Monday, May 27, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1943

The Contenders:

Casablanca (winner)
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Heaven Can Wait
The Human Comedy
In Which We Serve
Madame Curie
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Song of Bernadette
Watch on the Rhine

What’s Missing

When there are ten movies nominated, you’re going to get some good ones and you’re going to get a few that don’t belong. That’s certainly the case for 1943. I’ll start as usual with the ones that wouldn’t ever get nominated. In this case, I Walked with a Zombie heads the list. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, listed as a 1943 film on Letterboxd but getting its nominations in 1944 would probably be on that list as well. Princess O’Rourke is right on the edge of being a member of that group as well. Because of the controversy surrounding it, I’m not surprised at the lack of nomination for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but it’s a hell of a good film. The two I’m the most surprised about are Five Graves to Cairo and Shadow of a Doubt.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. I haven’t been shy about my intense antipathy for Jennifer Jones, so it’s hardly a shock that the movie that somehow resulted in an Oscar for her is going to wind up on the bottom. Jones was always wooden, and no less so than in The Song of Bernadette. Beyond Jones and her plank-like performance, the story itself is a loser. It’s overly drippy, dull, and far too long. I still can’t fathom that Jones won an Oscar for this. In fact, I still can’t fathom why something this long and dull earned any nominations at all.

9. I know that I’m in the minority regarding Heaven Can Wait. I just find it to be such a complete nothing of a film that wants desperately to be a little naughty and fails completely in that respect. It feels almost like it was written by someone who thinks he/she knows what a cad is like, but has only really heard about cheating men from his or her parents, who have not really talked about it in any detail. The only thing I genuinely liked about this movie was Laird Cregar, who was awesome all the time.

8. I feel a bit like a broken record here, but I have exactly the same problem with Watch on the Rhine. This was adapted from a stage play, and I could see this being a very compelling drama on the stage. As a movie, though, it leaves a great deal to be desired. There’s not nearly enough story here for the length of the film, which makes the story feel bloated. This is not a sentence I am likely to say that often regarding a film that stars Bette Davis. And yet, here we are, and this is why Watch on the Rhine is in eighth place despite Davis’s presence.

7. With The Human Comedy, we’re at least getting to movies that I like on some level. This is a movie that is well-made and rather sweet, and it’s a good role and performance for Mickey Rooney. But it’s also a film that doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere. The plot doesn’t really go anywhere because there really isn’t much here that can be called a plot. I like it as a snapshot of life, and as a homefront/propaganda film, it’s interesting. It’s just hard to be that excited about a film that doesn’t go anywhere.

6. I was an English major as an undergraduate, and one of the places where I clashed with my professors was on the work of Hemingway. I love the guy’s short stories, but I hate his novels. Because of that, I wasn’t too thrilled about watching For Whom the Bell Tolls. It turns out that I didn’t hate it, and even liked it a bit. I’m not sure I liked it enough that I would want it nominated for Best Picture, and I don’t love the way it ends, but still, it’s a respectable movie and I at least understand the nomination even if I don’t agree entirely.

5. The More the Merrier features Jean Arthur, who I love; Joel McCrea, who I always forget about; and Charles Coburn in one of my favorite movie roles in history. The truth is that The More the Merrier is never going to be the sort of movie that changes anyone’s life, but it’s infectiously cute and endearing. It’s probably not anyone’s favorite movie (although it could be), but I also have a hard time thinking that anyone would really dislike it on a serious level. It’s fluff, but it’s great fluff.

4. Just as I seem to like Heaven Can Wait less than everyone else, I evidently like Madame Curie a lot more than most people. I’m a bit of a science nerd, or at least as much of one as a dilettante like me can be, so I’m a fan of the real Marie Curie. What I like about the movie is that it doesn’t drift off into stressing her relationship with her husband or how she may have coped with his death. This is a movie about the science and about her discoveries more than anything else, and that’s exactly what her biopic should be.

3. I mentioned In Which We Serve when I talked about 1942, but here it is again, because this is the year where it earned its nominations. This is a propaganda film that really works for me. Sure, in its own way it’s going to tug on the heartstrings as you know it will. It’s going to pump up the patriotism for the war effort, and in part, it’s going to do that by giving us both heroes and tragic victims of the war. But this is a smart screenplay well acted, and smart characterizations that don’t pander to the audience. It’s a hell of a good film and worth tracking down.

2. I can’t say that Westerns are anywhere close to my favorite genre of film but there are a bunch that I like. The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those movies that is less a Western than a movie that happens to have guys in cowboy hats riding horses. I mean, technically you have to put it in that genre, but in reality, it’s a morality play dressed in dungarees and holding a lariat. It’s as good a story as you’re likely to find anywhere, and it’s tuned as tightly as possible for the maximum amount of drama. It’s about a perfect film, and in a different year, it would be my choice.

My Choice

1. If every movie from 1943 had been nominated for Best Picture, Casablanca would still be my choice. There are movies I like more than Casablanca and movies I would rather watch on a given day, but in my opinion there is not a better Best Picture winner in Oscar’s history. There are a lot of movies I like from this year, and I consider The Ox-Bow Incident a five-star film, but any other pick would have been the wrong one and a perversion of what “Best Picture” is supposed to mean. Oscar isn’t right that often, but this was the only correct pick.

Final Analysis


  1. Given the often obscure choices of the Academy I could easily have seen them mess this one up. Happy they did not.
    What was the controversy around Colonel Blimp? That Churchill was not fond of it? It is a great movie and should have been nominated.

    1. The controversy around The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is not just that Churchill didn't like it. The main character, who is British, is kind of a villain, or at least someeone who is in the wrong, while the most compelling and powerful speech comes from a German national. It seems like the opposite of what you'd want in what looks like a propaganda film during a war.

  2. I agree that Casablanca had to be the winner out of any film this year, nominated or not. Our top two and bottom finisher match (as does our distaste for Jennifer Jones) but everything in between varies widely.

    They would stack up this way for me:

    Casablanca (winner)
    The Ox-Bow Incident
    Heaven Can Wait-I’m one of those who finds this an irresistible charmer.
    Watch on the Rhine-It tends towards staginess but I find it compelling.
    In Which We Serve
    The More the Merrier-I LOVE Coburn’s performance so much!
    The Human Comedy-Low-key and sincere but somewhat diffuse
    Madame Curie-I love the lead pair and Curie deserved a film but I found this film dull and draggy
    For Whom the Bell Tolls-Hated it!
    The Song of Bernadette-Hated it more!!

    I agree the exclusion of Five Graves to Cairo and Shadow of a Doubt are strange misses. The only others I’d suggest, Day of Wrath and Ossessione, don’t qualify since because of the war they didn’t make it to the States for years after. Day in ’48 and Ossessione in 1977 which just seems incredible!!

    1. Yeah, we are pretty different here. I genuinely like the science in Madame Curie and love that it's focused in that direction. I found both Heaven Can Wait and Watch on the Rhine either twee or dull respectively.

      Those are the big differences, I think. We both put The More the Merrier in fifth and The Human Comedy seventh. I've got In Which We Serve one higher than you.

      But really, it couldn't be anything other than Casablanca.

  3. The big omission here is "Lassie Come Home" as it works across all ages and still does to this day. That isn't to say that "The Ox-Bow Incident," "The More the Merrier," and "Casablanca" aren't first-rate films, but "Lassie" is enjoyed in my home by everyone, including a couple of cat lovers.

    1. I have to say that, aside from one that appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I've never seen a Lassie film.