Oscar winners Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby in Best Picture winner Going My Way (1944)

The 17th Academy Awards, for the film year 1944.  The nominations were announced on February 3, 1945 and the awards were held on March 15, 1945.

Best Picture:  Going My Way

  • Double Indemnity
  • Gaslight
  • Since You Went Away
  • Wilson

Most Surprising Omission:  Laura

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #60

The Race: The race got going pretty early.  By the end of May, three of the major contenders – Going My Way, Double Indemnity and Gaslight had all opened.  Going My Way had leaped out to an early lead with great reviews and huge box office success.  In the meantime, two of the biggest names in Hollywood were preparing long films designed to lift American spirits; Darryl F. Zanuck had Wilson over at Fox, while David O. Selznick had has his own Since You Went Away, a film about the homefront.  Wilson opened to great reviews but Selznick put all his promotion power behind Since You Went Away.  Early talk among the industry was that the race would come down between Going My Way and Wilson.

The National Board of Review didn’t really help matters.  They made None But the Lonely Heart their choice for Best Picture and included both Going My Way and Wilson in their top 10 (along with The Song of Bernadette from the previous year).  But the New York Film Critics took a side, giving Best Picture, Director and Actor to Going My Way (the actor award going not to lead Bing Crosby, but to Barry Fitzgerald).  The Golden Globes agreed, giving Picture and Director to Going My Way while giving Fitzgerald their Best Supporting Actor.  Their Best Actor went to Wilson‘s Alexander Knox.

The Results: The Academy had decided to reduce the Best Picture nominees down to 5 for the first time since 1931.  This meant that Otto Preminger’s Laura and Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat became the first films since 1938 to get nominated for Best Director and still not get nominated for Best Picture (it would not be until 1957 when all the Best Picture nominees would again get nominated for Best Director).  The major five films were all in, with Going My Way and Wilson each tied with 10 nominations, including Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay (though different Screenplay categories).  In the end, it did indeed come down to those two films.  The other three nominees combined for 23 nominations but only managed to take home 3 Oscars (with Double Indemnity getting shut out).  Wilson would eventually take home 5 Oscars, but not Best Picture (the 5 wins without winning Picture would set a new record that would stand until 1951).  But Going My Way would take home a whopping 7 Oscars, at the time, the second most ever.  Because of its win in both Screenplay and the now defunct Original Story category, it managed to win 6 major Oscars, something which has never been equaled.

Winner of 7 Oscars: Going My Way (1944)

Going My Way

  • Director:  Leo McCarey
  • Writer:  Frank Butler  /  Frank Cavett  /  Leo McCarey
  • Producer:  Leo McCarey
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Original Story, Actor (Crosby), Actor (Fitzgerald), Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Song (“Swingin on a Star”)
  • Oscar Note:  Barry Fitzgerald is nominated in both the Best Actor and Supporting Actor categories for the same role.
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Religious)
  • Release Date:  3 May 1944
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #17  (year)  /  #350  (nominees)  /  #71  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Actor (Crosby), Supporting Actor (Fitzgerald), Song  (“Swingin on a Star”)

The Film:  Maybe we were just tired of the war.  Going My Way was released a month before D-Day, several years into the war.  Hollywood had been making patriotic films showing their support of the war and the troops practically since Pearl Harbor and the Oscars had reciprocated, but things were tiring out.  People needed an escape.  And here was Bing Crosby, the star of the Road pictures with Bob Hope, suddenly playing a more dramatic part.  True, it still had some comedy, still even had him singing (including a nice new song called “Swingin on a Star”).  But this was nothing like the likable rogues he played with Hope.  Now he was a priest, assigned to help shepherd an old parish priest on his way and help the young boys find their way in the heart of the city.  It’s a nice enough movie, with a pretty solid performance from Crosby and an even more solid one from Barry Fitzgerald as the old priest.  So why do I need to find a way to explain anything?

Because it won 7 Oscars and was the biggest hit of the year.  It did so well at the Oscars that it wouldn’t be knocked out of the Top 10 list of points until 1997.  It won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay in a year when it was competing against Double Indemnity in all three categories.  It won Best Actor for a nice, charming performance that really didn’t involve much acting.  It even had the bizarre double whammy of having Barry Fitzgerald getting nominated for both lead and supporting (something a rule change would quickly keep from ever happening again).  There is nothing about it that screams box office and Academy success.  It doesn’t have that much religion in it.  It’s just a nice little film about a fairly nice guy who has to replace the older fella at work and is going to help out some people along the way.  It’s almost like a coincidence that his job happens to be one of priest.

