The Oscars: Golden and Silver Age Horror
Psychos, Collectors and Svengalis vie for Academy Awards!
Most genre fans commiserate when it comes to the lack of consideration typically given to horror films by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The AMPAS’ lamentable, untoward reputation for snubbing horror is easily documentable, and they rarely garner significant attention from the Oscars as a matter of history corroborates.
In fact, only three scary films have won the coveted Best Picture award in the annual ceremony’s 95-year-old history: The Silence of the Lambs (1992), The Shape of Water (2017), and Parasite (2019). However, several flicks managed to garner Oscar attention in other categories since the first Academy Awards was hosted at a private dinner party by Douglas Fairbanks in 1929.
Now, here are 18 Golden and Silver Age Horror Films which courted the Academy Awards.
1. SVENGALI (1931)
This film featured Golden Age Hollywood actor John Barrymore in the lead role of the sinister Svengali, and the character used telepathy and hypnotism to control the singing voice of the woman he loved, Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh). However, despite the villain’s best efforts, Svengali couldn’t control Trilby’s heart.
“He (Barrymore) was so helpful and so inspiring to me,” 17-year-old Marsh said of her 49-year-old co-star. “When you’re with the greatest, you have to try to come up to his level. He knew what he was doing. He did it many times before.”
Svengali was recognized at the 4th Academy Awards, and the motion picture distinguished itself as the first horror movie to receive an Academy Award nomination. The film was nominated for two awards: Best Cinematography (Barney McGill) and Best Art Direction (Anton Grot), but it failed to win in either category.
2. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)
This film premiered in New York City on New Year’s Eve 1931, and it qualified for the 5th Annual Academy Awards. The classic horror tale of duality featured Fredric March in the roles of both Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Ed Hyde.
Originally, Svengali star John Barrymore was offered the part March won, but Barrymore turned down the role. As a result, March made horror movie history, and he became the first performer to win an Oscar in the burgeoning genre. March won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his sensational performance. However, it wasn’t a solitary victory. Wallace Beery tied with March in votes, so both men won Best Actor in 1932.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was also nominated for Best Adaption (Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath) and Best Cinematography (Karl Sturss), but only March walked away with the statue.
3. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
This film has always ranked among genre fans’ favorite horror flicks. During a time in Hollywood history when characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and more reigned, it seemed only fitting a Universal Monster receive Oscar recognition.
The movie didn't win Best Picture, or any other award for that matter, and Elsa Lanchester didn't expect to win an award for playing the titular role. Aside from her dialogue in the opening scene as Frankenstein (1818) author Mary Shelley, all Lanchester did was hiss and scream at poor Boris Karloff’s Monster during the movie’s climax. And Lanchester found inspiration for her performance in the “fowlest” of places.
“They’re really very nasty creatures,” Lanchester said of swans she observed at Regent’s Park in London, and those fowls led to the hissing and screaming choices she used in the movie.
The Bride of Frankenstein was nominated for Best Sound Recording (Gilbert Kurland) at the 8th Academy Awards, but Douglas Shearer took home the award for his work on Naughty Marietta (1935).
4. THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)
This film had the unfortunate luck of finding itself up against a who’s who of Hollywood heavyweights at the 12th Academy Awards. Nominees that year included The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and Love Affair. However, Hunchback still garnered two Oscar nominations: Best Scoring (Alfred Newman) and Best Sound Recording (John O. Aalberg). Yet, Quasimodo’s colleagues went home empty handed.
The film was also the American feature film debut of Maureen O’Hara, but she starred in three United Kingdom productions prior. Co-star Charles Laughton worked with O’Hara in London, and he insisted she would be perfect to play the part of Esmeralda.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame also has the honor of being the first and only film screened at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival in 1939. The film fest was eventually canceled thanks to World War II, but Cannes as it is known and loved finally came to fruition in 1946.
5. DR. CYCLOPS (1940)
Actor Albert Dekker enjoyed a prolific career, but he was best known for his role as Dr. Thorkel in Dr. Cyclops. Upon his death in 1968, all his obituaries mentioned his performance in the film, which was nominated for Best Special Effects at the 13th annual Academy Awards. Gordon Jennings and Farciot Edouart also received recognition for their photographic effects work on the motion picture. However, the night belonged to Lawrence W. Butler’s work on The Thief of Bagdad (1940).
6. THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)
This film was nominated in the Best Special Effects category at the 13th annual Oscars for both its photographic effects (John P. Fulton) and its sound effects (William Hedgcock and Bernard B. Brown). But The Thief of Bagdad (1940) won the Special Effects award.
