20th Academy Awards (1947) – Part I

220px-Gentleman's_Agreement_(1947_movie_poster)

  • Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan*
  • The Bishop’s Wife, Henry Koster
  • Crossfire, Edward Dmytryk
  • Great Expectations, David Lean
  • Miracle on 34th Street, George Seaton

Best Foreign Language Film: Shoeshine, Vittorio de Sica (Italy)


The Academy closed out its second decade with the lightest selection of Best Picture nominees I’ve seen since 1934. Yes, the winner was a classic examination of societal and institutional prejudice, one of the best films of the 1940s, but it was up against a prim-and-proper Dickens adaptation, two Christmas films with really bizarre morals, and an odd little B-movie film noir that is pretty decent but fails to adequately address the issues it raises (and also doesn’t take advantage of its status as a noir to slip its source material’s message past the censors).

This was also the year in which the Academy introduced Best Foreign Language Film, though at this point it was not a competitive category but a special prize awarded by the Board of Governors. It was an important step forward, and although for the first 30 years or so the Academy barely stepped outside of France and Italy in their choices, it opened the Oscars to influence from the cinemas of the rest of the world. To see how much, I will from this point on be watching the winners of this category as well…and when it becomes a competitive category in 1956, I will strongly consider watching each nominee as well. Time will tell.

Back to 1947. If you were to graph the nominees of each Academy Awards thus far on a silliness scale, I think this slate would produce the steepest incline. Therefore, I’ll take the films this year in order from most to least silly:

The_Bishop's_Wife_clean_poster

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming comedy about how angels gotta have it, and the trouble they can cause to marriages when they look like Cary Grant.

its_a_wonderful_life_3.jpgSend this guy, and the movie’s over in five minutes.

The film tells the story of an angel (Grant) who magics his way into the lives of stodgy married couple David Niven and Loretta Young and immediately starts causing discord–or, to be fair, bringing to light the discord already bubbling under the surface–in order to “help” them or something. This help consists mostly of ruining Niven’s life while showing everyone else the time of theirs, and convincing Loretta Young that her husband is and always will be dull as dishwater.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is hilarious and charming, and all the actors play their roles perfectly, but man does David Niven’s character get a beating, all for the crime of having a beautiful wife with whom an impish angel wants some alone time. Even a random cab driver comes out of the whole thing with an epiphany, doing triple axels with Young and Grant on a Central Park skating rink, while Niven is literally stuck to a chair in the company of the film’s main antagonist. Keep in mind, Grant didn’t glue him there so that the two could come to an understanding that advances the plot…he just wanted to skate without Niven ruining his idyllic park date with Niven’s wife.

Fortunately, though, just when he’s at the brink of despair, Niven is offered words of wisdom by 1940s Hollywood’s resident Old British Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold, Monty Woolley. Woolley is a Egyptologist who, thanks to Grant, is now well on the way to completing his history book (again, everybody wins here but the one Grant is ostensibly there to help), and tells the forlorn Niven that he can save his marriage because he has something very important that the angel lacks.

Unknown.jpeg“Seriously, he’s like a Ken doll down there.”

Okay, that’s not it…it’s uxorial love, or something. In the end, the situation is resolved when the angel just leaves and gives them all a healthy dose of Hollywood amnesia, by which they forget he ever existed but retain all the lessons he taught them. Everyone’s happy, and no one makes mention the fact that they just blacked out for two weeks and came to with entirely different weltanshauungs (and, in Woolley’s case, a first draft of a Cleopatra biography).

As far as the “angel enters someone’s life at Christmastime and helps them realize it’s a wonderful life” genre goes, it’s better than It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still a damned odd and incoherent excuse for the cast to play their respective typecasts: Cary Grant, the charming rogue; Loretta Young, the naive romantic; David Niven, the stiff-upper-lip bloke who just needs to lighten up; and Monty Woolley, the aforementioned O.B.C. with an H.O.G. And even if the moral isn’t really supported by the narrative, at least it’s a better message than the other Christmas film this year…

Miracle_on_34th_Street

The first of approximately four hundred adaptations of this story, Miracle on 34th Street finds Santa Claus (or maybe just a senile old man who speaks Dutch) in Manhattan for the holidays. Exactly who’s running the shop while he’s living it up in Gotham is never addressed, and if his actions in the film are any indication it would have been better for all involved if he’d just stayed home. In any event, he’s there, eager to impart on anyone who has the misfortune of meeting him the true meaning of Christmas: that children deserve all the toys and possessions they want and only bad parents don’t provide them.

