Oscar Best Picture history: Winners chosen by preferential ballot (1934-1945) include classic films

In 2009 — when the academy went to 10 Best Picture nominees for the first time since 1943 — the preferential system of voting, which had been used from 1934 to 1945, was reintroduced. The academy did so as it believed this “best allows the collective judgment of all voting members to be most accurately represented.”

We have detailed how the preferential voting system works in the modern era. So, let’s take a look back at those dozen years when the academy first used this complicated counting to determine the Best Picture winner rather than a simple popular vote. (At the bottom of this post, be sure to vote for the film that you think will take the top Oscar this year.)

Photo Gallery: Oscar Best Picture gallery
History of Academy Award winning films

This seventh ceremony marked the first time that the Oscars eligibility period was the calendar year. It also marked the introduction of the preferential ballot to determine the Best Picture winner. There were 12 nominees, up from 10 in 1932/33.

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street”
“Flirtation Walk”
“The Gay Divorcee”
“Here Comes the Navy”
“The House of Rothschild”
“Imitation of Life”
“It Happened One Night”
“One Night of Love”
“The Thin Man”
“Viva Villa!”
“The White Parade”

“One Night of Love” led with six nominations but claimed just two — Score, Sound Recording — while “It Happened One Night” won all five of its bids, becoming the first film to claim Best Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Actor (Clark Gable), Actress (Claudette Colbert) and Screenplay.

This marked the second (and last time) that there were a dozen Best Picture nominees.

“Alice Adams”
“Broadway Melody of 1936”
“Captain Blood”
“David Copperfield”
“The Informer”
“Les Miserables”
“The Lives of a Bengal Lancer”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
“Mutiny on the Bounty” 
“Naughty Marietta”
“Ruggles of Red Gap”
“Top Hat”

“Mutiny on the Bounty” led with eight nominations, including a record three for Best Actor — Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone — but won just Best Picture; it was the last of three such solo champs after “The Broadway Melody” (1929/1930) and “Grand Hotel” (1931/32). “The Informer” won four of its five Oscars bids, including the first of four for helmer John Ford.

The lineup dropped down to 10, which is where it stayed for the next eight years.

“Anthony Adverse”
“The Great Ziegfeld” 
“Libeled Lady”
“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”
“Romeo and Juliet”
“San Francisco”
“The Story of Louis Pasteur”
“A Tale of Two Cities”
“Three Smart Girls”

“The Great Ziegfeld” was tied with “Anthony Adverse” and “Dodsworth” at seven bids each. Best Picture champ “Ziegfeld” won three, including the first of two consecutive Best Actress awards for Luise Rainer as well as the second of only three Oscars awarded for Dance Direction. “Anthony Adverse” claimed four, including the first-ever Supporting Actress Oscar for Gale Sondergaard.

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“The Awful Truth”
“Captains Courageous”
“Dead End”
“The Good Earth”
“In Old Chicago”
“The Life of Emile Zola” 
“Lost Horizon” Columbia
“One Hundred Men and a Girl”
“Stage Door”
“A Star Is Born” (the first color nominee)

“The Life of Emile Zola” won three of its leading 10 nominations: Picture, Supporting Actor (Joseph Schildkraut) and Adapted Screenplay.


“The Adventures of Robin Hood”
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”
“Boys Town”
“The Citadel”
“Four Daughters”
“Grand Illusion” (the first foreign-language nominee)
“Test Pilot”
“You Can’t Take It with You”

While “You Can’t Take It With You” won only two of its leading seven nominations, they were biggies: Best Picture and the third Best Director award for Capra in five years (he had also won in 1936 for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”). “The Adventures of Robin Hood” prevailed in three of its four races.

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“Dark Victory”
“Gone with the Wind” 
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”
“Love Affair”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
“Of Mice and Men”
“The Wizard of Oz”
“Wuthering Heights”

Okay, take a minute and read through this list again. All of these movies were released in the same 12-month period. Talk about the golden age of Hollywood. Any of the nine also-rans would have made a worthy Best Picture recipient in any other year but none could compare to the towering achievement that was “Gone With the Wind.”

Fittingly, this epic adaption of Margaret Mitchell‘s best-selling Pulitzer Prize winner set records for most nominations (13) and most wins (8): Picture, Director (Victor Fleming), Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography (Color), Editing and Score.

