Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge - a pair of Oscar winners in 1949 for All the King's Men

The 22nd Academy Awards for the film year 1949.  The nominations were announced on February 12, 1950 and the awards were held on 23 March, 1950.

Best Picture:  All the King’s Men

  • The Heiress
  • A Letter to Three Wives
  • Twelve O’Clock High
  • Battleground

Most Surprising Omission:  The Bicycle Thief

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Bicycle Thief

Best Eligible English Language Film Not Nominated:  A Canterbury Tale

Best Eligible U.S. Film Not Nominated:  Thieves Highway

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

The Race: The race began early, when the Directors Guild finally instituted an annual award for Best Director.  Giving their award in May of 1949, making their choice among quarterly winners from the previous year, the winner turned out to be Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives, a film released in early, 1949.  It was the only big film from the early part of the year.  Darryl F. Zanuck tried to repeat his success with Gentleman’s Agreement by approaching racism in the same way, but Pinky was neither a critical nor a commercial success.  In the fall, the films started coming from nowhere: All the King’s Men, The Heiress, Twelve O’Clock High, Battleground.

But when the National Board of Review kicked off the awards season, it was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief that came out on top, winning both Best Picture and Director.  The New York Film Critics relegated Thief to Best Foreign Film, giving Best Picture to All the King’s Men, which hadn’t even made the NBR Top 10.  Next up came the Writers Guild, with their second annual awards following just a short eight months after the first awards.  A Letter to Three Wives continued by winning Best Comedy, but All the King’s Men took home three awards: Best Drama, Best Screenplay Dealing Most Ably With Problems of the American Scene and the Robert Meltzer Award.  All the King’s Men continued its success with the Golden Globes, taking home Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actress.

The Results: In spite of the awards attention, The Bicycle Thief failed to become the second Foreign language film to get nominated for Best Picture.  The actual nominees split the accolades pretty evenly.  No film had fewer than 3 nominations and no film had more than 8 (it would be another 57 years before the Best Picture nominees had as few combined nominations).  Every one of the nominees would win multiple Oscars, something that had never happened before and has never happened since.  All the King’s Men would end up winning Best Picture.  A Letter to Three Wives would have the fewest nominations, but would win both Director and Screenplay.  The two films that failed to win acting Oscars would win writing Oscars.

All the King's Men - the second (and last) Pulitzer prize winning novel to win Best Picture

All the King’s Men

  • Director:  Robert Rossen
  • Writer:  Robert Rossen  (from the novel by Robert Penn Warren)
  • Producer:  Robert Rossen
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Crawford), Supporting Actor (Ireland), Supporting Actress (McCambridge), Editing
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  8 November 1949
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #224  (nominees)  /  #54  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Crawford), Supporting Actress (McCambridge)

The Film:  There seems to be something slightly missing at the core of All the King’s Men.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Maybe it’s the voiceover.  Maybe it’s the character of Jack Burden itself — a sideways introduction to the world of Willie Stark rather than just giving us Stark’s story.  Maybe it’s the difference between a classic novel and the film version.  After all, the narrator worked well in the novel because of the extra history and weight that he provided to the story.  In the film, he just looks like a writer’s approach to the story.

But something about the film falls just short of greatness.  It’s not a bad film by any means – it’s a high ***.5 film that somehow just doesn’t climb up the ladder to ****.  Maybe it’s the extra story about Anne and her brother.  It’s not the performances of Broderick Crawford (which is very good – though not as good as Kirk Douglas in Champion) or Mercedes McCambridge (who deserved her Oscar).  Perhaps it’s the middle part of the script, just after Willie has finally realized what kind of patsy he is (a little note here – it’s been a long time since I read the book, but watching the scene where Jack comes to the hotel room just before Sadie tells him Willie the truth, it seems to me that Sadie just slept with Willie – so the drink that Willie takes is just a further step down the road to moral ruin — not the first step that you might think).  Willie seems to come to life too forcefully, too quickly.  It’s the one section of the film that seems to be cliched.  Willie is a better character than that and for that matter so is Sadie and that middle part just doesn’t seem to do enough with it.

