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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 1945-1946)

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.

1945

Anchors Aweigh

The Bells of St. Mary’s

The Lost Weekend

Mildred Pierce

Spellbound

Analysis:

Anchors Aweigh is a Gene Kelly musical. I think it’s the first Technicolor musical to be nominated for Best Picture. I may be wrong on that, but doing a quick mental rolodex check, I think it is.

Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are two marines on leave. Kelly’s got a girl waiting for him and he’s excited to go be with her. Sinatra’s a young pup who’s never been with a girl before and excited to finally learn. And it’s mostly about them not getting able to do what they plan on doing, but having other adventures. A young boy is found on the street and they end up having to take him home. And then they meet his aunt, who becomes a love interest for them — it’s that kind of musical. It’s fun.  This film is also one of the clear influences — for those keeping score — on the “No Dames” musical number from Hail, Caesar!

It’s a good film. I like it a lot. As a Best Picture nominee, it’s pretty weak. It would be solid in a year of ten, but in a year of five — ehh. Fifth choice as a winner, but higher a a film.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way. It’s exactly the same, only different.

Bing Crosby is sent to another parish, where the building is gonna be condemned. He’s gotta decide if they’re gonna shut it down or keep it open. The head nun there is Ingrid Bergman. There’s a similar dynamic to Crosby/Fitzgerald from the first movie. They have the same goals, but disagree on how to get there.

It’s the same thing, though you’ve seen it before, so it feels like more of the same. How can anyone vote for this right after Going My Way won? It should be an automatic fifth here, though it’s actually quite a good film. It’s a weak category, but even so, this shouldn’t have won.

The Lost Weekend is an interesting Oscar case study in that — it doesn’t really win unless it has this exact situation. It’s great and it’s a wonderful film, but unless you have this exact kind of weak category, this doesn’t automatically seem like a guaranteed winner.

Ray Milland is a drunk. More specifically, he’s an alcoholic. He’s supposed to go away with his brother for the weekend, but ends up missing his train and getting drunk. And the rest of the film is him going around, drinking and being a desperate alcoholic.

It’s a great movie. It’s so different from everything that’s come out before this. This feels like a 60s movie, with the way it handles its subject matter. Very frank and matter-of-fact.

It’s the class of the category, easily. Though you put this a year later… it’s a third choice at best. The category worked out perfectly for this one.

Mildred Pierce is one of the great films of the 40s. I love this movie. It’s a noir and a melodrama at the same time. And surprisingly, I prefer the melodrama half.

Joan Crawford is a mother of two children. Her husband lost his job and she’s earning money through selling her baked goods. Her husband realizes she cares more about their kids than she does about him, so they divorce. Crawford’s only desire is to give her daughters a good life. Her oldest daughter practically demands one. When she finds out her mother took a job as a waitress to support them, she’s disgusted. She thinks it’s beneath them and openly mocks her mother. The film is mostly about that relationship, between mother and daughter. We watch as, despite Crawford’s steadfast determination to make a life for her daughters, which eventually results in her becoming rich, it isn’t enough for her older daughter, who continues to despise her mother.

It’s a great film. Absolutely terrific. Love that it was nominated. Though most years, this would be a third choice at best. Here, it might even be a second choice. That’s how weak the category is. I like the film a lot, but I would never take this.

Spellbound is Hitchcock’s last dalliance with Best Picture. From here on out, it’s just Best Director nominations or complete indifference toward his films.

Ingrid Bergman is a psychoanalyst working in a male-dominated hospital. The head doctor is forced into retirement, and his replacement is Gregory Peck, who is way younger than anyone thought he’d be. And to add to matters, he seems pretty weird. He’s got the same kind of phobias as the patients do. Bergman soon realizes — he’s not who he says he is. He says he doesn’t know who he really is, only that he killed the man he’s pretending to be and took his place. He and Bergman end up on the run, with her trying to figure out who he is and whether or not he actually killed the other doctor, as he claims.

It’s a very solid thriller. Though I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalysis as a theme, so all those elements didn’t particularly appeal to me. Plus, with Hitchcock’s filmography being what it is, I always think of this as a lesser choice Best Picture nominee as compared to some of the other films that weren’t nominated. Still, it’s well made. Though for me it pretty much becomes the last film I’d vote for. Though, when you look at the category, it probably shakes out as a third or fourth choice, since the rest of the category isn’t that great overall.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Man, I would have loved to see National Velvet here instead of Anchors Aweigh. But what can you do.

