The Time the Academy Lost Its Mind: The Infamous Oscar Snubs of 1953

The Best Picture award is always given to the best film of the year, right? Not necessarily.

Arguments have been made for how better movies were passed over for the one that actually won. I always thought Goodfellas should have won instead of Dances with Wolves, and although part of that has to do with my intense dislike of Kevin Costner, I must point out that I am not alone in the idea that Goodfellas was the better movie. There is a large contingent of people out there that agree with me on that subject.

There are plenty of others that have their devotees who think the wrong movie got the award. Some I agree with: Going My Way over Double Indemnity? Ordinary People better than Raging Bull? Titanic was greater than L.A. Confidential? I could go on but those are three of my top issues. I concede the argument whether Star Wars was better than Annie Hall, but I think ALL of the movies in the 1976 category were better than Annie Hall

One of the biggest Oscar snubs of its history, however, would have to be how two fantastic movies, The Quiet Man and High Noon, got passed over for Cecil B. DeMille‘s melodrama of circus life, The Greatest Show on Earth. Why DeMille’s extravaganza won while two decidedly better movies were passed over is a mystery to me. I can only imagine that since DeMille had been around since the beginning of cinema and was only now getting recognition by the Academy that the voters voted for it for old time’s sake. Or maybe the fact that it was the biggest moneymaker for the year of 1952. Of course, that no longer means much in Oscar decisions. If that were the case Terminator 2 would have been up for consideration, and surely no one thought it was Oscar worthy… But maybe it was true in the 50’s, I don’t know.

The Greatest Show on Earth revolved around, just in case the title didn’t give it away, the circus. (Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey’s Circus has that appellation as their motto). Like most other extravaganza’s of the day, this revolved around multiple characters and, at least in this case, some of the cheesiest melodrama ever to grace the screen.

As far as the acting goes, I guess the best example of how substandard it was is the fact that none, not even one, of the actors and actresses were nominated for an Oscar that year. Is it because there were way too many to choose from? I highly doubt it. And its not as if they were nobodies… You had Charlton Heston, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, and even Jimmy Stewart in it. But none of them really pulls off anything better than what you might find on General Hospital. Which basically this film is, a soap opera on the big screen.

The film was also up for Best Director, but fortunately clearer heads prevailed and the statuette went to John Ford for The Quiet Man. (Best Actor went to Gary Cooper for High Noon, so at least the Academy didn’t go completely bonkers that year). But I’d like to touch upon the two better movies that lost the Best Picture Award to this clunker.

High Noon (1952):

High Noon was a Western with a message. The message is that a man must stand up for what he believes is right, despite the fact that everyone seems against his decision. Some people, including John Wayne, thought that the movie was a parable denouncing the HUAC’s stance against former and current people in Hollywood with Communist leanings, although the director, Fred Zinnemann, insisted that this was not the case.

Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married his love, Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker who has convinced Will to hang up his guns and step down as Marshall. But unbeknownst to him, three gunmen from a gang whose leader, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), have just ridden into town. The three gunmen (Sheb Wooley, Lee van Cleef, and Robert J. Wilke) are awaiting the arrival of their leader who has been pardoned by the governor and is en route to the town to take revenge on Will, who was instrumental in sending him to prison in the first place.

Will and Amy are encouraged to skeedaddle before the arrival of the train, and initially they do so. But on the way out of town, Will’s conscience and determination takes over and he heads back to town to face destiny. He tries to get people to help him, trying to form a posse to defend the town, but he runs up against a group who just want to let things be.

Primarily working against him is his former deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), who resents the fact that Will didn’t stand up for him in his attempt to take over as Marshall. Pell walks out on Will after throwing down his badge. Will also runs into problems with a former lover, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). Helen tells Amy that if she had married Will, she would not desert him in his time of need, which Amy seems determined to do.

The town is divided into two groups, some who disapproved of Kane’s actions with Miller (friends of the outlaw) and some who are worried that the whole town may suffer as a result of the feud between Miller and the Marshall. He cannot get anybody to help, not even the town’s leaders.

Eventually Miller arrives and a showdown begins as Will faces the four alone. You surely don’t need me to tell you how the movie ends, but I think you may just be surprised at one or two of the events that occur before the final denouement.

The Quiet Man (1952):

John Wayne movies were notoriously snubbed over the years, and much of it probably had to do with his politics. For years the political view in Hollywood has been of a liberal bent and Wayne was a staunch conservative. He was quoted once in an interview that he was proud of the fact that he had allegedly helped run Carl Foreman, the writer of the previous movie in this entry, out of Hollywood because of Foreman’s alleged Communist connections.

