Friday, July 21, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1944

The Contenders:

Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity
Leo McCarey: Going My Way (winner)
Otto Preminger: Laura
Alfred Hitchcock: Lifeboat
Henry King: Wilson

What’s Missing

For a wonder, the nominations for Best Director for 1944 aren’t that terrible. Oh, there’s some dross here that we can launch pretty quickly, but it’s a far better and more appropriate set than for other awards in other years. Assuming I’d probably keep 60% of the slate, there are a few places to go for replacements, and in 1944, this is going to be a long list of the usual suspects for director. We can start with George Cukor for Gaslight, a film that continues to rise in my estimation the more I think of it. While I wouldn’t nominate Vincente Minnelli for Meet Me in St. Louis, I fully understand why someone might. Lewis Allen nominated for The Uninvited is a longshot, but I’d rather have him here than at least one of the actual nominations. Frank Capra for Arsenic and Old Lace is potentially interesting, as would be Howard Hawks for To Have and Have Not. The person who really should be here, though, is Preston Sturges for either The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek or Hail the Conquering Hero. I prefer the latter film and I think it has more teeth, so that’s where I’d go with the nomination.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Of the five directors we have nominated here, Henry King’s performance for Wilson doesn’t deserve to be in the same sentence as any of the other nominations, even the one I’m putting fourth. This is a long, dreary hagiography about Woodrow Wilson. I get that it’s about a president who proved to be popular. I get that there is a desire to have a warts-removed film about him and his life. But this is a long, syrupy mess that didn’t deserve this sort of acclaim in 1944 and has been rightfully forgotten and ignored today.

4. When I first started doing these Oscar posts, there was a tendency for some time to put the actual winner in fourth place. I’m going to return to that here with Leo McCarey and Going My Way. The truth is that I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would going in. Much of that has to do with just how easy it is to like Bing Crosby on screen. Almost none of that has to do with McCarey’s direction. That direction isn’t bad; it’s just not notably good or bad. It’s there. It’s fine. It doesn’t deserve an Oscar.

3. Laura is a fine film and I tend to like Otto Preminger’s work in general. I think based on past comments that I like Laura a little less than just about everyone else. I do have a few issues with the movie, particularly in the performance of Gene Tierney (not bad, not great) and in the motivations of the Dana Andrews character. Not all of that is Preminger’s fault, of course, but some of it does have to fall on him. I get the nomination and I might even get someone calling it his or her pick. It’s not mine, though.

My Choices

2. Since we’re below the fold here, I’d have accepted either of these choices as legitimate ones, but I still need to put them in order. It’s with a little bit of sadness that I’m putting Double Indemnity in second place. I do love this movie, and some of the reasons for that come from Wilder’s use of camera and how he deals with the Hays Code. So much is made more intense and disturbing thanks to Wilder’s deft touch. Had he won for this, I wouldn’t have objected even if my vote goes to someone else.

1. Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar. There are several years where he could have, and 1944 is a year where he should have. What makes Lifeboat so good from the director’s perspective is that it works at all. The whole thing takes place on a boat. Hitchcock manages to maintain a level of suspense and threat despite his limited location. Hitchcock evidently liked to set himself challenges, and Lifeboat, while it has its problems, was challenge accepted and accomplished for Hitch. He should have taken this.

Final Analysis


  1. I think you are slightly underestimating Leo McCarey's lack of "in-your-face" direction. Its minimalist nature is what make nearly all his films work as he let the actors shine instead of detracting from them.

    By the way, I don't know if you have time for one more rather unique film from 1962 to watch, but I stumbled across Panic in the Year Zero directed by, and starring, Oscar-winner, Ray Milland. Considering its American International Pictures pedigree, its quite the good little film, and it got Frankie Avalon a lot of work on the AIP beach pictures.

    1. Roger Corman and his stable of directors who turned out to be great did a lot of AIP work. I like a lot of AIP movies, so Panic in Year Zero does not suffer in that regard. I'll add it to my list of movies I should see that aren't on my other lists (which you can find here:

      I don't have a problem with minimalist direction. In a lot of movies, it's absolutely the right choice. I just don't know that making that decision should earn someone a Best Director nomination or an Oscar. I genuinely like Going My Way, much to my surprise. It's a very likable and entertaining film, and Bing Crosby is always fun to watch on screen. McCarey's choice to let Crosby be Crosby was smart. It's just not worthy of Best Director.

      Just my opinion, of course, and ultimately, that's all this blog really is.

  2. Exactly in regards to Hitchcock & Lifeboat! I love Double Indemnity but single set films are probably the hardest to keep stimulating and taut and that he does so in such a compelling fashion is what would have swayed me in his favor. That he cast the proper actors is a big plus but that he understood how and when to mix them together is a greater feat.

    Otherwise I agree with your placements. Wilson's inclusion is a show of Zanuck's power at the time to make things happen since the film was his personal baby and though it's a lumbering bore and was a huge flop his influence still garnered it undeserved nominations.

    I loved Going My Way but directorially it's nothing to write home about. Laura on the other hand is and in another weaker year I'd champion it for a win but against those first two it misses.

    I'd be torn how to fit those last two slots among the directors and films you mentioned. A good case could be made for Cukor, Minnelli or Sturges though with the latter if he were to make it it would be for Miracle of Morgan's Creek rather than Conquering Hero for me.

    1. I like Hail the Conquering Hero more than I do The Miracle of Morgan's Creek because I think it's ballsier, especially in the year it was released. Still, I'd love to see Sturges for either film in the mix. I could see a lot of people taking those fourth and fifth spots, although they'd probably still end up in fourth and fifth for me.

      I genuinely like Double Indemnity more than I do Lifeboat, but the fact that Lifeboat works at all comes from Hitchcock in a very large part. It's one of those cases where it would be a significantly lesser movie, one to the point of probably not being worth watching, in lesser hands. That's why I put it first.

  3. Hitchcock surely deserved a Best Director award or three but I wouldn't have given it to him for this particular film. Wilder all the way for me.

    1. This was the last one of these I had to do for 1944. I think I had Double Indemnity winning four awards, but I just can't hand it this one, as good as Wilder is.

  4. Any movie that can dislodge Double Indemnity for the top spot must be worth watching. I do not know this one (Lifeboat), but you are making me curious.

    1. It's worth tracking down, if for no other reason than to see exactly how good Hitchcock could really be when he's at the top of his game.