This was the last time the names of winners were announced in advance and the first of 19 times that Bob Hope emceed. Sadly, “GWTW” adapter Sidney Howard had died in an accident in the summer of 1939, becoming the first posthumous winner. He was the maternal grandfather of Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) whose paternal grandfather, Samuel Goldwyn, produced “Wuthering Heights.”


“All This, and Heaven Too”
“Foreign Correspondent”
“The Grapes of Wrath”
“The Great Dictator”
“Kitty Foyle”
“The Letter”
“The Long Voyage Home”
“Our Town”
“The Philadelphia Story”

“Rebecca” won just two of its leading 11 nominations — Picture and Cinematography (Black and White); it was the last Best Picture champ to not take at least one of the directing, writing or acting awards. Alfred Hitchcock lost the first of his five Best Director bids to John Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath”). Hitch had also helmed Best Picture nominee “Foreign Correspondent.” And “The Thief of Baghad” won three of its four craft bids.


“Blossoms in the Dust”
“Citizen Kane”
“Here Comes Mr. Jordan”
“Hold Back the Dawn”
“How Green Was My Valley” 
“The Little Foxes”
“The Maltese Falcon”
“One Foot in Heaven”
“Sergeant York”

While “Sergeant York” led with 11 nominations, it had to settle for just two Oscars (Actor, Gary Cooper; and Editing).

“How Green Was My Valley” won five of its 10 bids: Picture, Director (#3 for John Ford), Supporting Actor (Donald Crisp), Art Direction (B&W) and Cinematography (B&W).

Siblings Olivia de Havilland (“Hold Back the Dawn”) and Joan Fontaine (“Suspicion”) were pitted against each other for Best Actress with the year-younger Fontaine prevailing.

And, yes, cineastes, this is the year “Citizen Kane” was all but shut out of the Oscars, winning just one of its nine nominations: Original Screenplay. That was better than “The Little Foxes” which set a new record by going 0 for 9. “Peyton Place” equalled this dubious achievement in 1957. Then, two decades later, “The Turning Point” went 0 for 11 and “The Color Purple” tied this in 1985.

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“The Invaders”
“Kings Row”
“The Magnificent Ambersons”
“Mrs. Miniver” 
“The Pied Piper”
“The Pride of the Yankees”
“Random Harvest”
“The Talk of the Town”
“Wake Island”
“Yankee Doodle Dandy”

“Mrs. Miniver” won six of its leading 12 nominations: Picture, Director (the first of three for William Wyler), Actress (Greer Garson), Supporting Actress (Teresa Wright, who had also contended in lead for “The Pride of the Yankees”), Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography (B&W).


“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Heaven Can Wait”
“The Human Comedy”
“In Which We Serve”
“Madame Curie”
“The More the Merrier”
“The Ox-Bow Incident”
“The Song of Bernadette”
“Watch on the Rhine”

This was the last year until 2009 to have 10 Best Picture nominees. “The Song of Bernadette” won four of its leading 12 nominations, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones who received the prize on her 25th birthday (March 2) as well as Art Direction (B&W), Cinematography (B&W) and Dramatic Score. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” won just one of its nine bids — for Katina Paxinou who was the first supporting actress winner to receive a full-size Oscar rather than a plaque. And “Casablanca” prevailed in three of its eight races — Picture, Director (Michael Curtiz) and Adapted Screenplay.


“Double Indemnity”
“Going My Way”
“Since You Went Away”

This was the first year with a standardized five nominees in all categories, including Best Picture. “Going My Way” won seven of its 10 nominations: Picture, Director (Leo McCarey), Actor (Bing Crosby), Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald), Original Story, Screenplay and Song. However, with Fitzgerald having scored bids in both lead and supporting (the academy precluded this from happening thereafter).


“Anchors Aweigh”
“The Bells of St. Mary’s”
“The Lost Weekend”
“Mildred Pierce”

While “Bells of St. Marys” won just one of its leading eight nominations (Sound Recording), “The Lost Weekend” went four for seven, winning Picture, Director (Billy Wilder), Actor (Ray Milland) and Adapted Screenplay.

This was the last time the preferential system was used until 2009.

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