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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1943-1944)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1943

Clarence Brown, The Human Comedy

Michael Curtiz, Casablanca

Henry King, The Song of Bernadette

Ernst Lubitsch, Heaven Can Wait

George Stevens, The More the Merrier

Analysis:

The Human Comedy is a great film. It’s one of those movies about the home front during World War II. It’s also part slice of life. Mickey Rooney’s father (who narrates the film) died during the war, and his brother is about to go. So, with no real income, he takes a job delivering telegrams in his small town. And the film is kind of like Our Town in the sense that you see small moments that set you in this environment and endear you to the characters, and it’s also very much representative of what the home front was like for families with loved ones off at the war. Very strong film.

I really like how they keep it low-key and focus on Rooney the whole time. It really has that laid back feel, and then there’s the moment at the end, which is something that would be a scene in the middle of most movies, but here, feels like the biggest thing in the world. I’m a big fan of how they made this, and a lot of that goes to the direction. Definitely one of the more underrated nominated efforts.

The category has a pretty clear winner, but this is a solid third or fourth choice. Underrated, but I don’t think it has much of a chance here.

It’s Casablanca. You know what this is about.

It’s not that this is one of the most iconic directorial efforts of all time. Michael Curtiz was one of those solid studio workers, who cranked out solid efforts all around, but never had that distinct style. He was only going to win when he had a film that was gonna go all the way. It’s the film that carries this effort to the finish line, and a category without a real #1 in it. The effort is great, and if you’re really starting to think of voting for anything else here (and honestly, I don’t think you are), think about how many iconic images are in this film as compared to the others.

The Song of Bernadette is a surprisingly solid movie. I don’t go for religious stuff at all, but this was actually pretty good. I think because it doesn’t follow someone following their faith or espousing certain beliefs (like Come to the Stable). This is a girl who believes one thing and everyone religious thinks she’s crazy, until they’re like, “Well, she’s not lying, so I guess we’re idiots.” But yeah, the direction is good. Wouldn’t vote for it at all in this category, though.

It’s about a young girl who tries hard, but isn’t particularly bright, and can’t do things particularly well. But one day, while she’s playing near the local toxic waste dump (as we all do), she sees an image of the Virgin Mary. Naturally, everyone thinks she’s crazy, but she’s so earnest, eventually they begin to believe her. She tries to live a normal life, but they make her go into a convent, and eventually she dies, due to toxic exposure. You know.

It’s actually a good film. I’m not making that up. The effort — maybe third if you’re feeling it, but probably fourth. Solid, but not vote worthy. This is your standard classy prestige effort. I think you vote for it only if you’re going with the film.

Heaven Can Wait is not the same as the Warren Beatty film. That’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, from 1941. This is Ernst Lubitsch. This is a different, but just as good, fantasy movie about death and heaven.

Don Ameche dies and goes to the gates of hell. He meets the Devil, and they go over his qualifications for entry into hell. (A twist on the standard heaven scene.) We flashback as they review his life. It’s very entertaining. Loads of character actors in this. Spring Byington, Charles Coburn, Louis Calhern, Eugene Palette, Marjorie Main. Gene Tierney is the female lead. Great stuff. One of the best forgotten films of the 40s.

Maybe it’s the Technicolor, but I loved this effort. Haven’t watched the film in a while, but I’d still rank this as #2. I’d probably need to see it again to more accurately place it, but for now, I’ll leave it as two. Since we all know what wins anyway.

The More the Merrier is a fucking hilarious movie. Absolutely hysterical. They actually remade this as Walk, Don’t Run, Cary Grant’s last movie. That one was strange. This one is the one you should see.

Charles Coburn is in his Rodney Dangerfield mode here. He plays a millionaire who shows up in D.C. to advise on the housing shortage, only to find that there’s no room in the hotel and he won’t be able to check in for two days. So he answers an ad for a person looking for a roommate, and moves in. The person is Jean Arthur. And she’s very orderly and her day is structured. She has a plan for what time they will do everything, down to the second. Comedy ensues. And of course Coburn is the wild card who does whatever the hell he wants, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” And he takes it upon himself to invite a soldier, Joel McCrea, to move in with them while he’s on leave, and also takes it upon himself to play matchmaker for McCrea and Arthur. The movie is hysterical. Coburn won an Oscar (for Supporting, even though he’s a lead) and Arthur got nominated as well. A real comedy classic.

That said – the effort isn’t exactly something to vote for. I don’t think that one needs much explanation. Most people would probably consider this a #5 in the category, with good reason. I’m glad he got on here, though. Stevens is the man.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is a really simple category. It’s Casablanca. In a category like this, it runs away with it simply by being Casablanca and by the amount of iconic moments and images it has. (Maybe, if there’s something like a Rear Window in the category, where the effort is so strong, then you can consider an alternative. Otherwise, it’s very clear cut.) Heaven Can Wait seems like a clear number two as well. After that, it’s whatever you think. I put Human Comedy third just because of how well it handles tone and how laid back it is. That feels more like a departure from studio norms than the others. And then I put More the Merrier fourth just because comedy is so underappreciated. But that’s all logistics. There’s an easy winner here.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Michael Curtiz, Casablanca
  2. Ernst Lubitsch, Heaven Can Wait
  3. Clarence Brown, The Human Comedy
  4. George Stevens, The More the Merrier
  5. Henry King, The Song of Bernadette

Rankings (films):

  1. Casablanca
  2. The More the Merrier
  3. Heaven Can Wait
  4. The Human Comedy
  5. The Song of Bernadette

My Vote: Michael Curtiz, Casablanca

Recommendations: Casablanca is an essential film if you’re alive.

