Oscars flashback to the first documentary race: 25 nominees and 4 winners in 1943

This year’s documentary nominees explore diverse subject matter as saving birds (“All that Breathes”) and an exploration of the life and career of photographer and activist Nan Goldin (“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”). But the documentary nominees, which took place at the 15th annual Oscars on March 4, 1943 at the Cocoanut Grove, primarly revolved around World War II.

There were 25 nominees — shorts and features competed against each other — and four winners. The US Navy was the producer of winner “The Battle of Midway,” directed by John Ford. The 18-minute film featured footage from the Battle of Midway which was a crucial victory in the Pacific in 1942. The film featured narration by Ford favorites Henry Fonda, Donald Crisp and Jane Darwell.

The Australian News and Information Bureau produced the full-length documentary winner “Kokoda Front Line!,” which was also the first film from Down Under to win an Oscar. The film chronicled the 1942 battle in the Australian territory of Papua.

The Russian-made “Moscow Strikes Back” detailed the Battle of Moscow which was waged from late 1941 to early 1942 and saw the Nazis forces being upended in this important battle early in the global conflict.

The fourth winner was “Prelude to War,” the first of seven documentaries in Frank Capra’s landmark “Why We Fight” series which was commissioned by the Office of War Information and George Marshall. The first installment shown to recruits showed why it was necessary to battle the Axis powers and inspiring the homefront who saw the film in theaters to support the war effort.

Ford and Capra were not the only Oscar-winning filmmakers involved in documenting the war effort. Walt Disney earned two Oscar nominations: Donald Duck starred in “The New Spirit,” which encouraged Americans to pay their income taxes to help finance the war effort and “The Grain That Built a Hemisphere” explained the importance of corn.

Recent Oscar-winner Jimmy Stewart starred in “Winning Your Wings.” He was drafted into the Army Air Corps in March, 1941 and became a decorated bombardier. The actor remained in the USAF reserve until 1968 when he retired as a brigadier general. The short proved to be the most successful of Hollywood’s recruiting films inspiring some 100,000 volunteers to sign up to fight.

The war was the backdrop to many other winners that year. “Mrs. Miniver,” William Wyler’s stately drama about how a British family is affected by the conflict, won six Oscars including Best Picture, director and for both lead Greer Garson and supporting player Teresa Wright.

Best Actor went to James Cagney who portrayed patriotic Broadway legend George M. Cohan in the stirring biopic “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Emeric Pressburger won for his original screenplay of the British import “The 49th Parallel”directed by his partner Michael Powell about Nazis trapped in Canada. Best short subject went to “Beyond the Line of Duty” about Army Air Force Captain Hewitt T. “Shorty” Wheless who became a hero during a bombing mission against the Japanese ships in the Philippines a week after Pearl Harbor.

Though Disney didn’t win a documentary Oscar, he took home best short subject (cartoons) for “Der Fuehrer’s Face” starring Donald Duck. And Noel Coward received an honorary Oscar for “his outstanding production achievement in ‘In Which We Serve.’” Coward’s World War II epic which he co-directed with David Lean, earned two Oscar nominations the following year for picture and screenplay.

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