Looking Back at Oscar, #19

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1946:

Anna and the King of Siam
Best Years of Our Lives
Brief Encounter
Duel in the Sun
Green Years
Henry V
It’s a Wonderful Life
Jolson Story
Notorious
Razor’s Edge
Saratoga Trunk
Sister Kenny
Spiral Staircase
To Each His Own
The Yearling

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 25 of the year post:
Best Years of Our Lives
Brief Encounter
Duel in the Sun
Henry V
It’s a Wonderful Life
Notorious
Spiral Staircase
The Yearling

I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1946 Year in Review post.

Anna and the King of Siam
Anna and the King of Siam would later be updated to make the musical The King and I, a widely beloved property that nevertheless does not benefit from having the songs and dancing stripped away so that we can look at the colonialism undiluted in a straight drama, no matter how much it tries to take on the imperialism and autocratic rules of the two different cultures of the time. Linda Darnell’s character being portrayed as a villain here did not help at all, an adjustment that Rodgers and Hammerstein would make in order to redeem the work that I cannot say whether or not it paid off fully, but it certainly seems like an improvement. Irene Dunne plays the white lady, but the role of the leader of the people of Bangkok, Mongkut, is…Rex Harrison, who was incredibly young and good looking at this point in a way that can only be called “Anglo-Saxon.” The original Supporting Actress winner, Gale Sondergaard, got the only acting nomination for her part as his wife, and while I reluctantly tried to justify William Wyler’s The Letter a masterpiece in the same breath as her playing a part in yellowface, at least that movie was fantastic and used Asian actors in several key parts, plus she had a nonspeaking role and you could kind of twist the film to justify the racism. This is not, and the character fits into the same grim tradition as the rest of the white people playing Asian characters. (Watching this immediately after Saratoga Trunk and Jolson Story was a good reminder of how awful the Oscars were that year on the level of race, and that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash was justified but should also consider how far we have come. This is still the least tacky of that threesome, and I have yet to watch the notoriously messy Duel in the Sun as of this writing.) Still, you get to see Dunne in a bunch of beautiful gowns and occasionally making solid attempts at light comedy. It is not her finest work, but I liked seeing her trying to brighten something that occasionally reminded me of The Good Earth for all the wrong reasons, and not just because of the racist makeup: the way this is shot reeks of turning everyone, white and non-white, into caricatures of humanity. I suppose that’s what you get with old Oscarbait.

Green Years
White supremacist Charles Coburn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor three times, and two of those times he was arguably the lead in that particular movie. No matter, for we come to his last nomination for The Green Years, the only one for which he was definitely correctly placed (he was nevertheless billed as the lead) and the weakest of those three movies. The lamer quality is thanks to how forgotten Hollywood hack Victor Saville was never really suited for anything, let alone material that would be best for John Ford: the coming of age story of an Irish orphan in Scotland. Sounds like a story that needs some color, but we get black and white, and the pacing is all off: sometimes we run through the events of the plot, and on other occasions we spend some time just stopping to smell the roses and enjoy the scenery of these beautiful locales. The movie did receive a reasonably well earned Cinematography nomination, but I cannot imagine how it became such a major box office hit besides feel good vibes and a sense of pride in one’s hometown for the Scots and the Irish. The story is episodic and once the little boy grows up, things go exactly where you would expect them to in a 1940s Hollywood drama of this sort, with the generic love interest being played here by a Beverly Tyler. Coburn’s role is that of an alcoholic great-grandfather with a hairstyle that probably got the nomination all by itself considering the Academy’s tendencies to vote for the character, and he gets to ham it up and have a good time, but it is significantly less impressive work than his other two nominations by quite a few miles. He has the same crime as the rest of the cast here, with laughable accent work, but they also provide some enjoyment. Dean Stockwell plays the child here, and he does nothing of interest: perhaps he needed a David Lynch to bring out the best in him, rather than just give him random crying scenes about his dead mother who we never get to see. I did like how the house appeared to be like the rooms in Day of Wrath when we first go into it at night, with ominous candles to make the grandfather’s facial hair look even more terrifying and evil, and the house look as if it were an evil cabin.

