by David Krauss
Last week, we looked at the earliest Best Picture winners from the 1920s and 1930s. This week, we examine the 1940s and 1950s, where we see the emergence of such esteemed directors as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, a wave of patriotic war movies, more widespread use of Technicolor (which would morph into cheaper single-strip color formats by the mid-1950s), the dawn of a new genre that soon would be dubbed film noir, the rise of social issue films and a movement toward realism, and the development of a revolutionary widescreen process called CinemaScope. By the end of these two decades, the once mighty studio system would be all but dead, and censorship would be on its way out, too. The era would spawn 20 Best Picture winners. Thirteen are currently available on Blu-ray, and they are…
'Rebecca' (1940) – Director Alfred Hitchcock made quite a name for himself in his native Great Britain during the 1930s with suspense films like 'The 39 Steps,' 'The Lady Vanishes,' and 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling and lured him across the pond. 'Rebecca,' adapted from the bestselling novel by Daphne du Maurier about a demure, naïve lass (Joan Fontaine) who marries a rich and distinguished widower (Laurence Olivier) tormented by the mysterious death of his glamorous, seemingly perfect wife, would mark Hitchcock's American debut – it also would be producer David O. Selznick's first film after 'Gone With the Wind' – and the result is an impeccably executed exercise in romantic suspense, made all the creepier by Judith Anderson's unforgettable portrayal of the sinister Mrs. Danvers. The film received 11 Oscar nominations in all, including Hitchcock's first as Best Director and acting nods for Olivier, Fontaine, and Anderson. In addition to Best Picture, 'Rebecca' also took home the Best Cinematography (black-and-white) award.
'How Green Was My Valley' (1941) – It was supposed to be the year of 'Citizen Kane,' but Academy voters weren't enamored of boy-wonder Orson Welles' brash conceit, so instead bestowed top honors on this heartwarming, inspirational tale of the trials and tribulations of a Welsh mining community as seen through the eyes of a young boy (Roddy McDowell). The lovely Maureen O'Hara also makes an indelible impression in this memorable adaptation of the Richard Llewellyn novel. John Ford won his third Best Director Oscar (and second in a row – he scored the previous year as well for 'The Grapes of Wrath'), and Donald Crisp was awarded Best Supporting Actor for his gruff yet tender portrayal of the stalwart family patriarch. The film also was honored for its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (Arthur Miller) and art direction-interior decoration.
'Mrs. Miniver' (1942) – This patriotic salute to the brave, noble, and spirited British civilians who stoically endured constant aerial attacks by German bombers during World War II won a total of six Oscars, including prizes for Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actress (Greer Garson in the title role), Best Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright), Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (black-and-white). Garson personifies the strength and will of the British people, who refused to be bullied by the Nazis, and the scene in which she, her on-screen husband (Walter Pidgeon, also Oscar nominated), and two children silently weather a terrifying bombing barrage in their makeshift shelter remains a stirring sequence. An interesting side-note: After the picture was released, Garson would marry Richard Ney, the actor who portrays her grown son in the film.
'Casablanca' (1943) – "You must remember this…" One of the all-time classic motion pictures was a surprise winner at the 1943 Academy Awards, especially considering its rocky production history. The script changed practically daily and an ending wasn't decided upon until shooting was almost complete, making it difficult for the actors to figure out their motivations. Yet somehow what should have been a disastrous train wreck gels cohesively together, and the story of non-conformist saloon owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) ("I stick my neck out for no one"), lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a piano player named Sam (Dooley Wilson), and those pesky, coveted letters of transit has captivated moviegoers for decades. The priceless, Oscar-winning screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch contains more quotable lines per capita than almost any other script in history, including such gems as "Here's looking at you, kid" and "Round up the usual suspects." And aside from "Over the Rainbow," there's no better anthem for a movie than the immortal "As Time Goes By." You can play 'Casablanca' again (and again) any day of the week and it never gets old…and chances are it never will.
