By Ann Silverthorn
Crowds of ration-weary movie goers found refuge in darkened movie houses during the 1940s. Many men were off at war, and many weren’t ever coming home. Because of this, more women than ever were working outside the home to help factories keep up with production. So, a couple of hours at the movies was probably welcome relief for them – if they had time to go, that is. Let’s take a look at some of the notable Academy Award winners of the 1940s.
After a decade in the Great Depression, the 1940 Academy Award winner, Gone with the Wind, offered an extended period of escape with a running time of 3:53. In 1939, the movie’s audiences became privy to the horrors of both slavery and the Civil War. Today, there are calls to boycott showings of the movie because of its depiction of racism, but many find it to be a valuable learning tool, because it illustrates the inhumanity of slavery and enhances empathy for those who struggled then and still do today.
Gone with the Wind swept the Academy Awards in 1940, winning eight Oscars. These included Best Picture, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), and best in directing, art direction, cinematography, film editing, and screenplay. It was the first movie on color film to win Best Picture.
Another film that won Oscars in 1940 was The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland. It won for Best Original Score and Best Song, “Over the Rainbow,” which is still a favorite today. What better escape was there than to leave a black-and-white world and wind up in a city of emerald green? In her period of unconsciousness after a knock on the head, Dorothy made some new friends and learned to stand up to a wicked witch. After she woke up, she found that she had learned a few things about life and love.
Skipping forward to the 1942 Academy Awards, Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley also took top honors that year for art direction, cinematography, and directing. Donald Crisp claimed the Oscar for Best Actor in a supporting role. He played Gwilym Morgan, the patriarch of a large Welsh family living in a mining town, who alternately showered love and terror on his family. The dangers of coal mining, and the toll it took on the environment, feature prominently in this film. It follows the novel pretty closely, except for the deletion of a couple of siblings in the family.
The 1944 Best Picture award went to a war-time film whose title is recognizable to almost everyone, even if they haven’t seen it. Casablanca received nine nominations and won in three categories: Best Directing, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Its famous lead actors, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, did not win for their performances in Casablanca, but both had nominations that year; hers was for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Although the tragic film Mildred Pierce didn’t win Best Picture in 1946, its star Joan Crawford won for Best Actress. If you like the film, you’ll love the 2011 miniseries starring Kate Winslet. Its five parts allow an even deeper exploration of the heartbreaking story of a mother who finds success after divorce and strives to give her spoiled daughter everything the girl doesn’t appreciate.
By 1947, the war was over, and the men and women who served and survived had come home. Their returns were not always smooth though, and the Best Picture winner that year, The Best Years of Our Lives, tells the story of three men from different levels of society who have trouble picking up where they left off. Fredric March won for Best Actor and Harold Russell won for Best Supporting Actor. The nearly three-hour-long film won four more Oscars for directing, editing, music, and screenplay.
When the 1948 Oscar nominees were announced, the horrors of Nazi Germany had become clear to Americans. Gentleman’s Agreement took home the Best Picture for its portrayal of a newspaper reporter who goes undercover to expose anti-Semitism in America. He discovers that bigotry and hate persisted, even as its citizens expressed shock and outrage over the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Celeste Holm won for Best Supporting Actress, and the legendary Elia Kazan won the award for Best Directing. Kazan’s granddaughter, Zoe, has taken the acting route and has starred in many films, including The Big Sick.
In contrast with the darkness of Gentleman’s Agreement is a film about hope, Miracle on 34th Street. It won three Oscars at the 1948 Academy Awards, including Best Writing for story and Best Writing for screenplay. The Best Actor award went to Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle. His character is hired to play Santa at Macy’s, and he claims to be the real thing, making others doubt his sanity.
And lastly, who says Shakespeare is boring? Apparently, moviegoers and the Academy in the late 1940s didn’t think so, and Hamlet won Best Picture in 1949. Laurence Olivier won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Hamlet, a Danish prince, who seeks to avenge his father’s death using wit and swords. Hamlet also won awards for art direction and costumes.
Many of the movies in the 1940s dealt with war, and this would continue into the next decade. By this time, the Academy Awards were established as the pinnacle of motion picture achievement and would continue for many years to come.