The 21st Academy Awards, for the film year 1948. The nominations were announced on February 10, 1949 and the awards were held on March 24, 1949.
Best Picture: Hamlet
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
- The Red Shoes
- Johnny Belinda
- The Snake Pit
Most Surprising Omission: The Search
Best Eligible Film Not Nominated: Red River
Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years: #39
The Race: Before the end of January, what would end up being the best reviewed film of 1948 (one which later critics would agree) had already been released: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But Treasure wasn’t nearly as much of a hit at the box office as either Johnny Belinda or The Snake Pit. Johnny Belinda ended up being Warner Bros. biggest hit of the year and The Snake Pit ended up as the highest grossing film of the year. All three films were in the race along with Red River, the film that, as John Ford put it, showed that John Wayne could act, and The Search, the big hit from newcomer Montgomery Clift (who also starred in Red River). But the real competition turned out to be from Britain, where Michae Powell’s The Red Shoes and Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet were critical hits.
The first of the awards didn’t seem to bring much to the race as The National Board of Review gave Best Picture and Director to Paisan, an Italian film that hadn’t yet opened in Los Angeles and thus wasn’t eligible. Their Top 10 did include all of the major contenders except for Red River. The New York Film Critics went with Treasure for Best Picture and Director but their Best Actor award went to Olivier and Hollywood began to get a bit nervous. The Golden Globes added to the haul for Treasure, as it won Best Picture and Director (tying for Picture with Johnny Belinda), though Olivier again won Best Actor.
The Writers Guild and Directors Guild decided to get into the awards act and Treasure and Snake Pit would both win WGA awards, but both awards were announced months after the Oscars.
The Results: Things suddenly looked good for Johnny Belinda on nomination day when it received 12 nominations, tied for second all-time, becoming only the second film (along with Mrs. Miniver) to get nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay and all four acting awards. Hamlet was in a distant second with only 7 nominations and had not received a Screenplay nomination, something no film had won Best Picture without since 1933 (though that film was Cavalcade, the only British film to win Best Picture). Johnny Belinda was favored to win and Variety predicted that it would.
However, when Ethel Barrymore went up to announce Best Picture, it was more up in the air. Johnny Belinda had only won one award (Actress), Treasure had yet to lose, winning Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor and Hamlet was tied for the lead with Treasure with 3 Oscars on the night. Barrymore opened the envelope and was clearly disappointed to find Hamlet inside as she had publicly criticized the film as being inferior to her brother John’s stage production. But Hamlet had won.
Bearing in mind that the book Oscar Dearest by Peter H. Brown and Jim Pinkston has numerous errors and is incredibly subjective, it notes some interesting back story to this race. After previous nominations for British films like Henry V and Great Expectations, the studios were beginning to panic when Hamlet seemed to be rising to the top of the class. As detailed on pages 30-32, executives from the Big Five (Warner Bros, MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and RKO) met in New York and decided to withdraw their financial support from the Academy (according to Tom O’Neill, it was actually the three minor-major companies, Columbia, Republic and Universal that withdrew; Inside Oscar claims that the Big Five withdrew and it was because they were trying to cut costs after being ordered to divest of their theater chains due to their loss in the Supreme Court in May, 1948). Though Jean Hersholt, President of the Academy, knew this in December, he didn’t announce it until March 24, 1949, the night of the awards themselves. It seemed designed to put pressure on the studios for withdrawing support simply because of the winning British film. Things were not improved with a Hollywood Reporter story claiming that a recount was needed and that is was unable to find any voter who voted for Hamlet.
- Director: Laurence Olivier
- Writer: Laurence Olivier (from the play by William Shakespeare)
- Producer: Laurence Olivier
- Studio: Rank-Two Cities
- Stars: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Olivier), Supporting Actress (Simmons), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
- Length: 155 min
- Genre: Drama (Shakespearean Tragedy)
- Release Date: 29 September 1948
- My Rating: ****
- My Rank: #2 (year) / #131 (nominees) / #36 (winners)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Olivier), Supporting Actress (Simmons), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
The Film: Much of the following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote in graduate school titled ” ‘I See It as a Very Long Play’: Cinematic Hamlet in the Classroom.”