'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946) – At last, World War II ended, but returning servicemen faced a multitude of problems, from post-traumatic stress to alienation, and many found assimilating into society and reestablishing fractured relationships a difficult – if not impossible – task. William Wyler's 'The Best Years of Our Lives' forthrightly depicts this uncertain environment with tenderness and grace as it follows the homecoming odysseys of a trio of former GIs. Fredric March won his second Best Actor Oscar as a family man who must come to terms with all he has missed, and Harold Russell, a non-actor who lost both his hands in a training accident, brings special poignancy to his role as a double-amputee who must learn to live with his limitations and accept the love of those around him. Robert E. Sherwood's literate screenplay, which placed its finger firmly on America's pulse, was also rightfully honored, as was Wyler's sensitive direction. Though wars and times have changed over the course of several decades, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' remains a moving tribute to common heroes who must battle first on the war front and then on the home front.
'Gentlemen's Agreement' (1947) – 'The Lost Weekend' (1945), which deals with the debilitating and destructive effects of alcoholism, was the first serious social issue film to capture the Academy's top honor (sadly, it is not yet available on Blu-ray), and this searing study of anti-Semitism and how it insidiously infects American society – even people who profess to abhor it – followed hot on its heels. The sober, slightly preachy story charts the exploits of a magazine writer (Gregory Peck) who goes undercover as a Jew to get a first-hand look at prejudice and discrimination. Moss Hart's screenplay is packed with righteous speeches and indignant outbursts as it loudly broadcasts its message, but director Elia Kazan (who won his first Oscar for the film) presents the tale with style and grace. Though a bit dated in spots, this groundbreaking movie is still well worth a look.
'All About Eve' (1950) – Tied with 'Titanic' for the most Academy Award nominations in history (a whopping 14!), this deliciously sophisticated backstage, backstabbing yarn about conceit, paranoia, and ambition in New York's rarefied theatrical realm is distinguished by one of the finest scripts ever written. (Who can forget Bette Davis' classic pronouncement, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"?) For the second year in a row, Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Oscars for direction and screenplay (he also took home both awards the previous year for 'A Letter to Three Wives') and George Sanders earned a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor prize for his portrayal of an acid-tongued critic. Davis, as the egocentric Broadway star, Margo Channing, and Anne Baxter, as her conniving understudy, both received Best Actress nominations, and Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and a young Marilyn Monroe, who makes quite an impression as a sexy starlet, all assert themselves well. One of Hollywood's most polished productions, 'All About Eve' is cultured, cutting, and altogether magnificent.
'An American in Paris' (1951) – The first musical in 22 years to win Best Picture, this sumptuous tribute to the music of composer George Gershwin is best known for its climactic ballet, danced to perfection by stars Gene Kelly and a teenage Leslie Caron (making her film debut). Unfortunately, the pedestrian, often plodding plot drags the production down (amazingly, the script won an Oscar), but glorious Technicolor, elegant direction by Vincente Minnelli, and such beautifully executed numbers as 'Our Love Is Here to Stay' and 'I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise' make it all bearable. Kelly's choreography is typically muscular and inventive, and the star received an honorary 1951 Oscar for his myriad contributions to the development and advancement of the movie musical. Still, how the innocuous 'An American in Paris' triumphed over such powerful dramas as 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and 'A Place in the Sun' is unfathomable.
'From Here to Eternity' (1953) – Tying the record set by 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939, this uncompromising portrait of a Hawaiian army base in the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor won eight Oscars, including Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Recording, and Best Editing. Ironically, however, the climactic aerial assault isn't this finely woven drama's most memorable moment. That honor unequivocally belongs to the romantic beach scene, in which Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr make love on the sand as the surf cascades over them. It's an iconic image that has come to define this stellar adaptation of the James Jones bestseller that also contains a brilliant performance by Montgomery Clift, one of the era's most talented actors, who shines as a stubborn buck private who won't let an abusive commanding officer get the best of him.
