Looking Back at Oscar, #20

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 1947:

The Bishop’s Wife
Body and Soul
Crossfire
A Double Life
The Egg and I
The Farmer’s Daughter
Gentleman’s Agreement
Great Expectations
Kiss of Death
Life With Father
Miracle on 34th Street
Mourning Becomes Electra
The Paradine Case
Possessed
Ride the Pink Horse
Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 25 of the year post:
Body and Soul
Great Expectations
Kiss of Death
Miracle on 34th Street
Possessed

I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1947 Year in Review post.

The Bishop’s Wife
You might want to take my opinions on The Bishop’s Wife with several grains of salt, as it is the sort of film that might bring great joy to someone else. As an atheist who thinks organized religion is pretty awful, this is a movie that strikes me as a vaguely tedious circlejerk designed to make Christians feel good about themselves. If that is what you look for in movies, have at it, but even Samuel Goldwyn bringing in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett to add some punch to a script that had initially tested poorly just leads to…well, nothing much. Their work either did not survive or was rendered invisible by how treacly the baseline is. Having Cary Grant play an angel is an inspired choice even if you should really just watch Miracle on 34th Street instead to see an individual who may or may not be the very spirit of Christmas, but David Niven is too suave to play a bishop even if he has the prissiness down pat. Loretta Young, who would win an Oscar the same year for a dreadful performance in The Farmer’s Daughter, actually does a decent job here and I wish she could have won for this instead if she absolutely had to win. Still, the bulk of the movie is nothing more than a town filled with nice people all getting along and celebrating the holidays and getting into bad circumstances that are preventable while the Angel does ridiculous nonsense like giving people who have never gone skating the skill to skate like Olympians, to which they respond with “Well that was fun!” and think nothing of it. The problem mostly consists of Grant’s angel hearing that Young’s marriage is in trouble (because she just outright says it) and then stranding Niven in awkward situations so he can steal Young away. If he does not do that, he shows off his powers with stunts like that at the ice skating rink. Other tiresome moments include a rich old lady being shown to be the mean kind because she asks for a dog to get out of the way in a snooty voice, because we all know that being the slightest bit annoyed with a dog makes you a bad person. Highlight is the special effects, but you should watch the cliche choice of It’s a Wonderful Life instead. It has a less irritating score!

Crossfire
My Brief Year in Review piece for Crossfire: Simultaneously very clean (too easy in tackling prejudice) and very dirty (performances are incredibly grim).

Edward Dmytryk was a reasonably talented director whose talents were best suited to noirs, but had his career cut short thanks to accusations of Communism and his position as one of the Hollywood Ten. A most unusual example of the genre, however, is his Oscar nominated Crossfire. Despite becoming a Best Picture nominee and landing two acting nods, it is hard to imagine similar success for any other picture that happened to follow the path this one did. It was the first B-movie to get a nomination, showing that the closest thing to independent productions that existed back then could be noticed, but it also had the benefit of being about anti-Semitism at a time when the eventual winner tackled that same topic in a much more painful, dry fashion. Richard Brooks, a fairly talented director in his own right, had written the original novel, but the homosexuality from the original novel was still a topic that was persona non grata at the time thanks to the Production Code’s grip, so the victim was changed to a Jewish man and the themes were adjusted. There is a sort of bitter irony in how a sort of prejudice that killed a large number of people in Germany was becoming something to seriously reckon with, while another that was horrible in its own right was not receiving acceptance quickly enough, but the film we have is deliciously bare bones and features two fairly great performances that were nominated in the form of Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. The beating that starts things off is choreographed as shadows on the wall, a trick worthy of Edgar Ulmer’s tiny budgets, and when we go straight to the witnesses the fun is in the acting styles. Ryan and Grahame got the Oscar nods and deserved them, but Robert Mitchum is great as always and Paul Kelly throws in a strong, brief supporting turn. The overstyling leads to a richness of mood as the cast rolls up their sleeves and gets to work, providing a deep base of cynicism to what is a fundamentally basic noir with a bit more social punch. It finds surprising depths of evocation from something as simple as an upturned lamp or some simple testimony. The mystery is perhaps an easy solve, but it’s not about the dead, it’s about the survivors and how they push their ideas on his Jewishness.

