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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1947-1948)

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.

1947

George Cukor, A Double Life

Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire

Henry Koster, The Bishop’s Wife

Elia Kazan, Gentleman’s Agreement

David Lean, Great Expectations

Analysis:

A Double Life is a noir about Ronald Colman, an actor who has trouble leaving the characters he plays on the stage. Now, he’s starring in Othello. And he starts to become jealous, and murderous. And he begins to be unable to differentiate what’s real and what isn’t. And it leads to… well, it’s a noir. You can guess where it leads.

It’s been a while since I saw this movie. I remember thinking it was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes the first time, though I did like it quite a bit. It’s possible that was a reaction to me not thinking Colman should have won Best Actor for it. I don’t know. I’m due to watch it again before I get to that category. As for the direction, I’ve always thought Colman was a fourth or fifth choice in this category. It looks like a standard noir. It’s well-directed, but it’s not something I’d want to vote for. Though this is admittedly not the strongest year, so you could make a case for him if you wanted to.

Crossfire is a B movie. Technically the only B movie ever nominated for Best Picture. B movie in the official sense of the word. It’s basically the B movie version of Gentleman’s Agreement. While Gentleman’s Agreement deals with anti-Semitism in a classy, dramatic way, this does it in a rough, B movie way. A Jewish guy ends up dead, and a bunch of soldiers are suspected, so they investigate and figure out which one is the anti-Semite. It’s solid.

The direction is fine, but it’s clearly still a B movie. I don’t think you can vote for this, even with the category so weak. At best you have to consider it a third choice. If you’re voting for it here, I think you’re making a deliberate choice. I know the quality of the film shouldn’t dictate the vote, but… it helps. Plus the effort is just okay. I don’t think anyone could really vote for this, even with the category so weak.

The Bishop’s Wife is a pretty iconic story. David Niven is a bishop who is struggling to raise the money for a new church (white people problems). So he prays for guidance. In comes Cary Grant, an angel. He’s sent to help Niven spiritually, not financially. What Niven doesn’t realize is that in trying to build this church, he’s neglecting his wife and kids. So Grant starts helping out, but not in the way Niven thinks he’s supposed to be helping. And then he actually becomes attracted to Loretta Young, (insert title here).

It’s a good film. Religion is generally a turn off for me in movies, but I enjoyed this. They do some nice trick photography at points (the snowball scene was ripped off for Elf), and the film is shot nicely, but there’s nothing that makes me say this deserved to win the category. At best it’s fourth for me.

Gentleman’s Agreement is the class of the category. I think most people would know the story. Gregory Peck is a big journalist who decides that for his next story, he’s going to start telling people he’s really Jewish to see just how bad Jews have it in America. And he sees, first hand, how bad that is. People do some horrible shit to him. The best scene is when a hotel conveniently “misplaces” his reservation and refuses to say it’s because he’s Jewish.

It is a great movie. Really, really, really great.The direction doesn’t blow you away, but it’s solid, and Kazan clearly knows what he’s doing. Not Kazan’s best effort over his career, but a sure-handed one that easily wins this category on class alone. This is one of those years where the best film takes Best Director easily simply because of lack of competition. At worst you have to put this effort second. Maybe third.

Great Expectations might still be the best effort in this category. I remember seeing it the first time and going, “Wow, this is way better than everything else. I wish I could vote for it.” I guess technically I still could, but, I’m human.

It’s based on Dickens. Pip, benefactor, vittles, money, gentleman, crazy old biddy in a wedding dress. It’s hard out here for a Pip when he’s tryin’ to get this money to be a gent. The story is famous and the direction is great.

Lean knows what he’s doing. You could easily vote for him here. I’m actually tempted to. I’m worried that my thinking it was best was due to it being the crispest looking nominee that was restored better than the rest. Still, it’s top two for certain. Just watching the five nominees, I’d be surprised if almost everyone didn’t put him first or second.

