John Garfield getting upset that he wasn't nominated alongside Gregory Peck and Celeste Holm for Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

The 20th Academy Awards, for the film year 1947.  The nominations were announced on February 15, 1948 and the awards were held on March 20, 1948

Best Picture:  Gentleman’s Agreement

  • Great Expectations
  • Crossfire
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • The Bishop’s Wife

Most Surprising Omission:  A Double Life

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  La belle et la bete

Best Eligible English Language Film Not Nominated:  A Matter of Life and Death

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #34

The Race: Darryl F. Zanuck was determined to make a film about Anti-Semitism.  He had lost out on the Oscar for Wilson and The Razor’s Edge and he thought this was the serious subject that could win the Oscar.  As a Christian in an industry surrounded by Jews, he decided to ignore their criticism at his choice of film (they thought it would lead to a backlash) and go ahead and make Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that he knew could win him the Oscar.  When it finally opened (in November in New York, but not until Christmas in Hollywood), and he saw the reviews, he knew he had won.

The critics groups put a slight bump in his path.  The National Board of Review gave their Best Picture to Monsieur Verdoux, the very black comedy from Charlie Chaplin about a man who murders his wives, but it certainly was not going to score at the Oscars and Agreeement made the top 10 along with critical favorite Crossfire, the British import Great Expectations and 1946 nominee It’s a Wonderful Life.  They helped his case, in fact, by giving Best Director to Agreement‘s director, Elia Kazan.  The New York Film Critics confirmed that by giving Kazan their Best Director and naming the film their Best Picture.  The Golden Globes simply eased the path by confirming those two awards as well.

The Results: Gentleman’s Agreement earned 8 nominations, but with no other film getting more than 5, it confirmed it as the front-runner.  Tied with 5 nominations were Great Expectations, Crossfire and The Bishop’s Wife while Miracle on 34th Street joined Bishop as a second Christmas film in the top 5.  In the end, Agreement easily triumphed, winning both Picture and Director.

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Gentleman’s Agreement

  • Director:  Elia Kazan
  • Writer:  Moss Hart  (from the novel by Laura Hobson)
  • Producer:  Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Stars:  Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Anne Revere, Celeste Holm, John Garfield, Dean Stockwell
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Peck), Actress (McGuire), Supporting Actress (Holm), Supporting Actress (Revere), Editing
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • Box Office Gross:
  • Release Date:  11 November 1947
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #207  (nominees)  /  #50  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Peck), Supporting Actress (Holm), Supporting Actress (Revere)

The Film:  Is a film only as good as its message?  Is it only as good as it is?  Can the bluntness of the message impede the quality of the film?  In a forum where I took part for a while, there were people who hated this film with vitriole.  They seemed to deem it some sort of abomination as a film.  Watching it again, after all this time (I first watched it 17 years ago and even though I have had it on video tape since college, I had not watched it since), I did see some of the weaknesses.  But the film itself is still a great film.  It is a film that clearly carries a message and it is not subtle about it, but that’s because the plot itself carries the message.  Yes, this film is clearly about Anti-Semitism.  But it is upfront about that from the very start.  A magazine editor wants a story about it and he hires a California writer to come to New York and write about it.  Then the writer comes up with an idea: claim that he’s Jewish (he’s new in town so no one will know the difference) and watch the reactions.  Live as a Jew and experience it and then write about it from the viewpoint of a Gentile.

It works because no one is better at playing this kind of righteous part than Gregory Peck.  There was never a whole lot of depth to Peck’s performances and that was why he was never particularly effective in his few roles as villains.  But he is perfect to play the hero, the man struggling to right the wrongs of the world.  He gets so wrapped up in his performance piece that  he forgets at times to step back and looks at things from the journalistic objectivity.  But it doesn’t really matter.  It is a smart film and if there is a major weakness it focuses on the Anti-Semitism present in the upper levels of society.  It doesn’t deal with the everyday bigotry, the kind of thing that really had taken over in Nazi Germany.  But it doesn’t matter.  You judge a film by what it does and what it tries to do.  It is a smart film, well acted by Peck and Revere, very well acted by Holm, well directed by Kazan.  It does overplay the melodrama a bit, especially when it comes the relationship between Peck and McGuire and almost arbitrarily tacks on a happy ending, but overall it works, then and today.