The history of Hamlet on film is almost as long as the history of film itself. The first film version was in 1900 with Sarah Bernhardt, the famous actress who had played Hamlet on stage, playing Hamlet in a short film called La Duel d’Hamlet, featuring the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. A search of the title on the Internet Movie Database (in 2005) returned 58 results, as well as 48 other films with the word Hamlet somewhere in the title (often movies that are take-offs or referential to Shakespeare’s play). With so many options to choose from, it becomes confusing for current teachers to decide what film version might be helpful in augmenting a reading of the play in the classroom. There are foreign versions (the most well known being Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version), silent versions (the first feature length version was in 1921), porn version (1996’s Hamlet X: For the Love of Ophelia, probably not useful in a classroom), modern dress versions that keep the language (Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version), modern dress versions that keep the plot but dispense with the language (Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 film, The Bad Sleep Well), and even one full-length production (Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film).
What can a teacher do? How can they know what will be most useful? Through a performance history of the most widely available versions, with a pedagogical approach, I will endeavor to answer these questions. These versions, in chronological order are: the 1948 Laurence Olivier version, the 1969 Tony Richardson version, the 1990 Franco Zefferilli version, the 1995 Kenneth Branagh film In the Bleak Midwinter and the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version. There are four widely available versions that I will not discuss: the 1961 Franz Peter Wirth version with Maximillian Schell as Hamlet (because it is so widely disdained and ridiculed that it was made the focus of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode), the 1964 John Geilgud version with Richard Burton in the starring role (because it is only a filmed version of a stage production rather than a film), the 2000 Michael Almereyda version starring Ethan Hawke (because it excises so much of the play as to make it useless in a discussion of the play), and the 1960 Akira Kurosawa film, The Bad Sleep Well (because it only is a loose version of the plot with none of Shakespeare’s language).
Though there was a 1935 Indian production, Laurence Olivier’s 1948 feature was the first full length English language sound version of Hamlet on film. Made in black and white, unlike his glorious Technicolor Henry V (1944) (While it was long surmised that Olivier chose to make Hamlet in black and white for artistic reasons, in an interview with director Trevor Nunn in Approaches to Hamlet, Olivier reveals “I was having a row with Technicolor at the time.”), the film was a financial and artistic success, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. Olivier’s version has become the standard against which other Hamlet films and indeed, other Shakespeare films have been measured (Interestingly, one of Olivier’s decisions that has been widely copied is making Hamlet blonde. Mel Gibson had blonde streaks in his hair and Kenneth Branagh died his hair blonde. Olivier, when asked about it, commented that he only did it to make him easy to find for the cinematographer, “one blonde in the middle of all that brown hair on the floor.”). Utilizing a Freudian reading of the play and emphasizing Hamlet’s indecision (The film begins with Olivier’s voiceover saying “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”), Olivier’s version also cuts substantial amounts of the text, including entire characters (Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern). Olivier’s Hamlet is brooding and thoughtful, one obviously in the depths of depression after the death of his father. Olivier’s performance has also become the standard. Not counting Gwyneth Paltrow and her Shakespeare scenes in Shakespeare in Love or the parts in A Double Life when Ronald Colman is on stage playing Othello, Laurence Olivier is still the only actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean performance.
Olivier makes a number of interesting choices as both star and director. The first shot of the film is one of Hamlet, dead, being borne up through the castle. The opening scene with Claudius (I.ii.) shows a king at a banquet with his people who is jovial, drunk and at ease. Everyone in the scene seems to be enjoying themselves with the exception of Hamlet, sitting at the end of a long table. It is an establishing shot that makes his alienation from the proceedings clear. Olivier also develops the now common style of having the soliloqueys being done as voiceovers (with Branagh being the prominent exception).
Being the first Hamlet, Olivier is free to make a lot of his own choices, not influenced by any particular earlier version. Just after Polonius gives his advice to Ophelia, she looks down the hallway at Hamlet sitting in his seat. When the Ghost first appears, the camera goes in and out of focus. When Ophelia describes Hamlet’s madness to her father, her description is only in voice-over while the scenes appear on screen (another of Olivier’s stylistic choices that became common practice with the exception of the Branagh version). When Hamlet interacts with Polonius, insulting and taunting him, Gertrude and Claudius are watching the scene. In the “get thee to a nunnery” scene, Ophelia acts as if she is being watched. This scene makes it difficult to discuss the movie in the terms of the scenes of the play. Olivier places the nunnery scene before the “to be or not to be” speech, rather than directly afterwards. While the 1st Quarto of Hamlet had the “to be or not to be” speech in the second Act, much earlier in the play, and while some films have placed it there, Olivier keeps the Folio placement of the speech; he simply moves the nunnery scene. The reason for this becomes apparent when the “to be” speech comes on. Olivier films the “to be” speech on the top of a cliff, sitting on a rock, looking down on the rocky waters below. It becomes easy to see that if Hamlet chooses not to be, then he can simply leap off the cliff to his death in the rocks far below. Another stylistic choice that has been copied numerous times since Olivier used it is the lack of a dialogue during the production of “The Mousetrap”. Either by just showing the dumbshow and having Claudius react to that (as Olivier does), or simply showing the action on stage without the Player King’s dialogue (as other versions do), the dialogue of the play within the play is often sacrificed to help quicken the pace of the play and lower the running time.
