The 1940s

 

Casablanca-foscarIf you’ve missed the explanation for the FOSCARs list, look here.

Major changes came about when the ’30s switched to the ’40s. The gangster films that were so dominate disappeared, to be replaced by Film Noir. Artistic (and expensive) horror films also vanished. Universal continued making monster pics, but on small budgets and little concern for quality. Only one will receive a FOSCAR nomination in the decade. Not surprisingly, war films (and for several years, propaganda ones) were all the rage, though not in the FOSCAR award lists.

For the FOSCARs, no single director dominated. Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, The Archers, and John Huston were the most successful when looking at best picture FOSCARs, but none received more than 3 nominations and none won more than twice.

The most successful actors changed as well. Ronald Colman and William Powell continued to act, but their time as major draws was over, must less their time in FOSCAR nominated films. Astaire and Rogers had split up. He never reached the same heights he had and Rogers turned to drama. By the end of the ’40s, Gene Kelly had taken Astaire’s dancing crown. One star was dominate. Humphrey Bogart had only 1 nom in the ’30s. Now he took over. Cary Grant and Claude Rains also had a strong run, but nothing compared to Bogart. Actresses had no such standout. Lauren Bacall, Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, and Barbara Stanwyck were the leaders.

 

1940
1941
1942
1943
1944
1945
1946
1947
1948
1949
Stats
Top 10


1940

  • The Philadelphia Story

  • His Girl Friday
  • The Great Dictator
  • The Mark of Zorro
  • Pinocchio  FSF2
  • Road to Singapore
  • The Sea Hawk

 

philadelphiastoryThe ‘40s start off with a bang. The Philadelphia Story is the greatest screwball comedy and comedy of manners. Meticulously directed and acted, it’s as perfect a translation from stage to screen as has ever been managed. Of course the script is witty and moving (and won the Oscar). The play was written for Katharine Hepburn, who’d had great success with it. She decided to use it as her way back into Hollywood where she had been famously labeled box office poison, a move that was assisted by her owning the film rights to the play, a gift from Howard Hughes. Very little needed to be done with the script. They just added excellent art design and placed her with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.

I feel sorry for His Girl Friday, one of the great screwball comedies, but it’s great, not THE greatest. Cary Grant was having a very good year, moving him into the top slot of romantic leading men, a position he wouldn’t give up for a quarter of a century. His Girl Friday is a reworking of the play The Front Page; the 1931 film version was my #6 film of the year. The big change was a genderswap, making it no longer just an editor-writer relationship, but adding a romantic angle. Grant is spectacular as is co-star Rosalind Russell, but this is director Howard Hawks‘s film. He sped up the dialog, pushing his actors to speak faster and over each other, compressing over 3 hours of dialog into an hour and a half, and making the female lead far stronger than was common at the time.

It was also a year of dueling Swashbucklers, The Mark of Zorro, and The Sea Hawk. The Mark of Zorro doesn’t stand out as the most beautiful or lyrical Swashbucklers, but for sheer fun it beats all the others (My critique). The Sea Hawk makes art of propaganda. It’s set in Elizabethan times, helmd by master Michael Curtiz, with lovely high contrast cinematography, and filled with all the fantasy heroics you could desire, but the speeches, the call for unity and bravery in the face of evil, are about WWII. It was a call for all good men of England (and the US too) to come together to fight the rising evil. And it does it so well (My critique).

Pinocchio is yet another amazing animation from Disney. The only reason to specify a Best Animated film in the ’40s is to announce when another Disney film was coming out. Road to Singapore is the hysterical first Road picture of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It’s the second best of that series, very funny though they hadn’t completely busted free of the restraints of film comedies, not yet. That will come two years later. (My look at the Road Pictures). Finally there is The Great Dictator, the second film of the year to prove that sometimes propaganda makes worthy art. It was Charlie Chaplin’s first all talkie movie, and for my money, his greatest work.

In the year of The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday, the Best Picture Oscar went to Rebecca. (My review here). The rest of the noms were a mix of decent films and weak ones, but The Philadelphia Story and The Great Dictator are the only FOSCAR noms they included. The film with the best reputation on their list was The Grapes of Wrath, which makes Rebecca‘s win all the stranger.  It’s a well made film that gets its point across; I’d say it gets it across a little too well as the preaching is turned up to 11. The letter is a perfectly watchable melodrama, one of Bette Davis’s better performances and better pictures, unlike fellow nominee All This and Heaven Too, a dreadful melodrama with Bette Davis horribly miscast. Our Town and The Long Voyage Home were a pair of stage dramas, both having decreased somewhat in the public eye over the years, that made mediocre movies, that no one remembers, and that shouldn’t have been nominated, but aren’t bad. Foreign Correspondent is a lesser Hitchcock thriller. I place it tied for 18th place as an also-ran in his filmography. It’s serviceable and I do like George Sanders in it, but even for a great director, you should start questioning Oscar nominations for films out of the top dozen. Finally there’s Kitty Foyle, which deserves to be mentioned last in all ways. It’s an atrocious picture, fake, silly, and boring. Ginger Roger was never a good dramatic actress (though it’s pushing it to use the word “drama” here) and she’s given no help by the ridiculous script. “Oh, will she choose the poor man or the rich man?” You can have some fun with this kind of trash in a comedy, but Kitty Foyle lays it on thick.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Howard Hawks {His Girl Friday}
Screenplay: The Philadelphia Story (Donald Ogden Stewart) oscar600
Actor: Cary Grant {His Girl Friday}
Actress: Katharine Hepburn {The Philadelphia Story}
Supporting Actor: Cary Grant {The Philadelphia Story}
Supporting Actress: Gale Sondergaard {The Mark of Zorro}
Cinematography: The Sea Hawk (Sol Polito)
Art Direction: The Sea Hawk (Anton Grot)
SFX/VFX: The Thief of Bagdad oscar600
Makeup: The Thief of Bagdad
Choreographer: Bobby Connolly {Broadway Melody of 1940}
Score, Non-Musical: The Sea Hawk (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)
Song: When You Wish Upon a Star {Pinocchio} oscar600
Musical Routine: Begin the Beguine {Broadway Melody of 1940}
Animated Feature: Pinocchio
Animated Short: A Wild Hare (Tex Avery/WB)
F&SF Feature: Pinocchio

James Stewart won the acting Oscar, which wasn’t a poor choice, but it was Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant who should have received statues. Instead they gave the best actress award to Ginger Rogers’s strung-out performance in Kitty Foyle and didn’t even nominate Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday). If we call Grant the supporting actor (as I do above), then he lost (well, wasn’t nominated) to Walter Brennan doing the same Walter Brennan shtick he always did.

The Sea Hawk’s score is one of the top 10 of all time, though at this point in the history of the Oscars, the rules for score were so confused that no one understood what the award meant (Aaron Copland’s score was nominated for both Original Score and Scoring, two mutually exclusive categories). They nominated Korngold, but in the wrong category of “scoring” and he still lost.

Fred Astaire no longer had a lock on all things related to dance, but no one had yet taken his crown and he starred in the top two dance movies of the year, Broadway Melody of 1940 and Second Chorus. Unlike his ’30s films, there’s nothing here except the dancing, but the dancing is still great.

A Wild Hare is the beginning of Bugs Bunny as we know him. He’d appeared in proto-Bugs form several times, and was still developing, but the basics are here. This isn’t the classics that were to come. It’s just a case of Warners marking their territory.

