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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 61

Part 61: 1946


MOVIES:

  • The Lost Weekend (winner)

  • Mildred Pierce (hidden gem)

  • Spellbound

  • Anchors Aweigh

  • The Bells of St. Mary's

The Lost Weekend

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Philip Terry, Howard da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen, Mary Young, Anita Bolster, Lilian Fontaine, Frank Orth, Lewis Russell

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Ray Milland), Best Director, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score


Billy Wilder can do no wrong. From Double Indemnity to Some Like it Hot…Sunset Boulevard to The Apartment, this man knew how to tell an engaging story.


And, of course, the key to any great story is great characters. Wilder often forwent the obvious choice for the perfect one, and nowhere is that clearer than in his decision to cast Ray Milland in his revolutionary film, The Lost Weekend.

The Lost Weekend is a serious, painful and uncompromising look at alcohol addiction that follows almost five days (one lost weekend) in the life of a tortured, failed writer named Don (Ray Milland). It was a ground-breaking film in that it was the first time Hollywood had seriously tackled the subject of alcoholism and created awareness around it as a modern illness. While previous films had just made fun of drunks and lushes, The Lost Weekend showed a man struggling to battle his inner demons. It was so effective that the alcohol industry offered to purchase the negative for $5 million in order to destroy it. However, it opened to great popularity and critical success, grossing $11 million on a $1.25 million budget (it’s currently #8 in the top grossing films of 1945 and took home four major Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor [Milland] and Best Adapted Screenplay).


Don Birnam may see himself as a writer, but he doesn’t really do that much writing. Instead, he indulges in the vice that plagues almost anyone brave enough to put pen to paper: alcohol. He drinks…a lot. For the past six years, Don has been battling writer’s block with liquor, much to the dismay of his brother, Wick (Philip Terry) and girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman).

Both Wick and Helen try – in their own way – to bring Don back from the abyss. When Wick suggests a trip to the country, Don agrees…but a last-minute change means Don is left alone for a weekend with nothing but his bottles to keep him company.


Paranoid and hopelessly overcome by dependency, Don reasons with himself that it’s merely just a comforting notion to have the alcohol around, convincing himself that he won’t touch it. But self-control lacks in a weak man surrounded by temptation. It doesn’t help that the entire neighborhood knows of his illness and whispers about him behind his back. If you can’t beat it, may as well feed into it…


The notion that Wick and Helen would even leave Don alone to drink is brutally believable. The naivete of believing that people like this can change on their own – not to mention the simple exhaustion of fighting an unwinnable fight day after day – is certainly relatable. It’s easier to let the drinker drink, especially when society acts as a contemptuous enabler. Even Don’s regular bartender, Nat (Howard Da Silva), berates him for drinking, yet continues to serve him.

The one complaint many have about The Lost Weekend is its hopeful ending. After contemplating suicide, Don decides to instead begin writing a pseudo-autobiographical novel about the experiences of an alcoholic. Fueled by Helen’s support, Don seems to be on the mend…but for how long? Will these five days of misery be enough to finally encourage Don to stop his wild behavior…or will he always need a bottle of liquor hanging by a string from his window, just in case?


The Lost Weekend had a particular impact on GIs returning home from World War II, who were struggling with adapting to life after the war. It also inspired a slew of other films that attempted to chronicle the social problem of alcoholism, including The Country Girl (1954), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Verdict (1982), and one of the most heartbreaking of them all, Leaving Las Vegas (1995).


Almost 80 years later, The Lost Weekend still strikes a chord. It’s portrayal of self-deconstruction and the danger of alcoholism is strangely unsurpassed. It’s also one of the few movies about an alcoholic that doesn’t make him a clown or a buffoon, but a sympathetic victim of a horrible, unmanageable disease.

 

Mildred Pierce

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, Veda Ann Borg, Jo Ann Marlowe, Butterfly McQueen

Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Joan Crawford)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden), Best Supporting Actress (Ann Blyth), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Picture


The movies favor heroes, and Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is a special one. She gains our admiration for escaping poverty through determination and hard work. She even starts her own bakery – a super successful one, at that – all as a single mother.


While we as the audience marvel at Mildred’s bravery, her daughter resents her. Spoiled and unappreciative, Veda (Ann Blyth) blames her mother for turning her into the brat that she is. “You’re the reason I am the way I am,” she says to her mother’s face. The way Joan Crawford slapped that girl across the face had me flushed.


But Mildred Pierce doesn’t start with mother-daughter drama. It begins with a murder.

Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) stumbles into the study of a large, lavish home. A once wealthy playboy who was the second husband of local entrepreneur Mildred Pierce, he now clutches the bullet wound in his chest. As he succumbs to his injuries, the final word on his lips is a name: “Mildred”.


But the police aren’t so sure that Mildred is the one to blame. Mildred’s first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) has already confessed to the murder, but she knows that’s wrong. Things get even more complicated when Mildred lures her old friend, Wally (Jack Carson) to the murder scene to frame him for the crime.


The reasons for her duplicity and the motives behind the murder are revealed in flashbacks, showing Mildred’s ascension from humble waitress to successful business owner. We also witness her devotion to her children and their well-being, as well as her complicated relationships with all the men in her life. All this leads to the fateful night of the shooting, where Mildred’s entire world is completely destroyed.