Most of the films here quickly fall out of contention. I don’t love Spellbound and wouldn’t take it. Anchors Aweigh I like a lot but wouldn’t vote for no matter how many times you gave it to me. And The Bells of St. Mary’s would be the first film I took off. Because I’m not letting Going My Way win twice in a row. I’m just not.

So that leaves Mildred Pierce and The Lost Weekend. And almost immediately, without any thought at all, the answer is The Lost Weekend. That movie is incredible. It’s easily the class of the category and a no-brainer winner. Put it a year later and it doesn’t win. But here, it hits that perfect sweet spot. So it’s the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. The Lost Weekend
  2. Mildred Pierce
  3. Spellbound
  4. Anchors Aweigh
  5. The Bells of St. Mary’s

Rankings (films):

  1. The Lost Weekend
  2. Mildred Pierce
  3. Anchors Aweigh
  4. The Bells of St. Mary’s
  5. Spellbound

My Vote: The Lost Weekend

Recommendations:

The Lost Weekend is a Best Picture winner, a Billy Wilder movie, and a great film. If that doesn’t automatically scream “essential” then I don’t know what to tell you. (Because it is.)

Mildred Pierce is an amazing movie. Probably essential. Definitely essential for Oscar buffs, maybe essential for everyone. At worst it’s a very high recommend, so let’s just call it essential.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is a sequel to Going My Way. If you saw Going My Way (which you should have) and liked it (which you probably did), then why wouldn’t you see this? It’s just as fun. Not as essential at all, but it’s fun and you already know the character. (Plus you’ve grew up knowing about this movie because of that giant billboard in The Godfather you saw a dozen times. So there’s that too.)

Spellbound is Hitchcock. You wanna skip a Hitchcock movie with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck that was nominated for a bunch of Oscars? Be my guest. That’s on you.

Anchors Aweigh is a great musical that’s essential as far as musicals go, but otherwise is just a high recommend. You can skip it if you really hate musicals, but… Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. How can you pass that up?

The Last Word: The Lost Weekend is a great choice. By far the best in the category, which makes it a good choice automatically. And historically, it holds up well. Middle-of-the-pack at best on name recognition, but probably upper middle in terms of quality. It’s very good. This was the only great choice to make, and it holds up.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1946

The Best Years of Our Lives

Henry V

It’s a Wonderful Life

The Razor’s Edge

The Yearling

Analysis:

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of those movies that people want to argue with as a winner, but not only does it hold up as a perfect film and a great winner for 1946 — it holds up as an all-time winner. That’s not easy, given its competition.

The film is about three soldiers returning from World War II and the problems facing them as they return to civilian life. One returns without his hands. The other went when he was a teenager and is now an adult with no real competitive skills for the job market. The third was a family man who is now much different. Haunted by his experiences and an alcoholic.

It’s a really great film, and in terms of 1946, there really is no better film for them to have chosen. That said, historically there is a more iconic film in the category, and one vs. the other will always be the conversation for this category. So I won’t waste any of that here. They’re both two of the hundred most important American films ever made, so

Henry V is Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of the play. This is the first time Shakespeare was put on the screen in any sort of “auteur” context. Other times it was just Hollywood putting on a big show of a famous play. Here, Olivier took authorship of the story and wrote, starred and directed in it. And it shows.

It’s a really great version of the story (only really ever matched by Kenneth Branagh doing the same thing as Olivier in 1989). You guys know my feeling about Shakespeare films at the Oscars, but if there was ever a time for one to win, this is the one. I wouldn’t take it, but in this category I could put it as high as a third choice. I think it’s very solid. Though there’s no way it wins here next to the films around it.

It’s a Wonderful Life.

This movie is so iconic I’m not even gonna say a word about it, plot-wise.

The thing that has actually hurt this movie more than anything, historically, is its marginalization as a Christmas movie. It’s been pushed into this niche territory and that seems unfair. Because this is an all time great movie.

The choice is this or The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s a straight 50/50 choice and there is no bad option. But you do have to make it, and that’s the hard part.