 


1941

  • The Maltese Falcon

  • Fantasia  FSF2
  • Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  • High Sierra
  • The Lady Eve
  • The Wolf Man

 

If there’s another year with as good of a one/two punch, I can’t recall what it is. The Maltese Falcon is not just the best film of the year, but one of the greatest films of any year. It made a star of Humphrey Bogart, created a genre, and is pure genius in every frame. I can’t think of another film that comes close in innovative camera use. Every line of dialog, mostly taken straight from the novel, is its own dark, nasty little poem. The supporting cast is fantastic, with special notice going to Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. And John Huston moves into the ranks of greatest directors (My critique). High Sierra is another fine Bogart vehicle—a fantastic crime thriller, mature, sentimental, and complex—written by John Huston who was having as good a year as Bogart. It would be a career high for another actor, but it can’t match The Maltese Falcon.

It’s competition was Fantasia—Walt Disney wanted to show that animation was art and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Fantasia would win most years, but not this one. Disney had been putting classical music with animation in his shorts line, Silly Symphonies, throughout the 1930s, but Fantasia took it to another level. Each segment brings something new. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with Mickey fighting the brooms he’s brought to life, may be the most famous bit of animation ever and deserves all the accolades it has been given, but it’s the horror-tinged Night on Bald Mountain that is the winner for me; it’s evocative and gorgeous. Any year where Fantasia doesn’t win is spectacular. It does take top F&SF film in a year with real alternatives as The Wolf Man, my personal favorite of the Universal monster movies, would take that trophy in any normal year. A tragic film that’s still fun throughout, it has a wonderful score (reused in dozens of lesser films) and gives Lon Chaney Jr. his finest role (yes, it’s better than Lennie). He’s supported by Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, and Maria Ouspenskaya (My review).

Finally there’s the comedies, Preston Sturges’ screwball The Lady Eve and the best of the fantasy Film Blancs, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, both rightly known as classics. It seems bizarre that there was a time when Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t known as a comedic actress, but The Lady Eve changed that. Of course she was a damn fine dramatic one as well. This is her picture. Fonda never seems to fit and it wasn’t coincidence that he stuck mainly to dramas, but Stanwyck is perfect as a confidence woman who falls for her mark. The script is good, as one expects from Sturges, the direction solid, and the supporting cast is made up of pros on point, but it is all Stanwyck. I watch for her. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the opposite. Robert Montgomery plays a dim boxer who was taken by an angel of death too early and now must be found a new body. Montgomery, an actor I have never been impressed with, is at his best here, but he isn’t the draw. It’s the supporting players (Claude Rains, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason) that makes this hum.

If there is one truth accepted by all who follow and study the Oscars, it is that in 1941, they got it wrong. How they got it wrong is a matter for disagreement. The Oscar went to How Green is My Valley, an Oscar-bait movie of hard working coal miners. It has an off-putting narration, stiff delivery of unlikely dialog, and the filmmakers decided it would be clever for the child character to never age when everyone else does—it was not clever. It is the overlong story of people I don’t care for oh so slowly getting older. But it was very well shot (not on the level of The Maltese Falcon, but I don’t object to its noms for cinematography and art direction—provided it doesn’t win those… Which it did). So time has shown that How Green is My Valley is an OK picture that received accolades it didn’t deserve. What should have won? The FOSCAR award answers that question. The Maltese Falcon is film-art perfected. It’s genius in every frame. And a minority agrees. The majority side with Citizen Kane, a decent film that is probably the most overrated in history. It gets a lot of things right. Again, it is shot well (not as innovative as some claim—most everything it’s given credit for had been previously done by its cinematographer on an earlier picture. But here too I have no objection to its cinematography and art direction noms, nor those for editing and sound. But the parts are more than the whole. I’ve heard it defended as great film-making instead of a great film, and I have sympathy for that position, but my concern is the film. It’s a nice little hit piece on William Randolph Hearst—who deserved worse—but that is no longer important, wresting from the film any power it once had. But then no one at the time thought it very important as it was a flop and generally poorly regarded. As for its more general theme on what is important in life, it is one step away from Capracorn. Its reputation has grown based on critics focusing on some elements while ignoring the rest, and other people just piling on.

The Academy didn’t know what to do with Fantasia, giving it only a pair of honorary awards, A masterpiece, and they were unable to grasp it. The best they could manage this year was nominations for The Maltese Falcon and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Three (Hold Back the Dawn, One Foot in Heaven, and Blossoms in the Dust) have been rightly forgotten. Sergeant York should be forgotten. Suspicion is Hitchcock’s most notorious misfire (though not his fault—the powers that be decided Cary Grant couldn’t be a killer, making the film pointless). The Little Foxes is an exercise in unpleasantness that I felt required to re-watch for the FOSCARs and hope to never see again, but it has stellar cinematography. The Academy was just as silly in the other categories. There were two masterful performances by Bogart yet he wasn’t even nominated. Nor was there a nomination for Claude Rains for his two fine supporting roles. John Huston was also snubbed. At least Sydney Greenstreet got his nom, but he lost.

Category FOSCARs

Director: John Huston {The Maltese Falcon}
Screenplay: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
Actor: Humphrey Bogart {The Maltese Falcon}
Actress: Barbara Stanwyck {The Lady Eve}
Supporting Actor: Sydney Greenstreet {The Maltese Falcon}
Supporting Actress Maria Ouspenskaya {The Wolf Man}
Cinematography: The Maltese Falcon (Arthur Edeson)
Art Direction: The Maltese Falcon (Robert Haas)
SFX/VFX: The Invisible Woman (David Horsley, John Fulton)
Makeup: The Wolf Man (Jack P. Pierce)
Choreographer: Robert Alton {You’ll Never Get Rich}
Score, Non-Musical: The Wolf Man {Hans J. Salter & Frank Skinner}
Song: Chattanooga Choo Choo {Sun Valley Serenade}
Musical Routine: Lindy Hop {Hellzapoppin}
Animated Feature: Fantasia
Animated Short: Superman (Fleischer)
F&SF Feature: Fantasia

The Supporting Actor category is stuffed with great performances. On the heels of Greenstreet is Peter Lorre (The Maltese Falcon), Claude Rains (The Wolf Man), Claude Rains again (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), and Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones).

Finally there’s a year with multiple Animated Features worthy of award, though it’s no contest with Fantasia. Nothing comes close, nor ever would, but ’41 does have Dumbo and Mr. Bug Goes to Town in reserve, which makes this by default the best year for the category ever.

 


1942

  • Road to Morocco

  • Holiday Inn
  • I Married a Witch FSF2
  • Larceny, Inc.
  • Sullivan’s Travels

 

roadtomorocco1942 was a year for comedy—all comedy. The Road Pictures were extremely popular, but it took a few years to realize they were national treasures. Road to Morocco was the finest of the seven Hope/Crosby pictures; it rips the 4th wall to ribbons and contains a constant stream of jokes. There is no message in sight. It’s just funny. Holiday Inn is message-light as well—an old fashioned romantic comedy with a lot of fantastic music (this is where White Christmas came from). It’s Fred Astaire’s best film without Ginger Rogers and Bing Crosby’s second best ever, which also makes it his second best of the year; he was having a good year. Sullivan’s Travels, conversely was a message heavy comedy as most of Preston Sturges’s works were. This is generally taken as his best film (with The Lady Eve on its tail; I can go either way). It’s filled with gags and every one of them means something. Time has elevated the status of Sullivan’s Travels such that most film fanatics place it best of the year—I hope my nomination of it will mollify them. With I Married a Witch we drift back to the less meaningful. Director René Clair was an artist who seldom lived up to his potential. This is his best, as well as Veronica Lake’s second award-worthy performance of the year—she will only have one more. It was the inspiration for the TV show Bewitched. Larceny, Inc. has been nearly forgotten. Edward G. Robinson, unlike many of his colleagues, understood that times had changed and that his old gangster routine wouldn’t work any more except in comedy (or if he was actually playing a washed up gangster), so he made comedies, and this one, set at Christmas, is a madcap riot.