David Lean's Great Expectations - still the best film made from a Dickens novel

Great Expectations

  • Director:  David Lean
  • Writer:  David Lean  /  Anthony Havelock-Allan  /  Ronald Neame  /  Kay Walsh  /  Cecil McGivern  (from the novel by Charles Dickens)
  • Producer:  Ronald Neame
  • Stars:  John Mills, Alec Guinness, Frances L. Sullivan, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie, Valerie Hobson
  • Studio:  Rank-Cineguild
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  22 May 1947
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #92  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Sullivan), Supporting Actress (Hunt), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  At the moment on the IMDb there are 291 different films / television series based on the works of Charles Dickens.  Of all of them, David Lean’s Great Expectations is the best.  No, I haven’t seen them all.  But I’ve seen as many of the feature films as I can get my hands upon.  This is the one that really makes one of the works come to complete life.  It helps that it’s the best of his novels, it helps that it’s directed by David Lean, one of the greatest of all film directors and the man who would later direct the second best Dickens adaptation – his 1948 film of Oliver Twist.

It is great, in part, because it is in black and white.  Given the Victorian settings, the sumptuous costumes and art direction, it would seem to cry for color, but no.  This film belongs with deep dark shadows, with foreboding movements in the dark, with tragedy unfolding in deep black and white.  This, in some senses, is a noir film, with a dark disturbing mystery, with great dialogue, with fear and pain.

If you were to only look at my list of nominations, it would be easy to think that it is a very good film that just falls short.  After all, it earns 11 nominations but no wins.  So why is that?  Well, because it is in the same year with La belle et la bete, a film that is one of the greatest in all of film history and one that seems to match Great Expectations in every category.  Both of them have wonderful sumptuous costumes.  Both of them have some of the most incredible art direction in film history (for Belle, it is the statues, for Expectations, it is Miss Havisham’s incredible mansion), they are even both adapted.  But make no mistake.  This is a great film, it is one of the best examples of making a book come clearly to life.  Martita Hunt and Finlay Currie are able to live up to the high expectations that would come with playing Miss Havisham and Magwitch and Frances L. Sullivan makes Mr. Jaggers come to life in the amazing way that only he can.  And the film even cuts through some of the more extraneous parts of the plot to make the story come even more to life.  The novel is great for what it has.  The film is great for what it leaves out.

Crossfire got 5 nominations but then the Blacklist hit and it didn't win anything

Crossfire

  • Director:  Edward Dmytryk
  • Writer:  John Paxton  (from the novel by Richard Brooks)
  • Producer:  Adrian Scott
  • Stars:  Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Ryan), Supporting Actress (Grahame)
  • Length:  86 min
  • Genre:  Mystery
  • Box Office Gross:  $1.30 mil
  • Release Date:  22 July 1947
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #188  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Ryan), Supporting Actress (Grahame), Editing

The Film:  Early on in the film it’s easy to tell the identity of the murder victim has been changed.  In the film, it is a Jewish man who is savagely beaten to death by a bigoted soldier, a cowardly pathetic bully determined to attack a man because of his religion, a man who it turns out was a war hero, something the murderer would never have believed (indeed, it is his insistence that he can tell this man was never in the military that leads to the detective being certain that he is the murderer).  But when they show the scenes where three soldiers first meet the eventual victim in a bar, it can be seen that in the original novel, this man wasn’t Jewish.  He was gay.  It works better that way in the bar scenes, is more obvious how disturbed they are by his demeanor and his interest in them.  It is later, in the scenes with Robert Ryan that it works better that the victim is Jewish.  Then, his ugly bigotry can rise to the surface and spill over into hate and bile.

How ironic in either case.  The story is that a man is killed for who he is by a man who is certain that he is doing the right thing, that the world is better off without men like this.  But this film was made by Edward Dmytryk and he was nominated for Best Director at the same time that he was being hauled in front of Congress and eventually blacklisted (as one of the Hollywood 10 – perhaps the most talented of them) for his political leanings.  Certainly, it seemed, Congress had not gotten the theme of the film.

