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.

220px-Anchors_aweigh

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.

Unknown

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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