So what we have here is a very good film, not a bad choice for Best Picture, but not a great choice either and in the same year as The Heiress, it certainly isn’t the best choice.  But it’s definitely still worth watching, and like The Heiress, a good deal better than its re-make.  Ironically enough, both re-makes are closer to the source material, yet weaker films (making you wonder whey they bothered to make either re-make).  Take the source.  Use it.  But then make your film.  You need the film to succeed and All the King’s Men does, a hard trick to do when coming from such a powerful novel.

Sometimes the Oscars get it right - de Havilland won Best Actress for The Heiress

The Heiress

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Augustus Goetz  /  Ruth Goetz  (from their play adapted from the novel Washington Square by Henry James)
  • Producer:  William Wyler
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (de Havilland), Supporting Actress (Richardson), Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Art Direction (Black-and-White), Costume Design (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  6 October 1949
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #127  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (de Havilland), Supporting Actor (Richardson), Supporting Actress (Hopkins), Cinematography, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  “I’d never seen an ending like that.  I have chills even talking about it now.  What did these people do to each other to warrant such a thing?”  –  Martin Scorsese talking about The Heiress when making The Age of Innocence

To link the two films together is not out of the question.  Both of them come from writers who were near-contemporaries (Henry James and Edith Wharton).  Both are writers who I intensely dislike, yet I am fond of both source materials (in both cases, it might be the best thing ever written by the respective author).  Both of them dealt with the problems of society and the pursuit of an unwise marital match.  Both of them took place in New York City, would end up making excellent costume dramas and dealt with a class of people that I normally have no interest in.  So what is that makes both films so great?

Perhaps the film-makers themselves.  Certainly that is the case with The Age of Innocence.  But it is also the case for The Heiress, which isn’t nearly as good a novel, yet makes such an amazing film.  First kudos go to William Wyler.  Given that they didn’t give a Best Director nomination to De Sica for The Bicycle Thief, I can’t understand how this didn’t earn Wyler a third Oscar.    The direction is top-notch from the first minute of the film.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film is so well made on every level, that the cinematography perfectly captures the shadows of the courtyard as easily as it does the bright light of the sitting room.  The art direction and costume design perfectly capture 1880’s New York high society.  The score, winner of an Oscar, is perfect for every minute.  And of course the script is so well written, so perfectly captures every character.  But the heart of this film is the acting and certainly Wyler must have had something to do with that as well.  This might very well be the best performances ever given by Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.  They don’t just play their characters.  They inhabit these parts.  Indeed, has any actress other than de Havilland been able to so perfectly capture the maiden so desperate to be wanted that she will overlook the obviousness of the situation.  Yet, think of her when she was younger and lovely and the heart of all the Errol Flynn films.  There she was a fair maiden.  Here she is an actress.

Perhaps the best measure of the film is how good it is in comparison to the 1996 version.  It triumphs over it on every level.  That film is barely remembered, while this film won Oscars, was nominated for Best Picture and is considered a classic.  Indeed, more than a classic.  It is easily the best American film of 1949.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz won his first of back-to-back Director and Writer Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives

  • Director:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Writer:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz  /  Vera Caspery  (from the novel by John Klempner)
  • Producer:  Sol C. Siegel
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay
  • Length:  103 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  20 January 1949
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #208  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Kirk Douglas), Editing

The Film:  When talk comes up of great actors who never won an Oscar, it also seems to circle around the same names.  Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, of course, because they were both nominated so many times, as has Albert Finney.  Older greats like Orson Welles and John Barrymore.  Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin usually get mentioned with the complaint that Oscar rarely pays attention to comedians.  Then they’ll probably throw in younger actors like Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise who have a number of nominations but haven’t yet crossed the threshold, though they might someday.  But for some reason a lot of these lists tend to pass over Kirk Douglas and that I can’t understand.  He was nominated three times and two of those nominations (Champion and Lust for Life), he deserved the Oscar more than the eventual winner.  There were also many great performances for which he wasn’t nominated.  In 1949, he not only wins my Best Actor for Champion, he is also my Best Supporting Actor winner for A Letter to Three Wives.

