Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 7
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 7: 1945
Going My Way (winner)
Since You Went Away
Double Indemnity: Before Murder on the Orient Express, Mystic River, Seven, Zodiac, Gone Girl and all the other semi-gruesome murder mysteries we’ve seen come and go from the big screen, there was film noir.
Stories about dark and stormy nights, houses filled with moving shadows, femme fatales with hidden motives, detectives in long khaki coats and fedoras, narrators that always sounded at least a little bit like Humphrey Bogart…all the tell-tale signs of a classic film noir. And if you want to see all of these tactics perfectly executed, look no further than Double Indemnity.
Thought to be one of the first movies to define the film noir genre, Double Indemnity tells the story of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a greedy, weak insurance salesman who gets tangled up in the trappings of his femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).
The plot is simple…Phyllis uses her ankle bracelets and low-cut blouses to convince Walter to sell her husband a $50,000 double indemnity policy, then arranges the “accidental death” of her husband so she can collect a double payout. Easy enough…
Ironically, the murder goes just as planned, if not better. It’s not until the passion between Phyllis and Walter begins to cool off that each becomes suspicious of the other’s motives. Walter’s insurance company is skeptical of the situation, thinking the death was a suicide, not an accident (and so refuses the double indemnity payout). Phyllis is getting nervous that Walter might break and tell the truth. Furthermore, Walter’s boss begins to suspect foul play is at hand.
DUN, DUN, DUUUUUNNN!!!
The sad thing about Double Indemnity is that the hero of our story is not a villain or a criminal – merely he’s just a weak man who fell into temptation. It’s hard to say if Walter and Phyllis even really like each other. They shoot innuendos back and forth, they call each other “baby” and whisper to each other in the dark corners of the night…but it’s hard to believe they’re committing murder just to get rid of the provocative third wheel…
So what’s the motive? Both bored in life and looking for excitement, it seems the driving factor is simply the thrill of the crime. Phyllis doesn’t care about Walter, she doesn’t care about her husband, about the money or about love in general. It was never about any of that. This was a Bad Boys we-ride-together-we-die-together-style fight to the finish, where it’s better to go down with someone than go down by yourself.
Going My Way: In the 1945 Best Picture winner, Going My Way, Bing Crosby stars as Father Chuck O’Malley, a young priest charged with bringing St. Dominic’s Church out of debt. The current curate of St. Dominic’s, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), is expectedly O’Malley’s foil – cranky, set in his ways and stuck in his ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude after 45 years of service to the church.
While O’Malley is careful not to offend or challenge Fitzgibbon’s authority, he sets about to make a difference in his community – organizing the local street youths into a choir, helping a runaway find true love and even organizing a choir tour, headlined by his childhood friend, Genevive Linden (Rise Stevens), to help pay off the mortgage on the church.
O’Malley even breaks down Father Fitzgibbon, crooning his way through that rough exterior only to discover Fitzgibbon is no more than a lonely man looking for friendship.
And with Bing as the lead, it should come as no surprise that there were a few tunes scattered throughout this movie – but they added nothing to the story. In fact, they felt more like an interruption. This movie lacked spark, it lacked narrative drive and really dragged as a result. The musical numbers, while okay on their own, were really just rocks tied to a sinking ship.
That being said, the sentiment was strong with this one. Similar to Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds or even Dead Poet’s Society, Going My Way is about an individual who devotes his time and energy to the betterment of society, often without recognition or acknowledgement. It had so much potential, but landed somewhere between being an amazing film and a complete dud.
Despite my indifference, this film was extremely successful upon its release. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won 7, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Bing Crosby). The popular tune, “Swinging on a Star” won an Oscar for Best Song as well.
All in all, I guess I just had higher hopes for this one, especially with Bing at the helm and Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) in the director’s seat. I mean the sweetest moment in Going My Way happened literally one minute before the ending title card filled the screen. So emotional, but not worth the 2-hour build-up.
I’ll say this for Going My Way – in a movie featuring the Catholic church, this film could have been very preachy, but it was not. In fact, I don’t think God was mentioned once, if at all. O’Malley could have easily been a professor, a teacher or a coach and the story would have been the same. While Going My Way may have inspired audiences back in 1944, other films have since followed this format and honestly have done it better. This musical drama tried so hard to hit all the right notes, but ultimately just ended up falling flat.
