Oscar Flashback: ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ among the earliest nominated horror films

This article marks Part 1 of the Gold Derby series reflecting on Horror Films at the Oscars. Join us as we look back at the spine-tingling movies that earned Academy Awards nominations, including the following films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

In considering history of horror cinema and its performance at the Oscars, it must first be acknowledged that a plethora of pictures from this genre were released prior to the very existence of the Academy Awards. The legendary likes of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), “Nosferatu” (1922) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), among others, all earned releases prior to the first Oscar ceremony, in 1928.

There were not many horror films eligible for consideration at the 1st Academy Awards – the most worthy of such recognition would have been “The Man Who Laughs” (1928), one of countless horror movies released in the first half of the century by Universal Pictures. The picture did not garner recognition, nor would Universal’s more successful and iconic “Dracula” (1931) and “Frankenstein” (1931) a few years later.

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It was not until the following year, in 1932, that voters embraced a horror film. It was not the classics “Freaks” or “The Mummy” that won this recognition but rather “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” directed by Rouben Mamoulian and featuring a leading turn from the Fredric March. Nominated for three Oscars, in Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, the picture ultimately went home with one award, for its leading man.

The next seven years would prove a dry spell for horror cinema at the Oscars. The much-hyped and acclaimed “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) only mustered a single nomination, in Best Sound.

In 1939 and 1940, however, horror made a notable return, with four pictures garnering nominations.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939), starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, scored nominations in Best Original Score and Best Sound. The other three pictures, “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940) and “The Invisible Woman” (1940), were nominated in Best Special Effects, though none prevailed.

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In 1941, voters did not embrace the Universal classic “The Wolf Man.” They did, however, honor that year’s production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a vehicle for Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, directed by Victor Fleming. The picture earned three nominations, in Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score. Voters also this year gave a Best Original Score nomination to the horror-comedy “King of the Zombies.”

Two years later, Universal at last got one of their monster movies to resonate in a significant way with voters. Arthur Lubin‘s ravishing “The Phantom of the Opera” (1943), headlined by Claude Rains, was not at the time a commercial or critical smash. It did, however, receive four Oscar nominations, in Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, winning the last two prizes. Sadly for Universal, this production would prove the last of the studio’s classic horror films to receive Oscar recognition.

The remainder of the 1940s and all of the 1950s were not a prosperous period for horror films at the Oscars.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945), starring George Sanders and Donna Reed, was not a box office success but did win nominations in Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury), Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, the last of which it won. It would take more than a decade from here for another horror film to secure multiple Oscar nominations.

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Three short subjects from the horror genre, two animated and one live-action, received Oscar nominations – “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse” (1947); “Return to Glennascaul” (1951); and “The Tell-Tale Heart (1953). None, however, prevailed.

The giant ant thriller “Them!” (1954) made a small splash at the Oscars, landing a Best Special Effects nomination. No love, however, would be in the cards for other 1950s horror classics like “House of Wax” (1953) or “The Fly” (1958).

The final horror film nominated in the 1950s, and the only one in the decade to earn multiple nominations, was “The Bad Seed” (1956). It garnered four Oscar nominations, in Best Cinematography, Best Actress (Nancy Kelly) and two in Best Supporting Actress (Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack), with no wins coming to fruition.

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