18th Academy Awards (1945)

220px-The_Lost_Weekend_poster

  • The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder*
  • Anchors Aweigh, George Sidney
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s, Leo McCarey
  • Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz
  • Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock

 


In 1945, peace broke out, and Hollywood began to reintegrate itself into civilian life. For the most part, it was wildly successful: the innovations of the war years would continue to influence the studios’ output throughout the remainder of the decade, and with their attention shifted from morale-boosting and heroic depictions of wartime sacrifice, this led to some truly great films that certainly would not have been made had it not been for the war (in terms of both subject matter and filmmaking technique).

The nominees for Best Picture this year reflect the Academy’s search for just what the Oscars would mean in the postwar years: only one of the films, Anchors Aweigh, was released before Japan’s surrender and dealt with the armed forces in a significantly more whimsical way than those we’ve seen in 1940-44; two of the films were lighthearted and escapist, while three (including the winner) dealt with darker subjects such as alcoholism and psychological abuse; and four of the five films were amongst the top five highest grossing films of 1945 (excluding only the winner, The Lost Weekend, which came in at #11). And as we’ll see, their choice for Best Picture set several precedents.

Mildred-Pierce-One-Sheet

I started the year with Mildred Pierce, an extremely odd movie that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a noir or a melodrama and thus decides to utilize cliches from both genres. It opens with a murder, and it also closes with one, if you count having one’s Saturday afternoon killed by the act of watching it. The film is mostly recounted in flashback, as Mildred tells her life story to the police–despite it having absolutely no legal bearing on the crime–and thus turns what might have been a decent five-minute scene in a different, better film into the whole damn movie.

Basically, the titular Mildred Pierce is a housewife-turned-restauranteur, who finds success but loses everything because she can’t stop spoiling her sponging, unintelligent, completely reprehensible daughter. I tried to make the plot seem more interesting, but I didn’t want to mislead anyone…that’s really what the film is about, and while it tosses in noir bits, it really should have been made by someone like Douglas Sirk rather than Michael Curtiz.

The film features absolutely zero relatable or three-dimensional characters, choosing instead to rely on hackneyed caricatures and shrill, one-note performances. The protagonist is presented as an independent, resourceful woman whose tragic flaw is caring too much about her daughter, but in fact she is agonizingly stupid, lacking any kind of forethought or consideration for consequences. Joan Crawford does her best–she won the Oscar for this against better competition–but the script gives her no help whatsoever, so she is forced to guess at Mildred Pierce’s nonexistent motivations and the result seems pretty slipshod now.

The film, as I alluded to above, is framed around a murder, which turns out to be perpetrated by Mildred’s ridiculous daughter, and it ends with said daughter being hauled off to jail. Naturally, I thought, this is a classic Production Code ending, as the guilty party is brought to justice. But then I read about the novel on which the film is based, and found out there is no murder in it. This is probably the most bizarre application of the Code I’ve yet encountered: they took a story and added a goddamn murder to it, just so that the “evil” character can be punished for her misdeeds, even though none of the rest qualifies as a crime.

mildred_pierce03“I’d like to report a morally questionable personality. That’s right, hates apple pie. Get the electric chair ready.”

Bells_st_marys

After Mildred Pierce‘s, um…piercing social commentary on how being a bad person always leads to jail, the Academy needed a palate-cleanser and returned to the themes and character that won Best Picture in 1944. The Bells of St. Mary’s follows Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley as he moves on to a different parish, which is in even deeper financial straits than the one in Going my Way because instead of Barry Fitzgerald, they hired Ingrid Bergman. Crosby was again nominated for Best Actor, the first time a performer was nominated twice for the same character in different films.

While it’s not quite the same situation as The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, there are still enough similarities between St. Mary’s and its Best Picture-winning predecessor for me to class it more as a remake, or at least a reimagining, rather than a sequel. Father O’Malley arrives to lend his incomparable baritone to a church that needs a financial miracle, fixes the problems of the local youth, and changes the lives of all whom he meets for the better. Meanwhile Ingrid Bergman does the same thing with a Swedish accent and gets tuberculosis for her trouble.

It’s a silly film, with characters developing often only because the script tells them to. When I talked about Going my Way I mentioned that I’m not a fan of films with no dramatic arc, and St. Mary’s admittedly has one, but it’s done in the most ludicrously shoehorned manner and thus completely worthless. It’s one of two feel-good films on the slate this year, and it fails to deliver…unlike the other one.

