A History of the Oscars: Wings, Citizen Kane, It Happened One Night...

A History of the Oscars: Wings, Citizen Kane, It Happened One Night and More

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It Happened One Night

The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars

DVD of the movie, Wings at Amazon.com

With the Oscars fast approaching on Sunday night, let’s take a look back at the first, the most interesting, and the missing Oscars of classic movies. 

You probably know that the “Best Production” award (renamed “Best Picture” in 1929), went to Wings in 1927. Starring mega-stars of early Hollywood, Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers, and introducing newcomer Gary Cooper, the movie portrays a love affair and World War I army pilots.

Wings featured amazing air battle scenes that seriously threatened the lives of the participants, since today’s special effects were not yet in use. However, the human performances do not hold up as well in modern times. Although the physical film had a troubled history of preservation, remastered editions are now available and you can rent it on Netflix.

Check out a few scenes from Wings:

But did you know that an equally important award that year meant there were actually TWO bests?

DVD cover on Amazon
The 2nd award, called “Best Unique and Artistic Production,” went to a movie titled Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). The film is based on a German short story, and is a “silent” film with a music and sound effects sound track (which put out of business the ladies hired to play the piano in movie theaters!).

The style is Expressionism with lots of symbolism, and the plot summary sounds highly melodramatic. However, the artistic presentation still works its magic. You can see the entire film (in ten parts) on You Tube, starting here, rent it from Netflix, or buy it on BluRay or DVD by clicking on the DVD cover shown here.

Female lead actress, Janet Gaynor, then only 21 years old, won an acting award. She became a star through the 20’s and 30’s and her career ended at its peak when she was nominated again for her role in the first production of A Star is Born in 1937. I always have liked Janet Gaynor. Her acting style seems modern compared to many of the early movie stars, and she has a radiant beauty.

Another picture with sound, The Jazz Singer, won an award at that same 1929 gathering for its innovative achievement — revolutionizing the industry by introducing talkies — but it was ineligible to compete against silents, so did not win the top award.

It Happened One Night
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

The awards became a yearly event as movies changed from silent to talking and the number of award categories grew. The next awards ceremony of note took place in 1934, when the Academy added film editing, musical score and song categories.

Additionally, an outcry arose because Bette Davis did not receive a Best Actress nomination for Of Human Bondage, and Myrna Loy did not get one for the comic detective movie, The Thin Man,  so the Academy allowed write-in votes.

Davis and Loy, however, were swamped by the film It Happened One Night, which gobbled up Best Film, Best Actor (Clark Gable) and Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Screenplay, and Best Director (Frank Capra).

Have you seen It Happened One Night? It is a delightful movie, and the chemistry between the two leads has never been topped. It would be hard, however, to compare the dramatic performance of Bette Davis in a tragic film with Claudette Colbert in this comic romance.

And therein lies the rub in selecting a single Best Film, or Best Actor or Best Actress.  Many times the voters are comparing a rose with a locomotive, a fairy sprite with a dark magician, an apple with an orange. All of which leads to some amazing results.

Casablanca
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

For instance, which of these won Oscars?

  • Humphrey Bogart, Best Actor for Casablanca.
  • Clark Gable, Best Actor for Gone With The Wind.
  • Orson Wells, Best Director for Citizen Kane.
  • Alfred Hitchcock, Best Director for Rear Window.
  • Peter O’Toole, Best Actor for Lawrence of Arabia.
Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock

I hope you did not spend a lot of time researching the answers, because there is only one answer — NONE of the pictures or people on this list won an Oscar.

Humphrey Bogart, although nominated in the timeless movie Casablanca (1943), lost to Paul Lucas (you might ask, “who?”) for his work in Watch on the Rhine. Bogart did win one Oscar for his role in  African Queen (1953).

Clark Gable, nominated for  Best Actor for Gone With The Wind (1939),  lost to Robert Donat (another, “who?”) in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. He had won in 1934 as mentioned above. Maybe the Academy preferred Gable in comic roles.

Orson Welles was nominated for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenwriting for Citizen Kane (1941), which was also nominated for Best Picture. However, How Green Was My Valley won for best picture as did its director, John Ford. Welles lost Best Actor to Gary Cooper for Sergeant York. However, as a consolation prize, Welles won the 1941 Screenwriting award for Citizen Kane.

If you think Orson Welles was disappointed in 1941, shed a tear for The Little Foxes, which set a record by having nine nominations with nary a first place.

Alfred Hitchcock, Best Director for Rear Window? Although nominated five times for his movies, Hitchcock never won a Best Director Oscar. Rebecca was the only one of his films that won for Best Picture (1940).

And when Joan Fontaine won Best Actress for his Suspicion, it was the ONLY time an actress won an Oscar in a Hitchcock Film. Would you call that the Hitchcock curse?

Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar for his acting. How can that be? He was unfortunate to come up against the strongest competition possible and was edged out each time he was nominated. How sad.

Despite the sometimes whimsical choices of the Academy, viewing past winners can give you a look into the classical past of Hollywood and its stars.

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