Oscars Flashback: In 1953, Academy Voters Loved the Anti-War Short 'Neighbours'

Ronald Grant Archive/Mary Evans/Everett Collection
A scene from the 1952 National Film Board of Canada short 'Neighbours,' which won an Academy Award in what would later be deemed an “inappropriate” category.

While it won in the documentary category, AMPAS in 2005 admitted it should have been up for best live-action short, but the film employed an innovative animation technique and a still-timely message.

The 25th Academy Awards in 1953 saw a veritable parade of Hollywood immortals being honored. Mary Pickford presented the best picture award to Cecil B. DeMille. John Wayne accepted the director statuette for John Ford. And Walt Disney was given his 18th Oscar. (It was the first televised Oscars, and The Hollywood Reporter was excited that NBC used nine cameras to cover the show.)

In the midst of all the heavy-hitters, a Canadian short film called Neighbours, which had been nominated in two categories, won for best documentary short subject. It should have been considered a live action short, and in 2005, the Academy admitted the film won in a “clearly inappropriate” category. Considering its content, it’s hard to imagine how AMPAS labeled Neighbours a documentary, but perhaps it came from the way the eight-minute film was made.

Filmmaker Norman McLaren, then 38, used a process called “pixilation,” an animation technique by which live actors are used as stop-motion objects. More important than the technique was the film’s content. It was at the height of the Korean War, and McLaren’s piece had a powerful anti-war message.

The plot centers on two men who live in adjacent cardboard houses. They’re living peacefully until a fragrant flower blooms on their property line and they violently battle over who owns it. In the version submitted to the Academy, the part where each kill the other’s wife and child was cut. (The version on YouTube has this restored.)

The film ends with the words “Love Your Neighbour” in a dozen languages.

“McLaren was an extremely creative, versatile guy,” says Bill Kroyer, chair of AMPAS’ short films and feature animation branch. “He could see a technique like pixilation and find the aesthetic match to make the medium work. There are so many virtual reality films right now that are nothing but the gimmick. What McLaren knew is the gimmick isn’t enough. It’s the art that makes it work.”

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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