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The Weekend Hobby Thread | Main | Saturday Overnight Open Thread (4/1/23)
April 01, 2023

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 04/01/2023 [TheJamesMadison]

The First Quarter Century of the Best Picture Oscar


In May of 1927, in an effort to head off unionization efforts in Hollywood, MGM executive Louis B. Mayer set up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Within a year, the organization was arranging its first annual award presentation to honor the talent in front of and behind the camera. As Mayer later put it, "I found that the best way to handle them was to hang medals all over them." He also said, "If I got them cups and awards they'd kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That's why the Academy Award was created."

The first awards show (that everyone knew the results of before the actual presentation) actually had two Best Picture winners. The first, the movie that is considered to be the first of the ninety-plus Best Picture winners was Wings, a William Wellman action epic set in the battlefields of the skies during WWI from the perspective of two American flyers. This award was called, at that first ceremony, the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture. The other was awarded to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, an F.W. Murnau film, his first American film, about a husband and wife pair who rediscover their love of each other over the course of a day long trip into the city. This award was called the Best Unique and Artistic Picture. This second award was dropped from subsequent ceremonies, leaving Wings as the official first Best Picture winner and Sunrise as something of a curiosity in the timeline of the Oscars.

From the third ceremony through the thirteenth, the award became known as the Academy Award for Outstanding Production, and it represents the changing perception of the idea of Best Picture within the Academy and the American motion picture community at large. The key is who was awarded the awards. They're given for movies as a whole, but the awards were actually accepted by representatives, namely producers, from the movie studios that produced the film (individual producers weren't listed as "winners" until 1951 when Arthur Freed won for An American in Paris). "Best Production" implies something different from "Best Motion Picture", and combine that with the fact that the award is given to producers and not writers or directors and I think you've got an interesting view into what the Academy was trying to do with these early awards.


Productions Big and...Big


Let me start by saying that there are some movies in these early years that I don't really like, but I'm not ever going to imply that they were poorly received at the time. By every indication, audiences and critics liked, if not loved, all of them contemporaneously.

That being said, it seems obvious to me that these early awards were not being given out for artistic merit. Artistic merit was certainly part of the equation (they weren't giving out awards to films they disliked), but I think it was a very small variable in the equation. The most common factor among the first nineteen Best Picture winners is that they were all big money makers. The only exception I can come up with, at least according to the numbers, is the tenth winner, The Life of Emile Zola, which doesn't seem to have any box office records existing but was considered a big financial success anecdotally. And I don't just mean that these movies made money. They are all top ten box office movies of their year. Roughly a third of them are the highest grossing movies of the year. Was this an effort for an industry awards show designed to control the egos of the personalities involved to be populist and award movies that the people at large knew and loved? I really don't think so. Any populism of these awards is accidental because the award was designed to reward producers who made a lot of money.

Another common factor is that these were generally pretty big films from a production point of view. The major early exception is It Happened Once Night which won the seventh award but was a middle-budgeted film from the minor studio Columbia. It just happened to blow up at the box office (ending third for the year). There's an interesting moment in the Clint Eastwood film Changeling where the main character is listening to the awards show on the radio, rooting for It Happened One Night against the presumed favorite, Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert as the title character. In the history of the award, Cleopatra actually makes more sense as the winner because it was a fairly expensive and opulent affair that was well received at the time that made a boat load of money, hitting #1 at the yearly box office. It Happened One Night was just more beloved, it seems.

Out of the rest, at least through 1940 when the award still had the name Best Production, you can see that sort of ambition in physical productions rather consistently. Cimarron is, in my opinion, a terrible film (again, it was well received at the time), but it's a huge production that begins with a large land rush sequence. Broadway Melody in 1929 was the first musical and first sound picture to win the award, and it was something of a technical marvel at the time (it's also terrible). All Quiet on the Western Front was Carl Laemmle Jr.'s effort to turn Universal into a prestige film factory, and it's a huge reproduction of WWI trench warfare. Grand Hotel is one of the highest highs of the Irving Thalberg machine at MGM, bringing glamor to the screen on a wonderful scale. Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld, and Rebecca are all impressive physical productions that, again, made a lot of money. There is one film that unquestionably won the award named Best Production, and that was David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind. A massive labor of love for Selznick, and his effort to bring the lessons he'd learned as an executive at three different studios (Universal, MGM, and RKO), he poured millions of dollars into the production, tinkering with it endlessly in the long production cycle, Gone with the Wind is a massive entertainment that made just all the money.

Changing Times

It was at the fourteenth awards ceremony that they changed the name of the Best Production award to Best Motion Picture. To me, Best Production implies an award for the physical production with another implication that it made money. This was an award for producers unquestionably, risking big and winning big. There were exceptions here and there, but that was definitely what the awards implied to me most consistently. And then the award changed names, and it seems as though the thinking behind who got it changed as well.

The fourteenth awards in 1941 is most famous for How Green Was My Valley, John Ford's tale of Welsh mining town life, winning over Citizen Kane in no small part because William Randolph Hearst rightly saw himself in the title character and used his newspapers to oppose the film. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of How Green Was My Valley, but there's no denying that I am in the minority on that opinion. People have earnestly and genuinely loved it for decades. However, I do wonder if the film would have won with the old award name of Best Production. The film wasn't just against Citizen Kane, it was up against Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, William Wyler's The Little Foxes, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, and Howard Hawks' Sergeant York, among a few others. If I had been an Academy voter at the time and if the award was still called Best Production, I would have voted for Sergeant York or, maybe, The Little Foxes. I'd say both were more impressive physical productions. It is an interesting thought to wonder if How Green Was My Valley would have still won had the award kept the old name.

