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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 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

Casablanca

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Heaven Can Wait

The Human Comedy

In Which We Serve

Madame Curie

The More the Merrier

The Ox-Bow Incident

The Song of Bernadette

Watch on the Rhine

Analysis:

Casablanca.

The hardest thing about this category is going to be making a case for anything that’s not Casablanca. Because I really can’t. But I also want to give each of the films their due.

Anyway, you know this movie, I know this movie. It’s perfect.

It’s gonna be the vote, it should be the vote, there’s nothing more to add here.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on the Hemingway novel.

It’s about a bunch of guerilla fighters in the Spanish Civil War trying to blow up a bridge. And you have some nice Gary Cooper/Ingrid Bergman romance thrown in for good measure.

It’s big and it’s classy and it’s the film designed to get a lot of nominations. On paper, this is the film that “wins” the category. That’s not to say it’s the best film, it’s just the film that most closely approximates what the Academy generally votes for.

I like the film. I used to not, but I like it well enough. In a category like this, it would have held up fine, but I don’t like it any better than the bottom half of the list. It’s fine, but I like a bunch of movies way more than I like this.

Heaven Can Wait is Ernst Lubitsch, baby. One of his last films. Probably his last great one.

This is a fantasy film wherein Don Ameche dies. He is taken down to the gates of Hell. Most people when going down to Hell would scream that they’re in the wrong place. Ameche doesn’t. He’s like, “Where’s my room?” Because he knows what kind of life he led. Though the problem here is — they’re not sure he’s worthy of entering hell. So you have a nice reverse on the standard story, where they review his entire life in order to prove that he’s actually a good person and not the horrible person he claims.

It’s really great. And gorgeously shot in Technicolor. Wouldn’t have held up as a winner, but it’s a great film. Top three or four for me, favorites-wise. It doesn’t compare to Casabanca, but it’s a classic in its own way. Great stuff.

The Human Comedy is one of the great hidden gems among the Best Picture nominees.

Mickey Rooney is a kid whose father died in the war. His brother is now going off to fight. He now has to act as the man of the house, despite being like 15. He takes a job at a telegram office and races around town on his bike, delivering telegrams to people (many of which include the news that their family members have died in battle). Much of the film is a series of vignettes, though it builds to a very powerful ending.

I like this film a lot. In another year, I might be able to make the case that it’s worth voting for. Though here, no matter how much I like it, I can’t get it past the midway point. I could maybe bump it up another spot, but that’s purely on how much I like it. This category is pretty much Casablanca and then everything else.

In Which We Serve is a film about a ship. That’s actually what it is. We follow the ship from when it was built to the minute it sinks. Each of the men on the ship recall their memories aboard it. It’s kind of like the Forrest Gump of ships. It manages to be at all the relevant historical events.

It’s a good film. I’ve never really loved it, but I am due to see it again one of these years. It could have made a decent winner on its own, but against Casablanca, it’s basically an afterthought. Perfectly solid film though.

Madame Curie is a biopic of Marie Curie. Starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.

That’s about it, really. Standard biopic fare. Nothing overly memorable. The same kind of pleasant, safe biopic stuff you see during this era. It feels like a filler nominee and pretty much is ten of ten. Doubt anyone actually takes this.

The More the Merrier is a great comedy that really only works in 1943. They tried it in 1966, and it just did not work at all.

Charles Coburn is a millionaire in town to visit his friend. His hotel room won’t be ready for two days. All housing in the city is crazy because of the wartime shortage. In order to find accommodations, he answers an ad in the paper from a woman looking for a roommate to help out with rent. He moves in with Jean Arthur, and the first part of the film is them adapting to living together. It’s a screwball comedy, so you can guess. And then Coburn, the meddling old man, meets Joel McCrea, a soldier on leave for the next few days, and takes him in to stay. He also secretly works to get McCrea and Arthur together. It’s a very funny movie.

I love this film, but there’s no way it should have won Best Picture. I could maybe make a case without Casablanca in the category, but once you have Casablanca here, this looks like an awful choice.

The Ox-Bow Incident. There’s a great bit in Woody Allen’s early standup where he goes, “I wanted to discuss my first marriage. Or, as it was known, The Ox-Bow Incident.” Which is just such a great line.

This is the only nomination received by this film, which leads me to believe people really liked it and saw it as more than it may have otherwise appeared. At this point, they didn’t particularly take westerns seriously, yet this one had a lot more serious themes than most of them did. I really appreciate its inclusion.

The film is about two cowboys who ride into town. They stumble upon a town in the middle of an incident, as some cattle have been rustled and a rancher has been killed. The town soon creates a posse and goes out in search of the murderers. They soon come upon three men with some of the cattle that were owned by the dead rancher. The posse quickly assumes the men are guilty and decide to hang them. And much of the film is about the moral debate about whether or not it’s just to hang men on mere suspicion rather than bring them in for a fair trial. And we watch as a mob mentality takes over and even reasonable men begin to make terrible decisions.