'On the Waterfront' (1954) – Director Elia Kazan won his second Oscar and actor Marlon Brando scored his first as a manipulated dock worker who stands up to the mob in this unforgettable drama that ushered in a more realistic style of moviemaking and features some of the screen's finest acting to date. Best remembered for the famous taxi cab tête-à-tête between Brando and Rod Steiger ("I coulda been a contender!"), 'On the Waterfront' also won eight Academy Awards and remains notable for its stark, naturalistic cinematography, gritty locations, and the potent chemistry between Brando and Eva Marie Saint, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her dazzling debut. (The nuanced glove scene is a primer in the art of Method acting.) This is a rare and wonderful cinematic jewel that's at once blistering and tender, romantic and suspenseful, intelligent and entertaining.
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957) – Arguably the greatest epic filmmaker in history, David Lean won his first Best Director Oscar for this rousing and brutal study of a Japanese POW camp during World War II. The film chronicles not only the efforts of a group of English prisoners to build a bridge in unbearable conditions to satisfy the demands of their camp commander, but also the plans of the British commando team that is dispatched to detonate it. Gripping and taut, the movie won a total of seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Score, and Best Editing. The whistled theme remains instantly identifiable, and the dramatic climax, more than a half century later, is still a stunner.
'Gigi' (1958) – A record-breaking nine Oscars went to this elegant, sophisticated, and delectably lush musical, which was partially filmed on location in Paris. The crowning achievement of director Vincente Minnelli, who won his only Best Director award for the film, and the legendary Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, 'Gigi' tells the simple story of a young French girl (Leslie Caron) groomed to be a courtesan, and how she ultimately finds love and respectability. Such marvelous songs as 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls,' 'I Remember It Well,' and 'The Night They Invented Champagne' (all written by the seasoned duo of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe) are performed in sumptuous settings with the perfect amount of joie de vivre by Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier, and Hermione Gingold. With the exception of any acting honors, 'Gigi' won almost every Oscar imaginable, and this light-as-a-soufflé confection remains a timeless classic.
'Ben-Hur' (1959) – There are epics, and then there's 'Ben-Hur.' The film that defines the genre, this mammoth "tale of the Christ" shares the record for most Oscars (11) ever won by a single film with 'Titanic' and 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.' Biblical epics are often bloated, cumbersome, and corny, yet 'Ben-Hur' is anything but, as it combines the engrossing story of a Roman nobleman who becomes a prisoner and then a slave with a grand canvas of historical events and brilliantly executed set pieces. Director William Wyler received his third Academy Award for helming the eye-filling, yet surprisingly intimate spectacle, which includes one of the most memorable and ambitious scenes in movie history – the thrilling chariot race. Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith also were honored for their acting, and a slew of well-deserved citations for cinematography, costume design, editing, scoring, art direction, sound, and special effects were showered upon this towering cinematic achievement.
Best Picture Winners of the 1940s and 1950s Not Yet Available on Blu-ray:
'Going My Way' (1944)
'The Lost Weekend' (1945)
'All the King's Men' (1949)
'The Greatest Show on Earth' (1952)
Best Picture Nominees of the 1940s and 1950s Available on Blu-ray:
'The Grapes of Wrath' (1940)
'The Great Dictator' (1940)
'Foreign Correspondent' (1940)
'Citizen Kane' (1941)
'The Maltese Falcon' (1941)
'The Song of Bernadette' (1943)
'In Which We Serve' (1943)
'The Bells of St. Mary's' (1945)
'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946)
'Great Expectations' (1947)
'The Bishop's Wife' (1947)
'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947)
'The Red Shoes' (1948)
'Twelve O'Clock High' (1949)
'A Letter to Three Wives' (1949)
'Sunset Boulevard' (1950)
'Quo Vadis' (1951)
'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951)
'High Noon' (1952)
'The Quiet Man' (1952)
'The Robe' (1953)
'The Caine Mutiny' (1953)
'The Ten Commandments' (1956)
'12 Angry Men' (1957)
'The Diary of Anne Frank' (1959)
'Anatomy of a Murder' (1959)
Next week: The 1960s and 1970s