As I said, 1942 was a year for comedy, so you know the Academy and I are going to be at odds. It doesn’t like comedies (less than 1/7th of best pic noms are comedies, and around 1/10 of winners). But for this year, I can’t fault The Academy. It got it all wrong, but it had other priorities than art. There was a war on, and the Oscars, like most things at the time, were about rallying the country to fight on. Sullivan’s Travels was far too introspective for the times, and comedies weren’t going to sell war bonds. So they nominated a bunch of propaganda pieces (Wake Island, The Pied Piper, 49th Parallel, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mrs. Miniver) and films that leaned heavily into fighting the good fight (The Pride of the Yankees), and gave their award to Mrs. Miniver because it did it with a reasonable amount of dignity. It doesn’t have much for viewers now, but I imagine in 1942 it was just what was needed. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a cloying pack of lies, but Jimmy Gagney’s dancing is fascinating, and 49th Parallel is quite good, which I attribute to The Archers (the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), who are always at least interesting.

There are a few exceptions to the heroic trend in the ten nominees. Random Harvest is war-adjacent, but as a romance about a man who is mentally damaged by a war, it doesn’t have the gung-ho feeling of the others. And The Talk of the Town was a comedy about rule of law, but no one thinks much of it now and it had no chance of winning. Then there are the two outliers, stories of darkness in small towns: The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles overlong and overdone melodrama that was cut to ribbons (my full discussion of it is here) and Kings Row, a story of incest, cruelty, and sexual deviancy, except none of that could get by the censors, so they kept the basic plot, but eliminated all of the motivations and meaning, making it my choice for worst studio movie ever made. Look, if you don’t want to make a movie about incest, then don’t make one. It does have a great score.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Preston Sturges {Sullivan’s Travels}
Screenplay: Road to Morocco (Frank Butler, Don Hartman)
Actor: Ronald Colman {Random Harvest}
Actress: Veronica Lake {I Married a Witch}
Supporting Actor: Fred Astaire {Holiday Inn}
Supporting Actress: Teresa Wright {Mrs. Miniver} oscar600
Cinematography: The Magnificent Ambersons (Stanley Cortez)
Art Direction: The Magnificent Ambersons (Albert S. D’Agostino)
SFX/VFX: Invisible Agent (David Horsley, John Fulton)
Makeup: The Ghost of Frankenstein (Jack P. Pierce)
Choreographers: Val Raset & Fred Astaire {You Were Never Lovelier}
Score, Non-Musical: King’s Row (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)
Song: White Christmas {Holiday Inn} oscar600
Musical Routine: The Shorty George {You Were Never Lovelier}
Animated Feature: Bambi
Animated Short: Der Fuehrer’s Face (Disney) oscar600
F&SF Feature: I Married a Witch

My only agreements with the Academy were in Supporting Actress, Song, and Animated Short, with the last fitting their wartime agenda.

In general the year has a second tier feeling. Astaire is good, but he’d been better as an actor, dancer, and choreographer in previous films, including ones where he didn’t win. Jack Pierce dominates the makeup award in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but this isn’t one of his best, and the visual effects, while very good, are not innovative and barely better than work Universal had done nearly a decade earlier for The Invisible Man. Ronald Colman squeaks through here with a fine performance, but one that isn’t in his top five. Korngold wins again with a bold, exciting score (for a horrible film), however it is outside of his top three. The Magnificent Ambersons does earn its wins, though overall a disappointing film. Well, it is nice to have a year where the song stands out.

Another category that is first rate is screenplay, but that depends on how you define it. For me, it doesn’t matter when or how the words are written or if they appear in the script, so I’m counting all the “ad libs” (that were actually written by their personal writing teams) that Hope and Crosby tossed out as part of the screenplay for Road to Morocco, thus landing its screenplay the top spot.

 


1943

  • Casablanca  oscar600

  • Five Graves to Cairo
  • I Walked With A Zombie  FSF2
  • Sahara
  • Shadow of a Doubt

 

Casablanca-foscarIt was a good year for film, but Casablanca casts such a shadow that nothing else matters. I Walked With A Zombie (bad title, great film) is a moving and suspenseful horror film based on Jane Eyre that improves on its source, Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s best, and Five Graves to Cairo and Sahara are top war films (particularly propaganda war films), but they aren’t noticeable with Casablanca sitting there. If it isn’t the finest motion picture, it is on a very short list of movies that can legitimately fight for the crown. Everything about it is superb: direction, script, score, acting, cinematography, editing. This is director Michael Curtiz’s forth FOSCAR nominated film and his second win. We’ll see him again, which shouldn’t be a surprise. His name is rarely tossed about now, but I place him as the finest director of all time.

The Academy got it right. Though Casablanca was actually released at the end of 1942, they counted it for 1943, and I’ve gone with that date. They gave Casablanca Best Picture. This one time, they were correct in their winner, so I’ll let the mistakes of their other nominations (For Whom the Bell TollsHeaven Can WaitThe Human ComedyIn Which We ServeMadame CurieThe More the MerrierThe Ox-Bow IncidentThe Song of BernadetteWatch on the Rhine) slide—which weren’t all that embarrassing anyway. Plus we’re still in a war, and six of their noms are war-related. My purpose in doing the FOSCARS has been to pick the best films, not comment on every films, and for the most part, these aren’t films that need a lot of comments. They are fine. In Which We Serve, The Ox-Bow Incident, and The More the Merrier make my top 10, while The Human Comedy and The Song of Bernadette are considerably lower, but time as placed them all in the shadow of Casablanca, and that’s where they belong.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Michael Curtiz {Casablanca} oscar600
Screenplay: Casablanca (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch) oscar600
Actor: Humphrey Bogart {Casablanca}
Actress: Ingrid Bergman {Casablanca}
Supporting Actor: Claude Rains {Casablanca}
Supporting Actress: Veronica Lake {So Proudly We Hail!}
Cinematography: Casablanca (Arthur Edeson)
Art Direction: Casablanca
SFX/VFX: So Proudly We Hail! (Thol Simonson, Gordon Jennings)
Makeup: I Walked With a Zombie
Score, Non-Musical: Casablanca (Max Steiner)
Choreographer: Fred Astaire {The Sky’s the Limit}
Song: One for My Baby {The Sky’s the Limit}
Musical Routine: Jumpin Jive {Stormy Weather}
Animated Film: Saludos Amigos
Animated Short: A Corny Concerto (Robert Clampett/WB)
F&SF Feature: I Walked With a Zombie

The year belongs to Casablanca. Even the Oscars understood that, nominating it eight times and giving Curtiz the statue for director. It also received the Oscar for screenplay, though it was an odd time, with three different writing categories. But they blew it after that, with Paul Lukas’s win in Best Actor (for Watch on the Rhine) over Bogart thought of as one of the biggest Oscar mistakes. They also gave Supporting Actor to Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier) over Claude Rains and nominated Ingrid Bergman for her lesser performance in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Time has altered opinions, and my giving them all to Casablanca fits with current conventional wisdom.