It’s a terrific film. And historically, I think it’s shown to actually be the second-best film in the category. If not for Casablanca, this is the film I’d be looking to vote for. With only one nomination, this was never going to happen and the nomination was clearly the reward, but for me looking at this, were it not for a clear winner, I don’t see how this isn’t the choice other wise. Especially given the rest of the category, which is good but not great without anything that would particularly hold up as a classic or a solid winner.

The Song of Bernadette is one of those religious films I actually like. Which is not that common. It’s like when I like horror movies. (I consider the genres similar in a lot of ways, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

It’s about a young peasant girl who is not very bright, awful at school, but means well. One day, while hanging out in the part of town where they dump the toxic waste (as one does), she sees a vision of the Virgin Mary. No one believes her, and they bring in people to see if she’s lying. But with her firm conviction and overall naiveté and seeming inability to lie, they start to believe that she’s telling the truth. More specifically, they believe that she believes in what she saw. And eventually she is taken into a convent to become a nun, and we follow her journey during this… until she dies of radiation poisoning for hanging around toxic waste so much. You know how it goes.

The film is very solid. It may have been the most nominated film of this year, if memory serves. I think it’s solid enough to be worthy of a nomination, but there’s no way I’d take this. Were it to win (especially over Casablanca), it would have not held up well at all and probably been pretty derided. It’s best that it didn’t win. It feels very much like a film perfectly suited as a nominee.

Watch on the Rhine is a Bette Davis melodrama with significant war themes. Very much a product of its year.

Paul Lukas plays an anti-fascist who has been fighting the rise of the Nazis. Though now, he and his family are in danger and they are attempting to find peace within the U.S. So we watch as they come home to some family and try to live in peace, under the radar. Though that gets threatened when a Nazi sympathizer finds out who they are and threatens to give them up.

The film’s not bad, but I’ve never particularly loved it. It also never sat well with me that Lukas won Best Actor for a performance that just seems okay. Not that it really affects my decision-making here, since even despite that I wouldn’t dream of taking this over at least six or these other films. For me, this is probably ninth of ten. There’s nothing here that would make it a good winner at all over Casablanca.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Casablanca. There’s not even a discussion to be had. There’s not even a second choice here. It’s not like 1941, where you have a clear winner and a great second choice that also works. This is Casablanca by a mile, and then we can start discussing what else could be the vote if Casablanca weren’t there.

Should we even bother with the rest? Because at this point it’s all hypothetical about what we do if the film that should win isn’t here. But quickly — The Ox-Bow Incident would be my second choice. After that, I don’t know what I do. The rest are all pretty good, but otherwise nothing particularly stands out to me, and I’d probably just vote based on which ones I liked (the top ones being The Human Comedy, Heaven Can Wait and The More the Merrier).

So yeah, it’s Casablanca. It’s easy at the top and more complicated after that. So fortunately we don’t need to get more complicated.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings:

  1. Casablanca
  2. The Ox-Bow Incident
  3. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  4. The Song of Bernadette
  5. Heaven Can Wait
  6. In Which We Serve
  7. The Human Comedy
  8. The More the Merrier
  9. Watch on the Rhine
  10. Madame Curie

Category (films):

  1. Casablanca
  2. The Ox-Bow Incident
  3. The More the Merrier
  4. Heaven Can Wait
  5. The Human Comedy
  6. The Song of Bernadette
  7. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  8. In Which We Serve
  9. Watch on the Rhine
  10. Madame Curie

My Vote: Casablanca

Recommendations:

Casablanca is one of the 25 most essential American movies ever made. I don’t need to tell you to see this. You already know.

The Ox-Bow Incident is a perfect film. It almost transcends the western genre and becomes a straight genre that happens to be in the old west. It’s so good. It acts almost like a B movie (in the way that it’s 75 minutes long and works perfectly as the first feature in a double-header). It’s essential all around. Every film buff needs to see this.

The More the Merrier is a great, great comedy, and essential, as far as comedies go. Not top tier essential, as far as films go, but something every film fan will see because you’ll really enjoy it. I’d call it essential.

Heaven Can Wait is a very highly recommended film, and one I’d say is essential. Maybe not all-time essential, at least top tier, but once you get into the second tier essentials and the era, it becomes essential really quickly. You should see it. It’s amazing.

The Human Comedy is a high recommend. I really like it. It’s not essential, but it’s worth a watch for sure. I really like this one a lot.