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I do so love Gene Kelly. The first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain was a revelation, and I’ve seen most of his films multiple times, because the man is so goddamned talented and entertaining. It is utterly impossible to not feel good while watching him dance, whether it’s on the street with his own reflection, on an empty stage with a newspaper and a creaky floorboard, in an expressionist nightclub with Cyd Charisse, or on roller-skates (those aren’t just random examples, they’re my favorite Gene Kelly dances).

This film, Anchors Aweigh, was the first of three he made with Frank Sinatra, and got him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (which he justly lost to Ray Milland, but even so it’s tough). The story, as it tends to be in musicals, is rudimentary and barely necessary: two young navy boys on four-day shore leave, singing and dancing their way to love. Like many Gene Kelly films there are moments of pure fantasy mixed in (beyond the usual fantasy of people breaking into perfectly-synchronized songs and dances throughout their day), such as this jolly sequence courtesy of the MGM animation department:


His co-stars wished he was this nice when he was choreographing them.

It’s the most lightweight film I’ve seen nominated since The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which is by no means a criticism–I merely mean that it’s played purely for entertainment. I didn’t time it, but I would guess that the ratio between plot development and musical interludes (songs, dances, and orchestral performances at the Hollywood Bowl) is roughly 50/50. And damn it, it succeeds completely.

Kelly would go on to make Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On the Town with Sinatra–both great films with plot elements borrowed from this one–and he would go on to become ever more ambitious and innovative with his films–we’ll be getting to An American in Paris and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain in a few years–but I was pleased to see that Anchors Aweigh scored a Best Picture nomination. It seems like it represented the freedom and optimism the Academy felt in early 1946, now that the war was over, to nominate a film set in the armed forces but completely whimsical. Still, they didn’t give it the award, and one year after Going my Way that’s a significant step.

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David O. Selznick wanted to educate the public on the wonders of psychoanalysis after his own positive experiences with it, and since he had Alfred Hitchcock under contract he assigned the task to him. And Hitchcock being Hitchcock, he took this rather odd demand and made an amazing film out of it, as he was wont to do. Spellbound features Ingrid Bergman as a brilliant young psychologist working at a sanitarium, who falls in love with the new director when she finds out he looks like Gregory Peck. She subsequently shields him from the law when it comes to light, in typical Hitchcock fashion, that he is not in fact the man he claims to be but is an amnesiac who may also be a murderer.

The film takes Selznick’s dictum to heart, and features several wonderfully written, directed, and acted sequences in which Bergman’s character deploys her psychoanalytic skills to discover the provenance of Peck’s mental affliction and, since this is Hollywood after all, “cure” him in the end. Overall the film stands up very well, and even the obligatory Code ending is handled so well by Hitchcock as to be seamless, and the public loved it (it was the second-highest grossing film of 1945, after The Bells of St. Mary’s). As we’ve seen with Since You Went Away, however, Selznick was not always a positive influence on his own pictures.

For what would probably have become one of the more celebrated sequences of the period, Hitchcock brought no less than in Salvador Dali to design a pivotal dream sequence in which several pieces of Peck’s psychological puzzle fall into place. Their creation, according to Bergman, lasted a full twenty minutes, but was deemed too long by Selznick and was thus cut in favor of a two-minute piece largely directed by (admittedly gifted) production designer William Cameron Menzies, and all of Hitchcock and Dali’s footage is now lost.

In any other year, Spellbound wins Best Picture, and possibly Hitchcock actually wins his much-deserved but never-received Best Director award. However, the Academy knew 1945 was a pivotal year in so many ways, and decided to go bigger.

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Billy Wilder had a hell of a time getting The Lost Weekend made, because like Double Indemnity it was without precedent and thus looked, from the studio’s perspective, like a disaster waiting to happen. High on the list of concerns was the subject matter, and the grim, uncompromising manner in which it was treated. Prior to The Lost Weekend, drunks on stage and screen were presented as comic relief, lovable characters who usually dispensed sage advice and witty bon mots between innocent tipples. They were the kind of stock caricature that one would imagine Charles Coburn playing, not a leading man like Ray Milland.

This film was the first to show alcoholism as a dismal, crippling existence, replacing martinis with 50-cent bottles of rye, swanky nightclubs with a dive bar and a dingy apartment, and tipsy, lovable abandon with hangovers and self-loathing. It opens with Don Birnam at a time when his alcoholism has already all but alienated everyone in his life–including his long-suffering brother who now stays with him more out of a sense of duty than anything else–as he is about to leave on a trip to a farm in the country, far from the temptations of his city life. Instead, he plunges into a four day booze-soaked nightmare.

