1943-1947: Top films offer heroic tales, address social issues, entertain

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

Casablanca

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 and Howard da Silva in “The Lost Weekend.”

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.”

John Garfield and Gregory Peck in “A Gentleman’s Agreement.
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The early Oscar years of Capra, Gable and more

This is the second part of a multi-part series on the Academy Award best picture winners, reviewed chronologically.

 

“Cavalcade,” 1932-1933, directed by Frank Lloyd

Before this writer first watched “Cavalcade,” he had no idea what a great film this is. When it was released, it was regarded as a highly innovative film. In the late 20th century, a critic called it, “A truly remarkable film.” Adapted from Noel Coward’s London stage play, the film is richly textured with nostalgic and atmospheric elements along with an anti-war message. The movie is a story of two families from the eve of the 20th century until the 1930s and how their way of life changes.

Cavalcade

 

“It Happened One Night,” 1934, directed by Frank Capra

This comedy was the first of Frank Capra’s films to win the Oscar for best film. It also features the first of several movies starring Clark Gable that won the best picture. What really makes this film work is the chemistry between Claudette Colbert, starring as an heiress running away to avoid a marriage, and Gable, a newspaper reporter running after a story.

Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable in “It Happened One Night” her successful hitch-hiking technique.

“Mutiny on the Bounty,” 1935, directed by Frank Lloyd

This was director Frank Lloyd’s second best picture Oscar honor and the second consecutive movie starring Clark Gable that won the honor.The story regards a mutiny against tyrannical Capt.Bligh, played by Charles Laughton, and a mutiny led by Fletcher Christian, Gable’s role. It is the best of the multiple version of the story.

Capt. Bligh and Fletcher Christian confer.

“Great Ziegfeld,” 1936, directed by Robert Z. Leonard

This bio-pic about the colorful showman Florenz Ziegfeld is an immensely entertaining movie despite the downturn Ziegfeld faces. The outstanding cast includes William Powell, Myrna Loy, Fannie Brice, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger.

“The Life of Emile Zola,” 1936, directed by William Dieterle

You could call this powerful film a bio-pic, but it’s much more than that. The New York Times critic in 1937 wrote, “Rich, dignified, honest and strong, it is at once the finest historical film ever made and the greatest screen biography.” The movie focuses on French writer Emile Zola’s crying out against the injustice that caused Capt. Dreyfus to be exiled. Paul Muni stars as Zola.

 

Emile Zola, played by Paul Muni, takes the stand in a French courtroom.