Gaslight: The term ‘gaslighting’ has entered popular culture with a vengeance. I mean, you can’t read an article about politics or popular culture without it coming up at least once. But before ‘gaslight’ became an SEO tag, it was a play about a man who slowly manipulates his wife into believing she’s going insane.
The 1938 fictional play gave birth to the term ‘gas light’, and two film adaptations (one in 1940 and this adaptation in 1944) would help cement the term in popular culture. How it came to mean what it does is a twisted, evil story that begins as any great story begins: with a murder.
World-famous opera singer Alice Alquist has just been murdered in her London townhome. The perpetrator, who committed the crime in search of valuable jewels, has fled the scene empty-handed after being interrupted by Paula, Alice’s 14-year-old orphaned niece. Now without any legal guardians, Paula is sent to Italy to study opera herself.
It’s now several years later. Paula (Ingrid Bergman) is a newly married woman returning to live in the abandoned home once occupied by her aunt. She and her husband, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) begin their life together, she the caring and attentive wife, he the doting and debonair husband. Buuuut that doesn’t last long.
Gregory begins isolating Paula, making her doubt herself and her sanity. He steals her belongings, convincing her she’s losing them…he tricks her into seeing and hearing things that aren’t there and he forbids her from leaving the house or having friends come to see her. She’s completely isolated in her own house – and her own mind.
Not long after Paula begins her decent into madness, Gregory goes on nightly explorations, leaving Paula alone with the flirtatious and seemingly mysterious young maid of the house (played by a young Angela Lansbury in her film debut). Every night when Gregory is gone, Paula notices the gas lights in the house flickering (thus the term, ‘gas light’). Gregory persuades her that it’s just her delusions, but when a visiting local Scotland Yard officer also notices the lights flickering, Paula begins to discover that maybe she’s not crazy after all…and perhaps the man she married isn’t all he appears to be.
Like any great psychological thriller, fear itself becomes a character in this movie, with claustrophobic scenes depicting Paula’s tension. Indoor scenes are shot with minimal lighting while outdoor scenes are almost always clouded in London fog. This is not unlike an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, with small clues and details that even have the audience questioning their own sanity.
Ingrid Bergman was brilliant as Paula and this role would end up giving her one of three Academy Awards for Best Actress (For Whom the Bell Tolls and Casablanca would follow). In addition to Bergman, Charles Boyer does an excellent job of turning his suave, debonair persona into that of a calculating, fiendish villain.
In many ways, Gaslight is as much a character study as it is a thriller – and I love me a good character study. Yes, the ending is a bit weak and expected, but I think that’s mainly due to the fact that the build was so well-crafted. I don’t think the ending was ever meant to surprise us…any fan of gumshoe detective lore could really have figured it out by now, but you don’t watch this movie for the ending. The real terror happens long after the ending of the movie…when you’re lying in bed, wondering if that noise outside is real or just your imagination.
Wilson: When I was a kid, I was obsessed with presidential history. While other 10-year-old girls were having birthday parties at Discovery Zone or sleepovers with their friends, I was in Springfield exploring the home of Abraham Lincoln. I had a board game about presidential trivia and a 3D puzzle of the White House that I built and proudly displayed in my room. My social anxiety really shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point 😉
As a growing 10-year-old, I wasn’t really interested in foreign policy, but I loved learning about the personal lives of our presidents – their favorite foods, where they grew up, how many dogs they had. Sure, I favored Lincoln in my ‘studies’, but I wasn’t picky.
When Wilson came up as a nominated movie for 1945, I must admit – I was torn. Part of me flashed back to my 10-year-old self, excited to learn more about a new president; another part of me couldn’t help but wonder why someone would want to make a movie about Woodrow Wilson.
After seeing Wilson, I’m still not sure if I really know why this movie was created. The film chronicles the life of Wilson, beginning with his decision to leave his position at President of Princeton University to run for Governor of New Jersey, and follows his subsequent ascent to the Oval Office.
During his terms in office, Wilson must deal with the death of his first wife, the onslaught of German hostilities and his own country’s resistance to join the League of Nations. Clocking in at 154 minutes, Wilson is a bit of a long and tedious journey (both for him and us) to the White House.
Still I was entertained, nonetheless. I was (and still am) unfamiliar with the lead actor, Alexander Knox, who had to endure more than 1,100 lines of dialogue and almost 300 scenes to play Woodrow Wilson. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role, but lost to Bing Crosby (Going My Way). His performance in Wilson was admirable, and of course it helped that he was a dead ringer for the president himself.
