Friday, 6 May 2011

On Any Other Year: The 1941 Best Picture Battle

On Any Other Year is a new series of short articles for Filmstubs covering the Academy Award moments when voters were faced with a dilemma worthy of Sophie's Choice. 

Often, from the moment the Oscar nominees are announced, we know the clear frontrunners. This is particularly true of the acting categories. This year, for instance, not many people were under the illusion that anyone other that Colin Firth or Natalie Portman would walk away with the top prizes. Very occasionally however, the Academy will be presented with two or more nominees so deserving of winning a certain category that it seems a sin to see one lose out.

Most (though by no means all) Oscar-nominees are good, but sometimes a year will throw together several works of greatness, be it in film-making or acting and force them to fight it out for top spot. Hence "On Any Other Year:" the nominees that would have cantered to the Oscar in a lesser year but lost out to greatness.

We start with 1941, and one of the strongest Best Picture fields the Academy has even witnessed. Then, like now, the Best Picture award was made up of ten nominees. In this particular year, the nominees were a mixed bag of neglected greats (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and so-so films that had gained popularity at the time (Kitty Foyle, Our Town). There were, however, four stand-out nominees: Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, and The Philadelphia Story. All of these films occupy places in the IMDb top 250, 70 years after their release.

Rebecca would go on to claim the Academy Award. Few would argue that it didn't deserve it. This was a film that showed a different side of Alfred Hitchcock and the extent of his talent. It was a masterful film, superbly shot and acted. It remains, to this day, one of the greatest literary adaptations made on film.

However, pretty high on the list of great literary adaptations would the The Grapes of Wrath. John Ford brilliantly captured John Steinbeck's classic Great Depression tale and was graced with great performances from his cast. The themes of the film are the sort of thing the Academy loves, and it did, giving the film seven nominations. It says a lot about the quality on display that year that The Grapes of Wrath only gained two awards.

The Great Dictator was altogether something different. An incredibly enduring comedy and biting piece of satire, its timing, as America debated whether to enter the Second World War, was impeccable. As a satire of Nazi Germany it was more effective than any propaganda film the industry could produce. That is not to say it has not remained relevant; anyone with a passing knowledge of history can easily pick up on the themes. If not Charlie Chaplin's greatest work, it is certainly his most accessible.

Finally, we have The Philadelphia Story, probably my least favourite of the four, but perhaps the film that best captures Hollywood's Golden Age. The unbeatable combination of Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn give this the class and wit that so many romantic comedies of the era seem to ooze. It remains much loved, and is the only film that James Stewart would ever win an acting Oscar for.

So there you have it: four films, all of which would have richly deserved a Best Picture Oscar. They've all aged incredibly well, but it is only Rebecca that is a Best Picture winner. In my view, of the four, Rebecca was the film that deserved the prize, but I would certainly not begrudge any of the others winning.

On Any Other Year will return to examine the 1951 battle for Best Actress. 

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