An Oscar winner is usually regarded as synonymous with a cinematic masterpiece, and certainly many Oscar winners are in fact masterpieces, though many more are simply good films and quite a few are awful films. But amid the flurry of Oscar speculation, it seems worthwhile to revisit those many masterpieces that, inexplicably, were ignored by the Academy and celebrate them alongside of great Oscar winners. Here are just a few of them, from the 1950s.
Treasure Island (1950)
Disney's first live-action film is one of a number of successful adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel, but it is, in my opinion, the best by virtue of starring the incomparable Robert Newton, as Long John Silver. It is Newton who invented the pirate vernacular and accent that are still standard today and he still does it best. The film overall is a first-rate maritime adventure and one of the best pirate films of the 50s.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Robert Newton)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
This brilliantly funny musical is about Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell), two gorgeous showgirls on the make, either for diamonds, love, or, ideally, both. The songs, from "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" (sung by Russell to a roomful of hunky Olympic athletes), are iconic and catchy. The script is witty and quite risque for its time, the two protagonists are anything but virginal wallflowers, and the supporting cast includes Charles Coburn and the ever bizarre George Winslow.
Should have been nominated for: Best Story and Screenplay (Anita Loos, Joseph Fields, and Charles Lederer), Best Original Song ("Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" - Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson), Best Costume Design, Color (William Travilla)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Mizoguchi is possibly the greatest Japanese director of all time, the only real competition being Akira Kurosawa. This incredible film, set in feudal Japan, is about two aristocratic children who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Few films are as heartbreaking as Sansho the Bailiff, but it is kept from utter bleakness by its extraordinary beauty. This is unquestionably among the greatest films of all time.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Kenji Mizoguchi), Best Art Direction, Black and White (Kisaku Ito), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Kazuo Miyagawa)
Salt of the Earth (1954)
This film has the dubious distinction of being the only American film suppressed for its Communist ties. Nearly everyone involved in the making of the film was blacklisted. Heavily influenced by the Italian neorealist movement, this film, directed by Herbert J. Biberman and written by Michael Wilson, follows a group of Hispanic miners who go on strike to protest unsafe working conditions and discrimination. The film is exhilarating and quite radical in its empowerment not just of workers but also of women.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actress (Rosaura Revueltas), Best Story and Screenplay (Michael Wilson), Best Film Editing (Joan Laird and Ed Spiegel)
Pather Panchali (1955)
The first film in director Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali is mesmerizing. Apu and his sister Durga live an Edenic, if impoverished, childhood. Their father, a Hindu priest, is an improvident dreamer and their mother is constantly on edge, far more concerned with where the next meal is to come from than with her husband's flights of fancy. Quiet tragedies happen amid moments of intense beauty and wonder, petty disputes give way to unselfish generosity. Pather Panchali is an essential film.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Satyajit Ray), Best Screenplay (Satyajit Ray), Best Dramatic or Comedy Score (Ravi Shankar)
The Court Jester (1955)
Danny Kaye is perfect as a less than heroic acrobat, drafted into impersonating the false king's court jester, who also happens to be a trained assassin, as part of a plot to put the true king, known by a birthmark of a purple pimpernel on his bottom, on the throne. None of the jokes fall flat, more than fifty years later, a tribute both to Kaye's skill as a comedian and the marvelous screenplay. The Court Jester is a great spoof of swashbucklers and Arthurian epics, deeply respectful of its source material and gleefully playing with the tropes of the genre.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actor (Danny Kaye), Best Story and Screenplay (Melvin Frank and Norman Panama), Best Original Song ("Maladjusted Jester" - Sylvia Fine)
The Glass Slipper (1955)
This ridiculously under-appreciated film is a musical retelling of the Cinderella story starring Leslie Caron. In this version, Cinderella is hardly the docile, dreamy servant girl; she's rebellious, angry, and bitter. Love in all its forms, including friendship, is the magic in this version, while social snobbery and venomous gossip replace cartoonish villainy. This little-known gem deserved a special honorary award for the extraordinarily expressive and moving choreography of Roland Petit.