Jolson Story
Yes, you are thinking of the correct Al Jolson, the one who is most famous for his blackface all talking and all singing number at the end of the original talkie, The Jazz Singer, a dire piece of entertainment that may have provided us with something we had not seen yet but was also the wrong kind of progressive movie to make: technologically, but dire racially. If you think a two hour biopic of this man was necessary, then go fuck yourself, you are part of the problem…unless you think Hollywood would actually reckon with its queasy racial politics at this stage, and no, it will not. William Demarest, nominated in the supporting category, gets to start things off with a comedic violin number of sorts, and he is the closest thing this film has to a heart even though he just plays a supporting mentor role (he was reportedly famous for basically just playing an exaggerated version of his real self, which was a total grouch type of part). We mostly just get recreations of various Jolson numbers, or scenes at a synagogue that did not make me nostalgic for my days when I was still a believer, as they are a good reminder of how prayer is inherently boring. Deadly stuff, sort of like that Song to Remember biopic that had been made last year (and they even look similar in how they are shot, with singing only being slightly more cinematic than people playing the piano). Alfred Green, a hack who is best remembered for the overrated Baby Face and giving Bette Davis an Oscar she did not deserve (she fully knew it, too), is the director here, and his frank incompetency continues to be put on display. He would later have the nerve to direct The Jackie Robinson Story after doing this racist garbage, but I suppose that was inevitable under the Hollywood studio system. I am frankly surprised the actor who played the young Jolson did not get nominated, who does not give a particularly good performance but nevertheless shows some energy and has a surprisingly convincing lipsync. Ideally, however, neither one would make it, and one of the many great Best Picture nominees would have gotten another nomination in those categories. Why not the son from The Yearling even if he is frankly a little cloying in that Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet way?

Razor’s Edge
My Brief Year in Review piece for Razor’s Edge: Silly stereotypes go epic On the Road.

The weak link in the otherwise exceptionally strong 1946 Best Picture lineup is The Razor’s Edge, which found hugely inconsistent director Edmund Goulding doing his usual hodgepodge act. At nearly two and a half hours, this is far too long, and there is definitely a certain prestige stiffness that coats it. The good news is that no one really winds up being glued down thanks to a certain desperation jimmying them loose. Goulding’s camerawork in this is very ambitious, and he has certifiable genius Arthur Miller on his side, from the lovely opening shots of the waves on the rocks to the constant rhythm as it moves without pausing for breathing. This story was later adapted again in the 80s for a version that nobody seems to particularly like, but this is very much a 40s take on the nature of people who want to leave it all behind, with Clifton Webb getting pigeonholed from Laura into another bitchy gay role. He does it so well that I don’t mind, but the quotes are nowhere near the acid that Waldo Lydecker pours out. Anne Baxter won the Oscar for Supporting Actress, and while I am grateful that the hugely racist nature of Flora Robson and Gale Sondergaard’s performances were not rewarded, her drunkard comes on rather strong even if it is more affecting than any of the other stereotypes populating this take on the 1920s where everyone seems to know Somerset Maugham. The good news is that everyone being a cartoon and the camera’s agility means that the work is easy and fun to watch, especially with Tyrone Power in the lead. He is so easy on the eyes that even when we have to deal with the cringeworthy speeches of him dealing with an Indian holy man, it comes across like the most natural thing in the world. Much more enjoyable is Gene Tierney, who essentially does Leave Her to Heaven all over again just to liven up the proceedings. Screen presence is the only thing that matters in this case, and she has plenty of it to throw a few fireworks into the epic. Despite its status as the weakest nominee and the fact that it turns into camp in the second half, this is a fun watch if you have plenty of time to spare and any interest in some of these cast members. It’s practically a who’s-who of the 1940s.

Saratoga Trunk
Saratoga Trunk is one of the most monstrous things the Academy ever nominated, fitting right into the same niche as For Whom the Bell Tolls, with some major dropdowns in quality. Sam Wood is still on as director, but he is doing an even worse job. Bergman and Cooper are still the leads, but they are even more dead and wooden then they were in Ernest Hemingway’s gutted romance (although I guess that’s the wrong word for poor Ingrid’s incredibly over the top decisions in portraying another Scarlett O’Hara knockoff). The supporting cast is somehow more gimmicky to appeal to the Supporting category at the Oscars, but instead of accents, we get blackface for Flora Robson (who got in despite the fact that it was already being considered offensive! Should she be congratulated?), and a little person named Jerry Austin included for reasons that are about as hideous as you can imagine. This also lasts for two and a quarter hours, and was held over for two years because it was so obviously doomed, but it got the nomination nevertheless just because it was so damned expensive. It sure as hell did not make back its box office, and it has been either widely hated or ironically enjoyed in a very minor key ever since. It is admittedly amusing to see just how comedically overdone the mansion at the start is, with cobwebs taking prominence to a level not seen outside of horror pictures as our leading lady wears far too many veils and shrieks with laughter until her servant stops her (dear lord), but taking this as camp would require a lot of energy and plenty of time to spare. I do not plan to watch this heap of garbage again in my lifetime, and I would not even recommend it to the most devoted Oscar completionist. I started it on my laptop while a party was going on in the background, and spent large chunks of it listening to CeCe Peniston’s Finally on repeat, so I guess this barely qualifies as a viewing, but goddamn it is meritless. No color, no care in how to use light and shadow, framed in the most functional way possible, and hideously racist in a way that Gone With the Wind has somehow dodged for what is getting awfully close to 80 years as of this writing. Watch that instead, it’s twice as long and twice as enjoyable.

