When The Oscars Started Ignoring Comedy

By  · Published on February 17th, 2015

Columbia Pictures

On March 10, 1938, upon receiving the Academy Award for Best Director for his hit 1937 screwball comedy The Awful Truth, filmmaker Leo McCarey reportedly opened his acceptance speech by stating, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” McCarey was referring to his other 1937 film, Make Way for Tomorrow, a heartbreaking and delicate work of cinematic humanism that depicts an older couple’s struggle as they shuffle between their grown children’s houses after growing too old to work. Far from the blockbuster that was The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow was a labor of love for McCarey, a genuine human drama that serves as a rare example of deeply personal filmmaking within the assembly line system of Classical Hollywood. To the director, it seemed obvious that his true value as a craftsman behind the camera was most evident in his most recent drama, not his most recent comedy.

This moment now seems like it comes from a bizarro world awards season, where straightforward comedies beat out human dramas and the craft of popular comedic filmmaking is recognized without controversy by one of the industry’s highest honors. The notion that a Best Director Oscar would not only honor a comedy, but have that award obscure a drama, appears almost alien in a contemporary context where a certain type of drama has become anything but a prestige award dog whistle.

Yet by 1938, there was a well-established tradition of shared recognition between comedy and drama at the Academy Awards, with comedies regularly becoming the victor for the night’s biggest prizes. Between 1930 and 1940, films like Ernst Lubitch’s The Love Parade and Ninotchka, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man, Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story competed for the evening’s biggest prizes against military dramas like Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty, sober biopics including Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld and William Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola, and social dramas such as George Stevens’s Alice Adams and William Wyler’s Dead End.

Somewhere along the way, this latter category framed the standard field for what we know today as “Oscar movies,” while the former category of comedies are continually left out in comparison to the frequency of the genre’s earlier recognitions, with certain exceptions – groundbreaking landmarks like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, rudimentary nomination-as-recognition like Melissa McCarthy’s Best Supporting Actress nod for Bridesmaids, any recent year’s pseudo-indie dramedy nomination – effectively proving the rule.

Despite the narrowly closed doors of the Classical Hollywood system and the Oscars’ propensity to rarely, if ever, recognize any films to made outside of the industry, the 1930s Academy Awards represented a relatively wide field of nominees in terms of genre, with comedies offering a serious challenge to “serious” films and voters rarely making the implicit, knee-jerk value judgments we regularly see today that distinguish and relegate “higher” and “lower” forms of filmmaking.

The wider nominee pool for Best Picture (beginning with the 5th Academy Awards in 1932) is partly to credit for the ’30s more expansive range of competition. Throughout the decade, eight to twelve films competed per year for top honors, and in any given year this represented a medley of what Hollywood (at least) had to offer, from historical epics to screen adaptations of Broadway musicals to melodramas to westerns to screwball comedies to even the occasional prestige arthouse choice, like Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion. For an era defined by serious control by media gatekeepers and the vertical integration of film exhibition, the 1930s Academy Awards were relatively liberal in terms of what it deemed worthy of competing for a title that symbolized the best of what American filmgoing had to offer.

The ten-nominee pool ended for the 1945 ceremony, which also happened to be the first year that the ceremony was broadcast on radio by ABC as a live nationwide event. (The first Oscar ceremony constituted a private dinner amongst guests, while the sixteen subsequent ceremonies were broadcast regionally.) By 1945, however, the Oscars had solidified into a cultural moment in which the public – aka the people who actually bought tickets to films – regularly invested emotionally in the outcome.

Paramount Pictures

Collecting seven awards in total, the Best Picture winner that year swept numerous categories and provided yet another directing statue for Leo McCarey. Going My Way was a transitional role for Bing Crosby, a musical crooner and comedy performer who, in the leading role as a young priest and choir director who modestly tends to the lives of his churchgoers, ascended to the status of dramatic actor, with a golden statue to certify it. Despite musical and comedy touches, the heartwarming drama aligns with what we would now recognize as in tune with Academy fodder in comparison with top-prize competing studio comedies of the previous decade.

That Going My Way won Best Picture the same year that AMPAS cut the Best Picture nominee pool in half and the ceremony become a nationally broadcast event was an important step in terms of inaugurating what we recognize as a stereotypical “Oscar film.” Going My Way is imbued with a life-affirming, populist, prestigious yet audience-pleasing dramatic sensibility whose lineage is available in Best Picture winners for decades following, from Marty to Kramer v. Kramer to Driving Miss Daisy to Shakespeare in Love to The King’s Speech. Not only did McCarey finally take home his Oscar for helming a drama, but he inadvertently set a standard for statue-worthy dramatic directing that has since typified the ceremony’s narrow recognition of a given year’s worth of diverse cinematic content.

When AMPAS announced in 2009 that it would once again increase the nomination pool in order to “recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” the move was not only an attempt to include the types of offbeat indies and acclaimed blockbusters whose lack of recognition had otherwise alienated from the ceremony cinephiles and general audiences alike, but served as an implicit attempt to address the very problem that the Oscars had created as a cultural event: the tendency for distributors and studios to make and promote their films according to the Academy’s perceived sensibilities and biases. It was, in a way, the Oscars’ means of addressing the limitations of the Oscar movie.

In making a change that the Academy openly described as a throwback to the 1930s, the organization perhaps attempted to rid itself of the generic pretense that is arguably nowhere to be found in the ceremony’s Roosevelt-era history. But when AMPAS returned to this model, they did so in face of a very different Hollywood, a Hollywood divided between lucrative properties and prestige campaigners that they had no small role in influencing. Yes, breakthrough indies and sleeper blockbusters can now share the Best Picture pool, but the nomination-wrangling of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything serve as evidence that the “Oscar movie” remains an enduring byproduct of the ceremony’s history.

Sporting a title that references the Best Picture winner from the year that AMPAS first expanded its number of Best Picture nominees, the unexpected presence amongst this year’s competition of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel provides a rare and nostalgic reminder of a ceremony willing to include the screwball farce as worthy of prestige alongside a feast of other genres.

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