The Magnificent Ambersons
Mrs. Miniver (winner)
The Pied Piper
The Pride of the Yankees
Talk of the Town
Yankee Doodle Dandy
It’s rare, but every now and then I come across a year where I like all of the nominees, at least marginally. When it happens in a year with 10 nominations, that’s pretty surprising. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvements here, and there are a good half dozen films that I like better than several of the nominations. We can start with the ones that would never be nominated, which include Cat People and I Married a Witch. To Be or Not To Be, as a comedy, is right on the edge of potential nomination. In a year where a propaganda film won Best Picture, it’s a bit shocking to me that two of the best from World War II--Went the Day Well? and In Which We Serve--were skipped (although, to be fair, In Which We Serve swung a nomination the following year). For me, the big miss is Now, Voyager.
Weeding through the Nominees
10. I said at the top that I liked all of these films at least marginally, and of those that were marginal, Random Harvest was the most so. It features some very nice performances, but this is otherwise straight out of the syrup factory, about as glurgy as you’re going to find. For a propaganda film (and at some level, that’s what this is), it’s too drippy to be that interesting. The performances save it. I’ll take anything in the paragraph above over this any day of the week. It’s passable, but not nomination-worthy.
9. Kings Row is the film that fought with Random Harvest for the bottom spot, and part of that is because Ronald Reagan is one of the best parts of the film. This is another one that presses the pedal down on the melodrama and never really lets up until the final credits roll. The film isn’t bad, but it’s also one I wouldn’t call great, and not one that I would ever think to watch a second time. That complete lack of interest on my part is something that doesn’t speak well of a film’s chances to win Best Picture, and it’s what keeps Kings Rowout of the running.
8. Of the bottom trio of films, The Pied Piper is the one that is perhaps the most interesting. Is it supposed to be a comedy? Is it a propaganda film? Does it have a serious message? The answer to all of these questions is at least vaguely affirmative. The Pied Piper is far too short, though, and while the story that props it up is one that has a great deal of potential, not a lot is done with that potential. It’s one that could honestly stand a better treatment. I’d see this again, but I’d rather see it reimagined and with more depth.
7. Wake Island is, in some ways, the quintessential propaganda film. I don’t mean that it’s the best of the breed, but that it’s more or less the sort of thing that you think of when you think of propaganda films. The story is a good one, if stuck heavily in war movie clichés. The big issue is the rather ridiculous use of stock footage. It’s one thing when the plane being shot down is a different one than is shown attacking. It’s a very different thing when the strafing Zero turns into a crop-dusting biplane.
5. Of all the nominations Talk of the Town, with its bonkers plot combined with, at one point, a rather serious discussion of the law, is the one that I’m surprised that I liked as well as I did. It’s a film that suffers pretty greatly from multiple-personality disorder in that it’s a comedy that has a very serious undergirding, or a drama with a screwball comedy plot. But it’s a film that manages to pull this off surprisingly well, in no small part because of a dedicated group of actors who give everything to make it work.
4. It’s a gutsy move in the middle of a war to make a movie where the only consistent characters from start to finish are the enemy, but 49th Parallel makes that work surprisingly well. It’s a good war film, but a very odd propaganda film because of this fact. It’s also odd in that it focuses on Canada, but seems very much to have been made for an American market. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, although it clearly knows what it wants to be. I’m just not sure that what it wants to be is something that necessary. This is not, by the way, a dig on Canada or Canada’s effort in World War II.
2. While The Pride of the Yankees certainly has the story and the will to dip into melodrama, it manages to make that work far better than many movies. The problems with the film are more about the reality of Gary Cooper not being a lefty and not looking that convincing as a baseball player, and have nothing to do with the plot or the story being told. It’s a damn good movie, and one of the better baseball movies in American history. I wouldn’t have complained too much had it won.
That distinction goes to Now, Voyager as a representative of one of the purest romances ever made. Oh, there’s a real chance for melodrama here, but the film generally avoids it. This does not mean that it doesn’t go for the kill or that it won’t pluck every heartstring it can. The best thing about it, though, outside of the perfect performance of Bette Davis, is that it ends exactly as it should. It’s a film that could never be remade with modern morality or social norms, and I think that’s a good thing—it means that this is the only version of the story that is likely to exist.