Oscar flashback 80 years to 1943: Acting wins for James Cagney and Greer Garson, who gave the longest speech ever

The United States had been at war a little over a year when the 15th Academy Awards were presented on March 4, 1943. It was the last year that the awards were celebrated at a lavish banquet; they would be moved to a theater setting in the ensuing years. The impact of World War II can be seen in the films honored, as well as the ceremony itself.

Popular musical star Jeannette MacDonald sang the National Anthem, and newly enlisted military privates Tyrone Power and Alan Ladd unfurled a flag that listed over 25,000 film industry members who had joined the armed forces. Bob Hope hosted the event, which saw one big winner, numerous patriotic choices and the first win for one of the industry’s biggest record-makers. Let’s flashback 80 years to the Oscars ceremony of 1943.

Ten movies made the cut for a Best Picture nomination. Melodramas “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Random Harvest” and “Kings Row” and the comedy/drama “The Talk of the Town” collectively earned 21 nominations; each walked away empty-handed. Three WWII-themed films were recognized: “49th Parallel” and “The Pied Piper,” which each received three noms, and “Wake Island,” which came into the night with four. The only win among these three was Best Original Story, which went to “49th Parallel.” Two inspirational biopics started the event in second and third place for nominations. “The Pride of the Yankees,” the heartwarming story of Lou Gehrig‘s rise to baseball fame before being stricken with ALS, had an impressive 11 nominations at the beginning of the evening; its sole victory was for editing. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the patriotic salute to “the man who owned Broadway,” George M. Cohan, managed to walk away with three of its seven nominations, and was one of only two films to achieve multiple wins. The big winner of the night came in with 12 nominations, walked away with six statues and left a legacy that resonates 80 years later.

Best Picture winner “Mrs. Miniver” tells the story of an upper-middle-class British family who is living a comfortable life when England becomes embroiled in WWII. As America was still neutral, it initially caused controversy as an anti-Nazi propaganda film meant to bring sympathy for the British. However, the States had entered the war by the time of its release, and one can only imagine the impact its message had on audiences at the time. Director William Wyler was a perfectionist and a master at eliciting powerful performances from his actors. He holds multiple Academy records: he earned the most Best Director nominations with 12 (winning three, one less than record-holder John Ford); he directed the most Best Picture nominees (13, now tied with Steven Spielberg) and the most winners (three); and he directed an impressive 36 acting-nominated performances, with a leading 14 actors winning. He earned his fourth Best Director nomination and first win for “Mrs. Miniver,” which his wife accepted on his behalf as he had volunteered to serve as a major in the Army Air Forces and was overseas. This film also produced five of his Oscar-nominated acting performances, and is the second of 15 films to receive a nomination in each acting category. One resulted in a rather memorable win.

One of the most esteemed actresses of her day, Greer Garson racked up seven Best Actress nominations in a 20-year period, and ties with Bette Davis (one of her rivals at this ceremony) as record-holder for most consecutive nominations (five) in this category. And that’s not her only notable record — with her win for Best Actress for her portrayal of “Mrs. Miniver,” she gave the longest speech in Academy history. Although urban legend has it lasting close to an hour, it actually clocked in at approximately five-and-a-half minutes. Presenter Joan Fontaine sat back down, a time limit for speeches was put in place the next year and Garson never won another statue. She also incited controversy by marrying her on-screen son Richard Ney, who was 12 years younger. Her competition at this ceremony included Davis for “Now, Voyager,” which is now considered one of her best performances; Katharine Hepburn for “Woman of the Year,” which was her first of nine pairings with Spencer Tracy; Rosalind Russell, the only one of the five who would never win a competitive Oscar, for “My Sister Eileen;” and Teresa Wright for her role as Mrs. Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees.” Wright actually walked away a winner that night despite a loss in this category.

Wright lost Best Actress to Garson, but won Best Supporting Actress for her role as the love interest of Garson’s son in “Mrs. Miniver.” Wright is the second of 12 performers who have been nominated for two acting awards in the same year, and one of seven who claimed a victory. She won against her on-screen grandmother, Dame May Whitty, as well as Gladys Cooper (“Now, Voyager”), Agnes Moorehead (“The Magnificent Ambersons”) and Susan Peters (“Random Harvest”).

Both Garson and Wright had connections to Best Actor contenders as well. Garson’s “Mr. Miniver” and frequent co-star Walter Pidgeon received a bid, as did her “Random Harvest” co-star Ronald Colman. Gary Cooper garnered a bid for his portrayal of Gehrig, Wright’s on-screen husband, in “The Pride of the Yankees.” Monty Woolley was also in contention for “The Pied Piper.” But it was a man who would ultimately be remembered for his gangster films who won for playing a song-and-dance man. James Cagney‘s memorable performance as Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” won him his only Oscar out of three career nominations, and made him the first male to win an acting Oscar for a musical performance.

The Best Supporting Actor went to Van Heflin, for the film noir “Johnny Eager.” The fifth acting nomination for “Mrs. Miniver” went to one of the era’s great character actors, Henry Travers (best remembered as Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). Another recognizable supporting actor in contention was Frank Morgan (best-known as “The Wizard of Oz”), who received his second acting nomination for “Tortilla Flat.” Walter Huston was recognized for his work as Cagney’s on-screen father in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” while William Bendix rounded out the category for his role in “Wake Island.”

In an unusual occurrence, a presenter won the award he was presenting. Irving Berlin claimed the prize for Best Original Song for “White Christmas” (“Holiday Inn”); this would be the great American composer’s only Oscar win. Bing Crosby‘s rendition of this holiday staple remains the best-selling single of all time.

Another rare event is a tie — and in this case, it was a four-way tie! An outstanding 25 documentaries were nominated – many related to the war, with all the winners conveying an aspect of the conflict. “The Battle of Midway,” “Moscow Strikes Back,” “Prelude to War” and “Kokoda Front Line!” each took home a statue; the category was later separated into feature and short subject.

Walt Disney also won for an anti-Nazi production, taking home Best Animated Short for “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” Donald Duck’s only Oscar-winning piece.

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