The trappings of motherhood and pie-baking may not seem like the stuff of film noir, but Mildred’s obsession with her older daughter is just as destructive as any man’s enslavement to a femme fatale. Veda is a villain in bobby socks – manipulative, selfish and cold-blooded. Warped by Mildred’s attentions like Frankenstein’s monster of Motherly Love, Veda is insincere and patronizing right from the start.


As Mildred, Joan Crawford won her only Oscar and reinvigorated her essence as a star. Clad in an oversized fur coat, Crawford is never quite convincing as an ordinary housewife, but what woman who builds a restaurant empire ever is? Not unlike Mildred, Crawford was a fiercely hardworking perfectionist driven by an unappeasable longing for approval. Both women were forced to take jobs to support their families and threw themselves into their work like a training athlete…all without breaking a sweat.


Challenging the assumption that film noirs always had to be from the male point of view, Mildred Pierce shows how women can also fall into that you-just-can’t-win pessimism. Despite having everything a woman SHOULD have – marriage, children, a high-powered career, a fabulous fur coat – none of it brings Mildred any happiness. She wants only what she can’t have: her daughter’s love.

 

Spellbound

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, John Emery, Norman Lloyd, Bill Goodwin, Steven Geray, Donald Curtis, Wallace Ford, Art Baker, Regis Toomey, Paul Harvey

Oscar Wins: Best Musical Score

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Special Effects, Best Picture


By the time Spellbound was released, Alfred Hitchcock was well into his phenomenal career. With movies like Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, and Suspicion already in the universe and others like To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and Psycho still to come, Spellbound often gets lost in the list of great Hitchcock films – mostly due to the fact that it’s not that great.


It has been said that even Hitchcock himself dissed the movie decades later…and it’s not really a favorite nowadays. It’s scientific in the same way movies like Jurassic Park are scientific. It contains elements of the craft, but looked at all together, it’s grossly outdated (maybe even blatantly wrong).

Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergan) is a psychoanalyst, helping to cure the disease of impaired contact with reality. Many of her patients become physically violent when mentally probed on the therapy couch. But nothing phases her.

True to 1940s logic, you know Constance is smart because she dresses the part – complete with glasses and power suits. Hoping to unlock the doors of the mind, Constance works diligently to study her books and research, all while fending off advances from her fellow co-workers. This girl ain’t got time for that, no can do.


As the retiring Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll) prepares to leave Green Manors, the staff awaits the arrival of replacement Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), an accomplished author and scientist…not to mention a total beef cake.


For Constance, it’s love at first sight. She’s both entranced by and suspicious of the new doctor – who himself exhibits some alarming eccentricities. If he sees anything approaching parallel lines, he begins to lose his mind, becoming completely incensed. But love conquers all, right? Constance is both the doctor and the prescription as she tries to work her magic and fix this broken man…but she soon discovers Dr. Edwardes may not be who he says he is…worse still, he might be a murderer.

Spellbound certainly has some evident problems. The pacing is way too slow and, as one might expect in a film about psychosis, there’s a LOT of talking. It’s stuffed with dialogue and doesn’t quite give enough attention to one of the two winding plotlines. However, there are some cool things here, too. There’s a stunning dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali (and yes, it’s just as weird as you’d expect). The ending also boasts a realistic shot (pun intended) that was quite inventive for the time.


All in all, Spellbound is by no means Hitchcock’s worst film, but it’s far from his best. Watching it feels like a dream. When you’re done, you don’t remember all of it, but you remember the good parts…and maybe that’s enough.

 

Anchors Aweigh

Director: George Sidney

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, Gene Kelly, Jose Iturbi, Dean Stockwell, Pamela Britton, “Rags” Ragland, Billy Gilbert, Henry O’Neill, Carlos Ramirez, Grady Sutton, Leon Ames, Sharon McManus

Oscar Wins: Best Musical Score (Musical)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Gene Kelly), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Original Song ("I Fall in Love Too Easily"), Best Picture


Over the course of 4 years, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly made three movies together, the first of which was Anchors Aweigh. The characters they portray here – the virgin (Sinatra lol) and the lothario (Kelly) – would be the same in each film. Up until this point, the only movie work that Sinatra had were small roles where he would croon out a song or two – but he was still a household name regardless. In fact, his singing fame was big enough to get him top billing over Kelly, who was arguably the bigger movie star. I’m sure that didn’t cause ANY issues between these two hot-heads. ;)


Incredibly similar to the stage hit On the Town, which had just opened on Broadway the year before, Anchors Aweigh is a musical about sailors on shore leave. In On the Town, they sing, dance and fall in love in New York City…in Anchors Aweigh, they sing, dance and fall in love in Hollywood. Sinatra and Kelly would even star in the movie remake of On the Town in 1949.

While Anchors Aweigh is by no means the best of their pairing, it still holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Sinatra film I watched with my grandma and my first introduction to that heartthrob, Gene Kelly. It also contains some of the coolest scenes in musical history, including a fun, albeit pointless, little dance number with Jerry from Tom and Jerry fame.


