Best Picture Oscar Winners of the 1940s

Academy Hits and Misses in the Golden Age of Hollywood

As the Best Picture Oscar winners of the 1940s prove, sometimes the Academy hits – and sometimes it misses by a mile. 1941 may have seen the most controversial Best Picture dust-up of all time, when the immortal Citizen Kane was beaten by the merely excellent How Green Was My Valley. Nevertheless, the 1940s were part of the Golden Age of Hollywood, hits and misses alike - a decade packed with stupendous films.
Alfred Hitchcock’s first American-made film captured the top prize, beating out such wonderful competitors as Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie," The Great Dictator; the funny, sophisticated Philadelphia Story; and the dust-bowl epic The Grapes of Wrath. Another of Hitchcock's films lost out the same year: Foreign Correspondent, a tense spy thriller that urged American entry into World War II. Also snubbed on a long list of nominees were The Letter, the Long Voyage Home, Our Town, Kitty Foyle and All This and Heaven, Too.
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1941 Best Picture – ‘How Green Was My Valley’

How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley. 20th Century Fox

John Ford’s touching coming-of-age story in a Welsh mining village is a fine movie from a lovely novel, but history has rightly judged Orson Welles' Citizen Kane as the better movie. A masterpiece of film noir, The Maltese Falcon, also missed the prize, along with the charming biopic Sergeant York; the melodramatic stage hit The Little Foxes; and Hitchcock’s spellbinding Suspicion. Other movies that lost in 1941 were the delightful Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Blossoms in the Dust, Hold Back the Dawn and One Foot in Heaven.

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1942 Best Picture – ‘Mrs. Miniver’

Mrs. Miniver
Mrs. Miniver. MGM
The sweet, sentimental tale of wartime bravery and sacrifice in Great Britain Mrs. Miniver beat out another Orson Welles masterwork, The Magnificent Ambersons, the story of a family’s decline. Other standouts that year were George Stevens’ smart, lively, comedy-drama The Talk of the Town; the melodrama King’s Row; George M. Cohan biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy; and The Pride of the Yankees, about the life of Lou Gehrig. Also nominated in 1942 were Random Harvest, Wake Island, The Pied Piper and The Invaders.
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1943 Best Picture – ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca. Warner Brothers

Thanks to Casablanca, we’ll always have Paris. Michael Curtiz’s cherished story of wartime love and sacrifice was the clear winner in 1943, beating out William Wellman’s gritty western allegory The Ox-Bow Incident; the frothy comedy The More the Merrier; and the Spanish Civil War tearjerker For Whom the Bell Tolls. Also falling that year were The Human Comedy, Heaven Can Wait, In Which We Serve, Song of Bernadette, The Watch on the Rhine, and Madame Curie.

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1944 Best Picture – ‘Going My Way’

Going My Way
Going My Way. Paramount
Another injustice here as the crowd-pleasing story of a priest in a tough parish (crooner Bing Crosby) vacuumed up seven Oscars, including the top prize. The film earned millions, and beat out the far superior Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s film noir to end all film noir, with its crooked insurance agent, deadly dame and murder plot gone wrong. Also snubbed was the psychological thriller Gaslight, along with the largely forgotten soap opera Since You Went Away, and the obscure biopic Wilson (as in President Woodrow).
Billy Wilder’s nightmarish cautionary tale of the consequences of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend was groundbreaking for its time, and won out over Bing Crosby’s sunny sequel to Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, along with the great noir soap opera Mildred Pierce, with Joan Crawford at her scene-chewing finest as the mother who sacrifices all for her ungrateful daughter. Also snubbed were Hitchcock’s suspenseful Spellbound and the enormously popular musical Anchors Aweigh with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
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1946 Best Picture – ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives. RKO Radio Pictures

The poignant story of troubled veterans returning from World War II to hardship at home bested Frank Capra’s perennial Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life, along with Henry V, The Razor’s Edge and the beloved children’s movie, The Yearling. Also notable in 1946 were several great films that weren’t even nominated for Best Picture, including Hitchcock’s tense spy thriller Notorious; British tearjerker Brief Encounter; racy western Duel in the Sun; and the classic noir crime film The Killers.

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1947 Best Picture – ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’

Gentleman's Agreement
Gentleman's Agreement. Paramount
In arguably the weakest year of the decade, Gentleman’s Agreement won for tackling the issue of anti-semitism, and the willingness of otherwise moral people to succumb to prejudice. Sentimental Christmas favorite Miracle on 34th Street lost out, along with another sweet holiday movie, The Bishop’s Wife, with Cary Grant cast as an angel. Losers that year also included the film version of Great Expectations, and the largely forgotten film noir Crossfire.

Okay, it’s Shakespeare, it’s Sir Laurence Olivier, it’s great art, it's Hamlet – but I still think Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a better movie, and should have won. Nevertheless, John Huston’s classic story of human greed and frailty lost to the Bard of Avon’s great historical play. Shakespeare also won out over the mental-illness expose The Snake Pit, Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda, and the cerebral ballet movie The Red Shoes.

Broderick Crawford astounded in All The King's Men, a great movie about American politics from a great American novel, clearly based on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. It triumphed over the popular war film Twelve O'Clock High (which inspired a TV series); Olivia De Haviland in The Heiress; a clever comedy on married life, A Letter to Three Wives, and Battleground, a World War II story.