The Academy’s nomination, though not win, of Paulette Goddard in So Proudly We Hail! smells of prejudgment. I like Goddard, but not here, where everyone else is in a propaganda drama and she’s in a comedy. Veronica Lake, in her best acting performance, is significantly better, but she wasn’t seen as a great actress (which is understandable), so was skipped.

The competition for Score was rough, with another great one from Erich Wolfgang Korngold for The Constant Nymph just losing to Steiner’s work on Casablanca. The Oscar went to Alfred Newman’s score for The Song of Bernadette; it’s not a bad choice, but no one now thinks it was the right choice.

I give my Animated Feature award to Disney’s Saludos Amigos, which was released in the US in 1943, but opened in Brazil in 1942. If I pull it out of ’43, that leaves the award to another, stranger Disney film, the propaganda war film, Victory Through Air Power.

The Academy begin its bizarre obsession with Tom & Jerry here, awarding them 5 times from’43 to ’49, and twice more in the early ‘50s while ignoring some of the greatest animated films of all time from Warner Bros. Second for the year is Chicken Little, an unusually serious Disney cartoon.

 


1944

  • The Uninvited  FSF2

  • Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Double Indemnity
  • Henry V
  • Laura

 

uninvitedfoscar Film Noir took another major step forward with two of the new genre’s defining films. Laura is a fascinating take on gender roles while Double Indemnity is a nihilistic dark comedy (just read my linked reviews here and here). They are the heavy hitters, but I pick The Uninvited as best of the year. It’s strange that many people don’t know this film, yet have seen 20, 30, or 50 movies based on it. It is the foundational ghost film, and also incorporates everything worthwhile about Rebecca. It has fantastic performances from Ray Milland, Ruth Hussy, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Alan Napier (years before he became Batman’s Butler).

Arsenic and Old Lace is yet another wonderful Cary Grant-fronted comedy. It’s Frank Capra’s best film, one where his tendency for over-sentimentality didn’t get the better of him. Henry V sits in the middle, by quality, of the three Shakespeare plays Laurence Olivier directed for the big screen, and thankfully, is closer to Richard III than his mangling of Hamlet. For a directorial debut, this is extremely good, with some ingenious touches, such as how it starts on a stage and slowly transforms. As always, Olivier is a bit too respectful of Shakespeare, missing much of the humor, but this easily makes it into my top 10 Shakespeare adaptations.

The Oscars dropped down to 5 nominations, leaning on good films (Going My Way, Gaslight) and less than good (Since You Went Away, Wilson) instead of great films. Double Indemnity is the only one they got right and it was shut out at the end of the evening. Wilson and Going My Way split most of the awards, with Going My Way taking the big one. Of the two contenders, Wilson is a sharply made, if uninspired, rewrite of history. It’s a propaganda picture, trying to paint Wilson as a pre-FDR reformist, and skipping over his numerous questionable political and personal views. If a film is going to lie this much, it needs to be considerably more interesting. Audiences didn’t buy into its faux-history, meaning it didn’t make enough money to win the Oscar, even though it was the kind of picture The Academy likes to reward. Going My Way is less intellectually or emotionally offensive. There’s nothing wrong with it, nor is there much right about it either. It’s a slushy, feel-good film of the type they don’t make any more, which is fine. How did anyone watch Double Indemnity and Going My Way and vote for the latter?

Category FOSCARs

Director: Billy Wilder {Double Indemnity}
Screenplay: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler)
Actor: Fred MacMurray {Double Indemnity}
Actress: Barbara Stanwyck {Double Indemnity}
Supporting Actor: Clifton Webb {Laura}
Supporting Actress: Cornelia Otis Skinner {The Uninvited}
Cinematography: The Uninvited (Charles Lang)
Art Direction: Kismet
SFX/VFX: The Uninvited (Gordon Jennings)
Makeup: Kismet
Choreographer: Gene Kelly {Cover Girl}
Score, Non-Musical: The Uninvited (Victor Young)
Song: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas {Meet Me in St. Louis}
Musical Routine: Alter Ego Dance {Cover Girl}
Animated Feature: The Three Caballeros
Animated Short: The Greatest Man in Siam (Walter Lantz/Universal)
F&SF Feature: The Uninvited

From looking at the “big” category awards, you might think Double Indemnity should have taken best picture, and it is a close second, but The Uninvited puts in a good showing if I include nominees. It’s screenplay takes third, following Laura’s, Lewis Allen would be in a tie for second as director with Otto Preminger (Laura) and Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Ray Milland comes in right behind McMurry in Best Actor, Ruth Hussy would be second for Supporting Actress—if she is supporting and not lead, and it ends up 4th in Art Direction behind Kismet, Gaslight, and Henry V. The Academy ignored The Uninvited, except for a cinematography nomination. The main theme in its score, Stella By Starlight, became a hit three years later when lyrics were added.

The Best Actor Oscar should have been a tight competition between Milland and McMurry but neither were nominated (Bing Crosby won for Going My Way… Really?). At least they nominated Clifton Webb (Laura) for Supporting Actor, though he lost to a twee performance from Barry Fitzgerald also in Going My Way.

The runners-up in animated short were WB’s Stage Door Cartoon (Friz Freleng) and a very unusual and poetic Mighty Mouse cartoon, The Wreck of the Hesperus (Terry Toons).

 


1945

  • To Have and Have Not

  • And Then There Were None
  • Blithe Spirit  FSF2
  • Christmas in Connecticut
  • I Know Where I’m Going!

 

to-have-and-have-not-best’45 is in the running for the weakest year of the decade, along with ’42 and  ’49. It has not only a slight decrease in the best film of the year, but also a reduction in the number of great ones. While all five films are worthy of a nomination, several are at the lower edge.

For the winner it’s a close call between the first pairing of Bogart and Bacall (To Have and Have Not) and Stanwyck’s Christmas treat (Christmas in Connecticut). Neither equal the winners of the last few years (or the next few), but would be contenders in many years, just not most of the ‘40s. Bogart and Bacall had fabulous chemistry, on and off the screen, and it is their scenes together that edges To Have and Have Not into first place. The script is only vaguely based on the Hemmingway novel, and as the class references were removed, the title doesn’t make much sense. It more closely resembles Casablanca, which was the intention of both director Howard Hawks and Warner Bros. Hawks and Hemingway tossed around ideas for the film while on a fishing trip. Jules Furthman wrote the first three drafts with William Faulkner doing a near total rewrite afterwards, making this the only time two Nobel Prize winners worked on a script. But this is clearly a Hawks film, with much of the dialog rewritten by him (with help from Bogart and Bacall) on set. The result is a thrilling action picture that’s more comedic and loose than Casablanca, in which everything is just background for the relationship of the two leads.