But his politics must be viewed separately from his acting, (as should anybody), when it comes to awards such as the Oscars. In actuality that is not always the case, but I am an idealist by nature, and I have a view that the best person should get the acclaim even if I don’t agree with his outlook on life.

The Quiet Man begins with Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arriving in Ireland. Thornton is a man on the run from the past (although you only get hints of it until about midway through the movie). The character was originally born in Ireland but moved to America at an early age. He grew up in America and became a prize fighter, and it is an event in his life as a fighter that has brought him to leave America.

His first goal is to acquire his birth home. The cottage and land is owned by a wealthy widow, Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), and Thornton has a competitor in wanting to acquire the land, Will Danaher (Victor Maclaglen), a local squire. Thornton outbids him, but the widow probably would have sold it to him anyway because she doesn’t really like Will.

Thornton becomes infatuated with a redhead woman he sees who turns out to be Will’s sister, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). At first, as is the custom in Ireland, brother Will refuses to let Thornton court his sister, because he is still miffed over the slight in the contest to buy the land — but the town’s residents conspire to convince Will that the widow, with whom Will is infatuated, will marry him if his sister is no longer in the house.

Once Will finds out the truth, after the marriage, he refuses to give Mary Kate her dowry. Mary Kate wants Thornton to fight her brother for the dowry, but he refuses, since the reason he left the States in the first place was because he accidentally killed a man in the boxing ring. The towspeople convince Will to release Mary Kate’s furniture, but still refuses to give her her dowry, and Mary Kate refuses to allow Thornton to consummate their marriage as a result.

It all boils down to an ultimate donnybrook in the town between Thornton and Will. The final knock down drag out is the highlight of the film.

So which movie do I feel should have won the Oscar? Well, my love of John Wayne movies would suggest that I chose The Quiet Man, but you may be surprised to learn that I think High Noon is the better movie, despite the fact that my hero hated it.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This article originally ran in 2019 and is being reprinted as part of our ongoing tenth anniversary celebrations.<\em>

  • polliwogg

    I love Jimmy Stewart in anything and have long admired Charlton Heston as an actor. But, for the life of me, I could never understand why this piece of FLUFF won Best Picture.

  • John Edwardz

    1977 Syar Wars: most overrated piece of crap ever. Basically a dime Saturday matinee western in space.

  • John Edwardz

    High Noon also quite dull, but The Quiet Man still stands up. And 100% right about Greatest Show on Earth

  • Butch Knouse

    How about Gran Torino getting passed over for whatever NYC/LA only piece of crap won that year?

  • Rene

    Charles Coburn over Claude Rains in 1943 ? ! Robert Donat over Clark Gable i n 1939 ???

    • Genevieve83

      Hi Rene, just remember that Donat had to age many years in his wining movie, Good-bye, Mr. Chips,” which I believe actors kind of get extra credit for, especially when they do it as well as he did. 1939 was extremely hard year to decide, though!

  • Jim V.

    Why did you not mention the GREATEST screwing of all time; “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan?”

  • John B.

    We only need to look back as far as 2005 to see a true travesty when “Crash” was awarded best picture over “Brokeback Mountain,” a landmark film in our changing world.

  • ndebrabant1228

    The Greatest Show On Earth probably shouldn’t have won best picture. My vote would go to The Quite Man. However, The Greatest show on Earth is now the only way we have to see what a circus was like. No more Ringling Brothers.

  • Pat Alfus

    I am planning to show “High Noon” next Fall for a course I will be doing – “Small Films w/ Big Impact.” Find it a real movie that needs deeper reflection to absorb its impact aka, The Cold War. In terms of Oscars, my main point is that the 1st year often gets misrepresented. WINGS is always mentioned as the FIRST Best Picture. However, it *only* won as “Outstanding Picture” whereas SUNRISE won as “Unique and Artistic Picture.” BEST Picture was only ‘created’ at a later date. Needless to say, SUNRISE is my all time favorite movie.

  • Jim Silverthorn

    “The Greatest Show on Earth” shouldn’t even have been
    nominated. Neither “The Bad and the Beautiful” (not a shabby contender) nor “Singin’
    in the Rain” (which should have been a major contender) got a Best Picture nomination.

  • Genevieve83

    I think my greatest quarrel for an actor not getting the best actor award is Mel Gibson not winning for Braveheart. That role was not easy and I just don’t think anyone can say that the role of Mr. Holland was more challenging.

  • momcat1948

    I have never even been able to sit through an entire showing of The Greatest Show on Earth. Talk about boring! I also am a huge John Wayne fan and I also adore Maureen O’Hara in any role she cared to play, but I have to agree that High Noon was a wonderful picture and should have one the Oscar that year.