Sister Kenny
The titular character in Sister Kenny is not a nun but a nurse from Australia, as that is apparently a rank you can hold over there. She was a bush nurse who helped people suffering from polio, and if you think her life sounds like a terrible awards bait movie, you are right. She spent a very long time trying to help out these poor individuals, and while I have no doubt she was a hero who developed radical treatments that worked and which should have been recognized as such, you cannot drag a whole work of art out of the scientific method. Rosalind Russell apparently viewed this as a passion project, and while I admire her devotion to bringing awareness, I really do think she should have stuck to playing girl Fridays. The supporting cast, almost entirely male, is just there to fill space and play off her heroine as she gets married and then spends the rest of the movie either helping the patients or not doing so. The film, according to some reports, stretches the truth as to when the real Sister Kenny worked as a bush nurse prior to the outbreaks, but I cannot get too bothered about this when the film is too boring and rooted in celebrating the nurse’s work to really make an impact. Dudley Nichols, who directed, wanted to do an adapation of Mourning Becomes Electra, and used this so that Russell owed him a favor even though she felt she was wrong for that role. Russell won the Globe, but lost the Oscar, which seems oddly fitting in a year where the actual winner played a much more complicated (and frankly problematic) depiction of a woman. Here, the misogyny is touched upon in a very distant way, and no risks are taken on an aesthetic or scripting level, with the bulk of the emotions rooted in love for dancing. There is a lot more cynicism here than in some of the works that Greer Garson did, but any points for that are taken off because of the hideous old age makeup that ends the movie, practically a precursor to every actress who has uglied herself up for a role in the industry. Jennifer Jones’ part in Duel in the Sun may be a mess, but it’s a better film than this, and thus, Russell’s the odd woman out in her otherwise very strong lineup.

To Each His Own
My Brief Year in Review piece for To Each His Own: A weird bundle of different genres with a De Havilland performance to match.

To Each His Own was written by Billy Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett and had the talents of Mitchell Leisen behind the camera, but the film itself is a more mixed bag than you would expect thanks to a certain desperation in how to make the film different and above the rest. “Look at this women, isn’t she terribly interesting despite seeming ordinary?” cry the opening titles behind their plain white allure, as Olivia de Havilland makes her way through the crowd that of course she’s a part of in the context of this London based story. She won the first of two Oscars here, and while she is not bad, it seems like she won off the back of having a fake accent of decent quality and having a good run of work around this point. She wanted better roles around this time, but here she simply has too many and cannot make them cohere even if she plays them all a bit like they’re self evidently interesting. Her courtship stage in the romantic stages of this drama seems to be a missed opportunity in my eyes, even if she’s acting opposite a partner who isn’t giving her much to work with either. The text, meanwhile, has some weird problematic feminism going on with regards to women losing custody of their children, with the ultimate message seeming to be that a woman needs to have her child in order to function. The picture is an easy enough sit that this only bothers me a little bit, but the entire enterprise is constructed on shaky foundations, and I do not think this house of cards can stand up on its own. The main difference between this and the genuinely hokey Sin of Madelon Claudet from the 1930s is that Olivia’s character becomes a successful businesswoman…in the field of cold cream. If this was more interestingly noir shaded like Mildred Pierce I would not be too snarky towards this particular decision, but it just reeks of the slightly off-putting woman problems present in the work of Wilder/Brackett. (Caveat: in those films, I usually don’t give a shit, they’re too enjoyable.) The most appealing acting comes in the stages when De Havilland gets to go for the big decision of whether or not to reveal her identity to her now grown son, but this has so little to do with where we start off.

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