Saturday, February 8, 2014

Forgotten Oscar Winners, 1940-1949

Continuing my celebration of great forgotten Oscar winners and nominees, we arrive at one of the finest decades of Hollywood filmmaking. The 1940s were the heyday of film noir and a period of extreme productivity. Among the top box office stars were Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Betty Grable, and Greer Garson. In 1940, All This, and Heaven Too, a period drama starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer, about a governess, her enamored employer, and their tragic attempts to love each other without hurting those they love, was among the nominees for Outstanding Production. Although it suffers from a poorly directed framing narrative, the film overall is one of Hollywood's best period dramas. It lost to Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick's only collaboration, Rebecca.

In 1941, the film widely considered the best of all time, Citizen Kane may not have won the Outstanding Motion Picture award, but it has easily overshadowed every other nominee of that year. With the exception of The Maltese Falcon and Sergeant York, its fellow nominees have been largely overlooked. The Little Foxes, written by Lillian Hellman and starring Bette Davis (who gives one of her strongest performances), received nine nominations, the same number as Citizen Kane. Bette Davis plays a scheming, money-hungry, Southern matriarch, supported by Teresa Wright, Herbert Marshall, and Dan Duryea. Cary Grant received his first nomination for Best Actor for his role in the heartbreaking drama Penny Serenade, a devastating depiction of parenthood, marriage, and loss. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, starring Robert Montgomery as a boxer who is taken to Heaven too soon by an overeager angel (the always hilarious Edward Everett Horton), received no less than seven nominations, while Hold Back the Dawn, starring Olivia de Havilland as a schoolteacher swept off her feet by an unscrupulous con artist (Charles Boyer) looking for a green card, received six nominations. All of these films were nominees for Outstanding Motion Picture.

The musical was one of the most popular film genres from the beginning of the sound era until the early 1960s. While musical films tended to dominate in categories pertaining to music and sound, only one would win the Outstanding Motion picture award in the 1940s - and only nine in the history of the awards. In 1942, Gene Kelly's film debut, For Me and My Gal, was nominated for Best Musical Score. Kelly plays an unscrupulous vaudevillian intent on making it big no matter the cost opposite the effervescent and brilliant Judy Garland and the charming and under-appreciated George Murphy. This film is one of my favorite musicals and one that proves that Gene Kelly had real acting chops.

Ernst Lubitsch brought his trademark sophistication and wit to 1943's Heaven Can Wait, which was nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, Color. Don Ameche, in his finest role, plays a dashing playboy, who, after a lifetime of chasing women, believes after his death that he belongs in Hell. He's supported by a fabulous cast of great character actors, including Charles Coburn. This utterly delightful film is one of Lubitsch's finest.

David O. Selznick's hubristic attempt to repeat the success of Gone with the Wind was part of what lost him the Best Motion Picture statuette in 1944. Though reviews were quite mixed, audiences connected with Since You Went Away, a three hour drama about women on the Home Front starring Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones, and it received nine nominations, winning only one, for Max Steiner's score. Selznick's loss is particularly stinging given that Going My Way, a soapy musical about a singing priest played by Bing Crosby and one of the most appallingly bad Best Picture nominees of all time, won Best Motion Picture.

In 1945, Albert Lewin's idiosyncratic interpretation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the finest horror films of the decade, won the award for Best Cinematography, Black and White, and was nominated for both Best Art Direction, Black and White, and Best Supporting Actress, for Angela Lansbury's knockout performance, only her third cinematic appearance. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an unusually artistic and philosophical Hollywood film, an erudite and yet entertaining exploration of murky morality and perversion that features some extraordinary artwork by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright.

Winner of the award for Best Original Song and nominee for Best Musical Score in 1946, The Harvey Girls is one of the classic musicals of the 1940s. Judy Garland stars, supported by a fabulous cast of comedic actors including Ray Bolger, Marjorie Main, and Angela Lansbury, in this kitschy Western about the waitresses of Harvey's Restaurants and their quest to lure the menfolk out of the saloon and into the restaurant. The Harvey Girls couldn't really compete with films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Henry V, but it is a great example of the kind of quality musical filmmaking of the era.

The British were out in force in 1947, represented by such masterpieces as Black Narcissus and Great Expectations. Competing against Charlie Chaplin's masterwork Monsieur Verdoux, Sidney Sheldon won the Best Original Screenplay award for The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, a delightfully witty comedy starring Cary Grant as a troublesome artist, Shirley Temple as the teenager infatuated with him, and Myrna Loy as Shirley's sister who insists he play along until the infatuation wears off - and as a judge, she's not about to let Grant off the hook. It's extremely exciting to see a judge played by a woman, especially such a classy woman, but the film works primarily because Grant's sophisticated and yet very clean-cut persona keeps the story from descending into a creep-fest. There isn't an actor in Hollywood who could pull this off today.

In 1948, a little known drama starring Jane Wyman as a deaf and mute woman who fights to keep her child after being raped had more nominations - a round dozen - than any other film of that year. Johnny Belinda only received one award, for Best Actress, one of the most highly competitive categories of the year, as Jane Wyman was up against Ingrid Bergman for Joan of Arc and Olivia de Havilland for The Snake Pit. The Snake Pit was a groundbreaking film about mental illness and psychiatry, which was filmed in an actual mental institution with its inmates as extras. It's a powerful indictment of inhumane psychiatric treatment and one of the most realistic Hollywood depictions of the subject. Also nominated that year, though only for Best Musical Score, was The Pirate, an avant-garde project helmed by Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, and Arthur Freed, which flopped when it was released, but has become a cult classic. The dancing is magnificent, the brilliant Nicholas Brothers have a cameo, and Judy Garland belts "Mack the Black" - what more could you ask for?

Quick - who starred in the 1949 version of Little Women? Hint - it wasn't Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder. It was, in fact, June Allyson, one of America's sweethearts in her heyday, but no longer in the pantheon of iconic film stars. While the cult around Katharine Hepburn has kept the memory of her 1933 version of the Louisa May Alcott novel alive, the 1949 version, which won the award for Best Art Direction, Color, and was nominated for Best Cinematography, Color, is the best adaptation of the material. The film overall captures the spirit of its source material, and while June Allyson's performance as Jo may not have the iconic status of Hepburn's or the popularity of Ryder's, lovers of the novel will recognize the beloved literary heroine in this film far more than in the others.

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