Even today, the film’s raw, gritty depiction of Birnam’s lost weekend (played with powerful conviction by Ray Milland, who received one of the most deserved acting Oscars in Academy history) is difficult to watch. The studio was convinced that a film with such adult subject matter, and which daringly but realistically offered barely a glimmer of hope at the end, would be a loser, but against all wisdom the film was a hit upon its release in November. Coming as it did just after the end of the war, the film struck a particular chord with returning veterans, many of whom attempted to find solace from their PTSD and the difficulties of returning to civilian life through drinking.

While I was researching the film, and before I watched it (for a second time…I saw it first a couple of years ago), I found out that it was originally released without a musical score, something completely unheard of since well before the “sound” film. Audiences reacted extremely negatively, Miklós Rózsa was brought in to score it, and upon re-release it did much better. He did a fantastic job, using the theremin to great effect, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the film would play without non-diegetic music. Upon watching it, I realized just how near-constant the score is, which is not uncommon for films of the period, and found myself wishing it was a bit less obtrusive.

Based only on my imagination and my own tastes, I’m inclined to believe that the non-scored version would be even more powerful, gritty, and effective than the film already is–other, similar films such as The Panic in Needle Park (1972) realized sometimes the most intense use of music is its absence. Wilder was incredibly bold to choose this route and it’s sad that we can’t see the fruits of his labor…unfortunately, no print of the non-scored version exists, or if it does I’m not aware of it. In any case, the film is still amazing, still one of my favorites.

As I’ve said many times, I’ve been looking forward greatly to covering the latter half of the 1940s, when Hollywood started to try and make sense of the postwar world, and the Academy rewarded such efforts by focusing on films that dealt frankly with contemporary societal issues. It’s a good time for Oscars and I. To 1946!

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An “Oscars and I” clip show

Well, the passage of time continues as steadily as ever, and tonight it has been one year since the first post on Oscars and I. In that year, I have covered trivial matters, posted a list of all the films I’ve seen, and, not least, watched and reviewed 144 of the 148 films nominated for Best Picture up to and including the 17th Academy Awards.

Of those 144 films, some have been good, some bad…some exceptionally brilliant, some abysmally terrible. But being the eternal optimist that I am, in looking back on the first year of this blog I’m more inclined to focus on the exceptionally brilliant, of which there were many. And what better way to recap, I thought, than to share a collection of scenes from those films that I have enjoyed most thus far.

The Crowd (1928) was the first film I watched for Oscars and I, and to be sure it was a grand beginning. This film was ridiculously ahead of its time (aside from lacking sound, of course) and its gritty and unflinching realism would go unmatched for another seventeen years. And it’s just so quaint to see a film from an era when happy scenes were shot at Coney Island.

My earliest discovery, Maurice Chevalier, who in this scene from The Love Parade stepped onto the balcony and singlehandedly invented the Hollywood musical.

Oh, Trader Horn. Of all the films I’ve watched so far it has been the most gloriously bad. But unlike some others I could mention (Cimarron, for instance), this one becomes entertaining by virtue of its abysmal writing, acting, and directing…and for this ridiculous scene that beautifully sums up the whole picture.

42nd Street (1933) is not a good film by any stretch, but it’s worth it just for the deliriously fantastical climactic musical number, showing off the ever-expanding possibilities of film as the performance grows beyond the world of the Broadway theatre and into imagination.

I’ve seen it a few times now and I still don’t understand the murder, nor the word “ASBESTOS” on the curtain at the end, but a lot of things in musicals don’t make sense.

For my money, The Thin Man is the finest film to come out of 1934, and if you pressed me for a top five for the decade it would make it easily. It Happened One Night might have swept the top awards that year, but this amazing comedy-murder mystery has held up the best in the eighty-one years since.

Ah, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer…who cares that they’re ridiculously too old to play Romeo and Juliet? To be honest I never cared for the play because it’s just a story of two immature idiots, but if I just take this scene out of context and imagine it’s just these two inimitable humans declaring their love for one another, it makes total sense.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is a great film overall, but I remember it most for introducing me (and, at the time, America) to the amazing Greer Garson. This clip gets me every time, it’s just so adorable. If there is one scene from any film that I hope will one day come true in my life, it’s this one (ideally real life would also include Greer Garson, but one can’t have everything).

