The Best Picture Winners: Going My Way (1944)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

By the mid-40s there was no bigger star in the world than Bing Crosby.  He was a triple threat; the most popular performer on radio, in record sales and, of course, at the movies.  It was easy to see why; Crosby was likable, funny, and talented and had a soothing voice that I have often compared to dipping your feet into warm water.  His easy-going charm made him popular wherever he went, doing whatever he did.  It was infectious, there’s no doubt about it.

Crosby made a hundred movies in his career but he never strayed far from the persona that made him famous.  His most popular role won him 1944’s Best Actor Oscar for his first of two appearances as Father Chuck O’Malley in Leo McCarey’s Going My Way – he played the part again a year later in the much more effective The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The story centers around the good-natured young priest (Crosby) arriving in New York from East St. Louis to take over St. Dominic’s Church from the aged Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) who is getting along in years.  Father Chuck’s unconventional approach to parish life doesn’t cotton to the elders particularly his plans for restructuring the church finances and his approach to a local gang of wayward boys (led by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer).

I don’t hate Going My Way but I don’t love it either.  Nor can I dismiss the reasons why it won Best Picture.  I really cannot fault the Academy voters for being charmed by this film in light of Crosby’s enormous popularity.  Yet, for me, the movie is a bit too laid back.  Writer-Director Leo McCarey is working hard here to match the pace of the film with Crosby’s laid-back performance, which works fine for Crosby but it drives the movie to a snail’s pace.  I don’t expect this to be rip-roaring comedy but it’s so lackadaisical that I find it dull for long periods of time.

Yet, I find it hard to complain about Going My Way when the Academy has selected so few comedies for its Best Picture award.  In this case, I wish they had waited a year and possibly picked this film’s follow-up The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Plus, there’s the historical element.  The decade needed a comedy – the other nine films selected as Best Picture were a pretty grim lot.  They dealt with family secrets (Rebecca), issue of social class (How Green Was my Valley), family safety (Mrs. Miniver), Nazi troubles (Casablanca), alcoholism (The Lost Weekend), returning vets (The Best Years of Our Lives), anti-Semitism (Gentleman’s Agreement), political corruption (All the King’s Men) and of course all the slings and arrows of the lonely Dane Hamlet.  In that lot Going My Way looks like a little ray of sunshine.


The Best Picture Winners: Casablanca (1943)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

In my experience, the Oscars are the most persistent Complaint Department outside of politics.  There are very few Best Picture winners that any five people would agree with.  Casablanca is only the second Best Picture selection that I have agreed with after All Quiet on the Western Front, and I won’t agree again until The Godfather.

Casablanca is routinely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made – if not the greatest- but it was one more movie to those made it – one of two-hundred pictures that Warner Brothers released in 1942. In the decade before television, the major studios had a movie a week to get out and with that schedule one movie was no more important than another. Casablanca was not expected make much money even though the cast was first rate: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It doesn’t comfortably fit a genre, the plot is too complicated to put into a 30-second ad and, in the maelstrom of World War II, movies about the events overseas were a tough sell unless they presented were presented with John Wayne or Gary Cooper on the battlefield.

Timing is the lifeblood of show business and it was the best friend of this movie.  It entered the studio system on December 8, 1941, the Monday after the attack of Pearl Harbor.  Had it come into the system any earlier, then it is unlikely that Warner Bros. or any other studio would have bought the rights.  A movie critical of Nazi power at the time was thought to be unwise, but now in the full spectrum of war with the axis powers, the potency of the film was vitally importent.

When it was released late in 1942 Casablanca quickly found audiences lined up around the blockt. Part of its appeal, I think, was the timeliness of the subject. This was a time when Hitler’s armies were spreading across Europe and making themselves frighteningly unpredictable. That uncertainty is present in the film. There is a desperation that is always present just beneath the surface, the pervasive dread of the Nazi death grip on the world. After the war, they would become the favorite villains of the movies, seen more for their uniforms and for their universal disdain then their beliefs, but here, with the terror still present in the world, their omnipresence is far more poignant.