A Double Life
My Brief Year in Review piece for A Double Life: Avoids a whole lot of problems, but the concept is fairly dumb.

Othello is arguably the tastiest of Shakespeare plays thanks to how the themes of race and revenge tie together in such complicated ways, with the titular villain being one of the most uncomfortable characters to dissect in the canon. A Double Life, which uses the play as a landscape for an actor to identify with the role a bit too much, is fairly stupid in its conceit. The actor in question might be interesting if things were handled more subtly, but he is instead rendered as a cartoon who becomes a joy to work with on comedies and a completely unbearable person to live with on tragedies, complete with his wife divorcing him because of what frankly would constitute a mental illness if it was followed so strongly. George Cukor, perhaps realizing that the script was doomed, turned his focus onto direction and performances, and while Ronald Colman did not deserve his Oscar, it’s still not an uninteresting performance thanks to the noir focus, giving his scenes where he is not acting like a lunatic an enjoyable hardboiled feel. Certain parts are genuinely interesting, but they are relegated to the edges, such as the lead’s narcissism as he enjoys a giant portrait of himself. Most of the good stuff is the people talking about the nature of acting before it gets corrupted into something ridiculous by a man who is taking the method into rather silly directions, but I suppose this story is the best possible version of itself as a result of how Colman’s jealousy is treated fairly naturally rather than going the Lionel Barrymore route, with his flirtations with a waitress (Shelley Winters in a great early performance) before he goes crazy being livened up thanks to how he goes from the quiet to a shrieking train station. It is an off color piece of direction that helps the material float, with all the behind the scenes melodrama being floated away because of the good stuff on the edges: a natural performance or two. Perhaps the material about the nature of identity and mental illness related to work could have been taken to a sublime and not a vaguely silly direction, but it dodges a surprising amount of pitfalls for itself, and features a lead that looks good in a rather dry Best Actor slate. His natural charms carry him a long way here, along with Winters’ early scene stealer.

The Egg and I
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Egg and I: Needs more edge, but as a light pleasure it does the job.

The Egg and I has basically been forgotten nowadays, but at the time of its release it was a major box office success of the sort that has outclassed most modern movies nowadays, and it even launched a franchise for two of its supporting characters. Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray are the leads, and they decide to become chicken farmers in the country, but the real stars are Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle, who would become an entire series that would save their studio from bankruptcy yet have been forgotten altogether today. Main got a Supporting Actress nomination for doing a schtick she’d worked to perfection in Meet Me in St. Louis, but it is hard to resent her for having such a perfect grasp of what character was best for her to play, and she does it so well thanks to her lovely, salty voice. Colbert and MacMurray are doing their typical schtick as well in blandly heroic roles, but they are the sort of actors who it is just a pleasure to watch, so it’s hard to care. Most of the jokes are of the friendly, well meaning, pleasant kind, although it’s not a surprise that the director’s career essentially went nowhere after this. Despite this, the story is oddly smart about marriage in a simple, Hollywood way. You can get a lot of mileage out of Colbert’s glamorous chicken farmer making comments to a waiter on a train about how men don’t appreciate women’s eggs even though she is frankly a bit too old to be playing a woman who wants to have a first child, along with all the standard city/country dichotomies that lead to pleasant slapstick involving a lawyer wanting to go to the wilderness. Only the opening credits, which feature random chicken and other farm animal noises mixed with the music in an awful, jarring fashion, actively stink. You cannot help but wonder what Preston Sturges could have done with this, but it’s a consummate professional’s work, so that is a pleasantry in its own right. Watch this on an idle afternoon when you have nothing better to do if you want to make time for it, or if you want to probe the zeitgeist a bit, but otherwise you can just let it be without having to tear it down. No urge to see anything else in the franchise, though.