The Song of Bernadette is a very good movie. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the win, and it’s a big movie for the 40s. Overall, just a very solid recommend. One of the religious movies I can stand. But if you can’t stand these types of 40s movies, I don’t think you need to see it. I’d say if the Oscars mean nothing to you, then watch a trailer and see if it sounds like something for you. I hate religious movies and I recommend it. So there’s that.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is essential because of the Oscar win, and it’s a big, classy 40s film starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman based on Hemingway. You’ll get to it pretty fast when looking at movies you like when you start out. Very much worth seeing all around.

In Which We Serve is a solid film. Worth a watch. David Lean, Noel Coward, nice film. Thumbs up.

Watch on the Rhine is a solid movie. Very 40s, very melodrama. Worth seeing. Essential for only Oscar buffs and huge fans of Bette Davis. Otherwise moderate recommend. It’s okay.

Madame Curie is fine. Serviceable biopic. Very 40s. Only really worthwhile to those who like the subject matter, catch it randomly on TCM, or really like Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon. Definitely worth it for then. Moderate recommend as a film.

The Last Word: Casablanca is one of the best winners of all time. It’s Casablanca! That’s it.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1944

Double Indemnity

Gaslight

Going My Way

Since You Went Away

Wilson

Analysis:

We’re finally done with the ten nominee years.

Double Indemnity is one of the quintessential film noirs of all time. (Films noir? I don’t know. I’m too busy watching that baby gif. Baby gif is a great name for a rapper.)

Fred MacMurray is a very straight-laced insurance salesman. (Nothing sexier than a straight-laced insurance salesman.) In comes Barbara Stanwyck to take out an insurance policy on her husband. She’s your prototypical femme fatale. Which is awesome. Because you know she’s up to some shit, but goddamnit she looks good, so okay, I’ll help you murder your husband. That’s how it works. I’ve murdered three husbands myself by now. So yeah, MacMurray goes and helps her murder her husband in order to get the insurance clause that says it pays out double if some freak accident occurs. So they go and throw him off a train. And at first it goes off without a hitch, but then things slowly start to unravel, as Edward G. Robinson, MacMurray’s partner, starts to smell something fishy about the case and investigates. And pretty soon… well, I’d say everyone ends up dead, but this is noir. You assume people will end up dead. And the movie begins with MacMurray dying from a bullet wound and confessing. The beauty is in the journey, though.

It’s one of the top ten noirs of all time and is a perfect film. Though, this is the argument that happens all the time at the Oscars and one I don’t have an answer to. Did this need to win Best Picture? Not really. It’s doing just fine without it. And based on what we think Best Picture is, it’s almost better that it didn’t win. But, on the other hand, shouldn’t Best Picture be about what the best picture is? So on that level, this probably should be the vote, right? Since what movie is more beloved and better remembered than this one?

That’s something I’m gonna have to figure out later on. For now — you can’t have a 1944 Best Picture conversation without this being heavily involved in it. So of course it’s going to factor greatly into my decision regardless.

Gaslight is a pretty fucked up thing to do a person. But it’s a good movie. So… yeah. Don’t gaslight people.

Ingrid Bergman is the niece of a famous opera singer who was murdered. After the murder, she’s sent away to go become an opera singer too. Because those who fail to learn from history become mezzo sopranos. She meets and falls for Charles Boyer. They then move back into the house where her aunt was murdered, despite Bergman’s reservations. And pretty soon, weird shit starts happening. Lights flicker, and things go missing. Bergman starts to think she’s losing her mind, since all this stuff only seems to be affecting her.

It’s a great film. It’s very Hitchcockian. Though it’s one of those things where — if you get what’s going on (hint: the title), it’s not particularly suspenseful, and it’s mostly about the drama of it all. Still, it’s really good.

Weird that they straight up went with two thrillers in the Best Picture category. This one is two thrillers, two “classical” type choices, and then the light, fun musical. Which…

Going My Way is a movie that only wins Best Picture in 1944. That’s the only year this can happen. In a way, it’s a perfect winner. On the other — how many people really remember this movie?

Bing Crosby is a priest. But like, a new age, fun priest. The opening scene is him playing baseball with kids on the street and breaking a window. He golfs, he sings — he’s not the old, fuddy-duddy type priest that we’re used to. He’s sent to a failing parish (sad!) to help the older priest who runs it basically… phase out. Though it’s more like, he goes around to help the parishes so they don’t have to make changes. Anyway, the film is part him singing and teaching the kids to sing and part a clash of styles between older and younger priest, ending in a mutual respect and friendship between the two.

It’s a very good film and I like it a lot. It’s hard not to like this movie. It’s easygoing and charming. Though it’s also one of those films that I’d bet most people would like but not put as their #1. Maybe it’s a number two for me here? But even then — ehh? I can look at this category fifty times and maybe only vote for this like twice. I almost would rather abstain than vote for this in some cases. Sometimes you just don’t love a film enough to take it. That’s what this is for me.

Since You Went Away is a movie that seems engineered to have won this year, but just goes a bit too far past the mark in order to hit that sweet spot. (You know what also feels like that kind of movie, which we’ll get to soon? Doctor Zhivago.)