A Letter to Three Wives is a great film, built around this “friend” named Addie Ross who has run off with the husband of one of her friends.  She sends a letter to all three, without specifying which husband to sow doubt in all of them.  Over the course of a day, they all look back at their relationships and wonder which husband won’t be there at the end of the day.  All three of the actresses are solid and the story is interesting, dramatic, and, at times, funny as well.  It is well written, well paced, well directed and never fails to keep interest.  But among all of the performers, it is Douglas, as the schoolteacher who is sickened by the pervasive influence of popular culture around him who truly stands out.  He has a wonderful speech about the influence of radio and manages to be smart and eloquent and angry all at the same time.  Yet somehow, he got lost in the shuffle of the ensemble film and while the film managed to somehow win both Director and Screenplay, it would fail to win Best Picture (something that happened the year before to Treasure of the Sierra Madre and that would happen again two years later to A Place in the Sun).  It’s not an all-time classic, but it is a great little film that often gets overlooked and it was better than the actual Best Picture winner.

12 O'Clock High - even when you're based on a true story, you sometimes aren't very believable

Twelve O’Clock High

  • Director:  Henry King
  • Writer:  Sy Bartlett  /  Beirne Lay, Jr.  (from their novel)
  • Producer:  Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger, Gary Merrill
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (Peck), Supporting Actor (Jagger), Sound
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • Release Date:  21 December 1949
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #27  (year)  /  #371  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Peck), Supporting Actor (Jagger), Sound, Sound Editing

The Film:  As an undergraduate in a writing course one day, several of us in the class picked apart a classmate’s writing piece as part of an assignment.  One of our criticisms focused on the name of one of the characters.  His defense was that the character was a real person’s name (the story was autobiographical).  I argued that it didn’t matter if the name was real.  It sounded bizarre in a story filled with characters with normal names.  It was distracting.  It didn’t matter if it was real if it didn’t come across as realistic.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Twelve O’Clock High.  In theory, it is based on real events involving real generals – including one who did push himself too much at this early point in the war and eventually started to crack.  If you look online, it easy to find out who was based on who and how much of the film seemed to have really happened (most of it).  But the problem is that it never seems particularly realistic.  That’s not to say that it’s a bad film.  It’s decently directed, is anchored by two very fine performances (Jagger was quite good, even if he shouldn’t have won the Oscar and this is one of the better performances in the long career of Gregory Peck) and it’s decently made.  The air footage looks out of place because it is out of place — it’s actual war footage put into the film and it was a mistake because the look of it is completely different from everything else in the film — but most of the rest of the film is well done, with especially good sound effects.  But the story never feels real.  It seems like the commanding officer is bounced much too quickly, that things on the base seem to fall apart ridiculously quick after he is relieved (a funeral happens for a character so fast that it’s hard to realize that this character was just on film a few minutes ago, but has apparently killed himself and been buried almost instantaneously) and Peck’s character doesn’t seem particularly realistic.  It’s not a bad film, but it’s certainly not worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and the feel of the film is always off.  In the end, it doesn’t matter if something actually happened.  It only matters if it seems believable when you’re watching it.  And this film just doesn’t stand up.

Battleground - just another standard war film that somehow got nominated

Battleground

  • Director:  William A. Wellman
  • Writer:  Robert Pirosh
  • Producer:  Dore Schary
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Whitmore), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  War  (World War II)
  • Release Date:  9 November 1949
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #42  (year)  /  #394  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  War films are known for their Cinematography, for the way they pull back to reveal the larger battle.  They present war on an epic scale and that, perhaps, is why many people have been known to suggest that it is impossible to truly make an anti-war film.  The scope of the battle, the epic of its intensity just can’t convey the horrible destruction.  Battleground is not like that.  In fact, there are very few wide shots at all.  On the one hand, I suppose it is commendable to focus so squarely on one platoon and the individual characters within.  On the other hand, it feels like a film with the name Battleground, about the last great push of the war, should give us an idea of the actual war.  It didn’t feel like the film was shot continually in medium to close range shots to focus on the characters (because they really aren’t that well drawn out – they are the same stereotypical characters you would find in any war film and by 1949 this was already old hat) – but instead to save on the budget.  The film is shot so close because they didn’t actually have the budget to do a bigger film.  It would be great – except you can feel the absence of the war.  It feels like it was shot on the cheap, like they just couldn’t afford to do a bigger film.  It feels compromised.  And that feeling persists throughout the entire film.  It’s not a bad film.  It’s not badly written and it’s directed by William A. Wellman, one of the great craftsmen in Hollywood, but without much in the way of actors, without a great script (don’t be sucked in by the Oscar – it’s not that great a script), it needs a bigger sense of what is going on and it just doesn’t have that.

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