The film is one of those great film noirs, a tight little mystery with a police detective trying to figure it out while an army sergeant, played by Robert Mitchum, is trying to protect a young friend who has been implicated.  Aside from the brilliant performance by Robert Ryan, we also have an amazing performance from Gloria Grahame as a young dancer who is befriended by the man the police are hunting for and might have enough knowledge to keep him out of jail.  She is only in three scenes, but she absolutely owns every one of them.

Somehow this film doesn’t get the praise it deserves.  It has the fewest votes of the 5 Best Picture nominees on the IMDb and has the same rating as the clearly inferior The Bishop’s Wife.  It is short, tight, well made, with great cinematography and editing.  It is well directed, well acted and well written and unlike most film noirs, actually has a message behind it as well.  Perhaps even more, since they were forced to change the victim.  This was still too early to dare make a film about a gay man who is murdered.

the original and still the best: the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street

  • Director:  George Seaton
  • Writer:  George Seaton  /  Valentine Davies
  • Producer:  William Perlberg
  • Stars:  Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Original Story, Supporting Actor (Gwenn)
  • Length:  96 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • Box Office Gross:  $2.65 mil
  • Release Date:  2 May 1947
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #217  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Gwenn)

The Film:  Christmas films have long been a standard for Hollywood.  There’s usually a couple every year.  I don’t mean films like Little Women, with Christmas scenes, but films like Miracle on 34th Street, for which Christmas is the primary motivation for the film, films that get shown at Christmas on every station imaginable.  What does it say about us or about the Academy that only three of those films have risen to the level of getting nominated for Best Picture and that all three were in the two year span of 1946 and 1947?  Were they just the best of the Christmas films?  Well, in one sense, yes, because two of them are It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, two films that have absolutely stood the test of time, far better than other Christmas films.  But there’s also the other part of it.  This was a time when people were ready to believe in such films.  The war was over, people were coming home.  A great evil had been vanquished in the world and people wanted something that was more light-hearted, that had spirituality behind it.  There is an element of fantasy to all three of the films and they all have endings that absolutely qualify as happy.

Miracle is one of the great Christmas films because it is so simple at heart.  You have a man, Kris Kringle, who insists that he is Santa Claus, ends up, first in the Macy’s Parade, then working at Macy’s itself.  He is a big hit and the kids love him and the store even loves him but one psychiatrist insists he is dangerously insane and so we end up with a trial and in the end, he is vindicated.  There is also the lovable little girl played so perfectly by Natalie Wood who comes to believe in him and the romance kindling between her mother and the neighbor.  It works precisely because it is so simple, because it doesn’t really have any bearing on reality.  It is a nice escape from reality, one that is well written, well acted (especially by Gwenn, who won the Oscar though Robert Ryan deserved it) and well made.  It is charming and funny and it quite simply stands the test of time.

Cary Grant couldn't buy a nomination for a comedic role, but one of his lightest films gets nominated

The Bishop’s Wife

  • Director:  Henry Koster
  • Writer:  Leonardo Bercovici  /  Robert E. Sherwood  (from the novel by Robert Nathan)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn
  • Stars:  Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Wooley, Gladys Cooper
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Sound
  • Length:  109 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  9 December 1947
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #31  (year)  /  #356  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  I don’t know what surprises me more: that this film was nominated for Best Picture or that it was actually remade in 1996.  It is such a light little piece.  Here’s the plot in a nutshell: David Niven is a bishop who is worried about getting the money to finish the new cathedral (I understand that there are bishops, clerical collars and cathedrals in denominations than Roman Catholic but they seem so emblematic of Catholicism that I found it odd to have a story about a married man who seems to be Catholic), Loretta Young is his wife and Cary Grant is an angel who has come to answer Niven’s prayer for guidance and help.

I have nothing against the religious aspects of the story or the bizarre notion of a potential love affair between a married woman and an angel sent to help her clergy husband, but the film is just so light-weight.  Dudley helps people, saves a church, gets the miserly woman to give money to the poor and writes Niven’s wonderful Christmas Day sermon, then disappears so that no one will remember he was ever there and things can get back to normal, with the added exception of all these problems having been solved.  It’s a fine little movie, a nice enjoyable Christmas movie, but lacks any kind of weight to earn a Best Picture nomination.  Not that a Best Picture nominee has to be serious.  But there should be something more than this.

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