Friday, December 2, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1946

The Contenders:

The Best Years of Our Lives (winner)
Henry V
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Razor’s Edge
The Yearling

What’s Missing

With World War II over, Hollywood seemed to blossom again, as did the film industries of other countries. Suddenly, there were tons of great films. Ironically, this was just a few years after the Academy decided to drop to five nominations, and 1946 was a year that could have easily handled double that number. Consider that films like Paisan and La Belle et la Bete were ignored here. The resurgence in British film included such notables as Brief Encounter, A Matter of Life and Death, and the gorgeous Black Narcissus. It was a great year for noir as well, giving us The Killers, The Big Sleep and the noir-ish Gilda as well as the brutal The Postman Always Rings Twice. This is also notably the year that Children of Paradise received nominations, and it deserved some consideration as well. On the odder front, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Bedlam, and The Spiral Staircase are also from 1946.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. With everything that didn’t get nominated from this year, The Yearling is the nomination I question the most, at least from the vantage point of 70 years in the future. Perhaps in 1946 the nomination made more sense, but there’s not a single movie listed above I wouldn’t rather watch ahead of this one. Its problem is its predictability, and again, that may have been less of a problem in 1946. These days, you can see every major event coming a quarter hour or more before it happens. That’s a problem when we’re looking to crown the best movie of the year.

4. Olivier’s Henry V is a film I respect, but it also suffers from the 70 year hindsight. The single biggest problem with it is that the Kenneth Branagh version is superior in every significant way, and given the choice, I’d watch Branagh’s version every single time. However, even in the context of 1946, there’s a problem. Olivier never wants to lose touch with the fact that this is a stage play, and so it’s very obviously staged, clearly uses sets with painted backdrops, etc. That lessens the story for me. What could and should be grand ends up feeling small and less important than it should.

3. The single biggest problem with The Razor’s Edge is the opening hour. It’s stuffy, thick, and laden with dense philosophy. Once you’re through that, the last 90 minutes are whip-cracking good. It’s not unlike a dinner in which you must suffer through a dense and chewy appetizer before getting to an excellent entrée and dessert. If the opening could somehow be condensed into something that didn’t feel like such a slog, this would move up in my estimation. Instead, we’ve got the slog, and I can’t move this any higher than third.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life is clearly the sentimental favorite, and as we inch closer and closer to Christmas this year, it’s hard to not put it in the top position. It is a very nice film that hits all of the right notes. While heavy enough to deal with potential suicide, it’s got plenty of humor. Much like Clarence says at one point, we like George Bailey and want to see him succeed by the end of the film. It’s a holiday classic for a reason and manages to avoid slipping too far into melodrama, which would have spoiled it. I rather like the nomination. It’s just not my pick.

My Choice

1. The Best Years of Our Lives is not my favorite movie from 1946. It might not be in the top-5 for me. It is, though, probably the most important movie of 1946 in a lot of ways. After World War II, people needed a film like this. The country needed to heal, and The Best Years of Our Lives went a long way toward making that happen. I contend it’s a bit (just a bit) long and the ending is Hollywood mush, but it does a lot of things really well and uses the cast brilliantly. With different movies in the list—specifically A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus--we’d have a closer race, but I not only understand why this won, I think Oscar’s reasons were sound.

Final Analysis


  1. There were a lot of great films in 1946. No question about that. For me, however, there is one clear winner.

    The Big Sleep. I bet I've seen it 20 times over the years. Maybe more.

    Everything else is "honorable mention."

    1. For me, The Killers is the best noir of the year. However, Rita Hayworth's hair flip entrance in Gilda is my favorite screen moment of 1946. I could watch that on a loop. Actually, I have watched that on a loop.

    2. I saw The Killers once, I bet it was 25 years ago, and I remember it as being a really amazing movie. I've been wanting to see it again pretty much since I saw it the first time but I've never got around to it. It plays on TCM but not nearly as often as The Big Sleep. I will DVR it next time it's on.

    3. It would be worth seeing even if it sucked because it's Burt Lancaster's debut. It's great, though, and has a fantastic script, especially since the story it's based on is about three pages long. Within 15 minutes of the movie, we're completely off script from the Hemingway story, but it all works.

    4. And it's where Steve Martin got the name for the hero - Rigby Reardon - in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

  2. What a great year in cinema!
    I agree with you ratings, but I have at least five movies from your introduction I like better than The Best Year of Our Lives. Brief Encounter is still the best romantic drama I have encoutered, but it is not Best Picture material. Nor is The Big Sleep although it may be the list movie I have revisited most often since watching it. For me the movie that should have won Best Picture Black Narcissus. Technically it is a marvel, but it is also a compelling and insightful movie.

    1. I'd love to see Black Narcissus nominated, and had it been, this would be a much closer race for me. I think a part of the reason The Best Years of Our Lives won is because of what the film was, though. I understand it's win because of the how well it handles the stories of those three men and their families. It's a hell of an achievement and the fact that it still resonates says something about it.

      I recommend Black Narcissus to people all the time. About 9 out of 10 look at me like I'm an idiot for talking about a movie about nuns. The 10th person who goes and watches it always thanks me afterward for recommending it.

  3. 1946 is one of my favorite years in films there was just SO many excellent films turned out.

    With the films in the running I agree totally not only with your winner but in the lineup of the other four. I agree that Best Years is just a trifle long but when I watch it I really have no idea where they could cut, all of it is such a mosaic that fits together so well.

    But there was so much greatness that didn't make the cut. All those you mention are marvelous films, I think of Brief Encounter as a '45 release but realize it didn't make it to the States until the next year, and deserving of consideration but I'd add Humoresque, Deadline at Dawn and especially Hitchcock's Notorious which had it been nominated would enter into a toss up with Best Years for the prize.

    This is one of those years that absolutely could have handled at least a dozen nominees.

    1. Yeah, with a year like this, it's a shame they dropped back to five nominations, because this year could easily stand twice that number and then some.

      I've said since I rewatched it for this site that I think The Best Years of Our Lives feels a little long, but I don't know where I'd cut it, either. It really is a wonderfully made film, and yet another case where Myrna Loy got stiffed on a nomination.

    2. Myrna Loy got robbed but then so did Dana Andrews...and Virginia Mayo-though I might argue more for her in White Heat...and maybe Teresa Wright but there isn't really a weak performance in the entire picture. I like Fredric March's work here but when I think back on the movie neither he nor his individual scenes (unless Myrna is involved) are the ones that linger in my mind.

      Yet he won, but then he was the one with both the screen AND the stage reputation and that mattered more than it does now.

    3. All true, but it pisses me off that Myrna never got a nomination for anything.

  4. I agree that the Oscars did okay with this pick. I caught up with The Best Years of Our Lives just a few years ago and was surprised by how much it connected with me. It struck a chord and isn't locked in its time period either. I enjoyed The Big Sleep more, but that isn't really the type of movie to win Best Picture. Brief Encounter was good, but I wouldn't put it ahead of Best Years. This one is cool.

    1. I like Brief Encounter quite a bit, but it does feel too small to be a Best Picture. Black Narcissus has all of the elements, though, and it should have been there.