Shy Brooklyn native Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) and his best bud, skirt-chaser Joe Brady (Kelly), have been awarded metals for extraordinary bravery (Joe saved Clarence’s life after he fell off the ship – aww!!). As an extra reward, they have been granted a 4-day leave in Los Angeles.


While strolling the streets looking for dames, the boys are picked up by the police to help them get the name and address of a little boy who ran away from home to join the Navy. Donald (a very young Dean Stockwell), a confident, determined nine-year-old takes an instant liking to Joe, who tells him the only way he can join the Navy is to get a permission slip from a guardian. Catching onto the game, the police allow Joe and Clarence to escort Donald home, where he lives with his aunt, Susie (Kathryn Grayson).

Meanwhile, Susie is at work as an extra in Hollywood. A gifted soprano, she dreams of auditioning for the famed Jose Iturbi, and does all she can to get his attention (to no avail).


She returns home to find two strange men in her house, playing with her nephew. Joe and Clarence – well, Joe mainly – try to explain the situation, but all Clarence can do is stare at Susie like a little love-sick puppy. In order to help Clarence gain points with Susie – who seems to be crushing on Joe – Joe tells her that Clarence can secure her an audition with Iturbi, even though Iturbi doesn’t know Clarence from anyone. The race is on now for Clarence to not only woo Susie, who only has eyes for Joe, but to also track down Iturbi and get Susie an audition – all over the course of 4 days!

Like almost all movie musicals, everything works out in the end. Both sailors find love, just in time to head out on the ship again. And while Anchors Aweigh is, by definition, a romance, it works mostly on the chemistry between Sinatra and Kelly. Sinatra’s wide-eyed innocence and lovely voice work well against Kelly’s cocky smile and killer dance moves. The two complement each other’s weaknesses and play well off each other’s strengths. Grayson was a cute addition, but you almost didn’t even need her here.


Not only did Anchors Aweigh mark the first of three collaborations between Sinatra and Kelly, it also was the first time audiences got to see Ol’ Blue Eyes in color. And while their next effort, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, was infinitely better, I still think any time spent with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra doing what they do best is time well spent.

 

The Bells of St. Mary's

Director: Leo McCarey

Starring: Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Travers, William Gargan, Ruth Donnelly, Joan Carroll, Martha Sleeper, Rhys Williams, Dick Tyler, Una O’Connor

Oscar Wins: Best Sound Recording

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Bing Crosby), Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Original Song ("Aren't You Glad You're You?"), Best Picture


It seems The Bells of St. Mary’s was the answer to America’s prayers in the early 1940s. This monster hit and Best Picture nominee offered reassurance and comfort during a tumultuous war-ridden time. Starring Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley (reprising his role from the previous film, Going My Way) and Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict, The Bells of St. Mary’s gave viewers a place to relax and find some comfort. It also offered a platonic relationship with more chaste chemistry than a Jane Austin film.


Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley has found a new assignment at St. Mary’s parish, which includes a run-down inner-city school building on the verge of being condemned. His job: determine whether or not the school should be closed and the children relocated to schools with more modern facilities. The only thing standing in his way is one superior sister by the name of Mary Benedict, who feels that God will provide for them.

Though Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict don’t see eye to eye, they have great respect for one another. For example, Sister Benedict has put all her eggs in Horace P. Bogardus’s (Henry Travers) basket, hoping this businessman, who has constructed a modern building next door to their school, will find it in his cold-blooded heart to donate the facility to the perish. Father O’Malley isn’t so sure…


Sister Benedict also takes a young boy named Eddie (Dickie Tyler) under her wing, teaching him to box and fight off those kids who are teasing him. It’s a great little scene that does its due diligence in making nuns seem cool and hip, but after hearing what my dad went through in Catholic school, I’m not sure how realistic it is.

But, realism is far from the point in The Bells of St. Mary’s. In fact, the entire movie is slightly Capra-esque in its messaging. Enemies become friends, good deeds are rewarded, and even the most dire news is given with a smile and an assurance that everything will work out in the end. It’s God’s plan, after all.


Though the plot is a bit flimsy, The Bells of St. Mary’s is still a cute film – and one I liked better than its predecessor. It was quite the financial success, too, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1945. Adjusted for inflation, The Bells of St. Mary’s is considered the 57th highest-grossing film of all time.

There’s a scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey returns to Bedford Falls after his Ebenezer Scrooge adventures. As he runs down the street, a marquee shows The Bells of St. Mary’s playing at the town movie theater. It’s a cute little Easter egg, as Henry Travers was also Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, but that’s not the only common thread between these two heartwarming films. Both movies feature down-on-their-luck heroes relying on the kindness of evil capitalists to save them. Both movies feature a heavenly aspect. Both movies speak to the power of friendship. But, most importantly, both movies provided viewers a sense of hope…a microcosm of positivity to hold onto as the world crumbled to ash. While I may not agree that The Bells of St. Mary’s was the BEST film of the year, I can’t deny its power. If nothing else, watching a group of 6-year-olds put on a Christmas pageant is reason enough to check out this cute holiday-ish movie.

 

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