Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bless Me Oscar, For We Have Sinned

Ingrid Bergman:
Best Actress for Gaslight


As it has been a long time since I've done a Tuesdays With Oscar retrospective, I've decided to tweak it a little by altering somewhat the structure.  I'll start with Best Original Song and work my way down.  I'll also try to make my reflections shorter.

The 17th Academy Awards continues a curious love affair with Catholicism.  After awarding their Best Actress prize to Jennifer Jones the previous year for playing a Catholic saint, the Academy voted as their Best Actor and Supporting Actor men who played priests.  It also threw its Best Picture award to a film revolving around saving a church.  This of course was before Hollywood thought the Catholic Church was nothing more than a Satanic cult for homophobic child rapists whose only good qualities was in expelling demons who weren't on Supernatural

The battle between light and darkness was on full display, as the sunny optimism of Going My Way went head to head against the noir nihilism of Double Indemnity.  Whether the Academy made the right choices this year I leave to the reader, but I think this year's winners reflect a tradition within the Academy of choosing the popular choice rather than the long-standing one.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



No, I won't bother to write all the nominees because I'm lazy that way.  There are twelve nominees, and I bet each one is better than either Man or Muppet or Skyfall.  In any case, the winner was the jaunty little number from Going My Way.  I admit to being taken by surprise since the title song was the one they kept pushing, but I knew it wasn't.  Instead, I kept waiting...and waiting, for THE song to pop up.  Imagine my surprise when I heard Bing Crosby ask the kids if they wanted to sing The MuleTHE MULE?! What kind of song was THAT?  Wouldn't you know it, it isn't known as The Mule, but instead as the Best Original Song winner...

From Going My Way, Swinging on a Star, music by Jimmy Van Housen, lyrics by Johnny Burke.

Now, while I like Swinging on a Star, and it is a good song, my choice from the nominees is different.  It too is a classic, and one that I think is a little better remembered than Swinging on a Star (and from a film much more remembered than Going My Way).

From Meet Me in St. Louis, The Trolley Song.  Music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Granted, it couldn't have been an easy choice that year with a.) 12 nominees, and b.) two real American standards.  Having said all that, I'm going to select ANOTHER song as my personal choice.  I present my FIVE Best Original Song nominees, along with my winner:

I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night from Higher and Higher
Long Ago and Far Away from Cover Girl
Swinging on a Star from Going My Way
The Trolley Song from Meet Me in St. Louis

and the winner...

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from Meet Me in St. Louis.  Music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Has there ever been a more melancholy, more mournful Yuletide song that has been embraced by the world?  It is sung every Christmas, and yet, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at its heart, is about loss.  It is a regret for all the Christmases that the Smith family will not have in their beloved St. Louis.  It's meant to comfort, and I think it does, but there's such yearning in the song that it brings tears.  It is a brilliant song, one of many which have become iconic.

When was the last time you sang Swinging on a Star?


Alfred Hitchcock (Lifeboat)
Henry King (Wilson)
Leo McCarey (Going My Way)
Otto Preminger (Laura)
Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity)

First, the slow, creaky Wilson got a nod thanks to the campaigning of its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, who idolized that bigot.  Out of the others, for me the battle really is between the two great noir films nominated: Preminger's Laura and Wilder's Double Indemnity.  Both are brilliant pieces of film, and it was a struggle to pick one over the other (though not a struggle to pick either over the charming but lightweight Going My Way).  While it might be logical to pick Billy Wilder for his dark tale of greed, I'm going for Preminger because I was taken by surprise at the twist near the end that threw everything for a loop.  I also think Preminger as a director was never really given his due.  Wilder, he's a legend, one of the greats.  So is Hitchcock.  However, pity that Preminger never got the accolades they did, living or dead.  Maybe it's time for a reevaluation.

Lewis Allen (The Uninvited)
Alfred Hitchcock (Lifeboat)
Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis)
Otto Preminger (Laura)
Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity)

I love the noir films, but I also love the charming, homespun style of Minnelli in Meet Me in St. Louis.  His idea to break up the story into four seasons, and to make the family dynamic one of love and innocence, was brilliant.  I thought I would hate Meet Me in St. Louis, but instead I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I think it takes an enormous amount of talent to direct children, and to direct scenes where romances build slowly.  Minnelli was a great director, visually and actor-wise.  Pity he too wasn't recognized for this film with at least a nomination...but the boring, forgotten Wilson was.


Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart)
Jennifer Jones (Since You Went Away)
Angela Lansbury (Gaslight)
Aline MacMahon (Dragon Seed)
Agnes Moorehead (Mr. Skeffington)

First, I'm knocking out MacMahon on the basis that I don't go for yellowface.  Dragon Seed is infamous now because it has the very WASP Katharine Hepburn as a CHINESE woman!  It would be like casting Channing Tatum as Genghis Khan (with the exception that Hepburn could, you know, actually act).  Still, seeing images of Hepburn in Dragon Seed sends either shivers or gales of laughter, and I can't imagine MacMahon doing any better.

As such, the only real battle is between Lansbury and Barrymore.  Part of me really is thinking, 'Lansbury', but for the moment, I'm sticking with Barrymore's doomed Cockney mother.

Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart)
Angela Lansbury (Gaslight)
Margaret O'Brien (Meet Me in St. Louis)
Shirley Temple (Since You Went Away)
Gene Tierney (Laura)

That being said, when I think how good Margaret O'Brien was in Meet Me in St. Louis, and how she was shunted off with an Honorary Juvenile Oscar, I think the Academy is quite cowardly.  O'Brien was cute without being annoying, funny without being idiotic, and most of all, as authentic as any child who finds burying her dolls great fun in its morbidness.  O'Brien is a standout among the performances in Meet Me in St. Louis, and I think if she had been nominated among her adult peers, had a chance, or at least perhaps of splitting votes.   


Hume Cronyn (The Seventh Cross)
Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way)
Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington)
Clifton Webb (Laura)
Monty Wolley (Since You Went Away)

I find nothing wrong with Fitzgerald's cutesy old parish priest, full of that wonderful Irish charm that he brought to his cantankerous but loveable Father Fitzgibbons, unaware that the youth were not as either criminal or sweet as he thought.  However, it is Webb's slimy tabloid reporter Waldo Lydecker that made the biggest impression on me.  It wasn't that the, shall we say, flamboyant Webb attempted to play it straight, but in his first scene with Dana Andrews' investigator that perhaps is the most overtly outlandish in a film released during the time of the Breen Office.  There Waldo is, stark naked, typing in his bathtub, and he doesn't shrink from rising from the waters, one imagines completely nude, in front of the police officer.  We didn't see that obviously, but one can only wonder what was going on.

Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way)
Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington)
Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity)
Walter Slezak (Lifeboat)
Clifton Webb (Laura)

It's a terrible shame that truly great actors never got their due or respect from the Academy.  While people like Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Hara, and Edward G. Robinson went to their graves without a single Oscar nomination, people like Crappie Redmayne can tout themselves as these great thespians simply because some group threw them a statue.  Yes, O'Hara is still alive but I doubt she'll make a comeback anytime soon. 

Robinson was known as a gangster on film, but he was much more than that.  He was a truly solid actor, one who could do just about anything.  In Double Indemnity, he plays against type: as the honest insurance investigator convinced that a man's death was no accident, but murder, unaware that the murderer was working right next to him.  In this sleazy, sordid noir, Robinson is the moral core of the film, one that needs one badly.  He is clever, shrewd, honest, funny, and above all bright.  Sure, he may need some time to piece it all together, but put it together he did.


Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight)
Claudette Colbert (Since You Went Away)
Bette Davis (Mr. Skeffington)
Greer Garson (Mrs. Parkington)
Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)

Oh, I have absolutely nothing against Bergman or her performance in Gaslight.  It has stood the test of time.  That being said, I don't think anyone who has seen Barbara Stanwyck's performance as the cold-blooded schemer in Double Indemnity doesn't think that it was a much stronger performance than that of a woman who is being driven mad.  Stanwyck really, like Robinson, could do it all: comedy (Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve) as well as drama (Stella Dallas).  Here, she is the ultimate femme fatale, this dark beauty luring poor Fred MacMurray to his doom.  Her manipulation, her cold-bloodedness, her evil...really great acting.  Four nominations, four losses (and some to performances and actress not remembered today: Louise Rainer's little Asian peasant in The Good Earth?  Joan Fontaine's consolation prize in Suspicion?  Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda?).  More proof the Academy Awards are a poor way to judge film greatness.

Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat)
Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight)
Bette Davis (Mr. Skeffington)
Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis)
Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)

All things being said though, I think I'm a closet optimist, for my choice is Judy Garland in the joyful, hopeful, bright and uplifting Meet Me in St. Louis.  Garland, again another person who never won a competitive Oscar (and if anyone can make a case as to how Crappie Redmayne is better than Judy Garland, I'm all ears), didn't like her character: another teenager.  She complained that she would probably end up collecting her first Social Security check and play her first love scene the same week.  However, her Esther Smith was more than just a girl in love with 'the boy next door'.  She was someone growing into a woman, who was understanding what that meant.  Her delivery of songs as varied as The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ran the full spectrum, and her performance is still remembered and beloved. 


Charles Boyer (Gaslight)
Bing Crosby (Going My Way)
Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way)
Cary Grant (None But the Lonely Heart)
Alexander Knox (Wilson)

Well, for starters we can knock out two nominees.  I'm no fan of Wilson or Wilson, and Knox, while decent, was by no means the best (and let's face it, no one remembers Wilson or Wilson all that much).  We can also dump Fitzgerald, the first and only person to receive two nominations for playing the same part in the same picture.  I can also say, with sadness, that this will be Cary Grant's second and final nomination.  If you think of all the great performances Grant gave, the Academy saw fit to nominate him for only two. 

If we think long and hard on that, that ties Cary Grant with, of all people, Jonah Hill, in number of nominations from the Academy.  Remind me why we think Oscars are worth anything?

Now we end up with two people really (although, Grant was probably nominated for playing against type as a Cockney, which is ironic since the embodiment of sophistication was born a poor kid from Bristol by name of Archie Leech).  When he wasn't spending his time beating his children till they bled and disinheriting them until they turned 65, Der Bingle had time to make movies.  He was concerned about his chances to win, knowing that if he did his Road co-star Bob Hope would have a ready punching bag.  Fortunately for him, the cool daddy-o priest got him the Oscar, but it robbed Boyer's manipulative villain a chance to win. 

Dana Andrews (Laura)
Charles Boyer (Gaslight)
Cary Grant (Arsenic and Old Lace)
Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity)
Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet)

It was a very difficult decision for me.  For most the time I thought it would go to Fred MacMurray's dupe in Double Indemnity.  Then I remembered Dick Powell in another noir masterwork, Murder, My Sweet.  It's amusing that the original title, Goodbye, My Fancy, had to be changed to the less ambiguous Murder, My Sweet because Goodbye, My Fancy might lead people to think this was going to be a lighthearted romantic comedy.  Those were the types of roles Powell was known for in the first half of his career: the lightweight, breezy films where he would croon a little and swoon a little over a pretty girl.  No actor's career shifted as wildly but as brilliantly as Dick Powell, whose second half was dominated by gritty turns in noir.  For that, he deserves recognition. 


Double Indemnity
Going My Way
Since You Went Away

First, forget the boring and pretentious Wilson, a film that has the racist President all but walk on water.  Yes, Going My Way was very nice, very charming, very sweet.  I loved the film, but for me, Best Picture has to have as its winner a film that I think stands the test of time.  It has to be remembered, evoked, one that still says something.  Going My Way, as charming as it is, doesn't.  The dark, despairing noir masterwork Double Indemnity does.  Its tale of greed and the high price of lust still haunts the viewer long after the film is over.

Double Indemnity
Going My Way
Meet Me in St. Louis
The Uninvited

That being said, I think we can come up with better and better-remembered films than Wilson.  There's the equally brilliant noir film Laura, the creepy suspense film The Uninvited, and my choice for the Best Picture of the Year: the charming, pleasant, and moving Meet Me in St. Louis.  The film is sweet without being sickeningly so, charming, a beautiful portrait of an idealized American family.  Meet Me in St. Louis is I think a truly authentically American film about an American subject, and the film never fails to charm and move.  Its collection of American standards in song and with performances that are still beautiful make it truly one of the great American film musicals, and one of the greatest films ever made. 

Sorry, but this year, I'm Going My Own Way to name Meet Me in St. Louis the Best Picture of 1944.

Next Time: the 1945 Academy Awards.

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