WHO Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars: 1927-1943 (Book Review)

who won whysoblu-001Many people have thoughts on how accurate the Oscars are.  Many people wish certain things could have happened differently on Hollywood’s biggest night.  Many people are also unaware of how much history repeats itself.  Author Robert James has taken it upon himself to provide a very thorough look, from his perspective, at the history of the Oscars with his book, WHO Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars, which is just Volume One of a multi-volume book series.  It should honestly not have taken me so long to finally let more people know about this book.  Call it a busy schedule and obligations regarding my weekly movie reviews, but as both a film fan (to say the least) and a history lover (it was my major), I was really happy to dive into this book and take in a lot of insight in regards to where the Oscars began and what can come from a detailed analysis of every winner and nominee, from a much more current (and humorous) point of view.  Continue on to learn more about the first volume of Robert James book series, WHO Won?!?

Here is the official book synopsis, for a proper lowdown:

If you’ve ever wondered why the Oscars seem to go to the wrong movies, WHO Won?!? is the book for you. Beginning with the first Oscar ceremony, Robert James looks at all the major categories, slashing and burning his way through the bad, praising the good, and offering the best for your consideration. A comic, biting analysis of hundreds of films, WHO Won?!? is a guide to the wonderful movies you missed – and a warning against the ones you should never have seen in the first place. Volume One, 1927-1943 covers the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the death of the silent picture to the heights of studio Hollywood. Year by year, the author considers and discusses the Academy’s choices, as well as those which should have been nominated, finishing each category with those which should have won.  He often includes some of the history behind the making of the films, as well as how the movies reflect on America. More than just an examination of the choices the Academy made (or should have made), WHO Won?!? provides a yearbook of American cinema, both glorious and disastrous.  Deftly switching from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, WHO Won?!? will leave you both laughing and thinking.

A pleasant set of circumstances led to me beginning my interactions with Robert James and learning of his book, which I was excited to delve into.  While very thorough, I was continually interested in the material for two main reasons:  my love for film and my interest in the historical aspect associated with the Oscars.  Certainly helping was the tone of the book, which mixes up the informative nature of the material with a fitting sense of humor, as opposed to just being a very dry read.  Given that the content of the book almost plays like a subjective encyclopedia on the Oscars, the easy risk in taking on such a topic could have been the fact that the prose was not as enjoyable as the subject matter.  Fortunately, James manages to keep the reader entertained with his writing style, even as he delves into the specifics of who really deserved Best Director in 1933 or what the reason was that Best Cinematography could have went another way in 1941.

Structure-wise, WHO Won?!? is designed to be easily accessible for the reader.  Each section is the same, as James recaps the Oscar ceremony of the year; calling out the host, the location, and the various winners of the evening.  He then provides further insight into these winners, followed by delivering his opinions on what the Oscars got right that year, along with what they got wrong and failed to consider.  Making this structure really work is how the book’s various sections do not necessarily depend on each other.  By this I mean that one can jump around to different years, depending on general interest in the films being represented.  For example, there may be a lot of people that want to know about James’ thoughts on the 12th Academy Awards, given that it took place in February, 1940, and deals with the films from 1939, which includes many well-known features such as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Stagecoach, among others.  Because there is an established format for each section, the reader can easily bounce around different years, even using the book as a reference of sorts.

As a film lover, it was really a joy to read about so many films.  Despite my own knowledge on film in general, the fact that this is the first volume of WHO Won?!? led to me finding a lot of insight into much older films that I just have not had the chance to see.  It was both a very interesting retrospective of sorts, as well as a good way for me to take notes on what films to add to my Netflix queue.  Having all the facts about the Oscar ceremonies of this timespan and a description of who actually won every Oscar for each year, followed by a dissection of all the different categories really brought out many of my own opinions, given what I was aware of with certain filmmakers.  This was, of course, especially apparent, as I got to the years where I was much more familiar with the films being discussed, and even more so when I disagreed with James, despite how well he argues his points.

Being one who enjoys history, the way James sets the scene with each year of Oscar to better provide context for the time made the book quite enjoyable to read as well.  He brings up many good points in regards to other actors and filmmakers of the time and what would eventually transpire in regards to them, which goes well with the various conclusions he develops in regards to how the Oscars seem to function in general.  Again, while I cannot attest for all the films that Robert James has written about, given that he has done so much thorough research and I can only rely on general interest and a certain level of knowledge regarding these Golden Age films, I can certainly say that he has really put in all the work to properly focus his opinions and arguments.

Shortly after having already started reading the book, I had the pleasure of interacting with Robert James and it is quite evident that he is very passionate about this project.  I would certainly want that to be the case, given that this first volume alone is 600+ pages, but being able to acknowledge how much work must have been done to complete one section of this series, let alone the first volume, as a piece of writing that is very engaging is very much a grand accomplishment.  While I am looking forward to the years ahead, as my personal film knowledge does become more expansive as time moves forward, this first volume of WHO Won?!? is easily one I would recommend to people with a love for this Classical Age in Hollywood cinema or history involving the Oscars.  WHO Won?!? may have “ irreverent” as a part of its title, but it is also insightful and engaging, with its entertainingly opinionated regards to films that either deserved more praise or were loved too much.

Order your copy of WHO Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars: 1927-1943 in either paperback or Kindle form here:


Robert James will return this July with WHO Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars: 1944-1952 (Volume 2), followed by Volume 3 this Christmas!

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Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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