Oscars: Looking back at 1939's 10 nominees

Commentary: What's different with today's expanded race?

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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 returning to a 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 pics that will be revealed this morning as the 10 best picture nominees of 2009, one that's inherently unfair.

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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."

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, in part, contributed toward 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. (Click here to find out the one Oscar category this year in which nominees are hard to predict.)

Still, it's possible to overstate the differences between then and now. And what differences do exist don't always reflect badly on 2009.

Right now, for example, Hollywood has gone brand crazy, and as producers and writers complain, it's hard to sell a movie idea that isn't based on a pre-existing book, play, TV show or game.

In reality, though, Hollywood has always preferred to work from known commodities. Look at 1939's best: Six movies on the list are adaptations; only four are originals.



"Gone With the Wind" was based on a best-selling novel, and every stage in the movie's development was followed breathlessly by the public. Frank L. Baum's original 1900 novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" had gone through numerous reprints, spawned a book series and had seen several stage and screen incarnations before Judy Garland stepped into those ruby slippers. And classic titles like "Wuthering Heights" and popular books of the day like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" added their literary prestige to the top honorees.

Say what you want about "Avatar" -- which has now proved itself as the biggest-grossing movie of all time -- but it succeeded as an original, hitting its marks without the built-in audience that flocked to "Gone With the Wind." "Avatar's" success is a rebuke to Hollywood's tradition of looking mostly to presold titles.

Take another look at the 1939 list: One studio, MGM, dominated, releasing four of the nominees -- "Wind," "Oz," "Chips" and "Ninotchka." That would be unthinkable today. In fact, if the Oscars only went to major studio-produced movies, the Academy would be hard-pressed to fill out its list of 10.

Yet 1939 also pointed the way toward the role that indies would come to play in the awards game. Independent producers and/or smaller studios had a key role in at least four movies on the list. David O. Selznick produced "Wind," which MGM then released, and Samuel Goldwyn was responsible for "Heights," released through United Artists, which also distributed Walter Wanger Prods.' "Stagecoach" and the Hal Roach Studios' "Mice."

Culturally, of course, the late '30s were a world away from today's movie business. Movies were made for general audiences; that meant they were pitched toward adults. (The whole category of adolescence hadn't really been invented.) And, in those days, adults included women.

While current boxoffice returns have proved that there is an eager audience for femme-skewing movies -- from "Sex and the City" and "Mamma Mia!" to "Julie & Julia" and "It's Complicated" -- the industry still views such movies suspiciously: A terminal illness tale like "Dark Victory" would be dismissed today as a Lifetime movie. And thwarted adult passion, a la "Love Affair," and fizzy romances like "Ninotchka" almost never make it to the screen.

On the other hand, for all the escapism of the current movie scene, the 2009 candidates outshine 1939 in one respect: They include a handful of movies like "The Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air" that confront real-life issues like unending war and uneasy peace. Back in 1939, that was rare. Arguably, the only movie that struck a contemporary note was "Mr. Smith," with its look at political corruption.

The latest batch of best picture nominees might not ultimately have the staying power of those released in 1939. (Check back with us in 70 years to find out.) But, at least in the moment, there's no reason they should be overshadowed by the past.
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