I’ve posted this scene from Rebecca (1940) in my entry on the 13th Academy Awards, but I can’t help it…it’s still one of my favorite scenes from any film. So well directed, Olivier and Fontaine at the top of their game, the blocking and camerawork perfect complements to the action. Just superb.

Greer Garson being lovely again, this time with Ronald Colman. Damn it, I want this scene to happen to me, too. Oh, why couldn’t she have ever made a film with Leslie Howard?

And how better to end this look back than with the conclusion of Casablanca? Not that schmaltzy “here’s looking at you, kid.” No, the real relationship driving this film is between Rick and Louis, and watching their beautiful friendship begin is a most satisfying way to wrap up Oscar and I’s first year.

17th Academy Awards (1944)

GoingmywayBing

  • Going My Way, Leo McCarey*
  • Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder
  • Gaslight, George Cukor
  • Since You Went Away, John Cromwell
  • Wilson, Henry King

Well, after the selection at the 16th Awards the Academy was justly ashamed, and realized that ten nominees was too many.

And boy, does it feel weird. After watching 120 of 122 films during the “more than five nominees” era[1] (eight in 1931/32; ten in 1932/33; twelve in 1934 and 1935; and then ten a year until 1943…more than a fifth of all nominated films), watching just five films for 1944, and the prospect of watching only five a year from now until 2009, is leaving me feeling a bit hollow inside. I’ll be watching many public domain films on YouTube to assuage the withdrawal pains.

But maybe it’s not the number of nominees that’s getting me down, but the fact that three of the five are pretty bad this year–I’m not used to such a concentration after getting at least five quality nominees per year over the past twelve Academy Awards. I’m anxious to get to the postwar years, when the Academy, free from the shackles of awarding propaganda–sometimes incredibly amazing propaganda, but still propaganda–suddenly decided to be socially conscious.

It can’t come too soon, because it seems that by 1944 the steam had definitely gone out of the wartime film industry. I mean, the dearth of quality films in 1943 was certainly a sign that the peak years of 1940-42 were over, but this year just confirms it: Hollywood, once invigorated and energized by World War II, now desperately needed peace. Fortunately (for this and many other, better reasons), it was not long in coming.

220px-Wilson-1944

First up was Wilson, a needlessly Technicolor love letter to Woodrow Wilson about how he never once made a bad decision or acted from motivations other than Truth, Justice and the American Way. Alexander Knox is a fine actor, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with here–literally every scene is merely a tediously-staged setup for a grandstanding, moralistic Wilson monologue, and they must have realized that none of the other characters was important because everyone else sounds like they’re reading off cue cards while thinking about what the commissary is serving for lunch.

I mentioned before that it is needlessly Technicolor, but I suppose that from a modern perspective it does serve an illustrative function, to show us a 1944 where directors were still struggling with how best to employ the technology. One of the few good things I can say about Gone with the Wind is that it utilized color gloriously; other color films such as The Wizard of OzFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and A Star is Born also put it to good use in service of the story. But then again we’ve seen films like Heaven Can Wait that are just in color and look awful.

Wilson belongs in the latter category; it’s a film that gains nothing from being in color and in fact is hurt by it. They do make an effort at using it symbolically–the director and set designer take pains to use different colors prominently depending on the action, with blue prevalent during peacetime and red dominating during the World War I sequences–but it comes across as “we have technology to use on this story” rather than “we have a story that warrants use of this technology.”

Oh, and it’s also tediously paced, unashamedly preachy, and manages to be both disappointingly unsubtle and surprisingly flaccid in its Germany-chiding. And speaking of which…

Since_You_Went_Away

Since You Went Away. Now here’s a film that should have succeeded. Four Oscar winners in the cast (five, if you count Shirley Temple’s special award from 1934), producer of two previous Best Pictures David O. Selznick, a story about the home front…what could go wrong?

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 7.02.48 PM Oh.

It can’t be denied that Selznick was a gifted producer, one of the greats of early Hollywood, but he was no writer, and you can tell he just didn’t give a toss about anything but getting his story onscreen. He clearly had something to say, and my best guess is that his pitch was: “The home front can get awfully lonely, and war is hell, and can we get the British guy from The Pied Piper to be the British guy in this?”