It’s a story of the home front. Claudette Colbert’s husband has gone off to fight in the war. So she has to raise her two daughters and get by. Without her husband’s income, the family must cut costs, take in a boarder, and Colbert must get a job. And the film sort of meanders from all of these different threads — the boarder and his son, one of the daughters falling in love, an old friend who has a thing for Colbert — and it builds into a pretty satisfying movie. It’s very sentimental, though, and I think that part may be its downfall. It almost gets to soap opera territory at times.

I like this movie a lot, but at most would put this as a second choice. To go with the other three second choices I have so far. That’s the thing about this category — there’s nothing I’d automatically take, so I’m left wondering what the hell to do.

Wilson is the film of 1944 that got the most Oscar nominations, yet it’s the film that’s remembered the least.

It’s a biopic of Woodrow Wilson. We start with him as president of Princeton and eventually making his way into politics. It’s a sanitized, 40s biopic that shows him as a man of determination and extolls all his virtues.

It’s a pretty good film. I liked it. But I can’t say this is anything other than a classy, decent movie that wouldn’t have held up at all as a winner.

Easy fifth choice for me, though it’s definitely not an unworthy nominee at all. Had we had ten nominees this year, this would have fallen to about seventh for me and probably for most people.

I’m also very curious — and I’m only gonna do this for this year, since it’s the first they got rid of the 10 nominee system — what they would have nominated had they had space for five more nominees.

Lifeboat got a handful of nominations including Best Director. Maybe that got on. Laura seems like it would have for sure gotten on. None But the Lonely Heart seems likely. Maybe they give Garson or Davis some love and Mrs. Parkington or Mr. Skeffington makes it. But I don’t know. Meet Me in St. Louis would have been interesting to see. I wonder if they’d have gone there. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s not like 1944 is loaded with films I’d have wanted to take outside of these five. That’s really what I was getting at anyway. I’d have wanted to vote for Meet Me in St. Louis, but it’s not like that’s any better than Going My Way in the end.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: A category of 2s without a #1. That’s what we have here. I already know which way I’m gonna go, because the category is the category. You gotta take what it gives you.

Wilson becomes an easy fifth for me, just because when you look at this list, it’s the least remembered of the bunch and the film I like the least. Gaslight is solid, but goes fourth almost immediately after Wilson comes off. There’s a better thriller this year to be had. Since You Went Away is very solid, and I like it, but I don’t like it enough to take it. Give me the other two as a winner over that.

So then we have Going My Way and Double Indemnity. And while Going My Way probably holds up better as a winner (though I may be crazy for even suggesting that), I like Double Indemnity way more. So that’s the decision. Going My Way is probably the better historical choice and the better winner (since let’s face it… Double Indemnity doesn’t need this. The way The Maltese Falcon didn’t need Best Picture. Why? How does that make it any better? Noir is a genre that doesn’t need the validation and is better served not having it), I like Double Indemnity way more and like it enough to take it. So that’s what we’re doing. It is what it is.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings category:

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. Going My Way
  3. Since You Went Away
  4. Gaslight
  5. Wilson

Rankings (films):

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. Going My Way
  3. Gaslight
  4. Since You Went Away
  5. Wilson

My Vote: Double Indemnity

Recommendations:

Double Indemnity is an all-time classic and an essential film for any film buff.

Going My Way is essential as a Best Picture winner and a high recommend otherwise. So you might as well just see it. It’s fun.

Since You Went Away is essential for the 40s and the World War II era of films. Maybe not all-time essential. It’s definitely in that second tier of very high recommend and worth seeing for a lot of reasons. But I don’t think it ever cracked essential. Still, I think you should see it because it’s very good and there are a lot of famous and iconic moments in this movie (they parodied it in Airplane! so that should tell you something).

Gaslight is essential for Oscar buffs, very highly recommended for everyone else. This movie is so good. I’d call it essential so let’s just call it essential. If you like anything Hitchcock has ever done, you’ll like this.

Wilson is a solid biopic I think is well worth a watch, but it’s not essential at all and not something you need to see. But I recommend it. It’s good. Catch it if it’s on TCM. You’ll probably like it.

The Last Word: It’s an average winner when put into context. If you took all the winners and put them next to one another and looked solely at the films, this would fall to the below average part of the pack. It’s a good movie, but it’s not gonna have a lot of fervent support. I can’t say anything would have been decidedly better, though I imagine most people would like a Double Indemnity choice more. Still, it’s fine. I can’t complain. I think they made the most broadly appealing choice in a year where they could have actually made bad ones. I think Wilson would have been a bland and forgotten winner and Since you Went Away would have been a shortsighted choice that looked bad in perpetuity. The choice they made is fine. I think it gets is through.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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