Nolte: What Should’ve Won the Best Picture Oscar – 1950 to 1959

American actress Bette Davis (1908 - 1989) holds a telephone receiver whilst smoking a cigarette in bed in a still from the film 'All About Eve', directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950. (Photo by 20th Century Fox/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
20th Century Fox/Archive Photos/Getty

In part four of this series we look at the movies that should have won the Best Picture Oscar between 1950 and 1959.

The cult of oh-so-sophisticated movie writers love to run down the 50’s, as a decade lost to Eisenhower-era conformity and cinematic bloat crafted by studios desperate to compete with TV. As you’ll see below, nothing could be further from the truth. The 1950s were an embarrassment of movie riches.

Let’s begin…

 

1950

  • What Did Win: All About Eve

What a year for movies. Sunset Boulevard, The Asphalt Jungle, Where the Sidewalk Ends, D.O.A., Broken Arrow, The Third Man, Panic in the Streets… Still, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz’s timeless tale of ambition, deceit, and getting your just desserts refuses to age. A hoot of a classic filled with amazing dialogue, a Marilyn Monroe appearance, a Bette Davis performance for the ages, and an ending that still offends tight-assed feminists.

  • What Should’ve Won: All About Eve

In a perfect world, Sunset Boulevard would have been released two years later and won all the Oscars.

 

1951

  • What Did Win: An American in Paris

The belief is that Academy voters split their Best Picture votes between A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire, which allowed An American in Paris to sneak through. Even if that’s true, nothing changes the fact that, by 1951, those behind the MGM Musical were crafting some of the greatest works of art the world has ever seen, a stunning combination of design, photography, performance, choreography, dance, orchestration, song, direction, and production. An American in Paris is a stunner everyone should see and contains themes more adult than you might remember.

  • What Should’ve Won: A Place in the Sun

This is another one that depends on the day you ask. Tomorrow I could choose A Streetcar Named Desire. Today, however it’s George Stevens’ unforgettable story of an ambitious young man (Montgomery Clift) who impregnates a girl (Shelley Winter) he doesn’t love and then meets the girl of his dreams (a never more beautiful Elizabeth Taylor). A gut-wrencher from beginning to end, with a perfectly cast Clift.

 

1952

  • What Did Win: The Greatest Show on Earth

Thinking this might be their last chance to do so, Hollywood wanted to give director Cecil B. DeMille — the man who literally found Hollywood, the man who took a train out West, stepped off in Hollywood, and set up a movie studio – an Oscar, so everyone bit the bullet and handed him his Little Gold Man for this forgettable stiff.

  • What Should’ve Won: Singin’ in the Rain

Pure joy from start to finish, a miracle of a movie that levitates you right out of your seat…

 

1953

  • What Did Win: From Here to Eternity

Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, and Donna Reed star in one for the ages about a man (Clift) who refuses to be anything other than his own man in an institution (the U.S. military) that demands conformity. This is a theme that will never die and one we could use a whole lot more of today.

  • What Should’ve Won: From Here to Eternity

Shane, The Band Wagon, Stalag 17, The Robe, Wages of Fear, Naked Spur, and Pickup on South Street are all all-timers, but Oscar still got this one correct.

 

1954

  • What Did Win: On the Waterfront

After changing acting forever with Streetcar Named Desire, director Elia Kazan and star Marlon Brando reunited for the story of an everyday man who becomes his own man through the love of a woman. This is also Kazan pouring every ounce of his talent (and he had oceans of it) into an allegory explaining why he named names during the 1950’s blacklist. His muse was justification, and brother did it sing.

Brando breaks your heart, mends it, breaks it again, and then leaves you wanting to be a better man.

What a movie.

  • What Should’ve Won: On the Waterfront

The Country Girl, A Star Is Born, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Caine Mutiny, Rear Window, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Bridges at Toko-Ri are all Oscar worthy, but don’t even rank a close second.   

 

1955

  • What Did Win: Marty

Writer Paddy Chayefsky’s little story about an everyday man (Ernest Borgnine, who won Best Actor) caught in a world where no one is happy and no one can stand to see anyone else happy. After Marty finds true love with Betsy Blair (Gene Kelly’s wife), everyone does everything they can to run her down. A timeless theme about “well intentioned” bullies who demand conformity in order to justify their own failure and misery, who keep others down so another’s success and happiness does not serve as a reminder that they are at fault for their own misery and failure.

A brilliantly written gem that should remind storytellers that Big Drama and Big Emotion can come from within even the most average of people.

  • What Should’ve Won: Night of the Hunter

Actor Charles Laughton’s only time behind the camera delivers a stunner of a tale about a deranged preacher (an iconic Robert Mitchum) hunting two children after killing their mother (Shelley Winters).

Not a moment of this terrifying thriller has aged a day. Part horror, part fairy tale, and all myth-making, this is the stuff nightmares are made of.

See also, Bad Day at Black Rock, Blackboard Jungle, Mister Roberts, Dam Busters, Rose Tattoo, and East of Eden.

 

1956

  • What Did Win: Around the World in 80 Days

One of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, nothing but a dull travelogue that only proved producer Mike Todd was the best salesman in the world.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Searchers

The greatest movie ever made. Period.

 

1957

  • What Did Win: Bridge on the River Kwai

Director David Lean won a no-brainer Oscar for a piece of movie-making that feels like a miracle in this lazy age of CGI. Rich in theme, performance, and grandeur, this is what everyone means when they say, They can’t make ‘em like this anymore.

  • What Should’ve Won: Bridge on the River Kwai

If I was forced to take only one movie to a desert island, I would choose Paths of Glory or Sweet Smell of Success before Bridge, but as I’ve said before, the Best Picture Oscar is its own thing.

See also: 12 Angry Men, 3:10 to Yuma, Witness for the Prosecution, and A Face in the Crowd.

 

1958

  • What Did Win: Gigi

Once the Woke Gestapo get a gander at this one, expect an Oscar revocation.

Gigi is an okay movie and one of Oscar’s oddest choices.

  • What Should’ve Won: I Want to Live!

Everyone’s screaming Vertigo! Vertigo! Sorry, I’ve given Vertigo plenty of chances and about halfway through find myself bored numb.

Susan Hayward won Best Actress for her portrayal of a woman on Death Row driven to humility and decency by her appointment with the executioner. Based on the true story of convicted killer Barbara Graham, I Want to Live! is the first movie since Dodsworth to make you want to crawl under your seat over the actions of a simple telephone.  

See also: Run Silent, Run Deep; The Fly, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Long, Hot Summer, Old Man and the Sea, and The Big Country.

 

1959

  • What Did Win: Ben-Hur

The movie that saved MGM remains a visual stunner anchored by Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a man wronged by his “brother” and poisoned by his quest for revenge.

  • What Should’ve Won: Rio Bravo

Director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne were so angry over High Noon’s portrayal of everyday Americans as cowards, they made Rio Bravo, a perfect Western where everyone in town wants to help Wayne’s sheriff hold on to a prisoner.

So amiable, it’s easy to miss all the themes at work here; a legitimate masterpiece that plays like a Saturday afternoon hang-out movie.

If you ask me tomorrow, I could just as easily award this Oscar to North by Northwest.

See also: Anatomy of a Murder, Compulsion, Diary of Anne Frank, Last Train from Gun Hill, and Some Like it Hot.

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