Of the five Academy Award best picture winners between 1943 and 1947, three of them dealt with major social issues, one was set during World War II and the other was a rather light musical comedy.
These films made a mark for themselves when they won the Oscar for best picture and several of them still are regarded in February 2017 as cinematic landmarks.
Casablanca, 1943, directed by Michael Curtiz
In 1996, an American Film Institute poll of a jury of film artists, critics and historians determined that “Casablanca” was the second greatest American film of all time (“Citizen Kane” first). Ten years later, Casablanca was voted the third greatest.
Why the acclaim for this 1943, Warner Brothers wartime film?
The now-late film critic Roger Ebert wrote that although Casablanca was going to be an “A-list” title for Warner Brothers, it wasn’t expected to be a great movie.
“If,” however, Ebert wrote, “we identify strongly with the characters in some movies, then it is no mystery that Casablanca is one of the most popular films ever made. It is about a man and woman who are in love and who sacrifice love for a higher purpose. This is immensely appealing; the viewer is able to imagine not only winning the love of Bogart or Ingrid Bergman but unselfishly renouncing it, as a contribution to the great cause of defeating the Nazis.”
The film is appealing on so many levels. It has a great dramatic story, humor, romance and is richly evocative of that time in World War II. The great cast of Bogart, Bergman, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson doesn’t hurt either. And, all politics aside, I am so grateful that Bogie got the part of Rick rather than Ronald Reagan.
Going My Way, 1944, directed by Leo McCarey.
This musical comedy features singer/actor Bing Crosby at near the height of his popularity. It was the prequel to the better known today “Bells of St. Mary,” but “Going My Way” took the Oscar for best picture unlike “Bells.”
Of the five winners between 1943 and 1947, “Going My Way” is the most lightweight. In addition to the best picture honor, “Going My Way” star Bing Crosby won best actor, McCarey took the top director prize and the charming “Swinging on a Star” was selected as the best song.
The rather simple story involves a progressive priest assigned to a downtrodden parish who works to get the parish out of debt but clashes with an elderly curate.
Also competing for the 1944 top motion picture honor were “Double Indemnity,” “Gaslight” and “Wilson.”
“The Lost Weekend,” 1945, directed by Billy Wilder
Nearly 30 years before former Beatle John Lennon suffered his “lost weekend” in Los Angeles, the award-winning movie “The Lost Weekend” delivered a powerful tale of how alcoholism ruins lives.
Ray Milland plays the alcoholic writer whose struggle we witness over five days. In 1945, a New York Times reviewer called the film a shatteringly realistic and morbidly fascinating film. …An illustration of a drunkard’s misery that ranks with the best and most disturbing character studies ever put on the screen. …We would not recommend this picture for an gay evening on the town. But it is certainly an overwhelming drama which every adult moviegoer should see.
The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, directed by William Wyler
The winner of eight Academy Awards (including an honorary one), “The Best Years of Our Lives” is a film about three veterans returning to the same hometown from World War II. Even before the post traumatic stress syndrome term emerged during and after the Vietnam War, this movie illustrated the physical and psychological traumas facing a middle-aged lieutenant, an air officer and a sailor who has lost both of his hands.
Directed by Wyler and written by Robert E. Sherwood, the nearly three-hour long movie achieves “some of the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have had in films,” a Times critic wrote in 1946.
Stars in the film include Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews. Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Hoagy Carmichael. Among others competing for the top film honor that year were “Henry V” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, directed by Elia Kazan
In “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a magazine writer, played by Gregory Peck, pretends he is Jewish and tells people he knows that he’s Jewish after he agrees to write a series of articles about anti-Semitism. His life changes in unexpected ways and almost destroys several relationships.
This was Hollywood’s first major attack on anti-Semitism and is a powerful indictment on that cancer. It was richly deserving of the top picture honor.
Also competing for the best picture honor in 1947 were “The Bishop”s Wife.” “Great Expectations” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”