Christmas in Connecticut rarely gets the attention it deserves, although it was one of the most successful films of the year. Critics rarely heap praise on comedies or holiday films. It’s romantic and farcical, one of the later screwball comedies. While the plot and dialog are clever, this is the second film on my list that excels due almost exclusively to the cast and characters. This is one of Stanwyck’s top performances in a career of great performances. She mixes strength and fallibility as few others could. She’s supported by half of the best character actors of the era: Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, Reginald Gardiner, and Una O’Connor.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s magic realist fable, I Know Where I’m Going! brings Wendy Hiller back to the FOSCARs, after 1938’s Pygmalion. It’s a charming and very British film. It’s the first nomination for the producing/directing/writing pair, collectively known as The Archers, but it won’t be their last.

David Lean had a busy year, directing two films based on Noël Coward’s plays. Brief Encounter is a remnant of the weepies (star Trevor Howard couldn’t make any sense of his character) but he did better with Blithe Spirit, a supernatural comedy staring Rex Harrison, though Margaret Rutherford steals every scene she’s in, as always. And Then There Were None squeaks into the final position. This is the best version of the often-filmed Agatha Christie novel and the return of René Clair.

The Academy ignored every great film, giving their award to well-made suffering porn: The Lost Weekend. I can’t fault the acting or the cinematography, and if you do want to watch someone suffer for an hour and a half (or missed the fact that alcoholism is bad) then it is the film for you. It has no story, a fact driven home by the real life author it is based upon (that is, the weekend changed nothing and was notable in no way from any other terrible weekend). The other nominees were Anchor’s Aweigh—a mid-level Gene Kelly musical, Mildred Pierce—a ridiculous melodrama (My critique), The Bells of St Mary’s—a saccharine family picture, and Spellbound—one of Hitchcock’s weaker works. The only Oscar nomination for any of the FOSCAR pictures was a SFX one for Blithe Spirit. That’s a pathetic showing.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Michael Powell {I Know Where I’m Going}
Screenplay: To Have and Have Not (William Faulkner, Jules Furthman)
Actor: Ray Milland {The Lost Weekend} oscar600
Actress: Lauren Bacall {To Have and Have Not}
Supporting Actor: Boris Karloff {The Body Snatcher}
Supporting Actress: Margaret Rutherford {Blithe Spirit}
Cinematography: I Know Where I’m Going (Erwin Hillier)
Art Direction: I Know Where I’m Going (Alfred Junge)
SFX/VFX: Spellbound
Makeup: House of Dracula (Jack P. Pierce)
Choreographer: Gene Kelly {Anchor’s Away}
Score, Non-Musical: Hangover Square (Bernard Herrmann)
Song: Accentuate the Positive {Here Come the Waves}
Musical Routine: The Worry Song {Anchors Away}
Animated Feature: The Lost Letter {aka Propavshaya gramota}
Animated Short: Mighty Mouse and the Pirates (Terry Tunes)
F&SF Feature: Blithe Spirit

No film dominates the category awards. Christmas in Connecticut seems out of the running as it won none of the categories, but it has second and third place rankings in Actress, Supporting Actor, Art Direction, and Score.

Spellbound gets best visual effects by default due to a brief dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. It was a weak year for FX, and while the Academy nominated Blithe Spirit (two years later when it became eligible by their rules), the effects work in it is unremarkable.

The Lost Letter is the USSR’s first traditionally animated feature and it’s charming. Based on a Ukrainian fairytale it involves a messenger who gets sidetracked and ends up facing off against devils and a witch. No one besides Disney had made animation this beautiful.

This is the year for Terry Toons and Mighty Mouse. Besides the operetta Mighty Mouse and the Pirates, they had two other musical shorts in my top 5 for the year, Gypsy Life, that received an Oscar nom, and the swinging Mighty Mouse in Krakatoa.

 


1946

  • The Big Sleep

  • La Belle et La Bête  FSF2
  • I See a Dark Stranger
  • Notorious
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

 

bigsleepThe best of Howard Hawks verses the best of Alfred Hitchcock, and Hawks edges out the win. It feels like ’41 again with such a strong pair at the top, though this race was even closer. The Big Sleep re-teams director Hawks and writers William Faulkner and Jules Furthman (and adds Leigh Brackett, which is always a good idea) with stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from ‘45’s To Have and Have Not, and everyone does it better. The writing is sharper and wittier. The cinematography is more attractive, the editing is perfect, and Bogart is at the height of his charm. It is one of the all time great films (my full review is here), which it needed to be to knock out Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Notorious. Everything Hitchcock had done was leading to this and he could never quite match it. A lot of credit goes to the cast. Cary Grant put in one of his best performances, adding bitterness and a touch of cruelty to his suave persona. Ingrid Bergman is better still—purely on acting, this is her best film. And then there is Claude Rains, always superb in supporting roles, this vies with Casablanca for his best work. Notorious is a tense romantic thriller down to its last second, giving us a sympathetic villain while also presenting a dark (and very human) side of the hero.

Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (or Beauty and the Beast if you prefer) is no child’s fairytale, but dreamlike art. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers—great film, poor title—is a nearly forgotten Noir that drips of sickness (my full review). Barbara Stanwyck is at her steely best, and Kirk Douglas, in his first performance, is a revelation—this is before he became a caricature of himself. Finally there is I See A Dark Stranger, the first nomination for the producing/directing/writing team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. It is a thriller, with Deborah Kerr as a Irish girl, raised on fanciful pub tales of revolution against the English, whose naïveté is used by Nazi spies. It has much the same feel as the Gilliat-written The Lady Vanishes.

The only FOSCAR nom that gets Oscar attention is from 1944: Henry V (they count not when it was released, but when it played in Los Angeles). The Oscar went to The Best Years of Our Lives, a film elevated by its message. There’d been five years of “Rah-rah war; everything will be great when we win,” and then things weren’t great. The Best Years of Our Lives showed the reality of returning vets. The stars do pretty well with the stilted dialog (the supporting cast doesn’t fare so well), but a few good performances and a message aren’t enough. It does have some great moments, but as a whole it is more of an important film than a great one.

The rest of the Oscar nominations don’t belong near an awards ceremony. The Capra-corn It’s a Wonderful Life built a following from TBS playing it non-stop at Christmas, though that doesn’t make it any more than an overacted exercise in excessive sentimentality. Frank Capra, none to happy with the box office failure of his film, blamed it on audiences wanting bleak, mean movies like The Best Years of Our Lives. He managed to miss several points at once. The Razor’s Edge is mostly remembered now for being overlong and boring. It’s a religious melodrama filled with unpleasant people that pretends to have something to say, but doesn’t. And The Yearling feels like one of those Disney-live-action-close-to-nature films, if Disney was a sadist. None of those can come close to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and are ridiculous when compared to Notorious and The Big Sleep.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Alfred Hitchcock {Notorious}
Screenplay: The Big Sleep {Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, Jules Furthman}
Actor: Humphrey Bogart {The Big Sleep}
Actress: Ingrid Bergman {Notorious}
Supporting Actor: Claude Rains {Notorious}
Supporting Actress: Barbara Stanwyck {The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers}
Cinematography B&W: Notorious (Ted Tetzlaff)
Cinematography Color: A Matter of Life and Death (Jack Cardiff)
Art Direction: La Belle et La Bête
SFX/VFX: La Belle et La Bête
Makeup: La Belle et La Bête
Choreographers: Hermes Pan & Fred Astaire {Blue Skies}
Score, Non-Musical: The Big Sleep (Max Steiner)
Song: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah {Song of the South}
Musical Routine: Puttin’ on the Ritz {Blue Skies}
Animated Feature: Make Mine Music
Animated Short: Hair-Raising Hare (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: La Belle et La Bête

How could the Academy fail to give best supporting actor to Claude Rains? If they’d given it to Kirk Douglas I suppose I could understand, but they didn’t even nominate him (just as they didn’t nominated Barbara Stanwyck in Best Actress). And while I’m on the topic of grievous errors in other categories, no acting noms for Grant or Bergman, nor Bogart or Bacall. No directing nom for Hawks or Hitchcock, and absolutely nothing for La Belle et La Bête (technically eligible in 1947, but ignored then as well). For 1946, if you aren’t awarding Rains and Bergman and Hitchcock and Brackett/Faulkner/Furthman, then there is no reason to hand out awards.

