The Worst of the Oscars: 1928-1952

Some time ago, I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst films to be tabbed by the Academy as the Best Picture of the Year. The usual nominees were bruited about but I wanted to approach it in a more systematic way.

So what I did was go through the list of Academy Awards winners for every years since 1928. What I was looking for was the answer to several interlocked questions: Was it the best picture of the year? If not, what was the best picture of the year? How is the film regarded historically?

I’ve talked about the limitations of IMDB ratings before, especially when it comes to films over the last 20 years. But my feeling is that comparing the films within any single year can be illuminating. This took a little bit of work since movies from early years don’t have a lot of votes. I’ve also taken the liberty of figuring out which movie for any particular years is the “consensus” best film, based on perusing the AFI and other critics’ ratings. I think the method to my madness will become clear once we get going.

The short story is this: the Academy has rarely done a great job, has sometimes done a horrible job but has mostly done an OK job. They rarely select the best picture but huge snubs are kind of rare. They clearly have biases: against silent movies, against comedies, against certain genres like science fiction. They clearly favor “important” movies that make them feel smart or politically aware and they are very prone to the flavor of the month. There’s a reason all the Oscar nominees are released in December.

Let’s go year-by-year. To save some sanity, I’ll break this up into three posts with a fourth to sum up.

Year: 1927-1928
Academy Pick: Wings
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.7 (ranked 15th out of 19 eligible movies with at least 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Metropolis (1927) or The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Consensus Best Picture: Sunrise
Comments: Wings is a fine picture and under-rated by modern audiences, I think. It was a revolutionary picture so I’m not surprised it won. Metropolis would have been ignored at the time. In fact, the Academy has historically to great lengths to avoid recognizing foreign films.

Year: 1928-1929
Academy Pick: Broadway Melody
IMDB Rating and Rank: 6.3 (14 out of 14, 2000 vote minimum)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Consensus Best Picture: The Passion of Joan of Arc
Comments: I have not seen Broadway Melody but we can see immediately that the Academy went of the big showy musical over silent classic, which was a foreign film and not nominated. Strictly by the numbers, Melody has the third lowest rating of any Best Picture winner.

Year: 1929-1930
Academy Pick: All Quiet on the Western Front
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.1 (1st of 14, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: All Quiet on the Western Front
Consensus Best Picture: All Quiet on the Western Front

Year: 1930-1931
Academy Pick: Cimarron
IMDB Rating and Rank: 6.0 (21st of 22, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: City Lights
Consensus Best Picture: City Lights
Comments: Two flubs in the first four years from the Academy. I have not seen Cimarron, but it seems ridiculous to pick it over City Lights, M and Frankenstein, none of which were even nominated. In the end, I may have to exclude the early years of the Academy for consideration since it’s clear that they were either not aware of or didn’t care about anything outside of a very select group of films. However, going purely by the numbers, Cimarron over City Lights is the biggest snub in Academy history, with a whopping 2.6 points in IMDB ratings between the two. And Cimarron is the worst film to win Best Picture.

Year: 1931-1932
Academy Pick: Grand Hotel
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.6 (18 out of 35, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Trouble in Paradise
Consensus Best Picture: Unclear
Comments: If you include 1931 movies, you get the movies I mentioned above, but there is no consensus 1932 classic I can identify.

Year: 1932-1933
Academy Pick: Cavalcade
IMDB Rating and Rank: 6.2 (43 out of 45, minium 1700 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Duck Soup
Consensus Best Picture: Duck Soup
Comments: I had to lower the threshold to get Cavalcade. I have not seen this picture but the description seems to appeal to the “lost generation” that constituted the bulk of the voters. It has apparently not aged well and is currently the only Best Picture winner not out on DVD, probably out of embarrassment. It has the third lowest rating of any Best Picture winner. But, as with Cimarron and Broadway Melody that may be an artifact of IMDB’s methodology, which accounts for the number of votes. Those three pictures have not been watched by many.

Year: 1934
Academy Pick: It Happened One Night
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.2 (1st of 13, minimum 2000 votes
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: It Happened One Night
Consensus Best Picture: It Happened One Night
Comments: This is one of the few comedies to ever earn even a nomination, least of all the award. It Happened was simply too good and too big to ignore.

Year: 1935
Academy Pick: Mutiny on the Bounty
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.0 (4th of 14, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: A Night at the Opera
Consensus Best Picture: A Night at the Opera
Comments: For those of you counting, that’s now three comedies — one from Chaplin, two from the Marx Brothers, that were snubbed, not even earning a nomination.

Year: 1936
Academy Pick: The Great Ziegfeld
IMDB Rating and Rank: 6.9 (15 out of 20, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Modern Times
Consensus Best Picture: Modern Times
Comments: Make that four.

Year: 1937
Academy Pick: The Life of Emile Zola
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.3 (20 out of 21, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Le Grande Illusion
Consensus Best Picture: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Comments: Walt Disney’s dwarf picture was not nominated.

