Oscar Politics: How a Musical Stole the Oscars from the Dramas

Few people in the industry expected American in Paris to win the Best Picture Oscar. Within Metro, some execs favored the movie over the other MGM nominees, the historical epic, Quo Vadis and the modest war drama, Decision Before Dawn, which was unexpectedly nominated.

However, the frontrunners of the 1951 Oscar race were Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and George Stevens' A Place in the Sun, two prestige dramas based on respectable literary sources. The New York critics divided their prizes between these films, with Streetcar winning the top award. Each film represented a facet of the new Hollywood, bent on tackling mature themes, seldom seen on screen. Insiders expected Oscar night to turn into a back-patting honoring the industry's newfound foresight and daring.

When American in Paris opened in July, the critics liked Gershwin's music, Kelly's innovative choreography, and Caron's charm. Kelly wasn't disappointed when he failed to earn a nomination. As he later noted: “There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas. It's a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of Awards than comedy.”

Hosted by Danny Kaye, the Oscar show took place on March 20, 1952, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The Academy's Board of Governors had earlier voted Gene Kelly an Honorary Oscar for his “versatility” and “brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” Kelly, who was in Germany, asked Stanley Donen, his co-director of the upcoming musical, Singin' in Rain, to accept the statuette on his behalf. Minnelli, who was in the audience, was offended that Kelly had not asked him.

The Best Picture Oscar was presented by the vet industry leader, Jesse Lasky. Opening the coveted envelope, he exclaimed, “Oh, my! The winner is American in Paris.” The roars that had greeted Freed while accepting the Thalberg Memorial Award were not repeated when he returned to the stage for the second time. However, with a big smile on his face, Freed said: “I'd like to thank MGM, a great studio with real courage and leadership.”

Joy was certainly not universal when American in Paris was announced winner. Gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky called it a “shocker” and suggested a recount. The N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther fumed, forgetting that he had placed the musical on his Ten Best list. He wrote: It was unbelievable that the Academy had so many people so insensitive to the excellence of motion-picture art that they would vote for a frivolous musical picture over a powerful tragedy,” revealing his favorite, A Streetcar Named Desire.

But the Hollywood Reporter defended the choice: “The dissenters have had plenty to say. They're saying 'It was a frame. A studio the size of MGM has too many votes and they can swing a award.' That's a lot of hogwash. The best picture ALWAYS wins and it's made no difference whether that best was from the largest or the smallest studio.”

MGM greeted its unexpected success with an ad that depicted Leo, the studio's mascot, looking at the Oscar with an apology, and saying: “Honestly, I was just standing In the Sun waiting for A Streetcar.”

The fact that MGM won Best Picture as soon as L.B. Mayer left indicated that the new management knew what it was doing. But Lerner recalled in his memoirs that one of the toughest obstacles was convincing MGM to allocate $400,000 for the climactic ballet, the musical's most celebrated act. Later on, Dore Schary took credit for the victory, but everybody in Hollywood knew it was Mayer's doing.

MGM

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Arthur Freed

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Story and Screenplay: Alan J. Lerner

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames; Edwin B. Willis, Keogh Gleason

Cinematography (color): Alfred Gilks and John Alton

Scoring of a Musical Picture; Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin

Editing: Adrienne Fazan

Costume Design (color): Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, and Irene Sharaff

Oscar Awards: 6

Picture

Story and Screenplay

Art Direction-Set Decoration

Cinematography

Scoring of Musical

Costume Design