The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1949
1949 is a strange year. All the films are strong, yet there’s no clear winner amongst them. It does make sense, though, that the films aren’t particularly standout, since this was the year after the Paramount Decision was decided. So this year was the first set of films affected by it (sort of. It wouldn’t go into affect until 1950, but still, they had to be cognizant of it).
For brief recap — the Paramount Decision was basically a mandate that the studios could not own a monopoly on production, distribution and exhibition. The way things worked was — the studios were originally founded by producers, distributers and exhibitors joining together. For example: Marcus Loew (who owned Loew’s Theatres) bought Metro and Samuel Goldwyn and merged them, and then went into business with Louis B. Mayer to create MGM. As such, MGM was able to produce and distribute films and then put them into Loew’s theaters, which they owned. And by 1945, all the studios basically combined to own the majority of the major theaters in the U.S. And what they did was essentially let each other exhibit films in their theaters for nominal fees and worked together to keep out the independents. If you weren’t affiliated with a studio, it was nearly impossible to get your film shown in any significant theaters. And eventually a lawsuit was filed against this obvious monopoly, and in 1948, it was decreed that the studios had to divest of all their theaters. They could still produce and distribute their films, but the theaters had to be open market. Because what they used to do with the theaters (if they didn’t own them) was — they’d block book their films, which was essentially them saying, “So you want Mrs. Miniver? Well, if you want that, then you have to take all these other films as well.” And there would be all these B movies and minor films that the theaters would then have to rent as well. And all of that was declared illegal. This was the first major blow against the studio system and would eventually lead to its collapse in the 60s.
So now the studios no longer owned the theaters, which completely changed their production strategy. When they owned the theaters, they could pump them full of B movies and shorts and newsreels. Now, since they didn’t own the theaters, exhibitors weren’t forced into those films. So B movies started going by the wayside. At least, studio B movies. This led to the rise of the independents, which led to the rise of the drive-in feature, low budgets (like Roger Corman’s films and such), exploitation films. And then there was also the rise of television during this time as well. So all of this really started threatening the supremacy of the studios, which led to them consolidating all their power and money into those blockbusters in the 50s and 60s, which helped bring about the fall of “Old” Hollywood and the rise of New Hollywood (along with the breaking down of social taboos with films like Bonnie and Clyde). So the Paramount Decision was a huge deal for film history.
As for this year as an Oscar year — All the King’s Men wins Best Picture, Best Actor for Broderick Crawford (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Mercedes McCambridge (talked about here). The two acting wins are fantastic decisions and were well-deserved. I still don’t know what to make of the Best Picture win. That’s what this article is for. Best Actress this year was Olivia de Havilland for The Heiress (talked about here), which was one of the best decisions of all time in the Best Actress category, since this was probably her best performance (and the category was horribly weak). Best Supporting Actor was Dean Jagger for Twelve O’Clock High (talked about here), which I don’t like at all. And Best Director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives (talked about here). I really don’t understand that decision one bit. It’s completely baffling to me.
So, overall, they made good decisions here. Crawford, McCambridge, de Havilland — all terrific choices. The Jagger win seems weak, and Mankiewicz — I can’t even begin to figure that one out. But overall, it’s a good year. But, a year’s strength is decided by its Best Picture decision. And — with this set of nominees — they’re all strong, and they’re all good films. But there’s not a clear winner here. So, even though they made a fine decision (and could have with any one of three films, in my mind), I think the fact that none of the decisions are particularly strong historically, it leaves this year as one that gets swept under the rug. It doesn’t really stand out much. Which feels accurate, considering the nominees.
BEST PICTURE – 1949
And the nominees were…
All the King’s Men (Rossen, Columbia)
The Heiress (Paramount)
A Letter to Three Wives (20th Century Fox)
Twelve O’Clock High (20th Century Fox)
All the King’s Men — This film is about the rise and fall of a politician. It’s also the last (or, I guess, most recent) Best Picture winner to be based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The film is about Willie Stark (a veiled portrait of Huey Long), who begins as an idealistic political candidate, giving passionate speeches on the street corner. And we follow him as he unsuccessfully tries to get his message out. But eventually he catches on and starts winning. Only, as he wins, he also starts making concessions and slowly starts getting more corrupt. And eventually he becomes the governor of the state and is just completely corrupt, through and through. And the that’s the first half of the film. And the second half is basically the unraveling of that. It’s, incredible. Broderick Crawford is really good in it, and it’s just a great film. Did it deserve to win? I don’t know. Was it good enough to win? In this category — yeah. It’s tough. This category feels like a bunch of #2s and low-end #1s, and it’s hard to pick a winner.
Battleground — Ever watch Band of Brothers? If not, you totally should. It’s awesome. But, there are two episodes that are basically the centerpiece of that show — they’re either 5 + 6 or 6 + 7 — and they deal with Bastogne. And Bastogne was — American troops end up in the forest at Bastogne for the entire winter, and they’re pinned down on all sides by Germans. And they’re unable to get any supplies, because planes can’t figure out where they are inside the trees and through the snow, and they’re basically stuck there for the winter, with a limited amount of supplies. This is a film version of that story.