The most important stylistic choice by Olivier was to utilize a Freudian reading of the play by emphasizing the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. While there is nothing in the text to suggest that their scene takes place in anything other than a dressing closet, it is often staged in Gertrude’s bedroom. Olivier goes forward with this choice, and most of the dialogue takes place on Gertrude’s bed. At one point, Gertrude is thrown on her bed in anger and threatened with a dagger. After she screams, Hamlet leaps from the bed to kill Polonius. Before he leaves the scene, dragging Polonius’ body behind him, he kisses Gertrude on the lips. Olivier’s emphasizes the sexual longing and confusion of the scene and the relationship. This is made even more explicit a few minutes later when Hamlet explains to Claudius that “man and woman are one flesh.” Olivier brings great anxiety to the scene and his hands shake as he speaks the line, adding dramatic emphasis to a line often overlooked.
The Olivier version is strictly Elizabethan (as opposed to the 19th century Branagh or the medieval Zeffirelli versions). The sets are elaborate, though the film often seems to have a rather foggy feel to it. Olivier purposefully sets up this feeling, for while he utilizes Elizabethan costumes, he is trying for a more fanciful setting, with less realism attached. In interviews he explained how he was trying to divorce the film from the sort of neo-realism that was sweeping films at the time, and attach it to a timeless age when this sort of tragedy could be placed.
There are a number of interesting choices that Olivier makes during the final act. When he comes up to Ophelia’s grave, there is only one gravedigger. When he gives the “fall of a sparrow” speech he appears to be self-assured and confident. The look that Gertrude gives before she drinks the poison makes it seem as if she knows the cup is poisoned and that she is consciously ending her life. At the conclusion, rather than cut Fortinbras’ lines that conclude the play, they are given to Horatio, which he says before his final oration for Hamlet, ending the film with “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
The film is a success. There is no doubt about it. Olivier gives Shakespeare the depth and power the Bard deserves and his films all work. In fact, had he directed some of the other Shakespeare films he was in, such as Othello, they might have been better. He clearly had a flair for the dramatic as a director and was not afraid to let himself take chances as an actor. It is not a perfect Hamlet. Too much if cut from the play, the absence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave it longing for some humor and the opening line would have been best left on the cutting room floor. But it is a great Hamlet, far greater than most that have come since and it remains the measuring stick (even if Branagh surpassed it).
End Note: My actual recommendation at the end of the paper? Use Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter, which does such a good job of discussing the play, showing it rehearsed and how and why it has such staying power. Then use individual scenes from the different versions to highlight some of the differences. I do mention in a late footnote that “With Branagh, he is so full of life in the role that we think he would not commit suicide during the “To be or not to be” speech. With Olivier, who is more melancholy and brooding, it is easy to surmise that perhaps he goes into the final scene knowing that he will die and that he dies not mind this much.”
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
- Director: John Huston
- Writer: John Huston (from the novel by B. Traven)
- Producer: Henry Blanke
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Huston)
- Length: 126 min
- Genre: Adventure
- Release Date: 24 January 1948
- My Rating: ****
- My Rank: #1 (year) / #20 (nominees) / #27 (all-time)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Huston), Supporting Actor (Holt), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction
The Film: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” says Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. I’m thinking that he never saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Either that, or he’s just not any good at getting the moral of a story. Greed is dangerous and it will corrupt men’s souls and they will die like dogs in the dirt. Actually, dying like a dog in the dirt might be what Bernie Madoff is hoping for just about now. Greed washes away any sense of human decency in Fred C. Dobbs.
