Oscar: Zeitgeist Effect–Which Movies Get Honored and Why?

Oscar and World War II            

The Second World War had quantitative as well as qualitative impact on the film industry, influencing both subject matter and style of the films produced.  About one?third of Hollywood’s output (five hundred out of seventeen hundred films) between 1942 and 1945 dealt with the war, directly or indirectly.  Ultimately, most of these movies were more important historically than artistically, fulfilling, as Ken Jones and Arthur McLure have observed, a twofold goal: “to give unity of purpose for the war itself, and to give strength of purpose to the people on the home front.”  Heavily propagandistic, these movies served as morale boosters, dealing with timely issues that were of interest to most Americans at the time.  Viewers often perceived and enjoyed these films as flag?wavers, refusing to apply to them any critical or artistic yardsticks.


Best Actor Oscar


All the Oscar categories were influenced by the Second World War, but especially the major ones: Best Picture, Best Director, the acting, and the writing awards.  The male acting Oscars, as could be expected, were more determined by the war experience–the war film is a typically “masculine” genre.  Four of the Best Actors in the 1940s were chosen for a role in a war?themed movie: Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine, Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives.


By contrast, only one Best Actress, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, won for a film about the war.  In fact, some of the female winners during the war were honored for stereotypical roles, such as victimized wives, played by Joan Fontaine in Suspicion and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.  Seen historically, these roles were traditional, as for the first time in history, women participated actively in the economy during the War years. 


The only Oscar-winning role that reflected the conflict between career and domesticity that many American women must have faced at the end of the war, was Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce. Though, as mentioned, at the end of the movie, the protagonist is punished for having stepped into a male world and is sent back to the kitchen, relegated to the traditionally female role of housewife?mother.


During the War, films were lavishly praised by the critics and seen by the masses for their patriotic rather than artistic values.  Three films about the war won Best Picture: Mrs. Miniver in 1942, Casablanca in 1943, and The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946.


Mrs. Miniver, the least distinguished of the three, at once reflected and reinforced the mood of the home front through its description of a “typical British family during the Blitz. Reviewers pointed out that it was actually the war, not the film that earned the Academy votes.  Released in July 1942, Mrs. Miniver became a blockbuster, and its six Oscars made it the most talked about film of the year.


The timeliness of these films suited the zeitgeist.  Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York reflected America’s dominant ideology in July 1941, just months prior to the country’s entry into the war.  Its hero, Alvin York, starts as a conscientious objector and ends up totally committed to the war’s cause, a transformation that articulated the feelings of millions of Americans who initially were reluctant to join the fighting in Europe. 


Celebrating George M. Cohan’s life, Yankee Doodle Dandy was released in May 1942, just as American soldiers departed to fight in Europe. “What could be more timely,” wrote the critic Patrick McGilligan, “than to have recalled for us the career of America’s lustiest flag?waver.” 


Casablanca, the 1943 Oscar winner, was even more relevant in its message.  The movie was released after the city of Casablanca had been chosen as the site of the Allied Forces Conference. The movie boasted a glorious cast headed by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid. It is the movie that made Bogart an international star, crystallizing his immortal screen image as Rick Blain, the most famous cafe owner in film history.  Casablanca was not a major box?office hit in its initial release, but over the years it has become a cult classic.  In a recent American Film Institute (AFI) poll, Casablanca was chosen as one of the three most popular American films of all time.


Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives would have won Oscars in any year.  However, released in 1946, it, too, cashed in on its timely issues: the adjustment problems of war veterans to civilian life. As shown, the inspiration for this movie came from an article in Time magazine.


Reflecting the Zeitgeist


The nominations and awards given to films about the war reflected changes in the zeitgeist.  In 1941, only one of the six major Oscars went to a war film: Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. In 1942, five out of the six awards; the exception was Supporting Actor Van Heflin, in the crime melodrama Johnny Eager.  In 1943 again, five of the six major Oscars were for such films; the exception was Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.  In 1944, two of the Best Picture nominees were socially-relevant: David O. Selznick’s Since You Went Away (a pale, American imitation of Mrs. Miniver) and Fox’s political drama Wilson, a dull, pompous biopicture.


Most of the writing awards in the 1940s also honored war movies: Emeric Pressburger won Original story, The Invaders; the four screenwriters of Mrs. Miniver; William Saroyan for his original story The Human Comedy; the three screenwriters of Casablanca; Lamar Trotti for his original screenplay Wilson; and Charles G. Booth for the original script of Henry Hathaway’s The House on 92nd Street, which depicts the destruction of a spy ring in America by the FBI.


After The Best Years of Our Lives, the War was quickly forgotten by Hollywood and by the Academy.  In 1946, the Best Picture nominees included Olivier’s Henry V and the high falutin spiritual melodrama, The Razor’s Edge, based on Somerset Maugham’s book.  Spiritualism or rather pseudo-spiritualism was in vogue in 1947, with such nominated films as the comedies The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street, and a literary adaptation, David Lean’s Great Expectations.  A combination of prestige literary adaptations and middlebrow fare reappeared in 1948 with Olivier’s Hamlet, Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda, and the British ballet melodrama, The Red Shoes.