I think it's really obvious that the name change had an effect on the thought processes of Academy voters. The films that won from then on tended to be smaller like Mrs. Miniver over The Magnificent Ambersons or Yankee Doodle Dandy, or The Lost Weekend winning over Mildred Pierce or Spellbound. However, these films were still consistently good earners, making the top ten of the year every year. Then, the twentieth awards came in 1947, and Gentleman's Agreement won.

Gentleman's Agreement is the first "issue" film since Cimarron that won Best Picture. It's also the first since The Life of Emile Zola that doesn't appear on the top ten box office at all (though, again, that's probably an issue with record keeping and not a reflection of Emile Zola's actual box office performance). It seems as though it would have been eleventh or twelfth, so this isn't a matter of a movie no one saw winning the award, but "Best Motion Picture" was definitely different from "Best Production" now. In fact, for the next few years, through the twenty-third award ceremony (where I stopped, so almost a quarter century), only one film made the top ten box office, and that was All About Eve at the twenty-third awards ceremony. It was number ten for the year.

Looking ahead a few years, some Best Picture winners do end up near the top of the box office, even at the very top, but box office domination, financial returns, were no longer a necessity for awards consideration. You could be a smaller film that made less money, and if the Academy just liked the film, then that was enough. Was that a bad change? Not necessarily, but it was certainly a change. Just to take what seems like a particularly egregious example of the change, the twenty-first awards ceremony was where Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, a film Universal Studios pretty much just bought from its British producers, won. A handsome, condensed version of the Shakespeare play (it cuts out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), it won over The Red Shoes, the technicolor film by British directing partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that was the number one film of the year at the box office.

Mistakes, we all make some

That being said, we always have the question of did the Academy do it right? Did they award the right films? You know what? They awarded some really good and great films, and that's pretty good in my book. However, there are some that I sort of wish could go in different directions. So, below is the list of all the winners and what I would have voted for had I been an Academy voter at the time in parenthesis:

1927/28 (Unique or Artistic Picture) - Sunrise (Sunrise)
1927/28 - Wings (Wings)
1928/29 - The Broadway Melody (The Patriot which is lost and I obviously haven't seen, but I assume Ernst Lubitsch made a much better film than the winner)
1929/30 - All Quiet on the Western Front (The Love Parade)
1930/31 - Cimarron (Morocco, which wasn't nominated but is a far superior film anyway and I hate Cimarron)
1931/32 - Grand Hotel (The Smiling Lieutenant)
1932/33 - Cavalcade (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang)
1934 - It Happened One Night (It Happened One Night)
1935 - Mutiny on the Bounty (The Informer)
1936 - The Great Ziegfeld (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)
1937 - The Life of Emile Zola (The Life of Emile Zola)
1938 - You Can't Take it With You (The Adventures of Robin Hood, though I do love You Can't Take it With You)
1939 - Gone with the Wind (Gone with the Wind is probably the most deserving of the Best Production award out of every movie that won it. It's just an impressive feat to watch.)
1940 - Rebecca (Rebecca, though I probably would have been secretly rooting for The Long Voyage Home)
1941 - How Green was My Valley (The Little Foxes)
1942 - Mrs. Miniver (Yankee Doodle Dandy)
1943 - Casablanca (Casablanca)
1944 - Going My Way (Double Indemnity)
1945 - The Lost Weekend (The Lost Weekend)
1946 - The Best Years of Our Lives (The Best Years of Our Lives)
1947 - Gentleman's Agreement (Great Expectations)
1948 - Hamlet (The Red Shoes)
1949 - All the King's Men (The Heiress)
1950 - All About Eve (Sunset Boulevard)

Do I think the Academy was right every year? Not really. Do I think they honored a lot of good movies in that first quarter century (or so)? For sure. Are there some weird winners in there (namely Broadway Melody, Cimarron, and Cavalcade)? Definitely.

Still, as a list of twenty-four films that looks at the early sound era and how Hollywood seemed to see itself, you could do far worse. Far, far worse. It could be nothing but Blondie movies.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Tetris

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

All About Eve (Rating 3.5/4) Full Review "I think it's a bit overpraised, but just a bit." [Library]

The Doll (Rating 3/4) Full Review "This is something of a nice gem in Lubitsch's early career. It's light and frothy farce that could have benefited from a stronger approach to its characters to establish them and their motives." [YouTube]

The Oyster Princess (Rating 3/4) Full Review "This is a small delight again from Lubitsch early in his career. He still had a little way to go in terms of plotting things out to rely less on coincidence, but he's helping the audience have fun nonetheless." [YouTube]

Madame DuBarry (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "The performances and physical production are top rate, but the storytelling needed a new approach in the silent era that less relied on dialogue and told its story more fully through visuals. It seems obvious at this point early in Lubitsch's career, though, that his greatest successes are lighter, wittier fare." [YouTube]

Sumurun (Rating 2/4) Full Review "It's something of a brute force effort by Lubitsch to squeeze as much entertainment from a stone as possible." [YouTube]

The Wildcat (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "Does that sink the film? Not at all. It just limits my appreciation. This isn't the top tier of Lubitsch's early comic work in the German film industry." [YouTube]

Rosita (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "Rosita has its charms, including an ending that stands things on its head while giving a minor, thankless role the last laugh, and it's far from the worst Hollywood debut. However, Lubitsch was still really aching for spoken dialogue, even if he didn't quite realize it at the time." [YouTube]

The Marriage Circle (Rating 3/4) Full Review "The Marriage Circle is quite comfortably Lubitsch's most successful film up to this point." [YouTube]

Contact

Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 4/22, and it will talk about the role of the producer using Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick as case studies.

digg this
posted by Open Blogger at 07:45 PM

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