Best Picture Winners?
Firstly, politics have ALWAYS been a part of the Academy Awards, and nominations given. The earliest nominees benefitted from a socialistic system whereby each studio put forth their (single) selection and their bosses demanded loyalty (e.g. block) voting from employees. Over the years, there have been other factors from the decency code, the Great Depression, wars, periods where epics or musicals were in vogue, and the dissolution of the studio system that have impacted the Academy's choices. Given the effect of these internal and external events, I'm going to try to identify those years where the portfolio of films to judge were particularly strong or weak in hopes of identifying some anomalies or gaffes.
While objectivity in such matters is the goal for an historian, such analysis is still personally challenging because the movie lover in me tries to find something good to say about every film that I watch and review (please recognize that generalizations are both necessary AND flawed). The last time I attempted to do this, I limited my choices to the lesser movies that had received a Best Picture nomination (those which haven't held up very well over time). Not surprisingly, several were from the years (through 1944) when there were TEN vs. just 5 nominees in the category: In Old Arizona (1928), Alibi (1929), Arrowsmith (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Viva Villa! (1934), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Test Pilot (1938), The Long Voyage Home (1940), Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Yearling (1946), Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), The Robe (1953), Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), Room at the Top (1959), and The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966).
My research yielded some definite patterns:
1927-1933 - These years marked the end of the silent era, the beginning of the sound era, and finally the establishment of the production (or decency) code in addition to the studio socialism I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Some of the best films from this time period were pre-code dramas that were not selected for awards by the studio's (more conservative) bosses, and several of the early talkie films chosen date terribly. For all these reasons, I'm giving the Academy a pass for this period; some of the nominated films (and winners) are understandably inferior and they're not entirely representative of the time.
1934 - the code was in place, sound recording had matured, and the studios knew their craft, yet this year was so weak that a Frank Capra comedy not only won, but it swept all five major awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing), only one of three films to ever do it. Don't get me wrong, I love It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Capra, and Robert Riskin, but the (limited) competition included only a handful of films which are recognized classics today.
1936-1942 - after an O.K. year in 1935, this period marks the true Golden era of studio system movie-making, including a rich mix of films from every genre to entertain Depression era moviegoers from Prohibition to World War II, one outstanding year after another yielding at least a dozen bona fide classics annually. While in hindsight the Academy's choice may not have always been the Best Picture of the Year, the strong field made picking a single winner difficult:
The World War II Years - like the earliest period (1927-1933), I think it would be unfair to label or judge this time-frame too harshly. Movies laced with propaganda were both prevalent and necessary as we united to confront and defeat the evil in Europe and the Pacific.
1946-1950 - these postwar years were particularly strong, featuring film noir and more mature dramas, Westerns and war movies than those from the prewar years, but great comedies and musicals were in short supply. Of course, my list of the essential films from this period includes The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which Medusa already recommended.
1951 & 1952 - each of these years featured unlikely Best Picture winners resulting from voting splits for (at least) two stronger films: not that An American in Paris (1951) isn't a pretty good musical, but isn't it possible that its selection was the result of a split vote between A Place in the Sun (1951) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)? Whereas, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) beat High Noon (1952) & The Quiet Man (1952) - and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) & Singin’ in the Rain (1952) weren't even nominated for Best Picture!
1953-1954 - though not as strong as the postwar years, the rest of the early 1950's featured its share of terrific movies and timeless classics like Roman Holiday (1953), Shane (1953), Stalag 17 (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), Rear Window (1954), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Sabrina (1954), and more.
1955-1958 - unfortunately, the late 1950's were marked by weak offerings as the studios tried to compete with the television phenomena by producing bigger and longer movies, epics that are better known for their Cinemascope (et al) presentation than their enduring stories. That's not to say that there weren't some great movies released, but the overall quantity and quality was less than it was previously. A movie that had been a TV drama (Marty (1955)) won Best Picture one year, a cameo laden three hour adventure (Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)) more famous for its Todd-AO technology the next. Four years after From Here to Eternity (1953), Columbia went back to its World War II play book to win seven Oscars (out of eight nominations) with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), which is excellent but was also the beneficiary of weak competition. Gigi (1958) did even better, winning all nine of its nominations similarly.
1959-1961 - these years were more mixed, and some really outstanding films are in the mix among some weaker pictures. I was tempted to extend the previous grouping per the award dominance of (e.g.) Ben-Hur (1959) - eleven awards from twelve nominations, but that year also featured Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), North By Northwest (1959), The Nun's Story (1959), Rio Bravo (1959), & Some Like it Hot (1959) among others. Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) won half its 10 nominations and West Side Story (1961) won 10 of 11, but those years also included such classics as Elmer Gantry (1960), Inherit the Wind (1960), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Psycho (1960), Spartacus (1960), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), One, Two, Three (1961), & A Raisin in the Sun (1961). So, the "blockbuster effect" (one film dominating the nominations and/or awards) is not always a bad sign.
1962 - Not since the Golden Era (1936-1942) was there a better year stocked with quality films than this one. When John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was shutout of the Best Picture nominees, and only received a single nomination (for B&W Costume Design!), you know it must have been a great year for movies. One of the best ever Lawrence of Arabia won over The Longest Day, The Music Man, the remake Mutiny on the Bounty (O.K., not so great), and To Kill a Mockingbird. As Jeff mentioned, The Manchurian Candidate & Lolita were snubbed; other above average films that year included: The Miracle Worker, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Days of Wine and Roses, Sweet Bird of Youth, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the foreign language film Divorce Italian Style. That makes a baker's dozen!
1963-1969 - Overall, the breadth of quality releases was relatively thin, though the Best Pictures themselves were not the problem: a rare comedy winner Tom Jones (1963), which was also unusual because it was British-made, followed by several musicals that won or dominated (My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968)) plus A Man for All Seasons (1966) & The Heat of the Night (1967) until the weakest (I guess you had to be there) year, 1969.
1970's and beyond - The collapse of the studio system led to uneven results, though experimentation led to a few very good years and some indisputable classics; I also noticed that an interesting pattern of one particularly bad year in every four from 1970 (as Jeff mentioned) to 1978 emerged.
I'll stop here because my original intent was to examine the studio system years, from which some people (not me) confine their "classic movie" definition. In retrospect, it appears that the Best Picture Oscar winner can be reflective of that year's films, but not always in a logical way: a weak Best Picture can actually signify a strong year (e.g. when a musical beats a comedy, which have been notoriously underappreciated by the Academy's more serious minded voters). However, when a Best Picture winner is recognized as a timeless classic, it frequently leads a field of better than average entries.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog