How Hamlet nearly killed Oscar: The big studio revolt that almost ended the Academy Awards

Mitzi w Robert Montgomery watermark
My grandmother Mitzi Cummings, niece of Louis B. Mayer, with Robert Montgomery, who helped save the day after the studio-led Hamlet revolt.

It would take just a week after the shocking awards ceremony for the response from the big studios to hit the headlines, as they did on the 1st of April, 1949 and read like April’s Fool Day jokes, including “Academy Awards May Be Stopped” and “Hollywood Oscars May Be On The Way Out.”

The first non-Hollywood production to win an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture was Hamlet, a B&W British film from the Rank Organisation and starring Laurence Olivier, who also directed. Hamlet premiered in London in May of 1948 and then in New York at the Astor Theater on August 18th.

It was a big year for the Hollywood box office with several huge hits, notably John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Warner Bros), The Three Musketeers (MGM), Johnny Belinda (Warner Bros), Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (Paramount), Bogart’s and Bacall’s Key Largo (Warner Bros), The Naked City (Universal), director Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (RKO), Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Snake Pit starring Olivia de Havilland (20th Century Fox) and dozens of others.

I am fairly certain that at the time Hollywood’s reaction to Hamlet was ho-hum and business as usual. No one had any idea the winds of change had blown in, and it was not the usual Santa Ana winds that often lead to LA’s notorious fire season. This wind swirled through the ‘film colony’ — the source of 99% of America’s movie diet — ruffled a few feathers out east where many of the big studios’ money came from, and would ultimately start the perennial debate about merit over politics in the Academy Award race that continues to this very day.

Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1948).

It probably wasn’t until early 1949 when Hamlet was nominated for seven Oscars in the 21st Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Score, that America’s motion picture business sat up and took notice.

Fear and loathing would come later.

At the time, the New York City money men and Hollywood studio moguls would have convinced themselves that hugely popular American films, such as Johnny Belinda (nominated for 12 Oscars), Joan of Arc (nominated for seven), and The Snake Pit (six nominations), would naturally dominate at the awards ceremony scheduled for March 24.

The Oscar dice was loaded with plenty of American leading men and actresses, major directors and producers, and other talent across the craft spectrum. And by now the Academy Awards are over two decades old, the local industry is a well established money machine and its output, Hollywood films and their stars, is firmly ensconced in the hearts and minds of a massive local audience.

I can just hear the puzzled conversations had by Hollywood studio execs after the nominations were announced:

“Hamlet is Shakespeare for crying out loud!”

“Don’t worry! Shakespeare is as understandable in Fresno as Swahili is in Poughkeepsie!”

“We’re fine, we’re fine. Sit down. Drink some water.”

What everyone missed, probably through a mixture of shock and arrogance, more than anything else, was that Hamlet was the eye of the storm — impossible to see when you’re in it, but quite obvious after you’ve been spat out on the other side.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Fire Over England (1937).

Although Laurence Olivier and his glamorous wife Vivien Leigh were much-loved in the UK, and Leigh was a huge star in the US, thanks to Gone with the Wind, Olivier did not have the same profile for American film goers.

Women had swooned for him as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights all the way back in ’39, and Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice did solid box office in 1940. But Laurence Olivier wasn’t everywhere like American leading men of the time were, including Cary Grant, Spencer Tracey, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, and others who made at least two or more films every year.

So it would come as an even greater shock on the night of the 21st Academy Awards, the first year the ceremony was closed only to the film industry, to see Olivier delightedly head to the stage TWICE to collect Oscars: Hamlet won Best Motion Picture (a statuette also went to co-producer, J. Arthur Rank) and Olivier won Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Gorgeous Vivien Leigh and Olivier beamed from their table as Roger Furse also went up twice more to collect more Oscars for the team: Best Costume Design and Best Set Direction with Carmen Dillon.

Embed from Getty Images

With Hamlet collecting four of the coveted golden statuettes out of six nominations, Johnny Belinda a disastrous one Oscar from 12 nominations, Joan of Arc two out of seven, and The Snake Pit collecting just one from six noms, the wine served with dinner would have tasted quite sour.

Only John Huston managed the best odds of an American film that evening: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre struck gold and the production team won three Academy Awards from their four nominations, with Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay to John Huston, and Best Supporting Actor to his father, Walter Huston.

It was a subdued crowd that climbed into their limos that night.

Not only was Hamlet the first non-Hollywood production to win Best Picture, there were other firsts. It was the first time an actor in a Best Picture would direct himself in a leading role and win (Roberto Benigni would do this 50 years later with Life Is Beautiful). Olivier is also the only actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean role. And Hamlet is the only film to have won both a Golden Lion (Venice) and the Oscar for Best Picture (at the time of writing of this post).

It would take just a week after the shocking awards ceremony for the response from the big studios to hit the headlines, as they did on the 1st of April, 1949 and read like April’s Fools Day jokes, including:

“Academy Awards May Be Stopped”

“Hollywood Oscars May Be On The Way Out”

The big corporations behind America’s major studios were angry their private party had been crashed — by hoity toity Shakespeare, no less. But this you don’t say in a press release.

In a joint statement from Nicholas M. Schenk of Loew’s (MGM), Barney Balaban of Paramount, Spyros P. Skouras of 20th Century Fox, Major Albert Warner of Warner Bros and Ned Depinet of RKO, it was announced that contributions to the Academy Awards would cease effective immediately, and stated that their action was designed “to stop any suspicion of company influence,” and that they would continue their “moral support” of the awards, but only if they were based on “democratic selection.”