I don’t normally split the cinematography category, but The Academy did at the time, and doing so allows me to honor the amazing look of A Matter of Life and Death, shot by the great Jack Cardiff under the leadership of The Archers. That trio’s use of color will only get better.

The rest should have been expected. In an uninspiring year for musicals, Fred Astaire claims an easy win. Disney had no competition in Animated Feature and takes it with a package film where the segments play better un-packaged. Chuck Jones was on his way to dominating the animated short category. And genre films were in a slump, making La Belle et La Bête’s already obvious win even more so, not only in F&SF Feature, but in makeup and effects.


1947

  • Black Narcissus

  • The Bishop’s Wife  FSF2
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • Nightmare Alley

 

black-narcissusMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created the height of cinematic art with Black Narcissus. It wins by virtue of its cinematography alone, before counting the layered script and should-have-been-award-winning acting. (Full review here). It won Oscars for cinematography and art direction, but received no other nominations, so I’ve repaired that down under Category FOSCARs.

Nightmare Alley is a fascinating Noir. Instead of PIs and thugs, it has carnies. Tyrone Power stars in one of his better roles as a drifter/conman who finds the next big thing and tries to parlay that into a cult. This is a twisted, emotional ride of a film that sidesteps into horror and deserves more attention.

That’s followed by two Christmas classics. It’s hard for me to imagine that there is anyone who hasn’t seen Miracle on 34th Street. I grew up with it. It’s funny, romantic, and charming. It is Maureen O’Hara’s best picture, although she is overshadowed by Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle. It was released in the summer with an advertising campaign that played up the romance angle and never mentioned the holiday or Santa Claus. The Bishop’s Wife is another charming film, though its concerns are aimed more toward adults than kids. Gary Grant plays an angel sent to give guidance to David Niven‘s bishop who is trying to have a great cathedral built. The bishop is not grateful for the aid as the tall, dark, handsome angel spends more and more time with his wife (Loretta Young). It takes it’s themes seriously, but is filled with humor and sweetness.

Finally there is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a supernatural romance between Gene Tierney as a widow and Rex Harrison as the ghost of a sea captain, with the always good George Sanders as a cad who gets briefly in their way. It’s beautifully shot and acted, with a lovely score by Bernard Herrmann (that should at least have been nominated) that is every bit as romantic as anyone could ask for.

The war was over, so the Academy decided it was a safe time to honor message pictures. As the Nazis had been defeated, but America was rife with anti-Semitism, that became the cause of the year. Two of the five best picture noms went to such movies: the semi-Noir Crossfire (my review here) and the heavy-handed drama Gentleman’s Agreement. As if to counter the serious subject-matter, the Academy nominated both of the FOSCAR’s Christmas movies: The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street, and even gave a Best Supporting Oscar to Edmund Gwenn. Their final pick was Great Expectations, a nicely done, if not spectacular, adaptation of the Dickens novel.

Gentleman’s Agreement won. It is a hard film to judge. The message is very important and it makes a lot of points no one else had even brought up. It’s also preachy, stilted, and melodramatic, with some terrible character work and zero chemistry between Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire (and sets Peck up with the wrong girl; Celeste Holm won the supporting actress Oscar and, without Kathleen Byron in the race, was a good choice). It focuses on the problems of the wealthy, which feels a little light-weight compared to Crossfire’s hatred-inspired murder. But what it does, thematically, it does well. I can’t think of another film which exposes the everyday evils of prejudice with such emotion and skill. The flaws knock it out of contention for me, but not that far out. On the whole, it was a decent year for the Oscars, marred by what they missed rather than what they included.

Category FOSCARs

Director: Michael Powell {Black Narcissus}
Screenplay: Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Actor: Tyrone Power {Nightmare Alley}
Actress: Deborah Kerr {Black Narcissus}
Supporting Actor: Edmund Gwenn {Miracle on 34th Street} oscar600
Supporting Actress: Kathleen Byron {Black Narcissus}
Cinematography: Black Narcissus (Jack Cardiff) oscar600
Art Direction: Black Narcissus (Alfred Junge) oscar600
SFX/VFX: Black Narcissus
Makeup: Black Narcissus (George Blackler)
Choreographer: David Linchine {The Unfinished Dance}
Score, Non-Musical: Black Narcissus (Brian Easdale)
Song: You Don’t Have to Know the Language {Road to Rio}
Musical Routine: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans {New Orleans}
Animated Feature: Fun and Fancy Free
Animated Short: The Cat Concerto (MGM) or Rhapsody Rabbit (I. Freleng/WB)
F&SF Feature: The Bishop’s Wife

Black Narcissus wins most categories that it is eligible for, and isn’t that far behind on actors. Score was a rough one. I give it to Black Narcissus as one of the most effective scores of all time—it brings out the weirdness of the world and the drama. But if I’m going to listen to a score, it’s Bernard Herrmann’s from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which is beautiful and romantic.

It was a weak year for musicals with nothing award worthy, so I filled a few categories with the mediocre. I nearly didn’t choose a best song. None really qualify, but I decided choosing a “best” from the weak options was more informative than not. The Oscars escaped the drought by counting Song of the South as a ’47 film (when it played LA), so they had Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. Linchine wins Choreographer for some average ballet dances, which do count as real dance, so that automatically puts them above most of what was shot this year. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans is sung by Billie Holiday, her only film appearance, backed by Louis Armstrong. No one watches New Orleans for the plot or the leads; it’s all about the jazz.

For short animation, we’ve got a plagiarism case. The Cat Concerto and Rhapsody Rabbit are essentially the same film, with a performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 being interrupted by a mouse in the piano. They overlap on a majority of the gags and end the same. WB and MGM accused each other. WB had the stronger claim as its picture was in production first (and was released at the end of 1946, but with the release structure of the time, and the overlap with The Cat Concerto, I’m putting it in ’47). MGM rushed to show their version to the Academy first in private screenings, which worked out for them as they won the Oscar. The Cat Concerto is the better looking cartoon while Rhapsody Rabbit is slightly funnier.

Fun and Fancy Free is another Disney package film, made up of just two shorts, Bongo (the circus bear) and Mickey and the Beanstalk. It doesn’t rise to the level of award-worthy, but then neither do the only other two animated features made in the year, the The Humpbacked Horse, from the USSR, and The Czech Year, from Czechoslovakia, though The Humpbacked Horse is a close second.

 


1948

  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

  • The Big Clock
  • Brighton Rock
  • Key Largo
  • The Pirate

 

treasuremadreIt was a big year for director John Huston and star Humphrey Bogart with the pair getting two nominations. However not all nominations are the same, and the thoughtful Noir-ish Key Largo never had a chance against the tense masterpiece that is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But then none of the other noms did either. This was a competition finished before it began. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is riveting from its first instant. Bogart and Walter Huston (John’s father) are both spectacular (and Tim Holt is very good) as prospectors who respond differently to finding gold. Key Largo can’t keep up with what turned out to be one of the greatest films of all time, but it does deserve its nomination. Eward G. Robinson is particularly good playing a washed up gangster (yes, it’s meta).