The movie takes place in the tiny village of Casablanca in Northern Morocco, one of the last French-occupied countries not in the grip of the Nazis.  As the movie opens this tiny village has become a human traffic jam of refugees trying to get money and transport to Lisbon where they can catch a plane to America – or at least out of the Nazi’s reach.  Few opportunities arise to book such a passage so many find themselves stranded in Casablanca for days, weeks and even months.

At the epicenter of this chaos is Casablanca’s most popular nightspot, Rick’s Café American, run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a man who remains steadfast at staying out of personal or political affairs.  He lives by a code: “I stick my neck out for no one.”

One day Rick is given an order by police chief Louis Renault (Claude Rains) that a man wanted by the Reich is on his way to Casablanca, and Rick is to make sure that he stays there. The man, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), escaped a concentration camp and is now a major figure in the French resistance. His passage to Lisbon would be detrimental to the Reich. Rick isn’t interested but to humor Renault, he agrees.

What Rick doesn’t know is that Lazlo is currently married to Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a woman that left him standing alone on a rainy train platform some years earlier with a Dear John letter soaking in his hand.  This single, devastating gesture is the reason that Rick has retreated into the desert.  He has held a deep resentment for years, so naturally, this reopens old wounds as Victor and Ilsa enter Rick’s club. He is thunderstruck when he sees her, his face is a mask of shock and emotional turmoil. Later, trying to drown his sorrows in a bottle of booze, he laments “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

What Rick has written off as a mean spirited act of betrayal actually has a legitimate explanation.  That puts Rick and Ilsa in an interesting quandary.  She loves Rick and can’t bear to hurt him again, but she loves Lazlo and knows that he needs her more than ever.  The ultimate decision then becomes what is the right thing to do for the greater good?

Bergman’s performance as the emotionally confused Ilsa is due in part to the fact that during filming she was never told which man she was going to end up with. She twists and turns with confused emotions and we never see her leaning one way or the other. When Rick tells her in the end that she is getting on the plane with Lazlo, her face reveals confusion as she tries to comprehend it. The moment is very real. If she knew how the movie was going to end, I don’t think that the subtleties of her performance would come out the way they do.

Bogart, known at this point for his cold tough-guy roles, showed a sensitive side here and hereafter flourished as a leading man. As Rick, he is cold to those who come looking for a favor but in Ilsa’s eyes, he simply melts. This was a side of Bogart that was new to audiences, and it changed his image for the rest of his career. This was his best performance so naturally he lost the Oscar to an unworthy contender – Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine (heard of it? . . . didn’t think so). Bogart would win the Oscar for 1951’s The African Queen – continuing the academy’s strange habit (after Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Gable in It Happened One Night) of giving Oscars to Hollywood tough guys for sensitive pussycat roles.

The movie is loaded with great characters – most are crooked, few are honest. The movie doesn’t supply any stock villains. Only one, a Nazi called Strasser, and I think having only one significant Nazi present in the film is a good idea. The fear and dread that befalls the characters in Casablanca is made more effective by the fact that we do not see them. Everyone knows about the terror of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs, everyone knows that by 1942, they held the world under their thumb and just knowing that gives the film a certain urgency. Their evil presence is simply felt.

I greatly admire the screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch for their restraint. It must have been tempting to present the Nazis dominating the screen but the presence of too many might have lessened the credibility that Lazlo could escape. Also, it must have been so tempting in a movie with this much star power and this much emotion to supply an ending that would find Rick and Ilsa in each other’s arms. That would have been a mistake. Rick’s change of heart is the most important aspect of the film. He realizes that he must let her go in the interest of the greater good, that Lazlo, off on his mission, needs her now more than ever. The script allows the characters to follow their hearts rather than some kind of crowd-pleasing convention. It took nerve to allow the characters to find the courage of their convictions, that the cause of stopping the Nazis is far more important because they realize that their personal petty problems just “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”


The Best Picture Winners: Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Time has never been the friend of movies that are “of the moment.”  Such was the case with Mrs. Miniver, which at the time, had so moved the American public that even FDR was regaling it as some kind of a masterpiece.  Legend has it that he was so moved by its closing dialogue that he ordered it to be written onto leaflets and air-dropped over German-occupied territory.  Later it was broadcast over the Voice of America, and printed in several magazines.

