Only 83 films have won Best Picture to date and the general sentiment is that winning the big prize ensures that your film will have a place among the classics. Here are 10 films that won the grand prize that are not considered classics today:
10. The Broadway Melody, 1929
Since sound was introduced into the movies in 1927, film studios realized the potential almost immediately of combining films with musical numbers. Released two years after the first talkie, The Broadway Melody was MGM’s first big-scale musical number. Heavily promoted by studio head Louis B. Mayer, the cliché-ridden film would win the 2nd best picture Oscar in history among what film historian Tim Dirks notes as, “some of the weakest films in the history of American cinema, reflecting the chaos of the transition from silents to sound films.” Although MGM would be synonymous with the best of the musical genre some fifteen years down the road, the early years of MGM’s musical branch were films so formulaic that they didn’t even bother changing the name for subsequent installments. They were simply known as The Broadway Melody of ____ with the year of release in the blank.
9. Cimarron, 1931
Cimarron is one of just three Westerns to win an Oscar. The film centers around a restless newspaper editor seeking to start a new life with his family in the newly opened territory of Oklahoma and covers a 40-year span in which he deserts his family but eventually comes back to fight for Indians’ rights. Despite its eventual pro-Indian stance, the film squanders its good will to modern viewers through its highly stereotypical representation of the Jewish tailor and the African American servant characters. The film has eight out of fourteen good reviews on rottentomatoes.com which clears it from being the worst-reviewed best picture winner (The Broadway Melody has 38%) but even the good reviews aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the film. One of the positive reviews, by Dennis Schwartz, says the film is “badly outdated, overly sentimental, the performance by Richard Dix that was well-received back then now seems overblown,” but he inexplicably gives the film a B-. If there’s a bright spot to the film, it’s the performance of Irene Dunne who was able to survive the transition to talkies through what most critics agree was a great performance.
8. Cavalcade, 1933
Cavalcade chronicles the story of a British family over two generations as they cope with war, societal change, and the sinking of the Titanic (one of the family members was on board). This film won in a year when Hollywood started to get comfortable enough with sound that many films broke out of the mold and revolutionized their genres, whether it was the message picture (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), the musical (42nd Street), the big budget action film (King Kong) or the risqué comedy (She Done Him Wrong). Ironically, it was also the first year in which the overproduced British period piece won the top prize. There’s no doubt that Hollywood owes a great debt to England’s grand theatrical tradition and its immensely talented pool of classically trained actors but the Academy’s being blind-sided by anything and everything British has led to most every baffling decision the Academy has made for best picture, which will be a recurring theme here.
7. You Can’t Take it With You, 1938
Frank Capra was the 1930’s version of Spielberg and Scorsese rolled into one. He was the most respected, revered and commercially successful director of his time. His visions of homespun Americana gave hope to millions during the Great Depression. You Can’t Take it With You was Capra’s third Oscar-winning film in the course of 6 years, and it was no doubt a popular film. The film, however, is something like Capra’s 7th or 8th best film today behind such classics that came nowhere close to winning an Oscar as It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Arsenic and Old Lace. The film centers on the zany antics when the granddaughter of an eccentric free-spirited professor invites her straight-laced in-laws for dinner. Aside from being overshadowed by so many other Frank Capra films, the film is also unremarkable because it’s not very much of a departure from the Pulitzer-prize winning stage play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart.
6. Mrs. Miniver, 1942
During World War II, Hollywood sought to assist with the war effort however it could. Top directors such as John Ford, John Huston and more made propaganda pictures and Hollywood produced wholesome images of homespun Americana and family life (Meet me in Saint Louis is a prime example) so that moviegoers could be reminded at the movies exactly what they were fighting for. At the same time, this was the Golden Age of film in which American cinema was really advancing as an art form. The Oscars during these years pitted the wholesome yet unremarkable films against the edgier film noirs, screwball comedies, or melodramas. Mrs. Miniver, although depicting the idyll and noble life of a British family on the advent of war, was one such unremarkable film. It did make for some good propoganda. Winston Churchill wrote a thank-you note to MGM head Louis B. Mayer saying that the film was “Propoganda worth a hundred battleships.”
