Enter the ‘Golden Age’ of Oscar winners

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.

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Among “You Can’t Take it With You” cast were, from left, Lionel Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold.

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 FlemingEPSON MFP image

“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.

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Alfred Hitchcock,, left, with “Rebecca” stars Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier.

 

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.”

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Mr. and Mrs. Miniver with family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And in the beginning: First Academy Award best picture winners

This is the first part of a multi-part series on the Academy Award best picture winners, reviewed chronologically beginning with “Wings,” the first winner.

“Wings,” 1927, directed by  William Wellman

Unlike some later best picture winners, “Wings” was truly deserving. It was the only silent picture to win the honor until 2011 when “The Artist” (except for a single scene of dialog and a dream sequence with sound effects in the  2011 film) won the Oscar. “Wings” aerial scenes are still impressive 90 years later. Stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who would marry Mary Pickford a decade later, and Clara Bow, the “it” girl, were part of cast. In a brief appearance as a doomed pilot,  future star Gary Cooper had one of his first significant roles. What helped make all of this work was a  director who had been a pilot and was a wing-walking stunt pilot before his movie career took off.

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“Wings”

The Broadway Melody,” 1929, directed by Harry Beaumont

It was a surprise to at least some later day critics that this film won the best picture trophy. Referred to as the prototype of backstage musicals, “Broadway Melody” was described by one critic as suffering from “stolid acting and awkward sound techniques.” Film aficionados will note, however, that this was the first MGM movie featuring a “Singin’ in the Rain” number.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone

This drama is listed in the “New York Times Guide to the Best Movies Ever Made.” Based on a book by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front” drew praise from the opening night reviewer for The Times who wrote, “Truth comes to the fore when the young soldiers are elated at the idea of joining up, when they are disillusioned, when they are hungry, when they are killing rats in a dugout, when they are shaken by fear, and when they, or one of them, becomes fed up with the conception of war held by the elderly man back home. …Often the scenes are of such excellence that if they were not audible one might believe that they were actual motion pictures of activities behind the lines, in the trenches and in No Man’s Land.”

Cimarron,” 1931, directed by Wesley Ruggles

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This is the worst movie to win the best picture honor, in this writer’s opinion. It’s a well intentioned movie with an interesting story based on the novel by Edna Farber. The story is about a newspaper editor who moves to a booming town in 1889 with his wife and what happens over the next 40 years. It is a western/soap opera that suffers from awful acting, huge plot holes and racist overtones. It also tells us how much our tastes have changed over the years.  The movie does star popular actors Richard Dix and Irene Dunne.

“Grand Hotel.” 1932, directed by Edmund Goulding

Originally a stage play, this is a truly great movie featuring such stars as Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Berry. This is a tale regarding strangers whose lives cross during their stay at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.

The Grand Hotel is supposedly a place where nothing ever happens but by the time the guests have checked out, the audience will see manslaughter, gambling, a baron seeking to steal pearls, love affairs, business dealings and more.

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Greta Garbo and John Barrymore