Looking Back at Oscar, #17

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1944:

Dragon Seed
Double Indemnity
Gaslight
Going My Way
Laura
Mr. Skeffington
Mrs. Parkington
None But the Lonely Heart
Seventh Cross
Since You Went Away
Wilson

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
Double Indemnity
Laura

I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1944 Year in Review post.

Dragon Seed
Oh man, where to begin with this one. Dragon Seed is just pure garbage, another Pearl Buck adaptation (she wrote The Good Earth) rendered even more cringeworthy thanks to Luise Rainer’s frankly racist win opening the door to this attitude, and to make matters even worse, it’s a whopping 145 minutes long, beginning with stereotypically Oriental music and stupid narration, and getting worse as it goes along thanks to the abundance of racial issues. The Japanese are totally evil, a group of literal gang rapists who smile as they plan to make people miserable during the war effort, including a shot of a woman whose clothes have been ripped to shreds after a brief chase scene. For perspective, the Germans were never portrayed as so savage and horrifying, but the Chinese arguably get more nastily treated by the racism of the filmmakers, getting condescendingly referred to as “not too rich and not too poor” and being portrayed with yellowface makeup that is genuinely scary to look at. Katharine Hepburn looks like she has had her eyelids done via plastic surgery techniques that had not been invented yet, and her character is a mix of her standard New England gal and a noble savage. She wants to own a book, but she does not know what kind. Agnes Moorehead by far gets it the worst in terms of what kind of stereotype she has to play (yes, the cast was this good and wasted on this garbage), but we now must come around to Aline MacMahon, receiving a well overdue Oscar nomination for a performance that may consist of her saying some horrible dialogue that perpetuates racism, but she sort of pulls off a minor miracle (the only one to do so, proving her unfairly unheralded status as Great Character Actress) in how she manages to seem like her standard sassy wisecracker despite dialogue that does not allow much of that (she plays a mother which…is not the sort of role you give to her), and almost making us forget about the fact that she is wearing racist makeup the whole way through. If the story had focused on her, I think I could have closed my eyes a little and pretended it was a Broken Blossoms scenario where the craft outweighs the bigotry, but we already have the great pre-Code B-Picture Heat Lightning, so I say just watch that instead.

Gaslight
My Brief Year in Review piece for Gaslight: Discussed here. Never got the appeal really, but it’s fun.

Going My Way
In a year where two of the most important pictures of the year in Double Indemnity and Laura trafficked in cynicism that still feels a little shocking today and must have been absolutely cutting back in the days of the post war trauma hangover, I suppose I should not be surprised that year’s big breakout hit on both the critical and commercial level was a dramedy about singing Catholics directed by Leo McCarey, giving in to the expectations that he should create something cheerful like The Awful Truth rather than drag everyone down with another Make Way for Tomorrow. I suppose the direction is capable enough to keep this watchable, but but it is also 130 minutes long and you absolutely feel it unless you…really like Catholic entertainment that is designed to keep you pacified with the most minor dilemmas. If you do, sorry, wrong blog for you. The best factoid about this is the bizarre decision on the Academy’s end to give Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald each a nomination for Best Actor…and then the latter also got something for Supporting, which resulted in the two of them getting Oscars and the former becoming the biggest box office draw of the 1940s for some reason. Thankfully, this does not have the horrible unnatural behaviors of a creation that vaguely resembles a movie along the lines of Boys Town, but it still has the low emotional stakes and nothing too bad happens, thus ensuring nobody is challenged, from the actors getting Oscars for nothing to the audience sitting through this and pretending they liked it to satisfy their churchgoing friends. Some of the smaller bits are to be appreciated, however, with an atheist character who gets one scene being treated as fairly reasonable (we would all be pissed at a priest breaking our window) and having only a mild ribbing from the script. Practically respectable by the standards of the time, but it’s promptly undone by the initial meeting between the pair of winners, with a horrible joke related to a phone call that keeps interrupting the conversation. Dreading the fact that we have a sequel to put up with in my Oscar quest, which is either considered much worse or much better depending on who you ask, but it does have Ingrid Bergman, who has to be an improvement on our fairly blah and rote performances from the men.

