a little. Yes, in the end it’s just a meaningless award, but darn it movie Y obviously should have beaten movie X in 19-blah-dee-blah.
Well, I’m here to offer the readers of LeBlog an opportunity to scratch that itch. As a team, we will be sifting through some of the greatest Best Picture nominees to ever come up short on cinema’s biggest night. Every other day for the next couple of weeks I’m going to be presenting five such pictures for your consideration, sharing a few of each movie’s credentials, and giving you a chance to vote for your favorite amongst them. Once we’ve acquired a winner for each group of five, those surviving films will be pitted against one another in a winner-take-all competition whose champion will forever after be known as “LeBlog’s best-Loved Loser.” Yes, anytime the film is spoken of here at LeBlog in the future, that moniker will be attached to it (I can imagine we will come up with reasons to mention it more often than we otherwise would have).
While we won’t strictly be moving forward by decade, some effort has been made to group the films in roughly appropriate chronological sets. Today we start with a rather tightly packed bunch of movies stretching from 1938 all the way to 1940. What can I say? It was a pretty good time for movies.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
We open up with the kind of movie that has notoriously been under-represented during most Oscars broadcasts. Although the character had already been played memorably by Douglas Fairbanks, the story of Robin Hood was still a popular one in western culture and a prime choice for a lavish Technicolor production. It’s hard to imagine now, but tough guy gangster actor James Cagney was originally cast in the lead role. When he left Warner Brothers they were able to cast the more appropriate Errol Flynn, whose lower budget swashbucklers had been financial winners for the studio. Along with Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Flynn headed a top-notch cast to the most expensive film Warner Brothers had ever made to that point. The big investment and gamble on Flynn paid off for the previously frugal studio, with The Adventures of Robin Hood becoming a darling of both the box office and contemporary critics. Is everything just a little too clean and polished? Maybe, but anyone who has seen it knows what first-class entertainment this really is.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture
Oscar Wins: Art Direction, Film Editing, Original Score
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
1939 is notorious as one of the great years in classic film, with not only The Wizard of Oz, but also Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, and Gone with the Wind. Any one of these films may have danced away easily with Best Picture some other years, but in the end only Gone with the Wind could take home the big prize. Frank Baum’s Oz books had been very popular for a few decades by early 1938 when Walt Disney’s Snow White movie was a sensation and proved that feature films aimed at families with children could be very successful. MGM reacted quickly and snapped up the film rights for the story of Dorothy Gale’s adventures and, much like Warner Brothers had done with Robin Hood, made it the most expensive production the studio had yet released. Although reviews were very positive, the movie was not initially a big box office success, and it wasn’t until it began replaying on television on a steady basis that it became the iconic entertainment it is now widely considered, one worthy of being named among the top ten movies ever made by the American Film Institute.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Special effects
Oscar wins: Original Song, Original Score
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
If you want to search out the source of what it came to mean to be American in the 20th century, you could do worse than to consider the work of Frank Capra, whose impressive filmography surely helped build the idealized image of the principled American individualist we’ve all grown up with. High amongst these efforts is his little guy takes on city hall picture Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains. At least that’s the way we think of it now, but like anything even mildly associated with politics, the movie couldn’t help but ruffle some feathers. Members of the U.S. Senate objected loudly to the film’s suggestion that not all of them might be completely ethical. As was the case with all things the slightest bit critical at the time, the movie actually got tarred as communist propaganda, a charge Capra snorted at. There was also an idea floated that theater owners might be given the right to refuse any movie they thought was not in the best interest of the country. This didn’t end up happening though, and the movie was a success at the box office, helping to make James Stewart a bankable star for the better part of the next twenty-five years.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Film Editing, Music Scoring, Sound Recording
Oscar Wins: Original Story
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
After being labeled as ‘box office poison’ along with a number of other stars, Katherine Hepburn was in desperate need of a rousing success to put her back in the good graces of the studio heads who had started to back off her projects. She had personally backed the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story with good results, and when Howard Hughes purchased the film rights for her as a gift, she turned around and sold them to MGM in return for final say over the director, cast, and screenwriter. In an effort to hedge its bets on a big production centered around Hepburn, MGM pushed for big male stars to be cast alongside her and she agreed, at first favoring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy but eventually reeling in Cary Grant and James Stewart. The story centers around a high society woman whose impending wedding is disrupted when both her ex-husband and a nosy reporter show up. This sort of set-up was popular at the time due to production codes ruling out any depiction of extramarital affairs. With nobody technically married, the characters were free to dally while still maintaining pre-existing sexual histories.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress
Oscar Wins: Best Actor, Screenplay
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
If you went to school with me in Virginia Beach you read a LOT of John Steinbeck over the course of your time there. In addition to The Grapes of Wrath, I personally read The Red Pony, Winter of Our Discontent, Of Mice and Men, and The Pearl. Clearly, somebody on the school board thought Steinbeck was just about the most important American writer they could find. I’m not here to say they were completely wrong. As the trailer below goes to great pains to recount, The Grapes of Wrath was a wildly successful and critically praised novel, selling more copies than any other in 1939 and winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature. 20th Century Fox wasted little time in grabbing the film rights and beginning production for release the very next year. Despite this enthusiasm for the prestige attached to the novel, Darryl Zanuck and John Ford hedged their bets in reproducing the original story, cutting some of the starker imagery from the end of the book and leaving the Joad family in a more hopeful situation. After all, they couldn’t let charges of communism get in the way of a profitable picture. Nevertheless, the parts of Steinbeck’s novel that were retained, and Henry Fonda’s star-making performance leave this as one of the greatest films ever not to take home the Best Picture Oscar.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actor, Screenplay, Sound Recording, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: Best Director, Supporting Actress
Okay, so there are your choices for today. Probably not an easy call for some of us. If you have a specific take, feel free to share it with us below in the comments section. Come back tomorrow when I’ll be starting up my coverage of the nominees for this year’s awards, and then come back every other day for more Best Picture losers and a chance to elevate one of them at least in our own little corner of the internet.
Posted on February 14, 2018, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, poll, trailers and tagged Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story, The Wizard of Oz. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.