5. Around the World in 80 Days, 1956
This film is a fun, scenic romp best known for its endless string of cameos by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Cesar Romero, Charles Coburn, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, and many more. It’s speculated that the film won only because all the actors with cameos voted for their own film. Even if the film is more popcorn entertainment than a great film, credit still should be given to producer Mike Todd (one former husband of the late Elizabeth Taylor) for his sheer ambition. Employing a record 33 assistant directors, Todd personally jetted to Pakistan, India, China and Thailand to meet with Kings and princes to secure the most luxurious locations he could find. Getting half of Hollywood to appear in his film wasn’t easy either: Todd spent months asking any actor with even a mild curiosity about the film to appear in a small role. In fact, it can be said that this film originated the very concept of the cameo.
4. The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952
This is a film that centers around the trials and tribulations of a travelling circus (the title comes from the motto for Barnum and Bailey’s Circus). Audiences hear about the film and the storied career of its director, Cecille B. DeMille, every year because the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes is named after him. Upon receiving the award, for example, Spielberg paid tribute to The Greatest Show on Earth by saying that he practically owes his career to this film having recreated the famous train crash scene in his living room over and over as a kid. Even if we take Spielberg at his word (he’s known to embellish his stories), he’s in the minority of people who took anything inspirational from the film. When I did an informal poll among other film buffs in preparation for this list, they all insisted that this was the most forgettable entry be included. Like Around the World in 80 Days, the film is more spectacle than it is timeless. Outside of that one train crash scene, the film doesn’t offer much of the grand sights of a film like Around the World in 80 Days. Unless you’re a humongous circus fan you should just catch them live when they’re in town.
3. Oliver!, 1968
To be fair, British Director Carol Reed did produce at least one classic in The Third Man almost 20 years before he was handed a make-up award for this film. The adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist had the necessary pedigree of Britishness (see the Mrs Miniver entry) and came during a decade in which musicals were in fashion with the Oscars (3 other films from the 1960’s also won Best Picture). Ironically, among the other two front-runners that year, The Lion in the Winter also had the British pedigree and Funny Girl was a musical.
2. Chariots of Fire, 1981
Today, the film is only remembered for its synthetic score that’s been reused for athletic montages in practically every movie since. The tale, examining the conflicting journeys to glory of two British gold medalist runners in the 1924 Olympics, isn’t so much a bad film as a massive surprise in a crowded field of great films that included Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds, Atlantic City and On Golden Pond. Roger Ebert wrote that when he met the producers and the directors of the film at that year’s Cannes film festival before the film had found an American distributor, they told him that they didn’t think their film would even play in America, let alone win an Oscar. Ebert also speculated that in today’s movie market, it would likely have not survived more than one weekend in the theaters.
1. The English Patient, 1996
An epic love story set at the close of World War II centering on the search for the identity of a plane crash survivor, the film isn’t necessarily bad but it has been ignored by pretty much every list of great films (Empire Magazine, National Society of Film Critics, the AFI, Time Out, etc.) . The film is mostly remembered today for being the basis of a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is driven insane in trying to avoid being ostracized for being the only one of her friends who doesn’t like the film. It’s worth noting that as Elaine’s friends in that Seinfeld episode love the film, it opened to some remarkably good reviews. Susan Stark of Detroit News famously called it the best film she’s seen in 16 years of reviewing cinema. While Best Picture winners of the 1990’s like Forrest Gump (which beat out Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption) and Dances with Wolves (which beat out Goodfellas) are now almost universally hated for taking the trophy away from those beloved films, The English Patient seems to have faded into oblivion. Even though some might hate it for taking the honor away from Shine or Fargo, both nominated that year.