When I posted a comment on Paula's Cinema Club for this blogathon, my almost exact words were, Great movies: 7. Oscars: 0, seven great movies that not only didn’t win any Oscars, but weren’t even nominated. When I checked back on Paula's site, a few days later, Paula, had posted it as, Seven Films that Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture. I should have corrected her, but thought it better to use it as the lead for this post. Sorry, Paula. The films covered include: City Lights, His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner, Sullivan’s Travels, To Have and Have Not, The Searchers, and Sweet Smell of Success. Incredulous as this seems, not only were these films not nominated for Best Picture, they weren't nominated for an Oscar period in any category.
City Lights (1931)
Of this group of films, City Lights is the least surprising of the bunch. Though hailed now as Chaplin's definitive masterpiece. I'm sure it must have seemed like an anachronism to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Chaplin started filming in December 1928, over a year after the release of The Jazz Singer. The conversion to talkies didn't happen overnight, but by mid-1929 purely silent features were rare. Chaplin felt that audiences wouldn't accept his Tramp character if he spoke, but with the film not being released until January 1931, his decision to stick with a silent film was a bold one.
The year City Lights was released, only nine awards were given, and the big winner that year was Cimarron, winning Best Picture; Writing, Best Adaptation; and Best Art Direction, and receiving seven total nominations. One award that year, Sound Recording, was given to studios not individual films, and another Writing, Best Original Story, Cimarron wouldn't have been eligible, having been nominated and winning in the other writing category. It's hard to believe that one film would be nominated in every category for which it was eligible. It's harder still to believe that there was no place among the nominees for City Lights. Any of the following, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Story, all for Chaplin, Best Picture, and Best Actress, Virginia Cherrill as the blind girl all seem like obvious choices. In fact, isn't playing a blind person kind of a shoe in for an acting Oscar nomination? Apparently, it wasn't in 1931. Not only did City Lights not win any Oscars, it wasn't nominated in any category.
His Girl Friday (1940)
This screwball comedy is an adaptation of The Front Page (1931), also an adaptation of an earlier stage play. His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks. is nearly identical in plot to The Front Page with a couple of small but incredibly broad-reaching changes. The reporter character, played by Pat O'Brien in The Front Page, was changed to a woman and ex-wife of her newspaper editor boss. The Front Page is a good newspaper comedy. His Girl Friday is still a good newspaper comedy, but wrapped up in great sex comedy. Cary Grant is at his best as the sharp fast-talking newspaper editor/ex-husband, and Rosalind Russell holds her own as she trade blows and insults with Grant. As reporter though, Russell doesn't just hold her own, but is way better than all of the other reporters in the criminal courts building, a refreshing change at a time when women were supposed to be wives, girlfriends, secretaries, and singers. Throw into the mix perennial mama's boy Ralph Bellamy as the third point in the love triangle, and you've got screen gold.
It's hard to imagine a film as good as His Girl Friday not being nominated for an Oscar. Cary Grant's performance is one of the best of his long illustrious career. Cary Grant deserved the nod, but in 1940, it probably would have been for The Philadelphia Story. Ask me and I'd say Rosalind Russell's performance holds up to any of nominees, though possibly the smart, sassy, strong woman nomination had gone to Katherine Hepburn, again for The Philadelphia Story. Definitely, Howard Hawks' direction would be right at home with other nominees that year. I could probably make a case Ralph Bellamy as Best Supporting Actor, but possibly his performance was overshadowed by other great character actors in very small roles, such Abner Biberman as Grant's right-hand man Louie, Gene Lockhart as the corrupt incompetent Sheriff Hartwell, and Billy Gilbert as Joe Pettibone, the messenger, who tries to deliver the reprieve for murderer, Earl Williams.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Another entry from 1940, people always talk about 1939 being film's greatest year, but it seems to me at least a little of the greatness of 1939 must have rubbed off on 1940. Director Ernst Lubitsch used his famous Lubitsch touch to absolute perfection. It's everything you want out of a romantic comedy, an interesting love story that is funny, heart-warming, and at times heart wrenching.
