They Wuz Robbed! 1942
Won: Mrs. Miniver
Robbed: Sullivan's Travels
If I had my way, nearly every historical epic and sentimental weeper that has ever won Best Picture would have to hand its prize over to the best lean, literate comedy released the same year. In my Bizarro World Oscars, The Life of Emile Zola rolls over for The Awful Truth, Ben-Hur bows to Some Like It Hot, Out of Africa makes way for Lost in America. And Mrs. Miniver is first in line to hand over the goods. Sure, this prim soaper about an English family maintaining good cheer and prize roses in the face of Nazi bombs did wonders for wartime morale, but Miniver's power as a work of cinema dissipated when Berlin fell. (Especially after audiences set eyes on franker films about the war's domestic fallout, such as 1946's Best Picture winner, The Best Years of Our Lives, also directed by Miniver's William Wyler.)
What deserves Miniver's trophy? Writer/ director Preston Sturges' non-nominated Sullivan's Travels, which boldly blends serious drama into its comic tale of a Hollywood dream-weaver who stumbles into a nightmare. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a director of high-grossing froth who hankers to be a serious artist; he wants to direct a ponderous tale of poverty and degradation called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Sure sounds like Best Picture material, doesn't it?) Deciding that he lacks sufficient street cred to do justice to O Brother, Sullivan sets off to live the life of a hobo. Sturges' dialogue zips and his story enthralls, but this is more than just a well-crafted comedy. It takes up the timeless battle of entertainment vs. enlightenment, wades into the messy intersection of show biz and politics, and offers up a possibly ironic message about how the rich and mighty receive a finer brand of justice in America. Sullivan's Travels has never lost its relevance, and that's what makes a classic--and a Best Picture.