Mr. Skeffington
We have a Mr. Skeffington and a Mrs. Parkington in the race for the 17th Academy Awards, but both are pretty lousy and riddled with misogyny towards the women who run the plot. It really depends on what your brand is, I suppose, but Mrs. Parkington casually making an awful male into some lovable individual while having Greer Garson simpered at his side and gave bad comedy is far less enjoyable than the sheer gross cynicism of Mr. Skeffington, featuring Bette Davis as Fanny Trellis (she later winds up married to Claude Rains as the leading character), a caricature of a woman who would fit right alongside Disney’s female villains in terms of outrageous misogyny. (Look up the writers of this movie and you’ll find the horribly unflattering characterization even weirder. The brothers who did Casablanca and the woman who wrote pleasant easy viewing Enchanted April came up with this?) Vincent Sherman, otherwise a nothing director, was romantically involved with Bette at the time and the production was reportedly a retrospectively hilarious hell, featuring her eyewash getting poisoned (!?), and the film itself wound up being two and a half hours long for no good reason and paced in a way that is insanely awful even if there is a kernel of a worthy epic in the premise of a Jewish stockbrocker and a completely horrible person winding up in a relationship. However, Fanny’s part goes from overly simpering society gal of great beauty, to becoming a flapper who engages in drinking and smoking and shrieking her way across some speakeasy, to finally turning into a creature with Bride of Frankenstein hair and a face that is covered in a volume of makeup that wouldn’t be surpassed until Baby Jane came along. She wants to play it as big as possible because of whatever the hell was going on in her personal life, and good for her, since it certainly draws attention away from the enormous volume of incompetence in the way that everything else is going as poor Rains just does what he usually does and hopes for this nightmare of a production to be over with. You could usually count on Bette’s skills to allow for a clean swipe through any misogynistic bullshit in the script that ruined her characterization, but here, she is just full on fucking horrible in every way, and I am grateful, although I was admittedly bored out of my mind often.

Mrs. Parkington
Tay Garnett’s status as a two-hit wonder is a bit of a sad one, but sympathy eventually hits a limit, and Mrs. Parkington comes awfully close to outright smashing into it thanks to how stupid it is. Greer Garson has to play a woman who is 84 years of age, and yes, you read that correctly and this movie did indeed come out two years after Mrs. Miniver. She gets stuck with some deeply stupid and thankless comedy involving whacking things with her cane and struggling to find her eyeglasses, because old people are inherently hilarious and wacky, but everyone else might honestly be leaning into campier realms than she is even if this is thankfully not the entire film and we go into flashback territory where she plays her own age. Sh is once again alongside Walter Pidgeon in a role that the movie is way too willing to endorse, a series of terrifying moments and statements strung together to appear charming. He responds to people protesting their working conditions by buying them off with whiskey…after pulling a pistol on them because he’s just so wacky. He is also hideously misogynistic and the film buys into it with Mrs. Parkington making statements about he owns her, and thus he will never give her up, while she calmly plays along with him making plans to ruin people’s lives by keeping literal lists of who doesn’t attend his parties and financially ruining them later. This is all presented as normal and charming without a hint of irony that could make it play as satiric. Much better are Agnes Moorehead and Gladys Cooper, playing different shades of unpleasant bitchery, the former getting Oscar nominated for a vaguely evil gay who believes in the superiority of the female in a script that loves to smack them down otherwise, while Cooper’s rich and spoiled daughter spends the entire first act clearly hating that she’s in this picture with these characters, and she wants out, preferably with lots of money to go along with it. Again…why are these the side characters? Why isn’t Pidgeon’s lunatic having his feet held to the fire? “I THINK WE STINK!” screams Cooper’s rich bitch in the first act, and it’s totally true, this is a stinky world that rewards nasty and unfunny caricatured roles that wouldn’t feel out of place in a high school student’s writing attempting to tackle class.

None But the Lonely Heart
My Brief Year in Review piece for None But the Lonely Heart: Strained and overlong, but ending hits hard.

Clifford Odets only made two outings in the director’s chair, and None But the Lonely Heart is the only one to ever get attention thanks to the nominations the Academy threw its way. A movie that nearly hits two hours and spends a lot of time focusing on Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore both trying to not be tempted by crime due to their struggling financial status, there’s a lot of flopsweat poured into this, with desperation to make a point from both the director and star being palpable in the grimdark photography that feels like a Christopher Nolan noir and a script that bluntly throws points at us via voiceover when it isn’t going for desperate attempts at metaphor. (It also has a fondness for frequently saying Ernie Mott’s name, with Ernie Mott being our protagonist, Ernie Mott. Sorry.) Grant’s performance is frankly pretty bad, with a cockney accent and a desperation to make a point that fits into his insecurities over his background. Barrymore, however, is deliciously strange even if she’s part of the problem. She’s stuck with a rather generic assignment, but her slow deliveries in that rich, low voice are deliciously strange and offbeat, like she was trapped in molasses, staring out. Perhaps she had a glimpse of the future involving Ginger Rogers’ mother demanding that the people involved in this be tried as Communists during the heyday of the HUAC, but it’s more likely that she’s doing the same sort of “unusual old lady” role that the Oscars loved to reward in Supporting Actress, especially with her rather dramatic increases in symptoms of sickness as things go on and a banal romance enters the fray. It’s not a very good movie for most of its duration, but there’s something to appreciate way deep down in the way that the best is truly saved for last. Not going to spoil it, but the conclusion is an outpouring of repressed emotions that is cathartic and makes certain aspects retroactively more palatable, as well as making Barrymore’s performance the easy choice to reward in a fairly crappy Supporting Actress lineup. Turns out you can redeem a whole number of contrivances and strained seriousness when you go for the heart at the last second. Otherwise, too many issues and exhaustingly cynical, but it all shows that there was definitely a talent for the stage behind this incredibly weird production.