So, with a screenplay written by a non-writer who also happened to be the head of the goddamned production company, Since You Went Away is a predictably slipshod, unfocused mishmash of things Selznick was pretty sure were happening in the homes of average American women whose husbands were off fighting and who knew Joseph Cotten. No cliche is left unturned, including but not limited to: women doing their bit but always capable of a little bit more; curmudgeons learning the value of companionship; young love snuffed by the war; dancing; barn courtship; and the obligatory “daddy’s coming home” ending.

It harps on its single theme for two hours and forty-five minutes. To film the final scene in which Claudette Colbert, Shirley Temple, and Jennifer Jones hug and weep with joy, the director just said “that’s a wrap” and turned on the cameras.

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Gaslight was directed by George Cukor, which proves the W.S. Van Dyke paradigm that even the most average director has at least one classic in them, given the proper material. In this case, said material was quite proper indeed, having been provided tailor-made by British National Films’ 1940 adaptation of Gaslight.

I mean, this is a great film, don’t get me wrong. And it would be unfair, not to mention against the established rules of this project, for me to spend too much time comparing it to the British production (even though the 1940 film is in many ways superior). It would also be unsporting of me to point out that as a condition of acquiring the remake rights, MGM ordered every copy of the 1940 film destroyed to avoid competition/unfavorable comparisons, so I won’t dwell too much on it.

How’d this get here?

As I said, this Gaslight is no slouch either, buoyed in no small part by the monumental talent in front of the camera. Charles Boyer is exceptionally good, Ingrid Bergman more than earned the first of her three Oscars, and Joseph Cotten made up for Since You Went Away. Add to that Angela Lansbury’s unsettlingly disdainful turn as a housemaid bent on Bergman’s destruction, and this version of Gaslight claims its rightful place among the classics of the era. Cukor really didn’t have to do much but point the camera in the right direction.

Still, it falls into the trappings of 1940s Hollywood by being just a bit too convoluted for its own good. I’m thinking particularly of the decision to make Bergman’s character the niece of the woman murdered by Charles Boyer, not to mention the fact that Joseph Cotten’s police inspector also just happens to be an old admirer who takes a personal interest in her plight. These convenient connections are not present in the 1940 film, but does it suffer for it? Indeed not, rather it benefits from not being so cute.

Now, on to a film that was resolvedly not cute…

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Film noir arrived on the scene with Double Indemnity, one of the earliest of the genre and the prototype on which nearly all that followed were based. It was a radical film at the time, not just for its unapologetically amoral protagonists and cynical, unredemptive narrative, but for its genre-defining cinematography and mise-en-scene. Its presence amongst the nominees singlehandedly makes 1944 one of the best years in Oscar history (even though it didn’t win a single one of its seven nominations).

Like most films noir, the story is fairly straightforward: an insurance salesman is sucked into a web of intrigue by a femme fatale with whom he falls in love for no discernible reason, gets in over his head, and must resort to desperate means to find a way out. The brilliance of the film comes from the steady directing of Billy Wilder, the ominous cinematography of John Seitz, and the sure performances of Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson–which are all the more impressive when one considers that they were literally establishing the noir conventions as they went along.

Even though it didn’t win Best Picture, I find the fact that Double Indemnity was among the nominees significant. With some exceptions along the lines of Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes, there haven’t been too many films so far in this project that have demonstrated such grittiness, such willingness to forsake convention and delve into the dark underside of humanity. Not that that necessarily makes a film great, but knowing the kind of films that are coming soon I see Double Indemnity as a harbinger of Hollywood’s willingness, once World War II was concluded, to combine its newfound sense of self and its ever-improving stable of directors with more challenging material.

But like I said, it’s just a glimmer at this point, because instead they decided to award Best Picture to this:

Unknown

I’m not really sure what was happening here, to be honest. Going My Way is a consistently below-average film, the kind I would have expected to see as one of the several unsuccessful lightweights that rounded out the 1943 field. And while it is the source of one of my earliest-learned and favorite bits of Oscar trivia, as a film it does not stand up well.