It was a good year for Film Noir; even better than Key Largo is The Big Clock which slid politics into the genre (My review here) and Brighton Rock, which gives us the British take on Noir (My review here). The final nominee, The Pirate, is the very top of the second tier of musicals, with Gene Kelly in fine form and Judy Garland in as good a shape as she ever managed in her drugged years. Cole Porter’s Be a Clown, which ends the show, would later be plagiarized for Make ‘Em Laugh in Singing in the Rain.

With no fantasy in my top 5, the best F&SF film for 1948 goes to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein FSF2, which is surprisingly good, but not to the level of getting a nomination.

The best picture of the year was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and everyone recognizes that now, but while it was nominated for an Oscar, it lost out to the abomination that is Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Check out the Youtube clip of the presentation to see presenter Ethel Barrymore’s disdain for the choice. I’ve covered Hamlet here, so take a look there for why it is a terrible film, and then come on back.

The three other nominees were The Red Shoes, Johnny Belinda, and The Snake PitThe Red Shoes is another demonstration of Powell & Pressburger and Jack Cardiff’s perfection of the use of color. It’s a dazzling film, gorgeous to look at and easily in the top 10 for the year, but the script lacks subtlety and the actors, mostly chosen for their dance skills, overplay their parts. It seems this nomination is a make-up for skipping over Black Narcissus the year before. This way the Academy could reward the filmmakers for their transcendental talents, without having to cross the Catholic Legion of Decency that had condemned Black NarcissusJohnny Belinda is the kind of Oscar-bait I find it rough to sit through. (My review here.) The Snake Pit is based on a true story and was responsible for improvements in mental health systems around the country. The music is bombastic and it’s edited like a ’50s exploitation thriller. It joins the ranks of those that are more important than great, though it isn’t a bad film.

Category FOSCARs

Director: John Huston {The Treasure of the Sierra Madreoscar600
Screenplay: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston) oscar600
Actor: Humphrey Bogart {The Treasure of the Sierra Madre}
Actress: Edwige Feuillère {The Eagle has Two Heads}
Supporting Actor: Edward G. Robinson {Key Largo}
Supporting Actress: Claire Trevor {Key Largooscar600
Cinematography: The Red Shoes (Jack Cardiff)
Art Direction: The Red Shoes oscar600
SFX/VFX: Portrait of Jennie oscar600
Makeup: The Red Shoes (George Blackler, Eric Carter, Ernest Gasser)
Choreographer: Robert Helpmann {The Red Shoes}
Score, Non-Musical: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Max Steiner)
Song: Steppin’ Out With My Baby {Easter Parade}
Musical Routine: The Ballet of the Red Shoes {The Red Shoes}
Animated Feature: Melody Time
Animated Short: Triple Trouble (Terry Toons)
F&SF Feature: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

For director it was a competition between Huston and Powell & Pressburger. Their styles are so different it’s hard to compare them. When in doubt, I go with the more successful result, which gives it to Huston.

Once again, Bogart was snubbed by The Academy.

It was a weak year for lead actresses. Luckily Feuillère makes an impression. It’s also nice that I can give something to this Jean Cocteau drama as it was also in the top 5 for Director, Art Direction, and Cinematography.

Timing seems to show up more in Best Song than anywhere else. Be A Clown from The Pirate, We’re a Couple of Swells from Easter Parade, and three songs from Romance on the High Seas (It’s Magic, Put ‘em in a Box, and Run, Run, Run) would all easily have won in 1947. Similarly, The Pirate Ballet from The Pirate wouldn’t have had any serious competition for Musical Routine in a majority of years.

Terry Toons wins again in animated short, with a musical parody of old adventure serials. These early Might Mouse cartoons are very clever, though have been mostly forgotten over the years.

Generally if Disney had an animated feature out in a year, they’d win. Often they were deserving, but sometimes, as with Melody Time, it’s because there wasn’t any other choice. The only other animated features in 1948 were instructional films from Britain and Spain.


1949

  • Kind Hearts and Coronets

  • Passport to Pimlico
  • The Small Back Room
  • The Third Man
  • White Heat

 

Kind-Hearts-and-CoronetsWhat the hell happened? 1949 was the worst year in Hollywood history, and for no discernible reason. It was surrounded by excellent years but it was a disaster. It was left to the Brits to save things, and save them they did. I have one American film nominated for a FOSCAR, and this is not a case of great American films being beaten in a tight race by foreign fare. There are no other worthy US film in 1949. Nothing.

That one film is White Heat, and it deserves its spot, but in a normal year, it would be a 5th or 6th place kind of movie. It marked the return of the gangster film (as opposed to Film Noir). It improved on everything that’d been done a decade before. Jimmy Cagney creates an iconic, mother-obsessed psycho and it is his best gangster and one of his best performances.

The British nominations are split, two dramas and two comedies. The Third Man is a semi-Noir. It follows an annoying, brash, foolish American as he bursts into a situation he should have stayed out of (yes, there is a message there). The camera work is interesting and the supporting cast are all solid. It’s overrated—though it wasn’t nominated for a Best Picture Oscar—and I don’t even rank it as director Carol Reed’s best, but in 1949, yup, it’s one of the five top films of the year.

The Small Back Room is the return of The Archers. The Rank Organization had decided that The Red Shoes was going to be a flop (it was wrong), so severed its ties with Powell & Pressburger. This meant they didn’t have the money for their huge, beautiful Technicolor marvels, so they made an intimate, beautiful, B&W marvel. The plot follows a bitter, alcoholic bomb specialist as he investigates a new type of German device during WWII, but the story deals with his psychological trials and failings. The film reunites David Farrar and Kathleen Byron from Black Narcissus, and both are marvelous; they should have been bigger stars. It’s tense and thoughtful, taking some shots at British politics and society between the more personal moments. Since Powell is directing, it’s a given that The Small Back Room is beautiful, and meticulously made. It’s unfortunate that it has slipped from public consciousness.

The other two are comedies from Ealing Studios. Passport to Pimlico is a key Post-War British Comedy, in which a large number of quirky, lower class Londoners declare independence from England. Margaret Rutherford is wonderful, as always. This is a witty and charming satire (My review here). Then things leap forward with Kind Hearts and Coronets, a dark comedy of a man murdering his way to a dukedom. The calmness and understatement of the dialog work as a perfect counterpoint to the ghastly deeds. It’s remembered most often for Alec Guinness’s performances as eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, which is slightly unfair to Dennis Price’s murderous lead, Robert Hamer’s direction, and Hamer & John Dighton’s screenplay. Joan Greenwood also shines as the sensual and manipulative sometimes-companion to the rising noble. It’s one of the top comedic films of all time.

The Academy was really in a spot. Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Small Back Room, and The Third Man weren’t eligible in ’49 (not that it cared much when they were) and there was no way the stuffed-shirts were going to give their shiny statue to a gangster film. That left them with very little.

