Cinebuds review the Academy Award winning Best Pictures of the 1940s
In quarantine I have decided to take on a big project that I think every movie person has on their list of things to do, but kind of requires a worldwide pandemic accompanied by a months long stay-at-home order to finally get into. I have made it a mission to watch every Academy Award winning Best Picture, starting at the beginning.
We covered the 1920s and '30s in a previous episode, so please check that out if you are into this. So let’s get into the 1940s. A couple big things happened in the '40s that help us understand the movies awarded at the time, one is WWII, whose influence is inseparable from the awards at this time, and another is the Hollywood blacklist, which happened at the tail end of the decade and isn’t as obvious as the war, but is apparent enough and good to know about.
Overall, it is the war that casts a shadow on nearly every film of the decade. America entered the war on Dec. 7, 1941. The best picture of 1942 is given to "Mrs. Miniver," a movie about a wife whose husband and son bravely go off to the war, and she’s at home, but also does her part in the war effort. It isn’t even thinly veiled propaganda, it just is propaganda. And that may be a critique of the movie, but it is fascinating in the moment because it shows how awarding a film, “Best Picture” is an award and it is also a message.
The Academy also awards “The Best Years of Our Lives,” in 1946. In retrospect it is a flawed and bloated movie that doesn’t hold up over time, but it follows the story of three men returning home from war and the struggles and successes that they have incorporating back into a post-war society. If the awards were done in a vacuum, “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t stand a chance, but because the award sends a message about the nations virtues and values it wins out. In the post-war awards we also see the Academy defining the moral character.
“The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1948) and “All the Kings Men” (1949) all take a stand on a moral viewpoint. “The Lost Weekend” takes on alcoholism, “Gentleman’s Agreement” tackles anti-semitism, and “All the Kings Men” political corruption. For me, it is super cool to see the Academy kind of parse out the national character and build a national moral identity based, or reflected by art.
Then there are the true blue standouts. If there is one best pic you have seen from the '40s it’s probably “Casablanca” (1943). Honestly, I was a bit worried going in. It’s got so much acclaim that its hard to live up to. But, boy, did it live up. “Casablanca” is just as good as everyone remembers it to be. I have never wanted to be in a place more than I wanted to be in that bar in "Casablanca" in the early 1940s. It’s incredible place setting, Bogart is the ultimate cool, and the love triangle is compelling and understandable.
Two movies of the decade not to sleep on: The decade starts with a bang. “Rebecca” which was made in 1940. Directed by Hitchcock. Starting Lawrence Olivier. In this still kind of early time for film, a lot of the movies have a very difficult time with editing or making a movie flow, but this one FLIES by. Twists and turns and ups and downs. It sticks out like a sore thumb with how ahead of it’s time it is. Also, “How Green Was My Valley” in 1941 was directed by eye-patch wearing, pipe smoking, beret donning John Ford, and stars Walter Pigeon, the last non-hunky leading man. It’s stylish and beautiful.
And then there is the worst of the decade. The film that you watch and think, “This was the best movie that was made in the entire year? How can that be?” The award for Worst-of-the-Best goes to 1944’s “Going My Way.” A film about a failing church that is saved by one man who gets a group of ne’re-do-welling kids to join a choir that is so good it saves the church from financial and moral ruin. Watch it if you want, but it is the epitome of the war and the blacklist coming together and Holluwood taking the safest sidestep it can by landing on the most boring film of the year.
Now there are opinions that we say in the podcast that I didn’t even mention in this sprawling review and Kpolly’s thoughts which are completely absent here, so check the podcast for all of it!