– – – – – – – – – – 

The Reconsideration: The only two efforts worth voting for are Lean and Kazan. My memory is saying that Lean’s effort was better, but I’m finding it hard not to vote for Kazan. I think he constructed a hell of a film. And objectively, I think the importance of Kazan’s film makes me want to vote for him over Lean. This actually has nothing to do with Lean winning twice more after this. It’s actually for other reasons. I feel a bit hypocritical, but I still think the vote has to be Kazan.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Elia Kazan, Gentleman’s Agreement
  2. David Lean, Great Expectations
  3. George Cukor, A Double Life
  4. Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire
  5. Henry Koster, The Bishop’s Wife

Rankings (films):

  1. Gentleman’s Agreement
  2. Great Expectations
  3. The Bishop’s Wife
  4. A Double Life
  5. Crossfire

My Vote: Elia Kazan, Gentleman’s Agreement

Recommendations:

Gentleman’s Agreement is an all-time great film, and a really important film historically. It needs to be seen. Best Picture winner, culturally significant, this is everything you’d want out of a movie. Essential.

Great Expectations — this is probably the best version of the film. So if you’re gonna watch one — and let’s face it, you’re probably gonna watch one throughout your lifetime — this is probably the one to see. Though I guess a lot of people would watch the Alfonso Cuaron version with Robert De Niro and Ethan Hawke. I get it. But this is David Lean. And it looks great. Definitely recommended.

The Bishop’s Wife is a very famous story. It’ll feel reminiscent because you’ve seen versions of it in different forms. Cary Grant is charming, and it has a lot of great character actors of the 40s in it. Highly recommended and, while not essential, it is on that list of movies you should see if you’re into movies.

A Double Life is a pretty good noir. George Cukor, Oscar winner. Definitely worth seeing. Especially if you’re into noir. A nice little gem that also won Best Actor for Ronald Colman.

Crossfire is worth it as a double bill with Gentleman’s Agreement. It’s worth it to see how A movies and B movies handled similar subject matter. Also, B movies are really some of the best and most underrated movies in history. There’s such good stuff in the B movie treasure trove that most people haven’t even heard of. So I highly recommend it based on that alone. But for someone who is really into film and film history, this one should be seen. There’s a lot to talk about and a lot of things that can be talked about from it. If I were a professor, I could do an entire hour lecture based solely on this movie, the amount of things I could talk about with it.

The Last Word: The category is between Kazan and Lean for me. Both seem like the best options. It’s a pretty weak year, so you probably couldn’t go wrong taking either. I say Kazan’s the best choice purely because of how great and important his film is overall. There’s no singular effort in the category, so it becomes about the classiness of the direction or the showiness. Lean might be a bit of both. Kazan is all about the classiness. I personally feel like Kazan deserved both the Picture and Director win, especially knowing everything about the creation of this movie (how studio heads begged him not to make it).

 – – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1948

John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit

Jean Negulesco, Johnny Belinda

Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

Fred Zinnemann, The Search

Analysis:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an American masterpiece. Such is known.

It’s about an American who is “down on his luck” down in Mexico. He’s working as a day laborer, begging for enough money to get a cold drink in the hot sun. He meets up with another American and an old man, and the three decide to go out prospecting in the mountains. Pretty soon, they strike gold. And the rest of the film becomes about the corruption gold can do to a man. Watching Bogart slowly descend into jealousy and madness is breathtaking to behold.

This film is a treasure of cinema, and I don’t think anyone would argue with this having won. To me, this category isn’t even close. This is one of the most famous, most influential and most iconic films of all time. The rest are just very good.

The Snake Pit is a strong film with a great lead performance. It’s one of those films that’s almost forgotten now, and is actually one of the first films I saw on this quest. Literally, first week home from college, just as I’m formulating this idea, it happened to be on TCM. And I was blown away by it.

Olivia de Havilland is a patient at a mental institution. She is a schizophrenic. She hears voices and doesn’t recognize her own husband. And we watch her life at the institution, flash back to her life before this happened to her, and see her doctors working with her to get her better. It’s really, really terrific. It can get a bit melodramatic, but that’s the era. The wonderful aspect of this film is how it deals a lot with daily life in a mental institution as much as it deals with the melodrama. That’s really where this movie shines.

The direction is pretty standard. It’s solid, but there’s nothing here that makes me go, “Oh shit, I need to vote for this.” Especially when most people haven’t even heard of this movie and it’s up against The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which, if you’re even remotely into movies, you know it and you know how famous it is.

Johnny Belinda is one of my favorite films I found while watching all these Oscar movies, and I love it dearly.

