Oscars then and now: A look at 1939's 10 nominees

Mon Feb 1, 2010 11:18pm EST
 
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By Gregg Kilday

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In June, when Sid Ganis, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, made the surprise announcement that Oscar's best picture race would expand to 10 nominees this year, he was flanked by a couple of poster boards listing the 10 best picture nominees of 1939.

And what a blue-ribbon bunch they were: Time-tested classics like "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." Classic Americana like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Stagecoach." Literary adaptations like "Wuthering Heights," "Of Mice and Men" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Romance: "Love Affair." Melodrama: "Dark Victory." And even sophisticated comedy: "Ninotchka."

In arguing for a return to the long-abandoned Academy practice of nominating anywhere from eight to 12 movies per year for the top prize, Ganis maintained that it opens the door to a wider variety of movies. And, gesturing toward the golden oldies of '39, he asked rhetorically, "Suppose you had to narrow that field to five nominees? Which of these films would you keep? Whichever five movies you selected, you'd be losing five extraordinary films."

A tough question, but if applied to those pictures that will be revealed Tuesday (February 2) morning as the 10 best picture nominees of 2009, one that's inherently unfair.

After all, 1939 is widely viewed as the pinnacle of the studio era. Hollywood's movie factories had mastered the process of churning out satisfying entertainment that attracted mass audiences and, at its best, achieved lasting quality as well. It's what historian Thomas Schatz called "the genius of the system."

'KNIGHT' LEADS CHARGE

Seventy years later, the film industry is a different business. If not quite dysfunctional, it often proceeds in fits and starts. The chasm between subpar popcorn movies and genuine awards contenders is constantly widening, despite the occasional blockbuster that wins applause from both critics and the masses -- like 2008's "The Dark Knight," whose failure to secure a best picture slot contributed, in part, to the move to open up the category.

In the industry's current state, it's hard to imagine a slate of 10 nominees that could come anywhere near capturing the luster of the Class of 39. Still, it's possible to overstate the differences between then and now. And what differences do exist don't always reflect badly on 2009.   Continued...

 
<p>Oscar statuettes are displayed at the "Meet the Oscars, Chicago" event February 13, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress</p>