16th Academy Awards (1943) – Part I

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  • Casablanca, Michael Curtiz*
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sam Wood
  • Heaven Can Wait, Ernst Lubitsch
  • The Human Comedy, Clarence Brown
  • In Which We Serve, Noël Coward
  • Madame Curie, Mervyn LeRoy
  • The More the Merrier, George Stevens
  • The Ox-Bow Incident, William A. Wellman
  • The Song of Bernadette, Henry King
  • Watch on the Rhine, Herman Shumlin

1943 was an odd year, I have to say—and not because Western Easter fell on the latest possible date, April 25, which won’t happen again until 2038 (book your holiday now).[1] No, I was thinking more odd in the sense that a rather reliable trend I’ve observed thus far in these Academy Awards has been disrupted. In almost every year until now, the nominated films have, with a few minor deviations, been close to one another in terms of quality, and the winner is often not noticeably in another class (with a few notable exceptions, such as It Happened One Night and All Quiet on the Western Front).

In 1943, however, the winner was Casablanca, indisputably one of the greatest films ever made, and after watching the other nominees, I get the impression that the Academy knew they had the winner in the bag and just filled out the field with the first nine films they could think of. Granted, there were two genuinely great ones in there, which I’ll get to in a moment, but for the most part this was a really lazy selection.

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I started the year off with Heaven Can Wait, which is not to be confused with the 1978 Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait, itself a remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan…which is based on a play called Heaven Can Wait.

This Heaven Can Wait is directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and tells the story of Harry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), a man who, upon dying, meets with Lucifer to ask for admission into hell, as he is convinced that he doesn’t deserve to go to heaven. He pleads his case for his dastardliness, and being that this is a film from Lubitsch I expected a biting, dark, yet ultimately optimistic tale with that special “Lubitsch touch” we’ve seen before in films like Ninotchka and The Smiling Lieutenant.

Alas, no such luck. Van Cleve’s tale paints him as a rather colorless, caricatured version of…well, of Don Ameche. He’s a superficially smooth-talking gadabout, fun to watch until you realize he’s actually not as charming or funny as the film would have you believe. This revelation takes place about seven minutes in, so the remainder is a rather limp affair that ends with a whimper when, to his surprise and no one else’s, he is turned away from hell and told to try the “other place.”

The film wastes its talent both in front of and behind the camera, and also suffers from its strict adherence to the narrative structure of only showing vignettes that take place on several of Van Cleve’s birthdays. By doing this, it not only relegates many events of his life to expositional dialogue, but also strains credibility by expecting the audience to buy that the ones it does show us all happen to fall on the same date year after year.

Not a great start. But it only got worse from here.

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Gary Cooper returns to the role of Ernest Hemingway Protagonist in For Whom the Bell Tolls. He plays the part as if Hemingway wrote it for him…which, according to Cooper’s daughter, Hemingway did. In other words, Gary Cooper is here playing Gary Cooper as envisioned by Ernest Hemingway after seeing him in A Farewell to Arms and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Since the cast is a damned good one, all of the performances are solid and credible, but since this yet another Sam Wood film, none of them is particularly noteworthy or challenges the respective actor to venture outside his or her comfort zone. Despite this, or maybe because of it, For Whom the Bell Tolls became the third film to score nominations in all four acting categories (after My Man Godfrey in 1936 and Mrs. Miniver in 1942, both of which actually deserved it). It was a weak year in the Supporting Actress category, so Katina Paxinou won it for this film.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a proficient film, but not a particularly memorable one. Like I said, the performances are stellar but not outstanding, and as usual the best thing one can say about Sam Wood’s direction is that he didn’t ruin anything. Unfortunately, the choice to shoot the film in Technicolor harms rather than enhances it…most of it takes place on a desert mountain or inside a cave, places where colors just do not “pop,” and I think it would have been better if it were in black and white. (In fact most of the color nominees so far have not really warranted being in color…only The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind really made good use of it.)

It’s sad that the most interesting thing I can say about this film is that it indirectly saved one of the iconic aspects of Casablanca: the song “As Time Goes By”. It seems that Ingrid Bergman went straight from that film to this one, and cut her hair short in order to play the role of Maria. Soon after, the brains at Warner Bros. decided they didn’t like “As Time Goes By” and wanted to reshoot those scenes, but Bergman’s new hairstyle would have caused continuity issues and so they had to leave it in. No word on what song they had in mind to replace it.

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“I like pie, I like cake…”

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The More the Merrier is a dismal affair, a feeble screwball comedy based on the flawed premise that Jean Arthur is funny and redeemed only by the presence of Joel McCrea and by the fact that it eventually ends. It tells the story of a meddling old man who insists on ruining the lives of everyone he meets, for no better reason than he is a sociopath who lives voyeuristically through his victims. For some reason this is considered endearing when it’s Charles Coburn; likewise his penchant for screaming “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” at random moments is viewed as a loveable quirk instead of evidence of a closed head injury.