The Razor’s Edge is the classy literary adaptation of the year. And as such, it immediately falls to the back of the pack and looks practically outdated as compared to the other films in the category.

Tyrone Power is a guy mingling among the social elite in the post World War I era. He hates this type of life, and longs for a simple, working existence. He breaks off his engagement and leaves the country to go “find himself.” Years later, he returns. And when he does, he gets right back into all the bullshit social drama that he wanted to avoid. That’s pretty much the film.

I don’t love it. It’s classy and is a good enough film, but it’s not something I think is good enough to be considered for the vote here. I’m not entirely sure it needed to be nominated. But it’s here, so we deal with it. It’s a fifth choice for me, and pretty much a fifth choice, historically. You mean to tell me that between It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Years of Our Lives, you would even consider this as a choice?

The Yearling is a wonderful film, though it looks practically saccharine now. It would have been great in a field of ten. Here, I bet people hate this as a nominee.

Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman live in the woods with their son. Wyman keeps the boy at a distance because all her other children have died, and she’s worried that if she loves him, he’ll die too and it’ll be worse on her. One day, the boy finds a young deer in the woods, its mother having been killed. Since the boy has no siblings and is pretty lonely outside of his father, they let him keep the deer, with the warning that eventually have to be given up when it gets too big. And the rest of the film is about the boy becoming best friends with the deer and all that great family stuff, eventually leading to what all these “kid adopts a wild animal” films lead to. Though it’s nice because it’s not solely about that and is about this boy’s relationship with his parents. It’s nice.

I love this film a lot, but there’s no way it should have ever won Best Picture. It’s a fourth choice at best in this category, even if you love it. It doesn’t hold up at all next to the competition.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category immediately comes down to the two major players. When you have two films as great and as iconic as It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Years of Our Lives, the other three just aren’t going to rate. So that’s the conversation we have, and the one we’ll always have when talking about this category.

Both are perfect films and would have been perfect winners. There’s really no way to pick this except to figure which is the film you like best at that moment. I fluctuate all the time. On the one hand, It’s a Wonderful Life is so perfect and so timeless. Plus, did it need the win? And then The Best Years of Our Lives is so perfect for 1946, and such a great film.

I honestly don’t know. Right now, I think I’m feeling sentimental, so I’m gonna go with It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s no rhyme or reason except — that’s the choice today. This is a win-win for me. They’re both incredible films.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives
  3. Henry V
  4. The Yearling
  5. The Razor’s Edge

Rankings (films):

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives
  3. The Yearling
  4. Henry V
  5. The Razor’s Edge

My Vote: It’s a Wonderful Life

Recommendations:

It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s really no excuse to not have seen this movie, as a film fan or as a person.

The Best Years of Our Lives is just as essential as It’s a Wonderful Life, even if It’s a Wonderful Life sounds more essential. So yeah, you need to see it.

The Yearling is a very high recommend. Great family film and something you should see. It’s like To Kill a Mockingbird. Not of the same level, quality wise, necessarily, but one of those movies you should see at a younger age and fall in love with. Because it’s great. It really is. I think you definitely should see this movie.

Henry V is a great film. Essential as far as Shakespeare goes. This and the Branagh version are the seminal Henry V films. High recommend, but not essential if you don’t care about Shakespeare. You’re fine without it. It’s still the film to see (this and Branagh) if you want to know about this play to supplement reading it.

The Razor’s Edge is fine. Essential for Oscar buffs, otherwise a moderate recommend. It’s a classy drama that’s decent enough. I don’t love it, but it’s good. Catch it on TCM but don’t rush out to see it unless you’re really into the actors or the material.

The Last Word: Either one of these films would have automatically been one of the better winners of all time, so they could do almost no wrong in this category. Ultimately, I think they made the right choice, because like The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life has had a legacy so rich that it doesn’t even need the Oscars as validation for its own perfection. Few films are awarded that kind of life. So I think that The Best Years of Our Lives actually is the best choice in the category, in a weird way, just because — had it not won, would people really regard it as highly as they do? I’m not entirely sure about that. I think both films could have won and been fine, and while this time I’d have taken It’s a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives is (slightly, in a 51-49 ratio) actually the film that might be the best choice, historically, for 1946.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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