Monday, May 29, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1949

The Contenders:

All the King’s Men
Bicycle Thieves
The Fallen Idol
A Letter to Three Wives (winner)

What’s Missing

Until I sit down to do these posts, I rarely know how good a given category in a given year is. It turns out that 1949 is a surprisingly strong year for adapted screenplays. The nominees are decent, but I think I can make a case for a completely different set of nominations that would be just as strong (or stronger) than the five we have. This starts with The Reckless Moment, which I’ll admit that I was supposed to like more than I did. I found Twelve O’Clock High compelling, if a little emotionally cold. Kind Hearts and Coronets is the sort of film that gets nominated in this department if it gets a nomination at all, and I think it might be worthy. The two biggest misses for me are The Heiress and The Third Man, both of which I think should be in the list of nominations over several of the actual nominees. The biggest hole in my 1949 viewing is Late Spring, and my guess is that I’d probably want it here, too.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. It’s unfortunate that something has to come in fifth, because I at least appreciate all five of the nominees. If I had to clear one to make space for something I think was really snubbed, though, I’m dropping Best Picture winner All the King’s Men first. The reason is that I think the story suffers from a lack of focus. It desperately wants to be about both the rise and fall of a political icon and the disillusionment of someone who is with him the whole time. It can’t really be about both, though, so it fails to be a complete story on both fronts. It’s good, but I wouldn’t nominate it.

4. I liked The Fallen Idol more than I thought I would, but that comes from places other than the screenplay. I appreciate just how much work Carol Reed put into the direction of this, because our young star Bobby Henrey had the attention span of a gnat who fell into an espresso. Ralph Richardson is also brilliant in his role here. The screenplay is good, but I’m not sure it’s great, and it’s certainly not better than most of the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph. This is another I think didn’t quite deserve its nomination.

3. The hardest choice in the rankings for me was determining the race between second and third. Ultimately, I’m putting Champion in third because it follows a very basic, tried-and-true formula. It’s to the film’s credit that it follows this formula just about perfectly, and much of that (if not all of it) comes from the screenplay from which it started. This is a deep film despite being essentially the boxing version of All the King’s Men. At the very least, it’s the first nomination of the five that I’m satisfied deserved to be here.

2. On a different day, I might swap Champion with Bicycle Thieves. What ultimately moved this into second place for me was not the subject matter, but the tone. There were certainly films that looked at the poverty line and what lies below it before, but in many cases (say, the films of Chaplin), those stories were told to comic effect. Bicycle Thieves goes for the jugular, depicting a harsh and terrible world without remorse or pity. It’s that that moves this into the runner-up position for me.

1. Of the five nominees, I’m giving this to the actual winner, A Letter to Three Wives. I love it when I go into a film cold or (in this case, based on the title) slightly leery and come out the other side a believer, and that’s what happened here. I know that the original story contained five couples instead of the three we’re presented here, and I know that this played a little loosely with the ending, but I don’t care that much. It’s a good story well told, and while the ending might be a little too Hollywood-ish, it works all the way through. Limited to the five I have, it’s the right pick.

My Choices

Given the opportunity to choose the nominees myself, I’d keep the top three here and add in both The Heiress and The Third Man. I might also keep just the top two and bring in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Regardless, though, my top two would be The Heiress and The Third Man in some order. My gut tells me to go with The Third Man, which has one of the great movie speeches of all time. Since it came from the pen of one of my favorite authors (Graham Greene), it’s hard for me not to want it to win.

Final Analysis


  1. I wonder why The Third man was not nominated. Was it an Orson Welles thing, you think? He was not well liked by the Academy. Yet this category is not about the actors but the screenplay and Welles had nothing to do with that.

    1. I don't really know. It's a shame, though, because it's such a good film and much better in terms of its screenplay than at least three of the actual nominees.

    2. Supposedly Welles made up the bit about the cuckoo clock! But it's mostly Greene and I love it.

  2. I like your alternate ballot with the exception of Bicycle Thieves-a film I actively detest, in its place I'd include The Reckless Moment which is an excellent distillation of the novel.

    I love The Fallen Idol but the power of it comes from Reed's direction & both the boy's and especially Ralph Richardson's performances. How the adaptation received a nomination and Sir Ralph didn't is beyond me.

    I love both The Third Man (which I haven't read) and The Heiress (which I have) but my vote would still go to A Letter to Three Wives (which I've also read) where I think they did the best job of trimming the source while retaining the trenchant core ideals of the work.

    1. My guess is that since Graham Greene specifically wrote the novella of The Third Man to be turned into a screenplay by him that if we're going for the most accurate adaptation, it wins by default.

      Honestly, though, since I think A Letter to Three Wives is the clear winner of the actual nominations, I can't say I disagree with your assessment too much. Any of the three would be a suitable and appropriate winner.

  3. What a great year for screenplays it was! An embarrassment of riches. I'd have put Champion in 5th but that's a niggle really. I'm with you on The Third Man.

    1. It really is a surprisingly deep year. Who knew?