Should have been nominated for: Best Actress (Leslie Caron), Best Screenplay (Helen Deutsch), Best Dramatic or Comedy Score (Bronislau Kaper), Best Original Song ("Take My Love" - Bronislau Kaper and Helen Deutsch), Best Art Direction, Color (Daniel B. Cathcart and Cedric Gibbons), Best Costume Design, Color (Walter Plunkett and Helen Rose), Special Honorary Award for Best Choreography (Roland Petit)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
How critics (and the Academy) failed to appreciate Charles Laughton's only directorial outing is one of cinema's greatest mysteries. Robert Mitchum plays a serial killer and self-designated reverend, who believes himself to be doing God's work. When he discovers the children of a recently bereaved widow may know where their father hid a stash of money, he insinuates himself into the woman's good graces, setting off one of the most terrifying suspense plots in Hollywood cinema.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Charles Laughton), Best Actor (Robert Mitchum), Best Screenplay (James Agee and Charles Laughton)
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Bergman's only comedy was written as an alternative to suicide, while he was undergoing a particularly black depression, and it lives on as one of the great master's greatest films. In turn of the century Sweden, eight people are stuck in relationships that don't work, until one midsummer night at an idyllic country house where they drink what may or may not be an elixir of love. Much imitated, but never bettered.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Ingmar Bergman), Best Story and Screenplay (Ingmar Bergman), Best Costume Design, Black and White (Mago)
Cranes Are Flying (1957)
Kalatozov's film marked a sea change in Soviet cinema. The film's lead actress, Tatiana Samojlova, became a major star in Europe, playing an unusually complex and multifaceted heroine, Veronika. Veronika is intoxicated by her romance with Boris, but World War II intervenes and Boris is listed as missing in action. The film follows Veronika as she struggles to survive the war and to keep hope alive that Boris will return. Though many films have been made with a similar plot, few are as delicate, poignant, and lovely as this one.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Mikhail Kalatozov), Best Actress (Tatiana Samojlova), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Film Editing (Mariya Timofeyeva)
Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick's pacifist film stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, a commanding officer who attempts to defend his soldiers from a court-martial and execution after they refuse to follow orders tantamount to suicide. An unflinching look at the inevitable misery and waste attendant on any war, this film is devastating and is surely one of the finest war films of all time. It is also my personal favorite of all of Kubrick's films.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Stanley Kubrick), Best Actor (Kirk Douglas), Best Supporting Actor (Adolphe Menjou), Best Sound Recording (Al Gramaglia)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Bergman's film was in fact Sweden's submission for Best Foreign Language Film the year it was eligible, but it was not ultimately nominated. Haunting in every sense of the word, The Seventh Seal is about a medieval knight returning home from the crusades to find that the black death is abroad. When he meets Death, he challenges him to a game of chess, trusting that he can thusly prolong his life. This is such an iconic and profound film that words of praise are superfluous.
Should have been nominated for: Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Ingmar Bergman), Best Original Screenplay (Ingmar Bergman), Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction (P.A. Lundgren)
Cairo Station (1958)
This Egyptian masterpiece is about Qinawi, a lame newspaper seller who works in Cairo's railroad station and who has become obsessed by the alluring cold drink vendor, Hannuma, who is engaged to a handsome porter, determined to unionize his compatriots. Cairo Station is as suspenseful as a Hitchcock film, but it cuts far deeper. Qinawi is both an object of pity and therefore justifiably enraged, but he is equally an irresponsible and selfish moral agent, while Hannuma walks a subtle line between victim and villain. This is a film that deserves to be far more widely seen.
Should have been nominated for: Best Director (Youssef Chahine), Best Actor (Farid Shawqi), Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hay Adib), Best Foreign Language Film