It’s half drama, half melodrama. Lew Ayres is a new doctor in a small town and meets Jane Wyman, who is a deaf mute. Her parents run a farm and think she’s an idiot. But Ayres realizes she’s actually really intelligent but is simply unable to communicate. So he works with her to teach her sign language and how to communicate, and in doing so she comes out of her shell and actually starts to blossom. (And she also falls in love with him.) And one night, during a barn dance, the asshole of the town rapes her. And she gets pregnant. And everyone assumes it’s Ayres because of the amount of time they’ve been spending together. And she refuses to tell anyone who the father is. So now the family is financially strapped because of the baby, and then all this melodramatic stuff happens — a murder, an accidental death, a trial — all that good stuff.

I really, really loved this movie. Specifically Wyman’s performance. It’s so wonderful and everything about this movie felt fresh. That said, no one in their right mind would vote for this in this category. It’s my third choice, and I love the film. It looks great, it’s well directed, but it’s no Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Hamlet is a great film, and my only negative against it is that it won Best Picture. It’s a film that is really great, but it just didn’t need to win. But it is what it is.

We all know the story of Hamlet, and this is the seminal version of the story. The Kenneth Branagh version is the other. His is the full play over four hours. This is the shorter version that’s just as good. Olivier is terrific, and it’s really well directed. But it’s only second best for me. It’s up against an American classic, and to me there’s a tangible difference in the direction. Though I will say that without Huston, this film does win this category.

The Search is a really great film. Michel Hazanvicius remade it as his follow up to The Artist, but it didn’t come off as well as this version. It’s terrific.

Here’s the premise — post-World War II, Europe is in ruin. A bunch of kids have lost their families and been scattered throughout bombed out towns. They are rounded up by the Red Cross to be reunited with their families. But they don’t speak any English and the aid workers don’t speak German, so the kids are rounded up and thrown into a van. And rumors start spreading — “Isn’t this what the Nazis did? Put kids in a van and then have them killed?” So the kids freak out and run away. Most of them are rounded up, but one kid gets away. He’s running through the ruins of houses when he’s spotted by Montgomery Clift, a soldier. He takes the kid in, give him food, tries to communicate with him. There’s a great scene where they work out just enough communication to get by with one another. He goes to the aid workers to find the boy’s mother. And all the while, we follow the boy’s mother as she goes around to find her son, all building toward the big emotional reunion in the end.

It’s a really great film, and one of the best hidden gems of the entire Oscar Quest. The direction is really solid, but not overly noteworthy. 3-5 in this category is fairly interchangeable.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger weren’t nominated for The Red Shoes. I’d like to start by presenting that statement without comment.

Of the nominees, the only choice here is John Huston. I don’t see how that can really be argued. Olivier is an alternate choice, and I guess you could go there, but it seems unfathomable to me that anyone else but John Huston would be the vote. I put Olivier second, and then the other three come down to order of personal preference. I personally put Johnny Belinda third and The Search fourth, though I think Zinnemann might have done a slightly better job than Negulesco. And The Snake Pit is five for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  2. Laurence Olivier, Hamlet
  3. Jean Negulesco, Johnny Belinda
  4. Fred Zinnemann, The Search
  5. Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit

Rankings (films):

  1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  2. Johnny Belinda
  3. The Search
  4. The Snake Pit
  5. Hamlet

My Vote: John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Recommendations:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an American classic, and is an essential film for all to see. If you love cinema, you need to see this.

It’s hard to get through life not having seen this version of Hamlet. They put this on in schools when you’re reading it and the teacher is hungover and wants a free week of classes without having to do anything. If you’re gonna see a version of Hamlet, it’s gonna be this one and/or the Branagh one. This one should be first just because the other is a real commitment.

Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit and The Search are all getting the same blurb for me — they’re some of the best hidden gems of the Oscars, and they’re all very much worth seeing. Of the 800-something films I saw during this Quest that I hadn’t seen before, these three would be in my top 50 for best films I discovered. I highly recommend them and I think everyone should see them.

The Last Word: We can argue the specifics all we want, but I don’t think there’s any argument that John Huston deserved to win this category. I could listen to an argument for Olivier to have won, but anyone else would be insane. And I love those other three films. But it’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. John Huston is the choice here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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