The Farmer’s Daughter
I am not necessarily opposed to feel-good movies, but The Farmer’s Daughter is a real wreck of one, with H.C. Potter’s direction showing none of the fun that he utilized in the anarchy that was Hellzapoppin’. This is just a wreck, with Loretta Young’s complete inability to play a convincing Swede (her accent is painful) getting one of the worst Oscar wins ever, with an accent that resembles the chef Muppet and a personality that feels like a misogynistic caricature. Charles Bickford got a Supporting Actor nomination that was not much better, although really, the whole film is stuck in a weird knockoff Preston Sturges arc. The main character winds up involved in a run for Congress, which is supposedly anarchic but just leads to an ending that is the most grossly heteronormative thing ever, with the leading lady needing to be saved by a man. She even gets a title that positions her in relation to others: farmer’s daughter. Why not The Swede Who Ran for Congress? It would certainly sell more tickets, and it would make the feminism more pronounced and easier to swallow as something that works on its own terms. Instead, we get a screechingly awful finale involving the man carrying Loretta Young, who has won her election, across the threshold of the United States House of Representatives in what resembles the threshold in a marriage. Awful, and it’s a shame that Ingrid Bergman’s affairs made her ineligible for this role. (Granted, I suspect she would not have been very good either, as she is too fundamentally elegant to be a good comedienne in this context.) Watching some innocent get taken advantage of by the wise assholes in the big city only to turn the tables needs a surer hand rather than this salute to the norm. It reminds me of Life With Father in how it was clearly popular because of how people needed some reassurance that feminism had not wrecked everything by that point, but both films wouldn’t last and probably were not even that well liked once the year wore off. The highlight comes early involving a woman in one of those chairs designed to get you up and down the stairs, mostly because she’s so cheerful and lively that it’s ridiculous to believe that she’s using it for anything other than her own damn amusement. Shame about that being the best joke.

Gentleman’s Agreement
Discussed here.

Life With Father
Life With Father was bizarrely a big Broadway hit that would be adapted into a film starring William Powell and Irene Dunne as the parents, but it is frankly astonishing that something so stupid could be a big hit theatrically and cinematically. The entire premise is one joke repeated with gusto, a look at an overworked father who yells at everyone so that he can get his way while everyone else decides to carefully manipulate him, particularly the mother who is really running the show. Rinse and repeat for two hours, including a very long sequence about buying a new coffeemaker. The Technicolor was once pretty, but it looks vaguely burnt out now even if the fundamental glow is still around, so you cannot even enjoy the beauty of it all. The entire aesthetic smacks of Meet Me in St. Louis, but in this version it is all about the patriarchy (complete with a family entirely comprised of sons with no personality beyond their desired occupations), designed to be vaguely comforting to postwar audiences who were completely unable to handle women getting greater rights and enjoying them too much to let them go. Elizabeth Taylor, still in her child acting stage, is one of the children, but I don’t think this material looks good on anyone. Powell and Dunne’s performances are hollow schtick, and the most depressing part for me was watching the main character get an entire, major plot involving his wife wanting him to be baptized so he can go to Heaven, even though the father has a lot of disdain for organized religion…which, depressingly, is just a case of racism that is also directed towards missionaries. Jawdroppingly insensitive stuff that gets turned into a push for Catholics feeling good about themselves by very bizarre 1940s standards. It’s in the public domain, so anyone can watch it, but I suggest you skip it unless you are insane enough to want anything at all that could be considered religious in content. When Powell, giving the best performance of the lot, is still hamming it up, then you know just how lacking this is. Michael Curtiz was the director, and I can only assume that he just wanted to do some hackwork after the magnificence of his work in the past few years. We have to do things we do not like, I suppose, but surely you could find something better to do?

Mourning Becomes Electra
My Brief Year in Review piece for Mourning Becomes Electra: Well, I suppose I am grateful this exists, but is it built for movies directed by middling talents?