There are a several spots where you can see The Shop Around the Corner at least being nominated. There were ten nominees for Best Picture that year. It's hard to imagine The Shop Around the Corner not being among the ten best pictures any year. Ernst Lubitsch as Best Director and Best Screenplay for Samson Raphaelson, which that year was the category for adaptations, seem to like naturals for the film. James Stewart won Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story, but was James Stewart better in The Philadelphia Story than in The Shop Around the Corner, tough call. I suppose if you have two performances the same year, you have to pick one. The National Board of Review chose James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner as its Best Actor that year. Margaret Sullivan's performance as Clara is what would normally generate an Oscar nomination, and maybe on a different year it would have. Finally, I think Frank Morgan is the obvious choice for at least a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but Felix Bressart and William Tracy as Pepi had great performances as well. Yes, the Academy would have never nominated Tracy, a 23-year-old bit player, but he is absolutely brilliant.
The big winners that year were The Thief of Bagdad with three wins and Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story, and Pinocchio all getting two. Rebecca won Best Picture. That year the Academy had eight categories with nine or more nominees. Still, no love for either His Girl Friday or The Shop Around the Corner. Stunning.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
I think it's safe to say that Preston Sturges was having a good year in 1941. The Lady Eve came out in March and Sullivan's Travels in December. Sturges co-wrote the screenplay and directed The Lady Eve and wrote and directed Sullivan's Travels, all the same year. On the acting side, both Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake had great performances. Also, Sullivan's Travels is a film about Hollywood and the film industry. The Academy loves that sort of thing, but they made an exception and turned their back on Sullivan's Travels.
Admittedly, there were a lot of great films in 1941. The big winner that year was John Ford's How Green Was My Valley with five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Ford. Other films released and nominated multiple times that year include Sergeant York, Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Ball of Fire, and The Maltese Falcon. You could probably argue that on the writing and directing fronts, Preston Sturges might have split the votes among himself. The same could probably be said for Best Picture. Joel McCrea had a solid career spanning five decades. He often joked that every script he ever read had Gary Cooper's fingerprints on it, and I suspect that though it was a joke, there was some truth in it. McCrea was an A-list star, but always seemed second string to other A-list stars. I'd say Sullivan's Travels was McCrea's best role ever. Not only did he play that likable nice guy comic actor that he did so well, the prison scenes showed he really could act. For Veronica Lake, it was her breakthrough role, but I don't think the Academy rewarded breakthrough then like they do now. Like many of Sturges films, the supporting cast reads a little like a who's who of great character actors, with William Demerest, Franklin Pangborn, and Porter Hall, but for me, the standout is Jimmy Conlin as the prison trustee. Best Supporting Actor was a tough category that year, and I can't see the Academy honoring an old vaudeville comic turned actor over the competition. Still it was a great performance worthy of a nomination.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
What can I say about To Have and Have Not. For director Howard Hawks, it was one of his best films. For Humphrey Bogart, one of his best films. For Lauren Bacall, arguably her best film, period. For both Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael among their best as well. It had a message about standing up for what was right. Maybe people didn't want to hear the message at that point. They knew the message. They knew what was right. The whole free world was living the message at that point. Maybe they didn't need another film to remind them of it.
The big winner that year was Going My Way with seven wins total, and four of the big six awards, Best Picture, Best Director (Leo McCarey), Best Actor (Bing Crosby), and Best Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald). The other big winner that year was Wilson with five awards. Hard to believe that an admitted good, sentimental piece of fluff and a lackluster biopic could be the big winners the same year that Gaslight and Double Indemnity came out. Gaslight won two Oscars, including Best Actress for Ingrid Bergman, Double Indemnity, nothing. Oh yeah, and by the way, To Have and Have Not came out that year, and it didn't get any nominations. For just about anyone involved in the film, To Have and Have Not has to be considered a high point in their careers. For Lauren Bacall, I can't think of anyone having as big an impact in their debut role, ever.
