The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1944

And this is where we settle into routine (for the most part) for the next 65 years. From here on out (until 2009), it’s five nominees a year. Also, we’re nearing the end of the war. This is the year where the tide turned. Not to mention, this is the year where America started to tire of the war. At first it was nice: “Support the war! Support our troops!” But then, after three years and no end in sight, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t be so quick to support that message. So what happens is — they try escapism. They go for the gay musical starring the biggest star in Hollywood. Then, when that doesn’t work, they become cynical. That’s when the noir kicks in. If Double Indemnity came out in 1945, it would have won. But here, America wasn’t cynical yet.

Going My Way wins Best Picture, Best Director for Leo McCarey (talked about here), Best Actor for Bing Crosby (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actor for Barry Fitzgerald (talked about here). I support all the wins except Best Director (though that makes sense). Then, Best Actress was Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight (talked about here), which feels like a makeup Oscar for the year before this (where she should have been nominated for Casablanca). Shame that she beat Barbara Stanwyck, but — shit happens. And Best Supporting Actress was Ethel Barrymore for None But the Lonely Heart (talked about here), which is just a weak and boring decision.

So that’s 1944. Most people would (and rightfully so) say that Double Indemnity should have won here. But, when you take into account the state of the industry (and the country) at the time — it makes sense why it didn’t.


And the nominees were…

Double Indemnity (Paramount)

Gaslight (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Going My Way (Paramount)

Since You Went Away (Selznick, United Artists)

Wilson (20th Century Fox)

Double Indemnity — You should probably know what this is about, but I’ll give a quick synopsis anyway.

The film is told in flashback, as Walter Neff, an insurance agent, details his time with Phyllis Dietrichson, a woman who approached him about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge, and seduced him into killing her husband in such a way that would invoke the “double indemnity” clause in the policy, which would pay double the insurance money. And the first half of the film is basically them pulling this off, and the second half is them having to avoid suspicion. It’s one of the most famous film noirs of all time. When you think noir, you think this, Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Touch of Evil — it’s one of the cornerstones of the genre. It’s brilliant.

Gaslight — This is a film that feels like a Hitchcock without being a Hitchcock. And it shows.

The film begins with Ingrid Bergman finding out that her aunt, a famous opera singer, was murdered by a man who was after her jewels. Then she is sent away to train as an opera singer and becomes famous. She meets and marries Charles Boyer. Then they return home to her aunt’s house, and she has trouble suppressing the memories of that night when she found out her aunt was dead. And then, while living in the house with Boyer, she starts to see and hear these strange things. Pictures seem to move of their own accord, items go missing and turn up in other places, and the lights seem to dim at random times. She starts to think she’s going crazy. And as these occurrences get more and more frequent, she really starts losing her mind. But eventually she realizes that Boyer is the man who murdered her aunt and that he’s after her jewels, and has slowly been making her think she’s going crazy so he can search the house for the jewels.

It’s a solid movie and is well-made and all, but — the twist is given away so early. It’s so obvious that Boyer is the killer. There’s no suspense. You find out real early, and then over the rest of the film, you’re watching Bergman and are like, “It’s so fucking obvious who it is!” So I wasn’t able to love this film as much because it really was obvious what was going to happen. Which is why it shows that this isn’t a Hitchcock film. I’m sure he’d have found a way to make the whole thing suspenseful. Still, it’s a good film. I certainly wouldn’t vote for it, though.

Going My Way — Every time I write out what this film is about, I marvel at how it won Best Picture.

The film is about Father O’Malley, a progressive priest (he plays golf and sings songs!) who is sent to help out (and eventually take over for) the aging priest of a failing parish in New York City. And when he gets there, the priest thinks he was sent there to help him out. And the film is largely about the difference in style between the two priests, and we follow them over the course of a year. It’s mostly episodic, and ends with O’Malley organizing a concert with the boys to raise money to save the parish, but then the parish burns down accidentally. So he ends up going onto his next assignment.

It’s actually a really great film. It’s very entertaining. Thing is, though, it’s not really of much substance. So I have a hard time feeling as though it should have won, as good as it is.

Since You Went Away — This is a film about an American at wife at home, waiting for her husband. Claudette Colbert’s husband is off at war and she has to care for the family at home while waiting for him to come back. And that’s mostly the film. She cares for her daughters and tries to keep the house in order, but then gets a job working at a factory and learns to support the war effort — it’s a whole long film. The daughters find romance, and there are a series of scenes of her almost seeing her husband — just watch it. It’s terrific. It’s a classic David O. Selznick picture. It’s a bit too overindulgent and not perfect like Gone With the Wind, but it’s really good.

Though, in this category, I can’t help but feel like it’s two years too late. This film wins if it’s made in 1942. Here, it just feels like the country is past the whole “support the war” sentiment, even though it’s still prevalent. Plus the film being really strong, I can understand why it’s here. I just don’t think it was ever going to win, nor should it have won.

Wilson — This is a biopic of Woodrow Wilson, from his days the president of Princeton to his entry into politics and eventual rise to president of the U.S. To go over what happens in the film would basically be regurgitating Wikipedia, so I won’t do that. Just know that it’s a great biopic (and is in color, too) and a great film.

In terms of this category, though, it’s kind of on the weak side for Best Picture. It was an expensive flop, and feels like one of those films they nominated because it should be here. Consolation prize sort of deal. It’s definitely the #5 in the category. Way too on-the-nose for a win.

My Thoughts: Solid year. The two best films are Going My Way and Double IndemnitySince You Went Away is really good, but they did the “support the war” film already. It’s too on-the-nose for 1944. And of the two remaining — Going My Way is just too light. I understand why it won, but — Double Indemnity is just the better film. It’s held up as the better film. That’s the film that should have won. (Though, again, I understand why it didn’t.)

My Vote: Double Indemnity

Should Have Won: Double Indemnity

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. historically, yes, actually. I know Double Indemnity holds up better, but taking into account history, this is actually a great decision. Noir never really came into its own until the end of the war. I mean, we’re quibbling over genre history here, and I do think Double Indemnity should have won. But it just feels like Going My Way is the right film for this year, in terms of the state of the industry. They wanted some escapism at the height of the war. This is post D-Day. The war had been going on for three years. It makes sense they’d want something optimistic and not tragic. So yeah, it’s acceptable. It hasn’t held up as the best decision, but it’s definitely not a bad one.

Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Double Indemnity, you’re dead to me. (Twice over. Ha ha.)

You need to see Going My Way. It’s amazing, it won, and it’s a classic. Get on it.

You should definitely see Since You Went Away. It’s a bit overindulgent, but Selznick really knew how to make a good movie. Everything he touched was gold. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Gaslight is great, even though what’s going on is really obvious. I think you should see it. It’s really good.

Wilson is also really good. It’s a great film. Highly recommended.


5) Wilson

4) Gaslight

3) Since You Went Away

2) Going My Way

1) Double Indemnity

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