This is a movie that relies entirely on schmaltz and corniness at the total expense of character development, attention to narrative detail, and even a passing resemblance to the morality it claims to espouse. Throughout the film, most changes happen off-screen and for no discernible reason, leaving the majority of characters’ motivations constantly shifting and inexplicable. It also commits the It’s a Wonderful Life sin of not giving a toss about the moral arc of the antagonist…instead, everyone just forgets he exists as soon as his function (providing an opportunity for the brilliant-because-reasons lawyer to prove Santa is real in a goddamn court of law) is complete.

imgres.jpg“And remember, Santa only cares about A-listers.”

The only people Santa helps in the film are people who are already moral, relatively stable, and sure of who they are–he has no time for anyone else who might actually benefit from someone caring about them. This is established in his first scene, when he gets Macy’s current Santa Claus fired just before the parade because the man has been drinking…not even drunk, just a little tipsy. And he drinks, one imagines, because he is a lonely man without a home who only works for a few weeks out of the year by virtue of not having enough money to buy a razor. He may have died frozen in Central Park on Christmas Eve, for all the real Santa cares, so long as he gets to give a spoiled child a goddamn house.

Oh yes, that’s the other lesson of the film: if you wish hard enough, you get everything you want. The little girl wants a house in the suburbs (which her mother, being an executive at Macy’s, should be able to afford anyway), and asks Santa for it. He demures, and later it seems like she doesn’t get this completely irrational and ridiculous gift…until, in the end, of course she does, because it’s more important to keep a child naive than to teach them that sometimes, they don’t get handed everything they want immediately and tax-free. And they should expect nothing less than that.

miracle-on-34th-street-3.jpg“I asked for a white grand piano in the conservatory, asshole.”

Amoral Santas and home wrecking angels…the year’s off to a weird start.

220px-Great_expectations

Eleven years after David Copperfield failed to condense Dickens to a single film, Great Expectations, perhaps inspired by Henry V‘s success in adapting Shakespeare, tried it again. Despite being now considered one of the greatest British films of all time, it repeated many of the mistakes of its predecessor and thus, for the most part, failed again.

The problem with both films (and other films based on very long, decades-spanning novels such as Anthony Adverse) is that they had to excise so much of the source material that the result feels like a series of disconnected vignettes than a coherent narrative, despite attempting to craft the latter. In order to keep the film’s running time reasonable, events that advance the plot occur abruptly and are then cast aside without further reflection or mention, up to and including the death of a major character. Most of the time they happen because, by the Rules of Three Act Structure, they are required to.

Unknown.jpeg“Listen closely, my dear…I have only a few minutes of screen time left. String Pip along until he’s nearly broken, then marry him. Oh, and stay away from fireplaces…you’ll understand.”

All of which is a shame, because the characters are all compelling and well-acted. In addition to John Mills as lead character Pip and Martita Hunt as Crazy Cat(less) Lady Miss Havisham, the film features Alec Guinness in one of his first film roles as Pip’s irrepressibly cheerful friend with the unlikely name Herbert Pocket. The filmmakers would have done well to extend the film by forty minutes or so, or even–unheard of at the time–split it into two parts, to give adequate time to fully develop what has the potential to be a strong story.

In the event, however, the film devotes too much time to some sequences and unnecessarily rushes others, so the end doesn’t feel earned and the fact that Pip ends up with what the script tells us is the love of his life after chasing her all his life feels like a failure instead of triumphant. She in particular is woefully underdeveloped, existing solely to antagonize Pip so much that he falls in love with her (classic), and Valerie Hobson does a good job but she has terribly little to work with. I’m really not sure why this film’s reputation has remained as high as it has.

Hmm, that’s almost 1700 words already and I’m only three films in. I suppose I should call this one now, split 1947 into two parts. Alright, that’s coming soon!

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5 thoughts on “20th Academy Awards (1947) – Part I

  1. Let us not forget the true blessing of The Bishop’s Wife: the 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, which bestowed upon us an unforgettably dynamic love-triangle for the ages with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance. Cinemas had to stock up on fire extinguishers that year. Because the sparks… from the screen… er, never mind.

    I seem to recall this one may have had a more troubling message than Miracle – though perhaps more subversive and sly. Something like, it’s ok if your partner is more in love with god than with you because in the end that’s what will keep your sad marriage together. Or, a spiritual relationship is what’s really fulfilling/rewarding in life. Or, if you’re stuck in a dead-end marriage, just take comfort in religion and it’ll all work out for the best… Or something like that. Good stuff.

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    • Thanks for the comment! You’re absolutely right, The Bishop’s Wife definitely carries a disturbing message, made more insidious by being wrapped up in Cary Grant and David Niven, whom you just WANT to trust. (Though it also teaches a valuable lesson: never trust an angel.)

      Like

  2. Pingback: 20th Academy Awards (1947) – Part II | Oscars and I

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