As stirring as it may have been at the time, today it seems a bit overly-melodramatic.  Sure, it is difficult to watch the story of a family suffering the bulldozing machinery of the Nazi expansion and not feel something but for me, it wasn’t worthy of an Oscar for Best Picture.

Even Greer Garson’s once-lauded performance in the title role seems, today, a little stiff.  Of course, it is impossible not to feel for a mother who tries to protect her family from the oncoming onslaught of the Nazi terror, but I find Garson’s character a little one-dimensional.  She is so noble that it is hard to find any real meat to the character.  Today, other films have come along that have surpassed Mrs. Miniver in importance about the time period, and Garson’s once-beloved performance is mostly remembered for that famous long-winded five-and-a half-minute acceptance speech – which remains today as the longest acceptance speech in Oscar history.

I guess, given the tensions of the time, I can see how the public would have been stirred by this film.  Here, in 1942, the American involvement in Europe’s war was only a year old and a positive outcome was by no means assured.  It is an emotional story but today, away from those tense times the drama comes off a bit overcooked. The impact it may have once had is long gone.


The Best Picture Winners: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

If you’re wondering why today’s movie isn’t Citizen Kane then you’ll be left to ponder one of the major crimes committed by the Oscar voters.  Actually it’s not their fault.  Orson Welles magnum opus was at the center of a power struggle between the director and magnanimous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who accused the 25 year-old filmmaker of mocking him by indirectly making a damning picture about he and his mistress.  With that, Hearst set out to remove all mention of Citizen Kane from his newspapers and to see that the film was rarely screened.  Of course, history would have the last laugh; Citizen Kane has routinely been lauded as the greatest film ever made while Hearst is generally unknown to anyone under the age of 40.

The positioning of the Academy voters for their Best Picture of 1941 leaned in the direction of an apology to John Ford for overlooking his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath, for the Best Picture of 1940.  In that, they decided to reward Ford’s next film, an adaptation of Robert Lewyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley, another epic about a family facing hardship, tragedy and broken dreams.

The major difference is that the story here – about the ups and downs that befall a Welsh family as their land is spoiled by a mining operation – is far less compelling.  Our rooting interest in The Grapes of Wrath was the characters and their hardship as they head out across the American west.  How Green Was My Valley doesn’t offer anything new and the hardships experienced by The Morgan family seem to well up out of the screenplay rather than the natural progression of the story.  Perhaps for those reasons, How Green Was My Valley has, more or less, faded into obscurity. It has its place in film history but ordinary film fans rarely seek it out.

That doesn’t make it a bad film, it’s just that you’re better off watching The Grapes of Wrath because you’re more likely to feel for the characters on the screen.  How Green Was My Valley is a nice film, and that’s about it.



The Best Picture Winners: Rebecca (1940)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

For the rest of my life, I will never understand the voting academy’s dismissal of Alfred Hitchcock.  He was nominated for Best Director five times and lost all five in spite of the fact that the man was the most popular movie director of his day and a legend in his own time!  His only love from the academy came in the form of a Thalberg Award in 1968 at which he gave a nose-thumbing speech that he limited to a very brief “Thank you.”

For all of his great work, only one of his films ever received a Best Picture award, a sumptuous adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca.  This would mark not only Hitchcock’s only recognition in the top category (he didn’t, himself, win the award for producing; that went to David O. Selznik) but also the second Oscar in a row for The Selznick Studio.

Rebecca and Gone With the Wind were not that far apart in terms of their theme: both are about the strange connective power of home and women struggling under the flaws of damaged men.  Scarlett O’Hara found herself pulled back to her ancestral plantation of Tara while Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. DeWinter finds that Manderley (the house once occupied by her new husband’s late wife) is still haunted by the presence of a woman who once occupied it.  It is occupied, not by her ghost but by the absence of a woman whose presence brought painful baggage that her death would leave behind.