While this would have zipped right over movie-goer heads like light and shadow from a streaming projector, industry commentators like trusted straight-talking Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas, AMPAS president Jean Hersholt, and Academy secretary Robert Montgomery got to the heart of the matter immediately.

Montgomery bravely countered the democratic selection comment with:

“I don’t know what they are talking about. The Academy Award process is completely democratic. And the Academy itself is as democratic as Grand Central Station…since the companies benefit from the Oscars, it is only fair that they should contribute to the awards ceremony.”

This last comment seems to indicate support was being withdrawn from the ceremony itself; clearly no one wanted to dress up in black tie only to look like fools again. Montgomery finished with:

“The only thing I regret in this whole mess is the rumbling dissent over the British picture winning it [the Oscar]. I’d say it was bad sportsmanship.”

Jean Hersholt, who was resigning after several terms at the helm, pointed right at the elephant in the room by saying that the big corporations were withdrawing their support because they wanted to make commercial pictures “unhampered by artistic standards.”

Hersholt’s lightening bolt had industry watchers agog and convinced he was either very brave or a stark raving lunatic to bring the fight to so many of Hollywood’s most powerful men.

Despite insults flying like arrows from a John Wayne western, the real work, as always, was done behind closed doors. The next year, at the 22nd Academy Awards on March 23, 1950, the big guys were back in.

Mitzi Otto Kruger Jean Hersholt W S Van Dyke party watermark
My grandmother Mitzi Cummings with Otto Kruger (far left) and Jean Hersholt at one of W.S. Van Dyke’s legendary Hollywood parties.

Victorious Jean Hersholt was recognized with an Honorary Academy Award, “in recognition of his service to the Academy during four terms as president.” The subsequent year, my great-uncle Louis B Mayer would win this very same Oscar “for distinguished service to the motion picture industry.” (As far as I know, this Oscar is missing.)

With that succession of pats on the back — one to the statesman and another to the studio mogul — all was put right with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; for the time being anyway.

It would be several years before another foreign-produced film won again. The English would do it twice with The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 and Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.

The last word should go to legendary reporter Bob Thomas, who wrote about the film business for decades as a reporter for Associated Press (starting in 1944) and authored 30 books, including King Kohn, Joan Crawford, Howard: The Amazing Mr. Hughes (with Noah Dietrich), The Road to Hollywood (with Bob Hope), Bud & Lou: The Abbott and Costello Story and Walt Disney: An American Original.

Here’s Thomas’ frank and prescient take on the crazy events of 1949:

“Let’s face it – the Academy is an imperfect organization. Its original purpose is often clouded and ignored. It was founded 21 years ago to reward artistic and scientific achievements in the movies. This was important, since the industry was then almost devoid of prestige. Academy awards have added stature to this much-maligned industry. But they have often been handed out because of politics and sentiment, no matter how strongly the Academy denies it.

The Academy will probably survive, in some form at least. After 21 years of being shot at, Oscar is a tough guy to kill.”

Postscript: 1948, the year that would have had the most impact on the controversial announcement from the big studio corporations’ based in New York City, was a remarkable one in many ways. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was inaugurated and its purpose of free trade was a frightening backdrop for leaders trying to control the American market. Largely Republican, these same men would have watched with great concern as the Democrats won another term in office with incumbent Harry S Truman defeating Republican Thomas S. Dewey. Their blinkers would have included concern that just as America was finding its feet after WWII, overseas films would take vital profits out of the US.

Other notable events include:

  • Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated
  • the first monkey is sent into space (from White Sands, New Mexico) starting the space race in earnest
  • McCollum v. Board of Education was fought in the United States Supreme Court which ruled that religious instruction in public schools violates the U.S. Constitution
  • the World Health Organization is established
  • Singapore holds its first elections
  • Israel is established and the first president of Israel is elected
  • The Berlin Blockade begins
  • President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, ending racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces
  • The World Council of Churches is established
  • The Rand Corporation is established
  • Ashgabat earthquake kills 110,000
  • Costa Rica decommissions its entire army – the only country to do so.
Copyright Alicia Mayer 2013.


10 thoughts on “How Hamlet nearly killed Oscar: The big studio revolt that almost ended the Academy Awards

  1. Another wonderful post, Alicia. Great story, and so well researched. In Hollywood, everything changes, but human nature stays the same. I love the photo of your grandmother – what a beauty, and you resemble her quite a bit!

  2. Thank you Melissa. I agree 100% re human nature being the one constant and yet always coming as a surprise to everyone. Thank you for your kind comments re Mitzi. I looked at a photo of my daughter the other day and suddenly realized just how much they look alike. Ah, DNA… x

  3. Question. In 1944 the Oscars moved from a hotel banquet to Grauman’s Chinese. You say above that in 1949 they were at tables again. When did they return to the seated audience format?

  4. Yes my understanding is that this was the year the Oscars were hosted from their own theater. I have a recording of either this year (’49) or the next one, so I’ll listen in to the beginning and see if this enlightens me any. I’ll let you know. Thanks for the great question and for taking time to read the story. I hope you enjoyed it.

  5. Interesting look into the Hollywood of old, but the Venice Film Festival awards the Golden Lion, for Cannes it’s the Golden Palm. HAMLET won the Lion at Venice.

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