Seventh Cross
My Brief Year in Review piece for Seventh Cross: Discussed here. Interesting, but that VO is annoying.

Since You Went Away
As a result of Mrs. Miniver’s success two years prior, David O. Selznick had a few ideas of his own in terms of making a prestige picture about the American side of the war effort, since we were not the ones getting bombed regularly outside of Pearl Harbor and the relationship was different thanks to all the men being thrown into the thick of combat on another continent while the women stayed at home and dealt with problems fairly independently. It could be a worthy topic for a film, and I do have a lot of appreciation for Claudette Colbert, who pretty much pulls off a coup of acting like a reasonable person to every goddamned minor thing she gets thrown at her in the lengthiest, most exhausting exploration of the psyche of the time that I can think of. Good for her, an Oscar nomination well-earned even with better options. That’s all the nice things I have left to say for this shit, which is a goddamn monolith when Colbert is off screen. Monty Woolley, who plays a boarder that they take in, repeats his schtick from The Pied Piper as a grumpy old man who does not like young people in a way that is much more calcified than in the older picture. Jennifer Jones, coming off her victory last year, is Colbert’s daughter and forced to have a relationship in the production with a man, played by an actor who she had recently divorced before moving on to becoming Mrs. Selznick, to the point where I strongly suspect her arc was constructed just because of that sort of thing. Shirley Temple and Joseph Cotten are fairly awful, while Agnes Moorehead and Hattie McDaniel just say their lines in their typically snitty way and wish they were getting less thankless roles in such length productions. The lack of variety really starts to kick us in the stomach when we reach hour two and things start to become transparently padded, with new story arcs being grafted in constantly to keep everything epic. I suppose I am grateful this lost to Going My Way, but that was a pretty questionable choice in a lineup that had a disconcerting ratio in terms of the running times of prestige crap to legitimate long term works that hold up. Watch one of the genuinely enjoyable works from Colbert’s career instead, please, for your own sake.

Wilson
Woodrow Wilson may be claimed nowadays as a great Commander in Chief if not one of the best (I have a built in suspicion of Presidential rankings thanks to how outmoded social mores are handled in different eras), but that is absolutely no excuse to give him a prestigious color film biopic (that looks like shit fairly frequently thanks to just throwing the actors in the middle of the frame). This is a painfully dull mess of blind “History is Wonderful” pandering to the idiots who lap this sort of thing up from the beginning of his career as the President of Princeton University to the end of his run leading the United States, especially when the damn thing was somehow even more expensive than Gone With the Wind, certainly did not make as much money and basically got in because Zanuck demanded it (he took the profit loss hard), and the incredible volume of money poured into it only got reflected in certain aspects of the filming. (The number of extras is pretty impressive.) When Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed this to Wilson Churchill in a meeting, the British Prime Minister responded appropriately by going to bed in the middle, so clearly we know who the better world leader was, especially with this movie being a screechingly long two hours and thirty three minutes of slow, tedious recapping that does not resemble anything other than a biography with the historical passages getting recited by the characters. Glory to the powerful white man, as is par for the course. No expense was spared even as it was totally unnecessary, and Henry King became perpetually associated with prestige projects as a result of this, but holy shit this is so long and dull, and in a year where we already had Going My Way as the big box office winner and Since You Went Away as the project that ran an insane, unwarranted length of time to cover more detail than was possibly needed. The tedium never ends, with the main assets being Alexander Knox as the President and Cedric Hardwicke (oddly not nominated) as Senator Henry Lodge, making the most of incredibly dry roles, with the former in particular seeing like a normal meek man who just so happens to be the leader of the free world (although his xenophobia is glossed over entirely and he comes across as a little too nice).

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