Eugene O’Neill’s plays are the closest the theater ever came to slow cinema, with Long Day’s Journey Into Night living up to its title and then some, even as the rest come awfully close to hitting overstatement in how overwhelming they can become. Mourning Becomes Electra was adapted in 1947 into a version that runs a slightly horrifying 173 minutes. Dudley Nichols was the director, and while he did write some great movies (Stagecoach and Bringing Up Baby are enough to ensure he can never be truly criticized for his writing), he only directed three movies, and between this and Sister Kenny I think it’s safe to say where his talents really lied. (I have not seen his third and probably never will.) This is significantly better than the dull biopic about the Australian nurse, and features a much better Rosalind Russell performance, but that might just be down to O’Neill’s urgency of feeling. The play is supposed to run a whopping six hours in its entirety, and has been overshadowed by the other O’Neill/Nichols project that was John Ford’s excellent (and well opened up for the screen) Long Voyage Home. Nowadays, the film adaptation is mostly remembered for its bombing at the box office despite a prestigious status, and Russell standing up before her name was called, only to feel the humiliation when Loretta Young won instead for a disastrous attempt at playing a Swedish woman. The play is aggressively theatrical and classical and calls for a cast of actors who resemble each other to the point of confusion, which would not fly back in those days, so you wind up with one straight hour of Russell’s daughter and Katina Paxinou’s mother making rude comments that pass for drama with the Civil War as the background. It is aggressively theatrical in a way that does not work, leaving us feeling trapped but not to the point of suffocation thanks to the occasional exterior shot. Realism was taking root in Italy, but it was struggling in Hollywood, with only Kazan’s Tree Grows in Brooklyn succeeding (and even that would be forgotten when he won Best Picture this year for the far worse Gentleman’s Agreement). You can sense the film improving itself as it goes along, with the last two hours finally kicking the drama up a bit and the lighting getting increasingly playful in its utilization of noir tropes. Redgrave is the MVP, so when he shows up along with Raymond Massey, things kick into gear. (Russell’s good, Paxinou is a shrieking ham, and Kirk Douglas apparently played a major part in this.)

The Paradine Case
My Brief Year in Review piece for The Paradine Case: Not without interest, but starchy and poorly cast.

The last of Alfred Hitchcock’s productions under the reign of producer David Selznick and all his bad taste came to a head with the unpopular Paradine Case, a weirdly starchy production that nevertheless finds itself as an unusual outlet for his artistry. Unfortunately, Gregory Peck, the worst part of Spellbound, is the lead here, and we have a floundering Ann Todd and Alida Valli as his romantic partners. It feels like Hitchcock’s take on Dodsworth, with Mary Astor and Ruth Chatterton getting their traits mixed and matched. Valli’s femme fatale is accused of poisoning her blind husband, and she hires Peck’s lawyer to defend her. Romance begins to blossom, and she is encouraging it. As a study of a marriage, this could have been intriguing, but it mostly just turns into a love triangle that Selznick clearly had too much hand in, a necessary evil in the route to greater creative freedom. It’s too well directed to be truly bad, and it has some interesting precursors: the long takes and careful camera setups gave the master of suspense the chance to make one of his first great experiments in Rope, a film that takes much more joy in its complete lack of heteronormativity. Expenses racked up, but they barely show, looking like the standard budget for one of the man’s movies. Everything just feels vacant, the last gasps of a man hoping to get away from a contract that is not fair. Ethel Barrymore scraped up a Supporting Actress nomination for what is probably the only good performance: nothing she couldn’t do in her sleep by that point, and probably only nominated because she had already won and was an old favorite, but strong, respectable work that adds a little spice to a rather dry cut even if the role is incredibly stupid. Many have compared Peck’s work here to his time as Atticus Finch, but I’ve grown increasingly tired with that film the more I realize that his performance is not too different from the rest of his stiff work, even if he uses incredibly underhanded tactics here when in the courtroom. Best to take this story as nothing more than a dissection of a marriage and focus on that. It certainly has an appealing neurosis if you read between the lines, but no one is going to be sticking this in his top tier for sheer stretches of dullness.