It should be noted Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca was the darling of the Oscars in 1941. Rebecca was nominated for a staggering 11 Academy Awards and won for Best Picture and Best Cinematography Black-and-White film.
Unfortunately, the romantic thriller Rebecca was not classified as horror. It would be nearly 20 years before Hitchcock’s work stormed into the macabre with the opening of the infamous Bates Motel.
7. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)
This was the remake of the aforementioned film starring Fredric March. 10 years later, director Victor Fleming helmed the horror remake starring Spencer Tracy in the lead role. This version of DJMH was nominated for three Academy Awards at the 14th annual ceremony: Best Film Editing (Harold F. Kress), Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Franz Waxman) and Best Cinematography Black-and-White film (Joseph Ruttenberg).
While Tracy didn’t receive recognition for his acting, he most definitely got into the part. During a party celebrating Clark Gable and Carole Lombard’s wedding, Tracy showed up in his Mr. Hyde makeup. It must have been quite the scene.
8. PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)
This film featured the immutable Claude Rains in the lead role of director Arthur Lubin’s version of the timeless tale. Phantom won two of the four Academy Awards it was nominated for. The picture took home statues for Best Cinematography Color film (Hal Mohr and William Howard Greene) and Best Art Direction (Alexander Golitzen and John B. Goodman) for Interior Decoration Color film (Russell A. Gausman and Ira S. Webb).
Can you imagine Lon Chaney Jr. following in the footsteps of his father to portray the Phantom? Well, he was considered for the role before Rains won it, and it would have been a marketer’s dream come true.
Now, consider this: Universal’s original approach to the 1943 version of Phantom was as a vehicle for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello!
9. THE UNINVITED (1944)
The film starred Ray Miland as Roderick Fitzgerald, but it also featured Batman (1966-1968) alumnus Alan Napier. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography Black-and-White film (Charles Lang) at the 17th Academy Awards, but the motion picture lost to Laura (1944).
The Uninvited was the Silver Screen, feature-length directorial debut of Lewis Allen, but he was a well-known director in both London’s West End and Broadway. Several films over the years have sported The Uninvited title, but the 1944 version is a personal favorite of Guillermo del Toro.
10. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945)
This marked the first time since Fredric March’s win for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — 14 years passed — in which another thespian was recognized for their performance in a horror film. Angela Lansbury was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 18th Academy Awards, but she lost to National Velvet (1944) performer Anne Revere.
Lansbury was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress the year before for her work on Gaslight (1944). Sherlock Holmes’ actor Basil Rathbone lobbied hard for the role of Lord Henry Wotton, but the part eventually went to George Sanders.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was also nominated for a second Oscar: Best Art Direction (Austin Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters) and Interior Decoration (Edwin Booth Willis, John Bonar and Hugh Hunt). Unfortunately, Dorian Gray went home without a golden statue.
11. THEM! (1954)
This film had the honor of becoming the first of the Giant Monster Movies to garner Oscar recognition in cinema history. Believe it or not, with what was its innovative special effects of the time, even King Kong (1933) was snubbed by the Academy Awards. The truth: There wasn’t a category for special effects until the late 1930s.
Them! was nominated for Best Special Effects at the 27th Oscars, but it lost out to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
Pay close attention to Them! If you count the ants, only three of the creatures appear on screen together at any one time. The reason: Only three of the monstrous ants were made by the production team.
12. THE BAD SEED (1956)
For only the third time in Oscar’s history, a performer received a nomination for their outstanding performance in a horror movie.
However, it was the first occasion in which multiple thespians were honored. “The Bad Seed” garnered a total of four nominations at the 29th Academy Awards including Best Actress for Nancy Kelly and Best Supporting Actress for both Eileen Heckart and Patty McCormack.
The film’s fourth nod was to Harold Rosson for Best Cinematography Black-and-White film. Unfortunately, even with so many horses in the race, The Bad Seed failed to cross the finish line in all four categories. An even bigger loss may have been the director. Producers wanted Alfred Hitchcock to helm the project, but he turned them down.
13. PSYCHO (1960)
The film which catapulted director Alfred Hitchcock’s work out of the realm of thrillers, after years of his pictures being nominated and winning Oscars in other genres, was Psycho. At the 33rd Academy Awards, Hitchcock was nominated in the Best Director category for his work on his first official horror film.