Billy Wilder's noir classic: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity

  • Director:  Billy Wilder
  • Writer:  Billy Wilder  /  Raymond Chandler  (from the novel by James M. Cain)
  • Producer:  Joseph Sistrom
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Stanwyck), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound
  • Length:  107 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Release Date:  24 April 1944
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #55  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (MacMurray), Actress (Stanwyck), Supporting Actor (Robinson), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction

The Film:  It was his third film (outside of his early European directorial work) and he was already proving that he could move across genres like no other director.  For his first film he had made a nice comedy that pushed the limit of the Code (a man believing he was falling in love with a 12 year old).  For his second film, he had hit the sands of Africa for a thriller set on the edges of World War II.  Then came this, one of the great noir thrillers, a film filled to the brim with hard-boiled dialogue, a touch dame and a man who claims he did it all for the money and the girl and he didn’t get the money and he didn’t get the girl.

And of course, as Roger Ebert so wisely points out here, he doesn’t really seem all that interested in the money or the girl.  Maybe in some ways this is the predecessor to Rope, the notion that you can simply kill and get away with it if you’re smart enough to know how to do it.  He is smart enough and probably would get away with it if it wasn’t for the woman.  But, if not for the woman, the way she appears through the haze at the top of the stairs, a vision of carnal danger, he probably wouldn’t be interested enough to try it.  He probably would take that job with Keyes.  Because in a lot of ways that’s the more interesting relationship – that of Neff and Keyes, the way they play off each other, the way they know how the other one seems to think.  Not anything sexual, but simply the interworkings of their relationship.  Tough talking blondes don’t really belong in their world and it takes one to bring it down.

Why does this film work so well, a thriller as good, if not better, than any that Alfred Hitchcock would ever make?  Part of it is the original novel.  James M. Cain was not a great writer, he was not a writer nearly on the par with Hammett or Chandler, but he could come up with a story and he could create dialogue.  He was a pulp master and pulp works often turn into great films.  They have the story, they have the dialogue, they almost seem to already have that haze ready at the top of the stairs or the smoke off the cigarette tip in the insurance office.  Then, of course, there was the double mastery of Chandler himself and Billy Wilder writing the film, one a master of hard-boiled detective novels, the other, the greatest writer to ever set foot in Hollywood.  Of course, there were all the technical aspects as well, the way the film is so perfectly fit together, the great sets, the sly score, the memorable cinematography.  And then there are the performances.  For those who ever cast doubt on Billy Wilder as a director, remember this.  Think of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and The Apartment.  Think of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.  Then think of either one of them in any other performance.  There’s no comparison.  It’s all about Wilder.

Ingrid Bergman absolutely deserved her Oscar for Gaslight (1944)

Gaslight

  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Writer:  John Van Druten  /  Walter Reisch  /  John L. Balderston  (from the play Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton)
  • Producer:  Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Actor (Boyer), Actress (Bergman), Supporting Actress (Lansbury), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Mystery
  • Release Date:  11 May 1944
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #114  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Boyer), Actress (Bergman), Supporting Actress (Lansbury), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  This re-make of a 1940 film (and play) makes a very smart decision at the offset.  It introduces us to Paula, the poor girl whose aunt has been murdered, immediately after the murder.  We then see her as a young woman, taking singing lessons and falling in love with her instructor.  They marry and return to the house where Paula lived as a young girl, for Paula believes her husband when he tells her how much he always wanted a house in a square, the kind of house that Paula has waiting for her back in London.  That the house is filled with horrifying memories for her seems to be no objection to her new husband.  But she wants him to fulfill his dreams and so off they go.

None of these scenes are in the original film version.  In that film, the first we see of the couple is as they disembark from the carriage at their house on the square.  We know about the crime that has been committed (in fact, in the earlier version, we actually see the crime), but not the couple.  The later film version focuses on the couple.  We can see their early happiness and see as Paula becomes increasingly forgetful, not remembering where things are or things that she might have done.  The film keeps in quiet suspense about whether or not she is going mad.

Of course, you probably know that she’s not.  In fact, her husband is systematically driving her mad.  But that’s part of the build up of suspense, a nice surprise from a director (George Cukor), normally known for lighter comedies.  Here he shows he can do suspense as well as Hitchcock.  And of course, he was always an actor’s director.  Here he gets an Oscar winning (and much deserving) performance from Ingrid Bergman and Oscar worthy (and nominated) performances out of Charles Boyer and Angela Lansbury, possibly the finest performances in the long careers of all three.  And they are surrounded by a masterful score, phenomenal cinematography and first rate (Oscar winning) art direction.  It is a triumph all around, a magnificent Hitchcock like thriller from someone other than the master, one of those rare films like The Third Man that very much feels like it was directed by Hitchcock.  And that’s always praise of the highest sort.

