Instead of my usual Friday Classic Movie Pick I am submitting my blog post for the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon which is being hosted by 3 wonderful classic film fans. You can visit their blogs via wordpress: Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. At these blogs you will find interesting and fun articles about the Academy Awards through the years, from 1928 to the present. Read about the backstage stuff, who won, who was snubbed, Oscar fashions of the past, it is all there.
My post for the blogathon is about the 1948 Academy Awards and the shock that awaited actress Rosalind Russell. She was the hands-down expected winner for Best Actress that year and she didn’t win! How did this happen? Several theories are out there, but I will be focusing on only one as the most likely reason for her to have lost the coveted Oscar statuette.
Variety, the entertainment newspaper, decided to publish a poll, showing who most people thought would win the awards in the major categories at the Academy Awards that year. The nominees for Best Actress were: Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward, Dorothy McGuire, Rosalind Russell, and Loretta Young. Crawford was nominated for the film Possessed, playing a woman driven to madness over an unrequited love for a man. Susan Hayward was nominated for the film Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, playing a woman who turns to alchohol to solve her problems. Dorothy McGuire was nominated for the film Gentleman’s Agreement, playing a woman who has to confront her bigoted attitude towards those of the Jewish religion. Rosalind Russell was nominated for the film Mourning becomes Electra, playing a woman who discovers shocking family secrets and decides to rain down justice and revenge on her mother. Loretta Young was nominated for the film The Farmer’s Daughter, playing a nursing student who takes a job as a maid for a political powerhouse family and changes their attitudes for the better. Variety began to trumpet the poll’s picks and Rosalind Russell was their announced winner for best actress for 1948.
How did that happen? Well, Henry Rogers, a publicist who had helped Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland win their best actress Oscars two years prior, contacted Russell’s husband to inform him that he could help put Russell out there into the public eye, and that that would help her to win the Oscar. Russell and her husband agreed to Roger’s plans. First, he got a casino in Las Vegas to post their betting odds on the Academy Awards, showing that Rosalind Russell had 6-5 odds . Second, he had local Los Angeles groups give out their own “awards” or endorsements to Russell: Los Angeles PTA said she was the Actress of the Year, a UCLA sorority said Russell was Hollywood’s Best Actress, and a USC fraternity hailed Russell the Outstanding Actress of the 20th Century! Third, Russell did win the Golden Globe for best actress and Rogers made sure that was announced a lot, and fourth, Rogers made sure that newspapers printed remarks by movie critics across the country hailing Russell’s performance in Mourning becomes Electra .
The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was the site that evening of March 20th for the Academy Awards. The show was to begin at 8:15 p.m., and the fans had lined up for hours before to see their favorite stars emerge from their limousines and take their walk on the red carpet. It was a cold night that March, with high winds and a temperature of 30 degrees. The actresses appeared, many in strapless gowns and fur wraps, smiling and seeming unaffected by the cold. Joan Crawford wore a white crepe dress covered in silver bugle beads. Susan Hayward was wearing a very expensive dress with a long train that her husband had to protect all evening from others shoes! I couldn’t find out what Dorothy McGuire wore, but Loretta Young chose an emerald green silk taffeta dress. Rosalind Russell had hired Paramount Pictures Studio Costume Designer Travis Banton to make her gown of white with shocking pink highlights. ABC broadcast the show via radio, with an estimated audience of 45 million listeners.
The order of the awards was mixed-up from their usual order on purpose to make each award seem more special. Variety wrote that this was done “so that there won’t be a rush for the exits when the big awards are made.” The last award of the night was finally presented and it was for Best Actress. So far, Variety’s polls had been dead-on, with all of their projected predictions coming true. Many in the audience decided that Russell was probably the winner and some began to vacate their seats in order to head to their limos and get a head start on all of the after parties. Actor Fredric March approached the microphone, envelope in hand, to make the big announcement. As he began to read the name on the card, Russell began to get up from her seat. March suddenly did a double-take and announced in a surprised voice that the winner was Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter! There was an audible gasp in the auditorium and Young went on stage, in shock herself, to accept her Oscar. As Variety wrote,”…the gasp that arose from the audience when Miss Young’s name was read by Fredric March just about matched the heaviest gust whipping around the Shrine Auditorium!”
Rosalind put on a good face about it all, telling her husband that they would indeed hit all of the after parties. She spent quite a bit of time consoling her dress designer, Travis Banton, who was crushed that she didn’t win and that the dress wouldn’t be getting as much publicity. Russell and her husband went to the party that Darryl Zanuck, studio head at 20th Century Fox was hosting at Mocambo and there the press had a field day with photographing Russell hugging Young for her win. The next morning, Young spoke to the press about her win and she added in her statement,” My only regret is Rosalind Russell. And don’t say ‘poor Roz’ because she will go on to win an Academy Award and then some. But it was cruel for the polls to come out and say that she was going to win.” No hard feelings between the two actresses existed and later when Young had her popular television show airing in the 1950s, she twice needed a guest host and she chose Rosalind Russell, who agreed to do so both times.
I have seen both movies, The Farmer’s Daughter and Mourning becomes Electra. Both Young and Russell gave outstanding perfomances in their roles. I think that the reason Young won over Russell was due to the content of the films. The Farmer’s Daugther is a charming little movie, about a Swedish-American young lady, on her way to the Capital City to enroll at a college for nurses. Her name is Katrin Holstrom and she is the only girl in a family of boys. She is a hard worker and despite being robbed of her savings enroute to the college, she diligently finds another job as a maid for a family whose matriarch is a political boss of sorts, and whose son is a congressman. Katrin is smart, full of common sense, good will, and very pretty to boot, which doesn’t escape the congressman. It is a drama, comedy and a romance all rolled up into one movie and audiences loved it. Mourning becomes Electra was a play penned by Eugene O’Neill, and it appeared on Broadway in 1931. O’Neill took the Greek tragedy of Orestes and set it in Post-Civil War New England. Russell played Lavinia Mannon, who adores her father and brother, who are both now home after fighting in the war. She tolerates her mother who dotes on her son, Orin(Michael Redgrave in another outstanding performance and he was nominated for Best Actor that same year), to the point of smothering him with her mother- love. Since it is a Greek tragedy, there is murder, adultery, that mother-son complex, and revenge. It is a serious drama, nothing light, funny or bright. I think that audiences appreciated the lighter fare of The Farmer’s Daughter and that that is why Young ultimately won the award and not the expected Rosalind Russell.
For further reading about all of the Academy Awards, from the beginning up to the mid-80’s, check out the book Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, published by Ballentine Books, 1986. I found it a fascinating read and it was wonderful for the research of this blog post.