Regarding the Second Decade of Oscars

Slowly but surely I have come to the end of the 20th Academy Awards and thus, the World War II era is closed. Just as I did with the first ten years, I’d like to pause and consider the films I’ve seen in the Academy’s second decade. It was a period of rapid growth, when the Hollywood formula solidified and produced some of its greatest films, and sometimes the Academy even managed to pick the right winners.

220px-How_Green_Was_My_Valley_posterAnd other times…

Obviously the biggest influence on the films of this time was the war…the prelude to America’s involvement saw the slow build from neutrality, even pacifism, to direct anti-Naziism; the aftermath of Pearl Harbor produced a torrent of moral-boosting propaganda films of varying potency and quality; and the outbreak of peace in 1945 prompted an examination of some of the problems of postwar society and a struggle to find balance between entertainment and commentary.

1938’s Best Picture was You Can’t Take it With You, Frank Capra’s most overtly peacenik film before he lost his goddamn mind and made It’s a Wonderful Life, and on the whole that year was packed with escapist fare (Four DaughtersAlexander’s Ragtime Band, Pygmalion, etc.) and also featured La Grande Illusion, a celebration of the triumph of humanism in the face of war. Then, in 1939 I can only assume everyone was distracted by the fall of Poland and forgot what the words “Best Picture” meant, because they awarded it to that Technicolor monstrosity Gone with the Wind.

Not pictured: One of the greatest films ever made.

The war films started rolling in 1940 and kicked into high gear after Pearl Harbor, and the slew of great films that came from this period–49th ParallelMrs. MiniverForeign CorrespondentCasablancaWatch on the Rhine, etc.–showed how well the now-solidified Hollywood formula could harmonize with propaganda. Of course, there were colossal misfirings (Since You Went AwayIn Which We Serve, and others), but on the whole 1940-44 was a solid run, and the non-war-focused films were steadily rising in quality as directors like Hitchcock and Wyler continued to hone their craft.

The Oscars themselves also solidified:

  • Best Picture and Best Director came into alignment (in contrast to the first ten years, when they only matched three times, in the second decade they differed only once).
  • The writing awards came to be closely associated with Best Picture, as every winner received at least a nomination (after four of the first ten lacked nominations for their writing).
  • Acting nominees and winners increasingly came from Best Picture nominees and winners:
    • None of the winners in this decade lacked acting nominations, compared to three of the first ten.
    • Only three failed to win any acting awards (in the first decade, only three Best Pictures won any acting awards).

In my last “look back” I chose some alternate winners for what are, in retrospect, embarrassing Academy oversights, and so here are some of those in the period from 1938-1947…mostly acting-related:

Best Actor, 1944: Charles Boyer, Gaslight. I guess his role and his performance were a bit too dark to win over Bing Crosby’s aggressively cherubic Father O’Malley.
Best Actress, 1940 Joan Fontaine, Rebecca. Such an amazing job…as I said in my article, holding one’s own against Olivier when he wasn’t playing a French-Canadian fur trapper is no mean feat.
Best Supporting Actor, 1943: Claude Rains, Casablanca. Rains’ nearly O’Toole-level losing streak at the Oscars should have been broken by this understated, supremely self-assured portrayal, but instead Charles Coburn’s senile old duffer in The More the Merrier won out (and I’m not convinced Coburn was actually acting in any of his movies, since he always portrayed the exact same character).
Best Picture, 1947: None.
Best Picture and Director, 1941A no-brainer. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, of course.

And I must say, the second decade did not disappoint. I’m supremely happy to have seen Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives (and all the other Wyler films from the period), as well as witness the brief period when the Academy at least noticed that Alfred Hitchcock was making movies. Goodbye Mr. Chips introduced me (and, in its time, the world) to Greer Garson; Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon gave us film noir; and watching Gentleman’s Agreement, I learned that my younger self cannot be trusted.

Not to mention Laurence Olivier exploded (literally) onto the Hollywood scene, first with his game-changing portrayal of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, then the second-best performance in Rebecca, and finally reinvigorating his beloved Shakespeare by producing, directing, and starring in Henry V. And I may have already posted this clip twice now, but good things come in threes, so here again is his brilliant French-Canadian fur trapper in 49th Parallel:

I really can’t get enough of this.

So now I’ve watched 163 films (the 162 extant Best Picture nominees from the first twenty years, plus Shoeshine), just over 30% of 528 nominated as of the 88th Academy Awards. The Oscars’ third decade will take us from Hamlet to The Bridge on the River Kwai, from black-and-white to Technicolor, from gritty postwar social commentary to the optimism of the economic boom of the 1950s. It’s a decade that will lead the the frustrating Fourth Age, but we’ll come to that…for now, onward to 1948!


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