Fixing Oscar For One Film: Part Two 1941-1946
We all have that one movie we really wish had taken home the Best Picture Oscar that one time – even if we say we don’t care about the Oscars at all. At least most of us do if we’re reading an article on the subject on a pop culture blog on the internet. Well, LeBlog is teaming up with its readers to select one Best Picture loser from the previous eighty-nine years of the awards as our favorite also-ran. This is the picture we will be affording a unique honor here with the title of “Best-Loved Loser.” Come help us weed out the good from the great as we consider five more movies that came up just short on movies’ biggest night.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Right here off the top today we’re going to be entering into the record for consideration a film that is widely considered one of the few best and most influential in the history of filmmaking. It’s also often the very first example brought up when any person talks about a decision made by the Academy that years down the road can only evoke a massive facepalm. This is because in 1942 the Oscar for Best Picture didn’t go to Orson Welles’ masterwork of cinematic storytelling and cinematography Citizen Kane, but to the otherwise forgotten blue collar drama How Green Was My Valley. But of course Citizen Kane was not the only film to go home feeling a little underfed that year, because The Little Foxes set a record for the time by being nominated for nine awards without coming out on top for a single one. Heck, at least Welles and Herman Mankiewicz managed to win for Original Screenplay (but of course it’s notable that at the time there were actually three writing awards instead of the two that we’ve become accustomed to for quite some time). Is this the hands-down favorite to win our “Best-Loved Loser” distinction? It’s tempting to say so…but hold your horses and take a look at the other powerhouses showing up just today.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Music Score, Sound Recording, Film Editing, Art Direction, Cinematography
Oscar Wins: Best Original Screenplay
Anytime somebody goes on an ill-conceived rant about remakes and steps so far as to say that they shouldn’t be made at all because they’re always inferior to the originals anyway, The Maltese Falcon should be your first go-to if you want to shut them down. The Dashiell Hammett novel had already been adapted into two other films, first in 1931, also as The Maltese Falcon, and in 1936 as a comedy called Satan Met a Lady before the classic John Huston version starring Humphrey Bogart hit the silver screen. This was the first in several high profile collaborations between Huston and Bogart which included classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, but it almost never happened because the leading role of detective Sam Spade was originally offered to George Raft (perhaps best known today for playing a gangster in Some Like It Hot). The response to The Maltese Falcon was enthusiastic enough, both at the box office and among critics, that a sequel was in the works at Warner Brothers, but by the time the idea could get developed the now successful cast and director already had plenty of other offers and the studio decided to quit while they were ahead. As Lebeau’s series about sequels points out, they might have been smart to do so.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Screenplay
Oscar Wins: None
Okay, so maybe this movie doesn’t leap off your computer screen at you when you see it mentioned here. This is one of the few examples of a personal favorite that I’m including, not because I think it stands a chance of actually winning this little exercise, but because I hope a few more people might make the effort to see it if I give it a little plug here, and hey it’s my series here, right? Obviously, no matter its relative obscurity with layman modern audiences, The Ox-Bow Incident was well thought of in its day. Based on a popular novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, the story concerns two drifters played by Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan who wander back into a town where they have some history just in time to get caught up in a quickly conceived effort for justice. A report comes in that a local rancher has been murdered and his cattle are missing. The camera work is sharp and well-considered, the storytelling is economical, but gives itself enough room to breathe, and the performances are generally strong all around, with Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn in supporting roles. The movie is a tight 75 minutes, and taut and suspenseful even as we’re mostly left waiting for what’s going to happen. I give it a big recommendation.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture
Oscar wins: None
Here we have one of the iconic films of the highly successful and influential noir genre, helmed by one of the most celebrated writer-directors in the history of American film. Billy Wilder had already directed three films before he took on Double Indemnity, but none were of particular note, at least in hindsight. The original story, as printed in Liberty magazine in 1936, attracted the attentions of several studios and the film rights were set to be purchased for $25,000 dollars before the Hays office sent a letter to the studios expressing the opinion that it was unsuitable for production leading all offers to be suddenly rescinded. It wasn’t until eight years later after a reprint in a collection that Paramount went ahead and bought the rights anyway with the express idea of having Wilder take charge of the project, this time at the discount price of just $15,000. The Hays office didn’t change its opinion of the story until a treatment for the film version was delivered that met their approval with just a few changes. The resulting film was a smash with both audiences and critics immediately on release despite a high-profile crusade by a moderately famous singer who asked people to stay away on moral grounds. Writer James M. Cain estimated that the negative campaign “put a million dollars on its gross.”
Oscar Nominations: Best picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Music Score, Sound Recording, Cinematography
Oscar Wins: None
There’s still a large contingent of people who consider this the finest Christmas movie ever made, and its consistent appearance on television for many years in part due to its availability through a mix-up with its copyright renewal helped cement its place in the public consciousness. It’s A Wonderful Life is a pretty dark film through most of its length, and the relief and release of seeing Jimmy Stewart running through Bedford Falls yelling “Merry Christmas Everybody!!!” really strikes hard after we spend so much of the previous two hours watching a clearly good man get beat down by circumstance. I mentioned in my write-up of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the particular brand of heroic American individualism that director Frank Capra sponsored in so many of his best loved works, and that approach is on full display here. Capra was both a cynic and an idealist who believed whole-heartedly in the capitalist system in which a self-promoting hustler could make a name and a fortune for himself and he was quite adept on these counts. Just ask him. His autobiography is one of the most entertaining, if self-serving things you’ll ever read about old Hollywood.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Sound Recording, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: None
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
That’s a lot of classic films getting basically shut out at the Oscars, isn’t it? Well what are you gonna do about it? Vote for you favorite one below of course! And then tell us in the comments section why you chose the film you did. Keep coming back every couple of days to see what other also-rans we’re giving a second shot to.