Since You Went Away - how to make 172 minutes feel like 500

Since You Went Away

  • Director:  John Cromwell
  • Writer:  David O. Selznick  (from the book by Margaret Buell Wilder)
  • Producer:  David O. Selznick
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Monty Wooley, Joseph Cotten
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Colbert), Supporting Actor (Wooley), Supporting Actress (Jones), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Interior Decoration (Black-and-White), Special Effects
  • Length:  172 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  20 July 1944
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)  /  #387  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Colbert)

The Film:  Alright, first things first.  Unless you are a big epic, and by epic, I mean something like Ben-Hur or even The 10 Commandments, you have no business having an Overture to start the film.  Being a ridiculously long film that feels even longer does not make you an epic.  This film doesn’t earn its overture (made worse by the fact that the score isn’t that great – certainly not Oscar worthy, even more embarrassing for it to have won the Oscar in the same year as the classic score from Laura).

Second things second.  I spend many of my conversations with my mother explaining to her time and time again that I don’t know which entertainers are married to whoever, or who is dating who, that I don’t care, that I never cared, that I never will care.  It only becomes important when it actually affects the films themselves.  Some marriages can add to the film (witness Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).  But some film business relationships you can’t help but know about.  David O. Selznick loved Jennifer Jones desperately and because she won the Oscar before they were married, he was always desperate to find the role that would win her another Oscar.  This wasn’t it.  Nothing was it.  He put her in all sorts of roles that she didn’t really belong in, managed to pay for enough advertisements that she earned three Oscar nominations in their time together, none of which she really deserved and eventually embarrassed the both of them by financing a production of A Farewell to Arms with her in the lead.  Jones was never a particularly good actress.  She was tolerable enough and she did have the ability to play both an innocent and a fallen woman, but she was never great, didn’t deserve the Oscar she actually won and has mostly been forgotten these days in favor of the actresses who were great – Davis and Bergman and the Hepburns.

This film is 172 minutes and amazingly enough feels even longer.  It starts with several minutes of overture, then a very long scene as Claudette Colbert moves around her house, boring us with her speech and weeping, it seems, in every room at the memory of her husband, off to war.  This was one of those patriotic films, designed to make us feel for the people left behind, but it lacks the urgency or even the acting of a film like Mrs. Miniver or the humor of something like The More the Merrier.  It’s decently acted, though not worthy of the nominations and not badly made.  But it drags on for what seems like forever and there’s just enough there to justify the length of the film nor the nine Oscar nominations.  I just felt like I was being drummed over the head, being told, “be good for the war effort.”  Perhaps it meant more in 1944.  But a film should be able to stand the test of time and this one clearly does not.

Surely Woodrow Wilson deserved a more interesting film than this

Wilson

  • Director:  Henry King
  • Writer:  Lamar Trotti
  • Producer:  Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Alexander Knox, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Cedric Hardwicke
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Knox), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound, Interior Decoration (Color), Special Effects
  • Oscar Record:  Most Wins Without Best Picture (5) – broken in 1951
  • Length:  154 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • Box Office Gross:  $2.00 mil
  • Release Date:  1 August 1944
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #35  (year)  /  #406  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I have been in a spate of reading Presidential biographies.  I wonder sometimes if I should read at least one for every President.  But after watching this film, I wondered if I should bother.  Films, especially ones that get 10 Oscar nominations and win 5 Oscars, would seem to be more interesting and certainly more vibrant than reading several hundred pages of biography.  But this film, even with all the Oscar glory, is incredibly boring.  And the performance by Henry Knox, the performance upon which the entire film hinges, is frightfully dull.  Yes, this is one of the worst years in film history, one in which I couldn’t even find 10 films that reached the ***.5 Nighthawk Best Picture cut-off, but still.  The Academy could have done better than this.

Perhaps the love from the Academy was a reflection of the love that Darryl F. Zanuck poured into this film.  It had lost a considerable amount of money, had pretty much bombed everywhere outside of one New York theater and had to make due with just the Golden Globe for Best Actor among the early awards, although it did make the NBR Top 10.  But studio politics always played well at the Oscars and Zanuck’s hopes came true, as it landed in the Best Picture race instead of Laura and the Best Director race instead of Gaslight.

But what do we really have?  I remember desperately trying to track this film down.  At the time it had more nominations and more Oscars than any other film I was missing and I finally found it at one random video store and sat down to watch.  And I thought, I can’t believe this.  Was Wilson this utterly boring?  So uninspiring as a man, as a President?  No wonder the damn 14 Points and League of Nations failed.  The script offers nothing new, the film is edited so badly that it seems like it takes three and a half hours and there’s certainly nothing awards worthy of the Cinematography, Score or Sound.  And could someone please watch this film and tell me what the hell Special Effects earned it that 10th Oscar nomination?

There’s one other thing that I’ve mentioned before and feel the need to mention again.  It’s a big deal to get to 10 Oscar nominations, to reach that all important double digit plateau.  So what do the following films all have in common: Wilson, Anne of the Thousand Days, Tootsie and Braveheart?  They all got their 10th nomination with a ridiculously undeserved Best Sound nomination (I would also mention Sayonara and Airport, but their nominations for Best Sound aren’t nearly as egregious as most of their other nominations).

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