The More the Merrier is a great film and essential if you like movies. You can show this to almost anyone and they will enjoy it. It’s an all-time comedy.

Heaven Can Wait is essential for people who like movies because it’s so great and so underrated and forgotten. It needs to be seen.

The Human Comedy is very much worth watching. It’s a great war film dealing with the home front, and features great performances by Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan. Highly recommended.

The Song of Bernadette is a film you don’t need to see. It’s good, and I do recommend it. But if you’re a casual movie fan, it’s not essential to have seen. If you’re into the Oscars, it’s something you should see, since it was nominated for 12 of them and won 4, including Best Actress.

The Last Word: Casablanca, man. Open and shut case. The real interest here are the other great films that were also nominated.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1944

Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat

Henry King, Wilson

Leo McCarey, Going My Way

Otto Preminger, Laura

Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity

Analysis:

This is a fun category.

Lifeboat is incredible. Think about it – the man made a perfectly thrilling movie that takes place almost entirely on a lifeboat. You have to put that effort at or near the top for that alone.

That’s also pretty much what it’s about. A bunch of people are in a lifeboat, and one of them is the German who sunk the ship they were on. Great, great stuff.

Wilson is actually a really good movie. It’s a biopic of Woodrow Wilson. You don’t need to get more into it than that.

Effort-wise – meh. Fifth, maybe fourth best if you’re really feeling it. I’m not.

Going My Way – great film, really entertaining. Also a huge hit in 1944. This is where the country was at. You could make a movie about a singing priest and it can be a smash hit.

Bing Crosby is a traveling priest sent to a parish in Brooklyn that’s not doing well. Barry Fitzgerald is the older priest who is very traditional. Irish, strict, you know the deal. And Crosby plays golf and baseball and does unorthodox stuff like have the kids sing pop songs. It’s a simple movie. Mostly him transforming the parish and winning over everyone.

Really fun movie. Not sure it’s the Best Picture of 1944, but that’s not what we’re discussing here. The effort isn’t particularly outstanding. At best you can maybe put this third. And even that’s tough, considering you have Indemnity, Lifeboat and Laura here. It’s a pretty standard effort that really only won because the film swept everything.

Laura is a noir melodrama. Gene Tierney is Laura, and she’s been murdered. And Dana Andrews investigates her murder, and as he interviews suspects, we flash back to scenes of them interacting with her when she was alive.

It’s a good film. Really solid, well done. Direction-wise — good. Solid noir, well told. I think this is either a third or fourth choice, depending on where you slot Going My Way. Maybe some people love it and put it second, but I don’t think many people are going #1 with this.

Double Indemnity is a prototypical noir. It’s almost the poster child of the noir.

Fred MacMurray is an insurance man who is propositioned by femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck to take out an insurance policy on her husband. He starts sleeping with her and eventually they plot to kill him and take advantage of the “double indemnity” clause, which means the insurance pays double if the person dies on public transportation. And then of course, everything starts to unravel, as MacMurray’s partner, Edward G. Robinson, feels something fishy is going on.

Incredible movie. Really iconic. I used to be gung ho about this movie winning everything. Now, I kinda get why it didn’t win. I understand it.

The effort by Wilder (how about Billy Wilder? The man made classics in almost every genre) is really solid, and it’s either the #1 or #2 choice in the category. It seems to be between this and Lifeboat.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s between Double Indemnity and Lifeboat. The rest are 3-5. I put Wilson at 5, just because it’s very standard all around. And I’ll put Going My Way over Laura just because that’s how I’m feeling.

But it’s really between Wilder and Hitchcock here (as it will be three more times. Most specifically in 1960. Not so much 1945 or 1954). It’s a tough choice. Double Indemnity is a really classic noir, well done and all. And Lifeboat is such a unique film that places such a restriction on itself and yet manages to remain riveting throughout.

Yeah, I’m feeling Hitchcock right now. I think it’s him.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat
  2. Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity
  3. Leo McCarey, Going My Way
  4. Otto Preminger, Laura
  5. Henry King, Wilson

Rankings (films):

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. Lifeboat
  3. Going My Way
  4. Laura
  5. Wilson

My Vote: Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat

Recommendations: Double Indemnity is an essential movie. It’s the quintessential noir, and movie fans must see it.

Lifeboat is Hitchcock, and all movie fans should see his movies. The ones that you’ve heard of are essential. The lesser ones are not as essential (like Capricorn One, or Topaz), but real film fans will want to see them all.

Going My Way feels essential, just because of how huge it was for 1944. It’s probably just a strong recommend for fans of film and film history. And the Oscars.

Laura is a classic noir, and film fans will come across it pretty quickly. It’s not immediately as essential as Double Indemnity but you should get to it at some point.

Wilson is a solid biopic. Not essential, but as biopics go, it’s solid.

The Last Word: Seems to be a category between Hitchcock and Wilder. I feel like that’s the decision most people are making here. McCarey is solid, but really only wins because the film won. I don’t think a lot of people would go for him nowadays. His film seems like a product of its era. Preminger is also solid, but doesn’t stand much of a chance here. Maybe a few people would throw him a vote, but I don’t think he’s got that much support overall. And King is just pulling up the rear. once again, even. Two years running.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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