Year: 1938
Academy Pick: You Can’t Take It With You
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.9 (5 out of 14, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Bringing Up Baby
Consensus Best Picture: Bringing Up Baby

Year: 1939
Academy Pick: Gone with the Wind
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.2 (2 out of 35, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Consensus Best Picture: Gone With the Wind
Comments: Both are regarded as classics, so it’s hard to quibble on this one.

Year: 1940
Academy Pick: Rebecca
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.3 (2nd out of 23, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: The Great Dictator
Consensus Best Picture: Rebecca

Year: 1941
Academy Pick: How Green Was My Valley
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.8 (8 out of 24, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Citizen Kane
Consensus Best Picture: Citizen Kane
Comments: One of the most famous snubs in Academy history. Whenever movie stars try to persuade you that they are brave and bold, remind them that when Hearst said, “jump!”, they said “How high?” while already in the air.

Year: 1942
Academy Pick: Mrs. Miniver
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.6 (10 out of 29, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: To Be Or Not To Be
Consensus Best Picture: The Magnificent Ambersons

Year: 1943
Academy Pick: Casablanca
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.7 (1st of 26, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Casablanca
Consensus Best Picture: Casablanca

Year: 1944
Academy Pick: Going My Way
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.3 (22 out of 29, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Double Indemnity
Consensus Best Picture: Double Indemnity

Year: 1945
Academy Pick: Lost Weekend
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.1 (4 out of 29, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Children of Paradise
Consensus Best Picture: Possibly the Lost Weekend. There’s a crowd of equal picture at the top.

Year: 1946
Academy Pick: Best Years of Our Lives
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.2 (2 out of 26, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: It’s A Wonderful Life
Consensus Best Picture: It’s a Wonderful Life
Comments: The Best Years of Our Lives is also a truly great picture, so I’m not going to grudge the Academy this one, especially as Capra’s movie was poorly regarded until decades later.

Year: 1947
Academy Pick: Gentleman’s Agreement
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.3 (17 out of 30, minimum 3000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Out of the Past
Consensus Best Picture: Unclear. Only Miracle on 34th Street has a strong legacy.

Year: 1948
Academy Pick: Hamlet
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.8 (10 out of 36, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Consensus Best Picture: Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Comments: Bogart’s adventure was not going to beat Olivier.

Year: 1949
Academy Pick: All the King’s Men
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.6 (11 out of 30, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: The Third Man
Consensus Best Picture: The Third Man

Year: 1950
Academy Pick: All About Eve
IMDB Rating and Rank: 8.4 (2 out of 30, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Sunset Boulevard
Consensus Best Picture: Sunset Boulevard
Comments: Both are regarded as classics.

Year: 1951
Academy Pick: An American in Paris
IMDB Rating and Rank: 7.2 (23 out of 30, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Strangers on A Train
Consensus Best Picture: Strangers on A Train

Year: 1952
Academy Pick: The Greatest Show on Earth
IMDB Rating and Rank: 6.7 (32 out of 34, minimum 2000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Singin’ in the Rain
Consensus Best Picture: Singin’ in the Rain
Comments: Generally regarded as one of the worst picks of all time.

So, going over the first 25 years, we can tally the score as such:

The Academy recognized what is now regarded as the Best Picture in only three years — 1930, 1934 and 1943. In a number of others — 1935, 1939, 1940, 1945, 1946 and 1950, they picked a film that may not be regarded as the best but is still regarded as a great film. That’s 9 of 25 where they did a good job. The rest of the years they picked a decent film but not a great one. And in four or five years — 1929, 1931, 1933, 1952 and arguably 1936, they clearly muffed it.

There is a pattern, however. The early years were very shaky. But by 1937, the Academy commenced a run of very defensible choices. From 1938 to 1946, every winner but one retains a high historical regard. And to spoil the next two chapters, only three Best Pictures since 1936 have ended up with an IMDB rating below 7.

It wouldn’t last. 1952 was the precursor to a series of poor choices that would last until the 1970′s.

For the worst picks of the first 25 years of Academy history, I’m going to leave out Broadway Melody, Cimarron and Cavalcade, since they lost to pictures that the Academy was ignoring or not exposed to and their IMDB ratings are dubious given modern audiences’ limited exposure to them. The Great Ziegfeld has to be in the running for worst pick. How Green Was My Valley is a fine film but the Academy snubbed what is now regarded as one of the pictures ever made because the newspapers told them to. That has to be very close to a low point in Academy history.

But for worst pic, I’m going to go with The Greatest Show on Earth. Not only was it poorly regarded, ranking as the 32nd best movie of the year, it beat Singin’ in the Rain, a vastly superior motion picture, High Noon, regarded as a classic western, and Limelight. That’s ignoring the foreign films (Ikiru, Umberto D) which are now considered classics. 1952 was a great year for movies. And the Academy completely screwed the pooch. Singin’ — possibly one of the best musicals ever made — was only nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score and won neither.

So with apologies to Orson Welles, I’m putting The Greatest Show on Earth forward as my worst pick of the first 25 years. Citizen Kane may have been the worst snub. But Show was a truly awful awful pick.

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