In the 1940s, the Academy moved away from honoring the screwball comedies prevalent in the previous decade in favor of more dramatic fare, when escape from the Great Depression gave way to a serious outlook brought on by World War II. The Golden Age of Hollywood saw many great directing efforts bestowed by Oscar and some questionable ones as well. Here are all ten Oscar winners for Best Director from the 1940s.
John Ford’s interpretation of John Steinbeck’s literary classic ranks as one of the greatest book-to-film adaptations of all time. Starring Henry Fonda as the heroic Tom Joad, The Grapes of Wrath was one of those rare films that exceeds the quality of its source material. Ford deservedly won the Oscar over stiff competition, beating out Sam Wood for the melodrama Kitty Foyle, William Wyler for his noirish drama The Letter, George Cukor for his romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story and Alfred Hitchcock for his classic gothic thriller Rebecca.
Ford won his third career Academy Award in the category for this decades-spanning drama following a hard-working Welsh family struggling to survive societal changes that eventually take a toll on their way of life. How Green Was My Valley was a popular choice for the Academy and earned five Oscars out of 10 nominations, with its director winning over the likes of Alexander Hall for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Howard Hawks for his excellent wartime biopic Sergeant York, William Wyler for The Little Foxes and inexplicably Orson Welles for Citizen Kane.
Contrived and overwrought to contemporary audiences, Wyler’s wartime drama was a popular and uplifting film in the dark early days of World War II, which makes it no surprise that it won six Academy Awards. Starring Greer Garson as the titular British housewife who finds nobility in harsh times by tending to her garden, Mrs. Miniver earned Wyler his first of three Best Director Oscars over Sam Wood for Kings Row, Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest, John Farrow for Wake Island and Michael Curtiz for his musical classic Yankee Doodle Dandy.
After being nominated four times without a win, Michael Curtiz finally won the Oscar for directing one of Hollywood’s all-time great films. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca was a shoe-in for Best Picture while Curtiz was a no-brainer choice over Ernst Lubitch for his sophisticated comedy Heaven Can Wait, Clarence Brown for The Human Comedy, George Stevens for The More the Merrier and Henry King for The Song of Bernadette.
While certainly not as indelible as this year’s competition, Leo McCarey’s feel-good musical Going My Way was a top box office draw that turned Bing Crosby into a major star. Crosby starred as an unconventional and good-natured priest who uses song and dance to transform his rather dour new parish. While McCarey’s work was exceptional, hindsight makes it hard to believe that he won Best Director over Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger for Laura, Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat, or even Henry King for Wilson.
Inspired by his collaboration with turbulent Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder directed this dark drama about an alcoholic writer (Ray Milland) whose life, career and personal relationships are drowned in a bottle of booze. Though better known for his farcical comedies, Wilder’s versatility allowed him to make excellent films in just about any genre he chose. He won his first of two Best Director Academy Awards, beating out Leo McCarey for The Bells of St. Mary’s, Clarence Brown for National Velvet, Jean Renoir for The Southerner and Alfred Hitchcock for Spellbound.
Having missed out the previous year, Wyler was back on top with his second career Oscar for directing this post-World War II drama about three servicemen trying to put their lives back together after the war. A major box office and critical hit, The Best Years of Our Lives earned a whopping seven Academy Awards with Wyler winning Best Director over David Lean for Brief Encounter, Frank Capra for It’s a Wonderful Life, Robert Siodmak for The Killers and Clarence Brown for The Yearling.
One of the greatest directors of actors, Elia Kazan won the Oscar in his first nomination for this controversial drama that tackles the scourge of anti-Semitism. Gentleman’s Agreement starred Gregory Peck as a recently widowed journalist who poses as a Jewish man and goes undercover to root out anti-Semites in an affluent Connecticut community. One of the highest grossing films of 1947, the film gave Kazan a win over Henry Koster for The Bishop’s Wife, Edward Dmytryk who covered similar ground in Crossfire, George Cukor for A Double Life and David Lean for Great Expectations.
Having been previously nominated for his writing, John Huston won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay for this classic tale of paranoia and greed. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Huston’s father Walter, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre focused on three down-and-out gold prospectors who turn on each other after striking it rich in the mountains of Mexico. Huston’s one and only Oscar as a director came at the expense of Laurence Olivier for his adaptation of Hamlet, Jean Negulesco for Johnny Belinda, Fred Zinnemann for The Search and Anatole Litvak for The Snake Pit.
In his first-ever nomination, Joseph L. Mankiewicz won the Academy Award for finely tuned comedy of errors about three wives (Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern) who learn about one of their husband’s infidelity from an anonymous letter, sparking confusion and a hard look at their own marriages. Mankiewicz won Best Director over Robert Rossen for All the King’s Men, William Wellman for Battleground, Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol and William Wyler for The Heiress.