Anyway, he arrives in Washington, D.C. during the housing shortage that accompanied World War II, and ignores the countless destitute and starving masses to concentrate his energy on setting up the first two people he meets. These happen to be Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, whose characters combined have all the personality and agency of a potato, so it’s only a matter of shuffling languidly through The Big Book of Screwball Comedy Tropes until they end up married. Naturally, this means breaking up her engagement to John Q. Wrongguy, but since she’s a woman in a romantic comedy Coburn has little difficulty in convincing her that she’s made the wrong decision in every aspect of her life, and that security matters little next to the prospect of hijinks.

At the time, this picture was a delightful distraction for a nation at war, but time has not been kind to it. I only trudged through it because I am morally obligated to in the interests of this blog…which is, sad to say, rapidly becoming the theme of 1943.

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I wasted two hours of my life watching this film, and I refuse to waste more writing about it. Suffice it to say that at least Trader Horn was so bad it was funny, and fun to critique…this one just left me feeling like humanity was a mistake. Let’s move on.

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Then came the only film of the year actually set in a warzone, In Which We Serve, which was Noel Coward’s unsuccessful attempt to do a Powell/Pressburger film. He wrote, directed, produced the film, as well as composing its score and starring as the stiff-upper-lipped captain of a warship in the Mediterranean theater—and just in case the audience was still unsure who was behind the film his name appears no less than seven times in the opening credits.

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“I’d name my character after myself as well, but ‘Captain Coward’ just doesn’t have the right ring to it.”

It’s a decent wartime film–alternating between the dashed stoic crew of the Torrin and their equally proper and decent families back home, concluding with the promise that Britain will soldier on and defeat the Hun–but coming after 49th Parallel and Mrs. Miniver, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Coward, by design or simply because he was rather unversed in filmmaking, does not disguise the fact that this film is pure propaganda, and the result comes across as didactic and more than a little patronizing. It doesn’t cover any ground not already dealt with in 49th Parallel or Miniver, and doesn’t bring anything new to the issues—consequently it doesn’t rise above the level of “movie made in wartime Britain to lift the spirits of the populace,” as those films do.

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Ah, the Golden Globes. They debuted this year, and have been struggling to seem as prestigious as the Academy Awards ever since. And damn it, they have tried hard. The decision in 1952 to split their Best Picture award into two categories, Drama and Comedy/Musical, for example, is something many have wished the Oscars would do (I don’t, for reasons I’ve been meaning to write about here). Often there is a large overlap between the winners of the two awards…there has never been a year in which at least one of the major categories (Picture, Director, and the acting awards) has not been the same, and a few in which they’ve all corresponded.

But if you ask me, the Golden Globes lost their credibility pretty much immediately by awarding their first Best Picture to The Song of Bernadette.

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While the Oscars waited a good 78 years before giving up theirs.

It’s not a bad movie, really—beyond being saccharine, predictable, and melodramatic—and it’s definitely top half in the nominees this year. However, it didn’t leave much of an impact with me because the end, and moral, of the story is evident from the opening frame:

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Subtle.

The “true” story of a French peasant girl’s visions of an angelic lady (incorrectly identified as the Virgin Mary by everyone except the girl herself) in Lourdes in the 19th century, The Song of Bernadette relies entirely on an uncomplicated “religious good vs. secular evil” plot and characterization throughout—there’s no doubt that the message of the film is that Bernadette Soubirous’ visions were genuine and that Lourdes is a bona fide holy place. It’s not very subtle in this mission, either, from the use of cherubic music to the muddling up of historic figures, but nothing screams “Lourdes is real” more than the performance of Jennifer Jones in the title role.

Jones won Best Actress for her role as Bernadette (her first starring performance), even though it’s hard to say just where in the film she does any acting. All of her lines are delivered in the same dreamy, singsongy voice, with the same beatific expression on her face…never once in the film is she anything but pure, innocent, and all around loveable.

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This is a .gif.

Small wonder everyone thinks she’s insane, but regardless, it’s not a performance on par with, say, Ingrid Bergman’s in For Whom the Bell Tolls (or Casablanca, for which she was not nominated) or Greer Garson’s in Madame Curie. Hell, she doesn’t even sing a song.

In any case, it’s a marked improvement over the films I’ve discussed so far, if only in quality of filmmaking from a technical and pacing standpoint. It’s a good precedent as I move to the second crop of films this year, coming soon! (Really!)


[1] Of course, for Eastern Orthodox, Easter regularly falls in May, due to the drift between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. It could occur as late as May 8. So, April 25 is rather unimpressive.

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6 thoughts on “16th Academy Awards (1943) – Part I

  1. Pingback: 16th Academy Awards (1943) – Part II | Oscars and I

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  4. Pingback: Trivial Matters #29 – Best Picture Acting Nominees | Oscars and I

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