I also feel the need to mention Hoagy Carmichael again. He only made about 10 films. To Have and Have Not and The Best Years of Our Lives were great roles for him. He had a natural easiness that just reads a true to me. Not actor, but a real person living the story. Actors who became famous for things other than acting don't seem to be given the credit for the good work they do. As a songwriter and musician, Hoagy Carmichael suffers from this, and that is a shame.
The Searchers (1956)
The Western is a genre often overlooked come Oscar time, and I can't think of a better example than John Ford's The Searchers. Widely hailed as the one of the best Westerns ever made, The Searchers was named the No. 1 Western in the AFI's 10 Top 10 in the Westerns genre as well as No. 96 in the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies and No. 12 in the 10th Anniversary edition of that same list. For John Wayne, I can't think of a better role for him, though Ford's The Quiet Man comes close. Wayne's portrayal of Ethan Edwards as ex-Confederate soldier out for revenge on the Comanches who killed his brother's family is absolutely chilling, yet through all of this, he remains human and ultimately sympathetic. John Wayne won an Oscar for True Grit. Not to take anything away from True Grit, but he deserved an Oscar for The Searchers. For the rest of the cast, standouts would be Jeffrey Hunter, a 15-year-old Natalie Wood in a tiny role, and another great character role for Ward Bond. For John Ford, by this point in his career, he had won four Oscars, so maybe the Academy felt they'd given him his due, and maybe some of that rubbed off on his regulars in the cast and crew.
The big winners that year were Around the World in 80 Days and The King and I, each with five wins. Other films with multiple nominations that year include Giant, The Ten Commandments, The Bad Seed, Lust for Life, The Brave One, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Written on the Wind, and The Seven Samurai. Pretty good year for film, but it's hard to imagine, there being no place for The Searchers among the likes of these films. Aside from the great story, great direction, and great performances, there's the cinematography by Winton C. Hoch. Never has Monument Valley looked better, even in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for which Hoch won his second of three cinematography Oscars. I don't know who said it, but remember hearing recently that is was practically impossible to not win a cinematography Oscar for shooting Monument Valley. Well, The Searchers not only didn't win but wasn't even nominated. Maybe since Hoch had won for the same terrain on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, voters overlooked his doing a better job of it on The Searchers.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
I was stunned to hear that Sweet Smell of Success didn't get any Oscar nominations. It's a hard-hitting drama with brilliant work all around. Isn't that what the Oscars are all about, but maybe I shouldn't be that surprised. I'm sure audiences who came to see matinee idols Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis go toe-to-toe in a tough edgy drama weren't ready for what they got, especially after seeing them in the circus drama Trapeze the previous year. While Curtis was a relative newcomer, Lancaster was an established star with solid acting chops. Even though Lancaster usually played tough guys and at times criminals, audiences could relate to him because underneath it all was a man with a moral code. There is no moral code in either Burt Lancaster or Tony Curtis's characters. Critics embraced the film but audiences did not. That probably was the main reason the film received no Oscar nominations.
The big winner that year was The Bridge on the River Kwai with eight nominations and seven wins and Sayonara with ten nominations and five wins. Other films with multiple nominations include Peyton Place, Witness for the Prosecution, An Affair to Remember, Funny Face, Pal Joey, and 12 Angry Men. Looking at the nominees for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, I can't see Sweet Smell of Success not being among them somewhere. In the acting categories, despite incredible performances by both Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, maybe they split the votes with two tremendous acting performances in the same film. There was only one category for Cinematography that year, and no black and white films were nominated. Possibly that was why James Wong Howe's brilliant location shooting of New York was overlooked. Finally, the modern jazz score that combined original compositions by Elmer Bernstein and jazz themes from the Chico Hamilton Quintet might have been considered too progressive for Academy voters, but it works wonderfully in the context of the film.
I guess it's easy to sit back with the benefit of hindsight and criticize the Oscars for their omissions, but it still seems pretty grievous that in a group of films this good and this well respected that not a single Academy Award Nomination could be found among the lot of them.