I generally do not like films with no dramatic arc, so watching Going My Way was a bit of a chore. The story goes: Bing Crosby is a young priest who shows up at a church in need of revitalization, revitalizes it, and leaves to star in The Bells of St. Mary’s (more on that next year). That’s really it; he never encounters a problem that is not instantly solved, a song that is not instantly crooned, or a character who is not saintly (or who does not become saintly by the following scene). The most excited I got was when I recognized the actor who played Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy, probably the first time something related to that show has excited anyone since roughly the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Ah, but that wonderful bit of Oscar trivia I mentioned? 1944 is unique in being the only time a performer has been nominated twice for the same role in the same film. Barry Fitzgerald was up for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for playing Father Fitzgibbon, winning the latter and losing the former to Bing Crosby. A swift rule change ensured this would never happen again, thus cementing Fitzgerald’s place in Oscar history. Also, he would be the last performer nominated in both lead and supporting categories in the same year until Jessica Lange at the 55th Academy Awards.

And so ends 1944, the dawn of the 65-year-long five-nominee era and the last ceremony taking place during World War II. Peace broke out in 1945, and with it a new era of Hollywood and the Oscars, and we’ll dive into that next week!


[1] Devotees will remember that The White Parade (1934) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) must wait for my much-anticipated visit to UCLA.

 

16th Academy Awards (1943) – Part II

(Part I)
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The year got a whole lot better with Watch on the Rhine, one of only three this year that directly features World War II (compared to five in 1942). It’s a tense story of an anti-Nazi activist, Kurt Muller, who arrives incognito in the U.S. with his wife and children, only to be recognized and threatened with exposure by an amoral Czech informant–when his presence is urgently required in Europe he must resort to desperate measures to escape. There are plenty of parallels between this film and Casablanca, which preceded it by about nine months and which features the German patriotic song from which this film takes its title.

Although it’s a competently-made drama, the direction of the film is not outstanding…despite directing the stage play, Herman Shumlin had never directed a film before, and the results speak for themselves. However, he was lucky enough to have a good cast, and so he didn’t have a lot to do. Bette Davis is stellar in one of her few outings as a virtuous person, but Paul Lukas steals the show as Kurt Muller, perfectly embodying the quiet courage of a resistance leader (he was on the shortlist to play Victor Laszlo in Casablanca as well, though I’m happy with Paul Henreid). He deservedly won the Best Actor award for the film.

The backstory of the film’s denouement is perhaps the best example of the utter absurdity of the Hays Production Code. The Code mandated, amongst other ridiculous things, that crime can never be shown to “pay” and that perpetrators of said crimes must always receive some form of punishment, whether through the law or by dying themselves. Here, Kurt Muller kills the informant to avoid being exposed to the Nazis, allowing him to continue fighting against them in Europe; the Hays Office objected to this, as a murderer got off “scot free,” and recommended that, at the film’s end, it be made clear that Muller was subsequently killed by the Nazis to show that he “paid for his crime.”

Obviously the author of the original play objected, and the studio agreed that “murdered by Nazis” did not constitute “justice” and the Hays Office was told what it could do with its recommendation. It was an early defiance of the Code that presaged its ultimate demise, which unfortunately took another twenty years. Ah well…at least they may have saved the ending of Casablanca with their misplaced morality.

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The Ox-Bow Incident is, at 75 minutes, one of the shortest films ever nominated for Best Picture and is, as of 2015, the last film to be nominated solely in that category.[1] It’s not surprising to me that it only got the Best Picture nod–although it is, on the whole, a taut and well-crafted morality tale about the dangers of groupthink, I’d be hard pressed to single out any one aspect of this production that warrants special recognition (of course, I could say the same thing about Grand Hotel, which was similarly single-nominated and won way back in 1931/32).

Basically, Henry Fonda and Colonel Sherman Potter arrive in a small Old West town just as word comes in that a rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen–they join the posse to avoid suspicion, and soon the bloodthirsty townsfolk come upon three men who they immediately assume are guilty. The majority of the film takes place at the suspects’ camp, as the posse deliberates whether or not to lynch them on the spot. The end, which I won’t spoil because it really is worth a watch, is about as dark and cynical as was allowed in a non-noir film in the 1940s.

As I said above, it was nominated for Best Picture and nothing else, an oddity for the time and making The Ox-Bow Incident a sort of throwback to the primitive years of the Oscars, to the time when the Best Picture category was more distinct than it is today. When Grand Hotel won, Best Picture was considered a category almost unto itself, and accordingly the winner rarely coincided with the Best Director, and rarer did a Best Picture take home any acting awards. By 1943 this had changed–a Best Picture was now viewed as the sum of individual parts rather than some mystical “outstanding production.” The Ox-Bow Incident, then, solid as a whole but unremarkable in its parts, stood little chance in this new era.

