The veritable explosion of great films beginning in the late 1930s earned that era the “golden age” of Hollywood tag. And many of the great films from that time wouldn’t be truly recognized for their artistry until many years later. The next five Oscar best picture winners described below are what was regarded as the cream of the crop.
“You Can’t Take it With You,” 1938, directed by Frank Capra.
A great comedy with tremendous cast directed by Frank Capra was the second best picture Oscar he won. The tremendous cast included Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, H.B. Warner and Dub Taylor. It was adapted from a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play. Part of that adaptation included changing the play to allow Lionel Barrymore, who had a broken hip, to perform in a wheelchair. The highly entertaining film is about a man from a family of uptight, rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.
The competition for the 1938 honor was considerable-. It included “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Boy”s Town,” and the French classic “Grand Illusion.
“Gone with the Wind,” 1939, directed by Victor Fleming
“Gone with the Wind” is more than just the third movie Clark Gable starred in that won the best picture honor in the 1930s. It was a landmark film with some flaws that are rarely discussed.
This sweeping drama was the first Oscar winner released fully in color and it makes spectacular use of that palette. It would be several years before another movie in color won the best picture honor. At nearly four hours long, the film included an intermission and that was the case when this writer took a field trip while in high school to a downtown Louisville, Ky., (when downtowns still had theaters) movie theater and decades later at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
In case you haven’t read or heard, “Gone with the Wind” is the story of how the lives of southern aristocratic, slave-owning, plantation owners changed from the pre-Civil War days, during the war and after it. It’s a story of troubled romances, suffering and a change in lifestyle that some suspected would never happen.
The problem is the strong anti-union sentiment, the phony portrayal of the supposedly fine lives for slaves, a sympathetic nod to the Ku Klux Klan and terrible negative stereotypes of blacks.
That’s not to detract from the power of the film nor its great cast that includes Gable, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell.
The competition for the 1939 honor was top notch. Those other films included “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights.”
“Rebecca,” 1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Despite his tremendous influence on film and the great library of films he created, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” was his only movie that won the best picture Oscar. That same year another of his films, “Foreign Correspondent,” also was nominated for best picture.
The extraordinary cast included Lawrence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, and Nigel Bruce. The story involves an unsophisticated, self-conscious bride who is tormented by the memory of her moody and prominent country gentleman husband’s dead first wife. In addition to Hitchcock’s other film, the competition in 1940 include “The Grapes of Wrath,” Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and “The Philadelphia Story.”
“How Green Was My Valley,” 1941, directed by John Ford.
One of great director John Ford’s greatest motion pictures, “How Green was My Valley” may be one of the most underappreciated winners of the Academy Award for best picture. In 1941, a New York Times critic called the movie “a picture of great poetic charm and dignity, a picture rich in visual fabrications and in the vigor of its imagery.” The movie is a story about a group of Welsh mining people, their families’ lives and a few sturdy leaders. It’s a story about how black coal darkened the lives of those who mined it and the destruction to the verdant valley in which they live.
The cast includes Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp and Roddy McDowell. Once again in this golden era, there were several outstanding films that lost out to the winning film. Those competitors included “Citizen Kane,” regarded by many critics and cinematic enthusiasts as the greatest picture of all time; “Here Comes Mr. Jordan;” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sgt. York” and “Suspicion.”
“Mrs. Miniver,” 1942, directed by William Wyler
Starring an always impressive Greer Garson, “Mrs. Miniver” was made during World War II. It shows the cruel effect total war has upon civilized people. The New York Times critic wrote in 1942, “It is the finest film made yet about the present war and a most exalting tribute to the British people who have taken it gallantly.” Garson is magnificent as Mrs. Miniver whose family lives in a small English town before the war sends members away. Her character’s strength even shines when she encounters a German flier in her home. In addition to Garson, the cast includes Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, Reginald Owen and Henry Travers, The other competitors for the 1942 Oscar included “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “Talk of the Town” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”