The Academy’s nominations included two war pictures: Battleground and Twelve O’Clock HighBattleground was acclaimed as one of the first films to show what it is really like for a soldier, but it has aged poorly; originality is all it had to offer, and now many other films have performed its one trick far better (My review here). Twelve O’Clock High stands up better, being the 2nd or 3rd best US film of the year, for what that’s worth. It is essentially an update of Dawn Patrol—without the charisma—with the gimmick of using actual combat photography for the battle scenes. Then The Academy put up two melodramas. A Letter to Three Wives was produced as an afternoon “women’s picture” in which three wives fret over which of their husbands has run off with the town hussy. It’s a fine little picture for an afternoon, but nothing to give an award to. The Heiress dwells in cruelty. Those who like it do so for the big speech in the last few minutes which is satisfying; there’s nothing else worthy about it. Montgomery Clift puts in one of the worst performances in film history. The Oscar went to All the King’s Men, which, as the film fighting it out with Twelve O’Clock High for that weak 2nd place position, was about the best that could have been hoped for. It benefits from a potent performance by Broderick Crawford, but its many powerful moments mix with mediocre directing and cinematography, as well as myriad other flaws (like every time the film leaves Crawford) making this a film that should have been a masterpiece, but isn’t.

Category FOSCARs:

Director: Michael Powell {The Small Back Room}
Screenplay: Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer & John Dighton)
Actor: David Farrar {The Small Back Room}
Actress: Kathleen Byron {The Small Back Room}
Supporting Actor: Alec Guinness {Kind Hearts and Coronets}
Supporting Actress: Margaret Rutherford {Passport to Pimlico}
Cinematography: The Small Back Room (Christopher Challis)
Art Direction: The Small Back Room
SFX/VFX: Might Joe Young (Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen) oscar600
Makeup: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Choreographer: Gene Kelly {On the Town}
Score, Non-Musical: The Heiress (Aaron Copland) oscar600
Song: Baby, It’s Cold Outside {Neptune’s Daughter} oscar600
Musical Routine: A Day in New York {On the Town}
Animated Feature: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Animated Short: Long-Haired Hare (Chuck Jones/WB)
F&SF Feature: Alias Nick Beal

The categories make it look like it was a tight race between The Small Back Room and Kind Hearts and Coronets, but it wasn’t. The Small Back Room is a very good film, but few films can compete with Kind Hearts and Coronets.

The Oscar for Actor went to Broderick Crawford—not a bad choice, though not due to his versatile skill. He had limited range. All the King’s Men gave him a part that was perfect for his blustery type of performance.

For Animated Short, the Academy went for For Scent-imental Reasons, also a Chuck Jones/WB cartoon, which is my second place finisher. This is where Warners moves from a strong contender to consistent winner and Chuck Jones becomes the greatest director of animated shorts of all time. No one will win as many FOSCARs as Jones.

Disney grabs the top spot for animated features with another package picture. The two segments don’t fit together well in tone or subject, and I prefer them apart, which is how Disney sold them for years, but The Wind in the Willows section is reasonably good and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow short is a must for Halloween family viewing. While Disney is still king, at least it has some mild competition this year in the Italian I Fratelli Dinamite and the Czech puppet film The Emperor’s Nightingale.

With no fantasy film earning a FOSCAR nomination, the best fantastic film is the reasonably good Alias Nick Beal FSF2 (My review here).


A Few Stats

First, lets take a look at some of the numbers for the main FOSCARs (that is, Best Picture), specifically what actors and directors were connected more than once to nominated pictures.

Directors in multiple films:

  • Howard Hawks (3 noms – 2 wins)
  • John Huston (3 noms – 2 wins)
  • Michael Powell (3 noms – 1 win)
  • Michael Curtiz (2 noms – 1 win)
  • René Clair (2 noms – 0 win)
  • Alfred Hitchcock (2 noms – 0 win)
  • Preston Sturges (2 noms – 0 wins)
  • Raoul Walsh (2 noms – 0 wins)
  • Billy Wilder (2 noms – 0 wins)


Lead Actors in multiple films:

  • Humphrey Bogart (8 noms – 5 wins)
  • Cary Grant (6 noms – 1 win)
  • Bing Crosby (3 noms – 1 win)
  • Bob Hope (2 noms – 1 win)
  • Ray Milland (2 noms – 1 win)
  • Rex Harrison (2 noms – 0 wins)
  • Tyrone Power (2 noms – 0 wins)


Lead Actresses in multiple films:

  • Lauren Bacall (3 noms – 2 wins)
  • Ingrid Bergman (2 noms – 1 win)
  • Deborah Kerr (2 noms – 1 win)
  • Dorothy Lamour (2 noms – 1 win)
  • Barbara Stanwyck (4 noms – 0 wins)
  • Veronica Lake (2 noms – 0 wins)
  • Gene Tierney (2 noms – 0 wins)


Select Supporting actors and actresses with multiple films:

  • Sydney Greenstreet (3 noms – 2 wins)
  • Peter Lorre (3 noms – 2 wins)
  • Elisha Cook Jr. (2 noms – 2 wins)
  • Claude Rains (5 noms – 1 win)
  • Jerome Cowan (3 noms – 1 win)
  • S.Z. Sakall (2 noms – 1 win)
  • Ralph Bellamy (2 noms – 0 wins)
  • Una O’Connor (2 noms – 0 wins)
  • Margaret Rutherford (2 noms – 0 wins)

Eward G. Robinson also has 2 noms, once as a lead, and once as a supporting actor.

Now let’s see who and what repeats in the Category FOSCARs. Of note, many of the awards are for the picture, not an individual, but in those cases here, I’ll list the people involved or company involved.
Director:

  • Michael Powell—3
  • John Huston—2

Screenplay:

  • John Huston—2
  • William Faulkner & Jules Furthman—2

Actor:

  • Humphrey Bogart—4
  • Cary Grant—2 (one as supporting)
  • Claude Rains—2 (both as supporting)

Actress:

  • Barbara Stanwyck—3 (1 as supporting)
  • Ingrid Bergman—2
  • Kathleen Byron—2 (1 as supporting)
  • Veronica Lake—2 (1 as supporting)
  • Margaret Rutherford—2 (both as supporting)

Cinematography:

  • Jack Cardiff—3
  • Arthur Edeson—2

Art Direction:

  • Alfred Junge—2

SFX/VFX:

  • David Horsley, John Fulton—2
  • Gordon Jennings—2

Makeup:

  • Jack P. Pierce—3
  • George Blackler—2

Choreographer:

  • Gene Kelly—3
  • Fred Astaire—2

Score:

  • Max Steiner—3
  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold—2

Animated Short:

  • WB—5 (2 for Chuck Jones)
  • Terry Tunes—2

Animated Feature:

  • Disney—9

 

 


The Top 10 Films of the 1940s

  1. Casablanca
  2. The Maltese Falcon
  3. Black Narcissus
  4. The Big Sleep
  5. The Philadelphia Story
  6. Fantasia
  7. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  8. Kind Hearts and Coronets
  9. The Uninvited
  10. Notorious

Eight of the ten yearly winners claim a spot in the top ten. Only Road to Morocco and To Have and Have Not drop out (and both would still make a top 20), making room for Fantasia and Notorious. John Huston is the only repeat director with The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Things look different with actors. Both Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman star in 2 of the top 10 films (a step up for both in wins, but discounting nominations makes Grant less impressive). Claude Rains, Sydney Greensteet, and Peter Lorre all are supporting actors in 3 films. But it is again Bogart out in front, starring in 4, including the 2 best films of the decade.