Psycho was nominated for a total of four Oscars: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh), Best Cinematography Black-and-White film (John L. Russell) and Best Art Direction (Joseph Hurley and Robert Clatworthy) and Set Decoration (George Milo) Black-and-White film.
Unfortunately, despite Psycho’s unmeasurable importance to the horror genre, the granddaddy of slasher films failed to come away with a single golden statue. Indeed, Hitch finished his illustrious career with only one honor from the Academy: the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1968).
14. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
It was the first horror movie in nearly 20 years to win an Academy Award. Norma Koch won for Best Costume Design Black-and-White film, but the movie was also nominated in four other categories: Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Victor Buono), Best Cinematography Black-and-White film (Ernest Jacob Haller) and Best Sound (Joseph D. Kelly). Koch’s Oscar win was the first for the horror genre since Phantom of the Opera (1943).
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane also has the dubious honor of launching the “Hag Horror” sub-genre notorious for casting aging Hollywood actresses to cash in on their once illustrious careers.
Did you know Joan Crawford was a voice for Pepsi Cola?
Crawford heavily promoted the soft drink, even though her marriage to Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele ended in 1959, and co-star Davis knew this all too well. In a move to provoke and irritate Crawford, Davis had a Coca-Cola machine installed on Baby Jane’s film set.
15. THE BIRDS (1963)
The highly anticipated follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s first horror film, Psycho (1960), didn’t disappoint scary movie fans. The Academy took notice, too, but The Birds received only one Oscar nomination: Best Special Effects (Ub Iwerks).
The Birds lost to Cleopatra.
Hitchcock, like William Castle, had a unique way of promoting his feature films. To further scare London audiences watching The Birds at its UK premiere, Hitch had speakers hidden in the trees outside the theater.
As viewers walked from the venue, the synthetic screeching of birds roared from the speakers and frightened those who thought the horror ended back in the auditorium.
16. THE COLLECTOR (1965)
This film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in the summer of 1965. Thespians Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar won the awards for Best Actor and Best Actress at the prestigious film festival for their performances as the kidnapper and victim respectively in this dark, psychological masterpiece from director William Wyler.
Eggar also won Best Actress at the Golden Globes.
At the 38th Academy Awards, The Collector was nominated for three statues: Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, none of the nominees came away with an Oscar.
Eggar’s critically acclaimed performance almost never happened. Natalie Wood was courted to star as Miranda, but Wood turned down the part. Eggar’s performance was hard to behold because she was so believable in her portrayal. And director Wyler played a large part in the horrors viewers watched Miranda endure on screen.
During the production, according to co-star Terence Stamp, Wyler wouldn’t let Eggar leave the set for lunch breaks or even eat with her co-stars. Stamp secretly had a crush on Eggar, as did many others working on the film, but she thought Stamp hated her.
Eggar was miserable on set, so the emotion trickled over to the Silver Screen. Stamp even confronted Wyler at one point on set because he was so concerned for how Eggar was treated.
“I know this looks cruel, but we’re going to get a great performance out of her,” Wyler said according to Stamp.
Mr. Stamp ultimately came to terms with Wyler’s bizarre way of getting an awards-worthy performance out of Eggar, so he continued to give Samantha the cold shoulder during the shoot.
17. WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967)
The film featured Hollywood A-Lister Audrey Hepburn in the lead role of a blind woman who was ultimately terrorized in her small apartment by a motley crew of criminals.
Hepburn’s mesmerizing performance landed her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress at the 40th Oscars ceremony, but she lost out to another Hepburn. Katharine Hepburn won the coveted statue for her work in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
During the credits, there aren’t any nods to costuming. The reason: Audrey Hepburn assembled her own wardrobe for Wait Until Dark. Hepburn picked out all her clothes from shops in Paris. And despite being the star of the movie, Hepburn doesn’t appear for the first time on screen until the 20-minute mark.
18. ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
Interestingly, this film was produced by the King of the Gimmicks, William Castle. Castle acquired the rights to Ira Levin’s novel of the same name and brought the project to Paramount Pictures. And Roman Polanski directed the famous horror flick which starred a young Mia Farrow. However, it was Ruth Gordon who won the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as Minnie in the motion picture.
Rosemary’s Baby was also nominated for a second Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay (Roman Polanski). Polanski didn’t win, and his original cut of the movie was over four hours long. Also, Patty Duke was passed over to play Rosemary in the film, but Duke was cast in the lead role in the sequel: Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976). Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon returned as Minnie Castevet for the follow-up.