Ride the Pink Horse
My Brief Year in Review piece for Ride the Pink Horse: Of interest, but incoherence overcomes oddity nature.

Some have mourned the fate of Robert Montgomery’s directorial career, pointing primarily to Ride the Pink Horse as the stake to make their claims (with a few weak defenses of Lady of the Lake), and it’s hard to say why. Despite an induction into the Criterion Collection, the film’s primary stake is in that it featured the first Hispanic-American actor to be nominated for an Academy Award in Thomas Gomez, playing a man named Pancho who is a likable stereotype and more than a little hammy in the face of the director himself, starring as a racist veteran with PTSD and anger issues who gets involved with an FBI case when traveling to New Mexico to avenge his friend. The film has a deep conviction if nothing else, vaulting between a deeply cynical film noir about a man with a bullet inside of him and a relatively lighthearted John Ford Western without a care in the world, but the idiosyncrasies on the matter of race and plotting can deeply grate, with a brownface love interest and a scheme that is matched to the idiotic lead’s worldview: convoluted and messy. This conviction is passed onto the little details in costuming and the aggressive cinematography, with one character wearing an unremarked upon hearing receiver, and tracking shots of deep violence turning into a study of sexuality. Such commitment is to be applauded, especially with the original writer of the novel giving us In a Lonely Place, but even if Montgomery’s skills were better suited for the realm of directing than acting, he never wound up hitting his stride thanks to his career coming to a standstill very quickly for reasons unknown. Ben Hecht did the screenplay and was at his most aggressively didactic in the finale, with the teasing idea that the man’s narrative has become the story of another woman falling apart when the story just plain plops even as the visuals remain borderline impeccable. Our brownface love interest simply spends the endgame following our hero around for reasons that only work on the level of dream logic, and that in itself feels like a stretch. Still worth seeing just because it is so attractive, but I have concerns about the level of freedom that was given, in the sense that there may have been too much. A larger amount of formal rigor could have done this a world of good.

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman
My Brief Year in Review piece for Smash-Up: Hayward carries this through the fact that it’s a walking cliche.

The Lost Weekend’s success at the Oscars two years earlier had effects that would start to be felt down the line, in the same way that all Best Picture winners seem to inspire a similar crop of prestige works. One of these was the deliciously titled Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, a picture that resulted in the initiation of Susan Hayward’s eleven year hunt for the Oscar that she finally achieved with another film with a faintly ridiculous title. Her performative style here is much more fun to watch than Ray Milland giving into Billy Wilder’s cynicism: here, she basically has a free reign thanks to Stuart Heisler being a vaguely anonymous sort, and every parody of an alcoholic nightclub singer with a rise and fall that has ever existed seems to be getting channeled into her work. She gets plenty of Oscar clip scenes, and chews into them with relish. The film is all about Susan, and since this was her breakout role, she seizes it and socks it to us. The rest of her career may have continued this way forever, but it’s hard to complain: she’s like Bette Davis without the nuance but with plenty of fun. Pauline Kael was horrified that the script was written by Dorothy Parker, and she may have had a point when it comes to the hilariously dreadful ending where our poor leading lady saves her child who she has previously neglected from a house fire, then decides she is on the wagon from here on out. It is deeply stupid and cliched, but as a silly little melodrama that livens up the typically dull Oscar viewing (I have unfortunately grown to dread a lot of these movies), I don’t mind, as Hayward certainly has the screen presence that makes someone an interesting star to watch even when she acts dully. I’d certainly throw her above about half the slate from the dire Actress lineup that is basically redeemed by her and Joan Crawford, just for her delivery of a line early on about how she was attracted to an aspiring suitor’s income rather than his charm. There are plenty of dull scenes involving men at a piano brainstorming stupid songs, but really, don’t expect Dorothy Parker’s best material to come out of this and just treat it as a lightweight pleasure that happened to gain some prestige weight in the long run.

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