Despite its slow pace, the set design in this movie was unparalleled with anything else from this year. Beside the fact that it was in Technicolor (thank GOD), the recreations of The White House and the design for the Democratic National Convention were truly stunning for the time. If this movie were in black and white, I don’t think it would have had nearly the same impact as it did in color.
In terms of numbers, Wilson was nothing short of a box office flop. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was so heartbroken over the movie’s failure that he forbade anyone who came into his presence from mentioning the film to him. However, the Academy disagreed. Wilson was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning 5, including: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Original Screenplay.
In a lineup of 40+ presidents, not all of them can be winners. While Woodrow Wilson may not have had the fame that Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan, Nixon and Obama would come to enjoy, he was nothing if not an eloquent, dedicated family man who wanted the best for the country and the people who inhabited it.
Since You Went Away: In its own words, Since You Went Away is “…a story of the Unconquerable Fortress – The American home.” Dripping with pro-American propaganda and heavy messaging, this movie was almost too sentimental for its own good.
Based on Margaret Buell Wilder’s bestselling novel, Since You Went Away: Letters to a Soldier from his Wife, this film is a long, emotional ode to the World War II home front. It stars Claudette Colbert as Anne Hilton, the wife of a businessman who, though well past draft age, volunteers to serve his country as an officer.
Though low on income, Anne does her best to hold down the fort and maintain a sense of normalcy the sake of her two daughters, Jane (Jennifer Jones) and Bridgette (Shirley Temple). She’s offered morale support from their boarder, the cranky but loveable Col. Smollett (Monty Woolley), her maid Fidelia (Hatti McDaniel – basically playing the same part she did in Gone with the Wind) and her husband’s best friend, Lt. Anthony Willett (Joseph Cotton), who has been secretly in love with Anne for years. Don’t worry though, despite their serious chemistry, the relationship between the two is staunchly platonic. Anne is a good lil’ housewife.
Of course, that’s not to say that this movie is without drama. The reality of war hits home several times throughout the film and several scenes tugged – nay – pulled at my heartstrings. In one scene, Anne retires to her bedroom, utterly grief stricken, only to find a note her husband left her tucked away under her pillow. In another scene Jane and her young lover Bill discuss the possibility of him not returning from the war alive. Col. Smollett just misses saying goodbye to his grandson before he’s shipped off to the war. These scenes, though overly sentimental, were relatable, even today. War isn’t only hard on those fighting…it’s also torture for those left behind.
Sentiments aside, this movie was total Oscar bait. In 1945, this film received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Colbert, Best Supporting Actor for Woolley and Best Supporting Actress for Jones. However, it would only go home with Best Score, an award it honestly deserved.
Clocking in at 172 minutes, this film is long…and it feels long. It marked David O. Selznick’s return to film after a four-year hiatus following his back-to-back Best Picture winners, Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. It’s filled with dialogue and storylines that seem to hammer in two major lessons:
1. Life is hard for the folks back home
2. Everyone should pitch in to help the war effort
Claudette Colbert was almost too good in this role, showing a woman fraught with grief, yet doing her best to maintain a social life for her own health and the health of her family. It’s a shame the material she had to work with didn’t match her genuine talent.
In the end, the final title card drove the point home with a Biblical quote from the King James Bible: “Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.” While that final quote seemed to push me over the edge after a near 3-hour lecture, it’s obvious it gave some semblance of courage and strength to those men, women and children anxiously awaiting their loved ones’ return.
In an effort to bring to life stories that showcased the American spirit, films like Going My Way and Since You Went Away offered tales of sacrifice and valor, despite the looming dangers of war and bankruptcy. Even Wilson, while nothing major, may have also offered a sense of hope. After all, if we were able to survive the aftermath of World War I, we should certainly be able to bounce back again.
Gaslight featured awesome performances from Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer and, together with Double Indemnity, really helped highlight why people go to the movies in the first place.
Finally, Double Indemnity was certainly my hidden gem this year, and honestly should have beat Going My Way in the race for Best Picture. It was well-acted, well-written and set the bar for future noir films to come.
If there was one theme that coursed steadily through all these movies, it was the idea of perseverance. Much like the movies of 1938, which marked the beginnings of World War II, these films showed us that we are all stronger together.
Onto the next pull!