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Madame Curie is another Greer Garson-Walter Pidgeon vehicle, this time casting them as Poland’s best know (nuclear) power couple, the Curies. Together they turn the scientific world upside-down with their (really, her) discovery of radium, and since they are, as the above poster reminds us, Mr. and Mrs. Miniver in real life, they also fall madly in love. The film is a solid 1940s romance, and the real life story of Pierre and Marie Curie is expertly tailored to fit the personas of Pidgeon and Garson (though one wonders what the film might have been if they’d gone with the original script written by Aldous Huxley).

It’s a good film, definitely top half this year and worthy of Garson’s third consecutive nomination for Best Actress, but it’s not a particularly noteworthy one despite the poster’s unsubtle angling for another Best Picture Oscar. While I am, as you may have gathered already, a massive Garson fan, and Pidgeon is no slouch either, this film is essentially Blossoms in the Dust with radioactivity instead of orphans. And just like in that film, Walter Pidgeon is struck down in the third act, although to be fair his sudden demise works because it is how Pierre Curie actually died.

I will say, though, that the film is beautifully shot and choreographed, much of it recreating photographs of the Curies at work to lend it authenticity, and I enjoyed it very much for that. Also for its general adherence to reality, at least a far greater adherence than I’ve come to expect from biopics of any era.

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I hadn’t seen Casablanca in a couple of years before watching it just now for this entry. Naturally I’ve seen it more than a few times, but one of the consequences of this project has been to give all these classic films a bit of context, and, having a more complete picture of Hollywood in 1942,[2] and the assembly-line production of wartime flicks that had become the norm by then, of which Casablanca was only one of dozens, I wondered if upon this latest viewing I might not find it as perfect as I once did.

And after watching it, I have to say…I do. It is still, in my mind (and in the minds of most people), one of the greatest movies ever made–the acting, writing, cinematography, direction, pacing, and mise-en-scene are all impeccable. Like no other film except perhaps Citizen Kane it transcends its time and place, while remaining very much of its era, a pure propaganda film but with the talent, heart, and production values that films like In Which We Serve lacked.

Production began without a complete script, which was not wholly unusual for films at the time–Mrs. Miniver, you may remember, underwent many rewrites as developments in the European theater changed. In this case, the film wrapped production and was set for release in early 1943, but this changed when the Allies successfully invaded North Africa and recaptured Casablanca and other cities in November 1942. This prompted the studio to release the film that month, and we nearly got a hastily tacked-on epilogue regarding the recent successful invasion.

Obviously in hindsight this was a terrible idea that definitely would have harmed its broader appeal after Germany surrendered in 1945, but remember that Casablanca was viewed no differently than any other wartime movie, and there was no reason for the studio not to capitalize on the recent success in North Africa. After all, everybody was doing it…pretty much every war film at the time ended with a rousing narration or title card or something to really rally the forces (see Wake Island and In Which We Serve, for instance). Had Claude Rains been available, this is probably the ending we would have gotten, but fortunately he was busy and David O. Selznick thought it was a stupid idea, and so the film became a classic.

Just a quick note: On this viewing, I noticed for the first time that the film is set before the U.S. entered the war–just before, in fact…a receipt Rick signs towards the beginning of the film is dated December 2, 1941. This was probably done to keep audiences sympathizing with Rick even in the first half when he is amoral and thoroughly unpatriotic…such an attitude wouldn’t have been allowed of the protagonist had the film taken place after Pearl Harbor. But it was also the right move from a filmmaking perspective, I think, since Rick’s arc coincides with the narrative of the U.S. “awakening” to the wider conflict (as Sidney Greenstreet reminds him early in the film, “isolationism is no longer a practical policy”).

Like The GodfatherCasablanca won only three Academy Awards (Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay), and like Citizen Kane it took a while for its reputation to catch up with its brilliance, but at least I can say, for only the third time in this blog so far, that Best Picture was correctly awarded this year. And with that, the ten-nominee era is closed until 2009, which will hopefully help with the timeliness of future entries. Onward to 1944!


[1] Although at last year’s 87th Academy Awards, Selma nearly did it, being nominated only for Best Picture and Best Original Song, which it won. Had it won Best Picture, it would have been the first to win just two Oscars since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952. Just thought I’d mention it.

[2] Casablanca was first shown in New York on November 26, 1942, but received its wide release in January 1943. Since it did not appear in Los Angeles until then, it was eligible for the 1943 Academy Awards.