The Oscars: From Pre-Code to Film Noir
Now that this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced, I am firmly and happily in the grips of my annual Oscar fever – between now and March 2nd, I will be immersing myself in all things Oscar, including trying to see as many nominated movies as possible, viewing my well-worn videotape of Oscar’s Greatest Moments (which covered the Oscars from 1970 to 1990), and reading up on all kinds of Oscar lore. Here’s some of the stuff I found out about the Oscars during the pre-Code and film noir eras…
Frances Marion was the first woman to win an Academy Award, for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1930 for The Big House, a prison drama starring Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, and Robert Montgomery. She became the first person to win two Oscars when she won for Best Story for The Champ in 1932.
Norma Shearer was nominated for Best Actress for both The Divorcee and Their Own Desire, in the same year. According to the website for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a single nomination could honor a performer’s work in one or more films. The final awards ballot listed both of these films for Norma Shearer, but when the Best Actress award was announced, it was only for The Divorcee.
Incidentally, Norma Shearer and her brother, Douglas, were the first Oscar-winning siblings – Douglas won for Sound Recording for The Big House.
Beginning in the pre-Code era, there was an Oscar awarded for Best Assistant Director. The first year it was introduced – 1933 – the award went to seven assistant directors from seven different studios. The award was discontinued four years later.
In 1931, Fredric March and Wallace Beery tied for the Best Actor Oscar. At that time, the Academy Award rules stated that if the votes of one nominee came within three votes of the top vote-getter, the award would be considered a tie. Beery had one vote less than March. March won for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Beery won for The Champ. After the awards were given, March offered up the following gem: “Mr. Beery and I recently adopted children. Under the circumstances, it seems a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.” (Har!)
John Monk Sanders won the Oscar for Best Original Story for The Dawn Patrol (1930) – which would be remade just eight years later. Sanders’s wife at the time was actress Fay Wray, of King Kong fame.
Katherine Hepburn earned the first of her four Oscars (and 12 nominations) during the pre-Code years – she won the Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933).
The first year that films noirs won Oscars was 1945. Joan Crawford won for Best Actress in Mildred Pierce, and Leave Her to Heaven won Best Color Cinematography. Mildred Pierce also received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth), Black and White Cinematography, Screenplay Writing, and Best Motion Picture. Leave Her to Heaven received nominations for Best Actress (Gene Tierney), Sound Recording, and Art Direction.
In 1948, the song “Buttons and Bows” from the film The Paleface won the Oscar for Best Song. The writers, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, would appear on screen singing the song a few years later in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Speaking of Sunset Boulevard, this film racked up Oscar nominations in a variety of categories: Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Writing (Story and Screenplay), Best Director, and Best Picture!
Before 1943, best supporting actors and actresses did not receive a full-sized Oscar; they were given a miniature Oscar on a plaque. (Well, damn.)
1944 was the first year in which the number of nominees for Best Picture was limited to five.
The Killers (1946) – (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT) – the subject of the just-released 40-page “giant” edition of The Dark Pages newsletter – earned nominations for Directing, Music, Film Editing, and Screenplay.
The first Best Actor Oscar for a performance in a noir went to Ronald Colman in A Double Life (1947). In it, Colman portrayed a Shakespearean actor for whom “life imitates art” was more than just a cliché.
In 1953, Joseph Breen – Hollywood’s chief censor and morals cop – was given an honorary Oscar for – get this – his “conscientious, open-minded (!?!) and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code. (Alrighty then!)
1947 is often cited as noir’s best year. It was certainly a banner year at the Academy Awards, with nominations going to Body and Soul, A Double Life, Ride the Pink Horse, Crossfire, Kiss of Death, and Possessed. Miklos Rozsa won for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Film for A Double Life.
Crossfire was the first ‘B’ movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Two of the three writing awards in 1950 were won by noirs – Panic in the Streets won for Best Motion Picture Story and Sunset Boulevard took home the statue for Best Story and Screenplay.
Erich von Stroheim was not a happy camper when he learned that he’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Sunset Boulevard. He reportedly threatened to sue Paramount because he felt the nomination was an insult to his stature.
The Strip (1951) was the first noir to earn a Best Song nomination – for “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” In the film, the song was warbled by Louis Armstrong. (Have you ever heard it? It’s a great song.)
The Oscars were televised for the first time in 1952. And they’re still going strong! So, throw on your best duds, grab a glass of bubbly, and don’t forget to tune into Hollywood’s golden night on March 2nd!