It wasn’t an easy film to get made. John Huston originally intended it as his follow-up to The Maltese Falcon and convinced Jack Warner to buy the rights to the novel back in 1941. But B. Traven, the mysterious man who had written the novel was off in Mexico and there were problems with copyrights and communication and he was a very odd man (all of this can be seen in the form of the original memos beginning on page 276 of Inside Warner Bros (1935 – 1951)). By the time the rights were purchased, over a year later, Huston was in the army and eventually the film was postponed until after the war. Huston must have had a finished script by August of 1946, because in early September he actually received a letter about it from Traven praising him for it (Huston’s return letter lists Ronald Reagan as a very strong likelihood to play Curtain – what a difference that could have made). Traven loved the choice of Bogart for Dobbs and their back and forth added some scenes of dimension to the film (including the scene where Curtain almost abandons Dobbs in the cave-in). Jack Warner screened it in a plane at 12,500 feet at the beginning of August and said “this is definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made.”
Inside Oscar claims “Jack Warner was impressed enough by (Key Largo) to allow Huston to adapt a novel about three prospectors digging for gold in Mexico who destroy themselves through greed and betrayal. Expecting another hit vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, Warner was dismayed when the on-location shooting dragged on and the budget rose with no end in sight. The mogul screamed, ‘I know whose gold they’re going after – mine!’ “ Because Inside Oscar never lists any sources, it’s hard to know where they get their information. The first line is clearly bullshit since the documentary evidence shows that Huston had finished directing Treasure five days before he was assigned to direct Key Largo and was released when Key Largo was still filming. So I don’t know how much to believe the second line, especially given the direct quote from Warner in a telegram he sent.
It won instant great reviews and was the heavy favorite for Best Picture until Hamlet hit screens later in the year. It is far and away the best film of the year, in fact, the best American film made between Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard. It is perfectly written, exquisitely directed, has amazing technical aspects (none of which got nominated – I can’t explain that at all) with a fantastic score. But the center of the film is the two performances by Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston (Tim Holt is very good as well, but the performances by Bogart and Huston rank about the best of all-time). Huston was the scene-stealer. His son convinced him to leave his false teeth at home and to play the role on the very edge of sanity, clearly relishing every minute on-screen (and speaking Spanish so well you’d never know he didn’t understand a word he was saying). Every time he speaks, his energy lifts the film a little. It is his constant joy and craziness that keeps the film from crashing into a deep depression.
Because the center of this film is Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs. That the Academy nominated Clifton Webb for Sitty Pretty and Dan Dailey for When My Baby Smiles at Me instead of Bogart is one of the most mind-bogglingly stupid decisions ever made by the Academy and that’s the same group that gave Loretta Young an Oscar. Dobbs might end up dying alone in the dust and deserving it, but he doesn’t start that way and the scene where he explains to the man he has just begged from for the third time (John Huston himself with his wonderful Irish voice in a nice cameo) that he wasn’t looking at the man’s face, just the money, we sense his desperation. Bogart lets us actually see the unraveling of Dobbs on film. He doesn’t start out mean. Life drives him into it and the mountain drives his sanity out. It is one of the finest performances in cinematic history and the fact that the Academy didn’t even bother to nominate him is a reminder that it is not the final arbiter of motion pictures. That’s the reason why I write these posts. So that other people have something to read so they can decide whether or not to follow the Academy’s guide for what films to see. In this case they got the film right and they correctly gave it three major Oscars. Too bad they missed giving it Best Picture and they badly missed not only giving Bogart a well-deserved Oscar, but not even giving him a nomination (and if they had given it to Bogart here when he deserved it they could have given Brando the Oscar in 1951 when he deserved it).
The Snake Pit
- Director: Anatole Litvak
- Writer: Frank Partos / Millen Brand (from the novel by Mary Jane Ward)
- Producer: Anatole Litvak / Robert Bassler
- Studio: 20th Century-Fox
- Stars: Olivia de Havilland, Leo Genn, Beulah Bondi
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (de Havilland), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound
- Length: 108 min
- Genre: Drama (Social)
- Release Date: 13 November 1948
- My Rating: ***.5
- My Rank: #7 (year) / #260 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Actress (de Havilland), Score
The Film: This film is not One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It should not be compared to it. That film is a rightful classic. This is a strong film that has important things to say about the way mental health is handled in this country. I think the first time I saw it, Cuckoo was in the back of my head and my estimation of the film suffered as a result. But while not a great film, this is actually a very good film, smartly written, well directed and with a performance by Olivia de Havilland that might be the best thing she ever put on film in a large and very distinguished career. It did not win her a second Oscar (that would happen the next year), mostly because of the strong performance of Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute, the kind of thing that the Academy eats up, but it is every good as her Oscar winning performance in The Heiress and considerably better than her Oscar winning performance in To Each His Own.
De Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a woman who has come apart at the seams. Yet, we only gradually find this out. She is in a mental health institution and since she provides a great deal of narration and is an unreliable narrator, it takes a while before we really learn what the problem is. In ending up in this institution, she runs up against the problems of mental health services. The film is perhaps even more powerful today than it was in 1948 because of how antiquated even the successful portions of the institution seem. This is Hollywood, of course, and the film does move towards a happy ending, as Virginia is eventually able to cope enough with the world to be allowed back to her life and her husband and the film is based on an autobiographical novel, so there is a considerable amount of authenticity behind it. But it does not have the kind of story arc that Cuckoo had and it does not have the overall horrible vision at the center of Cuckoo‘s message. It is, nonetheless, a very good film and one of the first to really tackle this considerable issue.
The Red Shoes
- Director: Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger
- Writer: Emeric Pressburger / Keith Winter (from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson)
- Producer: Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger
- Studio: Rank-Archers
- Stars: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Motion Picture Story, Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Art Direction (Color)
- Length: 133 min
- Genre: Musical
- Release Date: 22 October 1948
- My Rating: ***
- My Rank: #18 (year) / #291 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
The Film: This film has come a long way in my estimation since I first saw it all those years ago. At the time I could not, for, the life of me, understand what Martin Scorsese was so obsessed about. I have a better understanding now. I also know exactly what it was about the film that I didn’t care for in the first place. I don’t particularly like ballet. I find it dreadfully boring. So, the long stretch in the center of the film, that focuses so intensely on the ballet simply kills me. It brings the film to a complete halt for me.
I don’t judge the film as a whole anymore on my dislike for ballet in general, or this ballet, specifically. Instead, I look at the film as a whole. It’s a nice story, a charming story, not a wonderful story, not a great story, but a nice one. It’s decently acted. Not wonderful acting, but solid acting, no hamming or over-acting. But then there are the technical aspects of the film and they are simply wonderful. We have perhaps lost something with the absence of Technicolor. It made the colors leap off the screen and there are few films that show this off so well as this one. The costumes are alive, the art direction is sumptuous, the cinematography lush and gorgeous. This film is alive with color and it lends the story that fairy tale feel that Anderson would have approved of.
I still don’t feel about this film the way that Scorsese or Ebert do. I don’t feel it rises to the level of being a great film. The wonderful look and feel of the film can’t suddenly turn it into a great story or make the acting great and suddenly make it a great film. But I certainly think more highly of it than I used to.
- Director: Jean Negulesco
- Writer: Irma von Cube / Allen Vincent (from the play by Elmer Harris)
- Producer: Jerry Wald
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Stars: Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead
- Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Ayres), Actress (Wyman), Supporting Actor (Bickford), Supporting Actress (Moorehead), Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound, Art Direction (Black-and-White)
- Length: 102 min
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 14 September 1948
- My Rating: ***
- My Rank: #30 (year) / #346 (nominees)
- Nighthawk Nominations: Actress (Wyman), Supporting Actor (Bickford), Supporting Actress (Moorehead)
The Film: It comes down to this. The acting in this film is so good (even if I don’t give Wyman my award, she comes in a close second), so real, so natural, that it manages to make a good film out of ridiculous melodrama. And that’s really what the story is. With the overwhelmingly awful character of Lucky, so determined to be the worst shithole in all of Canada, the kind of man who would rape a deaf-mute girl simply because he noticed her looks at last and knew she couldn’t tell anyone, the writing starts flat and stay flat, straight down to one of the more ridiculous trial sequences in film history. None of it is really believable. There are stereotype roles (the harsh father, the maiden aunt, the honorable doctor) and they are all well played. But you need more than that to really rise above. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of melodrama but this film piles it on and then when it looks like the pile is about to become top heavy, adds a bit more. It has the poor helpless woman, the hard survival for the family, the backwards town that comes to the wrong conclusion, the man too honorable to really defend himself.
But again, there is the acting. Wyman is perfect, perhaps because she isn’t particularly beautiful and she does an amazing job of expressing with her eyes. Bickford gives the best performance of his career as the hard-nosed father, especially in the scene where he realizes who the father of Belinda’s baby is. Lew Ayres is quite solid as the doctor who is new in town and becomes the immediate suspect when Belinda becomes pregnant. And Agnes Moorehead, who seems incapable of a bad performance, is of course, solid as the aunt who holds things together. Too bad the film never really quite holds together.