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Best Picture Oscar Winners - 1940s

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In the 1940s, Hollywood saw the rise of film noir and the melodrama, while the screwball comedy, popular in the previous decade, started to wane. The change was evident by which films the Academy honored with Oscar.

Alfred Hitchcock crossed the ocean and made an auspicious American film debut, while Orson Welles made what many consider to be the greatest film ever made and was summarily snubbed. Also winning in the decade was a searing indictment of antisemitism, one of the best adaptations of William Shakespeare put to film and the quintessential classic movie.

1. 1940 Best Picture – ‘Rebecca’

CBS Video
Alfred Hitchcock made his American film debut with this gothic thriller and earned the one and only Best Picture Oscar of his career while also receiving the first of five snubs for Best Director. Rebecca starred Joan Fontaine as the naïve new second wife to a wealthy man (Laurence Olivier) who becomes the object of scorn by his obsessive housemaid (Judith Anderson). Among the nine other nominees were another Hitchcock classic, Foreign Correspondent, John Ford’s excellent adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie The Great Dictator, William Wyler’s dark melodrama The Letter and George Cukor’s snappy screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story.
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2. 1941 Best Picture – ‘How Green Was My Valley’

20th Century Fox
More notable for snatching Best Picture honors away from Orson Welles’ groundbreaking Citizen Kane, John Ford’s rural coming of age drama was still a poignant look at small town life beset by the advance of technology as seen through the lens of a Welsh family over the course of 50 years. But while the film took home Oscar, Citizen Kane was elevated over time to the status of being the greatest film ever made. How Green Was My Valley also managed to beat out John Huston’s classic noir The Maltese Falcon and Howard Hawks’ great biopic Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper. Other nominees that year included Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Little Foxes and Hitcock’s Suspicion.
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3. 1942 Best Picture – ‘Mrs. Miniver’

MGM Home Entertainment
One of those years where Oscar got it wrong, William Wyler’s stirring, but overly sentimental wartime drama took home the Academy Award for Best Picture over more worthy competition. Certainly a fine piece of wartime propaganda that was praised by Winston Churchill himself, Mrs. Miniver has had a hard time holding up to Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, which has remained a venerable classic that has stood the test of time. Orson Welles was snubbed a second year in a row for The Magnificent Ambersons, an excellent look at the decay of a wealthy family, while sentimental favorite The Pride of the Yankees offered a rousing look at Yankee great Lou Gehrig. Other nominees included Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest, George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town and Sam Wood’s Kings Row.
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4. 1943 Best Picture – ‘Casablanca’

MGM Home Entertainment
Undoubtedly the poster child for classic movies, Michael Curtiz’s stirring romance mixed with wartime intrigue rightfully won the Oscar for Best Picture and the competition wasn’t even close. This year also happened to be the last when the Academy nominated 10 films for category, a practice that laid dormant for decades until they resumed it in 2009. Starring Humphrey Bogart as the world weary Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the woman who scorned him in Paris, Casablanca was that rare film which managed to hit all the right notes. Other nominees from 1943 included Ernst Lubitch’s Heaven Can Wait, Sam Wood’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Song of Bernadette, which won Jennifer Jones the Oscar for Best Actress.
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5. 1944 Best Picture – ‘Going My Way’

Paramount Pictures
In 1944, the Academy went back to five nominees for Best Picture for the first time since 1931/32 and completely botched it by awarding the Oscar on Going My Way, which starred Best Actor winner Bing Crosby as an unorthodox priest who organizes a group of street toughs into a choir. Certainly a heartwarming musical, can anyone in hindsight truly argue this should have won over Billy Wilder’s great film noir Double Indemnity or George Cukor’s equally classic thriller Gaslight? But it won a total of seven Academy Awards, beating out those two films as well as John Cromwell’s wartime drama, Since You Went Away, starring Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones, and Henry King’s biographical Wilson.
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6. 1945 Best Picture – ‘The Lost Weekend’

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
While there’s no doubt that Ray Milland delivered an Oscar worthy performance as a hopeless alcoholic struggling with his uncontrollable disease, it’s hard to imagine why the Academy chose The Lost Weekend over Michael Curtiz’s superior Mildred Pierce. That’s not to say Billy Wilder’s searing portrait of excess isn’t an exemplary film, but Curtiz’s noirish drama has stood the test of time better. The Lost Weekend also beat out the hugely popular Gene Kelly musical Anchors Aweigh, Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Marys and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, starring Gregory Peck as an amnesiac believed to be a murderer.
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7. 1946 Best Picture – ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’

Nelson Entertainment
A heartrending story of three American servicemen struggling to rebuild their lives after coming home from World War II, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was a smash box office hit and winner of seven Academy Awards. Squashed among the competition was Frank Capra’s perennial Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, which was actually something of a box office flop and lost to the dustbin of time thanks in part to Wyler’s film. Also earning nominations for Best Picture were Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Edmund Goulding’s romantic melodrama The Razor’s Edge, and The Yearling, a coming-of-age tale about a young boy’s loss of innocence.
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8. 1947 Best Picture – ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

20th Century Fox
A controversial film that was one of the first to tackle antisemitism, Gentleman’s Agreement benefited from an off year for Oscar. Directed by Elia Kazan, the socially conscious drama starred Gregory Peck as a newspaper man who poses as a Jewish man in order to unearth the racist underpinnings of an affluent Connecticut community. Regardless of the competition, Gentleman’s Agreement was a thought provoking film that broke new ground where Hollywood previously dared not trod, earning the Academy Award for Best Picture over Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife, the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, David Lean’s great adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and the lesser-known film noir Crossfire, which also dealt with antisemitism.
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9. 1948 Best Picture – ‘Hamlet’

Sonar Entertainment
A brilliant, but truncated adaptation of The Bard’s most famous play, Hamlet was the product of Laurence Olivier’s single-minded vision. Though he earned his share of criticism from purists deriding him cutting a third of the text, Olivier still managed to capture the essence of Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane, who moodily ponders revenge for his fallen father at the hand of his uncle, King Claudius (Basil Sydney). Olivier’s Hamlet earned the actor-director some of his career’s highest praise and won Best Picture over the powerful drama Johnny Belinda, Anatole Litvak’s psychological drama The Snake Pit, John Huston’s excellent morality tale of greed and suspicion, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and the British-made The Red Shoes, an elegant ballet musical that greatly inspired director Martin Scorsese.
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10. 1949 Best Picture – ‘All the King’s Men’

Sony Pictures
A gripping indictment of modern politics as well as a not-too-veiled exposé of Huey Long, Robert Rossen’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel won Broderick Crawford the Oscar for Best Actor and went on to become one of the greatest political movies ever made. Crawford was at his best playing Willie Stark, a backwoods lawyer who pounds the pulpit of populism to become the governor of Louisiana, only to fall prey to the greed and corruption he swore to wipe out. Winner of three Academy Awards, All the King’s Men bested William Wellman’s war drama Battlefield, William Wyler’s The Heiress, starring Best Actress Olivia de Havilland, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives, and Twelve O’Clock High starring Gregory Peck as a hard-driving Air Force officer.
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