Hollywood's first decade with sound gave rise to a number of staple genres like the screwball comedy, which featured rapid-fire dialogue laced with wit and whimsy, and lavish musicals. In the 1930s, Oscar rewarded these films with its highest honor. Also in the decade was the first Western to win Best Picture, the first-ever film to win the so-called Big Five awards and the most enduring romantic epic Hollywood has ever known.
One of the most realistic depictions of World War I, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front was a powerful anti-war epic that dared to show the horrific realities of combat. The daring war film won the Oscar over Ernst Lubitsch’s musical comedy The Love Parade, the marriage melodrama The Divorcee starring Norma Shearer, the Irving Thalberg-produced prison drama The Big House, and Disraeli, starring Best Actor winner George Arliss.
The 4th Annual Academy Awards marked the last time for over a decade where only five films were nominated for Best Picture. This epic depiction of the Oklahoma Land Rush is dated because of its portrayal of racial stereotypes while its place in history stands more on its epic depiction of the land rush rather than as a whole film. Still, it was the first Western to win Best Picture and beat out Frank Lloyd’s adaptation of East Lynne, the Howard Hughes-produced comedy The Front Page, Skippy starring youngest-ever Oscar winner Jackie Cooper, and the long-forgotten adventure epic Trader Horn.
The Academy expanded its list of nominees to eight for the fifth awards ceremony, but that did not stop this ensemble drama starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery from taking home the night’s top honor. Grand Hotel was the only Best Picture to win without any other nominations, and beat out the likes of John Ford’s Arrowsmith, King Vidor’s The Champ, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant.
This year marked the first time there were 10 nominees for Best Picture, a practice that persisted until 1943 and was revived in 2009. Frank Lloyd’s upstairs-downstairs domestic drama rose above competition that included the Ernest Hemingway adaptation A Farewell to Arms starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, Alexander Korda’s history-stretching biography The Private Life of Henry VIII, George Cukor’s sentimental Little Women and Mervyn LeRoy’s stark crime drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
It Happened One Night finished its clean sweep of the Oscars in 1934 after winning the grand prize of the evening, becoming the first of three (to date) movies in Hollywood history to win the so-called Big Five Academy Awards. Frank Capra won for Best Director, Claudette Colbert for Best Actress and Clark Gable won his only statue for Best Actor. Even though there were nine other nominees that year, there wasn’t much in the way of competition for the immensely popular romantic comedy save for The Thin Man or Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Cleopatra. It Happened One Night also nabbed awards for Best Writing (Adaptation) and Best Director, and cemented its place in history.
Though Frank Lloyd lost out on Best Director to John Ford, who directed The Informer that year, he was surely vindicated when his grand action adventure won Best Picture. One of the biggest commercial hits of all time, Mutiny on the Bounty still faced stiff competition from The Informer, which won four out of six Oscars compared to Mutiny’s lone statue. Trailing not far behind in third place was Michael Curtiz’s swashbuckling adventure, Captain Blood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Also on the list of 10 that year were George Cukor’s David Copperfield, the Darryl F. Zanuck-produced adaptation of Les Misérable and the romantic drama Alice Adams, starring Katharine Hepburn.
This epic three-hour musical biography of theater impresario of Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) took liberties with historical facts, but also managed to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Great Ziegfeld beat out nine films that included the years top-grossing hit San Francisco, Frank Capra’s masterful screwball comedy Mr. Deed Goes to Town and the stunning David O. Selznick-produced adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
Another biographical film that took its share of liberties with history, The Life of Emile Zola was nonetheless an affecting drama about the life of the French artist (Paul Muni), whose rise to fame intersected with the political scandal of the Dreyfus affair. The films beat out a number of other worthy contenders like Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door, Frank Capra’s dramatic fantasy Lost Horizon, the Darryl F. Zanuck-produced drama In Old Chicago, and the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne screwball comedy The Awful Truth.
Frank Capra’s whimsical screwball comedy starring John Barrymore and James Stewart was one of the director’s great masterpieces and the highest-grossing film from 1938, making it a favorite to win Best Picture. The also-rans were no slouches, as nominations were bestowed upon The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn in his most iconic performance, William Wyler’s Jezebel starring Best Actress winner Bette Davis, Jean Renoir’s richly textured war drama Grand Illusion, and the musical Four Daughters directed by workhorse Michael Curtiz.
The year 1939 has been regarded as the best in Hollywood’s history and judging from the list of Best Picture nominees it’s easy to see why. But it was Victor Fleming’s iconic romantic epic that surpassed them all to win Oscar. Ironically, Fleming was brought onto the film to replace George Cukor after leaving The Wizard of Oz, which also received a nomination. Sam Wood replaced him for a couple weeks after Fleming suffered from exhaustion, and later saw his other picture, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, also get a Best Picture nod. Other notables where Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka, John Ford’s Stagecoach and William Wyler’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights. A great year indeed.