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.

220px-Gaslight-1944

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…

220px-Double_indemnity

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.

 

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5 thoughts on “17th Academy Awards (1944)

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