The film is about the American troops at Bastogne, the “battered bastards of Bastogne,” as they’re called, and how they survive the winter. It’s an amazing film because it feels like you’re there. It’s almost definitely a set, but for some reason you feel like you’re out there with them. It’s really well done. And it’s slowly paced. Not much actually happens, but there’s something about it that’s just riveting from beginning to end. Maybe it’s just because I really liked those episodes on Band of Brothers and the whole situation they’re dealing with here, but — I thought this was the best movie in this category. Or maybe — maybe my favorite is more the correct word. I don’t really know which one of these I consider the best. But this is an amazing movie, and one of the best World War II movies I’ve seen. I’m not a big World War II guy, but I love this movie.
The Heiress — The Heiress is another film, like All the King’s Men, that’s kind of structured in halves. There’s a first half, there’s a major event, and then there’s the second half.
Here, the first half deals with Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), who is getting older and is not yet married, and her father worries that she might be a spinster. And she meets Montgomery Clift and starts to fall for him. And her father immediately becomes suspicious that Clift is only after her money. Or rather, the money she will inherit from him (since he’s a prominent doctor). So he keeps trying to dissuade her from making any rash decisions about him. But she’s never been in love before, so she starts making plans to be with him regardless. And eventually her father tells her that if she marries him, she’ll be cut off from his will. And she decides she’s going to go with him anyway, because she’s convinced the love is real. And then, she plans to run away with him, and waits for him downstairs one night, and he never comes. And she has this long walk up the staircase afterwards, which is sort of the halfway point of the film.
Then her father dies shortly after, leaving her all his money, and now she’s a wealthy woman who is still alone. And then a couple of years later, Clift comes back and tries to get back with her. He says all this stuff to her that seems sincere, and she seems to believe in it and makes plans to go away with him again. And they do the same thing they were gonna do the first time, him picking her up at night. Only this time, when he arrives at the door, she has it bolted and sits there while he bangs on the door for her. And then she has this walk up the stairs again, the second time, this time with a cold and icy demeanor on. It’s great. Those walks up the stairs — man they’re good.
This is a really great film, and I toyed for a while with voting for it, but, honestly, it wouldn’t have held up as a winner. It’s good, but it wouldn’t have held up. So I’m glad I didn’t vote for it (or, am not voting for it) and I’m glad it didn’t win. (Though she was awesome here, and totally deserved that Oscar.)
A Letter to Three Wives — This is an interesting film, narratively. It begins with — well, read the title.
But let me explain. A woman (who is our narrator and is never seen) writes a letter to three women, saying she’s about to run away with one of their husbands. And that’s the conceit of the film. Each woman tries to figure out if it’s her husband the woman is running away with. And we flash back to all of their married lives, and we see how they interact with their husbands and with each other, and it’s left as sort of a mystery for a while which husband will be the one. I won’t spoil it, even though it’s not really much of a mystery or anything. It’s just a good drama with an interesting hook.
The film is a really solid film. I liked it a lot, and my only issue with it is the Best Director win. Other than that, it’s a really solid film. It shouldn’t have won, though. It’s not good enough to have won. This, among all the nominees (as well as the next one) would not have held up at all.
Twelve O’Clock High — This film is, to me, just like Sands of Iwo Jima. I don’t really see that much of a difference in the films, though I guess there’s less combat in this one and this is more psychological.
The film is about a pretty lackluster air force regiment. Their confidence is shaken due to heavy losses and they’re not quite performing up to snuff. So they bring in Gregory Peck, who is a real tough-as-nails officer, and he works them hard to get them into shape. How hard? Real hard. To the point where every man in the unit tries transferring out. And Peck has the officer in charge of all that stuff delay the requests for a few weeks just so he can show them why he’s doing it. And after a while they realize they’re actually becoming better pilots because of the hard training. (It’s basically like The Karate Kid. And Peck is Miyagi.) And they start flying missions and doing real well. And the film ends with a mission going badly and one of the men dying, and Peck becoming so shaken up by it that he almost goes catatonic and has to be transferred out of the unit. Though the men give him a nice sendoff because they have come to respect and admire him.
It’s a good film. I do actually like the film. I don’t love it, but it is a good film. Though I consider this a #5 here. I would never vote for this as Best Picture. I don’t know, it’s just not my cup of tea at all.
My Thoughts: To me, the only films worth voting for are All the King’s Men, Battleground and The Heiress. And of the three — Battleground is my favorite. I love that movie so much. So I’m voting for that. Even though any one of the three would have been a fine decision.
My Vote: Battleground
Should Have Won: I don’t know. I guess either Battleground or All the King’s Men.
Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. It was probably the best decision in the category. It couldn’t help if the category was weak. (Weak is in — without a clear winner.)
Ones I suggest you watch: Battleground is an amazing film. It really is. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Especially if you liked Band of Brothers. It’s so good.
All the King’s Men is a great, great film. It’s a great story. A classic story. Don’t watch the 2006 remake. Watch this one. Trust me, you’ll like it.
The Heiress is also an amazing film. Olivia de Havilland is superb here. The transformation her character undergoes — man is it great. That final walk under the stairs — oh, man. Trust me when I say you need to see this one.
A Letter to Three Wives is a terrific film. Very strong. And it’s very well-told. I like the structure of it. That’s probably why it won Best Director. Either way, it’s really great, and should be seen. It stands out among the other pictures on this Quest. You’ll remember this one, I promise you.
Twelve O’Clock High — I don’t love it, but it’s a solid film. I much prefer Sands of Iwo Jima (which is basically the same type of film — hard-ass takes over lazy regiment and turns them into soldiers), but they’re both good films. I recommend this one.
5) Twelve O’Clock High
4) A Letter to Three Wives
3) All the King’s Men
2) The Heiress