What Alfred Hitchcock is able to achieve in Rebecca is mood and tone and the somber atmosphere of a house in the weeks after the funeral has ended and the mourners have gone on with their lives.  Yet the house is also affected by the Rebecca’s damaging legacy that the wake of her death has left a complex of devastation and emotional turmoil for those who loved her.

For most of the film Hitch establishes that he is the master of his canvas, making us feel the tone of the story without having to express everything in words, and in giving us a title character who seems to live and breathe and walk and talk even though no actor appears on the screen.  Rebecca is created entirely out sets and dialogue and out of the performances by Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine.  We feel her even though we never see her.

My problems with Rebecca come in the third act when Hitchcock allows the film to slip into copious amounts of expository dialogue after Mr. DeWinter reveals the secrets of Rebecca’s death. The events that transpire after that feel forced, as if you can see the screenwriter writing it rather than feeling the events flowing naturally out of the story.  I realize that Daphne du Maurier’s book ends in much the same way, with housekeeper Mrs Danvers going insane as Manderley burns around her, but as a movie, the ending feels forced.  It is a let-down and so is the fact that this is the only Hitchcock film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

What would come from Hitchcock for the next two decades would be an eviable body of work that others would try and fail to capture.  The Hitchcock magic was present in other films.  Here the mystery is a little less bombastic.  His story here is more emotional soap opera than grand spectacle.  I kind of like that.



The Best Picture Winners: Gone With the Wind (1939)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award.  Join me every other day from now until March 4th for the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Nineteen Thirty-Nine is credited as the single greatest year of American movies.  Fittingly, it ended with a Best Picture win for Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, considered the greatest of all American films and the only Oscar winner of this decade that I actually agree with.

I have my problems with Gone With the Wind, but it would be un-American to carp about an American institution.  I’ve seen it several times since first seeing it as a teenager and every time is a new experience.  I love the sheer scope of the film and the performances are incredible.  The landscape of the film is like nothing I’ve seen before or since, providing the Civil War as a fiery backdrop to the struggling romance between stubborn southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and that world-hardened rouge Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who is determined to win her affections away from that dullard Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).

After all these years I am still aghast at the sheer magnitude of the production itself, and the performances from Gable, Leigh, Olivia DeHavilland, Thomas Mitchell and Supporting Actress winner Hattie McDaniel. And yet . . . I think the film suffers at the mercy of its own running time.  At nearly four hours I think Gone With the Wind loses some momentum in the second act – at least up until the last 20 minutes or so.  That doesn’t make it a bad film, but I get the sense that after Scarlett’s legendary proclamation that “I’ll never be hungry again.” there is a tone shift and the next hour and the movie kind of drags.

What is strong in the film is the placement of its characters.  Everyone in the film might seem like a reactive stereotype, an allegory not to historical fact but to how we in the audience imagine Southerners in the Civil War might have behaved.  Yet, there’s some subtext here.

Gone With the Wind presents the south of the Civil War more or less the way we heard about it, with its southern belles, suitors, the plantation life, rigid social code of conduct and then, placed at its center, is a woman who has no use for any of those things.  Scarlett O’Hara grows and changes, even if her treatment of men doesn’t mature at all.  It is easy to view Scarlett as just a temperamental man-hungry southern belle, prone to hissy fits; a woman who pursues one man with passion while falling reluctantly into the arms of another.

Scarlett is the antithesis of the world in which she exists, stubborn and independent, she is man-hungry and pursues the dunderheaded Ashley Wilkes for no other reason than that he is promised to someone else.  In this way she was ahead of her time. She is more aggressively sexual than the social order of even the 30s might have allowed.  She married to keep from being an old maid, then pursues one man while resisting another.  Then she turns away the marriage bed for fear of losing her figure to childbirth.

Perhaps the reason the movie fascinates us so much is that we are taken into her world and we see it through her eyes, whether we side with her or not.  She sees what she wants and takes it; she is keen but not perceptive.  If she had been at all perceptive then she might have seen that the roguish Rhett Butler, whom she resists, is almost her exact equal.  He is no gentlemen, he visits Miss Whattling’s house of ill-repute and openly admits that he runs blockade only for profit.  Yes, they are perfect for one another and the reason we are so willing to fall into their romantic struggle is because we know that their attitudes will be the social norm, set in place in the years after the Civil War.  Morality and the social rigors will begin to soften as the world turns rapidly into the 20th century.

Scarlett exists at a point in time when the function of a young woman is to look pretty, land a husband and have babies.  We know that Scarlett has no use for the social order, she is used to doing what is necessary to get what she wants.  What is most unexpected is the way in which she casts off the role of southern lady and begins toiling in the dirt to save the family farm.  Her sisters complain about callused hands and sore backs but if you step back and compare Scarlett with the other women in the movie, you will see a woman that will survive once the war has ended because she has learned how to face it head on.  She is a survivor, she has learned how to scheme and manipulate to get what she wants.  In a way, her passion in life is paved by the risky pursuit of handsome Ashley Wilkes, not because she loves him but by virtue of the fact that she can’t have him.

Strangely enough, it takes a man to make Scarlett so fierce. When we first meet her, she’s sitting on the porch at Tara, her face bright and cheery in the Georgia sun.  She is surrounded by a flock of potential suitors.  This would be the position she would seek to find again in life, the option of having her pick of the man she wants even when he belongs to someone else.

Gone With the Wind is, first and foremost, Scarlett’s story.  She provides the narrative and the entire business of the war is seen through her eyes.  We never see any battles, only a street lined with wounded men when she goes into town to fetch a doctor for Melanie.  Slavery is not seen as a criminal act from her point of view, and in fact it is barely seen at all. Two women, Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), work in the house but are probably. Mammy’s function seems to be as a surrogate mother to Scarlett, her role is a great deal larger than one expects. Prissy is seen a simple underling. From the point of view of a southern belle at the time she wouldn’t have been witness to the beatings or the slaves held in chains. The movie has been blamed for having a naive attitude about the events of the Civil War, but given her view of things, it seems pretty accurate.  One scene involving the Ku Klux Klan was written but thrown out.  I think that was a wise move because it would have broken up the narrative flow.  Seeing the Klan and knowing how we feel about them would have taken us out of Scarlett’s world view.

That point of view allows us to see Scarlett grow over the course of the movie, from winsome southern belle, to frustrated widow, to a woman who rises from the ashes of the war, determined to never be hungry again.  After that lies her transformation to revolutionary as she determines to return Tara to its former glory by working the field herself.  By the time she arrives back to Tara to find it plundered by Yankees, we know that Scarlett’s stubbornness will take hold and she won’t give up until she gets what she wants. We know she will prevail even when others give up in distress.

Inside her personal struggle to save her home and keep her pride, she still pursues an unwise sexual misadventure in her lust for Ashley Wilkes. Despite his devotion to Melanie she presses on, even as Rhett Butler makes his intentions known.  She thinks he’s a brute, a hard-drinking, womanizing rogue, but if she stops to think about it, she’s not much better.  They’re perfect for one another. “You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how” he tells her and in a sense, she knows he’s right.  Both are skilled at breaking the rules of engagement in order to get what they want, reputation be damned.


The Best Picture Winners: You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

Looking back, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that Frank Capra’s film adaptation of You Can’t Take It With You would have been popular enough to win 1938’s Best Picture Oscar.  At the time, it was a popular and critical success.  George S. Kaufmann and Moss Hart’s play was such a success that it was given the Pulitzer Prize in 1936 and it was beloved elsewhere.  Capra’s film version was a box office hit, one of the top five grossing films of the year.

And yet . . . it hasn’t aged well.  This story, which centers on the sweet-natured son of a crabby old businessman who gets engaged to a secretary from a wacky family has familiar themes that Capra would use to better effect in It’s a Wonderful Life, and it is populated with characters and dialogue that seem forced.  Today the film looks and feels like third-rate Capra, and to watch it is to see the work of a director who did much better before and after.